You don’t have to be partisan or nostalgic to lament the quality of political leadership in Australia. The mediocrity of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison coalition governments, the chronic underperformance of the manifestly more talented Rudd-Gillard Labor governments, and the inability of either side of politics to achieve anything like the creativity and sustained effectiveness of the Hawke-Keating governments of 1983-96, is there for all to see.
This is the problem that Don Russell thoughtfully and persuasively addresses in Leadership, his contribution to the recently launched Monash University mini-book series on the National Interest. Drawing on his distinguished credentials as Paul Keating’s senior adviser both as Treasurer and Prime Minister, a highly regarded senior public servant before and since, and playing high-level private sector roles as well, Russell identifies three main causes for the present malaise: the overuse of underqualified ministerial advisers, the underuse of public service expertise, and the changed approach of political leaders to the challenges of public communication. He is right on all three counts.
As to ministerial advisers, the triumph of the apparatchiks is now complete. There are a lot more of them, now over 450, than in the Hawke-Keating years. More importantly, their composition has changed: the great majority of advisers are young political wannabes, very often highly intelligent and committed, but usually lacking any wider professional or life experience, above all in the practical business of government.
Public servants on secondment – formerly the core of most ministerial offices, certainly my own, more often than not occupying chief of staff or senior adviser rather than junior liaison roles, and chosen for their stand-out competence rather than political ideology – are a dramatically diminished breed. All this reinforces the tendency to look at everything through a perceived (often misperceived, but that’s another part of the story) political marketing lens rather than a good government one.
The second issue for Russell is closely related: the marked lack of respect by contemporary political leaders for traditional public service expertise, which expertise is characterized by what Daniel Kahneman famously calls ‘Slow Thinking’ – meaning not slow-witted, but valuing reason and considered analysis (rather than rapid-firing intuition) above all else. The public service is viewed less as a necessary major contributor to intelligent policymaking than simply as a vehicle for policy implementation and service delivery, with that often being assumed (rarely wisely), to be better done by private contractors anyway. In particular, he focuses on the crucial policy innovation, coordination and damage limitation roles, both with the public service and other ministerial offices, played by those brilliant senior public servants, from Graham Evans onwards, who headed the Prime Minister’s offices throughout the Hawke-Keating years.
Cynics might respond that, as a brilliant player himself in that role, Russell would say that, wouldn’t he? But that would be churlish: the Hawke-Keating machinery of government did in fact work throughout as a remarkably fine-tuned and efficient mechanism, and that was overwhelmingly due to getting right the critical interfaces between Prime Minister’s and other ministers’ offices, and between ministry and public service – as well as that between Cabinet and Caucus – an exercise in which the PMO-heads, with their vast public service experience, were central players. That said, just a little churlishness is, I think, justified from me and my Cabinet colleagues of the time, in response to our portrayal by Russell as the largely unwitting beneficiaries of this demonstration of organizational genius by the PMO-heads and the prime ministers who appointed them. In fact, although this little bit of ALP history seems to have eluded our otherwise very observant author, it was we Cabinet ministers who ourselves instigated nearly all those machinery of government disciplines.
The vehicle for this enterprise, driven by a deep appreciation of the dysfunctionality of the Whitlam Government whose legacy we knew we had to overcome if we were to survive at all, was the ‘Task Force on Government Administration’, set up in Opposition with me as chair and membership including among others Bill Hayden, Neal Blewett and Susan Ryan. This produced a 50-page report addressing all these issues, which was distilled into a 25-page ‘Labor and Quality of Government’ statement embraced and released publicly, with considerable fanfare, by Bob Hawke before the 1983 election. And that organizational blueprint, with some refinements but no fundamental changes, served us superbly well through 13 years of government.
This 1983 exercise is one which I hoped, in my innocence, might be thought worth repeating by later generations of Labor colleagues, who have had their own problems of perceived dysfunctionality to deal with. But the attempts of me and others (no doubt suffering equally from Relevance Deprivation Syndrome) to persuade Kevin Rudd on his return to government in 2013, and Bill Shorten when he became Opposition leader later that year, to release their own ‘Labor and Quality of Governance’ statements, fell on deaf ears. The punters, it was argued – by their advisers – should not be reminded of our organizational imperfections and would be profoundly indifferent to any attempt to correct them.
Which leads to Russell’s remaining major explanation for the underwhelming character of our political leadership in recent years – that senior politicians seem to have forgotten what constitutes a real political legacy, and the art of effective public communication necessary to achieve it. In a useful addition to other engaging typologies of political motivation and behaviour – including Tony Benn’s ‘straight men’, ‘fixers’ and ‘maddies’; Manning Clark’s ‘enlargers’ and ‘straiteners’; and maybe my own ‘megalomaniacs and idealists’ – Russell suggests that every politician, and political leader, can be located on a continuum between ‘pleasers’ at one end, and ‘doers’ at the other, with only the doers capable of winning the kind of respect that leaves any lasting political legacy at all.
And he identifies as the most effective weapon of the doers, in creating and sustaining that legacy, an approach to political communication that treats its audiences as intelligent, preferences substance over soundbites and slogans, treats focus group opposition to a proposal as the beginning rather than the end of the argument and is indefatigable in pursuing that argument. He is right about all of that, and the depressing indifference to these principles by today’s leaders – and their advisers.
The question we are left with, of course, is whether any of this is remediable. Russell is probably right when he suggests that the current generation of politicians is not all that different from any other in their preoccupation with recognition, promotion, preselection and power. But none of those things will create good government without leadership and ministerial pools being constantly refreshed by men and women with raw talent, broad life experience beyond politics, and principled commitment to public goods. It is not self-evident that our political parties are doing enough to refresh that talent pool, either because of their blinkered approach to gender equality in the case of the Coalition, or their capture by careerist apparatchiks in the case of all of them. The parties that move fastest to address these deficiencies will be the best rewarded.
As to the public service, so central to Russell’s analysis, the big question is whether it has been so demoralized and hollowed out by the experience of the last few decades, so habituated to a covering-your-backside-at-all-costs culture since John Howard’s catastrophic politicization of the senior public service with his dismissal, on coming into office in 1996, of six highly capable departmental secretaries thought to have worked too closely with the Hawke-Keating Government, that it is no longer capable of fulfilling the multiple good-government roles that he properly assigns to it.
For those tempted to despair on all these fronts, Russell does identify – rightly – a skerrick of daylight in the way the public has reacted to government handling of the Covid crisis. Visible reliance on public service expertise is back in vogue. And for all the multiple challenges to effective public communication posed by the new social media environment – cut-through can no longer be guaranteed by Keating-style conquering of the Parliamentary press gallery alone – those State premiers who have taken the time and trouble, day after day, to offer not just spin and soundbites, but comprehensive and meaningful answers, to complex, difficult and sensitive questions have been getting highly visible political rewards.
These are slender reeds on which to build hopes for a return to the kind of national political leadership of which we can be genuinely proud. But they are about all we have.