Election rant 5: government gluttony

Tony Abbott has made his intention to cut Labor's "bureaucracies" quite clear, but his plans to wrap NBN Co in a stifling bureaucracy suggest otherwise. Can the Coalition make a real difference, or is this just another case of the pot calling the kettle black? Based on what we've been told, the latter seems to be the more likely answer.

One of the most persistent accusations that Tony Abbott's Liberals have hurled at the Labor Government is not only that it's unable to manage projects correctly, but that its NBN plans are typical of the bloated, inefficient bureaucracies that embody everything we all hate about inefficient government.

Keep Labor in place, Abbott argues, and we'll soon be up to our ears in bloated, nasty bureaucracy; elect the Coalition, and its policies will be executed to perfection by a MacGyver-esque public servant wielding nothing more than a roll of twine and some gaffer tape. Or something like that.

"It is not our intention to replace private enterprise with a new government bureaucracy," the Coalition policy states. "Rather, our focus is on correcting market failure." Wait a second; wasn't it Andrew Robb, who happens to chair the committee that wrote that policy, who argued that there had been no market failure? Wasn't it also Andrew Robb who argued at the Coalition's policy launch that NBN Co was a bloated, ugly bureaucracy?

It's funny how things are different when the shoe is on the Coalition's foot. Abbott is basically challenging Labor's idea of what "government" means and suggesting that he can come in and fix the whole thing up overnight. But we all know government tends to be big, bloated and inefficient, and it will continue to be so no matter who wins on Saturday. Show me a government organisation that's consistently more efficient than its private-sector counterparts, and I'll show you a wireless NBN that can cope with streaming high-definition TV.

The Howard Government certainly wasn't afraid of bureaucracy: it oversaw the creation of Australian Communications and Media Authority, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the Australian Government Information Management Office, and other government bodies that Labor inherited.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has admitted that being across so many organisations can be tough. "It is not easy being right there across so many different departments," Conroy said. "My next great challenge, apart from the structural separation of Telstra, is convincing a few bureaucrats that it's actually worthwhile to try and work in a much closer way together around the government's messages, the government's policies and the government's services."

Bureaucracy isn't something that Howard, Rudd, Gillard or Abbott invented. Government has a national scope, sky-high expectations, unparalleled expectations in areas like governance, political pressure from all sides and very carefully-managed budgets to adhere to.

Bureaucracy isn't something that Howard, Rudd, Gillard or Abbott invented. Government has a national scope, sky-high expectations, unparalleled expectations in areas like governance, political pressure from all sides and very carefully-managed budgets to adhere to. Private-sector organisations choose strategies based on the biggest possible returns; government bodies measure strategy based on financial and political risk, and inertia is often a perfectly acceptable option.

If policies are a book the government is reading by the fireplace, the bureaucracy is the cosy blanket and armchair into which it burrows to keep out the winter chill. But Tony Abbott believes he can improve the situation by pouring water on the fire, pulling the chair out from under Labor's government, and forcing it to run in circles, Caucus Race-style, to keep warm instead.

While Abbott may be correct in stating that he'll make NBN Co a bit smaller by firing a good portion of its technical engineers and running over the staff list for its hundreds of planned network operations centre (NOC) staff with a red pen, he's hardly going to magically resolve bureaucracy overnight.

There are already early signs of this: most prominently, the Coalition will not only keep NBN Co to deliver its NBN vision, but wrap it in another layer of oversight and re-badge the whole big, slovenly mini-bureaucracy as the National Broadband Commission (NBC).

The NBC's responsibilities, if you page through the Coalition's policy (PDF), include such stimulating tasks as directing the creation of a National Broadband Database (NBD) that tracks availability of broadband on a premise-by-premise basis. It's not clear what the NBD would add to current databases such as www.adsl2exchanges.com.au, except, perhaps, to provide better information in regional areas.

