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Scott Morrison’s middle class

Aug 27, 2019 • 15m38s

Scott Morrison says the middle class doesn’t trust the public service. The problem is available research says the opposite.

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Scott Morrison’s middle class

66 • Aug 27, 2019

Scott Morrison’s middle class

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

Scott Morrison has made a new appeal to the group he calls the “Quiet Australians”. He says they have a “trust deficit” with the public service and he wants bureaucracy to focus on serving them. Rick Morton on how the research tells a different story to the Prime Minister.

[Theme ends]

Archival tape — Scott Morrison:

“I want the APS to have a laser-like focus on serving these quiet Australians. Those who don’t meet here, and you never hear from, largely. They’re too busy doing life. Australians who just get on with it, but who often feel their voice gets drowned out by the shoutier ones in the public sphere and parading through this place.”

ELIZABETH:

Rick, do we know anything more about who Scott Morrison is referring to when he refers to the quiet Australians?

RICK:

That’s a very good question. And they’re the middle Australians now. Scott Morrison kind of calls them the quiet masses, the quiet Australians, middle Australians. It's all code for the silent majority.

ELIZABETH:

Rick Morton is a writer for The Saturday Paper.

RICK:

And I think the closest he's come to actually telling us what they look like is in an op-ed he wrote after a summer holiday in the New South Wales south coast, where he talked about going to the Shoalhaven Heads hotel and having a beer with, you know, surf lifesavers, professionals, single mums, and a whole bunch of kind of everyday people he could have gone on I mentioned you know the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker because that's kind of what he's getting at. And I think it's actually quite intentional that he doesn't want to go into any more detail because they are then whatever you want them to be, you know, they are the Rorschach test of politics: you see what you want.

ELIZABETH:

And what do you think Morrison was saying, though I understand they could be an amorphous group, what do you think he was saying to those people in the speech that he made last week?

RICK:

Yeah so, I mean, he gave this speech to the Institute of Public Administration and ostensibly, it was a speech about the public service and the bureaucracy which, you know, is a fun punching bag for ordinary Australians and always has been.

He said he wants the public service to have a laser-like focus on middle Australians. He doesn't want them to get caught up on the old ways of doing things. He doesn't want them to get caught up in orthodoxy. He wants them to think outside the box.

Archival tape — Scott Morrison:

“Politics is very responsive to those at the top and those at the bottom, but not so much to those in the middle.This will not be the case under my Government. Middle Australia needs to know that the Government, and including the public service, is on their side.”

RICK:

But really what Scott Morrison was saying to them was a coded message for middle Australians saying, I am on your side. I want the public service to be on your side. And you know, in Canberra particularly, the place is overrun with lobbyists during parliamentary sitting weeks and the lobbyists are there for the big end of town that they're for the rich. And he said they're there for the poor. He's talking about the Australian Council of Social Services and all the advocacy groups like Welfare Rights Network, etc. Now, what he was trying to bait the middle Australians with there is that nobody is listening to you and you've got your own concerns. You don't participate in the same shouty way as the extreme ends of society, and you are the people that ought to have equal say. And, you know, there are a lot of people out there who do think like that, and they think that they've been stuck in the middle.

ELIZABETH:

This idea that middle Australia is ignored, that the top gets everything and the bottom gets what's left, that's basically a Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People or a John Howard's idea of the battlers. It's not itself new.

RICK:

Correct, correct. It's not a new observation at all, and whether they're forgotten people, Howard's battlers or middle Australians, the group may have changed in terms of its demographics and its cultural outlook. But the fact that they are a group that has been identified as useful to politics on either side depending on who can talk to them more directly, is not new at all.

Archival tape — Scott Morrison:

“Yet the vast majority of Australians will never come to Canberra to lobby government. They won’t stay at the Hyatt. They won’t have lunch at the Ottoman. They won’t kick back at the Chairman’s Lounge at Canberra airport after a day of meetings.

And what these Australians who don’t do those things do every day is work hard. They pay their taxes. They put their kids through school. They look after their families. They give back to their communities and they are the centre of my focus as Prime Minister and my Government.”

