Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Failures in process imperil Abbott Government

The troubles with Royal Commissioner Dyson Heydon (here, here, for example) marks another week in which events have effectively over-taken Australia's Abbott Government. I for one find it hard to focus on policy issues in the midst of the political turmoil. I don't want to comment on the political turmoil. Instead, this short post focuses on what I see as the growing evidence of systemic process failure at Federal level.

 A Guardian piece, Abbott's small government: cabinet meets without single formal submission to debate, reports:
Federal cabinet met on Monday night without a single formal cabinet submission to consider. 
Amid concerns about the bypassing or breakdown of normal cabinet processes and growing mistrust within the Abbott government, the formal business before cabinet on Monday night comprised a minute relating to infrastructure, a letter on a social services issue, a general political discussion and reports from the chairs of backbench committees.
The Guardian reports from a left of centre perspective. For that reason, care needs to be exercised in considering its reports. Still, I found the report quite staggering.

For the benefit of international readers who do not understand the Australian system, cabinet is the peak policy making body of Australia's Executive government. It has no formal constitutional position, but has evolved over time as part of the evolution of the Westminster system. Both the role and operating processes of cabinet have varied depending on the prime minister and party in power, but it provides a structured process for considering issues for later submission to party rooms and parliament. This imposes discipline on decision making.

Over time, the main complaints about the cabinet process have focused on two issues: the first is the excessive power attached to cabinet, the way in which it excludes other bodies such as the back-bench from decision making; the second is the way cabinet can constipate the decision making process, centralising decisions that should actually be made at ministerial or departmental level. There is truth in both complaints. However, in the present case, we seem to have a basic break-down in the cabinet process itself.

Australia does not have a presidential system. Mr Abbott is not president. He is simply first among equals. Prime Minister Menzies, a Liberal Party hero, explicitly recognised this. He was punctilious in recognising cabinet authority and indeed the authority of his ministers in general.He also had to accommodate a powerful coalition partner, the Country Party, that had brought him down once before.

The phrase coined by Mr Abbott to describe his unilateral decisions, the captain's pick, would (I think) have been anathema to Mr Menzies. He would have regarded it as quite out of court (pun intended!). This does not mean that Mr Menzies did not have an authoritarian streak, he did, simply that it was constrained by custom and process.

Prime Minister Menzies also had great respect for Parliament. Indeed, he revered the institution and was generally punctilious in his approaches to it.

Mr Menzies was not a supporter of transparency for transparency's sake. In the case of Confrontation, the conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia, the scale of Australia's involvement was kept secret for a period in ways that would not be possible today. This Australian War Memorial photo is captioned "Sarawak, British North Borneo, 1965: soldiers of 3 RAR board a Belvedere helicopter to search for Indonesian infiltrators."

Nor was the Menzies Government immune from the tendency to monitor its citizens, while individual cases of injustice did occur. We know this from the now released records of the period. However, I doubt that either Mr Menzies or his ministers would have countenanced some of the travesties associated with Border Force and the restriction of information on "operational grounds." Refugees are not the same as Confrontation. The Menzies Government had more important things to worry about, including the Cold War.
I think that Mr Abbott prides himself on his can do mentality, cutting through the crap. We say, we do. However, things are not quite as easy as that. It's not just what you do, but how you do it. There have been too many mistakes, too many process failures.

The Abbott Government now bears a distressing resemblance to that benighted and now departed Labor administration in NSW. It has aged before our eyes to the point that I don't know what is stands for anymore. I only know, more or less, what it is against.

In finishing, I note a certain irony in this post. I am hardly a traditional supporter of Robert Menzies. I come from a different political tradition and was always conscious of his imperfections. Who would have thought that I would now be putting him forward as something of a role model!


The Abbott Government is not having a lot of luck: Up to his ankles in bulldust: Tony Abbott hoofs it, leak follows. The leaked document is widely circulated, but it is another distraction.


2 tanners said...

The Cabinet Submission system is a formulaic way of decision making. Public servants are forced to make crisp concise submissions, with only enough room for the strongest arguments. Other Ministries who might not agree also have the opportunity to say so. There is no opportunity to bury unwilling and busy Ministers in detail so as to avoid spelling out the whole fiscal and revenue implications, which must appear on the front page.

If The Guardian's report is true, I'm not sure that it spells the end of democracy as we know it but it certainly is odd. There is always a Ministry (or seven!) clawing to get their burning issue up to the Cabinet and being fended off by Cabinet Secretariat either due to flaws in the Submission or an overloaded agenda.

Scott Hastings said...

Abbott is authoritarian not out of distrust in institutions, but for its own sake. People like to suggest that politicians get drunk on power, usually without basis... but Abbott really is hungry for power for its own sake. His passage of the higher fuel levy and other measures against the express will of the elected Senate shows a deeply anti-democratic character, an instinct that simply doesn't care about rule or precedent. When they are competent, such men are very dangerous. Thankfully we're off the hook there.

Anonymous said...

You guys are like the cricket commentators complaining about 'bodyline'. Abbott is from the 'whatever it takes' school of responsible government. He will live and die by that, and, as such, is just a minor passing phase.


Scott Hastings said...

kvd - the problem is that future governments tend not to wind back the expanded powers, whether it's Canberra vs states or Cabinet vs Parliament or PM vs Cabinet. And so we are left with creeping fascism by default.

Winton Bates said...

Jim, unfortunately I have to agree with you. It is amazing that the prime minister's colleagues in the cabinet room are willing to continue to be led by a person who has shown such poor judgement.

Jim Belshaw said...

You know, kvd, I'm inclined to agree with Scott's second comment. It is difficult to wind some things back. The breaches of previous protocols and customs that have occurred over time create new customs.

Evan said...

This lot remind me of the dying days of the Bjelke-Petersen regime. And I'm still surprised at how bad they are at the politics. To the degree that they seem to have given up on it - either doing nothing or just doing what they want with no consideration of the electorate.

I agree with Scott too.