Geoffrey Hawker
Who’s Master, Who’s Servant?
Reforming Bureaucracy
George Allen & Unwin, 100pp
0 86861 083 6

Australian Book Review, October 1982, pp. 11-12.

A key problem for socialist remains that of bureaucracy. The self-proclaimed socialist societies have been either clogged up by bureaucrats or traumatized through attempts to retain revolutionary enthusiasms. Inside capitalist societies, moves towards equality continued to be frustrated by public servants who are themselves beneficiaries of unequal tensions of power and comfort. On top of all these practical issues, the notion of bureaucracy challenges the incipient views of “class” that underlie socialist sentiments.

Geoffrey Hawker is one of a growing number of Australian left-wingers to take bureaucratic reform seriously. He is one of the few to suggest specific proposals within a broadly Marxian perspective.

Hawker opens with a bill “to abolish tenure of appointment in upper level position in public service”. In fact, he rightly advocates “the eventual, wholesale abolition of tenure”. Long before that happy day, he wants to politicize the policy unites government. His aim is to get social democratic thinking into the administration; he recognizes that there is a parallel need to get similar sentiments into a Labor ministry.

Tenure sustains the incompetent and the malevolent who respond to “open government” by keeping two sets of files: one “open” and the other operative. Before retirement they get their old files from Archives and lose them so that the thirty-year rule on the release of documents has destroyed more evidence than it has added to historical knowledge. These fat cats then retire on extravagant superannuation benefits. It is against such privileges and powers that Hawker directs his book.

His second reform area is freedom of information and here he notes the extraordinary secretiveness of Australian officials and their self-protective devices such as maintaining twin sets of files. “Open government” is also seen as one way of informing politicians as well as educating the ordinary citizen.

Tied to the flow to people of information are Hawker’s thoughts on the distribution of power inside the bureaucracy which he discusses in a chapter on “Industrial democracy”. Following on from these matters, Hawker inevitably encourages the appointment of more women, black and immigrants at all levels.

Hawker’s final set of ideas brings in several political and constitutional complications. For instance, the existing divisions of power between Commonwealth, State and local authorities are one more hurdle to the efficient and effective provision of services. He also wants to replace departments by policy units and operating units. In other words, the people responsible for delivering pensions need not be managed by the people deciding who should be eligible for benefits.

Hawker sees parliament as a secondary place for instituting reform of society since it “is within the public service that fundamental disagreements over political and economic power will be tested”.

For each of these areas of reform, Hawker offers a few innovations plus a wide-ranging critique of current practices. The politician is enticed from particular improvements towards a general transformation, not only of the bureaucracy but also of the society as a whole.

Who’s Maser, Who’s Servant? could have been usefully arranged. Although it is brief, it is still too long for most politicians to read. John Cain and his ministers in Victoria should get someone to itemise Hawker’s proposals and arguments. Even at this late stage, such a list would provide the ALP cabinet there with a guide to why its achievements turn out to be less than its modest intentions. Hawker’s second chapter, “Labor’s Vanities”, consolidates the many critiques that have been made of the ineptness of the Whitlam administration. It is to avoid repeating all those errors that this book has been written.

In conclusion, here are five specific points for further debate. First, Hawker’s discussion of tenure needs to be extended beyond the public service and into academe, the ABC and all the intelligentsia. Tenure is one of the seven modern plagues: if total uncertainty is corrosive of creativity, absolute security is every bit as debilitating.

Secondly, portable superannuation needs to be planned, not ignored as Hawker has done. Thirdly, the life-span of reforms has to be estimated: can any loosening last more than twelve months before the old guard replicate their self-defences? Fourthly, the use of public sector employment as a form of social welfare for the halt and infirm has to be faced: this issue is particularly relevant to State and local government.

Finally, the false identification of governmentalism with socialism needs to be broken. Hawker does not suffer from this muddle himself, but neither has he confronted it openly. Since his book is aimed at the ALP, wherein confusion is chronic and endemic, a recognition of the true nature of state activities [as servant of capital] is an essential prelude to reforming bureaucracy.