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Feb 27, 2010

From "Yes Minister meets Alice in Wonderland."

This is an excerpt from an article in The Age by Myles Peterson, which has created a buzz in Australia.

Midway through last year I was head-hunted by the federal Department of Health and Ageing to write speeches for their ministers - a surprise as I had no experience or qualifications. As far as the department was aware, my limited skills were derived from reviewing video games for The Canberra Times.

Perplexed and amused, I dusted off the suit and attended my one and only interview. ''I'll be writing speeches for who?''

''Minister Roxon,'' answered my interviewer.

''And you're going to pay me how much?''

''Eighty thousand a year. Will that be enough?''

So began my journey down the public service rabbit-hole. I would soon learn that swine flu and a raid on staff by another department were to thank for my recruitment. …

I was given my first speech to write. ….

Around the same time a section meeting was called. Our boss arrived late, but in the best of moods. ''We're under budget!'' she announced proudly. The old-timers let out whoops of joy.

''What's going on?'' I asked someone quietly.

''We're under budget,'' they replied with a rare smile.

''Oh, so that's good? You've saved money?''

''No, no,'' her smile turned to ash as she gave me that pitying look I usually received when I asked a question. ''It means training.''

Our section was under-budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars, necessitating we blow all the unspent money before the end of the financial year. Unfortunately, ''training'' did not mean I would finally get some training. ''Training'' consisted of hastily booked, dubiously relevant conferences and courses, most of which were conveniently located a long way from Canberra.

Despite my short length of service, I was included in the spending free-for-all. I later found myself in a plush Sydney harbor side hotel with hundreds of dollars in unnecessary travel allowance - everything, including meals, flights and accommodation, was covered by the department. I was attending a conference on Web 2.0, a topic I was mildly interested in but which had nothing to do with my duties.

The rest of the office also enjoyed jetting around the country. Four staff members managed to book into the same four-day public relations event and, reportedly, a great time was had by all.

We were not the only ones wasting money. Associated with our section were those boffins who create public health campaigns, the ones that appear on television with increasing regularity: nights out turning into nightmares, measure your fat stomach, wash your hands - that kind of thing.

I was surprised to discover the minds behind these campaigns were not health professionals. They had backgrounds and degrees in marketing, communications and advertising, not medicine. Under their watch, the government became the No.1 spender on free-to-air television.

Next to those folks sat the print division. They produced hats, T-shirts, mugs and golf balls with little logos and slogans designed to make us all healthier. A huge collection of the stuff was proudly displayed in a dedicated glass cabinet in the middle of their section. …

My lone back-up was a grizzled old press secretary left over from the Hawke era who would sometimes proof my work and harangue me for my attempts at an apolitical tone.

''But we're not meant to write political copy,'' I objected.

''Pigs arse! Tens of years of neglect under the Howard government. Use it.'' I liked him. He was snide and he was cynical and his proofing was the only help I received, for which I was very grateful.

My duties were expanded to include press releases and alerts, the organisation of ministerial visits and, my least favourite job, ringing up grouchy news editors to ensure they knew a minister would be in their town. Much of it duplicated work already done by the ministers' personal staff and the editors were usually sick to death of our calls, emails and faxes - as they let me know in no uncertain terms. …

I received my first scolding from Roxon's office and it was thoroughly deserved. I signed off on a press release that contained two glaring errors. The only excuse I had - ''Sorry, sir, I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing'' - was not going to fly, so I just swallowed my pride and apologised.

None of these events prepared me for what happened next. After remaining silent on the issue for many months, the Prime Minister suddenly took an interest in the nation's health. I found out when a grim-faced boss herded us all together. ''The PM is going to make a health announcement and you have to organise it,'' we were told. ….

That is how the department's major reform initiative, YourHealth, and its associated round of public consultations began. My colleagues (except the boss, who disappeared) worked through the weekend to pull it together. The following Monday morning I found myself standing near the Prime Minister, trying to nod gravely as I had seen other human backdrops do, while he outlined the findings of the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission's discussion paper, titled A Healthier Future For All Australians: Final Report, and the action the government would take to deal with it. The action of consultation. …..

Along with the tidal wave of events we suddenly had to organise, I was given a new duty: ensuring photographers were always present to capture our ministers nodding gravely as they consulted. There was no limit to the cost. Fortunate photographers around the country suddenly found themselves hired, whatever quote they supplied.

My last days at the department were a cavalcade of new staff, swept up from wherever they could be found amid the chaos generated by the YourHealth steam train. …

During that time I received my one and only official piece of feedback - out of the blue, my contract was extended.

After four months, I walked away and did not bother telling anyone why. ….

Myles Peterson is a Canberra writer.

The full article can be found here and is well worth the read though quite angering.

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