Ben Hubbard was Labor’s beacon of hope when he took over as Julia Gillard’s chief of staff last February. Here was the man, the true believers thought, who could end the policy stuff-ups, sharpen the government’s message and bring order to an out-of-control office.
A year on, it’s hard to judge the boy from Bendigo’s tenure as anything but a disappointment. HMAS Gillard is floundering — and could soon go under altogether.
Ask Labor insiders for their thoughts on Hubbard and you’ll hear the same words again and again: organised, well-liked, calm, policy-focused. While blokey and bawdy — a frequent dropper of the “f” bomb — he’s not bad-tempered.
“I can’t imagine anybody not liking Ben,” says a former senior Gillard staffer; “it’s hard to think of a bad thing to say about him,” remarks a former ALP national secretary.
Hubbard helped the PM manoeuvre the carbon and mining taxes through a hung parliament — both legislative triumphs. And there’s no doubt he’s made Gillard’s office a smoother, more cohesive unit.
One of Hubbard’s first decisions was to launch a “war on crap” to clear out piles of unread paperwork. He set up clear structures to deal with bureaucrats and ministers. And he instituted a more formal dress code, telling staff: “This is not an abattoir or a f-cking ad agency. This is the prime minister’s office.”
But Hubbard is not just an administrator: he’s also the prime minister’s chief political adviser. And there’s no escaping the Gillard government’s political blunders. They all lead to one conclusion: Gillard is being given poor advice — or she’s receiving sound counsel and ignoring it.
The first mistake was perhaps the most damaging: failing to foresee the fury that Gillard’s decision to break her “no carbon tax” promise would unleash. Gillard’s line — that she’d always supported putting a price on carbon –simply hasn’t cut it with voters. By March 2011 Labor’s primary vote, according to Newspoll, had crashed to 30% and it’s been stuck there ever since.
Later came Gillard’s speech to the ALP national conference — widely panned for her use of the trite phrase “we are us” and the pointed omission of any reference to Kevin Rudd’s achievements as prime minister. Then there was the Australia Day Tent Embassy debacle that claimed a media adviser’s scalp. And, most recently, Gillard’s disastrous decision to appear on the ABC’s Four Corners.
Gillard, of course, is the ultimate decision maker. The primary charge against Hubbard is not incompetence — it’s impotence. The hung parliament has weakened the prime minister’s authority and, consequently, her chief of staff’s. White-anting from Rudd supporters, ruthless oppositionism from Tony Abbott, and hostility from the populist media have made a tough job even tougher.
Being the prime minister’s chief of staff, at any time, is one of the most challenging gigs going. When parliament is sitting, a work day for Hubbard starts before 7am, finishes after 10pm, and involves everything from scrutinising legislation to meeting with business leaders and trade union bosses.
“You are the head of the praetorian guard for the prime minister,” explains veteran ALP strategist Bruce Hawker on the role. “You have to take overarching responsibility of all the ministries in the government. You have to be the confidante of the prime minister in a way that no one else would be. You have to handle political and administrative duties.”
A senior Gillard staffer describes the job more bluntly: “Everything that’s shit lands up on your desk.”