Lessons of Governing

The following is a sample chapter from the book Lessons of Governing by RAW Rhodes (first published 2014).
ISBN: 978-0522866537
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In 1972, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam appointed a young academic, Dr Peter Wilenski, to head his private office as Principal Private Secretary (PPS). The appointment redefined the traditional position of the PPS at the centre of Australian government creating in all but name the prime minister’s Chief of Staff (from now on CoS). Successive prime ministers have continued the practice of appointing a trusted, usually senior figure, to lead their personal staff. Over time the position has come to be recognised as intrinsic to prime ministerial effectiveness and, as demands on Australian leaders have increased, a crucial part of their advice and support arrangements.

John Howard’s extraordinary success as prime minister for more than a decade often obscures his government’s first eighteen months in office, which was dogged by mistakes and political controversy, mostly of its own making (see Tiernan 2007a, Chapter 7). Howard’s transition was a marked contrast to the experience of his predecessor Bob Hawke. Hawke’s first year in office was a triumph in the scope of his policy achievements, the discipline upheld across his ministry, and his engagement of the public service in the government’s reform agenda. In sharp contrast, and despite implementing significant changes to advisory and support arrangements that sought to assert control over policy and administration, the Howard government struggled. It was confounded by ministerial inexperience, ministerial and ministerial staff indiscipline, and a failure to establish effective relationships with the public service and the media. The new government struggled to gain political traction (see Tiernan 2006, 2007a). A series of scandals brought the loss of seven ministers and two prime ministerial staffers, including Howard confidante and CoS, Grahame Morris. With his support faltering and facing open speculation about his competence and fitness for the leadership, Howard took decisive action to bolster his government’s political skills and personal staff support. He began with a major restructure of his Prime Minister’s Office (from now on PMO). The experience was formative, both for Howard as prime minister and for his senior staff. According to his CoS, Arthur Sinodinos, they learned that, ‘you’ve got to keep dominating the agenda and moving the agenda’.

More than halfway through his first term, Howard seized political and organizational control of his government and laid the foundations for his success and three subsequent election victories. Into his fourth term, having seen off three Opposition leaders, Howard appeared unassailable. Commentators and scholars alike described him as a predominant prime minister in almost total command of his government and his party (Kelly 2006; Tiernan 2007a, 2007b).

Howard’s pursuit of an organizational response to the problems of his first term is a testament to both his organizational skills and his ability to learn from experience (Tiernan 2006, 315). These abilities became more obvious in his second term, though they were nascent in his first. Indeed, Howard had thought a good deal about the government that he would run; how he would manage the business of Cabinet and balance short-term demands with long-term priorities. After all, he had, been Treasurer in the Fraser government; had drawn lessons from his loss of the Opposition leadership in 1989; and had contributed to the Liberal Party’s soul-searching after its devastating loss of the ‘unloseable’ 1993 election (see Tiernan 2007a, Chapter 5). Although Howard brought with him strong ideas and theories about governing, he could not give them effect during that early period in office. It is accepted that, with the help and support of his CoS, Arthur Sinodinos, Howard developed the support arrangements he needed and which worked for him. Sinodinos played a key part.  His tenure as CoS coincided with the height of Howard’s political success. After Sinodinos left the PMO in December 2006, the prime minister’s performance was less sure-footed, prompting many to question the extent to which the loss of his CoS had undermined Howard’s leadership and performance.

More than a decade on, around the same stage of his first term, Kevin Rudd was ousted as prime minister in a spectacular party-room coup. He had swept to power in November 2007 on a wave of optimism and goodwill. With consistently high public approval ratings, having achieved a relatively orderly transition and moved quickly to implement his election commitments, Rudd might have expected to lead a long-term government, in the Australian tradition. Rudd committed his government to high standards of integrity and accountability from ministers and their staff. He promised to develop cooperative relationships with the public service. Labor ministers contrasted their discipline and competence with the ‘shambolic’ performance of the Howard ministry at the same stage (Tiernan and Weller 2010, 63). Yet in June 2010, having alienated his colleagues, the public service and stakeholders in business and elsewhere, and with his public support plummeting after a series of policy reversals, Rudd was dumped. His troubles were widely attributed to his private office’s performance, though critics also blamed Rudd’s personality and style. However, unlike Howard, Rudd was not allowed the chance to show he could learn and change and grow into the job.

