Campbell’s cabinet and the curious case of the career politicians

Queensland Premier Campbell Newman congratulates Health and Community Services Minister Tracy Davis as she is sworn in. AAP Image/John Pryke

During the much-anticipated announcement of his new cabinet line-up in Brisbane last Friday, incoming Queensland Premier Campbell Newman emphasised his new team’s diversity, both geographically and in terms of professional backgrounds and experience.

Interestingly, with only three women in cabinet and another three as Assistant Ministers, the same could not be said in terms of gender.

According to Newman, his ministerial team comprising 19 Ministers and 11 Assistant Ministers (a curious choice of terminology, used most recently in the Fraser government of which Newman’s father, Kevin , was a minister) brings “an array of talent and experience”.

Newman said: “We have five lawyers, five journalists - that concerned me a bit - one engineer, that would be me, a medical specialist, two registered nurses, a dentist, a painter and decorator, a financial planner, former NRL referee who usually got his calls right and an environmental scientist”.

Labor’s task

Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk, herself perhaps the archetypal “career politician”, accepted the implied criticism.

She acknowledged that in undertaking the herculean task of rebuilding her party’s fortunes from the smoking ruin of 24 March, Labor would need to attract candidates with broad life experience. The party must now shake off perceptions its ranks are colonised by “hacks and flacks” trudging the well-worn path from university politics, to electorate office or ministerial staff positions, poised for pre-selection when the first opportunity for party headquarters to impose them on unsuspecting local branches presents.

Careerists

Anxiety about the growth of “career politicians” is not new.

Indeed, the term seems to have been coined in an article by eminent British political scientist Anthony King in 1981 (well before the emergence of the 24/7 media cycle) and elaborated rather persuasively by then Sunday Times Political Editor Peter Riddell in his book Honest Opportunism: the Rise of the Career Politician.

Julia Gillard worked as a lawyer then as a Labor party staffer before becoming an MP. AAP Pool

The focus was British national government, but the analogy transferred readily enough to the Australian context, where the growth of publicly funded para-political support roles at federal and state levels created unprecedented career development opportunities for (generally) young would-be Senators and MPs.

By the mid-2000s, a significant majority of front-benchers on both sides of politics at the federal level comprised individuals with backgrounds in professional politics – as union or party officials, or as political staffers in Commonwealth or state governments.

What is a “career politician?”

The argument goes that “career politicians” are younger, more partisan and ideological than their predecessors; have limited substantive experience outside politics and move in narrow social circles that reinforce their isolation and distance from “ordinary” Australians.

They are schooled in the “dark arts” of politics and campaigns; and view everything through the lens of partisan advantage, polls and focus groups and how the “punters” can be expected to respond.

The reality, of course, is more complex and nuanced than these crude stereotypes allow. Patrick Weller and I examined the career backgrounds of federal ministries from Fraser to Rudd for our book Learning to be a Minister: Heroic Expectations, Practical Realities.

We argued the palpable anxiety about “career politicians” risked under-emphasising some of the benefits that flowed from a generally better educated, more diverse, policy-focused and hard-working ministerial cohort. Nor does it acknowledge that professional skills may be necessary to cope with the demands that come with an increasingly professional, adversarial and media-saturated politics.

A wedge issue

Campbell Newman is right to exploit the opportunity to contrast the stereotype of the career politician with his new ministerial team. The Queensland result can be read, at least in part, as a repudiation of career politics and an uncanny fulfilment of Rodney Cavalier’s grim assessment of the general malaise gripping the Labor Party that has so alienated its base.

Campbell Newman and his new ministry. AAP/John Pryke

Its most recent expression can be found in its difficulties selecting a candidate to fill Anna Bligh’s formerly safe seat of South Brisbane, even though the new Labor leader has declared there is no room for factionalism in a party-room of seven.

A new way

We have a unique opportunity to assess the implications of the shift away from individuals with a background in politics towards a group less experienced and more diverse.

Most members of Newman’s Cabinet have at least some parliamentary experience, varying in length from three to, in the case of Lawrence Springborg – the only LNP member to have served as a minister, 23 years. Several, including Newman, have previously held elected office, albeit in local government.

Wisely, the premier has limited the appointment of new parliamentarians to cabinet, recognising that such individuals would face multiple challenges in learning to represent their electorates and mastering parliamentary procedure at the same time as getting across their briefs as ministers and adjusting to the rigours of the “Can Do” cabinet.

Accountability

With such a hefty parliamentary majority, Newman has foreshadowed his intention to hold ministers accountable. In addition to feeling performance pressure from their leader and senior ministers, the class of 2012 will be cognisant of the ambitions of backbench colleagues, whose relative lack of experience ruled them out - this time.

The premier himself faces a formidable learning curve in adjusting from local to state government and from being directly elected to working with the routines and conventions of a collective and responsible cabinet.

Commentators have noted the management challenge he confronts in maintaining discipline across an unwieldy and inexperienced party-room, but his authority is in the weight of his electoral success and will remain unchallenged while he heeds the counsel of his political hero John Howard to eschew hubris and to work everyday serving the people of Queensland.

The first steps

A potentially bigger challenge is achieving policy coherence. The Commission of Audit headed by former Treasurer Peter Costello will assist in identifying both the state of Queensland’s finances but also the priorities for the term.

Newman met Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Saturday and will attend his first Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting on 13 April. The scope and scale of current commitments will become evident through these two processes, giving the new government a broader appreciation of the pressures than is possible from Opposition.

If as mooted, the government establishes a Cabinet Office, and if in so doing it follows the model developed by the Howard government’s Cabinet Policy Unit, this will provide much-needed structural support in maintaining a focus on long-term priorities and the government’s agenda.

Significant lessons can be drawn from the advisory arrangements that helped underpin the Howard government’s success. Given his family background and political connections to the federal Coalition, Newman is well-placed to reap the benefits. Analysts will be watching to see if he can develop the capacity to learn and adapt that marks successful leaders’ transition to government, and which for most takes most of their first term in office.

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