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Not fit to Govern or Nicola Roxon’s bucket list

It usually takes years for members of a bad government to “fess up” to the failings and dysfunction  within their  administration and under the cover of the smokescreen of Labor’s  new and wacky way of selecting their leader a few admissions have slipped under the radar things like Stephen Conroy admitting that their NBN  roll out was an utter farce, with no ability to meet anywhere near the  targets that were so loudly trumpeted. Its an admission that has largely gone unnoticed. However I very much doubt that the bucketing delivered by Nicola Roxon  in the John Button lecture will be as invisible and as that is the topic for to day I will now provide some highlights for discussion:

1) Labor must always focus on the fact that good policy improves people’s lives and that is why the party exists.

If this is always at the front of our minds and the top priority in decision-making, we will be less easily diverted by polls, personalities and punch-ups.

This must be a constant focus. In government, a Labor party needs to choose a few big areas and focus on them, taking people with them.

A government needs to take time to explain the problem, work on a range of solutions, build coalitions to campaign for them, understand the opposing arguments so as to improve its own and measure their validity. It must allow enough time and sufficiently foreshadow the change so local MPs, branch members and citizens can be part of the campaign for change. And take time to get all the technical detail right.

2) Governments as a whole, and the prime minister in particular, need to keep their focus high level – spending time and energy on the things that really matter.

If you can’t describe what you are doing in general terms, and its purpose, then either the policy isn’t right, or you’ve descended into detail most people don’t need and probably don’t want to know.

The art as a minister should be to be across the detail and be sufficiently trusted by colleagues to manage and explain the policy detail when needed, but to allow the PM to focus only on the big picture. The Cabinet should be used to sign off only on purpose, direction and broad structure, but not excessive detail.

In our first term of Government we struggled with this. There were some contentious issues and policy problems that ran for months, in some cases years, without there seeming to be a way to bring contentious issues to a head. There was no avenue for ministers to bring genuinely difficult issues, where there were legitimately tricky calls to be made, to Cabinet for a real discussion. Health and climate change were the two longest running “non-discussions” for the first term of Government, with some other contentious policies getting only cursory cabinet approval at the last minute. There was a reticence by the Prime Minister for big strategic calls to be made by Cabinet, or sufficiently in advance to prepare properly.

3) Good leaders are good delegators.

If they don’t delegate, they and their governments ultimately drown in less important matters.

Having seen it up close, I have a huge amount of sympathy for just how much work a PM has to do. The sheer weight of government and the crushing level of personal demands are far more intense and all encompassing than most people can imagine. Kevin and Julia fully devoted themselves day and night to this task. For all their issues, no one could fault either of them for heroic work ethics and sheer determination to do everything humanly possible in the job.

But the prime minister is still only one person.

We can’t let the system slide, if it hasn’t already, to expect this person to have superhuman powers. Our increasingly presidential-style campaigning doesn’t help this. I hope any new Labor leader will not continue this pretence – it will ultimately be a great benefit to the Party and protection for them.

4) Labor needs to welcome debate, not fear it.

A progressive party needs to be able to argue over issues and not see it through the prism of internal politics.

Both internally and externally Labor, in the time I’ve been involved, has become more afraid of real debate. For a progressive party that prides itself on constantly renewing its social purpose, this is not good news.

Of course, a shallow and manipulative media can make debate or dissent difficult, sometimes nigh on impossible, but we need to push past that and learn to welcome a contest of ideas.

5) Be polite and be persuasive. Or I could call this “Keep yourself nice”.

(I know I’ll be accused of being “nanny Nicola” here, but it is an age-old rule that needs to be re-imposed.) If you don’t do this, you lose ground for no political purpose. You waste time apologizing and you lose arguments for no good reason.

And this is not a tip just for the sake of nice manners. It fundamentally affects political outcomes too.

When Kevin was flashed across the TVs icily ignoring Kristina Keneally in health reform negotiations, it cost us an awful lot to recover from and actually gave NSW the upper hand for the first time. Disparagingly calling her “Bambi” behind closed doors was pretty silly when she was whip-smart and went on to run rings around us at the final COAG negotiating table. As a result, Kevin conceded more to NSW in hospital beds at the expense of money set aside for mental health. As was predictable, mental health became a thorn in our side later on, and in the 2010 campaign was the major health issue that weakened our otherwise great story.

The Garden Island announcement during the 2013 campaign underscored that this lesson had not been learned and we lost a day or two of the campaign needlessly.

6)Always ask what you can do for the party (and the nation) not what it can do for you (with apologies to JFK).

If you don’t ask this question first, you’ve lost your focus and purpose and the public will mark you down fast.

There were plenty examples of people putting their individual interests ahead of the team’s, particularly in ministerial ballots and appointments. Reports of able MPs declining particular portfolios, perhaps because it didn’t suit their long term personal plans, is a sign of this going off the rails. The only correct answer if a PM calls and offers you a particular ministry is surely “Yes, Prime Minister”.

Of course it is natural to have ambitions, and to be disappointed if they are thwarted, but the focus must always be on the team.

7)Good governments run best with good diaries – so boring, but universally true.

This is not just about housekeeping, as it seems, but you actually can get better policy, get more done and protect against foreseeable problems if you plan a diary and run to plan. You can only get to an end game if you have planned where you want to go.

