The Fires of Australia: The Importance of Being a Public Servant

On December 14th 2014, Man Haron Monis entered the Sydney Lindt Café and engaged in an act of domestic terrorism, holding 18 people hostage. By the end of the siege the following day, two people had lost their lives due to his actions.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott convened the National Security Committee of Cabinet, monitoring the unfolding situation from Canberra. He was visible and vocal throughout the period, providing a sign that there was a leader attempting to lead the country through a traumatic situation. At lot can be said about Abbott’s leadership skills both good and bad, especially in times of hardship like this, but in this situation, he was a leading presence in a time of need.

I watched the days events unfurl on the television screen in the waiting room of the radiology department at the yet-to-be-opened Fiona Stanley Hospital in Perth. The week before, I found myself reflecting on the end of my career as a vet nurse, and on that rather quiet Monday I considered my future as a public service employee. At that stage, I didn’t really think much about my role and what it meant to work for the public. I saw it mostly as a position that provided job security with a great career path.

I started off as a clerk, and quickly moved into administration, eventually finding myself in the world of data management. In each role, I’ve acted as a ‘behind the scenes’ worker, cleaning data, writing reports, managing meetings, organising doctors, and at all times, I worked with the public interest in mind. With a wealth of Parks and Recreation under my belt, and a growing interest in politics, I found myself reflecting heavily on my role as a public service employee. What once started as a reliable source of income become a genuine passion.

Much like Leslie Knope, I grew to respect, admire, and adore the honour that working in public service brings. It is a privilege to be able to work in service of the public, and I share that privilege with some 147,236 fellow public servants across Australia. And maybe as a sign of how inspirational a character like Leslie Knope can be, it’s heartening to see that of that group of people, 59.6% are women.    

While I have long dreamt of being a politician (my ideal job would be a Senator, one who attempts to follow in the great Scott Ludlam’s footsteps), I have come to realise that my life choices and career path would simply not allow for that opportunity to be afforded. When Prime Minister Scott Morrison talked in August of 2019 at Parliament House about the importance and value of working for the public service, he mentioned about the importance that comes with being someone who puts their name on a ballot for the public to vote on. If you can do that, then you are putting yourself completely forward for the public, opening yourself up to scrutiny, and entirely embracing the need to serve the public.

I quickly realised that it was something I was incapable of doing and pushed the notion of ever moving into politics under the covers. With that gone, I worked on reaffirming the core aim of my current career path – focusing on working for the Australian public. A fair amount of my work is associated with writing reports that collate stats, data, trends, and changes, and pushing those reports out to the public. These reports help guide societal changes in WA, and inform about the state of health in Western Australia. I have more tasks that I am involved in, ones that I feel profoundly lucky to be able to engage with, but I cannot go into them here. Just know that every task I engage with, I do so with the eventual outcome for the public in mind. What change will this make in their life?

Each task I take seriously, and I appreciate the importance instilled in me when I write up these reports, or run a data query. I know that with their existence, they might help make a difference in someone’s life.

And at its core, that is what sits right at the centre of working in public service. You, the public service employee, exist to help make a difference in the Australian publics life.

Scott Morrison said it best at that aforementioned APS (Australian Public Service) speech:

It’s a message to the whole of the APS – top-to-bottom – about what matters to people.

It’s about what I call ‘doing the little things well’ – everything from reducing call waiting times and turnaround on correspondence, right through to improving the experience people have as they walk into a Centrelink office or any other government service office around the country.

I want to send a message to everyone who is in the service, in whatever role you have – you can make a difference to the lives of the Australian people.

We all have a job to do and that is to serve them.

Scott Morrison APS Speech
19 Aug 2019
Parliament House, Canberra
Prime Minister


Let me repeat that last line:

We all have a job to do and that is to serve them.

Scott Morrison has had a curious relationship with politics. In the realm of politicians, he’s one of the more recent pollies, having been made part of the opposition government in 2008. The rather quick ascension to the position of Prime Minister feels like a bit of a surprise, but maybe less so when you recognise his behind the scenes work as the state director of the NSW branch of the Liberal party.

With a background in advertising and marketing, it made sense then that Scott would move into a role like being the managing director of Tourism Australia. What may not make equal sense is how aware Scott was of the hot air that would surround his ‘so where the bloody hell are you?’ tourism campaign. Did he create the slogan with the knowledge that it would create a media frenzy because of how, well, stupid it was?

Putting that question aside, one can’t help but look at his leadership through the perspective of someone acting like everything is a marketing opportunity. That speech about the APS is well worth the read, especially for the way Scott tries to straddle the line between the apolitical nature of being a public service employee, and the way that the APS is being gradually changed and manoeuvred into a digital world.

