In the course of the program launching the ABC’s 24-hour news channel on Thursday 22 July, ABC political editor Chris Uhlmann broke a story that former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd treated Cabinet's National Security Committee (NSC) with "casual disregard".
The ABC quoted unnamed Commonwealth officials and Cabinet sources as saying they had been shocked at Mr Rudd's attitude to the committee, which is the key Cabinet body which makes decisions on defence and national security issues. Mr Rudd had missed some meetings of the committee and on other occasions had kept it waiting or sent his chief of staff, Alister Jordan, to deputise for him.
Reactions to this report have ranged from outrage to a shrug of the shoulders. I think it is a serious matter and raises a number of important issues about both national security and the way our country is governed, as well as shedding light on the style of Kevin Rudd:
(1) I am shocked at the notion of a ministerial staffer deputising for a Minister under any circumstances whatsoever, let alone at a meeting of Cabinet or a Cabinet committee.
Ministerial staffers are not Vice-Ministers, they are personal staff - advisers and managers of the ministerial paper flow. They are not elected, they are not selected by any systematic merit-based principle such as one finds in the Australian Public Service, and they are accountable to no-one except the Minister who appointed them. Every political party in Australia is insistent that the personal staff of Ministers are immune from being called before Parliamentary Committees, on the grounds that they are simply advisers and the Minister is the one who is accountable.
Such a situation is barely tolerable when staffers confine themselves to their supposed advisory and facilitating roles, as anyone familiar with the Children Overboard case knows. When they go beyond that and begin to become actors in the political process, we have the perfect setting for plausible deniability: the Minister can claim that he/she didn’t know, or that the staffer misunderstood the instructions in some way, but the individual concerned cannot be questioned or called to account. John Howard raised this to the level of an artform.
(2) The National Security Committee is chaired by the Prime Minister. It meets only at his initiative, and at a time convenient to him. If an NSC meeting is called and then the Prime Minister is either very late or fails to show, something strange is going on. At the very least it bears out the many stories that one hears about the chaotic processes of the Rudd Government.
(3) The situation is the more remarkable given the former Prime Minister’s reputation for micromanagement. He certainly doesn’t seem to have been micromanaging the agenda of NSC, which suggests that he accorded it a low priority. This is not the same as saying that he accorded national security issues a low priority, but it is important to note that NSC is the highest decision-making body in the land on national security issues, and the only forum in which all of the key players are gathered together and able to interact with each other simultaneously.
(4) If anyone did need to depute for the Prime Minister, that person would be the Deputy Prime Minister, not a staffer. If there were something the Prime Minister wanted to inject into the meeting, the meeting Chair (DPM) would be the appropriate person to carry his message, and the meeting Chair would be the appropriate person to give him a debrief after the meeting. There is no need for the Prime Minister to send a staffer along to “represent” his interests, and given the complexity of the matters under discussion, a person who is not experienced in national security issues is likely to be an unreliable carrier of both the input and the outcome.
(5) Given that Ministerial staffers are only advisers, one wonders why the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff needed to be there at all. If the person he advises is not present, why does he need to be present? What value would he add?
(6) Apart from the discourtesy involved in keeping some of the busiest people in the land waiting for hours and failing to turn up to his own meetings, the reported behaviour indicates a lack of basic management awareness. The time of these busy people is a scarce resource not only to them but to the government they serve. They can serve the government better if the government is careful not to fritter away their time (not to mention goodwill).
(7) The situation makes me wonder also whether the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff had all of the security clearances that might be required for participation in anything that might come up at National Security Committee, and if he did I would wonder why. The Chief of Staff’s role is to run the Prime Minister’s Office, not to advise him on national security matters, and the Prime Minister has a National Security Adviser. The Chief of Staff would of course be cleared to a high level, but access to the most sensitive national security information is rigorously compartmentalised on a “need to know” basis – access to it is limited to people who cannot do their job without it, and there is no access until the individual has had a detailed briefing on the sensitivity of the material and the instructions for handling it. I can think of many things that the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff would not need to know.
Kevin Rudd responded to the ABC report by having a spokesman issue a media release the following day. In my view the exculpation in the media release only made things worse – a classic case of “when you are in a hole, stop digging”.
(1) The media release states that Mr Rudd attended “all critical meetings”.
This is an acknowledgement that he did not attend all meetings. How many of the 50 meetings which were held during the Rudd Prime Ministership were “critical” meetings? On my understanding of the plain English meaning of the word critical they can only have been a small proportion. Presumably there was a larger number of meetings that were very important but not critical – he does not affirm that he attended all of those. And if they were not seriously important, why were they listed for consideration at Cabinet level? If they were not important enough for the Prime Minister to attend, why have a Cabinet meeting at all?
Also, we don’t know which meetings are “critical” until they are over. When you have forces engaged in military operations there is always breaking news. I can recall some very important issues being raised at NSC without notice by Admiral Barrie and me, simply because they had arisen at short notice and it was appropriate to raise them and get an NSC decision so that we could take the necessary steps to deal with them.
(2) It is actually acknowledged in the media release that Ministers were represented (the spokesman’s word) at Cabinet meetings by Ministerial staff – unelected, unaccountable. I never heard of such a thing. Of course there are times when the Prime Minister cannot attend – when he/she is overseas. In my experience NSC meetings were chaired in John Howard’s absence by Acting Prime Minister John Anderson, and they dealt to finality with the matters on the agenda. I never saw John Howard’s Chief of Staff Arthur Sinodonos at an NSC meeting, and I cannot imagine John Howard, Paul Keating, Bob Hawke or Malcolm Fraser permitting a staffer to substitute for a Minister at a Cabinet meeting. As for interstate travel, Cabinet timetables should be organised to fit with the PM’s travel program – and vice versa.
This last aspect is perhaps most worrying of all. If the culture of the Rudd Government was that staffers can substitute for Ministers, and that carries over into the Gillard Government, then heaven help us. Assuming that Labor is re-elected, the Coalition and the Greens had better push for a Senate Inquiry to re-open the question of the accountability of Members of Parliament staff, last examined under a Coalition Government in 2003. My submission to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee on that occasion can be downloaded from here – it is Item 7 on the list of submissions received.