If there’s an engine room of political power in Australia, it’s cabinet. And like most engine rooms, it’s hidden out of sight, its operations little understood by the rest of us.

It’s not even mentioned in the constitution — though nor, for that matter, is the prime minister. There are no hard and fast rules or law about how cabinet operates. It’s a mixture of tradition, practicality and prime ministerial preference. But it’s the key governmental decision-making forum that drives policy and how it is implemented.

Effectiveness in cabinet is a key skill in Australian politics. Australia was lumbered with a vertically integrated telecommunications behemoth for 25 years because Kim Beazley, backed by public sector unions, convinced Bob Hawke’s cabinet to accept his telecommunication reform package over the objections of Paul Keating and Treasury in 1988. Keating stormed out of cabinet over the decision. The economic damage is only now being repaired.

What makes an effective cabinet minister? It’s not enough to be across your brief. For complex issues or major reforms, ministers need to be able to tell colleagues where the government will be at the end of the process and how it will get there. And the most important requirement is credibility with colleagues. Ministers who consult widely with colleagues before going to cabinet are also likely to find cabinet more receptive to even controversial proposals. Greg Combet is regularly identified by colleagues as an effective minister. Bill Shorten increasingly is, too — indeed, one of the few political positives for the government in the past 12 months has been Shorten’s emergence as a strong player in the government. Jenny Macklin (a senior adviser to Bryan Howe in the Keating government) is also said to be good at taking colleagues through complex issues.

The point of the elaborate bureaucratic rigmarole of cabinet is so that it can be a genuine contest of ideas, with ministers as well informed as possible about the implications of proposals. When cabinet doesn’t function this way, it hurts governments — in policy terms and politically.

By a second term, governments should be at their peak: quality junior ministers have shown their wares and been promoted; underachievers moved aside, and the experience of a first term translating into more mature consideration of politics and policy. But the Gillard cabinet is still emerging from the trauma of the Rudd years.

The most spectacular example of cabinet breaking down was under Rudd. After the GFC, in which a series of emergency financial and economic decision were taken by a small group of senior ministers on advice from the most senior bureaucrats, Rudd came increasingly to rely on the Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee — aka the Gang of Four: himself, Wayne Swan, Julia Gillard and Lindsay Tanner — to make key decisions, many of which never went before cabinet. The government’s decision to “delay” its carbon pollution reduction scheme in 2010 didn’t go to cabinet. And neither, most notoriously, did the government’s response to the Henry tax review, centred on the mining tax. Ministers weren’t given the opportunity to even understand the complex policy, let alone scrutinise it, consider its political implications or, in the case of Resources Minister Martin Ferguson, discuss the likely reaction of the industry.

One of Gillard’s key commitments the moment she replaced Rudd was to return to cabinet government — although one of her worst policy proposals, the “citizens’ assembly” on climate change that became Labor policy in the 2010 election, was crafted in her office and never put to cabinet or caucus. There remain even now complaints the government remains too willing to consider significant issues in cabinet “under the line” — that is, without submission.

There were several reasons behind Rudd’s downgrading of cabinet. A remorseless micro-manager and control obsessive, Rudd was less comfortable with a full-blown cabinet process than a tightly controlled internal process with only the government’s most senior figures involved. And several senior advisers, and several ministers, as well as Rudd himself, came from state politics, where major policies are much more often dealt with between ministers via letter, or “under the line”. Because only Simon Crean and John Faulkner had served in previous cabinets, there were few ministers who, initially, understood or were prepared to speak up about the sheer extent to which Rudd had moved away from traditional process.

Non-cabinet decision-making also minimised the risk of leaks — a genuine risk given what later emerged about Treasury officials.

In May 2008, the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism co-ordination comment on the government’s Fuelwatch proposal was leaked. It was one of several leaks later linked to right-wing Treasury official Godwin Grech, who eventually took to forging documents as part of a campaign against Labor that, when revealed, badly undermined then-opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull.

What was more significant than the leak, however, was its reporting, which inevitably focused on “cabinet splits” and division.

“Splits” is how cabinet in fact is intended to work: ministers are supposed to have the opportunity to aggressively interrogate policy proposals from their colleagues and argue against them on policy and political grounds. From one perspective, the more argument and debate over proposals from different ministers, the better for the government and public policy.

*Read the full story at The Power Index

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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