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Public Sector Informant : PSI - September
THE PUBLIC SECTOR INFORMANT 3 [SEPTEMBER 2010] GREY 18287 [BOOKS:STEPHEN B ARTOS] An impossible burden? Life as a new minister Learning on the job The hung Parliament will test ministers and senior bureaucrats in unpredictable ways The public service can make ministers look good, or fail them, while outwardly looking like they are doing exactly the same professional job. Beginners: Prime minister Kevin Rudd, governor-general Major-General Michael Jeffery and the new Labor ministry in 2007. By the time the Informant deadline rolled around, there still was no resolution of which side of politics would form government. One thing certain, though, is that under either a Labor or a Coalition government there will be new ministers. That is a challenge both for the ministers themselves and for the public service. When respected academic Pro- fessor Patrick Weller and Age journalist Michelle Grattan wrote about ministers in 1981, they titled their book Can Ministers Cope? Almost 30 years later, there is even more of a question mark over ministers' capacity to cope with the demands placed on them. The pres- sures and problems faced by govern- ment are greater, the number of ministers with senior leadership experience outside Federal Parlia- ment smaller, and the scrutiny of the media far more intense. A new book on the subject, by Weller and Dr Anne Tiernan, aims to bring us up to date on the pressures faced by ministers. The answer to whether ministers can cope is answered late in the book, with a telling excerpt from an Andrew Denton interview with for- mer United States president Bill Clinton. Denton asked, ''Is the job too much for one man?'' and was given a resounding no. Tiernan and Weller observe that ''if a US presi- dent sees his role as manageable, it would be strange if the role of an Australian minister could not be the same, even for those without Clinton's immense talents''. They observe that some ministers do indeed cope, and cope well, by balancing their political and adminis- trative roles: a conclusion that won't be news to senior public servants, but nevertheless is worth documenting. Many of the ministers interviewed from the new Labor government appreciated the willingness of the public service ''but regretted its passivity'' and lack of policy thoughts. It was a theme repeated by some senior public servants them- selves. There was also a perceived distance between the public service and ministers: one minister commen- ting that, by comparison with the states, ''the Commonwealth public service . . . maintains a stronger cordon between itself and the minis- ter''. At the same time, there was some disquiet about the capacity of the public service (expressed particu- larly by Rudd government ministers) to meet their needs. So what is life like for ministers? A new minister will always be stunned at the amount of resources suddenly at their disposal: vastly more than a backbencher, even more so if they were an opposition backbencher. Alongside this, they face enormous demands on their time; unless they are strong about resisting the barrage of information and briefings from their department, they can be over- whelmed. They live a strange life while in Canberra, cooped up in their own offices and the self-contained town- ship of Parliament House. As one minister observed, ''it's like a board- ing school. You can't get out without permission. We're all locked in.'' Probably a Coalition minister (they are more likely to have attended a boarding school), but, wisely, the identity of such quotes is kept secret. Good ministers are above all else good managers of their own personal time: they balance their ministerial duties with personal life, politics, their electorate, the media and the inevitable crises that come along to disrupt any well-laid plans. They also consider the time of others in their own offices and in the public service and manage the demands they place on the system. A common complaint about the methodology of social sciences, and especially studies like this that rely on numerous interviews, is that ''the plural of anecdote is not data''. Normally that's true: heaping up unsupported opinions does not turn them into facts and can indeed simply confirm mistaken group biases or prejudices. But there are exceptions, especially if a good cross-section of opinions from disparate sources can be gathered, and this is one such. The insights of so many ministers, former ministers, staff and public servants provides a fascinating account of the business of being or serving a minister in contemporary times. There is something of a bias towards the opinions of Labor minis- ters, in that they dominate the quotes about views of new ministers and there is a good deal of reflection on the circumstances of the new Rudd government. That reflects the timing of the research, and fortunately the discussion is leavened by a reason- able smattering of quotes from the previous government's ministers and staff. A former Howard minister reports that after an election ''every- one is waiting by their phone''. Some of the observations have been overtaken by the unexpected and rapid replacement of Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard as prime minister. The book observes that women remain concentrated in social minis- tries, and ''perhaps by the time the next iteration of this book is contem- plated, women's position in the ministry will be so commonplace that no one will see a need to comment''. It is noticeable that after a very brief flurry of comment about our first female prime minister, it was back to the business of politics, and gender was secondary to the election cam- paign. The comment that the ''senior leadership group -- Rudd, Gillard, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner -- presents as a cohesive team'' is also particularly ironic given the number of senior Labor figures since then who have blamed the troubles of the Rudd government at least in part on the concentration of power in this small group. When the new crop of ministers gets in this year, they will certainly face a different environment to that described in the book. There will be parliamentary reforms to improve accountability and less of the com- plete dominance over the Parliament by the executive that we saw under the Rudd and Howard governments. Not all of the observations in this book will apply to that new world, but the fundamentals of the roles of ministers, particularly in regard to their relationships with their depart- ments, will continue. The public service can make ministers look good, or fail them, while outwardly looking like they are doing exactly the same professional job. One of the key tests of a good public service is how well it adjusts to changed circumstances; this time around, not only any new ministers they face but also the need to take account of the Independents, Greens and West Australian Nationals' in- terests while still professionally serv- ing the elected government. One way to think about it is like a continual round of Senate hearings as the prevailing mode of government; not the estimates hearings, which are more adversarial, but the policy discussion and debate that goes on in other hearings. It has been a long time since we last had a hung Parliament in 1940, and there are no obvious models or templates for the public service to draw on. Its relationship with its ministers will be tested in a way that no current public servant has experi- enced directly. The work of Tiernan and Weller provides useful food for thought on key issues, especially from the perspectives of the ministers themselves. That itself is of inesti- mable value to public servants seek- ing to manage in these tricky times. Stephen Bartos is a director of LECG and a former senior public servant. email@example.com Learning to be a Minister: Heroic Expectations, Practical Realities,by Anne Tiernan and Patrick Weller, Melbourne University Press, 2010. RRP $39.99.
PSI - October