RICK:

Whether he's right or wrong, Scott Morrison's assessment of this is that those people feel like they were left behind because all the people in the cities and with the nice jobs are talking about these kind of airy fairy concepts that just don't apply to them, you know, they're out there working and I think that is true. I mean, I know these people, I grew up with them and I think the real consensus politics going forward now is how you reach those people and bring them with you, whether you're on the left or the right.

ELIZABETH:

And to the question that the Prime Minister raised in that speech, so, the question of trust; Have we actually, do you think, lost faith in the public service?

RICK:

No. In fact, it's quite the opposite. So I mean, I didn't know this data existed, but in writing this piece I found the World Values Survey and they do, across different countries, but Australia has its own survey which is headed up by the Australian National University. And Australians are actually gaining faith in the public service when faith in all other institutions is on the decline. And not only is it in on the decline, in many cases, it's at record lows. So faith in the public service has been rising year on year since the 80s. But faith in political parties and the Federal Parliament is the lowest it's ever been on both counts. And not only that, but Australians just don't trust banks or churches or trade unions, or the press, dare I say it, journalists, as much as they used to. But the public service and associated parts of the public service, like the armed forces, the police, are all increasing in trust. So there is no truth to Mr. Morrison's claim that there is a trust deficit. In fact, it's quite the opposite and I suspect he knows that.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

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RICK:

In 2010, I was working for the Queensland Government. I was a 23 year old former cadet journalist with The Gold Coast Bulletin. I was seconded to the Education Minister's office. One of the jobs I had as a media adviser was to be the sole delegate of that office. In meetings, every week, with the senior departmental lawyers as they were going through their right to information requests. Now, those requests were from journalists, they were from ordinary citizens, they were from other departments, other agencies. You know, the lawyers would come to this meeting on the top floor, the 21st floor of this brutalist building in the middle of Brisbane city and they’d have these giant A3 Excel spreadsheets with all of the requests that had come in or the requests that were due to go out and how they had decided on them.

And I'm twenty three, I've done no legal training whatsoever, and I'm sitting there telling them what they can and can't release, essentially. So I look at the lawyers and I say “I think you're being a bit broad on that interpretation” and “why can't we use this section to not release that?” I was sitting there telling these top departmental lawyers to be more secretive. And so I was essentially sitting there, arguing with them from no basis except that I didn't want information to be released on behalf of the department that would embarrass my boss.

ELIZABETH:

And whose interests were you representing?

RICK:

Certainly not the peoples and not the journalists. I was serving the interests of a government. What these stories actually explain is the nexus between the political masters, the politicians, the elected MPs, the ministers, and the public service.

ELIZABETH:

When you talk about the role that you played in that process, were you part of the problem with the erosion of trust?

RICK:

100 percent. And I knew that I was part of the problem. The mere fact of me being in these meetings as a delegate of the minister and keeping information secret. You know, I'm contributing to the erosion of trust in the government machine, and that is something that Australians instinctively feel governments get up to. But there are few concrete examples of how they go about it that don't make it out in the news and that's one of them and it's a really good one. And I knew that, you know, the mere fact of me being in those meetings, I was sitting there saying, hey let's tell the people a little bit less.

I was actually having a really good chat with Rebecca Huntley who's one of the best social researchers in the country, she's now the principal of Vox Populi. And she said, you know, in an environment where most Australians don't want to admit to trusting anything except maybe their best friend or their dog, they will admit to trusting the public service. And as she said in almost all of the qualitative studies in the focus groups that she's ever held, the reason they will ever have a fear or anxiety about the public service is when there is the mere hint that it has been politicised.

ELIZABETH:

Let's talk about that, because the size of the public service has been decreasing and there’s a lot more private contract work advising government. What does that mean?

RICK:

Well it essentially means that what used to be an in-house skill in the public service is now flung out into the ether at vastly inflated prices and they lose the ability to keep all that information in one place. I mean, the National Disability Insurance Scheme is still being built. And last year they spent six hundred million dollars on consultants and contractors because there is a staffing cap and they can't employ the people they need. And because it's such a vast undertaking, those people are all employed through about 20 different job agencies, another 20 different non-government organisations, and so all of these entities are all doing essentially the same job here and there, but they've all got different interpretations of what that job is, they've got different styles of doing it and there's no consistency. I mean, how do you expect perfection, how do you even expect mediocrity when you can't keep it uniform like that?

