Saturday, May 15, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - Rudd, Gillard and Abbott

Sometimes I regret my use of English.

In Australian budget 2010 - assumptions and issues I said in part:

In a rather cruel post on his blog, Does a resource rent tax solve the problem of sovereign risk?, Winton Bates suggested that the rhetoric used by PM Rudd to justify the resource rent tax was like a more verbose version of  Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Ouch!

This comment led Winton to write a post explaining his position - Should we ever play the man rather than the ball?.

My problem lies in the use of the words "cruel post". I should have said cruel comparison, for I don't know that the post itself was cruel. Further, the point Winton is making about Mr Rudd's use of language is a valid one. The comparison itself is cruel only because it can in fact be made.

At dinner last night I listened to a discussion on Mr Rudd. To my knowledge, I was the only independent there; the rest were Labor voters.The discussion was uncomplimentary to the point that I found myself wanting to take the other side, just for balance.

In a moment I will point to things that I think Mr Rudd and the Government can take credit for, along with my perceptions of the problems in Mr Abbot's approach. Immediately, I just want to summarise again the criticisms I have made over time of the Rudd Government's approach to public policy. These contain a mixture of interacting style and substance.

On style, I have made three main criticisms.

The first does link to language, the tendency to go over the top.  I first commented on this back in April 2008 during Mr Rudd's first overseas trip. There I suggested in part that Mr Rudd's language and approach, a lack of sensitivity in playing to a domestic audience, had created unnecessary problems with Japan. Since then, the use of the language of warfare and of hyperbole has become well entrenched.

The following month in Slow down Mr Rudd, for all our sakes, slow down I said in part:

When I wrote some earlier critiques of Mr Rudd's style I had not expected them to become an issue so quickly, nor did I expect the cracks in his Government to show so quickly. That's a pity.

Mr Rudd, at this stage in your Government's history I give you a fail. If I was writing the summary on your half-yearly report,I would say: Tries too hard, responds too quickly, unable to set priorities, displays insensitivity to other's needs.

Mr Rudd, you cannot micro-manage an entire country. As Prime Minister you must stand back to some degree from the detail to look at the broader picture. If you wish to be your own chief clerk with all others in supportive administrative roles, that's fine. Just don't expect to be the PM for an extended period.

This quote encapsulates my other two style criticisms, the tendency to try to do to much to soon, along with an inability to delegate properly.

These style issues link to my criticisms of the substance of some of the Government's initiatives. Here I have tried to distinguish between two things.

The first are what I perceive to be general weaknesses in the overall approach to public policy and public administration in all Australian jurisdictions. These hold independent of the party in power.

My perception here led me to conclude early that I doubted that the Commonwealth Public Service actually had the capacity to deliver what the Government wanted to do in the time horizons set; I thought that demands would outrun delivery capacity.

In addition to these general weaknesses, I have also criticised the specific approach of the Rudd Government to public policy as, among other things, a simplistic and mechanistic command and control approach. These criticisms have grown with time and in a sense are encapsulated in two recent posts -  Saturday Morning Musings - the Walesing of Mr Rudd and Cogito Ergo Est - I think therefore it is.

If I suggest that Winton's comparison of Mr Rudd's language to that of President Chavez is cruel, then how much crueller am I in dismissing Mr Rudd's Government as a somewhat up-market version of NSW, in repeating the idea that Mr Rudd has adopted the cogito ergo est approach to public policy?

I said that in discussion last night I felt the need to defend Mr Rudd. Let me do so.

Mr Rudd's single most important achievement lies in the successful defence of the Australian economy during the global financial crisis.

In my own economics' writing over the period of the crisis I suggested that the Government and economic commentators such as Access Economics went over the top in their reactions; I simply couldn't see how the worst case outcomes were possible, given Australia's economic fundamentals. I also argued that in responding we had missed an opportunity to get best value from the responses to the crisis and that some elements of what the Government wanted to do could simply not be done in the suggested time horizon.

I stand by these comments. However, I am of the opinion that the Government's fast response was absolutely critical in shielding Australia from the worst effects of the economic downturn. Yes, the Government could have done things better, but its actions left us better off with a relatively low cost by global standards in terms of both debt and deficit.

Yes, the opposition can argue that the Government was able to do so because it inherited a budget surplus and zero net Commonwealth Government indebtedness. Yes, the Government can argue that Treasurer Costello and the Howard Government wasted the surplus created by the previous mining boom. Both arguments are irrelevant. Given our lucky starting point, the Government did a pretty good job.

Copenhagen is the second example I want to use in defending Mr Rudd. The fact that Mr Rudd apparently got very upset under questioning from Kerry O'Brien on the ABC 7.30 Report has become another weapon to beat the man around the head. However, I have strong sympathy for Mr Rudd on this one.

My personal view is that the Government mishandled the ETS. However, so far as Copenhagen is concerned, the material I have seen suggests that Mr Rudd threw himself heart and soul into trying to get a good result from Copenhagen and indeed had a considerable impact. Why don't we recognise this? I really do think that it's important to keep balance.

Just at present, there is a fair bit of discussion around suggesting that Julia Gillard should replace Kevin Rudd as PM. Apparently even former Labor PM Bob Hawke is musing on this one.

I can't share this enthusiasm.

Like so many Australians, I find Julia Gillard likeable. Again like so many Australians, my attitude towards her has shifted from negative to positive. Yet in all this, I know of no evidence to suggest that her approach to public policy is in any way better than the current PM's. Indeed, when I look at the substance of her policy approach across her portfolio from universities to the MySchool web site, her policy approach is apparently similar to that holding elsewhere in the Government.

