05 July 2010

Rudd was no “bureaucrat”

Amongst the columns of drivel (as well as astute commentary) that has been written about Kevin Rudd since his ousting as leader of the Australian Labor Party is the notion that he was a consummate “bureaucrat”.  I have always regarded “bureaucrat” as a term of abuse, denoting one who cherishes for its own sake the little bit of power that the holding of public office confers on him or her. In the context of the current discourse, however, I assume that the commentators are trying to say that he had the particular attribute that he understood the ways of the public service, and was  himself a skilled operator.  See for example Rudd undone by the enemy within here, by Helen Trinca and staff writers, published in The Weekend Australian, 3-4 July 2010, which states that

A colleague from the Queensland years told [David] Marr that Rudd "taught himself to be a formidable bureaucrat".

Similarly, in the Saturday 4 July edition of The Age, there is an article entitled Selling Julia: the expert view, which declares:

Voters switched off, becoming increasingly disconnected from Kevin Rudd's bureaucratic speak...

The article goes on to quote John Mescall, creative director of agency SMART, which has done work for the federal, Victorian and NSW governments, on how one would go about “selling” the new Prime Minister:

The way to sell Ms Gillard, he says, is on authenticity and, in a sense, the anti-Rudd. ''You're really looking at selling Julia not for what she is but what she isn't, and what she isn't is a bureaucrat.''

To deal first with the “bureaucratic speak”: in over forty years of face to face interaction with senior officials – Department Secretaries, Deputy Secretaries, Division Heads - I never met one who spoke the tortured English of Kevin Rudd. These are formidably busy people whose preferred mode of communication is clear, succinct, everyday English.  There is no time for beating around the bush, and the community cannot afford the cost of stuff-ups born of miscommunication.

Also, senior officials have to be able to deal comprehensibly with Ministers (from the Minister’s first day in office) who may or may not have relevant specialist knowledge.

If there is any echo of Kevin Rudd’s circumlocutions in any part of the Commonwealth public service, it is most likely to be found in the self-important and pretentious junior diplomat who is desperately trying to impress. Most of the limited numbers afflicted with this condition grow out of it pretty quickly – the ones who do not are doomed to become sad figures like Lawrence Durrell’s amusing diplomatic caricature Antrobus, doomed to a life in middle level diplomacy, certain that they know how the system works, and wondering why they never made it.

Senior officials are also formidable delegators – something of which Kevin Rudd has never been accused. They have to be – they know that the reason they have Departments with staff numbers measured in the thousands is that there is no possibility of doing everything themselves.

The sad fact of Kevin Rudd’s fall is that he sought to go from junior officer to the top of the tree in as few steps as possible, and never learned all the things he needed to learn on the way up.  When he made it to the highest office in the land, he lacked the experience either to run the complex machinery, or to judge how the policy advice he received would travel in the real world.  Sadly, he remained in many ways a junior officer, imagining what it is like at the top, but not really knowing.

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