June 2013


L-plate parliamentarians

By Judith Brett
L-plate parliamentarians
The trouble with inexperienced ministers

We want many and different qualities in our political leaders. We want them to be smart, personable and trustworthy; to be on top of complex policy issues; to have their feet on the ground while projecting a vision of the future embedded in a national narrative; to understand the trials and aspirations of ordinary people and to deal effectively with world leaders; to handle themselves under pressure and to tell a good joke. And they need to do this convincingly for multiple audiences: the cabinet, the party, the media, business leaders and the public, with their manifold interests and points of view. It’s a lot to ask. On top of all this, they need to have extraordinary physical and psychological stamina. So how does one learn to do all this? How long does it take?

One explanation for the current lack of confidence in our politicians is that political leaders on both sides of parliament have served shorter apprenticeships than their predecessors. When Kevin Rudd became prime minister in 2007, he had been a parliamentarian for less than ten years, had never been a member of the governing party and had never held a cabinet position. Rudd’s one outstanding qualification was that he was able to unnerve John Howard, and then to defeat him. He homed in on policy issues Howard had left to languish, such as climate change and federal–state relations. He promised his government would solve them. But, as soon became apparent, the skills he brought to winning the election were insufficient for solving the problems, let alone for leading a government, and his cabinet colleagues turned him out before he had served a term. Had he been a senior minister before he became PM, either his party colleagues would have realised that he was temperamentally unsuited to the position before considering him as their leader, or he might have learnt how to handle the job.

Julia Gillard entered parliament the same year as Rudd, in 1998. When she became prime minister she had the added experience of two and a half years as a cabinet minister and deputy prime minister, but hers was still an extraordinarily rapid rise. She had very little experience in foreign affairs and she had not been a senior cabinet minister long enough for the public to feel that they knew her. She has proven herself to be a quick learner, but the way she came to power meant she was cut no slack. Nor should she have been: the prime ministership is not a work-experience opportunity.

Howard, by contrast, brought to the position a wealth of political experience: 22 years in the parliament, including six as treasurer in Malcolm Fraser’s government and four as leader of the Opposition. Despite this, having roundly defeated Paul Keating in 1996, he had a very rocky first term, stumbling his way around the fallout of the High Court’s Wik native-title decision and the popularity of Pauline Hanson, which damaged Australia’s image greatly in Asia. He actually lost the two-party preferred vote in the 1998 election, though scraped through because of its uneven distribution. But Howard also learnt quickly and from his second term onwards was much more assured in his political judgements.

Jan Pakulski, a sociologist at the University of Tasmania, has compared the length of parliamentary apprenticeships of the ministers and shadow ministers of the 1970s and ’80s to those of today. In 1975, ministers and shadow ministers had on average spent 12 years on the back bench before promotion; by 2013, backbench apprenticeships had shrunk to an average of five years. This is a remarkable change. It means our present leaders have had less time to learn their job, and less time to learn from mistakes, both their own and those of others. This last is crucial in the “gotcha” culture of the contemporary media, in which every hesitation and qualification is pounced on as a sign of weakness, incompetence or mendacity.

To be sure, many people elected to parliament bring a great deal of relevant experience into the ministry. They may know a lot about particular policy areas, be skilled in managing complex conflicts or be competent with the media and efficient as administrators. Bob Hawke is the stand-out example of a successful prime minister with minimal parliamentary experience. But there are aspects of the ministry and shadow ministry that can only be learnt on the job. Arguably, Malcolm Turnbull became leader of the Opposition too soon, just four years after entering parliament, and having spent only a year as a minister. Despite his prior achievements and formidable talents, he made one political misjudgement and Australia lost a potential great prime minister. Still, he has stayed in the parliament and is bringing what he has learnt from his mistakes into new portfolios. Similarly, Alexander Downer moved on from his brief and disastrous stint as Opposition leader to become a competent minister for foreign affairs. His experience, however, will be of no use to a new Coalition government. Like Peter Costello, he has moved on. Today’s leadership teams are not just more inexperienced than those of the past because of shorter apprenticeships, but because the experienced ministers don’t stick around as they once did.

As prime minister, Tony Abbott would have more experience under his belt than either of his Labor predecessors: almost 20 years in parliament, and six years in cabinet as health minister. The relentless negativity he has displayed as Opposition leader is not really any guide to how he might handle the prime ministership, when he will have to convince the public of his ability to do more than criticise. Already there are danger signs that he has not fully grasped the pitfalls of the position. He rightly criticises Labor for not delivering on its promises, and in particular for the about-face of the disappearing budget surplus. The latter should sound a warning to him. Changing circumstances can quickly make a mockery of promises, as the global financial crisis did to Rudd’s 2020 Summit ambitions. Had Wayne Swan not promised a return to surplus so confidently, and had he not boasted about Labor’s economic management quite so often, he would have retained some room to move when government revenue fell well short of initial predictions. Public expectations would have been lower and he might have been less vulnerable to Opposition and media pillorying.

In his budget reply speech, Tony Abbott claimed that if he becomes prime minister, there will be “no surprises and no excuses”. Well, good luck to him, because luck is what he’ll need to make good this promise. No matter how competent and well prepared his government, our fast-changing and complex world will yield surprises. Abbott makes himself an even greater hostage to fortune with his continuing vows that his government will “stop the boats”. Just how and at what cost – to our relations with Indonesia, to our standing as a good inter-national citizen, to the wellbeing of the men, women and children seeking refuge – is not at all clear. He hasn’t given any realistic account of how he will do it, but he has said it so often that if, as is very likely, boats continue to arrive, he will need to find excuses.

There are skills particular to high political leadership that can only be learnt in the parliament, the party room and the ministry and shadow ministry. Perhaps the most crucial of these is managing the public’s expectations of government. The Opposition has signalled that it will tackle the entitlement culture, which is one aspect of this. The other aspect is the public’s expectations about government capacity to solve each and every policy problem on the current agenda. Abbott’s polarising political style has been highly effective in Opposition, but it has fed the idea that all the difficulties of the Labor government have been the result of its own shortcomings, including the personality defects of its leaders. Hence he has raised expectations about what he will be able to deliver in government, just as Rudd did before him. With a grasp of economics that seems hesitant at best – and based on what we’ve seen so far, the same might be said, more worryingly, of his treasurer-in-waiting, Joe Hockey – Abbott hasn’t left himself a lot of room to move, especially if world finances continue to rock. And it will be largely his own fault.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life.

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