Tuesday, April 08, 2008

John Button - a personal memoir

Photo: John Button, ABC News

The death of John Button came as a shock. I know that it will be more so for my wife. I worked in his Department, she as a policy adviser in his office.

Given this, I thought that I might record a personal memoir, in so doing perhaps also giving a feel for Canberra in the earlier period of the Hawke Labor Government.

At the beginning of 1983 I returned to the Department of Industry and Commerce after a period of full time study at the University of New England. Initially I worked in the Bureau of Industry Economics on a Doug Anthony inspired project looking at the possibilities of a Pacific Free Trade area, then returned as Assistant Secretary to my old Economic Analysis Branch, the job I had held before going on leave.

My first contact with John Button came soon after the election of the Hawke Labor Government on 5 March 1983 when John was appointed Minister for Industry and Commerce.

I had to prepare a speech on trade practices and competition. I had no idea what to say because I had no idea what he thought on the issue, so I drafted some ideas and went to see him. We were both very new, so the speech itself proved pretty pedestrian. Still, I found him approachable and easy to get on with.

In the middle of 1983 my Department asked me to form a new branch - the Electronics, Aerospace and Information Industries Branch - to develop new policies to encourage the development of Australia's high technology industries. From then until I left the Service in July 1987 I worked closely with Mr Button and his office.

I say Mr Button because while my future wife called him by his first name, I always called him Minister. This was partly a matter of preference on my part, respect for the office, but I also thought that this was what he wanted.

While he did not say anything, the few times I forgot and called him John did not encourage me to repeat the practice. I just felt that he did not think that it was right.

The relationships between ministers and their public servants are always complicated. Public servants are meant to serve regardless of party politics. This is central to our system. But public servants have their own views, their own passions. They also have expertise in their subject areas.

When a new Government comes in prepared to consider change, open to new ideas, public servants respond with relief. Now is the time to push new things through.

This was what happened in 1983 with the Government in general, John Button in particular.

The key role of a Government, and this is often forgotten today, is to set an overall values framework within which the official system works. Done well, this allows new ideas to flow. Government articulates, the system responds with ideas.

I found John Button as minister very open. I wanted to bring about change, he was prepared to respond. I peppered him with ideas in minutes and meetings.

This was an exciting time in Industry and Commerce.

The relaxed leadership of Tom Hayes, our secretary, allowed new ideas to flow. I still feel that one of John Button's core long term mistakes lay in not retaining Tom.

An example to illustrate. I was working on the first aerospace industries policy statement. In doing do, I was working closely with Malcolm Macintosh, then a senior Defence official. He wanted to bring about change, and so did I.

Malcolm went on leave without getting his lines straight. When I circulated a draft cabinet submission, the Secretary of Defence and both Deputy Secretaries complained to Tom and Alan Godfrey, our Deputy Secretary. Tom sent a handwritten note to Alan saying "Belshaw will have to walk on water to get this one through." I did, and then sent a note back saying "Belshaw has walked on water."

The point is that Tom could have intervened when Defence complained. He did not, and we won.

Elsewhere in Industry Division Four the same thing was happening. This was the early days of what became the Button car plan. Under Don Fraser and Bob Samarcq's leadership, people kept on going off to drive cars!

One of the difficulties in getting new things through in Canberra lies in the power of the central coordinating agencies, then Treasury, Finance and Prime Minister's and Cabinet. Part of this power lies in their place in the system. Part also lies in the high standard of their staff and, especially in the case of Treasury, a clearly articulated Departmental position that allows junior staff to represent the Department.

Coming from Treasury, I was determined to reproduce at least the second. To do this, we focused on articulating new policy approaches and on building our intellectual armoury. This was helped by a high degree of staff morale. Bob Quiggin, now in the Solomon Islands and a commentator on this blog, later coined the phrase the Belshaviks - we were the revolutionaries!

A public servant's capacity to do things depends on the power of his/her minister. John Button had power. This was very helpful sometimes.

I remember going to a meeting at the Department of Communications chaired by the Departmental Secretary. He was dismissive of me as a a mere Assistant Secretary. He also wanted to do something that was in conflict with our position. When he dismissed my objections, I commented that I would brief the Minister who would simply block the matter in Cabinet. We won!

