Loser takes all
How giving up power could be the new power move


Politics is the study of power. How it is won or lost and how it is deployed, for better or worse.

But what if loosening one’s grip on the levers of power could make a politician more powerful and secure, or in greater control of their destiny? It sounds self-contradictory, yet this is the precisely the lesson that the more astute politicians in Canberra should take from the latest topsy-turvy period in our nation’s politics.

Even the most one-eyed Labor supporter would have to concede that, since the February leadership challenge that wasn’t, Tony Abbott has slowly recovered his position. The policy barnacles were one by one scraped away. Budget 2015 – remember that? – waved the white flag on debt and deficit, a fiscal challenge that Abbott once invoked with apocalyptic language. From the Medicare co-payment surcharge to paid parental leave, Abbott has extricated his government from its near-terminal position, albeit at the cost of its political raison d’etre.

As Fairfax’s Mark Kenny wrote recently, these Olympian backflips do not adequately explain the Coalition’s recovery. “Abbott’s leadership has morphed to be both stronger and weaker,” Kenny argued, as the prime minister’s “ambit” was “trimmed” by a cabinet applying proper checks and balances to policy and process. “It is a perverse outcome, but the erosion of Abbott’s singular authority and the reassertion of cabinet decision-making might actually extend Abbott’s term by steering him around mistakes he might otherwise make.”

This is not to argue that Team Abbott has become a paragon of collegial government. See, for instance, Joe Hockey’s unilateral decision on live TV to exempt tampons from the GST, or Abbott’s attempt to coerce cabinet to back his draconian plan to strip Australians of their citizenship by government fiat, and the on-again-off-again iron ore prices inquiry.

The Coalition has painfully and only partially learnt the lessons of following due process and the perils of over-centralising power. In the same manner, the ABC three-part documentary The Killing Season should be essential viewing for Laborites, if they can get past the titillating personality politics of the Rudd–Gillard feud.

The first episode last week reminded Australians that the Rudd Labor government admirably steered the nation through the cataclysm that was the 2008–09 global financial crisis, but at the cost of sidelining the Labor caucus and, to a large extent, cabinet. In its place emerged the so-called “Gang of Four”, comprised of Rudd, Gillard, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner. Here, however, the reported claims and counter-claims made by Rudd and Gillard as to why the “gang” was not disbanded after the worst of the crisis had passed misses the point.

The gang should never have been put together in the first place. Nor should Rudd have been allowed to overturn a century of Labor tradition by unilaterally taking away the power of caucus to choose the ministry, as he did during the 2007 federal election. Ditto Rudd’s centralisation of decision-making power once in office. These were acts of political self-harm that produced paralysis and several cases of poor decision-making. They also fuelled internal anger, leading directly to the so-called anti-Rudd coup of June 2010, as shown on last night’s second episode, bizarre re-enactments and all.

Granted, this trend is nothing new. As Monash University academics Paul Strangio and James Walter demonstrate in their 2007 book No, Prime Minister: Reclaiming politics from leaders, the centralisation of policy coordination and power in Canberra actually began with Gough Whitlam’s reformist Labor government (1972–75). It owes equally to changes in the nature of the public service and the “hollowing out” of the major political parties, institutions which once acted as a brake on the will of domineering leaders. For the public’s sake, Abbott’s sake, and the sake of all future prime ministers, it is a trend that must end now. Rather, we need to understand that effective leadership means devolving power wherever possible, which in turn produces superior process and policy. Pragmatic politicians will instinctively understand what a broader apportionment of responsibility entails.

Devolving power should be the policy motto of leaders and administrations of both stripes. Instead of trying to solve all the world’s ills and being all things to all people – a vision of politics as the state “‘doing things to and for people” as Jon Cruddas, a leading British Labour Party thinker, puts it – governments should aim to give away power wherever possible. From the way in which our schools are run, public service and welfare delivery and the make-up of our nation’s boardrooms, it is time decision-making structures incorporated a broader cross-spectrum of voices – in our schools by electing teachers and parents onto boards alongside government representatives, and in large companies, such as energy retailers, by including employees and consumers – and we stopped looking to Canberra as the font of all policy wisdom. This is not a vision of politics as singing “Kumbaya”, but actually underpins the German social market economy, arguably the most successful and resilient in Europe, if not the world. 

For Laborites, in particular, devolution could be the template for effective social democratic government in the context of a long-term fiscal climate in which there is less money to spend.

Indeed, it just might be the new political dictum of our age: who loses power, wins.

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of seven books, including A Little History of the Australian Labor Party, Mateship: A Very Australian History, A New History of the AWU and All That’s Left. Nick is an adjunct research fellow in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.