On Her Majesty’s Public Service

The Australian Government has lost its marbles. Not the politicans: the idiotic Turnbull v. Abbott infighting is just the latest episode in a dysfunctional saga that goes right back to Rudd v. Gillard Phase I. No, I mean the hapless functionaries and denizens of Canberra who have brought out this dynamic diabolical recruitment ad for its Department of Finance. It’s so unwatchably cringe-inducing, I’m loath even to link to it and lend it some credibility with a few clickthroughs. But here it is – judge for yourself whether it’s a ‘game changer’:

It’s hard to know where to start with this. In its defence, it wouldn’t be the first recruitment ad that will probably achieve the opposite of its intended outcomes. Advertising and marketing ‘gurus’ really are the snake oil cult visionaries of this age, and ably confirm the adage that an older generation often has no idea about how to attract the younger generation, whether we’re talking employment, politics or sex.

I’m also reluctant to lay into the ad too much, misconceived as I think it is, when it is trying to ensure, painfully and methodically, that its protagonists are diverse in every way. It’s an achingly middle class diversity, mind. Shall I nip down for a paleo pear and banana bread or buy my colleague a flat white? The agony of choice. And if I get her a flat white, will she think I’m patronising her? Oh shit – she prefers almond milk, doesn’t she, or is it soy? Gosh – being nice can be so hard. Thank god for those awesome team building away days to help navigate the tricky stuff.

The other pitfall is that an excoriating critique of this just ends up reading like another pundit gleefully sticking in the boot, Gliding On-stylee, into bureaucratic ‘leeches’, sucking at the teat of the ‘bloated’ public sector. That would be terrible: some of my best friends are Wellington public servants! And knowing how horrified they would be by the goldfish bowl of TV, I could have advised the ad makers that choosing to use real people and not actors was fatal. Everyone sounds so awkward, as though they are part of some benign hostage video, where the threatened sanction is deprivation of, er, paleo pear and banana bread.

And so much of it is just a distraction: see how one guy is wearing a tie, and that’s cool, and then the other guy is choosing not to wear a tie, and that’s cool too. Yeah! Everyone gets listened to around here – the brown guy, the woman, the Asian guy – everybody! Do they think that the public sector is perceived as some kind of chauvinist Mad Men dystopia of brutal dress codes, dog-eat-dog narcissism and bullying? Naturally, that stuff isn’t confined to the private sector. It’s just that I think there are more pressing image problems for the public service. Maybe, just maybe, it might be seen as boring; full of Byzantine processes, uncool, staid, and riddled with PC jargon. So why use a clutch of awkward-looking people wandering from water cooler to water cooler and prattling on about projects, initiatives, competencies and presentations? It’s like a recruitment ad for the police in which they just fill out paperwork and book speeders.

“I’ve been here less than a year, and I’m already part of a project helping to modernise the public service,” chirrups one bright young marionette. One of many projects, no doubt, all running concurrently and not communicating with each other, but it’s the sentiment that counts, I guess. And what’s the inference from this: that the public service is in need of modernisation yet trying really hard to be hip and cool? It’s not exactly compelling. Compare it with this ad below. Yeah, yeah, I know they are targeting different audiences, but this is dramatic and spontaneous and it’s all about fun. Fun in Australia’s Department of Finance, however, is very carefully defined.

They even have a dreaded buddy program for the newbies, with mentoring. A student of mine opined that this sounded just like prefect mentoring at school. Hmm. Another nail in the coffin of the “we’re so totally not a monolithic institution” argument. It’s not that people don’t need support and advice and development, lest anyone start getting po-faced. It just smacks of a mindset which says that the best way to address any issues is through a committee and a process – this process. In trying to be too faithful to what a typical day in the Finance Team feels like, they actually tell you nothing about what the public service is for, and merely reduce it to a series of broad statements and worthy promises. Maybe that was the point: none of the people in this stilted clip look like they would so much as give the boat a gentle nudge with a paper clip, let alone be ‘game changers’. Unwitting honesty indeed.

And so farewell, Annette King. NZ Labour had better put on more than a few egg sandwiches and cups of tea for her goodbye in September, because they have lost a stalwart and a proven performer. There was always a casual ageism that seemed to follow King in recent years, encouraged by the media, but also espoused by left-leaning acquaintances who ought to know better. Winston, who is older, can still play the suave populist silver fox card, without having to worry about the whispers. Yet King was not stifling renewal within Labour; in the aftermath of the 2014 debacle, the destructive narcissism of David Cunliffe and the election of a new leader who had only received five votes from fellow caucus members, she acted as a vital bridge between Little and the rest of the MPs. She also knows the party inside out and knows the challenges of opposition from the 90s period. The alternative scenario might well have been the kind of abject, disunited, impotent opposition which UK Labour purports to be under Jeremy Corbyn.

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Old school politics works. Work hard in government and harry them like hell from opposition.

She was also a fearless big hitter in her Health portfolio, ready with the data to cause maximum embarrassment for the government. It’s worth comment that King has been one of the few shadow ministers to outlast some of her government opposites in the Health portfolio, whereas for most departments it has been Labour who have tinkered and changed and reshuffled personnel while Team Key has batted steadily on. Of course, as a former dental nurse, this should not be surprising. Yet there has always been a hint of disdain within Labour for those at the coalface, when considering potential MPs. God knows why. Norman Kirk left school at 13, but had far greater political astuteness in connecting with people and mastering his brief than many better educated contemporaries. Pulling in radio hosts and weathermen to raise party profile alongside the many policy wonks and union lawyers is all very well, but there is no substitute for MPs whose direct experience inspires their politics and gives them the candid honesty to fight for the policies which will really deliver..

Having helped pull her party through one of its doldrums, she has earned a peaceful retirement. The best tribute Labour could pay is to run a disciplined and committed campaign this year and prove that the only way is up.

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