With terms of reference that are certain to require a massive scope of work and employ untold numbers of interns, the NBD has all the makings of becoming the Liberal's own GroceryWatch or FuelWatch: big, expensive and of little real value to anybody except as a way for citizens to track the excruciatingly slow progress of the Coalition's roll-out.

The NBC has been designed to not only reinvent the wheel, but subject it to extensive quality testing of its own bureaucracy-laden design. And it has 10 years to complete its tasks ... it is a bureaucracy-in-the making of the highest order.

Heck, the Coalition policy has given it six months to complete its task; since the rest of the NBC-driven roll-out will presumably be based on this database, this is tantamount to the Coalition saying there will be no work done on its NBN for the first six months it's in office.

We already knew that, of course, because it has been made clear that nothing will happen on the Coalition's NBN until the NBC has completed its detailed business case. Not that even that will make much difference since, as I've already explained, the bulk of the Coalition's telecoms funding relates to work that won't be conducted until after Tony Abbott is, the party hopes, re-elected in 2014. Even then, however, people don't want to be reminded how bad their broadband is; they just want better broadband, and soon.

Consider the Coalition's other stated policies: the NBC will, for example, conduct a review of the Universal Service Obligation and rework this into a "new and broader framework" called the Communications Services Standard (CSS). It will also take a page from Labor's book by conducting a review to decide whether new "greenfields" estates must have fibre, and design a new selection process to manage the various administrative and procurement programs it's administering.

In short, the NBC has been designed to not only reinvent the wheel, but subject it to extensive quality testing of its own bureaucracy-laden design. And it has 10 years to complete its tasks. After that time, the Coalition will review the NBC to ensure it is still the correct bureaucracy for the needs of Australia's broadband sector.

Sounding more and more like just another bureaucracy? Fear not, brave citizens: the Coalition will keep the NBC from blowing out its budget; it is, in the policy's wording, "required to achieve its objectives at the lowest possible net cost to the community. If it can spend less than the amount allocated, it will be required to do so".

"It is not our intention to replace private enterprise with a new government bureaucracy," the Coalition policy states. "Rather, our focus is on correcting market failure." Wasn't it Andrew Robb, who happens to chair the committee that wrote that policy, who argued that there had been no market failure?

Whether this means stocking its headquarters with cheap scratchy toilet paper, limiting consumption of sticky notes, or requiring the purchase of the absolute cheapest equipment possible — regardless of piddling little issues like warranties and service — is not yet clear. But "lowest possible net cost to the community" suggests that the Coalition seems to think its entire broadband policy is being done not as an investment in the future, but as an appeasement to shut up a niche faction of the Australian public.

Yet we don't see Tony Abbott formulating his parental leave scheme with consideration for the lowest possible net cost to the community; he has positioned that scheme — which, at initial rates, will cost over $30 billion over the time Labor's NBN would have been built — as a premium part of the Coalition's policy.

Tony Abbott isn't afraid of spending money; he just doesn't want to spend it on something which he doesn't get. If he were applying the same austerity rules to his parental-leave policy, he would shorten its duration and amount and end up with something resembling Labor's policy. There, as with any government program, a level of bureaucracy is inevitable.

The big irony is that NBN Co is probably as unbureaucratic as government bodies get: filled with technical and regulatory experts rather than career politicians and public servants, its entire reason for being is to deliver a technically excellent NBN as quickly and efficiently as possible. By enjoying an arm's-length relationship with the rest of the government, it has so far been able to live on the fringe of government policy — where it should rightfully be.

By contrast, the Liberal's NBC is a bureaucracy-in-the-making of the highest order. Even with his putative austerity measures, NBN Co under Abbott is likely to become as much a bureaucracy as Andrew Robb accused it of being, back in that fateful policy announcement press conference just over one long week ago. And, in proving as hungry for bureaucracy as any other government, Abbott and his team will truly prove themselves the pots calling the kettles black.

This is part of a series of seven election rants, one for each deadly sin, aired each business day until the big day. Renai LeMay is writing a reply to each of the rants, playing devil's advocate.

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