Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:34 | SYDNEY
Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:34 | SYDNEY

Canberra tribes


Graeme Dobell

10 July 2009 10:23

For the tribes of Canberra, there are insiders and outsiders. And then there are foreigners. An insider is someone who belongs to your department, speaks your professional language or plays your games. An outsider is someone from another department or another discipline. A foreigner comes from that strange land beyond Canberra.

In my column about the future leadership of AusAID, I referred to the debate about whether the top job should go to an aid industry insider or an outsider. My discussion of 'outsiders' was about someone from another Canberra tribe; in that case, someone from Foreign Affairs. Someone from the aid industry who had never worked in Canberra would hover on the line between insider and foreigner.

A few comments have alerted me to the need for a bit more detail on some of the Canberra assumptions (and blinkers) involved in that statement. As a notable woman politician once said: please explain?

One response was that a powerful argument for giving the AusAID job to a DFAT person or someone from one of the big bureaucracies is that they would be a member of one of the tribes that make up the Canberra public service. That reader went on to consider the impact of appointing a 'foreigner', even one of the biggest beasts in the aid universe:

Consider the alternative. Consider, for example, appointing somebody entirely outside of the club. Say, from the World Bank. Consider appointing, say, Jim Wolfensohn, former President of the World Bank (it's not on, of course, but it makes the case). Wolfensohn would be entirely outside of the Canberra club. He wouldn't know which levels to pull. He'd get the seating all wrong in meetings that he went to. He would entirely fail to make the right obeisance to the right cardinals.

Clubs and tribes still matter, from religion to Rotary. Look at The Economist's piece on networking: loved the example of the man appointed to merge two big French banks who announced he would not let the Masonic lodges divide up executive jobs as they have in the past. As The Economist concluded, if you want to influence a big decision or secure a job, 'it's still the old networks that really count.'

Religion is one of the tribal markers that doesn’t matter as much in Canberra these days. (Although the private school foreign affairs elite of an earlier era would be interested to note that being a Catholic no longer seems to be such a handicap in DFAT.)

But from language to dress, the tribes send out signals. The dress code is reasonably uniform across the top of departments and among minders and lobbyists. For men, ties may be less in fashion at the worker bee level of much of the public service, but at the top the tie rules. The suits are sombre for both men and women. Shoe selection can be an expression of personality. As with The Rudd, you can wear RM Williams boots with the suit. And you must constantly worship the digital god: Giveth this day to thy Blackberry.
The Washington line is that where you stand depends on where you sit. It can even influence how you talk. An experienced Canberra economist put it this way:

In Treasury, believe it or not, they even have their own intonation when speaking, if you listen carefully. Amazing, but true. I've had a lot to do with Treasury, so I know it well. They pause in a certain way, they talk in a sort of 'I am exercising great judgement' way. It's quite amusing.

If you want to get a hint of the Treasury intonation and emphasis, listen when one of the best and the biggest of Australian journalism, Paul Kelly,  is saying something important. And this brings us to one of the most identifiable Canberra tribes — the press gallery. The gallery is so plugged in to the politics of Canberra and — to a much lesser extent, the bureaucracy — that the rest of Australian journalism looks on it as a foreign creature. The head of New Ltd, John Hartigan, is but the latest in a long line to express bewilderment at the work and social dynamic of the gallery, arguing that the journalists are prisoners of government spin.

As a club, though, the gallery often plays rough. Innes Willox, an Age journalist who went on to work for Alexander Downer, used to say that the gallery catch and kill their own. The various gallery sects are both connected and competitive. The electronic media pool camera crews but, equally, try to cut each others throat for a yarn. In print, Murdoch versus Fairfax rumbles constantly.

If we engage some anthropologists to work on Canberra’s tribes, perhaps the easiest place to start would be the elite eating rituals: the private dining room in the department, the restaurants around Manuka and Civic, and still the Commonwealth Club.

Those at the top of the tribes have to lunch. When the secretary of Foreign Affairs, Stuart Harris, was doing a report in the mid-80s on the size and purposes of Australia’s overseas representation, he impinged on the turf of other departments that post people overseas.

Defence pushed back vigorously. The Secretary of Defence, Bill Cole, wrote Harris a letter stating bluntly that Foreign should not even dare to think about what Defence did overseas. And to emphasise the significance of the breach, the secretary of Defence ended his letter by emphatically declining a lunch invitation to discuss the matter. Cole said there would be no purpose to such a repast. No purpose to lunch! For the tribes of Canberra, that’s like declaring war.

 Photo by Flickr user ocad123, used under a Creative Commons license.