The Administrative Arrangements Order of the Albanese Government-a curate’s egg

Jun 3, 2022
The Federal Labor ministers sworn in at Government House
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and members of his ministry join Australian Governor-General David Hurley during a swearing-in ceremony at Government House in Canberra. Image: AAP /Lukas Coch

The Albanese ministry and Administrative Arrangements Order represent a considerable improvement on the structures the Morrison Government used, but they could have been much better.

They rightly reflect the new Government’s priorities, particularly climate change, employment and workplace relations and greater attention to skills and training.

They also fix some of the more obvious problems of the previous arrangements by shifting responsibility for workplace arrangements from the Attorney-General’s Department to the employment portfolio and taking responsibility for the AFP from Home Affairs to AG’s.

But it is disappointing that they have not gone far enough to align the Cabinet ministers and the public service as proved so successful for the Hawke, Keating and Howard Governments. While there are not so many departments with multiple cabinet ministers nor so many cabinet ministers with responsibilities across portfolios as under Morrison, seven departments have multiple cabinet ministers and five cabinet ministers have responsibilities beyond their main portfolio.

The latter cases are probably quite manageable despite some challenges for the secretaries concerned as the ministers involved generally have only minor responsibilities in the second department (eg the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Murray Watt, is responsible for emergency services in the Home Affairs portfolio and the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Tony Burke, has responsibility for the Arts in the Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts portfolio). Indeed, in the case of the Finance Minister, Katy Gallagher, having responsibility for the public service in the PM’s portfolio could prove very successful as Joe Dawkins proved in the 1980s when he held both responsibilities in the Hawke Government and used the two roles to drive long-lasting reforms.

More problematic is the extent to which some departments will continue to have to work with multiple cabinet ministers. The Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts will have four cabinet ministers, two of whom have major responsibilities (Michelle Rowland for Communications and Catherine King for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government). Social Services will have three cabinet ministers, two with major responsibilities (Amanda Rishworth for Social Services – presumably the social security system – and Bill Shorten for the NDIS and Government Services). Such arrangements tend to make more difficult the development of close working relations between secretary and senior minister, particularly where the senior ministers have different views and priorities. This can come to a head when sorting out the portfolio budget.

Added to these challenges are the roles of the outer ministry and assistant ministers. The Infrastructure etc. portfolio has three of these, for example. And a number also have responsibilities in more than one portfolio.

It would have been far better to split the Infrastructure and Social Services departments if the cabinet had to have so many ministers. This might also have allowed greater priority to be given to important but challenging areas such as the NDIS, child care and housing.

The other disappointment for me was the failure to rename the Home Affairs Department to give priority to its Immigration responsibilities and to tone down its ‘border force’ mentality. Its security responsibilities would be better placed with Attorney-Generals.

On the other hand, I am surprised about criticism in some quarters about Veterans Affairs not being in Cabinet. This is not at all new. The Defence Minister has generally represented Veterans Affairs in the cabinet room, the department being within his portfolio though also having its own minister outside the cabinet.

The new AAO only takes effect on 1 July. So the APS must be having one hell of a time, working from their current departmental structures that bear only limited relation to the new ones, briefing their no doubt enthusiastic 42 new ministers. And while they also await advice on secretary appointments from 1 July! Not the smooth processes we saw in the 1980s and 1990s.

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