Yes Minister meets Alice in Wonderland
Midway through last year I was head-hunted by the federal Department of Health and Ageing to write speeches for their ministers - a surprise as I had no experience or qualifications. As far as the department was aware, my limited skills were derived from reviewing video games for The Canberra Times.
Perplexed and amused, I dusted off the suit and attended my one and only interview. ''I'll be writing speeches for who?''
''Minister Roxon,'' answered my interviewer.
''And you're going to pay me how much?''
''Eighty thousand a year. Will that be enough?''
So began my journey down the public service rabbit-hole. I would soon learn that swine flu and a raid on staff by another department were to thank for my recruitment.
Compounding the staffing crisis was a high turnover rate. A recent survey had revealed staff satisfaction was the lowest of any section, for any department, anywhere. I pondered the figures as they stared down at me from a huge poster, plastered opposite my new desk.
''What does that 35 per cent mean?'' I asked a colleague. There was no answer, a response I would get used to.
I was given my first speech to write. I was not given an induction, training, an occupational health and safety lecture, a security clearance, a standard operating procedures manual, a style guide or anything you would expect when starting a job with the federal government of Australia.
As promised, the speech was for Nicola Roxon, Minister for Health and Ageing. The topic was macular degeneration and I was instructed to mention Ita Buttrose. Despite being completely lost, without an inkling of how to proceed, I quickly learnt not to ask any questions. Nobody would answer them with anything other than an annoyed glare or dismissive quip.
I wrote the speech. I muddled my way through the maze of acronyms that indicated who my departmental researchers were while I attempted to learn the procedures on the run. I emailed the final copy to the Minister's office and winced, waiting with dread for the inevitable criticism that should come pouring back.
Nothing happened. My speech was swallowed by the public service ether. Did the Minister ever read it? I do not know. Did the Minister even look at it? No idea. The following day I was given a second speech to write.
Around the same time a section meeting was called. Our boss arrived late, but in the best of moods. ''We're under budget!'' she announced proudly. The old-timers let out whoops of joy.
''What's going on?'' I asked someone quietly.
''We're under budget,'' they replied with a rare smile.
''Oh, so that's good? You've saved money?''
''No, no,'' her smile turned to ash as she gave me that pitying look I usually received when I asked a question. ''It means training.''
Our section was under-budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars, necessitating we blow all the unspent money before the end of the financial year. Unfortunately, ''training'' did not mean I would finally get some training. ''Training'' consisted of hastily booked, dubiously relevant conferences and courses, most of which were conveniently located a long way from Canberra.
Despite my short length of service, I was included in the spending free-for-all. I later found myself in a plush Sydney harbourside hotel with hundreds of dollars in unnecessary travel allowance - everything, including meals, flights and accommodation, was covered by the department. I was attending a conference on Web 2.0, a topic I was mildly interested in but which had nothing to do with my duties.
The rest of the office also enjoyed jetting around the country. Four staff members managed to book into the same four-day public relations event and, reportedly, a great time was had by all.
We were not the only ones wasting money. Associated with our section were those boffins who create public health campaigns, the ones that appear on television with increasing regularity: nights out turning into nightmares, measure your fat stomach, wash your hands - that kind of thing.
I was surprised to discover the minds behind these campaigns were not health professionals. They had backgrounds and degrees in marketing, communications and advertising, not medicine. Under their watch, the government became the No.1 spender on free-to-air television.
Next to those folks sat the print division. They produced hats, T-shirts, mugs and golf balls with little logos and slogans designed to make us all healthier. A huge collection of the stuff was proudly displayed in a dedicated glass cabinet in the middle of their section.
A month into the job, I started to enjoy writing speeches. The department answered to four ministers and I wrote for three of them. Some of my speeches were even used. I would travel up to Parliament, merge into the background and listen. They would always stray from the exact text, but occasionally I would hear my words tumble from the mouths of the mighty.
My lone back-up was a grizzled old press secretary left over from the Hawke era who would sometimes proof my work and harangue me for my attempts at an apolitical tone.
''But we're not meant to write political copy,'' I objected.
''Pigs arse! Tens of years of neglect under the Howard government. Use it.'' I liked him. He was snide and he was cynical and his proofing was the only help I received, for which I was very grateful.
My duties were expanded to include press releases and alerts, the organisation of ministerial visits and, my least favourite job, ringing up grouchy news editors to ensure they knew a minister would be in their town. Much of it duplicated work already done by the ministers' personal staff and the editors were usually sick to death of our calls, emails and faxes - as they let me know in no uncertain terms.
