Viral Words: Policy

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Every incoming prime minister,
president, or potentate needs their own doctrine and a corresponding
doctrinal work. For Lenin, it was Marx’s Das Kapital; for Mao, it was his own The Little Red Book; and for John Howard it was more than likely Wisden.

Many might think that Kevin Rudd, when perplexed, reaches first for his thumbed copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, but we can reveal that the new Prime Minister’s bedside tome is actually The Australian Policy Handbook. 

Now
in its fourth edition, this policy classic by Peter Bridgman and Glyn
Davis was once the bible for the Australian policy wonk, and it remains
a popular textbook. Bridgman, now a consultant, and Davis, now
Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University, were, along with Rudd, senior
bureaucrats in the Wayne Goss Government elected in late 1989. Davis,
who rose to be Director of the Premier’s Department during the first
Beattie Government before escaping back to the academic sector, is tipped to be a future head of Rudd’s Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The Australian Policy Handbook was and remains the basis for Governing Queensland: The Queensland Policy Handbook, the guidelines for making policy and undertaking government in Queensland under Goss, Peter Beattie and even Anna Bligh.

At
the time of Goss’s election, Queensland’s public service was so
decrepit and its policy capacities so limited that even a basic policy
text book — with its eights stages of policy: Issue identification;
Policy analysis; Policy instrument development; Consultation;
Coordination; Decision; Implementation; and Evaluation — was a
revelation.

Yet, this kind of policy making (and even this kind
of representation of policy processes) has become unfashionable. It is
seen as too linear and built upon a Utopian quasi-scienticism — a kind
of irrational belief in the rationality of process. Indeed as Patrick Weller noted in The Australian
earlier this year, Goss and Rudd’s actual experience of making policy
was far less ordered. Policy science may have suggested one approach
but reality dictated another:

Kevin
Rudd lacks ministerial experience, but has untold experience at high
levels of public service. To get an indication of his potential
performance as PM, Rudd’s career will be assessed — especially that as
chief of staff to Goss and subsequently head of the cabinet office.
Those were dire times in Queensland — after the Fitzgerald inquiry had
uncovered a rotten core. Ministers were jailed, the public service had
little policy capability, and the framework was archaic.

The
Fitzgerald report set much of the agenda, and established commissions
on whose work the government had to wait. Then Goss had to sell the
recommendations politically. Departments were cut from 28 to 18 …
Opposition to change within the public service was intense — though the
reform was not radical compared with other States. Queensland merely
lagged.

Rudd’s influence was greatest in policy areas … Goss
saw the effectiveness of the policy advice that the NSW cabinet office
gave Nick Greiner — so with help from Gary Sturgess Queensland’s
cabinet office was born. It was small (less than 80 staff) and worked
across departments on what are now called whole-of-government issues.
Rudd had been schooled in the policy capacity of central agencies in
Canberra and wanted the same drive and knowledge to ensure quality
advice. At times the office could seem arrogant. Ministers were nervous
of its demands, and public servants were intimidated. The Office of
Cabinet did nothing not done in Canberra before and since. Its
influence was no greater than the PM’s Department now, and it was less
centralised than Kennett’s government.

Rudd was merely an
adviser: Goss was in charge, and he worked with a team of ministers and
senior public servants. Rudd was a member of a team. Rudd left in 1994,
when he gained federal preselection in Griffith. Some things went wrong
… and feathers were ruffled and some people were offended (from which
lessons will have been learned). Rudd had a significant role, but was
not the only player. If Rudd wins [the Federal election], he will be
the first PM to have experience of running a public service department
— which will provide a streak of realism about what government can
achieve, and what public services can do. This will provide an antidote
to the illusions of glory and omnipotence that sometimes affect the
newly elected.

Despite Weller playing down Rudd’s
contribution as a bureaucrat, his final point that Rudd’s bureaucratic
experience is rare among Australian politicians is key here. Already,
in the early days of the Rudd era, there are echoes of
his past experience of government, not least in the host of committees
of inquiry and reports on policy issues promised in the months of the
phoney campaign.

A mean-spirited interpretation is that Rudd
was trying to avoid being boxed-in or wedged by Howard. The more
positive spin is that these committees and reports reveal Rudd’s
commitment to ordered process rather than to outcome. As a former
bureaucrat, he probably knows too well how crude and fanciful party
policy documents are, and how bureaucrats’ stomachs drop when asked to
deliver these undeliverable promises for their political masters.

Nevertheless,
the flipside to Rudd’s commitment to the ‘rationality’ and order of
policy science — is the tincture of authoritarianism that characterises
his personal style. Rudd might like policy process but when I was a
junior bureaucrat in the Department of Premier in 1992-1994, he and
Goss were better known for the discipline (read: terror) of the
‘seven-minute meeting’ — wherein Rudd would seek to make policy
decisions after very brief somewhat antagonistic meetings. He was not
known as Dr Death for nothing.

It remains to be seen how Rudd’s
two approaches to policy — rational, ordered policy process with its
extended (sometimes interminable) incubation periods on the one hand;
and swift, high-handed executive action—will coalesce. Either way, we
can be sure of one thing, we will get policy.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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