Rudd’s performance was compared unfavourably with the governing style of Prime Minister Bob Hawke, whose private office was renowned for its professionalism and effectiveness over the eight and a half years of his tenure. Incoming Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, pledged to return to the ‘Hawke model’ of governance. She emphasized due process and consultation with Cabinet colleagues. She called also for more effective engagement with the public service, especially the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) which, it was revealed, had been frozen out by Rudd for months. The besieged prime minister had retreated to an ever-smaller coterie of trusted advisers in the PMO with whom he felt comfortable.

As Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard had enjoyed a reputation for calm efficiency, for having discipline and focus that enabled her to get through the mountain of paperwork associated with her large portfolio of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations. As acting prime minister, her work habits were the opposite of Kevin Rudd’s. It emerged that the public service and ministers’ offices would hold on to briefs and submissions until they knew Gillard would be acting prime minister. Then they knew they would get a decision or direction more quickly than from Rudd or his office. When she assumed the leadership in June 2010, expectations were high.

Yet despite her commitment to restore discipline and process, almost from the time of her unexpected elevation to prime minister and her emergence from the August 2010 federal election as leader of a precarious minority government, Gillard struggled.  There were several problems.  She was constrained by the compromises inherent in the deals she had struck to regain the Treasury benches.  Her legitimacy as prime minister was undermined by her reluctance to explain why Rudd had been removed by his colleagues. She needed time to get the machinery of government working again after the chaos and dysfunction of Rudd’s time as prime minister. But, by early 2012, the malaise that engulfed Gillard was blamed by the media on the competence and performance of her private office, led by then Chief of Staff Amanda Lampe. Criticisms of staff are often a proxy attack on the prime minister; they reveal internal dissent, and in this case, weakness. Despite significant policy and legislative achievements, Gillard’s leadership came under open threat from her predecessor. Caucus became increasingly skittish because of consistently poor opinion polls and her talent for scoring ‘own goals’ when opportunities to gain political traction seemed within her government’s grasp. She saw off two challenges from Rudd in the party room in February 2012 and again in March 2013, when Rudd declined to challenge despite the urging of supporters. Commentators and Rudd supporters openly questioned Gillard’s political, policy and management skills. With Labor facing electoral oblivion at the 2013 federal election, much criticism focused on the quality of support Gillard received from her increasingly defensive inner circle.

There is a tendency to contrast Kevin Rudd’s and, more recently, Julia Gillard’s leadership and organizational skills unfavourably with those of previous prime ministers. This disparity is attributed in part to the quality and calibre of their private offices and by implication, their CoS. So, the lessons and insights of an earlier generation of prime ministers’ CoS are especially salient. Three recent prime ministers have encountered a similar dilemma at comparable phases of their tenure. This recurring dilemma means that, as well as bringing political skills to the job, they must also have organizational skills to manage their advisory and support arrangements. They need to take control of the machinery of government and use it to achieve their political and policy goals. We argue that such organizational skills are a crucial but currently underemphasized resource underpinning prime ministerial effectiveness. Importantly, it is a resource leaders cannot exercise alone. As the core executive has grown and become increasingly specialized, it depends in critical ways on the staff in their private offices, most significantly on their CoS.

Those who have held the position of CoS to the Prime Minister of Australia argue it has changed significantly in a comparatively short period, attracting greater scrutiny and focus. CoS to Prime Minister Paul Keating, Dr Don Russell reported that:

I have now been away from the Commonwealth government for six years, which has allowed me to survey all this, hopefully, with some perspective. My overriding impression is that our system of government is evolving and that the power of the prime minister and the Prime Minister’s Office continues to rise. At the same time, we have seen a trend of decline in the power and influence of the public service (Russell 2002, 2).

The present-day CoS job dates from the Keating government and marks the formal emergence of a large and specialized ‘core executive’ in Australia. In and out of government, the CoS is understood as a significant and influential player. Once sequestered in the backroom of Australian politics visible only to insiders, more recently their job has attracted significant attention. Because it was seen as a key factor in Kevin Rudd’s removal as prime minister in June 2010, the structure, organization and management of the PMO, and the quality, skills and experience of individual incumbents, have become matters of public debate. Public and journalistic interest only intensified after Julia Gillard became prime minister. Her difficulties as prime minister were ascribed by commentators to the quality and calibre of her personal staff as well as her standing as leader of a minority government. Individuals in successive PMOs (whether designated PPS or latterly CoS) have long been recognized as key players. But their work has come under greater scrutiny as the link between prime ministerial effectiveness and the performance of their private offices has become more widely understood.

