birding-aus (A lot) more Raving

Subject: birding-aus (A lot) more Raving
From: (Syd Curtis)
Date: Mon, 16 Aug 1999 10:00:51 +1000
Dear All,

        Many thanks to Tony Russell and all who responded to his challenge.
Anne (of Atriplex Services) said exactly what I feel:

"Your comments are depressing, encouraging and even a little inspiring."

Depressing, because your views tend to confirm that my pessimism is not
merely the cynicism of old age, but realism born of experience.

Encouraging, because it shows there are people willing to fight for the
future, so there is still hope.  (A favourite quotation my wife uses is
that evil can only triumph while good people do nothing.)

Inspiring - well the responses show you have already inspired quite a few
of us, Tony.

May I offer some thoughts on the public service - from the inside: I worked
in it from 1946 to 1988.  I joined hoping for a position in National Park
administration, and at the end of '63 my hope was realised.  Queensland
National Parks were then administered by the Department of Forestry whose
senior officers were imbued with a very strong national parks ethic:  The
Parks were absolutely sacrosanct, the best of our natural environment to be
kept intact for future generations.  I reckoned I had the best job in the

The public service was then still of the Westminster model.  Public
servants did not speak out publicly on matters concerning their
responsibilities.  They were expected (and for the most part did), give
impartial advice to the government of the day whatever the colour of its
politics.  The overriding principle was to advise what was in the best
public interest - and in accordance with the relevant legislation.  It was
a system evolved over several centuries and certainly worked better that
what has now replaced it.

I joined the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland when it was
formed, but when I became a National Parks officer, the Conservator of
Forests  (head of the department) asked me to resign from the Society.  He
explained that there would be occasions when the Society would criticise
something the government did.  In all probability he and I would agree with
the Society's view, and very likely he would have already so advised the
Minister, but once the Government has made a decision, a public servant
must support the government and implement the decision.  I should not be
seen to be wearing two hats by being a public servant and at the same time
a member of an organisation sometimes critical of the government.  I could
accept that.  I resigned from Wildlife Pres.

Then Joh took over the reins of power, and my job became one of extreme
frustration.  Remember Joh?  A competent court of inquiry found that a
person had bribed Joh as Premier on a number of occasions and in massive
amounts.  But apparently that doesn't constitute a finding that Joh as
Premier accepted bribes.  Not in Queensland anyway.  Those were the days
when Russ Hinze ("Minister for Everything") boasted to the media that he
had said to Joh: "You let me fix the electoral boundaries and I'll
guarantee we'll never lose office."  And you reckon Kennett's a problem,
Stuart?  Well yes, I guess he is.

Those old Forestry administrators had very strong national parks
legislation which they used to the full to protect the parks ... so Joh
removed the control of the Parks from them: the National Parks & Wildlife
Service was established.

So what do you do as a public servant confronted with a situation where
administrative actions are being taken that you not only believe to be
wrong but are in breach of the legislation under which you are working?
You have pointed out the illegality internally - to no effect.  What then?
Obvious options include:

1. Accept the situation and live to fight another day.

2. Whistle-blow and be sidelined (or sacked).  This gives you some
satisfaction, especially if it turns out to be one of those rare occasions
where public opinion is aroused to an extent that achieves something.  But
after that?  You are replaced by someone with a more flexible approach to
what is right.  Would it not be better still to be there and fighting for
what you know is right?

3. Resign and fight the issue publicly.  But don't expect another
government job - ever!  The government of the day certainly won't employ
you, but neither will the opposition if it gains the reins of government.
They too will have matters that they don't want aired in public so they
certainly aren't going to take a chance on you.

There's probably no one right answer.  No 1 is the easy way out (which I
took). But unless you have the right abilities to achieve results, 2 and 3
won't necessarily help even in that one situation.

The public servant, in an environmental organisation, really is in an
impossible situation.  Let me give you some examples.

A private zoo near Roma consistently refused to comply with legislative
requirements and appeared to be trading in koalas.  Eventually the Director
of NP&W made a recommendation to the Minister that the owner be prosecuted.
The Minister approved.  A Wildlife Ranger was instructed to go to the zoo,
interview the owner and get the necessary evidence.  He did so.  The owner
immediately took political action: prosecution dropped and a blunt "Get
that Ranger out of my electorate!" from the Minister.

