Faulkner on Being a Minister

On Wednesday night, John Faulkner launched Learning to be a Minister: Heroic Expectations, Practical Realities. I would've liked to attend, but was refused a pair, so had to make do with enjoying the text of his speech. John has given me permission to post it below.

A speech by Senator John Faulkner
At the launch of Learning to be a Minister: Heroic Expectations, Practical Realities
By Anne Tiernan and Pat Weller
27 October 2010

First of all let me thank Anne Tiernan and Pat Weller for inviting me to launch Learning to be a Minister: Heroic Expectations, Practical Realities.

I have, of course, wondered why they invited me.  But I saw the answer when I got to the end of the book.   They have been thoughtful enough to include a short Epilogue: When the Music Stops - which I have read with particular interest!

Learning to be a Minister”, is, in its exquisite (or perhaps excruciating) timing, a poignant book.  Michelle Grattan’s suggestion - that given the potential for a change of government in 2007 the focus should be on how a new ministry learns and adapts to the responsibilities of governing - was a good one. 

The Preface describing the ‘lively throng at Government House, Canberra on 3 December 2007’ catches the zeitgeist well, and Anne and Pat’s interviews undertaken for the book in 2008/9 and the commentary based on them reflect that mood a time that now, in October 2010, seems far more than just 2 years and 10 months ago.  

But the change of Government – a comparatively rare event in Australian politics – has assisted the authors explore the job of a minister; what they do; how they get there; and how they learn to manage the huge and diverse range of responsibilities that accrue to Ministers under the Westminster model.

This book is thorough and serious, drawing on interviews with 19 members of the Rudd Ministry, 10 former Howard ministers, 16 departmental secretaries and 10 senior ministerial staffers, and on the literature of academics and practitioners. 

To have actually tied those people down and undertaken interviews with them is itself an achievement; to have then selected, distilled and prioritised their words into a coherent structure is a very substantial effort.  

The authors do not claim that either their choice of interviewee or of what was said was scientifically representative. How could it be?...when just like snowflakes, no two Ministers are alike.  But letting that selection of people recount their own experiences, in their own words, is an excellent way to bring the muddle of ministerial days and the dry theory of public administration and public policy to life.

Of course, there is some entertainment to be had in trying to identify the anonymous extracts.   For example, this from a former Howard Government Minister discussing Cabinet meetings:

“[Howard] instituted the rule that we do appointments first.   That was a really good rule and the really interesting part of Cabinet as well...Some of the ministers were just hopeless at appointing people.  They’d just get the department to give them a list of names and no sense of the government’s political interests or the sensitivity of the issues, just nothing... And of course when they got a reputation for not being good on appointments, as soon as we saw one from that person we’d all be into it.  Real sport you know, just knock ‘em down...of course it is a sport...”

Round up the usual suspects!

Anne and Pat took Pat and Michelle Grattan’s 1981 book Can Ministers Cope? (the first and only comprehensive study of Australian federal ministers at work) as a baseline for comparing how Ministers’ roles, and the environment in which they operate, had changed in thirty years.

Comparing these two books gives a good sense of both the continuities in the job of a minister and also the massive changes that have occurred in the environment in which the job is done.  

Since 1981 Australian society and culture have been transformed: -

  • In 1981 only one woman was serving in Cabinet, and only three had ever held a ministry. 23% of the Rudd Ministry was female.

  • The effect of rapid change in information and communication technologies with an increasingly educated and technology savvy electorate has been enormous.

  • The impact of the 24 hour news cycle on so many aspects of a Minister’s personal and professional life has been profound.

  • As Anne outlines in her book, “Power without Responsibility”, we have seen an evolution, if not a revolution in the role of ministerial staff – not to mention the massive increase in numbers of ministerial staff in Ministers private offices.

  • There is a great deal more contestability in the range of policy options government may pursue, and now a plethora of alternative sources of policy advice

  • The geography, landscape and dynamics of decision making have changed, particularly since the move to the new Parliament House in 1988.

  • Major changes have been made to portfolio structures including the appointment of, and new arrangements and administrative orders for, Portfolio Cabinet Ministers, non-Cabinet Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries.

  • The public service has been extensively reformed. Senior Public Servants, Secretaries in particular, remain critically important, but perhaps sadly for some, none are able any longer to wrap and coddle their Ministers so tightly so as to blanket out other voices.

Some of the contrasts between the 1981 and the 2010 books are quite stark. For example, the emphasis then on the respective power of ministers and public servants, and the extensive treatment now of the role of ministers’ offices. Peter Wilenski wrote in 1979:

“the restoration of ministerial responsibility is, at least for reform governments (of whatever political colour), the most urgent task facing public administration and that will necessitate extensive changes in our system of government”

It is to the great credit of the Hawke and Keating governments that those extensive changes were made – and, to be fair, followed up with the new Public Service Act during the Howard Government’s time in office – so that we no longer debate the respective powers of ministers and public servants.  

Rather, by 2007, concerns had developed about whether the public service had lost its capacity to come up with innovative policy and whether ministerial staff had become - how should I put this, forceful? Even in some cases “overbearing”? It was in part in response to those kind of concerns that, as Special Minister of State, I established the Code of Conduct for Ministerial Staff, insisted that all staff attend induction courses, and, as an important accountability and transparency measure, introduced a Members of Parliament (Staff) Act Annual Report which will become increasingly useful over time as the system further evolves.

