The funniest part of Utopia is they’re not making up this stuff

The team behind the upcoming fifth (and hopefully not final) season of the ABC series Utopia doesn’t need secret sources to craft its hilarious scripts on the work of a fictitious Nation Building Authority (NBA).

The evidence they need to cut to the bone of government inefficiency is in plain sight on the front pages of the nation’s news sites. The behaviour they lampoon is clear for all to see.

“It doesn’t matter what we say, so long as we keep saying it,” says one functionary in the upcoming season to the bureaucrats tasked with building national infrastructure. While meant to serve the public, the authority is funded principally to create “announceables” for politicians with their eyes on the ballot box.

Past seasons of Utopia have ripped apart the various rail, road, building and energy follies of state and federal governments, doing more to expose inefficiency to mass audiences than any audit office or royal commission reports (although I have some hope for the Robodebt royal commission).

Writer and actor Rob Sitch, who plays the role of the NBA’s perpetually beleaguered CEO Tony Woodford, helped me out with some insights a few years ago for my book Has The Luck Run Out?

He explained how his “comedy” team thought of themselves as like trout fishers – scanning what look like the still waters of everyday life for the movement that might show where to find their catch.

And usually the movement led to healthy catches indeed.

Well before we realised we were in an energy crisis, Sitch’s Working Dog Productions team created a fictional scenario which almost perfectly mirrored the real scenario of the Snowy hydro scheme (which, like all such projects, is now running over time and over budget).

But even he was stunned by the boldness of labelling a heavy engineering scheme Snowy 2.0, language that created the connotations of both being green and technologically innovative – even if of dubious worth.

“They (the government of the day) were too clever. We could never have come up with that. Every word was focus-grouped, market tested and shaped to create perceptions,” he said.

‘Stupidity is scaleable’

Sitch’s observations on our national life go back decades – from the comedy series the D-Generation to the evisceration of current affairs TV via Frontline to Utopia.

The common link is the capacity of big organisations (and mainly governments are the target) to bog themselves in poorly thought through decisions. “Stupidity,” Sitch told me, “is scaleable”.

This is an understandable rejection of the view that size creates efficiency. Anyone who’s tried to navigate a telco understands this.

So what can we expect of Utopia this season?

Its secrets are as tight as a cabinet bag, but a few thoughts come to mind: One is the pressing and close-to-home issue of hastily built quarantine centres being locked to the victims of what is widely seen as a housing crisis.

Another is the perplexing termination of a Brisbane-Melbourne rail line at Ipswich with trucks or the existing suburban network left to carry whatever needs to move to and from a port 60 kilometres away.

The Robodebt royal commission will have provided plenty of material, particularly the decisions to commission reviews of its legality which were never completed.

Then there’s the question of what to do with university campuses and government offices under-used while students and staff work from home.

And don’t forget the current infatuation with hydrogen, seen as the fuel of a looming post-carbon future even if most credible forecasts put it as a 20-year option.

The shame is that none of this is partisan. In fact, there’s a bipartisan commitment to governing by an “announceable”, one which both the media and governments of all complexion feast on.

Of course, there is a great tradition of this. Dig out the old series of Yes Minister (now four decades old) and you will encounter many familiar themes.

Sitch, mainly in jest, suggested to me that we’d all be better off if we created a statute against stupidity, giving citizens the right to petition a court with proof that government actions were both irritating and of no enduring value. It’s an appealing prospect.

Stupidity, as he says, is scaleable. It’s also enduring, offering ongoing life to both the auditors, royal commissioners and the comedians tasked with exposing it.

The comedians, at least, give us a laugh – even if it’s all at our expense.

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