GEOFF GALLOP. Effective public servants need nuanced understanding of politics, what drives their minister and government. Geoff Gallop offers eleven theses on Australian politics in practice.

Geoff Gallop is a former premier of Western Australia. Your minister cannot avoid dealing with the politics, so you should understand the ideas behind it, and the policy compromises they must make to secure alliances.

Thesis one

There is a left-right spectrum within the body politic. It relates to a number of issues, but most notably the priority or otherwise of economic matters, the type of society we aspire to and the attitude we have towards climate change and its implications for the nation and its role in global affairs. It provides the framework within which politics plays out within the community, the media and the parliament.

Thesis two

On the right the following ideas prevail:

— Australia first.
— Economy and jobs first.
— A fair go for those that have a go.
— Community rights (especially religious rights) not human rights.
— The evidence of belief rather than evidence for belief.

All of this is wrapped up into an “us” versus “them” scenario, a class struggle of sorts in which the common people prioritise jobs and security for themselves and their families as against high-collecting and intrusive governments and their allies in civil society, in particular but not confined to all sorts of experts, in particular environmentalists who promote local “sacrifice” for “global good”. It’s a case of “Australian values”, “lifters” versus “leaners”, and, indeed, the majority versus minorities.

Thesis three

On the left the following ideas prevail:

— Global responsibility.
— Sustainability built around the “triple bottom-line”.
— A fair go for all.
— Human rights and responsibilities.
— Let the evidence speak.

All of this is packaged around a “progressive” versus “conservative” scenario in which the former promote overseas aid and climate action, a larger social wage and more inclusivity generally, especially for indigenous people and migrants. Theirs is the case for the “inconvenient truths” of the natural and social sciences.

Thesis four

There are class implications related to the progressive point of view, for example when it comes to taxation and the social wage, but not so as to define their politics. There’s much irony in a situation where the right wholeheartedly embraces class (“the people” versus “the elites”) whilst the left bases itself on binaries like “the future versus the past”, “evidence versus prejudice” and “human rights versus social rights”.

Thesis five

In between the two extremes of the left/right spectrum we find “the centre” made up of those who lean to the right (centre-right) and those who lean to the left (centre-left). What’s been a key feature of Australian politics since the collapse of communism in 1989 has been the hollowing out of this centre – firstly with the emergence of a green left and more recently with the emergence of a populist right.

Thesis six

This political culture involving right, centre-right, centre-left and left is now reflected in the party system as One Nation (and other similarly populist tendencies), the Coalition, the ALP and the Greens. Around all of this as well are more swinging voters who don’t fit so easily into the spectrum but whose preparedness to disrupt can’t be under-emphasised.

Thesis seven

When it comes to who is to form government, the two majors still dominate, at least in the formal sense. However, to get there — and to be able to deliver in a bi-cameral system — they need the support of others. That means preferences in an election and numbers in the Senate. Negotiation and alliance building can’t be avoided, even if never formalised as coalitions do in Europe.

Thesis eight

Herein lies the dilemma faced by the major parties, hemmed in as they are between left and right. Does the Coalition go to the right to seek support or will this just lose them support amongst moderate, small “l” liberals? Does the ALP go to the left to seek support or will this just lose them support amongst traditional working class supporters for whom the economy has special significance? Is there a “third way” that allows them to bridge the divide.

Thesis nine

In the recent election the Coalition embraced a strategy based upon “one step back, two steps forward”. This involved allowing its moderate base to haemorrhage and targeting votes from the Labor camp. This it did in the resource states of Queensland and Western Australia and in the outer suburbs of each of the major cities. Its messaging was crystal-clear and highly focused.

Thesis ten

Labor on the other hand sought to embrace disillusioned Liberals and workers, the former through climate politics and the latter through the social wage. As we have seen the strategy for the former worked with inroads being made into inner-urban and more educated Australia, but not in respect of the latter where Liberal campaigns focused on the risks of change and “more jobs/less taxes”, leaving it to Labor to prosecute the case for social and environmental reform.

Thesis eleven

The key enabler for the Coalition in all of this was the class politics framework built up over many years by the populist right and pushed hard on both mainstream and new media. Elections are all about seats and votes and when the chips were down the Liberal strategy produced the goods. Labor’s so-called working-class base just wasn’t there – and nor did its union allies have the clout they once did to spread the message regarding the social wage.

Geoff Gallop was the 27th Premier of Western Australia, from 2001 to 2006 during a 20-year career in state parliament. He is currently Emeritus Professor, Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, having served as Director of the Graduate School of Government until 2015.


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4 Responses to GEOFF GALLOP. Effective public servants need nuanced understanding of politics, what drives their minister and government. Geoff Gallop offers eleven theses on Australian politics in practice.

  1. Avatar Charles Lowe says:

    Professor Gallop is way too polite!

