Sunday, 17 April 2011

Aussie Rules

Beneath a typical Guardianista piece of anti-cuts hysteria by Lisa Ansell and Kate Belgrove (hailed by Lady Laurelia as "brilliant, BRILLIANT") comes this eye-opening comment from "wanderlustboy":


How is it that the Australian public sector went from 1.6 million workers in 1984, to 1.5 million workers in 2006? How could they do that whilst providing more services, more complex services, administering vastly greater numbers of programs and taxpayer funds?

Could it be that the public service in Australia is not seen as a jobs program for trade unionists and poor areas? Could it be that Australia actually uses modern technology, instead of demanding that any and every interaction with the government here is by mail? Could it be that its an absolute disgrace that it takes 6 weeks to get a national insurance number here, and when you call up Jobcentre or HMRC, neither know the status of the request? And if I've moved I'll need to send them a form?

And another thing; people always telling me how amazing the NHS is, that is, except when you have something wrong with you. I was told it would take 8 weeks to see the specialist I needed to. That is, until I pulled some strings and name dropped and got a prominent medico friend from Australia to find someone to help; I got into see the specialist the next week. Is that how you want your heath system to work? Treatment if you have connections?


Its like dealing with a kafkaesque bureaucracy. In Australia, there are all the basic welfare state services Britain has (free healthcare, education, unemployment and disability benefits). We do not, however, believe it is the role of government to provide "active women co-ordinators" and nonsense like that. Perhaps a look down under might provide some clues as to how to run a country, considering it had no recession, unemployment is about 5%, it paid off its national debt in 2006 entirely, and the debt incurred to stimulate the ecnomy during the financial crisis will be paid off by 2019 (with the government back in surplus by 2013).

Stop being so parochial, stop accepting absolutely appalling quality public services.

AND THERE'S MORE

The public sector here is so bloated, so inefficient, its excruciating to deal with the NHS, DWP or HMRC. I often see, at government offices, four or five workers standing around a front desk, with cups of tea, happily chatting away and ignoring the fact that a member of the public is standing there waiting to be assisted.

The equivalent government office in Australia would have one or two people up front. And they would be working. And if there weren't people to serve, they would have other work, admin type stuff, do be doing or catching up on. The Australian government understands that productivity growth and international competitiveness are the name of the game. Here if I want to see a doctor, I need to register and fill out reams of paperwork (excellent, more work for administrators); in Australia, I pull out my medicare card and they swipe it and the government transfers the money to the healthcare provider.

Australia understands that the Asia-Pacific is the region of the 21st century, and we can't live in a dreamland if we have any expectation of keeping up our standard of living when competing with countries like China and India.


Of course, they have AV in Australia. Perhaps that's their secret...

The comment gets to the nub of the issue, which is that the cult of overspending - which reached its apogee under Gordon Brown - didn't just leave the country close to bankruptcy, it also made the public services in measurable ways worse. Less efficient, less user-friendly, bossier. And it's not hard to see why. With one person fully occupied, the work gets done. With two people semi-occupied, there's ample scope for gossip, time-wasting, messing about on facebook and blaming the other person. So the work doesn't get done. And then there's the sense of entitlement that comes from being part of a huge drone class sustained by compulsory taxation. There's safety in numbers.

Cutting back on inefficiency - which means cutting unnecessary jobs - should not entail the destruction of public services themselves. Unfortunately, however, it almost certainly will. Cutting front-line services causes most pain to the public, but least pain to the managers sitting behind desks in the civil service and in quangos who are by and large the ones making the decisions. A lot of what normal people consider "non-jobs", moreover, are a consequence of legislation and involve enforcing "compliance" with the vast infrastructure of regulations. The law requires the monitoring of diversity; it does not require that there shall be a specific number of libraries or swimming pools in any locality. So it's the libraries and the swimming-pools that are the first to go.

The public-sector and its apologists have become remarkably adept at fighting their corner. Here's one small example. The government is currently consulting on what should be done with the hugely expensive and bureaucratic Equality Act. You can contribute here. Judging by the responses - 99% hostile to any sort of change - the consultation has been the victim of a remarkably successful astroturfing operation. Hundreds of almost identically-worded comments denounce any watering-down of the Act as an attack on fundamental rights. This is typical:

The Equality Act should not be scrapped; it defends people’s fundamental rights and dignity. Maintaining equality in the workplace is not “red tape”, it’s something people have fought and died for over hundreds of years. Scrapping the act would set us back in terms of equality and diversity provision and to do so would send a negative mesaage to the wider community.


I have no objection to anti-discrimination laws. Indeed, I think they should be extended beyond the present rather arbitrary set of "protected characteristics" to cover all acts of irrelevant discrimination. Why should the law protect (as it does) Australians but not Scousers, Muslims but not Goths? But it's entirely possible for the law to give enforceable rights to people who can prove that they have been discriminated against without erecting - as the Equality Act does - a vast bureaucracy of pre-emptive compliance, complete with tick-boxes and intrusive questionnaires, not to mention a small army of enforcers and diversity co-ordinators.

"Framing fundamental anti-discrimination legislation as ‘red tape’ is a deeply worrying indication of this government’s priorities," complains Irene Gedalof in another comment. What has she to worry about? Given that she describes herself as "Course Leader for the MA in Equality and Diversity at London Metropolitan University," I would imagine quite a bit.