Kevin Rudd has taken the power structure bequeathed by John Howard and pushed it even harder. Howard was as driven as Rudd in grasping the modern machinery of media management and marketing. Where Rudd has surpassed Howard is in turning these mechanisms back on his own ministry.

As I argued in the first part of this series, Rudd is squeezing the power prerogatives of his ministers so hard, the ministerial system is dysfunctional. What Rudd is doing to his Cabinet builds on the control mechanisms used so effectively by his predecessor.

Howard was far more effective than Fraser, Hawke or Keating in the way he centralised power, controlled his government, drove policy and directed debate through the media. Right to the very end, when Howard faced down his own Cabinet over staying on as leader, it seemed that no prime minister could be more centralising or controlling. Kevin Rudd, though, has introduced some refinements.

Rudd is just as obsessed as Howard with the news cycle and dominating the daily message. And Rudd’s office exerts even stronger control than Howard did over ministerial contacts with the media on the big story of the day. Ministers do not speak on the story-of-the-day unless they have the nod from Rudd’s office. A call from radio or TV to a ministerial minder with an interview request will often be referred to Rudd’s minders for adjudication before it is mentioned to the minister.

Even if a subject is in the minister’s direct area of responsibility, the decision to speak or respond often lies with the Prime Minister, not the minister. It is Rudd’s people who decide if a minister must go quiet or go public. If a comment is to be made, the Prime Minister decides who will step forward to speak.

This control ethos extends beyond the ministerial wing out into the public service. Policy production and policy announcement must accord with the Rudd view of the world. More importantly, that view directs timetables for policy creation. The cycle of reviews may seem endless. But if an issue suddenly becomes prominent, the policy process can be ordered into immediate overdrive. The information and the recommendations are suddenly due yesterday.

Jack Waterford, editor-at-large of The Canberra Times, argues that more power is now concentrated in Rudd’s office than was ever accumulated even by John Howard. This is a big call, but Jack is an old Canberra hand with long pedigree. He may sit out at the Times office in Fyshwick, but his feel for what is pulsing through Canberra is probably better than most people in the Parliamentary press gallery.

Jack’s column on 16 May (not online) argued that Rudd hasn’t merely grasped the presidential powers long associated with the Prime Ministership. To these, Rudd has added his own West Wing apparatus, controlling government from the PM’s office:

Not a significant Government decision occurs which has not been closely scrutinised in the Prime Minister’s Office. In many cases it will have originated there. Ministers have sharply reduced personal powers and discretions, and even when the details of decisions taken are left to the ministers or their departments to manage, they are not allowed to do or say anything about it unless it has been ticked off by the PMO. In many cases they are actually surprised by decisions made without reference to them, but promulgated in their name. Even speeches and press statements have to be checked, and in many cases texts are changed.

Waterford comes from the slightly damp, leftish end of the Canberra jungle. Harken now to the view from a dry, conservative bit of the bush, fomer deputy secretary of Treasury, Des Moore:

With ministerial staff playing a much bigger role, public servants are now under much greater pressure to accommodate political views…There has not yet, however, been any formal move to a US type system where top officials are political appointments. The worry in any such development is that public servants proper become increasingly inclined to accommodate political policies of the government of the day and to avoid putting forward advice consistent with the national interest.

For a view direct from the press gallery, harken to Geoff Kitney, who has been a Canberra scribe for Fairfax for decades, and is just back from a stint as Europe correspondent. His piece for the Financial Review on 13-14 June (not online) was headed 'A freaky level of control'. The Prime Minister’s obsessive micromanagement was described as a great strength of the Rudd leadership that could become the government‘s great weakness:

The buck not only stops at Rudd’s desk, it rarely leaves it and when it does, the Prime Minister keeps a very close eye on where it’s going and how - and by whom - it is being handled. Senior bureaucrats say they have not previously witnessed a head of government so completely engaged in such a wide range of issues and so finely managing the decision-making process.

For an example of the constrained life of a Cabinet Minister, look at the last-minute decision by the PM’s minders to wrench the anouncement of the Defence White Paper away from Parliament and the Defence Minister. The venue and timing were shifted to Sydney on a Saturday so Kevin Rudd could make the pronouncement standing on a Navy ship.

Remember that Joel Fitzgibbon had clashed with his department on several fronts, not least over the timing of the White Paper. Back in November, Fitzgibbon read the riot act to the department over the slippage in production of the most important policy document of his term as minister. Defence had missed the deadline to produce the paper by the end of last year. The department started musing about whether it’d be better to push the finish line a long way out to the end of this year. Fitzgibbon, goaded by his Prime Minister, insisted that it had to be delivered by March or April. Well, May as it turned out. 

Producing the document had been an expression of government will as well as policy. Yet Fitzgibbon’s role in the official release of the White Paper was reduced to nodding at the appropriate moments while the Prime Minister spoke. As an expression of policy dominance, the ceremony in Sydney was a statement about the central place of the Prime Minister and the control exerted by his minders over Ministerial actions. Fitzgibbon’s departure as minister merely underlines a key message of the release of the policy document. This was Kevin Rudd’s White Paper, just as the previous White Paper in 2000 belonged to John Howard.

The third part of this series will look at what the sapping of ministerial prerogatives could mean for Canberra’s future power structure.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.