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  • Bronwyn Kelly

We have the means of a civil revival - but not much time.

In June 2021, John Menadue spoke for many concerned Australians in his Pearls and Irritations Public Policy Journal by saying "we need a civil revival".

He was speaking in the context of the obviously diminished capacity of the federal public service and the Morrison government’s preference for use of the military in place of a well functioning civil service.


Australia used to have one of the better public service sectors in the world. But of late we have opted to sideline it and use the military to run operations like the vaccine roll-out and our bushfire response when the fireys are too stretched.


An association between the public service and the military in crises might be useful to fill occasional service delivery capacity gaps, as long as the military is under instruction from the civil side of things. But when it comes to policy development capacity within the public service – an essential aspect of the civil function where the primary focus should be to prevent crises and thereby minimise the risk of having to respond to them – big problems arise when the civilian capacity is stripped away and militarism becomes the norm.


For instance, there are indisputable dangers that have arisen because the federal government has allowed the Australian Strategic Policy Institute to accept funding from foreign arms dealers and to tout the idea that it’s a good thing to become one of the world’s top arms exporters, even to countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE that use them to inflict misery and annihilation on the people of Yemen. These funding arrangements are dangers to both national security and the national character and with them we are experiencing a plain shift from a peace loving country to a war provocateur. Another example of this character change can be seen in our airport transit areas, where the armed Border Force now looks like something out of the eastern block countries during the Cold War. Civil it is not – in any sense of the word.


But how can we engineer a civil revival? Certainly not from within the Australian Public Service as it is now. The APS has been slowly stripped of much of its capacity for impartial evidence-based policy development and open advocacy in the public interest by decades of outsourcing to corporate consultancies. To build a resilient civil society the first thing we need is free speech. And those federal public servants – the highly skilled few still left standing – can no longer engage in that like other Australians, especially if they disagree with the government, lest they lose their jobs.


The rest of us are losing our assumed rights to free speech as well. I say “assumed” because Australians don’t actually have rights to free speech under the Australian Constitution. As individuals we don’t even have the famous “implied right to freedom of political communication” – as Michaela Banerji found out when she lost her job in the APS after the High Court upheld Comcare’s right to dismiss her for anonymously expressing views outside work hours that did not reflect well on the government’s handling of immigration.


If you join the public service today, the fact is you have to contemplate giving up the possibility of participating in civic debate as a citizen with the same privileges of free speech as everyone else. You have to contemplate giving up the essential thing that will enable you to do your job – speaking freely and frankly with both government ministers and the Australian people. As one federal ministerial adviser admitted in his submission to the 2019 Review of the APS (known as the Thodey Review):


"… a senior public service official told me that they, and other senior public servants they know, will only disagree with the wishes of their Minister once — and after that, they are afraid of losing their jobs."


It’s insane of course, but that is what things have come to in the APS.


Australia as a nation, after the war that was supposed end all wars, built a memorial in the centre of its capital not to revere war and militarism but to remember the dead and the horror of war. But we are on the point of morphing into a society that will soon prominently parade tanks, rockets and other killing apparatus as advertising for foreign arms manufacturers in that very memorial. These arms dealers now effectively control much of the Australian War Memorial through corporate sponsorship. The modern money changers have invaded the temple.


And with all that we know about what happens when governments beat the drums of war, that’s as close as we should ever want to get to our own version of Red Square parades before we pull back, come to our senses and reset our values and institutions to champion peace and a cohesive, resilient society – one capable of handling the crises we can’t avoid.


That being so, the key question is how do we establish a civil revival if the public service is being strangled in its core task of engaging openly with all interested communities? Luckily for us, while our public servants may have been prevented from developing the independent advice they used to be able to offer without fear or favour to elected leaders, we ourselves have not lost our ability to speak for ourselves. Not yet anyway.


We have the means to give the public servants a helping hand, even those operating at the erudite level of macroeconomic policy, democratic and constitutional reform, competition policy, environmental economics and epidemiology.


The means by which we the people can do that is not well known, but it does exist. Followers of this blog and the ACFP website will know it's called Integrated Planning & Reporting. This is a community engagement process where communities become the master planners of their own future and gain far more power over that future than they have now. It’s been tried at local government level and has been working due to legislation introduced more than a decade ago which made it compulsory for public servants in local government in several states to work with communities to enable them to develop such plans. Many Australian local government areas now have some form of ongoing Integrated Planning & Reporting – an open, transparent space where communities can set down what they want for the long term and even indicate how it is to be financed and secured.


This hasn’t been tried at the federal level yet and the odds are that it won’t be unless we do it ourselves. To that end, Australian Community Futures Planning has been established to create a public space – outside politics and government – where Australians can embark on Integrated Planning & Reporting on a national scale. This is a space where they can exercise free speech (at least for the nonce) but what’s more, they can organise their diverse voices and aspirations in a productive way in the national interest. That space is called Australia Together. It’s a people’s planning space – an orderly means by which communities can sort out solutions when (or even before) governments fail in their role as leaders and expose us to utterly unnecessary risk.


In this space Australians can, for the first time, describe what their future should look like, compare that to where we are now, and pick out, one by one, the practical policies and solutions that can be integrated into a securely financed plan for travel back to the civil society we could aspire to, if we could freely choose. And through that process, pressure can be brought to bear on governments to heed the will of the people towards the creation of a true civil society and the abandonment of a movement towards militarism.


To see what can come from National Integrated Planning & Reporting, check out Australia Together before we lose our few remaining privileges in free speech.

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