Tom Burton: governing in charged times

By Tom Burton

Friday August 24, 2018

parliament house

We have been here before. A new prime minister, a gaggle of tyro ministers and only months to run before an election. Yet again the public service finds itself having to pivot around a new ministry, and a government that can only run for a maximum of nine months. A government that is going to be obsessed about its own re-election. And a government that on any analysis is deeply divided.

It is an exact rerun of Kevin Rudd’s second government five long years ago, and means secretaries are going to have to run a dual track for their agencies. The first will be servicing what in practice will be an interim government. The second will be preparing for what is almost certainly going to be a very different government, if Labor is able to win the upcoming general election.

Pre-election periods are tricky times for senior officials in any case. But with questions about the ability of the government to maintain the confidence of the House of Representatives, a deeply divided government and a whole set of ministers who will be far more focussed on defeating a resurgent Labor Party, it is going to be a real challenge to get any real genuine policy focus.  

This suggests any chance of major policy or regulatory development, or longer term program redesign, goes out the door. There will have to be some resolution of the three key policy issues that seemingly dragged the Turnbull government down: energy policy remains deeply unresolved, and the big company tax cuts that floundered this week, as the government finally accepted Senate realities. And a resolution for the Catholic educators, to quell the electoral disquiet around school funding.

But as with the second Rudd government, we will now rapidly move into election phase, as both major parties battle it out for electoral supremacy.

And battle it is going to be.

Labor has already sharpened its policy difference, pushing a program focussed on inequality and driving income growth for lower paid cohorts.

Morrison is a highly charged politician and is expected to amp up the rhetorical difference between Labor and the government.

The change in prime minister to Scott Morrison is also likely to see the high volume Sydney conservative media that campaigned so stridently against Turnbull continue to rail against the government. Morrison was once the darling of the right wing media, but they never forgave him when he switched his support from Abbott to Turnbull in the last leadership coup.

Schools of government often talk about the need for senior public servants to be able to navigate and be effective in the new normal of continuous political tumult. But if the new prime minister is unable to heal the deep policy and personal divides in the government then this coming period will certainly test Canberra’s mandarins and the big departments of state that dominate Canberra — especially as we will have an almost complete overhaul of senior ministries, starting with Treasury and Foreign Affairs (assuming Julie Bishop goes to the back bench).

Most senior public servants have a sharp sense of where the political tide is going, and agencies will now begin to anticipate some of the policy and regulatory positions that Labor is promoting.

In formal terms this will be manifested in the development of incoming government briefs. But in the back rooms of the various strategy and policy branches in Canberra, there will now be a lot of quiet work preparing for yet another change in government.

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