I started to have my first run-ins with the ministers' staff, cranky young professionals who were forever firing off orders and then countermanding them.
I would be ordered to organise an event in some remote country town and write a speech with a local flavour - the amount of federal cash being spent in the place was always paramount. Of second greatest importance was the number of jobs to be generated by that expenditure. One junior minister did not take kindly to our writing and presented us with a template. It made my job very easy. I would just plug the dollar and jobs numbers into her speech and press release and mail them off.
The ministers' staff were as fond of cancelling events as they were of commissioning them. Then it fell to someone, usually me, to ring the nursing home or hospital or wherever the planned visit was to be and tell the locals to stand down their troops. The minister would not be coming.
I received my first scolding from Roxon's office and it was thoroughly deserved. I signed off on a press release that contained two glaring errors. The only excuse I had - ''Sorry, sir, I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing'' - was not going to fly, so I just swallowed my pride and apologised.
None of these events prepared me for what happened next. After remaining silent on the issue for many months, the Prime Minister suddenly took an interest in the nation's health. I found out when a grim-faced boss herded us all together. ''The PM is going to make a health announcement and you have to organise it,'' we were told.
''When's it happening?''
''Monday.'' (It was Friday afternoon.)
''When did we first learn about it?''
That is how the department's major reform initiative, YourHealth, and its associated round of public consultations began. My colleagues (except the boss, who disappeared) worked through the weekend to pull it together. The following Monday morning I found myself standing near the Prime Minister, trying to nod gravely as I had seen other human backdrops do, while he outlined the findings of the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission's discussion paper, titled A Healthier Future For All Australians: Final Report, and the action the government would take to deal with it. The action of consultation.
Young suits from the Prime Minister's office stalked the wings of the announcement, roaring loudly into mobile phones. Their counterparts from the Health Minister's office hovered in the background, looking miserable.
The Prime Minister's office staff feared nobody and respected them less. The only time they shut up was when the Prime Minister himself was speaking. Any other speaker, including Roxon and the commission's spokeswoman, could go to hell. One grabbed my pen from my hand and stormed off with it. I later asked for it back and was laughed at.
My colleagues were always fearful of the Minister's office, but for the first time I was witnessing the force that terrified the MO staff themselves. Orders came down that all our ministers were to clear their calendars for the next six months - they were to become as visible to the media as possible. They were going on a consultation tour of the country.
Initially, there was little rhyme, reason or co-ordination to the process. A website was thrown up that looked ghastly when it first went live, so ghastly that the Prime Minister refused to promote it as had been planned. A team was banged together to run the site and to put up lots of pretty pictures of the government in consultation mode. The gossip was the Prime Minister's attention had been caught by the Web 2.0 phenomenon, as had many Western leaders in the wake of Obama's presidential campaign, and YourHealth.gov.au would be the first to jump on the bandwagon.
Along with the tidal wave of events we suddenly had to organise, I was given a new duty: ensuring photographers were always present to capture our ministers nodding gravely as they consulted. There was no limit to the cost. Fortunate photographers around the country suddenly found themselves hired, whatever quote they supplied.
My last days at the department were a cavalcade of new staff, swept up from wherever they could be found amid the chaos generated by the YourHealth steam train. The entire project was developed backwards, necessitating constant adjustments. Money was thrown at local production companies to create sincere-looking website testimonials. Staff were ordered to use the site and vote on the polls to generate hits. I wandered through the disorganisation in a permanent state of bewilderment.
During that time I received my one and only official piece of feedback - out of the blue, my contract was extended.
After four months, I walked away and did not bother telling anyone why.
I care about health dollars, although not enough to initially refuse that crazy job. Thanks to an ongoing medical condition, I've had need of the health system on occasion. My immediate family contains two doctors and three nurses. I'm anecdotally familiar with the state of our public hospitals and mental health system.
A few months before the department hired me, I spent eight agonising hours in emergency waiting for treatment for a chronic case of food poisoning. I was eventually diagnosed, pumped full of morphine, rehydrated intravenously and strapped to a bed in the emergency ward to recover overnight.
The next time I spend eight hours waiting in emergency, I will be thinking of unused speeches, cancelled events and weeks of wasted organisation and research. I will be thinking of expensive television advertising campaigns and T-shirts and golf balls with little slogans. I will be thinking of websites and a consultation process driven by photography. I will be thinking of ''training''.
I never said goodbye to my colleagues, so I would like to add, belatedly, I will be thinking of all of you too.
Myles Peterson is a Canberra writer.
Source: The Age