On another occasion, a court decision in the Computer Edge case had the effect of removing copyright protection on computer software. Attorney General's Department decided to hold a conference to decide whether or not anything should be done.

This was a major issue from our viewpoint, so I spoke to the Minister's principal private secretary. After ten minutes, he agreed that the conference should address what should be done, a not insignificant change. We also ensured that industry would be well represented.

Power should not be squandered. Our view was that John could win anything, but this coin had to be spent carefully. So we were very careful in what we proposed.

Sometimes this led to what I now think of as serious errors.

In 1983 and 1984 I simply did not realise how things were changing, that our window of opportunity was closing.

John wanted to go to Cabinet to get a major funds injection for the Australian aerospace industry. My view was that we were trying to encourage change in this industry, that we needed time to allow this change to work through so that new funds would give the greatest result, so I recommended against. This was a fatal error. By the time I felt ready to move, it was simply too late.

Working with John was fun.

At the simplest level, I sometimes used to craft my minutes to him to try to attract a chuckle. So in one minute on the Australian film industry I suggested that it had become a game park for Australian cultural lions. Yes, Phillip, I did have you in mind.

At a more important level, he was always interested in ideas, nor was he hierarchical. This allowed me to involve a variety of staff in the advisory process.

Sometimes I got frustrated even when I had to laugh.

John decided that he wanted a press conference on the release of the first Aerospace Industries policy statement. This was a great idea from my viewpoint because of the promotional possibilities. Yet when I went across to brief him, he was in a strange mood. While laughing, I could not get him to focus. We did not get the results I wanted.

One of the strangest things in all this was the way I ended up trying to protect his position in the Party and his relations with the union movement.

John and his staff knew of my National Country Party affiliations, sometimes to their amusement.

My own views about the union movement were mixed.

Early in the period I am talking about I met with the telecoms unions as part of the consensus process, I explained that change was inevitable, and union head Colin Cooper threatened a national strike!

Yet the unions were also a major force for change, including Colin. I also found that individual union members were an invaluable source of information on real developments in firms and sectors, balancing the official firm or industry positions.

How does this link to John? Well, sometimes I had to force him to consult.

I cannot comment on his views about unions, we never discussed it in a formal sense. I do remember one visit to an aerospace plant where the shop floor committee wanted to meet him. I had written this into the plan, but the visit took longer than expected. Both John and management wanted to defer the shop floor meeting. I had to insist because I had given my word!

To my mind, I stand to be corrected on this, most of John's cited achievements belong to the first years of his ministry. As time passed after March 1983, things became more difficult.

To my mind, John's strength as a minister lay in his ability to free people to generate and action new ideas. Two things now worked against this.

The first was the return to power of the central coordinating agencies. These agencies have a critical role, but they are not good generators of ideas or actions involving pro-active Government action.

The second was the rise of hierarchical agencies based on corporatist lines, controlling the flow of information and ideas beyond those approved by the agency executive. In my own Department, I saw a progressive decline in my ability to report independently. Increasingly, I had to clear what I said.

I found this frustrating. More importantly, it locked John Button into a narrower range of advice, while reducing the role and influence of the champions on whom real change depended. The net effect was a decline in his ability to achieve real change.

I am not sure that I would classify John, as some have done, as the greatest industry minister in Australia's history. I am sure that I would include him in the list of Hawke ministers such as John Dawkins who have had a significant influence on Australia.

Perhaps most importantly, I simply remember John as a worthwhile person.


Anonymous said...

I'm very sad to hear of Button's passing.

Viewed from the somewhat more remote distance that I had, Button's enduring feature for me was his ability to tell a joke - even a very old and tired one - and tell it well. He had charm and polish, especially for a bloke who resembled a garden gnome.

I suspect that the decline of the industry department was due to any number of things. Many of the senior management positions were filled by people simply not suited to task. I recall on Secretary of the Department bagging out the Government's industry program (that HE had administered for some years) before swanning off overseas on a diplomatic posting.

Button's star declined in the endless pushpull surrounding the Hawke Keating relationship.

