When Phil Gaetjens put his feet under the big desk at Prime Minister and Cabinet this morning to start his first day as boss of the public service, he again becomes ScoMo’s Go-To Guy. More so than any of his predecessors, the PM has his number.
No one should be more worried about this than Gaetjens.
For three years, until his appointment as Treasury Secretary in 2018, Gaetjens was Morrison’s Chief of Staff. When there’s a problem, the Chief of Staff fixes it so the Minister can move on to the next disaster (creating or resolving). Nothing’s changed for Gaetjens. He’s still the PM’s fixer. Only now, he has the entire APS at his disposal. Lucky he got a sweet payrise as compensation.
But Gaetjens first job won’t be to play international peacemaker to stop mummy and daddy fighting over trade, or resolving the decade-old intractable climate and energy debate.
Nothing of the sort.
Gaetjens’ first jobs is janitorial. He’s on dunny duty. He’s on the front line in a culture war.
Chris saw a sign
Gaetjens’ first task started last Thursday, when Nine’s Chris Uhlmann went to the Barton offices of Prime Minister and Cabinet. He snapped this shot. He posted it to Twitter. The outraged and the unhinged of both sides did the rest.
Meanwhile at the Barton offices of Prime Minister and Cabinet… pic.twitter.com/oVL9f0xrXe
— Chris Uhlmann (@CUhlmann) August 29, 2019
The splashback on Uhlmann was near-universal.
Uhlmann was accused of being a pervert by taking photos inside a women’s toilet, even though the shot is clearly outside the toilet and the sign indicates it’s no longer a “women’s toilet” (if we’re going to be technical); he was accused of “punching down” on the transgender community; and of having warped priorities and manufacturing fake outrage.
And there it would have died a natural, highly ratioed death. That was until Morrison was interviewed by Ben Fordham on 2GB.
Morrison was asked what he thought about the sign.
“It’s ridiculous. It’ll be sorted out. I’ve had a chat to the incoming Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet … I don’t think this is necessary. I think people can work out which room to use … it’s over the top. You don’t need to do this stuff. It’s just political correctness over the top. It’s just not necessary. And I’ve got a pretty clear view about this and I’m sure this will be sorted.”
Wait, wut? What was that first bit again?
“I’ve had a chat to the incoming Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet …”
Indeed for realsies.
And if there’s any doubt about what’s happening next, Morrison was asked directly: “The signs are going to go?”
“That’s what I expect,” Morrison replied.
And so it will be done.
If Gaetjens is worth his $900,000 a year salary, prying a sign off a wall outside a couple of toilets should be a piece of … pie. Expect this to be the start of many odd requests.
What’s the real story?
This story has received a fair bit of online coverage, concentrating on the issue of who can or should go into what bathroom.
If history’s any guide, for all the fire and fury following the Uhlmann post and the Morrison interview, not one single mind will be changed. The tribes have taken up their positions and, like the Western Front in World War I, there are casualties but no one advanced an inch. That’s why the sign is of secondary importance and the background to the story and its merits won’t be discussed here. You won’t be changing your mind about this issue. And nor will you be changing your vote. Which is where the Prime Minister is focussed.
What matters in this episode is Morrison’s actions. They’re instructive.
Since he became PM just over a year ago, Morrison has sought to separate himself from The Canberra Bubble™.
There’s good reason for this.
The Canberra Bubble gave us Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison. Morrison wants to break the cycle, especially as with each book and essay about Turnbull’s overthrow, more blood appears on Morrison’s hands. Historians may find he’s not the innocent he claims to be and might be more Bubbly than he’s comfortable with.
The Canberra Bubble is also signifoes self-absorption. When politicians are fighting for their aggrandisement, are they really worried about the cost of electricity? Hospital waiting queues? Vocational training? You?
By distancing himself from The Canberra Bubble, Morrison’s binding himself to every day concerns in the suburbs. You know, the place where elections are won. And fighting ‘Canberra’, like fighting ‘Washington’ in the US and ‘Whitehall’ in the UK isn’t a bad strategy. The Liberals have learned to form government without Bean, Fenner and Canberra. Capital punishment works for ScoMo.
So while the twittersphere is saying Morrison has injected himself into a discussion about a sign outside a toilet, he’s actually done the exact opposite. The real story about the sign is about how he’s popping The Bubble.
By raising the transgender bathroom issue at the end of an interview primarily focussed on former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer (and on 2GB, to boot), Morrison was sending a clear message to public servants that when they’re worried about who goes to the toilet and what’s happening with the seat, they’re not concentrating on what’s important. Stick to your knitting. Stop social engineering. Deal with the reals, not the feels.
And if his message didn’t get through The Canberra Bubble to the APS; rest asured, it got through to the new boss of the APS.