After nine years in the wilderness, the new Labor Party government will have a massive to-do list, notwithstanding the relatively modest policy proposals it took to this election – its so-called small target strategy. For just a moment, when Anthony Albanese announced that he and four colleagues would be sworn in as the new government just two days after the election, it looked as though it might try to emulate Gough Whitlam after his 1972 election win when he established, with deputy Lance Barnard, a two-man government to instantly implement a huge range of policies that didn’t need legislation.
Whitlam and Barnard governed alone for a fortnight, sharing between themselves all the ministerial portfolios. During that time they announced some 40 decisions including the immediate release from prison of all draft resisters, the removal of the remaining Australian troops from Vietnam and the diplomatic recognition of Communist China.
Their haste was understandable – Labor had been in Opposition for 23 years and had fought the 1972 and 1969 elections on detailed and very extensive policy platforms. The media and the public lapped it up – but it was not popular with the shadow ministers waiting to be sworn into government. They resented being sidelined.
Albanese has handled the transition with more skill. He had a very good reason for wanting to take the Prime Ministerial mantle before anyone could even be sure whether Labor would be able to govern in its own right. He needed to be sworn in as Prime Minister and be the actual – not putative – head of government for his appearance at the Quad talks in Tokyo.
He also brought an enlarged leadership group into government. His deputy, so that there was an acting Prime Minister while he was overseas, his foreign minister, who coincidentally was also the Labor Senate leader, and his main economic team. There were no rumblings from the ministers in waiting. And they can be sworn in early next week.
More important, however, was Albanese’s assurance that he wasn’t about to embark on a decision-making spree to follow the half-century old Whitlam precedent.
His assurance that change was coming ‘in an orderly way’ was directed as much at his front-bench colleagues as it was to the public at large. He was trying to set the tone for his government.
So, for example, while he has made it clear that the Murugappan family will be freed from immigration detention in Perth and allowed to return to Biloela where the local community has been campaigning on their behalf since they were snatched away under Peter Dutton’s application of refugee laws, his ministers are taking time to ensure that the proper administrative procedures are followed and appropriate visas are issued. Weeks rather than days.
The government is even taking its time drawing up a submission to the Fair Work Commission to support Albanese’s campaign declaration that lowest paid workers should get a 5.1 percent wage increase.
Similarly, Attorney-General designate Mark Dreyfus indicated before the election that he would make the Bernard Collaery case a priority. But his intention is to get advice first, rather than immediately intervening to halt the prosecution.
However most of the policies that Labor proposed in this election will require legislation for them to be implemented. Parliament will sit some time after 1 July (when the new Senators can take their place) but the Government wants to avoid sitting during the school holidays. It will also take time for legislation to be drafted.
Meantime the government can begin establishing the many inquiries that it flagged during the campaign, beginning with one into the Reserve Bank, its framework and operations and its interaction with the federal budget.
I was reminded by a contribution from Greg Barns SC in Pearls and Irritations earlier this week of another area that requires the urgent attention of the new Attorney-General, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). As Barns wrote, ‘The AAT has become so stacked with Liberal Party members, former MPs and staffers that it must be killed off.’
He said, ‘Mr Dreyfus should pass urgent legislation abolishing the AAT and creating a new body where all appointments are freshly made. The appointments process should be conducted by an independent panel which makes recommendations to the Attorney-General.’
I agree. However in abolishing and then replacing the AAT (perhaps renamed, Australian Civil and Administrative Tribunal?), I believe the Attorney should revive another body that was killed off by the previous government, the Administrative Review Council (ARC).
The ARC was established in 1976 as a key element of the new administrative review system that included the creation of the AAT. The ARC was an important expert advisor on the development and maintenance of the administrative law system in Australia. It consisted of a President, the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, the President of the Australian Law Reform Commission, the Australian Information Commissioner and at least three, and not more than 11, other members.
A revived ARC should have two urgent tasks. The first would be to review the role and internal organisation of the AAT, to overturn changes made by previous Liberal governments that were intended to make it more amenable to government policies, particular on refugee and immigration matters.
Secondly it should recommend the creation of advisory bodies charged with making merit-based recommendations for appointments to government bodies, beginning with the AAT but extending to the courts, and to other areas where political patronage has undermined independence and performance.
It would produce more integrity in government and in governing.