Monday, November 15, 2010

The lost art of Cabinet government

Paul Barratt had an interesting post, The trouble with Presidential rule, that provided two case studies relevant to some of the questions I discussed in Is Julia Gillard going the way of Kevin Rudd?.

In my writing, I have tried to distinguish between specific problems with the Rudd Government or NSW approaches, and what I see as broader systemic problems. To my mind, the two feed on each other. Paul's examples are interesting because both date from the Howard period.

Sir Robert Menzies was a great believer in Cabinet Government. A naturally arrogant man, he had learned to temper that arrogance during previous political turmoils that almost destroyed him politically. He was also working with very strong ministers and a very strong coalition partner. Under the Menzies approach, he was first among equals. Minsters had very real powers, with Cabinet the final arbiter on critical issues.

Malcolm Fraser also believed in Cabinet Government. However, in his case he used Cabinet as a device to assert his control. While he consulted assiduously, the growing volume of matters going to Cabinet both reduced Ministerial authority and clogged Cabinet. Ministers really did not have time to properly consider matters.

During the first period of the Hawke Government, there was an initial reversal of this pattern. Although Mr Hawke adopted a presidential style, Ministerial authority was restored. There were some jokes that whenever Mr Hawke felt obliged to intervene in a matter, things would go wrong, there was generally a more open style.

In the latter period of the Hawke and then Keating Governments, things became more centralised. This was in part connected to changes in the underlying structures of, and approaches to, public administration itself, but also reflected Mr Keating's own dominating presidential style. Both Cabinet and ministerial authority contracted.

Central to both the examples cited by Paul is the willingness of PM Howard to over-ride previously considered positions on an arbitrary, ad-hoc basis. I am not such a purist as Paul, but this type of ad hoc response is very much the antithesis of the idea of Cabinet Government. It introduces uncertainty into decision making processes that undercut the very idea of either Ministerial or Cabinet responsibility.

Prior to his election, Mr Rudd stated that he wished to restore the Westminster system. In fact, he seems to have taken the diminution of Cabinet government one step further by centralising all power in his hands or in that of his small kitchen cabinet. In both the Howard and Rudd Governments, we saw these types of prime ministerial approaches lead to errors; the Australian Wheat Board is an example from the Howard period, Pink Batts an example from the Rudd period.

Julia Gillard indicated from the beginning that she wanted to follow a more collegiate approach. She is also operating in an environment that limits her capacity to act in a presidential fashion. We will have to see how this works out.           


Winton Bates said...

There are probably a few different ways a prime minister could make a credible commitment not to make policy changes without reference to cabinet.
However, when I think about the drought relief example in Paul's post I wonder whether it would have made any difference to the outcome if the concessional interest rate issue had gone to cabinet prior to Howard's announcement of the policy change. I can't think of anything that the government could do that would convince me that in future droughts it will not provide drought relief assistance to farmers.

Jim Belshaw said...

Winton, sorry for the very slow response. If I read Paul's story correctly, the interest rate subsidy issue did go to and was approved by Cabinet. Mr Howard's subsequent words actually over-rode a Cabinet decision.

I am not such a purist, I think, as Paul because I think that politics is the core business of the elected government. They have to take into account and make judgements on the views of the electorate. While Paul would probably accept this point, I am probably more relaxed than he is about some of the results.

My focus in the post was on the way decisions are made. It may be, as you suggest, that some form of drought relief is inevitable. From a personal viewpoint, I would support that. However, the nature of that relief is very much a public policy issue. By essentially over-ruling a Cabinet decision in the way he seems to have done, Mr Howard damaged the Cabinet process.