After last week’s convulsive expulsion of Kevin Rudd, Canberra is now settling back into its normal routines. The common wisdom in the nation’s capital now is that Rudd’s systematic subversion of federal cabinet was just the work of a rogue individual and that his sacking by the Labor caucus was an affirmation, in a way, of the strength of the Australian system of governance.

Well, last night I addressed a group of senior public servants in Canberra and ruffled their feathers with an alternative view of the affair.

The ease with which Rudd ignored the normal cabinet process for two years has, I said, exposed a dangerous flaw in Australian governance that has merely been papered over by Mark Arbib’s and Bill Shorten’s brutal execution of Rudd and the installation of Julia Gillard.

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This is not merely a theoretical discussion in hindsight about proper governance: Rudd’s by-passing of cabinet resulted in the dreadful resource super profits tax, a debacle that has significantly damaged the country and which the new prime minister has now had to quickly sort out with the mining industry.

The fact that this has proved possible, with a deal to be announced today, will no doubt allow everyone to persuade themselves that it’s all worked out okay in the end and let’s just draw a veil over the unfortunate Rudd era. Julia Gillard is entirely different and it’ll never happen again.

In my view that’s not good enough. I invited last night’s group of senior executive service members to think about what would have happened if there had been a terrorist emergency in the past couple of months that not only made it impossible for Rudd’s enemies in caucus to remove him but actually reinforced and continued his autocratic style of government, in which all decisions were made by him and a small coterie of ministers — in the national interest, of course.

Or what if he had been a more competent, more malevolent demagogue, able to manipulate public opinion and remain popular?

What if Rudd had called an election in February, increased his majority and continued his ‘boiling frog’ act of gradually centralising power in his own office for another three years?

In the final 12 months of the Howard government there were 64 cabinet meetings. In the first 12 months of the Rudd government there were 235 constituted cabinet meetings — an astonishing increase in activity.

But most of these were not cabinet meetings — they were meetings of a subcommittee of cabinet called the Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee, the so-called gang of four, or kitchen cabinet, of Rudd, Deputy Prime Minister Gillard, Treasurer Wayne Swan and Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner.

As everyone now knows, most government decisions over the past two and a half years were made by this group, and often by just Rudd and Swan (like the RSPT), and then brought to full cabinet for rubber stamping — sometimes not even that. The shift towards committee government had been justified by the global financial crisis and then it became a habit.

These days company boards have to publish corporate governance statements about how they operate. Consultants are paid millions to advise on proper corporate governance and directors are fastidious about process.

What we have learnt from the past two and a half years is that there is no such governance standards prescribing the way the government must work. If a PM wants to bypass cabinet and run the government as a kind of autocracy, he or she can do it. No one complains unless the opinion polls turn against the PM.

And the fact that Rudd was able to be brought down by ALP enemies before the end of his first term means the flaws in the system will not be addressed — the Canberra elites are now telling themselves, in fact, it works fine. See? Rudd strayed from the path of proper governance and was efficiently sacked.

What I told last night’s gathering was that they were just lucky. It turned out Rudd was a bit of an idiot who didn’t know what was going on. Even last Wednesday night he vowed to stay on, unaware that he was already dead.

If he had been ‘saved’ by a major terrorist attack in the past couple of months or had been smarter, it would have been a different story.

So what should be done? Preferably there should be a change to the constitution recognising the authority and responsibility of ministers. At the moment the constitution barely recognises their existence, let alone spells out what they are supposed to do and how the prime minister is supposed to treat them.

Failing that, since constitutional change is nearly impossible, Gillard should ask the Cabinet Office to prepare a ‘Statement of Governance Practice’ that spells out the proper way in which the Australian government is to operate. It should set out in writing what she has promised verbally to do.

This document could be passed as a law, or perhaps just affirmed, by both houses of parliament so that it binds all parties to the proper use of cabinet at all times, except in rare and specified circumstances.

The policy mistakes of the past six months, and specifically the RSPT, should never be allowed to happen again.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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