28 June 2010

Reflections on the leadership change

Forests have been clear felled to provide the paper on which to print all of the commentary that has been published in the last few days about the collapse of Kevin Rudd’s Prime Ministership and the election of Julia Gillard to lead the Australian Labor Party.  I don’t intend to try to cover all of the ground, but for what it is worth, here are some of the principal things that strike me:

(1)    There has been a lot of silly and uninformed commentary, including from Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, all of whom ought to know better, about Kevin Rudd having been elected Prime Minister, and Julia Gillard not having been as yet.

The Australian Constitution provides for a Westminster system of government, as a result of which we do not elect our political leaders directly.  Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister of Australia as a result of three conditions being fulfilled. First, he was elected to a seat in the House of Representatives, as the local member for the Brisbane seat of Griffith.  Second, in the 2007 general election the party which he led achieved a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives, and in accordance with our constitutional practice was entitled to form a government. Third, prior to the 2007 general election, he had been elected by his parliamentary party to lead it, and not surprisingly, he remained the leader after the election.

So unless, dear reader, you are on the electoral role as a resident of the Federal Electorate of Griffith, or are a member of the Parliamentary Labor Party, you had no say whatever in Kevin Rudd’s ascension to the Prime Ministership, except to the extent that you contributed to the election of a Labor majority in the House of Representatives.

(2)    The leadership of the Labor Party being a matter for the Labor Party itself, there is nothing inappropriate about the Party deciding to change its leader.  The transition was organised by elected members of the Parliamentary Labor Party, and the only people who had a say in it were elected Parliamentarians.  We will get our chance to express a view on this come election day.

(3)    For all of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s silly hyperbole about “Sussex Street Death Squads”, even the machine men of the NSW Right cannot organise a change of leadership unless the party is crying out for it.  The principal architect of Kevin Rudd’s misfortunes was Kevin Rudd himself.  Put another way, Julia Gillard was not a solution looking for a problem; Kevin Rudd was a problem crying out for a solution.

(4)    Kevin Rudd liked to think of himself as a “policy wonk”, and someone who understood the workings of government. He was neither, and in fact was very much the type of politically aligned operator that has reduced public administration to desperate incapacity in just about every jurisdiction in the land.  His sole experience of Federal Government was as a very junior diplomat on a posting to Beijing, a position which gives neither leverage over, nor insights into, the policy development process – or for that matter program implementation.  He then became chief of staff to Queensland Premier Wayne Goss, and subsequently the head of the Queensland Cabinet Office. Both of these positions are close to the centre of power, but they confer on their occupant power without responsibility, and are remote from what goes on inside the government departments that are at the beck and call of the political leadership.

(5)    The problem with this kind of career trajectory, of which we have seen no small number of examples since the 1984 Dawkins reforms of the Commonwealth Public Service, is that the chosen ones can go straight to the top without the discomfort or inconvenience of running a major organisational unit of a government department. The typical career path is from middle management to chief of staff or senior adviser, followed by appointment as a department secretary, or perhaps warehousing as a deputy secretary until a suitable vacancy at the department head level turns up.

This career path flies in the face of a very substantial body of management literature (see for example the work of Canadian organisational psychologist Elliot Jacques) which holds that no-one, no matter how talented, can be an effective senior manager without having matured as a manager at lower levels. One learns to manage great complexity by first learning how to manage programs and projects of lesser, but steadily increasing complexity.  Armed forces understand this well, but not modern politicians. If you seek explanation for the poor quality of government services (including infrastructure planning and development) that surrounds you, and the extraordinary levels of waste and mismanagement, seek no further than this.