You think that bad?  Then how about the National Parks officer involved in
discussions at a meeting of Service officers with local land-holders over
the management of Carnarvon National Park.  (It being a well-known fact in
Queensland that all National Parks are breeding grounds of vermin such as
kangaroos that come out of the parks to infest graziers' holdings.)  After
the meeting, one of the land-holders complained to the Minister about the
attitude of the Ranger.  He was promptly transferred.  No attempt to get
the Ranger's side of the story.  "Hang 'em first and ask questions later!"
Later, a year or two later, it transpired that it was a case of mistaken
identity.  The person whose outspoken views so upset the landholder hadn't
been the Ranger at all, but an officer from head-office.

Scott Adams in his highly amusing and somewhat frightening book "The
Dilbert Future" repeats what he said in an earlier book (The Dilbert
Principle) that incompetent employees get promoted to management.  "The
underlying fact that prompted me to write "The Dilbert Principle," he says,
"is that it takes less brains to be a manager than to be the people who are
managed.  For example, it takes a big ol' brain to write a computer program
with a revolutionary new data encryption algorithm.  A much smaller brain
is needed to command the programmer to write status reports justifying his

The public service (at least in Queensland) is now in the hands of the
managers.  And politically appointed managers too, in the top jobs.
Previously a public servant was required to be trained to handle all
aspects of the work in whatever office he/she was in.  Promotion was by
efficiency, then seniority.  By the time an officer was eligible for
appointment to a senior position in a technical department, that officer
had a thorough grounding, hands-on experience, in most, if not all, aspects
of the work.  Now we have managers, often brought in from outside who are,
at least on paper, skilled at management, the theory being that if you are
a skilled manager you have advisers to supply the technical knowledge.  You
don't need to have that yourself.

You don't???  Anyone remember the Foxtail Palms fiasco.  A rare and very
beautiful species of Palm which occurred only on a certain National Park on
Cape York Peninsula.  Perhaps not quite as special as the Wollemi Pines,
but in that class.  Seeds were very valuable and brought a handsome price
on the illegal market.  Poaching was well-organised and rife.  The
government was criticised about it but seemed powerless to stop it.  A
Ranger was sent to the area to carry out surveillance during the period
when the seeds were ripe.  On the park, he found a vehicle, keys in the
ignition, evidence of palm-seed poaching in the vehicle, no-one around.  He
seized the vehicle and drove it to the nearest police station.  Neither the
Regional Director in Cairns nor the head of the department were technically
trained by the old public service 'apprenticeship' procedure.  Neither knew
enough about their own legislation to know that the Ranger had acted
correctly.  They feared he did not have power to seize a vehicle.  Panic
stations!  What could have been handled as a simple prosecution action,
blew up into a major incident and an embarrassing Criminal Justice
Commission inquiry eventually ensued.

As Director of Management and Operations I walked the tight-rope for I
think it was eight years. I was always very careful when the Director
wanted something done not in accordance with the legislation, (a) to point
out that it was contrary to the provisions of the Act, and (b) to get
something in writing to cover my back.  I thought I was OK but no, one day
without warning I received the 'lateral arabesque': "seconded for special
duties", and a more compliant person with no national park ethic in his
background, replaced me.

But I was lucky:  Public service officers were then reviewing the Service,
and while they couldn't stop my removal, they did insist that I be given
some useful responsibility.  I became Asst. Director (Legislation &
Policies).  On the face of it, that looked to be an attractive position.
But the Director immediately made it plain that he would not have any
written policies - too inflexible!

The legislation experience proved useful however.  When the economic
rationalists required tertiary institutions to amalgamate, one such
amalgamation was for the University of Queensland to take over Gatton
(Agricultural) College.  The College was then offering diploma courses that
trained students for employment as parks and wildlife officers. The courses
were to be expanded to offer an Applied Science degree. Some acquaintance
with relevant legislation was considered desirable.  Strangely, the
University Law School showed no interest in helping.  I had retired by then
and I was invited to give a short (one semester) course in environmental
law.  (And as an aside, I found that there were something like 150 separate
Commonwealth and Queensland Acts that directly affected the Queensland

So for a few years, I was able to pass on my views (and prejudices?) on
such matters to the up-coming generation of environmental administrators,
who included (to finish on a positive note) one young lady who said apropos
something I was discussing in a lecture: "But members of Parliament aren't
interested in the public good.  They are only interested in getting
re-elected."  It had taken me a couple of decades of public service to
realise that.  If she had already worked that out while still a student, so
may others.  Maybe there's some hope after all.

Only persistence will pay off.  Now back to the Qld RFA fight.

Syd Curtis at Hawthorne in Queensland.

H Syd Curtis

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