It might have seemed a statement of the obvious when Malcolm Turnbull told Tuesday’s Coalition parties’ meeting that “my chief advisers will be my ministers”. But in the context of the command-and-control style of Tony Abbott’s office, which caused so much trouble, it was an emphatic reinforcement of his repeated message – that he intends to restore proper cabinet government.
Turnbull said his office’s role would be to support and liaise with ministers and ensure that the government got the best out of the public service. Sub-text: it wouldn’t be like a Peta Credlin-run politburo.
As the new frontbench shakes down, cabinet secretary Arthur Sinodinos on Tuesday described his role as “a bit like being a traffic cop. Just making sure that all cars are going in the right direction and not crashing into each other.”
Sinodinos said it was a matter of cabinet ministers being “consistent on the messaging, having ownership of the decisions that come out of the process, so therefore having a fair process which gives everyone the chance to have a go”.
Having been chief-of-staff to John Howard, Sinodinos has a big advantage: he’s also seen the process from the vantage point of a prime minister’s office. “It gave me a feel for what works and doesn’t work.”
He told Sky that Turnbull was being consultative, asking each of the ministers to have a view on things. “Does that mean it makes for a longer cabinet meeting? It can sometimes, but if it means at the end people have a sense of where they’re going and they have ownership on the outcome it helps with confidentiality, it helps with collective responsibility.
"And if the cabinet knows where it’s going it can put a consistent view to the party room and the government knows where it’s going and we all know what we’re saying out to the public.”
Treating colleagues as a team was better than a command-and-control system or dealing with things in silos, Sinodinos said. “At the end of the day, the prime minister’s colleagues are his colleagues – they should be treated accordingly. My role, as much as the Prime Minister’s Office role, is not to be gatekeepers, but in a sense gate openers, because prime ministers need to have different trajectories of advice – they have to have diverse sources of advice.”
He said that in the last two years a lot of the goodwill present when the government came to office had been dissipated because “there probably was too much command-and-control. And I think you need to build productive relationships with your colleagues … the colleagues come first, you have to have a structure which reflects that.”
In a speech to the Sydney Institute on Tuesday night, Anne Tiernan, from Griffith University, co-author of two books on prime ministers’ chiefs-of-staff, noted that “criticisms of the ‘control freakery’ of successive PMOs are so common to have become almost routine”. That they had contributed to the demise of three prime ministers – Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, and Abbott – “indicates a structural problem in our governance”.
She said Rudd, Gillard and Abbott had struggled because of a lack of effective transition planning; difficulties in shifting from campaigning to governing; and an incapacity to understand and find ways of dealing with “the realities of resource dependence in government” – that is, other players including the party room, cabinet, the Senate, state leaders and the like.
Whether Turnbull could carry out his commitment to restore cabinet government, consult more effectively and better manage his dependences remained to be seen, Tiernan said.
“He has made what looks to be a promising start, but then so did Kevin Rudd. The devil will be in the detail,” she said.
And, it might be added, when the pressures come on for quick decisions and, to use a favourable word of Turnbull’s, “agile” reactions.
Tiernan elaborated after her speech: “Internationally, the trend to centralisation is unmistakable across different types of political systems. It’s commendable that Turnbull is committed to running a more consultative and devolved model – letting ministers ‘minister’ – but the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle and the speed of events push the other way. It’s difficult to resist the demands of immediacy which tempt the leader and their inner circle to decide unilaterally.”
In some ways Turnbull will have to deny aspects of his own personality if he is to achieve his objective of operating a genuine style of cabinet government. Will he be able to tolerate indefinitely everyone having their say in those long cabinet discussions? Will he successfully curb his natural impatience?
How, as time goes on, will he react to advice that goes against the grain? As Sinodinos says, prime ministers don’t always like some of what they’re told.
The measure of Turnbull’s approach to governing will be over the long haul, when adversity, colleagues and politics try his endurance and his temper. His prime ministership will be a test of character as well as of cabinet government.