Part one here; part two here.

Labor governments have been the big centralisers of the Australian bureaucratic machinery of defence and international policy. Whitlam dragged all the military service departments into a single Defence Department, while Hawke merged Foreign Affairs and Trade. Kevin Rudd’s centralising effort, so far, has been more about the control exerted by his office.

Rudd is applying the philosophy of a modern Labor Premier to the operation of the Federal Government. As chief of staff to the Goss Government in Queensland, Rudd absorbed all of the control tricks perfected by state Labor in Victoria and New South Wales. Under this model, everything revolves around the Premier. The Premier dominates in method and message.

Compared to his predecessors as Labor Prime Ministers (especially Whitlam, Hawke and Keating), Rudd has much less day-to-day reason to fear interference or opposition from the factions. Rudd broke with a century-old Labor tradition when he announced before the 2007 election that he, not a vote of the Parliamentary caucus, would decide the lineup of the Cabinet.

Granted, the historic nature of this announcement is rather lessened by the fact that the break with tradition had been carefully agreed by all the faction leaders. The symbolism of the move was that it would show Rudd as the dominant leader. In power, that dominance has been put into effect. The factions connived to hand greater power to the leader to select his ministry. The aim was to  help win an election. It is a one-time gift from the factions that cannot be easily withdrawn.

In the same way, Rudd isn’t too concerned with Labor ideology or formal policy. The emphasis, even the obsession, is on implementing the policy promises Rudd made in the 2007 election campaign. The campaign was all about Kevin 07, and so is the process of government.

The operating core of the Government is the Prime Minister, the deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the two money ministers, Treasurer Wayne Swan and Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner. Rudd dominates his Treasurer in ways far beyond anything Hawke could attempt with Keating or Howard with Costello. The rest of Cabinet check over the decisions after the core ministers have agreed. 

The markers put down by Howard are being discarded. Howard entered office in 1996 deeply distrustful of the public service. His early terms were the age of voluntary redundancy in Canberra. The middle levels of the public service were paid off and sent on their way. Consultants were the great winners. Remember those long-gone early Howard days when the 'Yellow Pages' rule applied? If there was a private sector company in the phone book offering a service, then why did government need to do it? 

During that era, government didn’t even need to own buildings in Canberra, which is why Foreign Affairs is now a tenant in its own headquarters (and paying a lot for the privilege). As the years of power ticked over, Howard became more comfortable with the public service and numbers grew back. Howard forgot about devolution and turned into the most centralist of conservative leaders.

Rudd hasn’t had to shed any such ideological baggage. He has been centralising from the start. If The Kevin stays in power for an extended period, look for him to change the formal structures of the public service to better reflect that centralising imperative.

Back in Kevin’s home state, Anna Bligh celebrated her re-election as premier in March with a dramatic reorganisation of her Government. She nearly halved the number of departments from 23 to 13. That makes it much easier to keep on top of Ministers, regulate the flow of decisions and drive the media message.

The same logic could be applied to Canberra if Rudd wins the next election. The great amalgamations attempted by Hawke could get a re-run. Fewer but bigger departments. A tight corps of senior ministers would sit at the top of super departments where they’d also supervise various junior ministers. The control process could be even more strictly monitored because there’d be fewer discrete parts. 

The trouble with all this control is that it depends on the touch and stamina of the leader at the centre. A lot now rides on Rudd’s intellect and biorythms and those of his courtiers.

Photo by Flickr user publik16, used under a Creative Commons license.