The machinery of Government is enormous. And it can be put to enormous good. But it is a slow moving beast – no matter how bold or impatient a government may be. If plans and projects are set, parameters identified and clear instructions given, with regular and consistent oversight, the work produced can be excellent. Thousands of people can work more effectively around you if direction is set early, timetables stuck to, and materials are read.

But if political direction chops and changes, if the questions being asked constantly move, if deadlines come and go without meaning, it is very inefficient, and ultimately dispiriting. It’s politically confused too.

Kevin had a terrible habit of attending meetings not having read detailed papers that he had commissioned at the last meeting – often very complex ones, at very short notice. For example, I remember a meeting only days before Christmas 2009 when a total rewrite of a health policy was demanded. Despite many, many hours of work into the night, I do not believe that paper was ever – even to do this day – read by the prime minister, let alone read over a Christmas holiday he had already ruined for others.

8) Choose good people – as leaders, as MPs and as staff.

In every walk of life, successful organisations need a pool of talented people, and politics is no different.

This seems pretty basic. And on this front, I have to say I am very optimistic about our future. We get this right more often than we get it wrong. Having a strong choice of two capable politicians in the recent leadership ballot is just one measure of this. And I reckon Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek are as close to “the dream team” as you can get.

9)Accept you are not always right, and cannot always fix everything. It’s easier with this as your starting point.

If the public is promised a messiah, they’re inevitably going to be disappointed.

Political messages do need to be clear. They don’t have cut-through if they are not. In the beginning, Kevin was brilliant at this. It’s why he was so successful at the 2007 election. He talked straight and people understood and liked him.

The curse, of course, is that the problems you are trying to solve and the policies needed to do so are often complex. So we came unstuck when the solutions were necessarily more subtle or convoluted than the cut-through message initially delivered.

“The buck stops with me”, “the biggest moral challenge of our time” are examples that made sense and garnered interest and support, but they come with big risks, as the realities of government can make this cut-through language a dead weight or burden. It’s always more convincing to say you’ll “fix” something, when “improve” is a more accurate statement.

In 2007, Kevin was great at cut-through, then struggled at follow through.

10) And lastly,never forget polling is only a snapshot, not a predictor.

Otherwise we resign ourselves to a static life – and a progressive party will never win without new ideas, and new ideas take time to be absorbed.

Over-analysed, published opinion polls are having a corrosive effect on Australian politics. Their meaning and value have been given enormous weight, way, way above their real value. This is perhaps exacerbated by the advent of online media as these polls, paid for by old print media, are often among the few exclusives they have – so they are inflated by the same media who commission them.

But apart from that, we have allowed the polls, and the way journalists interpret them, to have too much influence. Polls can tell us what the current state of play is, but not what might happen.

What a poll can never tell us is what the results may be after a six month concerted effort to turn an argument around. They are unable to show what might change with persistence.

Finale

So, perhaps there is one remaining question you may have about my perspective on this time in government. And it is a biggie.

After all these tips for good and bad behavior for the future, do I believe we behaved properly in removing Kevin as PM in 2010?

While I think the Labor caucus made the right decision, we handled it very poorly.

I think we had all the right reasons to act, but I think we were clumsy and short sighted in the way we did it. We didn’t explain the dysfunctional decision-making and lack of strategy I’ve focused on a lot tonight. We didn’t talk about his rudeness, or contempt for staff and disrespect for public servants (a measure of this was public servants saving up briefs to send to the PM’s office as soon as Kevin went overseas because they got quicker and more thoughtful responses from Julia as acting PM).

Removing Kevin was an act of political bastardry, for sure. But this act of political bastardy was made possible only because Kevin had been such a bastard himself to so many people.

Conclusion

So I hope my take on events might be worth something to the next generation. I hope they will have learned from this period, and will not repeat its mistakes.

The new Labor team will need to lift itself above the personality politics, stop seeing things as “Kevin legacies” or “Julia legacies”, and just see them proudly as “Labor legacies”. This will better honour our forbears like John Button.

I really hope that readers have taken the time to read the whole speech , but even if you have not done so I hope that my highlights give you the gist  of Roxon’s argument here,namely that the labor Government was very much a dysfunctional one that was in the thrall of   Kevin Rudd, in its first term because of his inability to properly delegate and trust his ministers  and his utter inability  properly run the government and its instruments and after he had been removed for those sins he was then allowed to foment dissent and disloyalty that undermined   his successor, who herself had many flaws. Its a far from pretty picture if you ask this humble scribe. and rather like the curates egg the last Labor government was “good in parts” according to Roxon . The judgement of the people was however that those good parts were considerably smaller than the unpalatable aspects of Labor’s six years in office.  On balance when we look at Labor’s CV I find it very hard to see any reason to believe that they were ever “fit to Govern”  on the whole they provided a perfect example of the promise far exceeding the delivery and had their lack of fitness to govern been less concealed by Rudd’s admittedly slick campaign in 2007 they would have never won office.

The Coalition have for some time been espousing the very reasonable adage that in government one should under promise and over deliver which is a very good starting point in any democracy and until Labor and its minions likewise realise that is the way to political nirvana they will not be in any way fit to govern again.  You see in the real world good government is about 90% good governance and sound administration and 10% good ideas, by my reckoning Labor scored well below 50% over all….

Cheers Comrades

One of the few acts by labor taht I broardly endorsed was the plain packaging of cigarettes thanks to Nicola Roxon

One of the few acts by Labor that I broadly endorsed was the plain packaging of cigarettes thanks to Nicola Roxon

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