I must admit I was surprised and disappointed by the news that Circus Oz was to close. I assumed that the lack of support for the Arts during COVID was the main factor. Circus Oz is one of the great icons of Australian culture- world quality circus gymnastics with a unique Australian irreverence. It will be a great loss. They also gave rise to the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, which was kids doing the same sort of thing, or as they called it, ‘Ordinary Kids doing extraordinary things’.
It was world quality like the Sydney, Melbourne or Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras, but like the Australian Ballet and Bangara Dance, it had a more distinctly Australian flavour.
So it was a shock to read that he artists did not want it shut down, and Management did it without asking them. Can we assume that the Australia Council and Creative Victoria demanded the management changes that were not delivered, or was Circus Oz management merely obdurate in their relations with the staff? The latter seems more likely.
Hopefully Circus Oz can survive, but it is not looking likely. The only other question is whether their ideological stance offended the government. Nothing was usually said, but the irreverence had an anti-Establishment flavour that some of us liked, and perhaps some did not?
Some years ago, I won a Public Service Fellowship to study workplace absence and had what the Americans call a boondoggle, with a world trip to look at why people attend or do not attend work.
One outcome from that was that I stopped using the word ‘Absenteeism’ as that is a valued judgement suggesting a worker disease, and used the term ‘workplace absence’ which, as the progressive journals at the time insisted meant that an employee considered that they had a better reason not to be at work.
Unsurprisingly people who had more interesting work or control over their work were less likely to be absent, while those in boring production lines were more likely. The US car industry had absence rates of around 10% and handled this by simply rostering on excess people in the assumption that people were not going to turn up. A union OHS academic there said that the rates of what we called RSI were very high, but I did not get to examine workers and naturally no figures were available.
People who needed to be away from work also were more often absent, particularly women with families whose incomes were lower than their partners. Later I looked at age groups and health as these were measureable and confirmed the general conclusion that health did not correlate with absence. People who had a chronic illness were less likely to take sick days as they might need them later, whereas young healthy males wanted to go surfing.
The Swedish car industry let workers have quite a lot of autonomy, but this had led to the workers trying to finish early and giving themselves RSI, but the Swedes were not keen to talk about this, as they had been studied by too many itinerants like me, (and one suspected that they did not like what we had found).
The Japanese worked very long hours, and had token payments systems which kept a peer pressure to gain this respect, but the last part of their long working hours tended to be not very productive, because the peer pressure was merely not to be the first to leave. Again, this insight came from US academics; not the Japanese.
One of sillier things that I noted in some management training that I had was that some still seem to think that the only thing that motivates people is money. This seemed so simplistic to me as to almost absurd, but it was still taught.
So I was interested to see an article today by Malcolm Knox in the SMH about the motivation of the Melbourne Storm Rugby League players, who are favoured to beat Penrith in the second preliminary final this afternoon. Some of their players are paid much less than they would be if they changed clubs, but they stay there because of their respect for the coach, and for the fact that the team wins. Young fullback Ryan Papenhausen is quoted as saying that he stays while Bellamy is coach because he thinks he will improve most while coached by this man. So despite salary caps, which are designed to even up the quality of players between clubs, Melbourne have more than their share of stars.
I have not been a huge fan of Rugby League over the years as it seemed to merely have people bump into each other and lacked the subtlety and variety of Rugby Union, particularly the innovative movements of the All Blacks. But their variety and flair is improving, particularly with the work of Nathan Cleary at Penrith, which is now being watched and copied to the level that other teams have been beating them.
We can watch Melbourne Storm v. Penrith from 4pm, but I will also be thinking that if Melbourne wins, it will say something about motivation and money.
When friends discuss why the world of politics seems to be going downhill, they mention that there seems to be no respect for knowledge any more. Because information is so available it is not valued. But this is not the key. The problem seems to stem from two sources;
Firstly the two wars last century were over markets and at Bretton Woods at the end of WW2 the key to preventing wars thought to be free markets, where there would be unrestricted trade and countries could rise on fall on their relative advantages, or harder work. The second item was the notion of neo-liberalism where the duty of a company was to make as much money as possible, with other objectives being looked after by someone else. But as free trade progressed like a monopoly game multinational companies became more powerful than governments, so there was no one to stop the accumulation of wealth and power. Power and wealth became the important items. If you had these, clearly you would know what to do.
A number of small stories often give insights into changing priorities. When I was at school and aged about 11 another boy, Geoff, went on a trip to the USA, a rare thing to do at that time. We eagerly asked him what it was like over there. He said, ‘Money just stands up and talks over there. If you have money and you say something everybody listens’. What he meant was that it was not because the rich person actually knew anything.
