Saturday, September 21, 2013

Saturday Morning Musings - Abbott: ideas, structures and success

The first signs of the Abbott Government's style are now emerging, although it will be some time before we get a real feel. 

The simplification of ministerial and departmental titles was greeted with a degree of outrage, but to my mind makes broad sense. I have long been concerned about the proliferation of multi-barrel titles that of themselves mean very little. Further, all Governments change structures to fit their policy and political needs. If you want to get a feel for what fits where, you need to look at the Administrative Arrangements.

The decision by the Government to sack three Departmental heads - Agriculture's Andrew Metcalfe, Industry's Don Russell and Resources' Blair Comley - came as a surprise more because of its speed than anything else. It is certainly less draconian that Mr Howard's six. However, Mr Abbott's reassuring noises to a Commonwealth Public Service facing significant cuts are are unlikely to allay concerns. Tim Colebatch's conclusion in the Age, Reshuffle shows public servants who's in charge, would seem to be closer to the truth. Mind you, Commonwealth public servants are well aware of whose in charge!

The immediate abolition of the Climate Commission came as no surprise, nor did the foreshadowed abolition of the Climate Change Authority since action in these areas had been foreshadowed.  in similar vein, the initial steps on Stop the Boats reflected previous commitments, as did the foreshadowed legislation to abolish the carbon tax.

What has surprised me a little coming from a PM who promised a calm and ordered approach to Government has been the initial speed of action. It may be ordered, but it's not calm. It's more ram through. However, it is consistent with Mr Abbott's pledge that the new Government will do what it says it is going to do. However, herein lies a potential problem.

Stop the Boats, Mr Abbott now prefers Operation Sovereign Borders, has already ruffled Indonesian feathers. The sillier aspects of the policy such as the boats buy-back or payments for Indonesian informers are probably not-doable unless the Indonesian Government chooses to cooperate. The broader aspects including turn back the boats may or may not have the desired effect. However, what I didn't quite understand was the way it was done.

Was it really necessary to ruffle Indonesian feathers in quite that way? In process terms, all the Government had to do was to announce immediate steps, noting an intention to discuss further steps with our neighbours.

In the early days of the Rudd Government we saw both haste and a lack of sensitivity in action especially on the international front that proved to be early signs of later problems. We also saw something that I struggled to describe at the time, but which I came to think of as a disconnect between party and people, indeed between party and reality.

Our election campaigns are gladiatorial. This creates a lock in-effect in that while positions are refined during a campaign, they are also locked in though the selling and defending process. This is especially pronounced when you have such a long campaign, Each party has its own culture. Those who come up through the party machinery and are actively involved with the party become acculturated. They are partisan towards the party and indeed within the party; they tend to talk to and interact most with people who share their own views. They live within a party world. This can mislead.

At the last election, around 55.4% of voters in the House of Representatives did not vote for the Coalition at their first choice; 11.5% of voters rejected all the main parties including the Greens. The Coalition was not elected by a majority of voters, but by a combination of those who put the Coalition as their first choice plus those who put it as their second choice. The Coalition may have a mandate, but it is a very qualified mandate. There were a lot of voters out there that rejected the Coalition or chose it as, at best, second best.

If we now look at policies and programs, not all the Labor policies including those opposed by the Coalition were necessarily bad. Conversely, not all those proposed by the Coalition are necessarily good. In a lot of cases, there is a mixture of good and bad elements. The same applies to our systems of public administration.

A change in Government provides an opportunity for change, for re-alignment. Many are distressed by the new Government's actions on climate change, many welcome them. In a way, both positions are neither here nor there. The validity of the positions will be tested by actual events over the next three to six years, as well as the responses to those events. Government, opposition and voters will respond according to what happens on the ground.  

A change in Government also provides an opportunity to select the best of the old, to reject the worst of the new, including those policies carried to the election. It is in this area that the lock-in and acculturation effects have a huge impact, for they exclude good choices, the capacity to select. It is in this area that I suspect the Abbott Government to be weak, more akin to the Rudd Government than the first Hawke Government.

The first Hawke Government came to power with a mandate for change, but without the rigidities that now exist in terms of very rigid policy positions. In doing so, it actually captured those within the system who wanted change and now had the opportunity to put new ideas forward. My views are coloured here, because I was one of those captured. The window for really new approaches actually closed quite quickly as systemic rigidities kicked in, but it was fun while it lasted!

I seem to have drifted from my main theme, nostalgia does that, so let me pull things together. Based on what I have seen so far, I find the new Government to be fairly rigid, stuck in its election mode. I don't expect it to be very imaginative, although it may be more radical than people expect.

I am now very out of touch with Canberra, but I doubt that it has captured the hearts and minds of those who have to implement and advise, who have to balance all the practical issues in actually doing. Here i want to go back to  the header for Tim Colebatch's piece, Reshuffle shows public servants who's in charge.

As I said earlier,the Commonwealth Public Service knows full well who is in charge. They will do their job. But if Mr Abbott really wants to make a difference, he will capture their hearts as well as their minds, he will give them freedom to advise and, most importantly, he will tap not just the top views but also access the more broadly based group who oversight the actual policy creation and doing. 


Scott Hastings said...

maybe i'm nitpicking but given my line of work, i'm horrified to see "Cultural affairs, including movable cultural heritage and support for the arts" as the second last line item in the Attorney General's department. I am highly skeptical of how much attention and creativity the AG and his office will bring to this role. No stand-alone department of Arts is a symptom of our country's boofhead culture that is anti-intellectual to the core, and places no value on the enrichment aspect of education.

Scott Hastings said...

You ask:

Was it really necessary to ruffle Indonesian feathers in quite that way?

During the space of the campaign the Coalition managed to insult the Indonesians and also say obnoxious things toward the Chinese. Antagonizing our major trading partners is a strange business model (I thought these guys made money for a living!?)

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Scott. I agree that AG's seems a strange fit, although I don't agree (quite) on the boofhead culture point.

I agree with business models!

Anonymous said...

Absolutely agree with Scott and the non existence of stand alone dept for Arts (and Science, for that matter). I see this as a guarantee that the boofhead culture is alive and well.

Jim Belshaw said...

hI jcw. How could you say such a thing!

Anonymous said...

In relation to "insulting Indonesians", Joe Ludwig's ban on the live cattle trade, apart from kicking an 'own goal', surely takes the cake?


Jim Belshaw said...

I agree, DG. In one bound, we managed to insult the Indonesians, imperil a local industry, add to Government costs and have very little impact on the slaughter problem itself. I don't think the Minister could have done a better result of maximising the adverse even if thathad been his objective!