Thursday, 5 August 2010

National Security under Rudd: the Wash in the Washminster system?

There has been a lot of fuss over the last week or so over revelations that Rudd's Chief of Staff often chaired meetings of the National Security Committee (NSC) of Cabinet, and that Gillard often sent a relatively junior staffer to represent her there.

But did National Security Committee make the big decisions?

The Australian today has an article claiming that their failure to attend indicates that Gillard was and is completely uninterested in national security issues.

That may or may not be true. 

But I don't think whether or not she personally attended NSC meetings is evidence either way. 

Rather what has been revealed is yet another piece of evidence that Rudd had completely abandoned Westminster principles of Government in favour of Washington, to the detriment of our system of democracy. 

What it really seems to indicate is that the Committee was regarded as relatively unimportant - more evidence for the proposition that the critical decisions were not being made in either Cabinet or the NSC, but either unilaterally by Rudd, or by Rudd's gang of four committee. 

No doubt that's galling to the senior bureaucrats who get to star at the NSC.  But it doesn't necessarily go to the competency of Gillard - rather it tells us just a little more about the Rudd Government worked.

How Cabinet Committees traditionally work in Australia

There are a couple of things you need to know to understand this debate. 

First, Cabinet and its Committees are not entrenched in our constitution.  As a result the way the system operates in practice varies tremendously between governments, and between committees.  Committees come and go depending on the priorities of the government of the day. 

Some, like the Expenditure Review Committee (ERC), which manages the Budget process, have tremendous power, and their decisions are typically rubber stamped by Cabinet at the last minute ("Budget Cabinet").  Other Committees provide a forum to sort out preliminary positions, but may then go on to generate substantive Cabinet discussions before a final decision is made.  Under Howard, NSC was at the ERC end of the spectrum.  Under Rudd...

Secondly, and perhaps more fundamentally, traditionally Cabinet Committees are directly or indirectly controlled by the Prime Minister.  They are organised by his Department, and traditionally at least approved by him.  If the PM is the chair of a Committee, or wanted to attend a particular meeting of a committee even if he wasn't its chair, then in the past the meeting simply wouldn't happen if he wasn't available.  If he was overseas or otherwise engaged and something urgent came up, the Deputy Chair of the Committee might be given permission to run it  - but that has been pretty unusual under previous governments.  Not so under Rudd it seems, yet another indication of his contempt for the Cabinet system of Government (and anyone's opinion other than his own).

Thirdly, Cabinet Committees are committees of Ministers.  Historically officials and Ministerial staffers may get to attend some meetings (which ones depends on the Committee) as advisors, minute takers or observers, but they have never, as far as I know (and I've been close to these processes under several different governments) actually chaired whole meetings.  Rudd seems to have changed all that, deploying his staffers as West Wing style de facto (rather inexperienced and inept) politicians.  That must have been humiliating to the bureaucrats who typically attend NSC meetings - which used to include people like the several Secretaries of departments, heads of the spook agencies, and the Chief of the Defence Force and other senior officials - particularly given the youthful age and inexperience of Rudd's staffers. 

Westminster vs Washington

The problem is that the Washington-style of Government may arguably work alright when you directly elect the President for a fixed term, and he is then accountable for the actions of his staffers and Cabinet.  But it doesn't really fit well with the indirect system of election of governments that Australia has, where governments are formally accountable to the Parliament.  Under the Washington style of Government, Cabinet members don't have to be elected by anyone; they serve, just like the President's staffers, at the pleasure of the President. Under our system Cabinet members (but not staffers) are elected members of Parliament, and governments stand or fall on the basis of having the confidence of the Parliament.

There is a maxim about bureaucracy that good process leads to good outcomes. It's a necessary condition of course, not a sufficient one.  And it is more than obvious that good bureaucratic processes were not a feature of the Rudd Government, with predictable results on a wide variety of fronts.

Gillard's assurances that that's all over notwithstanding, it is probably the case that the damage done by Rudd is so severe that Labor needs a few years in Opposition in order to rethink and unlearn bad habits.

The question is whether or not the Opposition is any more committed or capable of returning us to more Westminster style of Government than Labor.  Because in fact what Rudd did was simply a move further along a direction started under Howard.

Howard ruthlessly used bureaucrats inappropriately in political roles, even going so far as to have them appear on far from apolitical government ads promoting Work Choices. 

Both Abbott and Turnbull have records of unilaterally announcing major policy initiatives without any consultation with their colleagues. 

So it would be helpful if both parties made some significant and credible commitments on process of government issues.

Until they do, poor government will continue no matter who wins this election.

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