The new government is going through one of the slowest transition periods in recent history. But this is a political choice, rather than a bureaucratic blunder.
Some slowness is inevitable with a change of government. There are the simple physical details: offices for new ministers; shifting people, papers and files; even the apparently difficult task of finding a new bookcase for Attorney-General George Brandis’ library. The Abbott government is not notably faster or slower on these matters. Where it is taking a more measured, even painstaking, approach is in ministerial staffing, government communications and Parliament.
Many ministers still do not have a full complement of staff, with a selection committee comprising the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Peta Credlin and former senior John Howard staffer Tony Nutt vetting them. That is a bottneneck in the process, as it takes time for a small committee to do all the work.
Highly centralised processes such as this emerged during the latter years of the Howard government, and early signs are that they will characterise the Abbott government. His office and his department are extraordinarily powerful; the Prime Minister’s Department is one of the few areas of the public service expanding rather than shrinking (not due to padding but to numerous extra functions).
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Centralisation has advantages for a prime minister — it allows the office to control messages and set directions. It also has risks, such as slowing down processes, staff hiring and new policies. The other risk is that it makes it harder to shift blame. Dispersed authority among ministers means that in cases of policy or administrative disasters the responsible minister can be quickly dismissed. If the prime minister’s office makes a mistake, it is harder to shift the blame (though not impossible — some insiders believe that under the previous government the environment minister took an unfair amount of heat for the problems with the home insulation program).
It appears the Abbott government has decided to accept that risk and adopt a centralised approach.
As a result, senior public servants have had a hard time getting to understand the new government. At the very top levels departmental secretaries and ministers communicate frequently, but ministers’ time is at a premium. The day-to-day business of government relies on scores or in larger departments hundreds of daily communications between lower-level public servants and ministerial staff. Most ministers’ offices have temporarily seconded staff from within the public service itself, which keeps the urgent paperwork moving but does not provide the insights into what the minister is really thinking that good political staffers have.
A further consequence is that the public servants affected by machinery of government changes are slow in integrating with their new departments. Some have been told that the adjustments won’t be concluded until Christmas at the earliest.
There have also been changes to how government communicates. Partly that is also centralisation, including a requirement for ministers to co-ordinate their media statements with the Prime Minister’s Office. As important, and more complex, is the revision of government websites to reflect new priorities. Commonwealth departments and agencies have been taking down their websites, sometimes for days at the time, for reworking. It goes well beyond minor amendments such as spelling programme with a “mme” (first noted in a comment from a Crikey reader in the early days of the government). Rather, it is about identifying which areas of public sector activity to highlight and which to play down or drop altogether. That is a complicated rebuild, made more complex by the public servants having too few ministerial staff to bounce ideas off.
Nor is this government in a hurry to introduce new legislation. Parliament resumes on November 12 and will sit for four weeks over November and December (the Senate for three). There is no immediate constitutional or legislative requirement to recall Parliament; the election result in Clive Palmer’s seat of Fairfax has only just been declared. But this government is much less eager than previous new governments to begin legislating.
Does this slow pace matter? For conservatives such as Abbott, the answer would be no, as conservatives don’t want an activist government that introduces new policies. Slowing down the pace of government is not necessarily a sign of laziness or lack of ideas. If we see it in the broader context of competing political philosophies, it can be assessed for what it is: a traditional conservative approach to government.