The former secretary pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his hand across his face. "The first thing you've got to understand is this restructure means nothing, nothing, will be accomplished for at least a year. Every department will be way too busy sorting itself out to worry about the trivial matter of implementing policy." As he spoke, resignation became anger.
"You can't just smash hugely-complicated organisations together and emerge with smoothly functioning machinery overnight. It's a recipe for paralysis."
Even if it was possible to restrict the losses to dead wood - and it's not, because some of the best and brightest will take this opportunity to walk out the door with a package - but even if it were, this is just the beginning of the disruption to come. It's not possible to simply print new stationery and start afresh. New bureaucratic structures have to be designed, people appointed, computer systems introduced, offices occupied, procedures adopted, responsibilities fought over, problem areas discovered, consultants hired, procedures reorganised, frustration recognised, etc, etc. It's no wonder up to a quarter of public servants want to leave.
This bureaucratic shake-up will come to be seen as the moment this government went off the rails for two reasons.
Smart bosses implement change deliberately and incrementally. They understand everybody needs to be brought along the path and the pace can't be rushed. This is an attempt to run before you can walk.
The second problem is that this demonstrates that Scott Morrison doesn't actually understand how government works. He may have a "very clear idea" of what he wants to do. Translating that vision to the real world isn't as unproblematic as he seems to think.
His initial ministerial experience was with Border Protection in 2013. Here, he was surrounded by professionals who were determined to implement his policy. They were, however, also prepared, to tell him what couldn't be done. Silly ideas were sent to the outfield. Since then he's always moved on too quickly to learn, from Social Services, to Treasurer, now PM. Speedy movement meant the ad man with the glib phrases never learned to respect the difficulty of introducing change and seeing his reform through.
He believes politicians have the answers and the public service should simply "get on with the job". Unfortunately, implementing policy isn't that simple. When Morrison says he wants to "bust the bureaucracy" he means it. He genuinely believes all those rules and procedures get in the way of accomplishing the job. The problem is that any interaction between ideology and the real world requires some degree of compromise. There's no indication Morrison understands this.
The former ad man seemingly won't recognise that even the smoothest slogan needs machinery to back it up. He was moved on by Tourism Australia. Since then he's always managed to remain a moving target - "how good is that!"
When you're prime minister, however, everything will, eventually, catch up, and now he's got to rely on solid ministers to get him out of the hole he's dug in machinery of government.
Some, like Morrison's former flatmate Stuart Robert, have shown the capacity to smooth the rough edges and find a new way of doing things. Other ministers aren't nearly as nimble, as is quickly becoming obvious. Take Defence Industry Minister Melissa Price. Christopher Pyne demonstrated how this portfolio could be turned into a succession of "good news" stories in marginal electorates, yet now it's vanished from the media. Did Pyne really buy all the equipment the services need for the future?
Or there's old "one-trick" Peter Dutton, busy being photographed with 135 heavily-armed agents in some (but not, perhaps surprisingly, all) airports around the country. Perhaps he thinks potential terrorists won't be clever enough to realise which ones aren't being patrolled. The real issue is that this money should be spent on intelligence operations, hunting and disrupting attacks, instead of creating static guardrooms. We don't know how real this danger is and there was certainly no information about credible threats released to accompany the announcement. The key is, though, that a couple of weapons-carrying responders offer little more than glossy reassurance rather than a real answer to the problem.
This is a problem for a government entering its third term, even if it is on its third prime minister. It's beginning to look as if it's mistaking spin and image for reality and substance.
Governments always remain one election too long. They lose touch. The importance of winning a doctrinal argument trumps the requirement to choose the best policy. Before you know it the smoke of ideological conflict is obscuring the pathway for change. People have noticed the fug in the skies; they know our air quality this week has been worse than even in China's rust-belt cities. We're in for a long, hot, summer and voters will want to know that something is being done to guard the future.
Even in the cities, the environment is about to jump from just being a green issue to becoming a major concern for all voters, just as has already happened in the bush. Just ask the dwindling number of National's MP's. Their leader can't find an answer for the main concern of his electors. People will remember that at the next election.
Anyone who thinks that shuffling a few ministries together will provide an answer to dealing with the country's problems is mistaken.
- Nicolas Stuart is a Canberra writer