Norm McIlfatrick: ‘ … intelligent, talented and a faithful servant to the government of the day …’

As DFAT State Director in April 2008 I met CEO Gunns, John Gay, over lunch to discuss the branch-office nature of Tasmania’s economy.

The performance of some of Tasmania’s leading mandarins responsible for running the state government machinery was raised.

Norm McIlfatrick’s name came up, and John told me: “While he is intelligent, talented and a faithful servant to the government of the day, the problem lies with middle management who will suffocate and obstruct every ministerial direction that might upset the status quo and threaten their comfort zone. Therefore every effort will be made to stymie the Secretary’s efforts to implement them.”

I didn’t appreciate the import of his comment until much later.

Gay was referencing the systemic obstruction of the public service (and sometimes ministerial minders) to the effective implementation of the government’s mandate.

Leaving aside the frontline role of public servants in education, health, policing and other areas, the existence of a very costly Hobart-centric administrative and support bureaucracy needs to be questioned.

Roughly 30 per cent of the total economy is made up of public services and government that is clearly unsustainable. Because Tasmania relies on GST more than any other state due to a lower capacity to raise revenue, one should question the size of the public sector’s role given it accounts for a higher percentage of Tasmania’s GSP compared to other states.

In that sense, the Hodgman government’s determination to cut over 500 PS positions is a step in the right direction. So is his intention to decentralise the public service into regional areas away from Hobart.

But the focus must rest on shaking up the middle management to ensure departmental heads are not made ineffectual due to resistance from the lower ranks, such as was the case of McIlfatrick, who had the unenviable task of overseeing a super department that never was coherent because of its constituent parts (mining, forestry, transport infrastructure, etc).

Hodgman needs to consider this when creating the new State Growth department.

The Premier has the prerogative to choose his departmental heads, and other shake-ups are sensible in my view.

For example, 30 years on since the 1980s, the economic development portfolio has not facilitated the creation of large sustainable new industries such as the salmon industry. Instead, a hodge-podge of small local enterprises reliant on government handouts created an unhealthy dependency with no significant impact in moving the economy forward in a sustainable way.

A reluctance for risk-taking and lukewarm interest in advancing potentially new industries spinning off the NBN is an example.

Realising the commercial and investment spin-off opportunities from the Commonwealth perspective for the island economy, I played a key role to convince the state government to invite US-based Professor Larry Smarr, a pre-eminent leader in internet infrastructure to promote the opportunities of the NBN.

Smarr was Premier David Bartlett’s guest to Hobart in August 2009.

The key lesson for the incoming government is that changing a few departmental heads is insufficient.

Decentralisation of the public service and an attack on the Hobart-centric administrative and support bureaucracy, particularly in middle management, is what is required.

The other major challenge is the imperative for the right settings for policy-making coherence, particularly with regard to the creation of the new State Growth department.

*Phil na Champassak owns The Madsen Boutique Hotel in Penguin and is a founding board member of the Cradle Coast Innovation Inc fostering enterprise facilitation. He is also a board member of the Cradle Coast Tourism Executive, the regional tourism organisation for NW Tasmania. Formerly a diplomat and DFAT policy analyst, Phil has worked on trade, aid, public diplomacy, consular, international security, and bilateral relations with PNG, the US, and NZ, and was most recently DFAT State Director for Tasmania. Prior to that Phil worked for the UN Development Programme in New York, West Africa and PNG. Phil also served as election monitor to the first elections in Cambodia (1992) and South Africa (1994) and was a peace monitor in Bougainville (2002). He has contributed to publications on human rights, election monitoring, and UN issues. Awarded in 2003 a Australian Service Medal. Phil was a guest of ABC Radio Richard Fidler’s ‘Conversations’ in November 2013.

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