Opinion- 28 Novermber 2007



pdf file-available from Australasian Science



Harry Robinson asks: What Form Will the Rudd Prime Ministership Take?  


The king is dead, long live the king! Is that the election outcome? No, we don't have kings any more but we do have a disturbing trend in our affairs.

    What will be Prime Minister Rudd's modus operandi?

   John Howard was an authoritarian aided and abetted by a submissive party. He took little advice and bullied the civil service. Overall, he acted as though he knew what was best for all the people and he imposed his views, welcome or not. He paid much lip-service to R.G. Menzies but he obviously missed one of that man's strengths -- Menzies rarely made an announcement of policy in his own name. He most often said, "My colleagues and I ." He adhered to the doctrine of cabinet responsibility which in a rough outline says we are governed not by the top man but by a collective of ministers.

Truth to tell, Menzies dominated his cabinet intellectually but he never forgot the principle which bound him. In that scheme, the prime minister is the first among equals, not the first and only.

John Howard rarely spoke of his colleagues as equals in policy-making which they were not. They had surrendered to him in the belief that they needed him and only him to win elections. When he announced an allocation of $10 billion to save the Murray-Darling basin, he gave no indication of cabinet approval. Questioned on the point by Kerry O'Brien, Howard said oh yes, he had telephoned his deputy and the treasurer and a couple more senior ministers. But cabinet as a whole had not met to consider the $10 billion commitment. Time ran out and O'Brien had to let it go but he had taken the point.

We could go on and on about the Howard personal domination of his government and the conduct of national business. Historians will have more to say when the present has become the past.

So what of Kevin Rudd? Does he recognise the doctrine of cabinet responsibility? The signs are ominous.

In his election night victory speech, Rudd said he would govern for all Australians. Not that he and his colleagues would govern, not even that he and Julia Guillard would govern, but that he would govern. Commentators on that speech rated it poor for rhetoric but remarked with relief that he had abandoned the outmoded ALP myths and catch

 cries. Not so much as a candle on the hill. We can be glad of that but we cannot afford to forget "I will govern." This came after a shrewdly designed campaign which never strayed from its predestined course. He, Rudd, never once allowed himself to speak on his own private speciality of foreign affairs. (Too difficult -- no need to frighten the punters.) He did not allow the technical complexities of broadband to muddy the water. He kept saying,"I have a plan for Australia .." not we have a plan or my party has a plan. Voters had to cast their minds back over many policy announcements to discern the shape of the plan. His plan. No wonder the rout became known as "Ruddslide."

Of course the then opposition leader flagged more than a bloated ego. In his formal policy launch, he indicated an entrepreneurial spirit. Details were scant but he showed that his approach for the nation would invest in education to advance our commercial power. He seemed to mean that tertiary education and high level science were major sources of wealth creation. There are other spurs for scientific effort but wealth creation will do after a decade of philistine, anti-intellectual government.

The first sign of Rudd's mettle will come when he presents his front bench. He has said in a cocky way that he and not the party factions will chose his ministers. Paul Keaing responded that the difference might only amount to three or four people. It won't be so much who he chooses as who he puts into which portfolios.

Lurking behind the Rudd enlightenment is the ghost of prime ministerial authority. Neither he nor Howard are the first to over reach themselves. John Gorton was adept. The custom at the time was for cabinet to discuss a proposition round the table. The prime minister would then ask the minister on his left to "collect the voices" -- count the pros and cons. If the vote fell short of a majority by one or two, the prime minister could claim the privilege of declaring the idea carried. But Gorton on occasions took his privilege out to half a dozen votes or more. He wasn't the first among equals, he was the boss. By strange contrast Bob Hawke, who had an ego as high as an elephant's eye, was known to be a consensual prime minister. He did not demand compliance.

The trend to dictatorial prime ministers is scary. Media make half hearted remarks about "presidential style campaigns" without following through to the trend for presidential style prime ministers. (One of the huge weaknesses in the American klunker of a system is that it puts inordinate power into the hands of one man. Checks and balances are weak and clumsy. The Bush administration illustrates the potential for damage.)

The Ed-Sci community has much to hope for from the Rudd administration. Let us also hope that the price does not include authoritarian excess.


As a  postscript  thought on the election:

Consider the miserable role played by the media. They were quick to jump from news-peg to news-peg -- Howard promises $35 billion, Rudd promises $32 billion, Tony Abbott is late for a TV date, Julia also runs late, Libs are caught with forged flyers -- sideshows all of them. But when Messrs Howard and Costello claimed a monopoly on sound economic management, did the media ask questions? Did the commentariat protest that the economy took in more than bank accounts? Did they ask why home ownership was a widespread worry if government had managed the economy so well? Did they ask why hospitals were run down if we'd had such good economic management? Media commentators could have changed that part of the national debate but they did not. Much easier to lollop along from news-peg to trivial news-peg.

Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.