The job of CoS to the Australian prime minister has an almost 40-year history, yet little is known about the nature of the job. How have its occupants adjusted to the personalities, preferences and working styles of the prime ministers they have supported? How have they navigated the complexities and pressures of life at the centre of government? How have they dealt with the challenges confronted at different stages of their service? Despite its undoubted significance, until relatively recently, the position of prime minister’s CoS was in the shadows of Australian politics. Its occupants are conscious it exists to serve and support the prime minister and his or her government rather than as an independent entity. While insights and advice have been passed from previous incumbents to the next, there has been no systematic effort to understand and document the evolution of the CoS position. There is no documentary record of the lessons for effective practice that might help future occupants of the office and the leaders they will serve.

This book addresses this critical gap in our understanding of the contemporary practice of Australian political leadership. We address both the general reader with an interest in political affairs as well as students, scholars and practitioners. It reports the findings of a project designed to develop an empirically based understanding of the work of prime ministerial CoS as seen by those who held the position.

Research Method

In late 2009, eleven former prime ministerial CoS spanning governments from Fraser to Rudd came together to take part in two closed, round table workshop discussions. Each session aimed to elicit participants’ views on the following topics.

  • The development and evolution of the job of CoS
  • How different individuals approached the task of working with the prime minister
  • The key duties and responsibilities that they performed.
  • The challenges confronting the CoS at different stages of the governing cycle.
  • Lessons that might be ‘passed on’ to their successors.

Between 1972 and June 2013, 24 individuals held the CoS position (see Appendix 1). Seven attended the first workshop in Canberra on 1 September 2009. These were Dale Budd and David Kemp (Fraser), Graham Evans (Hawke), Don Russell and Geoff Walsh (Keating), Grahame Morris and Arthur Sinodinos (Howard). A second workshop, held in Sydney on 11 December 2009 was attended by four former CoS: Sandy Hollway (Hawke), Allan Hawke (Keating), Nicole Feely (Howard) and David Epstein (Rudd). Both workshops were facilitated by Associate Professor Anne Tiernan and Professor Patrick Weller, AO, from the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University. The participants agreed we could record and transcribe proceedings.

The participants in the two workshop sessions represented 52 per cent of all prime ministerial CoS up to 2008. Wilenski died in 1994. James Spigelman was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and unavailable. Two were overseas and another could not be found. Five did not respond. We did not consider it appropriate to ask the serving CoS to attend the focus group.

Since the workshop sessions that formed the basis for our research were conducted in late 2009, three individuals have been the prime minister’s CoS, all for relatively brief periods. Alister Jordan replaced David Epstein as CoS to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in November 2008. He served in this job until Rudd was replaced by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in June 2010. Her first CoS, Amanda Lampe, held the position from June 2010 to January 2011. She was replaced by the most recent incumbent, Ben Hubbard (2011-13), who had worked as CoS to Gillard in Opposition and during her first twelve months as deputy prime minister. Such rapid turnover is unusual, but so have been the circumstances of Australian politics during the period in question.

To develop a comprehensive an account of the contemporary CoS, we conducted a further round of interviews with key respondents and with others directly associated with the Rudd and Gillard offices. We supplemented these interviews with documentary and other primary sources. There was also a surprising volume of media coverage, confirming the increased visibility of the CoS.

Clearly there are many ways of investigating how CoS do their job and how and why it changes.  In our previous research, our preferred methods have been elite interviews and observation; core tools in ethnographic fieldwork. Ethnography comes in many guises and is not confined to long periods of fieldwork in a particular setting. More often than not it involves multi-sited, yo-yo research and studying-up; that is studying elites. Observation is not the only or even the dominant method. It is combined with in-depth interviews and focus groups as well as such widely used social science techniques as historical archives, textual analysis of official documents, biographies, oral histories, recorded interviews, and informal conversations. Our study uses in-depth interviewing, official documents, biographies, memoirs and diaries, informal conversations, and, most notably, focus groups. Although focus groups are associated with survey work and marketing, they are also used in ethnography. As Agar and MacDonald (1985, 85) conclude focus groups can take the ethnographic researcher into new territory especially when the conversation is located in broader folk theories such as the governmental traditions in which the participants work.

Focus groups have some singular advantages. They provide a detailed understanding of the participants’ beliefs and experiences, and embrace a diversity of views. It produces context specific qualitative data on complex issues and, in this case, on our respondents views about what makes an effective CoS. The workshop environment also encouraged open discussion of sensitive issues.

