In a Quarterly Essay, David Marr put his finger on the reason why many public servants, including me, found their work less satisfactory than it could have been under the Rudd government.
Information is a great prerogative of power. Rudd has at his disposal a vast, highly skilled machine for gathering facts. . . . Hours aren’t the issue. Bureaucrats don’t mind working hard, long days. They object to feeding material in when nothing much comes out; demands made at midnight that might be made at midday; wild flurries of activity driven by petty media squalls; calls for detailed briefing on fourth-rank issues that need never go near a prime minister; and urgent requests for material they know to be sitting in Rudd’s office already. They mind wasting their time. And they worry that not much good policy can come from a strange mix of rush and delay. The new government was always pressing forward while leaving unfinished business in its wake. —David Marr. Power trip: the political journey fog Kevin Rudd. Quarterly Essay, no. 38, 2010, p. 72
The centralisation of decision making seemed even greater under Labor than under Howard—which was a problem for a reformist Government that was trying to do many things on many fronts at once. To me it is was scandal, for example, that Environment Minister Peter Garrett was first made aware of the government’s decision to jettison the emissions trading scheme when it was leaked to the press. “That was an announcement and a decision that was leaked and I found out about it when it was leaked,” he said at the time. In fact it wasn’t the Government’s decision; rather it was a decision by a few ministers. The decision to dump the ETS—a massively important proposal on which the Government had expended mush political capital—didn’t go to Cabinet, with the decision made by the Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee of Cabinet: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner. Reports suggest that Mr Tanner was outvoted by other three.
It has never been harder for Labor ministers to stare down a prime minister. Nor have Labor Cabinets ever been so circumscribed. From the time Rudd’s government faced its first crises, more and more big decisions were made by four key ministers alone—Rudd, Gillard, the treasurer, Wayne Swan, and the finance minister, Lindsay Tanner—sitting as the Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee. In early 2010 Laura Tingle reported:
“When ministers arrive for federal cabinet meetings, they find a folder waiting in their spots which they can look at but not take out of the room. Inside are decisions already taken by cabinet’s expenditure review committee and the ultimate power within the Rudd government—the Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee (SPBC). Ministers are expected to endorse the decisions without discussion, and usually do.
Two other Cabinet systems have broken down. Submissions once circulated ten days before Cabinet meetings began to turn up in ministers’ offices only the night before. And scrutiny of submissions by inter-departmental committees has largely given way to scrutiny by the prime minister’s office and department alone. Rudd is the choke point again.”