ELIZABETH:

And the other thing, Rick, surely, is that there's an incentive for those outside organisations, those private organisations to advise in a particular way and essentially to please the government's agenda because they know that next contract is likely to come from the same place.

RICK:

Correct. And, you know, you've got the four big accounting firms, you've got the big banks, the auditing firms. They all do work for government. And nothing will ever be written down, but there is always an understanding about what is required in the ultimate report. I'm not saying that they fudge it, necessarily. But, you know, they will not throw the government under a bus. And so you're not getting the full breadth of the information that you as the public deserve, because their whole existence depends on it. And, you know, in some cases their whole existence depends on advising the government to do something that they know will bring them more work in the future.

You can't just keep having these arbitrary efficiency dividends on departments, you can’t just keep cutting money from their budgets and expect the quality to still be there. It's just not the case. And when you lose that, it's very hard to get it back.

ELIZABETH:

So what is it, Rick, do you think that Morrison is trying to say in this speech by highlighting that he believes there's a trust deficit with the public sector?

RICK:

I think what he's ultimately saying is do what I say, don't get in my way. And he had to say it in a polite way. And I think that involved apportioning some of the blame to the public service when it wasn't warranted. But I think mostly, I mean, it was this stump speech that all incoming leaders give to the public service going, we are here to do a job, you are there to help us do that job. So it's not earth shattering in that sense but I think what he added the new dimension of tying it, the idea of this angry silent mob in the middle of Australia. And I think it's almost like a warning light for the public service saying, look after these people because if you don't, they'll be coming for your institutions, too.

ELIZABETH:

What about this view that, in a way, Morrison is directing this mistrust as kind of a deflection mechanism, taking it away from politics and the parliament, where we know the research shows that it is, and trying to point it back at the Public Service bureaucracy?

RICK:

Oh yeah. Easiest game in town. I mean he knows, he's a smart man. I mean, all of the stuff that he refers to in his speech about the ‘quiet masses’ and the silent majority rising up around the world, that's all against political institutions. It's against perceptions in their politicians and it's the same thing here. I mean we had in 2016 the highest vote for independent parties since World War Two and the last federal election in May was not far behind. And so he knows that there is upset, and he knows that it is directed at the political masters. And so I think he knows all of this stuff. He knows that public service bashing is a national sport, really, among almost any Australian that you'll ever talk to. But I think he kind of fumbled a little bit in that, yes, that is the national sport. But deep down Australians don't actually have any dramas with the public service. And you know he was just trying to deflect for however long that works at the same time kind of giving them a kick up the backside.

ELIZABETH:

Rick, thank you so much.

RICK:

Thanks Elizabeth.

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

The Independent Commission Against Corruption in NSW has heard that Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo gave former Labor state general secretary Jamie Clements an Aldi bag containing $100,000 after a fundraising dinner in 2015. The ICAC is inquiring into potentially unlawful donation schemes in NSW. Huang is a property developer and would be prohibited from making donations under NSW law.

And some 90,000 bank customers have had their personal data exposed through the PayID system, part of a real-time payment system owned by the big four banks and 11 other financial institutions. The big four have all confirmed that some of their customers were among those affected. Data that may have been disclosed included names, phone numbers, BSB and account numbers and users' PayID names. Although this information isn't likely to allow direct access to customer accounts, it could form the basis of further scams to trick customers into sharing more information. This is the second significant breach of the payment management system since June.

This is 7am. I'm Elizabeth Kulas. See you Wednesday.

Scott Morrison has made a new appeal to the group he calls the “Quiet Australians”. He says they have a “trust deficit” with the public service and he wants bureaucracy to change itself so it can focus on serving them. The problem - as Rick Morton reports - is that research describes the opposite of what the prime minister is saying.

Guest: Writer for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

Morrison in the middle in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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silentmajority politics morrison auspol quietaustralians publicservice middleclass




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66: Scott Morrison’s middle class