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The way we govern - two former politicians reveal the workings of Cabinet

Jonathan Green, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 November 2014

If politics is all about character then this pair of books –  one from the almost distant past of the Hawke Keating years, the other from the recent Rudd-Gillard imbroglio – provide a study in contrast. A tale emerges: of how abundant ego and ambition can either be subordinated to a greater shared objective or, unrestrained and indulged, lead to ruin.

Gareth Evans imposed his own 30-year rule on the publication of his elegant, witty and fastidious cabinet diaries, nigh on two years of assiduous nocturnal notation now published as Inside the Hawke Keating Government

The diaries are the more fascinating for the delay: shorn of any sense of contemporary controversy, they offer a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a period still recalled for its impressive strokes of policy and achievement. 

They lack the strong element of pleading that is the central motif of Wayne Swan's The Good Fight.

The Evans diaries come early in the Hawke-Keating era, spanning September 1984 to October 1986. Our hero is stumbling as we join the cabinet table, about to trip from the post of Attorney General to the less salubrious portfolio of Resources and Energy. By late 1986, the Senator's authorial stamina is exhausted, and this window on perhaps the most active and reforming cabinet of the recent Australian past is closed.

With The Good Fight –  six years, two prime ministers and staring down the Great Recession – Swan has been quicker to print, attempting after the fact what the Rudd and Gillard governments failed to do in real time: selling a narrative of sound economic management through the turbulence of the global financial crisis.

Swan achieves that end, but the former Treasurer spares Rudd very little in this account, joining a short list of recent titles that have done likewise. The compounded impression of the twice former Prime Minister is of a man who combines almost pathological incapacity with unflinching self belief. 

According to Swan, a man whose opinion of Rudd carries the weight of a three-decade friendship, Rudd froze in the headlights of office. He was "unstable", "vengeful". Finance Minister Lyndsay Tanner stopped attending meetings of Rudd's Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee in frustration and disgust, avoiding even that "kitchen cabinet", a group that like the government at large was the victim of the Prime Minister's utter failure to organise, delegate and implement.

On Valentine's Day 2010 key ministers were wrangling with health policy. Rudd was wild and intransigent: "agreement between Kevin and his senior minister was not being easily reached", recalls Swan. And then the Prime Minister ends the negotiation in a tantrum.

"To say Kevin was angry was an understatement. Equally Julia and I were not about to let him take us down such a disastrous path (a commonwealth takeover of health). Kevin started shouting at me and the Treasury officers, suggesting some sort of conspiracy against him. So angry and frustrated did he become that he left the room. I had seen Kevin angry before, but this was more concerning than anything I had experienced until then. When the meeting reconvened an hour later, Julia took control, setting out the major decisions that had to be agreed."

The impression is of bemused and fearful courtiers recoiling from potentially lethal regal rage.

The contrast with the Cabinet tensions detailed by Evans is telling. Under Hawke's chairmanship there are tensions, there are disputes, there are titanic plays of ego … but there is always a greater purpose: delivering the best policy outcome, based on robust engagement and constructive disagreement. 

From the Evans diary, this discussion of a proposal to trim Medibank payments is telling. There is heat, but no paralysis. It is Thursday May 9, 1985:

"The rationale for the proposal, which (Neal) Blewett had demanded be brought to the full Cabinet, was put by Hawke, Keating, Walsh and Dawkins …

"Blewett's case against all this was extremely strongly mounted, with him – for the first time that I can recall – barely concealing his anger at the stupidity of it all ..."

"(Don) Grimes supported him strongly on equity and medical politics grounds, and then I weighed in with a supporting argument based on the weakness of the case made out for any new substantial cut at all …

"As the debate went around the room, it became apparent that only Lionel Bowen supported the committee's position ... The debate went on, Ralph Willis, Stewart West, Brian Howe all putting a position."

Yes, Evans writes, though Hawke was angry, even petulant, in the end the Cabinet view opposing the position put by the PM carried the day: "…this view was so obviously shared by the majority round the table that eventually Hawke and Keating had to capitulate."

Here is a Cabinet in which the Prime Minister is clearly first among something close to equals, a Cabinet that delivers outcomes reinforced by argument and a collective resolve. In a nutshell we see the contrast between two eras, one that shows what works in government and what does not.

Crisis management is one thing … and Rudd and Swan combine, as we read in Swan's account, with great effect to save the country from a financial calamity, but in the longer game the key to success is in the collegiate will of a full and functioning Cabinet empowered to speak its mind.