(6)    Among the many things that Kevin Rudd did not understand was the value of an effective Cabinet process.  Clear evidence of how central the Cabinet process is to a Westminster system of government is the fact that it has endured for centuries, without ever being mentioned in legislation or, in Australia’s case, the constitution.  The central principal of Cabinet government in our system is that, while Ministers are each commissioned by the Governor-General to administer certain enactments as defined in the Administrative Arrangements Order, there are some things that an individual Minister could do that would have the potential to bring the Government down.  Accordingly, for these strategic issues, it is a matter of basic survival to ensure that these strategically significant issues are discussed by the whole leadership team, with a collective decision being made as to whether any given proposal is or is not a good idea.

Beyond that core issue, there is the question of ensuring, in relation to any idea that the Government wishes to proceed with, that all of the downsides and risk factors have been considered, and the requirements for successful implementation have been thought through.  The standard model for achieving that in Australian Federal Cabinet practice is to require any Minister seeking significant policy change to place a submission before Cabinet.  Cabinet submissions are required to be succinct (usually not more than seven pages), with clear recommendations, and costings agreed by the Department of Finance.  The proposing Minister’s department is required, in the course of drafting a submission, to consult all other departments upon whose responsibilities the proposal could have an impact, and to include in the submission a succinct statement of each department’s “coordination comments”. The submissions are then supposed to be lodged with the Cabinet Secretariat in time to be circulated to all members of Cabinet ten clear business days ahead of the meeting at which they are to be considered.

It doesn’t always work like that (I have known times when the ten day rule has been more honoured in the breach than the observance) but at least this standard model provides for the orderly conduct of government business, and for Ministers to take informed decisions based on thorough briefing from all relevant departments and agencies.

(7)    In this context it is useful to contrast the decision-making process which led to the RSPT debacle with the process by which the Fraser Cabinet deliberated on the taxation of the mining industry in about 1976, in response to an Industries Assistance Commission report which the Whitlam Government had commissioned in 1975.  In the circumstances of the day the Treasury (at that time having the functions of both the Treasury and the Department of Finance) was extremely powerful, and the former  officers of Rex Connor’s Department of Minerals and Energy, of whom I was one, were treated in some quarters with considerable suspicion. But thanks to a properly run Cabinet process, the Department of National Resources was able to achieve a substantial reversal of the Whitlam Government’s ill-advised decision to move from immediate write-off of capital investment in the mining industry to write off over forty years or life of mine, whichever was the less.  It is ironic to think that if the Treasury had had its way back then, mining investment would have continued to be written off at 2.5% per annum, and we wouldn’t be agonising about super profits in the mining industry because we would barely have a mining industry.

(8)    A more subtle benefit of an effective Cabinet process is the opportunity it provides for the training of the next generation of public servants.  You can send public servants off to all the courses in the world, and there is a place for some of that, but there is no substitute for junior and middle level officers having real responsibilities, and real opportunities to contribute to the major issues of the day, under the supervision of experienced senior officers. That level of junior officer engagement and supervision takes a little more time, but it is an investment in the future of public administration in our country.  If the Prime Minister demands that everything be done by yesterday, it can only be done by very senior staff who can get it right first time – there is no time for any reworking. The result of that is overworked senior staff, and bright young people beneath them whose talents are being neither utilised nor developed.

(9)    No-one who read the article about Kevin Rudd by Scott Prasser, co-editor of Corruption and Reform: The Fitzgerald Vision, published in the 11 January 2007 edition of The Australian (see Scott Prasser: Rudd’s ruthless style entrenched Labor) can have been surprised either by the style of the Rudd Government or the way it ended.  The key content is:

... aided and abetted by partisans such as Rudd and others recruited from academe and elsewhere, the Goss government implemented a new political fix of increased centralised control, partisan appointments across the public service, media management, continued executive dominance of Queensland's unicameral legislature and skilful containment of Fitzgerald's anti-corruption watchdogs such as the Criminal Justice Commission.

Where the Fitzgerald report suggested the public service needed to be able to "provide independent, impartial, expert advice" and to operate in an environment "without concern for the political or personal connections of the people and organisations affected by their decisions", the Goss reforms ensured greater political control through increased politicisation and centralised processes of a more competent administrative machine.

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