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Richardson: A muscled up paycheque isn't reform

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It’s unlikely many public sector mandarins have their own Wikipedia page, let alone one as unintentionally entertaining as that of Jay Weatherill’s new Department of Premier and Cabinet chief Kym Winter-Dewhirst.

In addition to the usual potted history of political advisory and government liaison with BHP’s thus-far ill-fated Olympic Dam project, the site provides one 24-carat nugget of info, revealing that the bedraggled bureaucrat “is also a musician and song-writer”, whose band – Kym Winter-Dewhirst and the Love Muscles – released a 1994 album called Dirty World.

Further research via the National Library of Australia’s website shows the Muscles’ debut was released (presumably self-released?) on the esoteric label “Big Donk Discs” (according to Urban Dictionary, “donk” – tastefully abridged — means “a very round, attractive booty”), and contains such anthems as “Handle on love”, “The wet and dry”, “Sex, drugs and rock and roll” and the titular “Dirty world”.

Other tracks include “All guns, no butter” (presumably extolling the virtues of SA’s Defence State credentials and premium food exports) and “Victims of crime” (which no doubt waxes lyrical about a 39 per cent reduction in victim-reported property-related crime since 2002?)

While one can read such song titles as celebrating Labor’s 10-point economic plan some 20 years before it was even released, others might suggest they subtly exude a certain ribald sexual subtext. However, Weatherill has been quick to shrug off any such critique, saying: “I think it’s ridiculous to make a point about what is a piece of art … I mean for God’s sake, why on earth are we taking to task some young man who’s actually participating in some art form?”*

At any rate, Winter-Dewhirst was always going to be a contentious appointment, particularly given his first order of business was to sack 11 departmental executives, and his second was to receive a ‘muscular’ $125,000 pay rise.

It’s probably safe to assume that Winter-Dewhirst’s $550,000 annual salary (his predecessor Jim Hallion struggled through on a more modest $425,000) is considerably more than he ever saw in his colourful musical career. Safe, too, to assume that public servants don’t take kindly to being told to take a proverbial haircut by a notoriously hirsute former frontman.

But the whole enterprise does cast considerable doubt on Labor’s commitment to public sector reform, which has been long-standing and underwhelming.

Rob Kerin’s Liberals lost the 2006 election (badly) for many reasons, but a prominent one was a key manifesto pledge to slash the public service by 4000 jobs, a statement of intent that incited a swift and merciless offensive blitz from the PSA, effectively gifting the ALP free television advertising in a campaign in which the Libs couldn’t afford their own TV ads until the last week (and even then managed to misspell “Labo(u)r”)!

In hindsight, of course, axing 4000 public sector jobs seems rather more beige than bold; Weatherill himself as Treasurer in 2013 set a four-year reduction target of 5000 , and Tom Koutsantonis’s 2014 budget eyed off 4080 FTEs by 2018 (subsequently reduced to 2585 in the MYBR).

After Kero’s ill-fated ’06 election bid, Weatherill was appointed as the inaugural minister “Assisting the Premier in Public Sector Management”, promptly establishing the latest in a long line of reviews, this time headed by former Queensland premier Wayne Goss. The idea was that Weatherill would be a Mr Fix-It for the bloated bureaucracy, but the bureaucracy continued to bloat.

Now, as Premier, Weatherill continues to pay lip service to reform. Last week’s Governor’s speech to parliament intimated that the Government “understands it needs to insist upon cultural change within our Public Service if it is to attract the volume of investment needed to create new jobs”. Whatever that means.

If Labor wants to foster faith in its public spending, it should immediately broadcast and justify any pay increase for senior executives, rather than waiting for the Opposition to dig up contract details.

But I’m certain that sacking 11 executives, rejigging DPC’s “leadership group” and setting up a new Executive Committee (helpfully titled ExCo for short) with a “focus on business planning, delivery, measurement and reporting, as well as embedding our values” isn’t tantamount to major reform of the burgeoning bureaucracy.

Particularly when your new CEO’s salary increase alone is more than most South Australians make in a year. Or when you’re paying millions in golden handshakes to see off perfectly competent senior bureaucrats, purely for the sake of “cultural change”.

One suspects the cultural change most voters would like to see in the public service is less profligacy, particularly at executive level.

Sadly, the Premier’s actions since the Governor’s speech last week belie all this lofty rhetoric around “bold” policy visions. Jacking up executive salaries and reviving generous MP super schemes most voters were happy to see the back of a decade ago sit uncomfortably alongside pronouncements about making South Australia “known around the world as the place where people and business thrive”. Instead, Weatherill appears more fixated on making it a state where politicians and bureaucrats thrive. As usual.

Also tucked away in the Governor’s speech was a commitment to “review the remuneration of Members of Parliament”.

Fair enough. Except that the enterprise is intended to ensure parliament “attracts the best and brightest hearts and minds committed to public service”, who should be recompensed to reflect “the high demands and great responsibilities of office”.

So in other words, the remuneration of Members of Parliament will be reviewed up, not down – even though many backbenchers will tell you the “high demands and great responsibilities” of office amount to turning up when the bell rings and attending the odd sausage sizzle.

But don’t panic; pollies’ pay will also, apparently, be “transparent and independently determined”.

However, just because something is technically available to those who know where to look doesn’t make it transparent. If Labor wants to foster faith in its public spending, it should immediately broadcast and justify any pay increase for senior executives, rather than waiting for the Opposition to dig up contract details. All Weatherill will say of the process for determining his CE’s net worth is: “It is a competitive market and we aimed to attract the best candidates.” Surely such recruitment decisions should be subject to the same rigorous scrutiny as any other multi-million dollar government investment?

And if Labor thinks its MPs are worth more than their current base rate of $150K+, it should perhaps furnish the parliament with more MPs who demonstrably warrant a salary twice the average wage. Or better still, reduce the base rate, but create a financial incentive for MPs who rise to the frontbench, and then reform the cabinet selection process to base such appointments purely on merit, rather than the factional revolving door.

Weatherill has picked some odd battles upon which to stake his premiership; what we’ve seen thus far smacks more of self-serving hubris than genuine improvement. However, there’s no doubt reform is warranted; the fact, for instance, that it’s easier to learn that his chief executive once fronted a risqué bar band than it is to find out who approved his $125,000 pay rise, and why. Maybe start with that one.

*The Premier may have been referring here more specifically to a recent track by Adelaide band The Spooks, on which Fisher by-election candidate Daniel Woodyatt played drums, than to Kym Winter-Dewhirst and the Love Muscles per se.

Tom Richardson is a senior journalist at InDaily. His political column is published on Fridays.

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