Review: Political Amnesia – How We Forgot How To Govern

One of Tony Abbott’s first acts on coming to office was to remove Martin Parkinson (left) as Treasury secretary. AAP/Saeed Khan

The importance of history and memory is at the heart of Laura Tingle’s stimulating new Quarterly Essay, Political Amnesia: How We Forgot How To Govern. Tingle’s central claim is that a lack of historical knowledge is one of the main problems in contemporary Australian politics.

This “growing political and policy amnesia”, Tingle writes, is a key reason for Australian politics becoming:

… not only inane and ugly but dangerous.

Why has this happened?

This amnesia is the result of a variety of institutional changes, including the declining influence of public servants on policy formulation and the increasing power of ministerial advisers.

Tingle points out that the presence of ministerial advisers is not in itself a problem. In the Hawke government, for example, advisers had an important role. But the relationship between ministers and the public service was more balanced and effective:

Hawke insisted his ministers should have bureaucrats in their offices, specifically as chiefs of staff. It kept open the links with the public service in both directions. Ministers’ offices understood the public service. The public service understood their ministers.

Black Inc

However, various other developments have upset the balance between ministers and public servants. Senior public servants do not enjoy the security of tenure they previously did. Tingle suggests that the Howard government’s “night of the long knives” – when the new prime minister sacked six departmental secretaries – was a crucial turning point.

In addition, public servants now more frequently face attack in parliamentary committees. The end result is a “toadying culture” in a “cowed” public service.

Even if public servants were in a position to be giving “frank and fearless” advice, though, it seems unlikely that ministers would welcome it. Tingle quotes a former senior public servant who describes the Howard government’s approach to the public service in its later years as:

We’ll do the thinking, you just implement it.

The result is that ministers make decisions without the benefit of proper advice.

These developments have been exacerbated by a loss of expertise and institutional memory in the public service as a result of cutbacks, redundancies and contracting out. One indication of this is that “the median length of service of ‘ongoing’ public servants in mid-2014 was 9.4 years”.

This means that governments – and younger and less experienced public servants – lose the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of senior figures who can remember what happened not just under the last government, but governments before that.

Changes in the media have also contributed to the problem of political amnesia. Tingle is at pains to emphasise that partisan coverage and populism are not new features of the media landscape. However, the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the speed with which information can be communicated have led to a focus on immediacy and getting the “inside story” rather than in-depth reporting of policy issues.

This problem is exacerbated by the tendency for press gallery journalists to be generalists, rather than specialists concentrating on a particular policy area.

What effect has it had on politics and policy?

Many of the institutional developments Tingle highlights will be familiar to followers of Australian politics. But her essay demonstrates an impressive ability to tie these developments together to explain recent political events.

Kevin Rudd was criticised for a highly centralised policymaking approach. AAP/Lukas Coch

One of the essay’s most welcome features is its focus on the deeper structural forces at work. It is easy to blame the leadership instability and sometimes-chaotic approach to policymaking in recent years on the personality faults of the key figures involved – Kevin Rudd’s focus on control, Tony Abbott’s unrelenting oppositional stance.

The greater worry, though, is that our leaders’ personalities are not solely responsible for these developments; deeper structural forces are contributing to these problems. That leadership instability has also occurred at state and territory level, which Tingle does not cover in her essay, seems to add support to this view.

As with any essay on contemporary political events, there are some points of contention. In particular, Tingle argues that commentators were misguided to draw parallels between Julia Gillard’s challenge to Rudd in 2010 and Malcolm Turnbull’s challenge to Abbott five years later.

Tingle highlights important differences between the two cases. This includes the role of relatively inexperienced factional chiefs in the move against Rudd and the speed with which he was replaced, in contrast to Abbott’s more drawn-out demise and that senior Liberal frontbenchers primarily drove his ousting. Turnbull was also able to explain immediately why he had challenged.

Nonetheless, there are also clearly important similarities between the two deposed first-term prime ministers. Given Tingle’s overall argument, these similarities may well be more important than the differences. Both Rudd and Abbott adopted highly centralised approaches to government and were criticised by colleagues for failing to follow proper processes.

These problems reflect the broader trends Tingle highlights, which pre-date both leaders. However, the problems seem more pronounced in the cases of Rudd and Abbott than they did with John Howard and Gillard.

This is not to claim that a thorough policy process was always followed under Howard and Gillard, or to deny that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) wielded enormous power under both leaders. But their approach to the procedural aspects of policymaking did not seem to attract the same degree of criticism as Rudd and Abbott faced.

This might be regarded as a small positive. It suggests that the personal approach adopted by individual leaders can still make a difference to the way government operates, despite the structural forces Tingle outlines.

The demise of Rudd and Abbott also highlights the political dangers facing prime ministers as a result of these structural changes.

Prime ministers now have the ability to dominate the government’s policy agenda in a way they previously did not. However, this power is highly contingent on their personal popularity. Colleagues are likely to put up with a highly centralised approach if a prime minister has recently led the party to a major election win and is doing well in the opinion polls.

Malcolm Turnbull has promised a more ‘consultative’ approach to governing. AAP

But once a leader’s popularity drops, this ceases to insulate them from their colleagues’ resentment. Their control over the government also means they are likely to bear the brunt of responsibility for major policy failures.

It is worth pondering whether the problems resulting from the structural changes Tingle identifies extend beyond political amnesia to a basic failure to properly think through policy in advance and expose ideas to debate.

The centralisation of power in the PMO, insecure tenure for senior public servants and increasingly superficial reporting in the mainstream media have made it easier for those in positions of power to avoid engaging in serious critical discussion and debate over the policies they are putting forward.

The problem is therefore not simply about a lack of institutional memory. It is a broader failure to recognise the value of debate and dissent.

Debate, serious discussion and deliberation are valued highly in a democracy not just for their own sake, but because they are considered essential to testing the quality of ideas and arguments.

Increasingly, decision-makers in Canberra and beyond seem to have forgotten this age-old lesson of democratic politics. The quality of policymaking in Australia may be strengthened if they begin to remember it.