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March 02nd 2011 print

John Muscat

Triumph of the functionaries

The functionaries have reached critical mass, and they're playing the Greens off against Labor for power and influence. This story won't make it into the progressive media, but it accounts for much of the mendacious shadow-play of the current parliament.


Just recently, one of our universities announced a plan to give fathers the option of 40 weeks parental leave at 60 per cent pay.


“It’s fantastic for the children, especially if it means families can afford to have mum and dad around a lot more”, gushed a lecturer. A handy perk, no doubt. At first glance, this seems remote from Labor’s post-election Review. But the two events hang off an ominous development in our national life. This is the unstoppable rise of publically-funded service bureaucracies as a power bloc. They and the modern ALP are locked in mutual embrace, leaving the rest of us debt and a succession of mining, flood and carbon taxes. The Review is one of a long series of adjustments to that posture.   

Take a look at the ABS labour force figures for late 2010. Few would have noticed that last year “health care and social assistance” passed “retail trade” as our largest occupational category. As at August, 1,259,600 people worked in health and social assistance, up from 840,500 in August 2000. To some extent, this is a function of population growth and aging, but in the same period “manufacturing” and “agriculture, forestry and fishing” contracted. “Education and training” comes in fifth out of the nineteen categories. Revealingly, “public administration and safety” is eighth, well above “transport, postal and warehousing” or “wholesale trade”. 

Our society is increasingly top-heavy with bureaucrats, experts and administrators of various stripes, mostly consuming rather than producing the nation’s wealth. Last year we had a total of 1,843,500 public sector employees, and that doesn’t include jobs dependent on taxpayer concessions, subsidies and rebates. 

The functionaries have reached critical mass, and they’re playing the Greens off against Labor for power and influence. This story won’t make it into the progressive media, but it accounts for much of the mendacious shadow-play of the current parliament. Rushing to outdo one another in new leave entitlements, departments and agencies are brimming with confidence. In Victoria, for instance, some public servants have won the right to claim “domestic violence” leave. After all, don’t they dominate the channels of communication? Their sharpest weapon is a line of rhetoric on “putting our patients and children first”, gender equality and “equal pay for equal work”, backed up by shrill warnings about “cuts to services”. But their agenda embraces a wider range of taxpayer-funded rights and benefits. As their ranks continue to swell, tertiary educated voters have placed the ALP on notice. Give us the qualifications, jobs, conditions and amenities we deserve, or we’ll hand the senate and your inner-city seats to the Greens. Many delivered on that threat at the last election. 

Enter Labor’s 2010 Review Committee. Only one of the Committee’s three reports was made public, and it’s an abject capitulation to the functionaries. “The … Committee believes that the time has come for Labor to re-establish its credentials as the voice of progressive Australians”, they conclude, “and for our Party organisation to reflect this goal”. Incredibly, they assert, time and again, that the ALP exists to serve “progressive Australians”, “the broader progressive community”, “the progressive political community” and “the progressive movements”. There is no sign that Labor lost far more seats to the Coalition. 

On the other hand, the Greens are very much in evidence. “No longer”, say the Committee, “can the Party consider itself as solely occupying the progressive space in Australia”. And that’s the hinge on which the whole report turns. Many of their recommendations discuss “bridging organisations” and other ways for non-member “progressives” to influence policy formulation, especially in “values-based” and “issues-based” campaigns. These proposals are well adapted to admit single-issue campaigners into Labor’s forums, not least functionaries looking to protect or raise their claim on public resources. 

The pertinent question seems obvious. Why does the Committee think Labor should confine itself to the ghetto of progressivism rather than build a national constituency? The answer has a lot to do with the labour force statistics, and the social dispensation they unveil. 

While the functionary class is more powerful than ever, its dependence on tax dollars remains a vulnerability. There is always the risk of a backlash against the accumulation of so many privileges, especially paid absences from the workplace. Today’s pampered functionaries enjoy job security, proliferating forms of leave, rights to part-time work, flexible hours, job sharing, “career pauses”, equivalent roles post-parental leave, childcare, study grants, generous superannuation, affirmative action and redundancy provision. The conveyor-belt of perks and privileges rolls on. Before long, some parts of our state and federal bureaucracies (and service divisions in the corporate sector) will resemble the system of official sinecures in ancien régime France. 

In many cases their output can’t be measured in monetary terms, or by objective criteria. They must fall back on emotional-moral grounds, shaming critics into silence. Organisations and agencies in school and tertiary education, indigenous affairs and health, childcare, family and community services, the environment, amongst others, are adept at soaking their agenda in sentiment. This is most effective in the case of benefits and services for working mothers, children, and youth in general. A second category of rhetoric is designed to deflect charges of unproductive consumption, or parasitism, by elaborating concepts of wealth generation, like “social capital”. All are subsumed in general “progressivism”, with its pretensions to moral sensitivity and higher things than grubby materialism. There is no more convenient cause, in this context, than climate change, offering endless opportunities for moralising and rhetorical plays around the dichotomy of “dirty” industry, reliant on fossil-fuels, and a “clean” services sector.  

A rising power, the functionaries are remaking the Left. Their political agenda is dominated by two imperatives, which the Greens support unreservedly. 

The first is protection from scrutiny. Public debates must not stray beyond the confines of emotional-moral discourse. In this respect, they can rely on the ABC, ensconced in a functionary stratum, and the Fairfax newspapers, mostly circulating to functionaries. Rational enquiry or anything resembling a sound cost-benefit analysis is frowned on. Are workplace privileges improving or degrading service delivery? Do they foster more or less efficient processes? Do they represent a reasonable use of taxpayer money? Are the best people being recruited and promoted? Anyone asking such perfectly legitimate questions will attract a barrage of abuse. They will be called “sexist”, “racist” or “denier”, or they will be accused of “returning to the fifties” or of having a hidden agenda “to cut services for the most vulnerable Australians”. Since the Greens will readily descend to this work, Labor must do the same. 

The second imperative is to expand the revenue base. There must be more money to satisfy their insatiable hunger for a fulfilling “work-life balance”. This relates to the first imperative in that the public’s aversion to new imposts must be overcome. The challenge is to design and deliver a tax which is lucrative enough but doesn’t hit functionaries, or at least only mildly. Flood, mining and carbon taxes fit the bill. The latter two confiscate a larger share of the nation’s wealth for “services” at the expense of immoral “polluters” in the productive economy. Again, the Greens are more than up for the challenge, but here Labor holds the cards. Taxes can only be introduced by a party that forms government. Julia Gillard will play that card, regardless of her election eve promise. 

The internal logic of the functionary agenda has squeezed the ALP into a more exclusive, intolerant landscape. The emotional-moral consensus can’t be compromised by dissent. Of necessity, you are either with “the progressive movement” or you are with the enemy. More conservative elements of the labour movement will wither and die. The ACTU has already fallen to the leadership of public sector or functionary officials. Judging by the Review, now Labor has burnt its bridges to the broader routine worker electorate. 


John Muscat is a co-editor of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.