Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Games, Murray Darling issues, Ken Mathews retires

Congratulations to India on winning the 4x400 metres women's relay and to the Hockeyroos on holding out against New Zealand in that tense and exciting match. I have really been enjoying these last stages of the Games and especially sports that we don't often get to see or see rarely. Twenty four countries or territories have now won at least one medal.

The consultation process on the proposed changes to water allocation rights in the Murray-Darling Basin are attracting large and protesting crowds. I have yet to read the report properly. Paul Barratt who has has taken a positive view in his tweets.

In the period leading up to the release of the discussion draft, farmers argued with some justice that the mandated terms of reference prevented proper discussion of economic and social impacts and that, consequently, the results must be unbalanced. If media reports are to be believed, I cannot comment properly without having read the report, the draft's conclusions on things such as projected job losses appear to be its soft under-belly.

This is an interesting case study from a public policy perspective because of the way it highlights problems in decision processes where there are direct and specific costs born by defined groups in return for more generalised benefits. I have argued before that present decision processes in Australia do not handle this type of conflict especially well.

Staying with water, another tweet from Paul drew my attention to the retirement speech given by Ken Mathews, the head of the National Water Commission. In that speech, Ken reflects upon aspects of his experience as a public servant. Here he says in part:  

I have been fortunate enough to lead and manage as CEO, organisations as large as 3000
and as intimate as 50. As I have moved through them, I have had the opportunity to
experience the full spectrum of public administration work: intelligence and research, policy
development, administration, regulation, program management, people management,
organisational leadership, intergovernmental negotiations, assessment, audit and
evaluation, and even a modest public advocacy role in the work the National Water
Commission does to press the case for water reform.

9. But rich though that diet was, partly because of my background as a boy from the bush I
never lost my personal interest in policy issues as they impact on rural, regional and remote
Australia and rural, regional and remote Australians. Some of you know I grew up on a farm.
I still know a Jersey cow from a Guernsey. I can still ride a horse and could probably milk a
cow if paid enough... I attended a regional high school. I learnt to debate in a rural youth
club. I have seen country towns rise and fall, commodity cycles turn and turn again, and
droughts come and go. When I married Margaret (wait for this – we were high school
sweethearts!) – I inherited a lifetime of free advice from her extended family about what
needs to be done by the Government for regional Australia. And with the benefit of that
advice stiffening my back after many a long weekend, I have been despatched back to
Canberra with renewed insight and resolve.

10. So having worked on issues in agriculture, mining, environment, natural resources
management, water, regional services, and regional infrastructure, regional Australia has
been something of a unifying theme for my career. In fact as I stand here tonight and the
drought is breaking, commodity prices and the terms of trade are at historic highs, both
major parties are committed to dealing with our shameful indigenous disadvantage (usually
regional and remote indigenous disadvantage), and we have a new government brimming
with commitment to regional Australians, it’s clear that I can with a clear conscience pack up
and retire. “Job done. I can go now...”

11. I wish that were really so. A serious message I wanted to leave with you today is that
regional Australia is a much bigger policy and delivery challenge for the Australian Public
Service than most public servants so far realise. We joke that Sydney differs from
Melbourne. But compared to metropolitan Australia, our regions have so much more
variation and usually, so much less resilience. When a job is lost, or an industry folds in a
regional community the options are much more limited than in the cities ‐ and the human
and community consequences greater.

12. The challenge for public administrators is therefore more than simply to introduce one
parallel ‘regional’ policy to complement our traditional metropolitan‐oriented policies.
Many of our policies and programs will have to be comprehensively regionalised and
localised ‐ to multiple regions and localities. How well equipped is the APS to understand
multiple regional perspectives when we have grown up with a much more homogeneous
metropolitan world view? How will the public service gain an accurate understanding of the
needs, aspirations and opportunities of the many different regions of Australia? In my view
it would be weak to rely only on parliamentarians and ministers to tell us what we should
know. They may have their ears to the ground, but we will need our own channels too, into,
and out of, Australia’s regions. We don’t have them today.

Sound familiar? Ken and I share many common experiences and were in fact Assistant Secretaries together in the same Division. One of the things about the Commonwealth Public Service of the past is that it was far less homogenised, drawing people from wider backgrounds and from many different geographic areas.

I find it interesting if a little sad that a fair bit of current discussion on the need for new types of approaches including recognition of the need to recognise regional differences comes from people like Ken, Paul or myself who have had a fair bit of senior experience, but who also came from country Australia. Ken is far more the farm boy, Paul and I are both sons of academics, but we all share common experiences. Now towards the end of our respective careers, we seem to be trying to redress the balance.

While I was away, regular commenter Kangaroo Valley David drew my attention to  this story by Michael Pascoe, How to steal a mutual. Noric Dilanchian also drew may attention to:

All these stories link to things that I have written about.

Thanks, chaps. I will follow up with posts.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

Well, they will be very interesting subjects, and don't forget on which I believe you set a bookmark comment. Postings to look forward to, as well as your travel diary

(That Ken Mathews - he's been reading your stuff? or you are both cut from the same sensible cloth?)

And on the Commonwealth Games, the hockey has been great, but it's just a shame that India had to host both the Games and a wonderful cricket contest at the same time. India is to be congratulated on both, and Tendulkar has been quite brilliant, as was VVSL - yet again.


Anonymous said...

Of course things have changed in Canberra since your day Jim.

I note the SMH newswire is now referencing "5:37pm Canberra protest over dolphin hunts"

My father in law was always on about the dead carp.


Jim Belshaw said...

Yoy musn't make me laugh KVD. Dead carp indeed! And thanks for the reminder on the SL post.

Canberra has changed. Part of the change is due to changes in the composition of the CPS itself, part to changes in the approach to public administration and public policy.

Speaking as a reformer, I don't think that I could do now what I did then. The dead hands of hierarchy, of measurement, of short term activity objectives are simply too great to allow the freedom and flexibility required for the experimentation necessary for change.

Anonymous said...


Well I think that's a great shame, and a great loss. And it is depressing to read your dismissal of any possibility of reform or return to more effective approaches.

But let me cheer you up a bit.

My daughter rang yesterday from Belgium, where she is visiting her host parents of 15+ years ago when she was on a Rotary Exchange (also something you should write about)

My wife had visited Jenny and her host family while she was there, and Jen told me yesterday that Michel - host father - distinctly remembers my wife saying "this is the first time I have visited Europe".

He thought that strange - given she is English.

When Jen relayed that I simply said "it is precicely because she is English that she would say that"

And when I passed this on to my lovely sister in law she was equally unsurprised.


Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, KVD. I am not as negative as all that about reform possibilities. I would not be campaigning so hard for change if I thought that.

The fact, at least as I see it, that some of the things that I was able to do in the past are no longer possible because of systemic constipation is of itself a reason to argue for change.

I laughed at the comment, too. For much of history, the British Isles have never been seen as part of Europe. The Rotary exchange program may well deserve a story. I would add other activities as well, such as the role Rotary played in the establishment of International House at the University of Sydney. It's all part of the achievement of international understanding at a people level.