Of course, there are disadvantages with every method. The qualitative data is hard to analyze. Analysis hinges on the research question and the organizing concepts of the researcher, so there is always the possibility of bias. We read the transcripts separately with an agreed code book (see Appendix 3). We compared our results, but we were singing from the same hymn sheet and disagreed more over the severity with which we edited the transcripts for brevity than over the substance.

As we explained to all the participants, we were using an approach developed in the United States where there is a long tradition of research into the workings of presidential staff (see, Popkin and Kernell 1986; Sullivan 2004). We developed a background paper that provided participants with an outline of the American research and outlined our aims for this Australian project. We include a shortened version, covering the topics used to guide and structure the conversation, as Appendix 2. We asked each participant to open discussion on a specific question that was assigned in advance. This procedure worked well, but these elite respondents are used to driving their own agendas, so the part of the facilitator was crucial in ‘focusing’ the discussion. At times, we were conscious that we were not in control of the group. We were concerned the dynamic among a diverse group of former political enemies and factional rivals might inhibit discussion of sensitive issues. We needn’t have worried. After some early awkwardness, they settled into a free and frank exchange of views.

The eleven CoS in our workshops represent more than a quarter century of experience serving Australian prime ministers from Fraser to Rudd. All worked closely with their prime ministers. No one is better placed to reflect on the advisory and support needs of prime ministers. CoS are uniquely placed to comment on prime ministerial effectiveness in carrying out the many duties that accrue to present-day political leaders. This book reflects the lived experiences of those who held the CoS position. It draws on their observations and reflections in identifying lessons both for prospective CoS and those they will serve. Its findings are practical and important because, as Allan Hawke, who served briefly as Paul Keating’s CoS reflected:

Well, my biggest lesson was seeing how it operates from the inside as opposed to what people might have told you, or what you have read. There’s no substitute for seeing it first-hand, I think.

[Facilitator]: You were an experienced senior official when you went in [to the PMO]. What did you learn?

Allan Hawke: Well, I learnt it doesn’t happen according to the way the textbooks and other things tell you … Mine might have been a different experience to a lot of other [CoS] because of both Paul [Keating] himself and the stage [the government] was at – it was extraordinarily chaotic. You know, you have this impression that it’s all ordered and disciplined and it all happens in this way, all the right people are consulted et cetera. Often it’s not like that at all. Often it depends – and this is no surprise – it depends so much on personal relationships. When they’re in good stead and good standing, things happen in a different way as compared to when they’re fractured.

The search for a better understanding is not specific to Australian CoS. Jonathan Powell, CoS to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, explains his motivation to write his book The New Machiavelli was because:

… in Number 10 I often felt the need of a modern handbook to power and how to wield it. There are many excellent guides to the principles of the British state… but they tell you how the system is supposed to operate rather than how it operates in practice. What I wanted was something that told me what previous practitioners had discovered by experience, and to learn lessons from their triumphs and failures. No such guide existed (Powell, 2010, 3).

Our CoS would agree.

Sandy Hollway: That’s why it’s so important what you’re trying to do. So I think you pick up a newspaper or a magazine and the reportage might be, if you get lucky, well informed. I think a lot of it is junk but I mean it might be well informed. But to anybody who’s been on the inside there’s just this sort of massive machine churning away in a more or less disorganised fashion out of which pop policies all over the place … it’s boring to most people … I think the visibility [of prime ministers and their offices] is very, very small … it’s because nobody on the inside writes about these things. The only way of writing about them is not the broad-brush memoir. It’d be the case study. That’s what we need to accumulate.

The Chiefs of Staff’s own perspectives about their everyday work provide the foundation for this book. Parts of it draw extensively on their accounts of their own experience. The research focuses on the beliefs of those who have held the job of prime minister’s CoS, the practices they describe, and the stories that they tell about supporting and working with prime ministers under governments from Fraser to Rudd. Our shared goal was to build the institutional memory of the PMO. We proceeded from the shared premise that what they learned about political leadership and governing might help future CoS. Given the gap between what is written and their knowledge of life in prime ministers’ offices, this study provided an opportunity for CoS to record in their own words what it was like to ‘be there’. They could also draw lessons to pass on to future CoS and others serving in, or aspiring to, a similar position. Throughout we have striven to let their voice (and phrases) prevail but inevitably it is our version of their stories about what they were doing.

Apart from these important practical concerns, the book offers insights into the work of CoS that have some theoretical significance. We answer several questions about the Australian core executive. What are the support needs of prime ministers? How have the advisory and other support arrangements in the Australian core executive evolved? What is the link between organization and prime ministerial effectiveness?

