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Public sector malaise

By Gary Brown - posted Tuesday, 18 October 2005

The malaise affecting the culture of public administration in Australia is now at a point where people should feel serious concern. Several recent incidents reveal major problems which only government can effectively address; but government itself appears to be responsible for the development of the administrative cultures which are now having devastating, even lethal, effects on the lives of blameless individuals.

The affairs of Ms Cornelia Rau, a mentally ill Australian citizen wrongfully detained in the notorious Baxter detention centre and elsewhere as an illegal immigrant, and Vivian Alvarez Solon, a citizen illegally - and, it would seem, half-knowingly - deported to the Philippines by the immigration department, are well known. The recent report (pdf file 2.44MB) on the latter affair described the culture of that department as “catastrophic”.

I have written previously in On Line Opinion on the propensity of the defence department to unfairly treat Australian Defence Force (ADF) members who have health and safety issues. Generally speaking, the approach to any given issue (for example, exposure to toxic or carcinogenic substances) has been to deny that any problem exists. If a problem is proved, then responsibility is denied and claimants are dragged through the courts in a process that can consume their truncated lifetimes. When the James Hardie private sector company did this with regard to asbestos, it was rightly vilified and eventually forced to deal fairly with its victims. The public sector deserves similar treatment.


As a result of several disgraceful incidents, one of which resulted in the suicide of a 15-year-old girl (a cadet falsely accused of an improper relationship with a male instructor), the administration of justice for members of the ADF has been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent times. A recent Senate Committee inquiry thoroughly investigated several recent military justice scandals, and its report is available online.

In essence, the report found that defence’s management of military justice, including the redress of grievances (ROG) arising from misuse of authority, has been so bad that it should no longer be entrusted with the job. Instead, the report proposed military justice should henceforth be administered through the civilian legal system, with appropriate modifications to take account of the necessary disciplinary requirements of military service.

Incredibly, the government has instead accepted advice from the guilty party - the defence department - which has the effect of negating the Senate report’s central recommendations. The relevant documents can be found here. Only band-aid fixes are to be applied: the department which so scandalously mistreated innocent individuals, ruined careers and even drove a child to suicide is to retain effective control of the military justice and ROG system.

Defence justifies this approach with a plethora of legal technobabble designed to fuzz over the Senate report’s clear recognition of necessary differences between civilian and military justice procedures. The report’s proposals would in no way have subverted the essential command relationships which characterise military service; they would simply have provided effective external safeguards against abuse. But the government has left these safeguards in the hands of the abusing organisation.

This is not the first time defence has resorted to the unique nature of military discipline to try to defeat important reforms springing from wider social considerations. When it was proposed to cease the persecution of gay and lesbian ADF members, and to simply admit them to the ADF on the same criteria (including of course sexual harassment and abuse safeguards) as anyone else, defence set up a dismal wail of protest. “Homosexual behaviour is detrimental to effective command relationships and to the maintenance of the high levels of morale and discipline necessary for the efficient functioning of the ADF”: it is moreover, a “security risk” (this from the “Defence Instruction” in force at the time - mid 1992).

In this instance, defence was eventually overruled by government. There have been no significant instances of a collapse of “morale and discipline” or security consequences as a result. In conducting operations the ADF is still recognised - and rightly so - as one of the most efficient militaries on the planet. Nor would adoption of the Senate recommendations on military justice and ROG result in adverse consequences. One is almost driven to the conclusion that in the present controversy, the abuser does not want to lose the ability to abuse.


But it is the government’s complacent acceptance of the defence argument - in contrast to the 1992 outcome on gays and lesbians - which is the real cause for concern. Similarly, the refusal of present and past immigration ministers (Amanda Vanstone and Phillip Ruddock) to wear responsibility for the Rau and Alvarez Solon scandals illustrates the growing malaise undermining confidence in public administration. The phenomenon is not confined to defence. it appears to be infecting the public sector as a whole.

If pressure is not put on politicians to resist the blandishments of bureaucrats, this situation can only deteriorate. Taken far enough, such a trend will eventually threaten the credibility of our present system of governmental responsibility and administration.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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