As he says:

And while the upholding of the best traditions of integrity at the same time, accountability and service that have been hallmarks of an apolitical APS for the past 118 years.

My remarks today are framed by a humble recognition that modern government is hard. Change is ever present. Expectations of the public have never been greater. And just as it is in business, the customer – and in our case, the public – is always right.

Scott Morrison APS Speech
19 Aug 2019
Parliament House, Canberra
Prime Minister


And yet, as per Australian Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott AO:

Integrity and ethics have always been necessary constituents of the public service ethos. However, in an era of declining public trust and increasingly complex and interconnected issues, operating ethically and with integrity is taking on even greater significance.

The Prime Minister has given some examples that illustrate his perspective on how the APS might be more efficient and effective in serving the Australian public. These include: more seamless and efficient service delivery; openness to a greater diversity of views; clearer focus on outcomes, accompanied by clear priorities, targets and performance metrics; greater willingness to innovate and adapt; and, above all, a clear line of sight for every APS employee to understand how their work impacts on the community.

Peter Woolcott AO
Australian Public Service Commissioner

This is not the piece to go into the comment about ‘openness to a greater diversity of views’, although it genuinely should be because as a public service employee I am supposed to stay apolitical, and I am supposed to not publicly comment on the actions of the government. I am supposed to distance myself from political discussions and merely observe from the sidelines.

But I genuinely cannot do that at this stage. I cannot sit here with a platform that I have created and not utilise that platform to discuss my point of view in relation to what it means to be a public service employee.

With Scott Morrison’s speech about public service life comes an encouragement for greater public engagement with public services. He wants to encourage a stronger relationship between the two. He wants to drive a relationship of trust that works together. Scott verbalises an ideology that says that he embraces a diverse public service working environment. But, there seems to be a misunderstanding from Scott of what public service life is about. It is right there in the name, you are working in service of the public.

December 14th 2019 saw the much of Australia on fire. In Western Australia, 11,000 hectares of bushland burnt to ashes, while fires in New South Wales continued to alarming levels, blanketing the state in a cover of smoke. As I write this, Australia has recorded its second hottest day ever, after having broken the record two days in a row. To give an idea of how big the fires are on the east coast of Australia, The Guardian have created this interactive map. It is sobering stuff.

When Morrison took off on his family Christmas holiday to Hawaii while Australia burnt to a crisp, there was a distinct ‘out of office’ vibe to his endeavour. It’s hard to shake the feeling that this vibe is one that comes from the private sector, one that comes from being able to log off, switch off the light, and not worry about your emails til you return sometime mid-January. The entitlement of being able to have a holiday exists as a very private sector thing, which is not to say that as public servants we aren’t given the opportunity to engage with that entitlement, but instead, we’re given context as to when we need to take a break. We read the room and realise when the public takes precedence over our own lives.

I am fortunate that I’m not in that position, that my job is a true 9-5 job where I can arrive, do my work, and leave it at work. But, as the prime minister you relinquish that entitlement. You are always working, you are always available to the public.

And when the east coast of Australia burns, and people lose their lives, you forgo the family holiday and you forgo the luxuries of a vacation, and you stay and be the presence that your country looks to you to be.

Five years on from 2014, I see a clear distinction between the trauma and tragedy caused in the Sydney siege, and the trauma and tragedy being caused by bushfires all over the country. I have learned so much over the past half-decade, and it’s across the run of three Prime Ministers that the lessons of what it means to be a public servant have truly sunk in.

I look back at my life and I see a trend. I see the way I dedicated myself to animals in need as a vet nurse, and I realise I’m lucky that I was able to do that. I see the way I’ve built this site up as a place to support Australian film and culture, and I realise how lucky I am that I can do that.

And most importantly, I am lucky to be a public servant. I am lucky to be in the position I am, working in service of the public. I am lucky to be able to wake up in the morning and help, in whatever small way, guide the future of Australia in some way.

I tackle each task at work with the Australian public forever at the forefront of my mind.

Why is it then that the person in the position of being the ultimate public servant, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, cannot do the same?

Predecessor Tony Abbott stood up and confronted a tragedy like the Sydney Siege and attempted to provide assurance that things were going to be ok.  

Alternatively, let’s go further back. When 35 people tragically lost their lives in Port Arthur in 1996, then Prime Minister John Howard implemented a major change to gun ownership.

As Australia burns, Scott Morrison was on a beach in Hawaii hanging loose.

He failed in his duty as a public servant, he failed the Australian public, and he failed to meet his own benchmark:

We all have a job to do and that is to serve them.

Scott Morrison APS Speech
19 Aug 2019
Parliament House, Canberra
Prime Minister


So, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, from one public servant to another, where the bloody hell are you?

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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