    Re Thesis 2.:
    Rightists believe in
    1. The unconditional right of legal persons to accumulate capital;
    2. The unconditional right of natural persons to distribute their accumulated capital;
    3. The unconditional right of natural – and the minimally conditional right of unnatural but legal – persons to preserve and extend their abilities to generate and maximise their prospective and actual capital;
    4. The sanctity and centrality of importance of ‘external referencing’ in their personal ethical frameworks;
    5. The consequential deprecation and ignoring of the realm of ‘experiencing’ – particularly of its primary aspect – the realm of ‘feeling’.

    Re Thesis 3:
    Leftists believe in:
    1. The cosmological supremacy of the realm of ‘feeling’;
    2. The criticality of ‘internal referenting’;
    3. The equality of all sentient beings;
    4. A credible, coherent and consistent enforceable openness, accountability and transparency of legal but non-natural persons;
    5. The primacy of ‘sacredness’ – contentment, preciousness and delight – over ‘utility’.

    Thesis 5.:
    There has not actually been any “hollowing out” of the centre position. There has been a tidal wave of individuated voters’ protest against politicians who refuse to even contemplate matching truth to power – especially in a person-to-person sense. Just watch the progress of Senator Elizabeth Warren in ascending to the U. S. Presidency in 2020 as illustration.

    Thesis 7.:
    Professor Gallop does not own the origins of the need for the ‘majors’ needing others’ support. Try the former Senator Graham Richardson in the late 1980’s. His strategy has preserved the ability of Labor’s Rightists to maintain intra-Party dominance via the bribery of constrained electoral funding.

    Thesis 8.: Try democratising Labor (as per Andrews’ electoral funding reforms).

    Theses 10. & 11.: Labor lacked the guts and commitment to tell – and convince – the undereducated voters of Central Queensland that it would properly help them transition to our Third Millennium economy through appropriate and rewarding retraining.

  2. There is no reason to think that politicians know anything about government. They know about politics. Wise politicians respect the knowledge of a professional civil service. Now we have a terrible shortage of both — wise politicians and professional civil servants. This is dangerous.

  3. An interesting read in the ideological thought bubble space. Sadly, the phrase “plausible deniability” did not appear.

    IMHO real expertise resides in the Manager/Director and possibly SES level one space. Above this the majority of occupants of more senior positions, with real power, are the communicators that can appear to understand material from just a page or two of dot points. These folk take most of the credit for work and research provided by the underlings. This conduct was recently aired in relation to the debating club at Oxford University that produced six UK PMs – including the recent clown.

    It takes skin in the game to internalise the disgust for many of these folk that “communicate with influence”. A manager many levels above myself uttered words to the effect of – “G are you stupid, that is not what they want to hear”. In the public service there are many levels of review before any policy paper, Question Time Brief, or dot points reach the relevant Minister and are mentioned in Parliament. These include the expert adviser in that field and ultimately The Chief of Staff. That is plausible deniability. Any individual with integrity, and other employment options, will resign due to pressure from an ideologically motivated Minister or Senate interrogator. In an increasingly polarised world either you are comfortable with implementing Government policy and ideology or you are not and resign.

    Of course, the truth or facts can be masked by communication techniques and is much easier to implement with little actual knowledge of the field. Yes Minister, and Yes PM, air this to the amusement of the less nuanced. Government policy is mostly ideologically driven rather than a response to data analysis, evaluation or increasingly back end propagation. SES promotion requires demonstrable mobility between Divisions and Departments. This almost guarantees little actual knowledge, or skin in the game, and simply enshrines the ability to appear knowledgeable from dot points and a briefing. Fortunately the public and most journalists are non the wiser to this deception. There are about 20% of communicators with influence that have sufficient mental bandwidth to acquire some expertise if given sufficient time in one job and before the mobility requirement is implemented.

  4. Avatar Dennis Argall says:

    It may (or may not) be recalled that in a substantial 1974 submission to the Coombs Royal Commission into Australian Government Administration I said that the idea that the public service is or can be apolitical is unsound. There are no significant submissions or decisions by government which are without political consequence. The public servant needs to be non-partisan, needs to be aware of the partisan obligations of the minister… and needs in making submissions to consider and articulate political, economic and social impacts of recommendations as well as consequences of making no or contrary decisions. And not pretend that something advocated was apolitical. And in my view should leave the minister with options with consequence.

    After provision of fearless advice there is also duty to implement government decisions whether you agree or not. A branch head came to me once a decade later in foreign affairs to complain that I had been interfering in his actions in cahoots with aid and ngo people, in the direction of aid in a country which his branch covered. As division head I explained that his approach was contrary to government policy. I was well aware of the issues about which he was concerned. But I was not going to act contrary to government policy and not about to ease the burden on the government of its policies.

    A lot of these principles have remained muddled or become muddled. It’s the business of the public servant to have a good sense of parliamentary differences, but a bad idea for public servants to get entangled or make own judgements about the partisan ruck.

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