Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Public sector stories

Occasionally my very powerful bosses have meetings with the all-powerful and ever-elusive MPs that apparently run the show.

I was rather taken aback when I saw *the* state Minister for Health. The Hon Reba Meagher is an attractive 41 year old female - much below the age of most of the executives in the Public Health Sector. This is great - she is young, female and holds a very senior position in government. Rare.

What I don't get is why I find this disconcerting. I look up the Hon Nicola Roxon, Federal Health Minister, and find that she is the same age and level of attractiveness (depending on whether you prefer blondes or brunettes).

Yeah, like I said, I don’t know exactly why I find it disconcerting. Could it be because neither MP has a medical background? Or the fact that they’re obviously career politicians? Am I prejudiced against young females. (no)

In this web that is the public health system, I’m trying to figure out who really runs the show. Politicians, public servants, or doctors, nurses, ambos and the like.

Sure, so politicians get to decide how much money goes where. But public servants have a lot more discretion in how it is spent, who gets hired, and the precise nature of how things are run. Medical practitioners get the benefit of (supposedly) being listened to because of their frontline knowledge, plus the fulfilment that comes with administering care to patients and making them healthier people… blah blah. At the end of the day the Minister of Health has the power to sack the Director-General, but it can’t be done without grounds.

So why go into politics, apart from the obvious ego boost? In the public sector you can get paid just as much as the base salary for an MP (and more), you can fuel your interest in politics, you don’t have to stick photos of your gob up around the city every few years, you wouldn’t have to deal with endless phone calls from whinging, bigoted, misinformed constituents, and the newspapers wouldn’t care if you had a few drinks at the fashionable Ivy now and then. You wouldn’t be criticised for having no children (a personal decision which I find profoundly rude to comment on), you wouldn’t be accused of being a lesbian if you were a powerful woman. You could still make a difference in the job that you do, without the stress of the intense schedule of a profession that is severely underpaid for the hours that it demands.

The quality of work performed in a minister’s portfolio has almost nothing to do with how the minister performs; but how well their respective departments/ministries are run. Fact. There just isn’t much that they can do, and even if they did manage to revamp what is essentially a giant, giant company, their hard work wouldn’t be seen by the public. When an MP seeks leave to table something in Parliament during question time it is up to the meek civil servants to run around like headless chickens to find the figures. I have been in the midst of this and it makes for a fun afternoon.

With the media factoring heavily on how governments communicate these days, too much has come to depend on how things appear, rather than how they actually are.

I think what I am trying to say with this post is that I find it hard to take these two ministers seriously when I have worked for their portfolio and seen the bigger machine that is at work. And it is rather eye-opening.

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