For a couple of years after any given election the pretence of the Prime Minister being merely the first among Cabinet equals is maintained. Ministers make submissions and the colleagues around the table comment on them before the Prime Minister sagely sums up the consensus of views and delivers the Cabinet verdict.

There is rarely anything as formal as a vote at a Coalition gathering because Ministers know who they ultimately depend on for their job. Prime Ministers can thus occasionally get away with declaring a minority view they agree with to be the consensus decision. Not too often on major matters, mind you, because even the top man needs votes to stay there and a Prime Minister must be mindful of not alienating his fellow ministers.

Prime Ministers are also mindful of their major responsibility: winning the next election. It’s here the formal rigours of cabinet government can be a nuisance. There are things that leaders do not wish to share with their underlings – things like the research findings of pollsters giving a true indication of how a government is faring with the people.

Rare indeed is a Prime Minister, for example, who is willing to confirm that his popularity is on the slide to the point where defeat is likely. When things are going badly for a political party, decisions must be made quickly and with a minimum of discussion and then only with the colleagues who really have to know.

The sure sign that an election campaign has really started then, is when a Prime Minister begins making decisions without reference to his Cabinet. By this measure the 2007 Federal election campaign is well under way.

The announcement of the $10 billion over ten years to fix the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin, without any prior Cabinet submissions and with limited input from ministers other than Prime Minister John Howard, was like the firing of a starting pistol.

What is rare about this example is not the decision itself but the fact that it was made so early in the election cycle, fully exposing the blatantly political nature of the decision. When hurried vote buying is conducted within a month or so of polling day there is no scope for estimates committees to discover the truth by questioning public servants. When normal processes of good government are ignored six months or more before an election, secrecy is impossible to maintain.

That indicates just how seriously people should take Mr Howard’s assertion that winning the next election will be a hard task for his team. He is a man engaged in damage control who judges that the exposure of shoddy decision making is preferable to being seen as doing nothing about a serious drought.

Peter Fray

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