Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Changing Government in Australia - an international primer

Since the Australian blogosphere seems to have dissolved into an orgy of self-congratulation on one side, bitter thoughts on the other, I was not going to say anything more on political issues until the air cleared. Then I thought that some of the writing I have seen must seem very strange to anyone who does not know Australia.

I then thought that one useful thing that I might do is to provide some brief comments on the processes involved in changing Government. This has in fact been quite well covered in the Australian media, but may be of interest to those outside Australia, especially those from non-Westminster tradition countries. Australia is not like the West Wing.

Three things are key in the Australian tradition.

The first is that Government must go on.

Sounds self-evident I know, but during an election campaign things stop. Often they really stop a fair bit earlier, months ago in the case of the Howard Government. Things still go on, the Northern Territory intervention is a case in point, but much of the ordinary business of state starts to wind down.

All this means that any new Government comes into office with a backlog of things that need to be done, plus all the new things like the Bali conference on climate change that have to be actioned quickly. The rest of the world does not stop just because Australia is having an election.

The second key thing to note is that Australia is a Westminster country. Unlike the US, for example, where the very top officials like the Secretary of our State are appointed, in Australia they are selected from those elected to Parliament - the Ministers of the Crown including the PM.

This links to the third point, the presence of a public, or civil service to use the UK phrase, whose core role is to serve the Government elected by the people regardless of party. Despite the partial politicisation of the service, this remains true.

Once the election is announced, Government goes into caretaker mode. During this period, only routine matters can be dealt with. Any other matter must be resolved in conjunction with the opposition.

The public service is not inactive during this period.

Two sets of briefing must be prepared. One, far more voluminous, is for the opposition in the event that they should become Government. The second, slimmer, version is for the Government should it be returned.

In total, this briefing material runs to tens of thousands of pages.

Part of it is machinery. What needs to be done, how it needs to be done, covering every aspect of the establishment of a new Government.

Part of it is for immediate decision. Mr Rudd wants to ratify Kyoto and go to Bali. How might this be done? What is involved? Here there is a mixture of machinery and policy.

Then there is all the immediate material that the new Government and especially the leadership needs to know. What is the state of the budget? What things need to be taken into account?

Beyond this is all the material on individual portfolios ready for the ministers once selected. This includes initial suggestions on ways to activate new policies.

Problems can arise in this process.

Some public servants may want to defend the status quo. Some of the incoming ministers and their advisers may be very suspicious and want to preserve their cherished ideas at all costs. A public service may become so politicised as to be ineffective. Yet the reality is that any new Government in the Australian system depends on its public service to get things done.

I think that Mr Rudd has learned this.

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