Well, what about Mr Abbott?

There is no doubt that Tony Abbott has been something of a circuit breaker for the opposition. In doing so, he has broken open political debate in a way that Mr Turnbull could not. Yet when I look at what Mr Abbott says, he is is as much a centralist as Mr Rudd and is equally, if not more so, inclined to shoot from the hip and to go over the top. So looking just at public policy, he has yet to convince me that he offers a better choice. 

I am also still influenced, and this is very much a matter of personal values, by what I saw as the growing harshness of the Howard Government, a willingness in individual cases to ignore due process leading to cases of injustice. Each time the current opposition talks about border protection, more especially the way they talk about it, reminds me of my previous views.

I guess all this leaves me very uncertain as to just whom I might vote for next time. However, for the moment I am still inclined to stick with the Rudd Government.   


Winton Bates said...

Jim, I think you did me a favour by suggesting that my comparison of Kevin Rudd with Hugo Chavez was cruel. I was playing the man, not the ball. I don't like Kevin's economic nationalist rhetoric and his verbosity (or his new tax grab, among other things) but I don't actually think he is quite as bad as Hugo.
I was interested to see where you come down at the moment in weighing up Rudd against Abbott. I come down slightly on the other side.
Some politician from the government was on the radio this morning warning voters that if they made a protest vote against the government in the forthcoming election they might wake up the morning after to find that Tony Abbott had become prime minister. My thought was that it might feel even worse to wake up the morning after the election to be told that Kevin Rudd was still prime minister.
However, since it is Sunday we should, perhaps count our blessings. Whoever wins, we should be grateful that we are not likely to wake up to find that Hugo Chavez has become our prime minister.

Jim Belshaw said...

On your last point, Winton, amen!

Thank you for your first comment. It's been worrying me.

I don't know whether or mot Mr Rudd can rein in his rhetoric. It's part of what I mean when I say he is being NSWalesed. Each time I watch him against one of those PR backdrops with the latest slogan I get uncomfortable.

I am getting to the stage here where I want to subject his English to forensic analysis and a degree of ridicule. Government by slogan leads to some very slippery thinking.

Anonymous said...

Hello Jim

Just to pick up on your comment:

led me to conclude early that I doubted that the Commonwealth Public Service actually had the capacity to deliver what the Government wanted to do in the time horizons set

I would go a little further with reference to both the Home Insulation Scheme and the Schools Building Program and make the comment that it seems to me the Public Service – both federal and state – has badly let down the present government in the execution of two quite effective policy initiatives.

Just as I think it unfair to compare Mr Rudd to Hugo Chavez (on any matter, for any purpose), I think it is quite unreasonable to place all blame for the failures and cost overruns of these two government decisions upon the government – or the individual ministers responsible - without recognising the (lack of) contribution made by the Public Service – federal and state..

It is almost as if the PS decided to do its best to undermine these two programs – and hence the Government of the day.

Where was the Public Service when problems began to emerge in implementation? Why should a minister be held specifically responsible for the lack of quite mundane controls which should be in place for any government funded policy?

Mr Rudd and Labor now wear the consequences, but I think it disingenuous to lay all blame at his and his government’s feet.

Somewhere in “Yes Minister”, Jim Hacker explains to his wife that the Opposition is, in fact, the Public Service – not the opposing political party of the moment.

Just now, how true that seems to be - and I'm wondering why?


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Davis. This one is a bit complicated.

One of original points I made about KR was that he was likely to outrun the capacity of the service to deliver. You can't blame the PS for that.

In terms of the PS delivery capacity, there were two quite separate but linked points.

The first was the decline in the Westminster system. The second was the broader decline in service capabilities and flexibilities associated with new managerial approaches.

Mr Rudd promised to fix the first, but was oblivious to the second. Indeed, on the second, he just continued the problem.

If you look at the detail of the home insulation problem, you can see the second. Wrong targets, complicated administrative structures, get things done even if they are wrong. That's Government, not PS.

Indeed, Sir Humphrey would never have put up with it. But then, Sir Humphrey was not on a perfomance contract that essentially ensured poor results.

Anonymous said...

Hello Jim

The irony is that whilst a common complaint against Mr Rudd is his need to “micro-manage” everything, these two programs point to his government’s complete inability to do just that.

I cannot believe either Mr Garrett with insulation, or Ms Gillard with the Schools actually sat down and put these systems in place. But their departments almost certainly did.

I feel that Messrs Rudd and Co. should rightly wear the ‘political’ blame for not reacting anywhere near quick enough to problems as they were identified. However, the administration and oversight of both these schemes was/is quite lax – to put it politely – and ‘administration’ is what our various Public Services are employed for.

And even if, as you suggest, the Public Services did not have the capacity (which I don’t necessarily agree with) why was that simple fact not conveyed in writing from PS to minister?

Reversing your words: that's PS not Government.

Jim, can I please correct something re Chavez. In these days of presidential style politics I think it is quite fair that ‘the man’ is played as well as ‘the ball’. My only hesitation was regarding the particular choice of Chavez as the comparison.

Regards as always

Jim Belshaw said...


You raise an interesting issue. When do you as an employee or group of employees say that you can't deliver? And do you know?

My first point about Mr Rudd was that the total pressure placed on the system was beyond its capacity to respond.

My second point is that the administrative structure of the home insulation program was bound to cause complications because no-one was finally in charge. The creation of the coordinator general role in Mr Rudd's Department led, I think, to an ill-defined interface with the operational Department.

Micro-management does not mean supervising every pink batt. It does mean centralising control and management.