And did I ever disagree with the way cars were seen as the primary business and everything else came second!

However, at the same time the Ministry was morphing. When I came, it was a hidebound monster whose employees' natural career progression was from being a bureaucratic protectionist to employment with a tariff agent. When I left, it had become a forward looking and dynamic department, at least for those times. That was very good.

The Belshavik days were fun, and you, Jim, were a such a pirate you should have come with an eyepatch and parrot. The words 'safe harbour' didn't carry much weight with you and sacred cows were served up roasted, with potatoes on the side. It was FUN.

Those days are gone, but adventure is not. I've had to do odd things to find it though. Government in Australia has been locked down for the last decade and I don't really see that changing. A shame, because although fun is nice, the lockdown also prevents a lot of significant or well planned change.

All of which brings me back to the Button days. That was change, with a capital C. It wasn't planned, it was like dancing on an avalanche. But very worthwhile things came out of them and Australia is the better for having had him as the Minister.

Requiescat in pace.

Jim Belshaw said...

I really enjoyed this comment, Bob. It brought back so many memories. And as you will have seen, I shamelessly used your praise!

Looking back, the thing that stands out is just how hard it is to make change stick in the face of institutional and cultural barriers. Here I take the force of you comment on the car plan. I felt the same.

When we began our campaign, exports of electronics, aerospace and information industries - these were huge global industries - were a bit over $200 million. They grew ten times, then fell back in the face of later policy instability and loss of vision.

Our approach was long term. Many felt that Australia really had no place in these new industry areas. In other cases such as communications equipment, the industry had turned inwards.

You cannot turn things like this around in one year or even five. A whole complex of things have to be done in an integrated way - you will no doubt remember the dreaded matrix approach! - and kept going for a sustained period.

This is easier when, like cars, you have an industry concentrated in a small number of firms where effects can be seen. Our industries in total were in domestic and global terms larger than automotive. But they were also fragmented and locked into old views of the past. This made them harder to see.

The communications equipment industry development strategy with its export targets, the first ever set, was fought by Treasury on the grounds that industry policy had no right to do this. Treasury completely missed the point that these were aspirational objectives set with the industry.

Achievement of those targets required a two stage process.

In the first we had to grow with what we had, achieving exports from what was essentially overseas technology brought into the country and modified to meet domestic needs. To go beyond this, we had to grow Australian developed product. All this required time.

I really struggled sometimes to get this message across.I also found it hard to get people to recognise that a small, vertical, targeted injection of Government funds could have great multiplier effects.

So in the cabinet submission on communications equipment the competitive product development fund - the only spending proposal -got knocked out at the last moment not because of Treasury opposition but because it interfered with the plans of the head of another Division in DITAC.

One of our constant problems was the confusion between so called vertical and horizontal industry measures.

Through the matrix approach we were aiming for vertical measures that had horizontal, reinforcing impacts. By contrast, the so-called horizontal or universal measures were in fact completely vertical in that they had totally differential effects between industries and areas.

I think that very few even in our own Department realised the scale of our consulation processes, the way in which we involved what are now called stake-holders.

At the height of the development of the information industries strategy we had some six industry associations, three unions, over forty people, directly involved. We were also liaising with a variety of other bodies uncluding caucus committees. I still remember the corridor meetings at which concensus was created among very different parties.

In all this,I remember what I think of as the union and especially industry heroes who became drivers in the process.

I cannot remember all the names, allthough the people come back if the names are mentioned. People like Peter Smith (Aerospace) or Arthur Gabb (electronics).

They may not have agreed with us, many did not, but they knew that change was required and tried to contribute.

I once started writing about this, and really should continue because our successes and failures still have lessons for today.

From a personal persepective, one of the nicest thing about the branch was the people. While memory is an unreliable beast and I may need to be reminded, I suspect that after twenty years I can still remember individual contributions. I say this quite seriously, because we worked as a team.

Well, Bob, I agree with you that there is still adventure. In my own way I am still trying to bring about change.

I did have to laugh, though.

Doing a search on you, I found the transcript of your appearance before a Solomon Islands parliamentary committee. Very much the Westminster official!