Kevin Rudd runs a dysfunctional ministry. It is dysfunctional because of the way the Prime Minister both commands and constrains his ministers.
By dysfunctional, I am not offering a judgement about whether this is a good or bad government. It’s just that the engine is running in a most unusual manner. The word 'dysfunctional' describes the disruption to processes of ministerial responsibility. The Prime Minister and his courtiers have reached deep into ministerial prerogatives which, in turn, has reverberated through the public service.
This column follows on recent posts about the Defence Minister and the Defence White Paper, plus my mid-term reports on the Foreign Minister and the Trade Minister. A couple of the comments I’ve received about those columns made me realise I needed to write more explicitly about the broader ministerial context.
To discuss how diplomatic, trade and defence decisions are being made in Canberra today means writing about the Kevin Rudd presidency. So let's look at how The Kevin has disrupted 'normal' systems in Canberra and how big a departure this is from John Howard.
It’s worth stressing that this is a discussion about Canberra’s experience of the Rudd leadership, the particular (and often peculiar) perspectives found in the universe centred on Parliament House and the Ministerial Wing. There is a perception gap between those who serve the Ministerial universe and the positive way the Australian population has seen the workings of the Rudd Government. The divergence is partly explained by the fact that Canberra and the rest of Australia are looking at different aspects of The Kevin experience. Canberra is obsessed with the Prime Minister’s working methods – the process — while the Australian electorate is, quite rightly, more interested in the results produced.
Rudd is roughly on par with Howard in his obsession with the news cycle, tight control over Government dealings with the media and ruthless use of the public service. No real change there. Where Rudd has gone beyond Howard is in taking the Cabinet system even further towards the presidential model.
One of the unbroken trend lines running through Australian political history throughout the 20th century is the way the executive (Cabinet) has seized ever more power from the parliament. Now the Prime Minister/President is doing the same to Cabinet.
Soon after the Rudd Government started working, Canberra began to gossip about the dysfunctional rhythms being generated from the Prime Minister’s office. The PM puts his ministers on short leashes. Occasionally, he jerks hard on one of those leashes. Such abrupt activity immediately sends big shock waves from ministerial offices out into departments and through the public service.
What Canberra is seeing is a Prime Minister who is improving the presidential machinery to match the presidential style. Or, to put it in Australian terms, Rudd is shrinking the Canberra process to fit the modern model for a State Premier. Less power is held by ministers because almost all power of action and announcement is taken by the premier/president/prime minister.
As the US journalist Joe Klein remarked in writing about the Clinton presidency in The Natural: 'In the modern presidency, the real power resides with those closest to the President – the White House staff. All but a few Cabinet members are peripheral.' Australian ministers are not physically removed from the Prime Minister in the way US ministers are absent from the White House. But that image of the 'peripheral' minister has a very Canberra feel. My next column will look at how Kevin Rudd is doing his West Wing thing.
Photo by Flickr user publik16, used under a Creative Commons license.