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Adelaide - it's time to grow up

Opinion

Adelaide continues to propagate an image of itself as a “big country town” – but that’s just become an excuse for shoddy public administration.

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It’s time to grow up Adelaide. Well beyond time.

We are not a small city by global standards. We are fully grown, with some of the deepest democratic roots in the world.

And yet, like a 40-something still living at home and refusing to do the dishes, we continue to treat proper public administration like a boring chore.

Someone else will clean it up, we say as we work past another stinking pile.

We tell ourselves that the slipshod arrangements that run like infection lines through our major institutions are “just an Adelaide thing” – what else can you do in such a “small town” where everyone knows everyone?

So, mostly, we say nothing: we don’t want to rock the boat, lose our government contracts, jeopardise our redundancy payout and subsequent private contracting plans.

This isn’t a party-political issue or a new one – it goes much deeper than that.

Back in 1976, one of Australia’s most decorated public servants, H.C. “Nugget” Coombs, said this in a speech following the release of his royal commission into Australia’s public service:

It is a characteristic of power that it tends to be self-aggregating. Those who have power – power to do or to prevent – tend to acquire added power almost automatically and when power is the symbol and measure of success this tendency will be reinforced. In this, as in so many other things, ‘them that has – gets’.

However, significant and effective power may be as an incentive, undue concentrations of it are in the Commission’s view detrimental to both the efficiency and humanity of the bureaucracy. Above all it is wasteful and destructive of much of the capacity and energy of the middle and lower levels of the bureaucracy.

More than 40 years down the track, Coombs’ words could be describing Adelaide.

Labor’s public administration standards in many areas were woefully low, and left many of our well-intentioned public servants feeling powerless and demoralised. Think about the administrative chaos behind the child protection and Oakden debacles. Think about the many good public servants who have suffered from the administrative carelessness – or worse – of others.

SA Health did not become “riddled with maladministration”, as the ICAC puts it, overnight. There is longstanding evidence that the health bureaucracy has become exhausted by change; confused and lost about what its focus and role should be – in some cases, beyond caring.

Anti-corruption commissioner Bruce Lander has identified the likely sources of huge levels of maladministration and likely corruption in SA Health and it is “so Adelaide”: conflicts of interest, lopsided, even upside-down, power relationships, “vague” employment arrangements.

How did this mess arise? It’s not hard to conjure a vision of people doing the same things they’ve always done, helping out the same people, keeping quiet, feathering their own nests. But we don’t really know, because the whistleblowers in SA Health – those who care about the public interest – are brave but few. The official front of the department is as stone: they rarely explain themselves; they rarely answer questions directly.

The Marshall Government promised a new era of open and accountable government – SA Health remains a closed book, except to administrators KordaMentha whose work is released to the public only at the behest of the Government.

The unions aren’t much help in shedding light – they’re about protecting their members, some of whom are part of the problem.

The Government refuses to give the ICAC the funds it needs to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of SA Health’s rotten culture.

Without such an evaluation, it’s hard to see how the administrative knot can be unravelled in a transparent fashion.

Walk on; avert your eyes.

Less serious,  but still symptomatic of our slapdash approach to transparency and accountability, is the Government’s hamfisted moves in relation to the racing industry.

The State Government has effectively taken over the struggling industry in South Australia, via a multi-million-dollar “stimulus package” which is 12 times the amount needed by Lander to put a dose through SA Health.

This money came with the quid pro quo of the industry giving the Government a much greater degree of control of the governance of Thoroughbred Racing SA.

When InDaily came asking questions about unannounced appointments to the peak body’s board, the Minister said nothing.

First, our queries were flatly ignored. Then, when it emerged that there was a potential constitutional problem with one of the Minister’s picks, the TRSA and the Government took the Bart Simpson defence.

Wingard said it wasn’t him who was responsible for the constitutionality of board appointments, and the TSRA said it wasn’t them (it’s clear that the Racing Minister ultimately endorses the board appointments).

Wingard’s office has now returned to ignoring InDaily’s questions about the genuine concern within the industry about the constitutionality (or at least the appropriateness) of one of the Minister’s endorsed appointments – someone who runs an interstate racing club which, one might imagine, would be in direct competition with the SA racing industry in many regards.

Ignore it and it will go away.

Plenty of people in the racing industry think the Government’s handling of this process has been a disgrace; no-one will say so publicly because they don’t want to upset the Government which is now propping up the industry.

And isn’t that just so “Adelaide”?

Similar dynamics occur across Adelaide institutions of all kinds and in all sectors: don’t complain (publicly – whinge away in private); don’t take risks; manage the message; protect your relationship to power.

Many of these problems come from scarcity – tough times tend to turn people and institutions inwards; a gulf between haves and have-nots encourages the continuation of power imbalances.

But despite our well-known struggles – economically, social and culturally –  Adelaide remains a great place to live for most of us. It should be a better place for more of us.

We can look askance at NSW, for example, where public administration in many areas has been awful for decades. But NSW grows like a weed – its critical mass and natural advantages act as bulwarks against its administrative and cultural flaws.

In South Australia, we don’t have those advantages.

We’ve always needed to do better – for much of our history, we did do better.

Wouldn’t it be great if we embraced the best of our past and moved forward to a new mature approach: one that welcomes debate about our own flaws; listens to a multitude of viewpoints; conducts business in the open; prioritises evidence over politics in decision-making; uses power for the public good; is uncompromising about probity and proper process?

How refreshing would that be?

David Washington is editor of InDaily.

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