Barbara Bennett and the PR-isation of Politics


When Barbara Bennett was appointed Director of the Workplace Authority in July, I wrote on Larvatus Prodeo about perceptions that she had got the gig because of her previous role as an IR heavy hitter and fixer for the Government, and because IR Minister Joe Hockey believed she would give the rebranded WorkChoices a positive public relations spin. 

Evidently that was correct. Bennett is now the very public face of WorkChoices, appearing prominently in taxpayer-funded ads in print and on television. As Damien Murphy recently wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Buffed and coiffed, with the tightly wired friendliness of an actress on Desperate Housewives, Barbara Bennett is the soft-focus spruiker of the Federal Government’s industrial relations hard sell.

The director of the Workplace Authority, Bennett is now appearing in lounge rooms across Australia, turning the idea of public service independence on its ear by taking part in the prime-time multimillion-dollar television, print and radio advertising blitz aimed at countering the ACTU’s apparently successful ‘your rights at work’ campaign.

Her participation has annoyed public servants and incensed Labor figures so much that she would be unlikely to survive in the event of a Labor victory in the election.

Very clearly, it can be argued that it’s indefensible for a public servant to appear in ads which have an explicitly political goal. But that’s not the only issue here.

Labor has previously stated as one of its aims the reversal of the Howard-driven politicisation of public institutions. Perhaps to respond to fears that Rudd would act no differently, given his role in taking an axe to the senior ranks of the Queensland Public Service when former Premier Wayne Goss came to power in 1989, the ALP has been very vocal  in assuring public servants that there would be no ‘night of the long knives’ under a Rudd Government.

It’s easy to imagine that Bennett might be an exception to this. Presumably she’s negotiated some very good redundancy provisions in her AWA despite the fact that one of the effects of WorkChoices has been to radically water down redundancy entitlements, and allow them to be traded off altogether.

But it’s also easy to imagine that if Bennett did lose her job on a change of Government, there’d be a golden parachute wafting her into a cushy job in a business interest group or mining company, earning the kind of pay public servants only dream about. The close alignment of the Howard Government with the Big End of Town demonstrates that there is more than one career path for a politicised bureaucrat, and the public record demonstrates that Bennett is the very model of a partisan mandarin.

In her previous capacity as head of Comcare, Bennett orchestrated the sale of the Federal insurer to companies dissatisfied with the premiums and payouts under State regimes. When she was employed by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR), she was described by The Australian as a ‘key IR fixer’ and ‘key troubleshooter for John Howard’.  Her tenure at DEWR as head of Workplace Relations Implementation included the highlight of advising corporations that ‘take it or leave it’ AWAs were ‘not inconsistent with’  the freedom of choice provisions of WorkChoices ironically a message she is now keen to dispel in the Government-funded advertising campaign.

Bennett’s appearances in the ads at the direct request  of Minister Hockey have been given the tick by the Public Service Commissioner as acceptable because informing the public forms part of her job description. But this begs the question of why her job description has been framed in this way.

At the time of her appointment, responding to questions about her skills, qualifications and experience, and the apparent sidelining of the former Employer Advocate, Peter McIlwain, to a secondary role, Hockey stated:

[B]ecause of the fact that I think Barbara has the capacity to be a very public face of the Workplace Authority, Barbara will be an excellent Director and Peter will be an excellent Deputy Director.

Hockey denied that McIlwain had been demoted because of his sketchy performance in defending WorkChoices before a Senate Committee.

Hockey gave away more than he knew. Leaked research  commissioned by the Government has been revealed to have underpinned the creation of the ‘Fairness Test’.

Significantly, this research argued that it was vital that a one stop shop for workers’ concerns be established and that its head be someone capable of inspiring public confidence and trust. Several unlikely names, such as those of former Reserve Bank Governor Bernie Fraser and ACCC honcho Professor Allan Fels, were suggested by the PR firm who conducted the research. It’s clear, then, that not only has the ‘Fairness Test’ legislation been introduced as a direct result of qualitative polling, but that the creation of the new Workplace Authority and Bennett’s own marketing role also arose directly out of focus groups.

There is perhaps nothing unusual about large corporations appointing figureheads and reconfiguring their corporate structure in response to market research. But to adopt a phrase from John Howard, it’s a fairly novel ‘theory of governance’.

But it’s all of a piece with Howard’s compulsory rebranding of every Commonwealth agency with the Australian Government logo the creation of a Government ‘brand’ to remind citizens of the benefits bestowed upon them by the ship of State, and none too subtly contrast the Howard brand with those of his competitors in the political marketplace the ‘Labor States’ and Kevin Rudd.

Questions have long been asked about the ethics of Government advertising, not least by Howard himself back in the days of Paul Keating’s Prime Ministership. But the transformation of key institutions of Government and key public service roles into promotional vehicles for the Government’s political objectives has yet to receive much scrutiny.

Debates about public policy and public management often refer to Australia’s tendency to move towards a ‘Washminster’ style of administration in the wake of the Peter Wilenski-inspired reforms introduced by John Dawkins in 1984. Labor has carefully thought through its response to the tensions between ensuring accountability to the Government’s mandate and public service professionalism building on the well received platform offered before the 2004 election. But there are long-term trends which are now reaching their culmination in the PR-isation of policy which also require rethinking.

Symbolic politics has increasingly replaced evidence-based policy a trend seen to greater or lesser degree across most Western democracies, and perhaps exemplified in the adoption of titles for legislation such as the ‘More Pay, Better Jobs Bill’. 

Initially a response to the crisis of governance in the 1970s, governments of all political stripes have found that high profile announcements gain more electoral kudos than careful implementation of well researched policy particularly where the issues and problems appear intractable.

But John Howard has taken this trend closer to its logical conclusion — the extension of public relations and campaigning tactics to the core roles of Government and the identity of the senior Public Service. The Devonport Hospital takeover fits neatly into this groove.

Barbara Bennett’s future is probably assured one way or another. But all those concerned with good governance and the integrity of public institutions need to think very carefully about what her sudden rise to TV stardom portends for the future.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.