It almost always takes a difference of opinion within a cabinet to cause a leak of details of what happened in a cabinet meeting. The reason there have been so few disclosures of who held what views about which subject is that in recent years disagreements in cabinet meetings have been few and far between. Not that that means everyone around the table would be in agreement on every subject.
Our past three prime ministers — John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard — have each taken a different view of cabinet government to most of their Australian predecessors. Their style has been far more presidential than the traditional Westminster system of government prescribes. On many occasions, where something is likely to be controversial, the prime minister announces a decision first and has it ratified second. What discussion there is with ministers that precedes an announcement is restricted to seeking the views of a few most trusted colleagues.
That Gillard last week finally took the question of deciding what to do about boat people — or should that be deciding what not to do? — to an actual cabinet meeting was to me a signal that finally there are rumblings of ministerial discontent from those not among the favoured few. To get away with being presidential a prime minister needs to be proved invariably right.
It was when the Labor Party lost faith in Rudd’s judgment that the unhappiness with his autocratic style boiled over into the leadership challenge that saw him replaced. Gillard’s leadership has come under questioning on asylum policy because she has consistently been proven wrong — from East Timor, to Malaysia to Papua New Guinea. At least now that we are to have onshore processing rather than offshore processing the policy has the majority backing of cabinet members albeit only because Gillard declared that Nauru was not an option because it would involve too much of a personal back-down for her.
Perhaps ministers will now pluck up their courage and demand that cabinet continue to operate in the more traditional fashion with discussion first and decisions second. If that happens then there will be far more examples of the cabinet leaks that used to be a staple of political reporting from Canberra and our democracy will be all the healthier for it.
I mean, good government did not come to an end in the days when the Country Party’s Jack McEwen as deputy prime minister would brief The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Ian Fitchett about the sneaky plans of Liberal Treasurer Bill McMahon to change the value of the Australian dollar and McMahon would give his version of the cabinet battle for Max Newton to publish in his newsletter.
It just led to a better-informed public.