Our analysis of developments under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard shows Labor’s difficulties are more complex than the personal or political foibles of the prime minister.  We argue that a fundamental dilemma confronts present-day leaders. How do they use the available people and resources to remain effective throughout their tenure? Their success depends in critical ways on their organizational skills and resources as political leaders and on the effectiveness of the Chief of Staff who they, as prime minister, select.

An Outline of the Book

Chapter 1 outlines the aim of the study and the methods used to gather data from prime ministers’ CoS. It justifies our focus on this unique group for our understanding of the pressures and challenges of prime ministerial leadership.

Chapter 2 discusses the concepts we use to organize the book. We draw mainly on the core executive studies and the American presidential studies literature to identify three ideas of particular relevance to understanding the work and significance of the prime minister’s CoS. These ideas are: the resource dependencies of court politics; the specialized support for prime ministerial leadership and the need to build the prime minister’s organizational skills and resources (or capacity); and institutional memory. We show that responsibility for supporting the prime minister, once the province of senior officials in PM&C, has now shifted to the PMO. This shift means that prime ministers have asserted their right to decide the membership of key core executive networks and CoS have to manage the prime minister’s key dependencies. We use these ideas to organize and analyse our empirical observations of prime ministers’ CoS, as well as the views of the CoS about their job and its challenges.

Chapter 3 traces the evolution of the job of CoS to the Prime Minister of Australia from 1972 to 2009. Drawing on documentary and archival research, supplemented with interview data from individuals who have held the position under governments from Fraser to Rudd, we describe the evolution of the position. The chapter asks how the tasks of the CoS changed over its 40-year history. Our descriptive account shows there are six stages in the evolution of the CoS:

  • End of a tradition
  • In transition
  • Supporting the prime minister
  • In tandem
  • Centralized coordination
  • The triumph of the political (with prime ministerial selection of CoS as the political-administrator at the head of the core network at the centre of government).

Chapter 4 provides a portrait of the skills and experience of the group of individuals that held the CoS position between 1972 and 2006. Almost all have been men; only two women held the CoS position, both of whom had short, difficult tenures. Most came to the position in mid-career: the majority from backgrounds in the Commonwealth public service, notably Treasury and Foreign Affairs. More recently, public service backgrounds have given way to appointments from journalism and party politics. This chapter provides both a collective portrait of the group and pen portraits of key individuals.

Chapters 5 and 6 are the heart of the book and describe in some detail the job as seen through the eyes of the CoS. In the United States, the job was described by Jack Watson, CoS to President Jimmy Carter, as ‘javelin catcher’. Geoff Walsh, CoS to Paul Keating, said the job in Australia encompassed the tasks of ‘pest controller’ and ‘shock absorber’ – all are vivid metaphors. These chapters describe the many tasks of the CoS, as they support their prime ministers across the broad and arguably increasing range of their responsibilities. We cover:

  • Supporting and protecting the prime minister
  • Running the office
  • Crisis management
  • Controlling the agenda
  • Policy coordination
  • Political management

Consistent with our aim of helping to build institutional memory about the work of the CoS in Australian government, we sought to draw lessons for future incumbents. We asked CoS to reflect on what they had learned during their time in the job; on mistakes they had made, and to identify advice and wisdom that they would pass on to their successors. Chapter 7 reports their views. We identify eight lessons:

  • Know your boss
  • Run the office
  • Coping and Surviving (Don’t lose the next election)
  • Focus on priorities
  • Control the agenda
  • Get the right people in the room
  • Keep them onside (‘Duchess them’)
  • Preserve institutional memory

We consider the pressures on leaders and CoS in their efforts to cope and survive.

After looking backwards to extract lessons, Chapter 8 looks forward and road tests the lessons against the experiences of Rudd and Gillard. We look at the backgrounds and performance of two of the most recent Chiefs of Staff to understand their difficulties in developing effective support arrangements.  We explore the problems created for the CoS and PMO by an ‘extreme personality’, in the case of Rudd, and ‘extreme contingency’ in the case of Gillard. We note that one of the functions of the CoS is to take the blame, but that does not mean it is their fault.

Chapter 9 summarizes our account of the evolution of the job of CoS; canvases plausible conjectures for the changes; and discusses the recurring issues of public servant vs. political staffer, institutional memory vs. responsiveness, and centralization vs. dependence. Finally, we return to the question of resource dependence and organizational skills and resources, and prime ministerial effectiveness We conclude that a CoS of stature and a well-run office are necessary but not sufficient conditions of prime ministerial effectiveness.