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The first fifty days

By Randal Stewart - posted Thursday, 7 November 2013

The first fifty days of the new Australian Government is approaching so this is a good time to review progress. So far, the Government is being run by a Lone Ranger Prime Minister, Tony Abbott and his sidekick, Tonto, Treasurer Joe Hockey.

Joe Hockey:Do you think we should discuss debt levels, Ke mo sah bee?

Tony Abbott: Tonto, how many times do I have to tell you? Debt is what we talk about in Opposition, not Government! We have to get this right. If we do not, we will fall apart, divided, and will not achieve all the good things we have set out to do. Do you understand?


Joe Hockey: Yes, Ke mo Sah bee, the Great Spirit brings warm winds in the summertime, but chilly winds when it gets colder.

In the first fifty days, the Prime Minister and his ministers are learning to run a Government. They have their L-plates on! They must learn two things to survive with authority and unity. One, they must learn to take advice and then what advice to adopt and what to discard. Two, the Prime Minister must learn how to concentrate power within his ministry.

In the first fifty days, as expected, there were many mistakes. The new Government began badly by sacking public servants indicating a casual attitude to advice, they sacked Steve Bracks indicating a less than generous spirit, they were blind-sided by the women in cabinet furore and they created unnecessary controversy by discussing Badgerys Creek and education reforms before they were ready. More recently, Warren Truss put public pressure on Joe Hockey over the GrainCorp decision and Malcolm Turnbull offered the view that the coalition would support a conscience vote on same sex marriage, a decision not his to make. Some ministers, like Christopher Pyne and Joe Hockey, are clearly struggling with the role.

The Prime Minster himself took an ill-advised trip to regional neighbours to try and repair misunderstandings thought to exist from things said when the Government was in opposition. The Prime Minister explained it was not a trip to apologise but "an act of contrition". The trip itself and the idea of 'contrition' sounds like it comes from white-knuckled, gut-wrenching spur of the moment political nous rather than sound advice.

The challenge of being a minister is acute and it is learned behaviour. Apart from the obvious challenges of administering a department of state, managing parliamentary business, preserving your influence in the party, representing you constituents, public advocacy in the 24/7 news cycle and looking after your family you have to find time to eat and sleep.Research from the Institute of Government shows that an effective minister must have: a clear vision and set of objectives; the ability to pursue such priorities without getting bogged down in the details of administration; a willingness to listen and to take advice; and wider political skills of communication and understanding the media. The same research highlights the pitfalls which are a lack of preparation for becoming a minister; and the almost complete absence of proper appraisal of performance in office.Even if you have been a minister before, like Abbott and Truss, and in junior ministerial roles like Pyne and Hockey, the context is ever-changing. Governing is about adapting to the political and policy context of the day. It is necessary to regularly re-learn the context afresh to govern in a democracy.

The first challenge - the authority challenge - is learning to take advice and then what advice to adopt and what to discard. The biggest problem new Government ministers face in taking advice is to stick too closely to the platform they presented to the electorate. Kevin Rudd made this mistake and called it 'promise delivery'. It is a mistake because the platform was developed for politics, not for governing. Taking advice means listening to those who know about governing, the public service. What advice to adopt and what to discard is also tricky for new ministers but the golden rule is to take the governing advice that has a clear line of sight to the outcomes you want the public to receive.


The second challenge – the unity challenge – is how the Prime Minister will concentrate power in the ministry to foster a united government. Although, Australian Governments operate in a democracy and govern for the people, like corporations they do not have to be democratic internally. Unity demands that someone rules and that ruler is the Prime Minister. Successful Prime Ministers, like John Howard, have concentrated power in their ministry around themselves reinforcing at the same time, their own power and government unity. This is not easy. Howard did it by concentrating decision making on the National Security Committee of cabinet, Rudd tried and failed to concentrate power on the four person Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee of cabinet and Julia Gillard did not seem to even realise this was a requirement of a united, authoritative Government.

Tony Abbott and I grew up with a Lone Ranger played by Clayton Moore in a 1950's TV western. Clayton Moore was a Lone Ranger who acted with authority. He was in charge. He had all the best ideas and he told Tonto and the townspeople what to do in the interests of justice. He was neatly dressed and had a white hat and a white horse. Today's Lone Ranger played by Armie Hammer is scruffy. He is undecided. Tonto answers back and the townspeople are a surly lot, cynical, wondering who the man in the mask is.

Today's Prime Minister cannot run the Government as a Lone Ranger. This may work to manage the media, a single point of control for the release of information, but it does not work to get good decisions out. Our modern interactive public social character demands the Prime Minster listen to advice, interact on social media, engage and empower citizens at the same time displaying authority and unity. The Prime Minister must learn to work with an authoritative and united team internally (no back chat from Tonto!) but be prepared to negotiate externally to get good things done. This combination requires greater, but more humble, skills from our leadership. Learning how to take advice and then what advice to adopt and what to discard and how to concentrate power for unity is vital work in progress under way in the new Australian Government.

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About the Author

Randal Stewart is a Canberra-based consultant, trainer and author. He is co-author of the popular politics textbook Politics One.

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