It’s weird that I sit in a café in Hong Kong Plaza, because it was in this office building that one of my former employers, the governmental promotion bank Austria Wirtschaftsservice, had a small office from 2007 to 2010 and it was me who was originally assigned to run this office to support Austrian enterprises in regard to intellectual property protection in China. I don’t want to say that nothing happens without purpose, but I take this coincidence as a reason to digest an important episode of my professional life.
As most Austrians remember, at the end of 2006 then chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and his Christian-conservative people’s party lost the general elections; and all of a sudden at the beginning of 2007 many of his former employees had to find a new job. Amongst them, Verena Nowotny, his former spokes women for international affairs, who was also good friend with one of the political mentors of my former employing organization, former minister of commerce, Hannes Farnleitner and the then managing director, Peter Takacs.
I still remember that I was both frustrated and infuriated that somebody without legal education nor any Chinese language proficiency would be chosen over me to represent our organization in Shanghai. I was taught a painful lesson that many decisions are not based on meritocracy, but on personal relationships, not only in China, but in particular in Austria. Nowotny, Schüssel, Farnleitner, Takacs were all members of the Christian conservative party helping each other out. Austria Wirtschaftsservice, at least at executive management level, was in hindsight a pre-retirement harbor for high ranking party officials and members of former government cabinets. Takacs and Nowotny are two foremost examples. Its management board always reflects the current government. The right wing-conservative government 2004-06 was mirrored by two CEO’s: ÖVP’s Peter Takacs and FPÖ’s Horst Bednar. Bednar had to clear his position to a member of the social democratic party in 2007, when the Schüssel II government was by replaced by another grand coalition under the lead of SPÖ’s chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer.
Although Nowotny left Shanghai and Austria Wirtschaftsservice in early 2009 the office was kept for at least another 18 months without anybody using it. I still remember the head of our department in reply to me pointing out this waste of monthly more than EUR 1000: “If we give up this office, we confirm that there is no need for it and the budget will never be granted again”. This futile public administration thinking is the reason why Western governments have huge deficits. Public spending is way above tax return, although Western citizens are overtaxed. British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, put it on Bloomberg TV a few weeks ago like this: “Its not that Western governments don’t tax enough, the problem is that we spend too much.”
The experience with Austria Wirtschaftsservice, a semi-public organization, was followed by a call to the commercial section of the Austrian Consulate General in Shanghai, were I served until end 2010. Although not formally being a bureaucrat, my wages as technology attaché were entirely paid by the taxpayer and channeled via the ministry of commerce to my new employer, the foreign section of the Austrian chamber of commerce. During two years in public service, I learned with great dislike that the waste that I had experienced at Austria Wirtschaftsservice was minuscule compared to the multiple competences of various ministries trying to get a grip on the booming Chinese governance market. Ministries and government agencies, too, have to be represented in booming markets and make up for reduced public spending in declining markets. China boosts meanwhile more diplomatic offices than the US and non-meritocratic choices continue to be made. A good example is the nomination of Birgit Murr as head of the office for science and technology at the Austrian Embassy Beijing. A woman deprived of any scientific or technology background, without any Chinese proficiency has been put in charge of an important task and has been given the funds to rent additional office space and employ several staff at public expense. Why, the taxpayer might ask. Because the Austrian embassy in Beijing is reserved to employees of the ÖVP affiliated foreign ministry; because the offices of the commercial section are reserved to employees of the Austrian chamber of commerce, whereas the office for science and technology is linked to the SPÖ ministry of technology and innovation (BMVIT) and backed by Austria’s Jiang Zemin, former SPÖ finance minister, Hannes Androsch.
Whoever is interested in one of the grandest Austrian governmental fakes should attend the intellectual property event at Austria Wirtschaftsservice on January 28th in Vienna. I am still convinced that Hannes Androsch backs Brigit Murr only for one reason: to have his investments protected by his own private, diplomatic bodyguard. AT&S semi-conductor production plants are the largest Austrian foreign direct investment in China.
It’s now more than three years that I resigned from my position and I have to admit that in hindsight it was wrong to resign. Yes, indeed, the structural problems of public organizations like the chamber of commerce or the foreign ministry are vast and deep, and yes, personalities like Brigit Murr or my direct superior at the consulate are foul and unbearable products of these structural problems, but it would have been only possible to contribute to the solution from within. Having left the consulate, I am too occupied with my current job, as to be able to substantially bring change upon that system. Hopefully some other pathbreaking spirits out there take up that job. Spirits like the founders of Neos who argue for complete transparency in public spending.