Well away from the noise and dust of the election campaign, a series of quiet rituals are taking place in the Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet, as staff prepare for the return of the serving Prime Minister — or the arrival of a new one.
One team of staff combs the building for documents relating to the old government: a new administration can’t access cabinet documents or advice provided to predecessors — these are archived for future generations, and only returned in the event of the government’s re-election.
Policing the caretaker conventions is a serious business for another PM&C team who keep watch on departments to ensure contentious websites and ad campaigns are shut down, hiring decisions are held off, contracts are not entered into and requests for advice from serving ministers are politely declined.
And then there is the ritual of the red and blue books.
Right about now, PM&C has two teams working on either side of a “Chinese wall” to write a post-election briefing for each of the two potential prime ministers. Only one will ever reach its intended destination.
The blue book will be crafted around a narrative of continuity, incremental improvement and the fresh opportunities Malcolm Turnbull will have if he is able to claim his own Prime Ministerial mandate.
It will offer nuanced advice from some of the public service’s best and brightest about how to address the problems of industry, innovation, the economy, welfare, healthcare, the ageing population and public finance in new ways.
For the secretary of PM&C, Dr Martin Parkinson, it will be a useful chance to assert some intellectual authority over the direction of public policy while pollsters, consultants, apparatchiks and think-tanks — frequently a source of alternative policy advice for government — are distracted.
Senior public servants have the rare opportunity to provide more considered, long-form analysis and advice outside the pressured environment of the weekly cabinet cycle.
Of course, the blue book must also provide practical advice for the re-elected Prime Minister on how to deliver his promises. Through the course of the campaign the blue team records every commitment, assigns specialists to cost them, identify obstacles, present options and alternatives. It isn’t PM&C’s job to tell the Prime Minister he can’t deliver a promise, but some promises may simply be beyond the ability of government to deliver quickly or easily. The blue book will probably contain a good dollop of frank and fearless advice.
As will the red book, of course. But it will also be much more of an instruction manual for a novice Prime Minister who will be facing the most daunting learning curve of his career.
It will cover the good stuff of course, like salary ($500k a year plus benefits), accommodation in several leafy residences, car and driver, travel entitlements (a fleet of Boeings), AFP close protection detail, a retinue of more than 30 personal staff and a pleasant Canberra office with courtyard views.
Then it’s down to the real business: how to set up a ministry and define the ministerial pecking order, how much each minister will be paid, how many staff they can have, the swearing-in ceremony, appointing the Executive Council and many small but crucial tasks that establish a government’s legal authority to operate.
In his first week, Shorten, as Australia’s 30th Prime Minister will be presented with a long list of issues that have been held over through the caretaker period: appointments that must be confirmed, policy dilemmas to resolve, correspondence to sign — the workload picks up quickly and never relents from that moment.
The new Prime Minister will even have to make decisions about what level of correspondence he wishes to attend to. With hundreds of items of physical and electronic mail arriving for him each day — together with the surge of congratulatory letters that will arrive from Monday July 4 — small decisions like how to deal with incoming mail can quickly set the tone of a Prime Ministership.
Shorten may be provided with advice on how to shape the Australian Public Service to his own requirements via machinery of government (MoG) changes that seem to accompany every change of government. Canberra public servants love a good MoG. There are public servants who do little else but implement MoG programs which can sometimes take a year or more to finalise.
The new Prime Minister’s agenda may also run to a freshening up of public service leadership. The red book will make clear that secretaries of departments (as well as the Chief of the Defence Force, Taxation Commissioner, Auditor-General and Australian Statistician) are appointed by the Governor-General on the Prime Minister’s recommendation. This leaves the way open for the Prime Minister to shuffle the most senior roles at his discretion.
There will be a section in the red book devoted to helping Shorten establish his government’s cabinet process. This entrenches the power of a Prime Minister (and with it PM&C) if managed sensitively. As chair and convenor of Cabinet, the Prime Minister can control what is discussed, when and how it is discussed and how a decision is recorded and communicated. A Prime Minister determines the allocation of cabinet and ministry roles (after caucus determines the overall composition). The Prime Minister can also choose to devolve decision-making down to a series of cabinet sub-committees with members and powers that he determines, directly or indirectly.
At the back of the red book — or more likely in a whole volume of its own — Prime Minister-elect Shorten will be presented with his own list of commitments and advice on their implementation and financial implications.
We will probably never know what that advice will be: the content of red and blue books has seldom found its way into the public domain. FOI requests over the years have yielded little of interest. Much of the content is deemed be for the purposes of assisting future cabinet decisions and is exempt from release.
As a ritual, perhaps it is best to think of the red and blue books as a tool by which PM&C gains the trust and confidence of their major stakeholder, the Prime Minister of Australia. There is no doubt PM&C executives have this objective in mind from the moment the red and blue teams form up.
Which is why, if Saturday July 2 delivers a clear winner on the night, Martin Parkinson, the secretary of PM&C will spend his Sunday hand-delivering in person a set of thick, carefully bound and fastidiously proof-read volumes to his new master.
We may not yet know what colour those volumes are, but we can sure the other set will be shredder-bound at the earliest opportunity.
This article has been co-published with the University of Melbourne’s Election Watch.