This column is about one of the most boring subjects imaginable: machinery of government.
It sounds irrelevant - the sort of thing that might excite a pen-wielding paper-pusher but leaves those who actually accomplish things cold. True Canberrans, however, know better. We understand the way government works is critical because, without proper process, you accomplish nothing.
The more time you spend in this city the more one realises how vitally important organisation actually is.
It's not enough to simply desire an objective or specify a goal, however precise, without working out how you are going to accomplish it. Just take the government's most recent, disastrous blunder.
It sounded so simple. Create (for $70 million) an app that can track people's contacts and use that to work out who might be infected with Covid-19. Voluntarily, we downloaded the app in our millions.
Since then - nothing.
No audit of effectiveness, no policing of the information collected. No admission of failure; no explanation of how; and no revelation of the PM's personal role in this debacle. We know the concept was good but failed in execution - what we now (rightfully) expect is a detailed accounting of how and why.
We gave governments, state and federal, authority to act as they choose combating the virus. If they want to retain this power, together with our goodwill, they need to demonstrate they're accountable. When they back a dog they need to admit it. It shouldn't be left to oppositions (Liberal in Victoria; Labor federally) to drag the truth from governments.
Failure needs to be admitted.
The only way a one-party states manage to survive is by creating a mechanism for admitting failure and accepting responsibility. That's not present today.
The keen bureaucrat is also aware that word choice can be crucially important, particularly when they're 'doing words'. These are, after all, key drivers of results. Concepts like "eradication", "elimination", and "suppression" may sound similar but - and particularly as we become aware of the remorseless nature of COVID-19 - have very different meanings.
The simple politician (think Morrison) wants the Goldilocks option: suppression. It's not too hard, not too soft. Problem is it's not just right; it's badly wrong. The magnitude of the mistake will be measured in death, as Victoria's now discovering. The problem with coronavirus is that an easy solution doesn't exist because, until it isn't being passed locally, the virus will bubble-up again and again. The supposed economic benefit of opening up is completely illusory. Those are the sorts of tactics that could appeal to a general in World War. Pursuing them but represents a failure to understand the modern world.
New Zealand managed elimination. Perhaps Morrison thinks he's neither clever or competent enough to achieve this and is probably wise to avoid measuring himself against Jacinda Ardern. A comparison might not be flattering.
There are many other issues where government is currently being given a free pass. It should, rather, be held accountable for atrocious decisions, like Dan Tehan's apparent attempt to completely demolish the universities. A proper medical study has now shown his earlier ridiculous assertion that schoolchildren don't get COVID-19 is completely, utterly wrong, but don't wait for an apology. Tehan's too busy pulling apart education - our third largest foreign exchange earner - ignoring the need to support this vital sector.
This government thinks tradies will get us back in the black.
Then there's the secretive COVID-19 Coordination Commission, which has now magically become the government's advisory board. Chair Neville Power welcomed this opportunity to "sharpen his focus", reflecting that he's "proud of the role we have played so far in brokering solutions". What role; what 'solutions'? We have no idea? No advice is available to the public so we have no idea of how members of the commission have managed to resolve what are, in many cases, their own highly problematic conflicts of interest. The body lacks accountability. What, exactly, are its objectives? Supporting younger Australians; research capacity; keeping women in the workforce? It's a travesty of good process.
Nothing erodes trust faster than a lack of transparency.
Government must be structured to achieve overarching goals. That's why we have ministries, like education, or defence. Only bodies that envisage the challenge society faces, in its broadest dimensions, can have any hope of finding solutions to them.
At last week's Press Club lunch, AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw catalogued and extolled the wonderful success specially formed task-forces have achieved targeting paedophilia. He also appropriately tore into tech giants like Facebook insisting, "we need to be more outraged about those who produce and distribute child exploitation material".
He's absolutely right. This week we heard how criminal gangs are extorting millions from vulnerable people, again by using the net to facilitate crime. Then there are other (less horrific but far more economically damaging) money siphoning schemes and hacking scams. We can't continue dealing with challenges like this as one-offs.
Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo emphasises the value of such task forces, constructed to accomplish a particular job. He's got a point but is still missing the big picture. If you establish your machinery of government to, for example, physically defend our borders, you'll probably achieve that task. Specially formed groups might be able to tackle particular instances of cyber-crime. However something like the net is now so large it's spawning its own challenges, ones that can't simply be conceived as subsets of other departments' responsibilities. Take roads, trains and planes, for example. We don't attempt to bundle these responsibilities off as subsets of other departments. Transport is rightly considered a top-level ministerial responsibility. Cyber-safety however is simply tacked onto Paul Fletcher's other jobs; communications and arts.
If we want to succeed we need to get the machinery of government right.
It's not at the moment.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer