Cabinet’s sacred text updated

By David Donaldson

Friday May 12, 2017

One of the sacred texts of the public service has been updated.

The 10th edition of the federal government’s Cabinet Handbook was released on Wednesday.

There is no mention of the Cabinet in Australia’s Constitution. It’s instead governed by convention — making official guidance on its functioning especially important.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull writes in the foreword to the new edition:

“It is important the Cabinet operates in a way that reflects how I as the Chair thinks it should. To make informed decisions, the Cabinet must work in a way that is truly consultative. Wherever possible, the Cabinet should consult colleagues, the bureaucracy and the wider public.

With this in mind, Turnbull states, it is important that:

  • Ministers are the chief advisers on items relating to their portfolio and it is their responsibility to engage their stakeholders.
  • Ministers must consult their colleagues early in the process to ensure all policy and implementation issues are addressed before the Cabinet considers the proposal.
  • Processes are followed and timeframes are met so that ministers and their departments have time to fully consider items before they are discussed by the Cabinet.

The document sets out clear timeframes for consultation on Cabinet submissions. According to the guide:

“Any documents conveying substantive material to the Cabinet must be covered by a Submission, Memorandum or a Short-Form Cabinet Paper. These documents are subject to a number of rules and procedures, which support the principles and operational values underpinning a strong and effective Cabinet system. The rules include strict timeframes for lodgement of documents, page limits, consultation requirements, the agreement of costs and implementation arrangements.”

Timeframe for the lodgement of Cabinet submissions. Source: Cabinet Handbook.

The government announced in January that the position of cabinet secretary, held at the time by Senator Arthur Sinodinos, would be taken by a staff member of the Prime Minister’s Office, rather than a politician.

New Zealand is currently working on an update to its ageing equivalent of this public service bible, according to the chief executive of its Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Andrew Kibblewhite.

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