Friday, December 16, 2011

Is Federal Labor finally NSWalesed?

I wonder how many of us have been in situations where our own desire to improve things, to respond to events, actually makes things worse? Certainly I have in both my work and professional life.

In a relationship, for example, situations arise where one partner is upset, has grievances, where the other responds in ways that hurt and complicate despite best intentions. Similar situations arise at work where our attempts to do things, to respond to challenges, actually blows what we want do out of the water.

These types of problems are common and normally pass. However, sometimes a pattern of behaviour (a pathology) is created that leads to a reinforcing downwards path. Pecking away at the problem, we make it worse. 

I have put this in a personal sense, but similar processes happen with organisations, including Governments and political parties.

I don't know if I was the first person to coin the phrase the New South Wales Disease, although it was original to me at the time I first used. Similarly, I don't know if I was the first person to talk about the NSWalesing of the Federal Government, although again it was original to me when I first applied the term.

By the New South Wales Disease I mean simply a political and government world that was increasingly disconnected from reality, a world in which the internal games came to dominate. This was also a world in which the increasing disconnect was accommodated by constant shifts to try to adjust to perceived public opinion, to respond not by some central compass, but by what might sell best immediately.

As things got worse, there were constant changes, responses to external events, to symptoms. By the end, the only thing left were the internal games.

I applied the term NSWalesing to the Rudd Government early because its style was so reminiscent. In saying this, I am not intending to doubt Mr Rudd's energy, to doubt that he had ideas, to doubt his integrity. I am talking about a pattern.

Mr Rudd's initial problems were largely personal, a failing in management. However, he also inherited two things from NSW.

The first was what I call mechanistic management, an approach to public administration that centred on simplistic targets wrapped around in big words. The second was a political culture that focused on the game, on the need to package for immediate advantage. We use words like spin or focus groups, but they are simply symptoms of a broader pattern.

As problems emerged, the Labor Party responded by selecting a new leader, a very NSW things to do. That addressed the specific issues associated with Mr Rudd's management style, but left other elements unchanged. Consequently, similar problems emerged. These were exacerbated by Opposition Leader Abbott's ability to simplify, to go for the jugular.

Despite all the problems, it seemed to me as the year moved to an end that the Government had established a certain stability. Things were being done, while Mr Abbott had begun to lose his ability to set the terms of debate. Since then, the wheels seem to have come off and in a very NSW way.

I do not pretend to understand the full dynamics of the Australian Labor Party. What does seem to be clear is that the internal machinations within the Party, the games now being played out, have again put the Government on the back foot. This time the focus is on Julia Gillard's leadership style, on her failure to mention Kevin Rudd at the ALP's National Conference, on the fall-out from the ministerial changes.

Anybody who has been involved in a storm, in a downward spiral whether in personal or professional life, will know that the hardest thing is to find a point of calm, a flat space. Without that point of calm, that flat space, it becomes impossible to establish any form of equilibrium. You end by running desperately across the shifting sands, veering from one point to another in response to changes in the sand. Finally, the in-coming tide swamps you.

Politics is no different. I do not understand why the PM felt it necessary to reorganise the ministry just before Christmas, apart from very minor changes to accommodate one departing minister. She had nothing really to gain at this point. The consequence has been further destabilisation.

I do wonder if Federal Labor has the capability anymore to stop the rot, to find that quiet space required to regroup. If not, the NSWalesing of the Federal Government will be complete.     


Evan said...

Hi Jim, my guess is that Julia thought the reshuffle a way to try and take on Abbott more convincingly.

The machine men from NSW came to Canberra doing the same things they did in NSW and the same things are happening in Canberra as happened in NSW.

I wonder how much Bob Carr was responsible for the development of this style (he had a background in journalism and seemed to see politics very much as the management of perception)

Evan said...

This is so I get comments emailed to me

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Evan. Interesting point on Mr Carr. You may well be right.