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A complex view from the Summit

24 Apr 2008

Governance isn't easily reduced to slogans, but it’s fundamentally important, writes ANNE TIERNAN.

THE Governance stream at the 2020 Summit had inherent potential to be fraught. Serving ministers, a former premier, a former chief justice and governor-general, two former and one shadow attorneys-general, academics, current and former senior bureaucrats, lawyers, media players, editors, journalists and commentators, assorted activists, advocates and ideas brokers worked alongside small business representatives, students and young people. It was an eclectic and opinionated group, struggling to meet the substantive and process challenges of developing “big ideas” about how Australia’s system of governance might be improved.



The deluge of commentary that followed the Summit has captured both the participant experience and the public response. My aim here is to offer some ideas on how we might understand the Summit in the broader context of Kevin Rudd’s leadership and style of political management.

As a personal aside, I should mention that it is difficult for political scientists invited into the corridors of power to leave their professional scepticism at the door. We’re a curmudgeonly lot - always alert to the possibility we might be schmoozed or beguiled by a new leader, approach or discourse. Maintaining objectivity and professional distance can be hard, especially when an opportunity to avenge the childhood taunts of southern relatives about the backwardness of “banana-benders” presents. Seeing “Kevin from Queensland” firmly in charge of the national government confirmed for me that the “iron triangle” which for so long concentrated power in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra has been finally broken, by a Mandarin-speaking, public school educated child of the Sunshine Coast hinterland no less! I confess to a twinge of pride when Governance co-chair, Maxine McKew (also a Brisbane girl), told members of the “Red Team” that Rudd describes the Queenslanders who comprise and advise the new government as the “Pineapple Mafia.”

These admissions notwithstanding, my experience of the Summit affirmed my developing view that the prime minister is carving out a new narrative of Australian governance. It fuses learning and reflections drawn from state politics, notably the unexpected defeat of the reformist, policy-focused Goss government in which Rudd played an integral part. Along the way, he is dismantling the Howard legacy with seemingly effortless and self-deprecating charm.

During his election night speech, Rudd promised Australians his government would move beyond the old and divisive battles of the past, towards a new and more inclusive style of governing. He acted decisively in the weeks following Labor’s victory to give effect to this commitment. In late December, the Council of Australian Governments was convened and tasked with becoming the “workhorse” of Commonwealth-state collaboration. In January, ministers and federal bureaucrats attended their first Community Cabinet, part of the prime minister’s commitment to “ensure close consultation with the Australian people on the things that concern them whether they are national or local matters.” In February, Rudd announced the Australia 2020 Summit would be held in Canberra in April 2008. He would invite the nation’s “best and brightest” to “help shape a long-term strategy for the nation’s future.”

After much speculation, and flush with success from a seventeen-day overseas trip to meet world leaders, Rudd convened the 1002 delegates in the Great Hall at Parliament House. In his opening remarks, he told “summiteers” and the television audience: “Rather than pretending that we the politicians of Australia have all the answers, and the truth is, we don’t, we are turning now to you, the people of Australia.” One was simultaneously exhilarated and intrigued by Rudd’s claim that he was “throwing open the windows of democracy to let a little bit of fresh air in.” The spectacle of the prime minister sitting on the floor engaged in intense discussions with participants, or carrying his boxed breakfast out to a courtyard table, was vaguely unsettling, so stark was its contrast to the formal and buttoned-down approach of his predecessor.

Yet it speaks to Rudd’s mastery of pragmatic-populist politics and his intense understanding of the electoral imperative of the “rolling dialogue” that he was prepared to gamble on the Summit process. He presents as a prime minister prepared to respect the “wisdom” and “common sense” of Australians; one who is open to ideas and suggestions, even from political opponents. Rudd has sensed a mood for change and seized the opportunity to weave a new and compelling narrative. He is exhorting Australians to take active roles in a new and different approach to governing, elements of which were outlined in his speech to the Progressive Governance conference in London on 4 April. There, Rudd argued that through debate and engagement on policy ideas his government would “forge a new politics of the centre that embraces both the empowerment of peoples through open economies and the opportunities created for people throught the agency of a compassionate state.”

Most interesting from the viewpoint of the professional observer, is the political tone being set by the new prime minister, strongly in evidence at the Summit. Cabinet ministers (or in our case, a parliamentary secretary) co-chaired the various streams. But other ministers, such as the special minister of state, John Faulkner, and the minister for home affairs, Bob Debus, attended all governance sessions. They participated in, and importantly, they heard, the debates over issues and proposals. They had and actively sought, opportunities to meet and talk extensively with participants over the course of the weekend. So did the senior officials sprinkled across the various streams.

The prime minister’s message to both ministers and the bureaucracy is clear. His government is in the market for ideas and is comfortable with debate and contestability. It is seeking a balance between strategic, long-term considerations and responsiveness to immediate, practical concerns. In short - and as suggested by Rudd’s observation that a key theme of the Summit was the importance of building “a strong, independent, resilient, professionally challenging and rewarded Australian Public Service” - this is a government whose key players understand policy and public administration. Not unexpectedly, this is music to the ears of people like me who work across theory and practice, but that this theme failed to survive the selection process of the “big ideas” to be conveyed to the prime minister, suggests gaps remain in understandings of Rudd’s leadership and political management style.

It seems that my big idea - the need to bridge the expectations gap at the heart of Australian governance, by reconciling what decision-makers (ministers supported by their personal staffs), and their advisers (public servants) expect of each other, and what is feasible given limits to the knowledge, information, skills, time and resources of both sides - persuaded no one. Until we create advisory systems that support decision-makers to make informed decisions in Australia’s long-term interests, and an operating environment that tolerates the time and argument needed to address complex issues, the cycle of distrust that has developed between governments and the media (much in evidence in the “open government” sub-stream, though with little sense that journalists appreciate some kind of reciprocal obligation might motivate changed behaviour), will continue.

And that’s the dilemma of governance - it isn’t exciting and it isn’t easily reduced to pithy slogans, but it’s fundamental. And without such changes, none of the ideas from the Summit have a hope. 

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