When I worked at Sydney Water, there were 17,000 employees and there was had a program to separate storm water and sewage in the pipes in the old part of Sydney, where they had all been the same. There were employment programs for the long-term unemployed, disabled people and even ex-prisoners. There were quality control units and a well-respected apprentice training school with about 220 people that produced plumbers, electricians and carpenters. The staff worked their way up the hierarchy so everyone knew their job and the tasks that they were supervising. In the early 1980s these was a major change. Sydney Water was reclassified as a State owned enterprise. It was to be ‘right sized’ which was the euphemism for downsized to about 3,000 people. All functions not immediately necessary were stopped. No pipe replacement programs, fix them when they burst. No apprentice training. No quality control- (has to be out-sourced). No printing. No computerised land mapping program (a world first, given to the Land Titles Office and later privatised) and the government was entitled to a ‘dividend’ from the enterprise which was about a billion dollars a year from all the salaries saved and work not done. There was a game of musical chairs which went on for about a decade with new management structures, each with fewer places in it, where people repeatedly applied for jobs that had slightly different titles but which amounted to what they had done before. But more than this there was incredible nepotism and people who knew about money or were politically favoured replaced those who knew about pipes and water. Deskilling was on a massive scale. Then there was a project to look at salary relativities, which seemed to come to the conclusion that the salary should relate to how many people you managed. Professionals were hard to fit into this framework, so it was opined that they should get less, but in order to get them at all, there had to be some consideration of what they were paid outside the organisation. As a professional I was also high enough up the hierarchy to get ‘management training’. It seemed that the key objective was to create a new culture in the organisation, and the main element in this was the destruction of the old culture, which was naturally assumed to be inferior to the new vision of the new management. Workshops were held to define our objectives and visions. The silly old guard had thought that it was to provide water and take away the pooh.
This seems to be what has happened throughout the entire public service. Lifetime employment has gone, and the gradual salary increments that made public servants content to work for less because they had lifetime security of employment and respect for the niche knowledge that they had developed.
Now the two overwhelming values are power and money. They are assumed to go together. Money buys political power, and political power gives control of large amounts of money. So part of this new values hierarchy is the assumption that other values are lesser. Public interest knowledge as stored in the public service, the Australian Bureau of Statistics or the research community are run down as the new breed of consultants rise. The consultants are chosen by their masters for their political or economic orientation and have to come up with solutions that fit with the views of their masters lest they not get their next job. It is an incestuous and nepotistic system where ideology and opinion have displaced long-term experience and expertise.
Some years ago, as a NSW Democrat MP, I went to a YADS (Young Australian Democrats) conference in Canberra. The YADs were enthusiastic young people interested in politics, and some of them were lucky enough to work in Parliamentary offices. On the Saturday they hospitably asked me to come to a party that they were attending. I felt a bit old for the group, but they insisted. It turned out that the Party was at a Liberal staffer’s house. No one took much notice of the old guy in the corner sipping his beer, so I observed a group of very privileged young people telling stories of their exploits in the corridors of power. The striking part of the stories was the extent to which they were merely playing a chess game. They were the goodies, Labor were the baddies and the whole discussion was about winning. There was no policy content at all. The issue was whether we won or not. John Howard was Prime Minister and I was left with the overwhelming feeling that power was in the hands of those who had neither knowledge nor respect for the responsibility that they were carrying.
So I was interested to read this article by Jack Waterford, which traces the replacement of the public service by political staffers, ambitious non-experts with a lot of ideological baggage and little time for long-term expertise.
The replacement of respect for knowledge with respect only for power and money may be the reason for the decline in decision-making in our political and management systems, and may yet be the cause of the decline of Anglo civilisation.
A report by the NSW Auditor-General shows that NSW TAFE had failed in its social objectives and not made its cost saving from merging 10 institutions into one. It is significant that these problems are always found by Auditors. One would think that monitoring of costs savings or not would be built into such a major change. Dream on! The problem with mega-mergers is that it empowers people a long way away, who then make decisions without the facts from those on the ground, who have usually been sacked or depowered. Speechwriter Martin McKenzie-Murray, writing in the SMH of 28/12/20 opined that the reason that speeches were so unmemorable now was that the content was more about short-term media grabs than any substantial vision, and that since political advisers have replaced public service mandarins as the main source of advice there has been a loss of the sense of past history and future vision. In short the lack of proper thinking is why the speeches are no good. TAFE was conceived as help up; a technical education for those who could benefit from one, whatever their age, and where good tradespeople were valued and could teach their trade. Interference by those who merely see education as another commodity to compete in a market and who have no concept of equity, justice or a fair go as part of public policy have done immense harm to TAFE, not to mention the rest of the nation. Policy should have continuity and decisions should be evidence-based. A public service that has expertise and long-term stability is the best guarantee of this, where those giving the advice do not have a financial or ideological commitment to a single option. The article is important in that it emphasises that ideologues must justify their management pontifications and their failures must be held up to them. www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/scathing-review-reveals-tafe-s-failure-to-meet-cost-savings-20201217-p56oex.html