Ladies and Gentlemen, whatever has changed, some things stay the same:

  • A Minister’s obligations and responsibilities to the Parliament remain paramount,

  • Cabinet has retained its importance in authorising the decisions of Government,

  • There remain many things only ministers can do, legally and administratively,

  • There remain many fights only Ministers can be in, and many political decisions only Ministers can take, and

  • In our political system, however much bastardised Westminster, may be, it remains the case today that Ministers still trump officials and Ministers still trump staff.

I commend Chapter 3 of the book – “Taking Over” - as particularly valuable in describing those early days after a change of government. 

There is nothing quite as eerie as the Ministerial Wing when departing ministers have disappeared and before incoming ministers have arrived; nor anything quite as empty as a vacated ministerial office – empty filing cabinets, empty shelves, empty drawers, bare desks, slightly soiled carpets, blank walls, the occasional post-it note and perhaps, if you are lucky, some iced vo-vo’s - albeit stale - left on a shelf in the kitchen. 

The authors rightly bring out the important role played by Departmental Liaison Officers (DLOs) especially in those early days – and by other departmental staff urgently dispatched to Parliament House to train a new Minister.

Compared to other countries our transitions are particularly abrupt. In the United States, months go by between election and inauguration.   In the United Kingdom, new ministers go to work in established offices in their departments - so everything is already set up and usually there is some continuity of private office staff.

I recall when I was first learning to be a minister in March 1993 - after the sweetest victory of them all, Paul Keating advised ministers to use offices located - not in Parliament House but in their departments.   It was one of those ideas which was never going to happen; our geography, architecture and parliamentary sitting patterns and practices make it too hard.  

Ministers were nonplussed - Departments apoplectic - but we calmly solved the problem in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs with some lateral thinking by simply putting a sign on the door of a conference room – “Office of the Minister”.

After our defeat in the 1996 election Labor ministers were given a less- than - generous 24 hours to vacate their ministerial offices. One newly minted Liberal minister stormed into their new office on the Monday after the election, scaring the wits out of a cleaner desperately vacuuming away. The shaken cleaner was provided with an explanation – I’ve been waiting half a friggin’ lifetime to get my feet under that desk. (Actually friggin’ wasn’t the word used!).

And then in 2007, one new Labor Minister excitedly rang the PMO to report a former Howard Minister had been really helpful, and had contacted them to say they had left a filing cabinet full of Cabinet submissions behind, all neatly organised and labelled, to assist the new Minister get on top of the portfolio.

Panic stations. PM & C were called in to retrieve the highly classified documents and leave both the exiting Minister and the newbie red faced. No photocopies were taken I can assure you!

Ladies and Gentlemen, one addition I hope Anne and Pat will consider for the second edition of Learning to be a Minister, is the business of record keeping. Records, both paper and electronic, created and held in a minister’s office cover the range from official Cabinet and other departmental records, to the parliamentary, to the party and to the purely personal; from the very highly classified to material in the public domain; and also from the important and historically valuable to the completely trivial.   

Both political survival and good administration require reliable records systems so facts can be established, and recollections verified, during and after a term of appointment. 

Official records are eventually handled by departments under the provisions of the Archives Act.  The major political parties should have their own arrangements for their formal records.  The harder questions though, are whether, and where, to keep the more personal records. 

As a recently restored member of the National Archives Advisory Council and, in another life the Minister responsible for the National Archives, you will not be surprised to hear me urging ministers and chiefs of staff to get early advice from the Archives on the services they provide for the retention of personal records. And it goes without saying that in time, the increasing size, significance and potential accountability of ministerial staff will bring a call for more systematic handling of their records.

And, in case you were wondering, I have continuously deposited my personal papers with the National Archives. What is described by the Archives as the Faulkner Archive now fills 71 metres of shelving and contains Commonwealth and private records reflecting all aspects of my political and parliamentary life.

The book’s two chapters on the public service, especially the one on How Departmental Secretaries See Ministers are instructive.  I am pleased to see recognition of the very different approach to serving departmental secretaries adopted by Kevin Rudd in 2007. Rudd kept them on. Compare this to John Howard’s night of the long knives in March 1996 – in my view one of Mr Howard’s very worst decisions.

So too, I was pleased to see the attention paid to the responsibilities of ministers in parliament and to see the comments of one former Liberal minister; who said: “we Senate ministers always found the House of Reps ministers never really understand the exigencies of the parliament and the difficulties of getting things through...”.  (I suspect there might be a growing level of understanding on the green benches these days!)  

I think this book is to be commended for its restrained, common sense judgments, and for its avoiding simplistic remedies for change.  The enormous pressures on Ministers are recognised, and set out in some detail; for example in the diary information provided, and in the accounts of the changed approaches, attitudes and expectations of the media. 

But Anne and Pat in their final chapter which asks again Can Ministers Cope? come to much the same conclusions as in 1981:   the reader shouldn’t be tempted to sympathy;   becoming a Minister is a choice made by an individual which is usually desperately sought after, generally very hard fought for; and as the achievements of Governments of all persuasions demonstrate, the job can be done.

Most Ministers can, and do, cope – but some, as we know, cope better than others. 

I sincerely congratulate Anne and Pat on “Learning to be A Minister”.   I have prepared a shortlist of people in this very town for whom it should be essential reading! My spies tell me it is selling well in Manuka, with a number of quite surreptitious purchases being made!

I’ve already mentioned Anne’s ground breaking work on Ministerial staff, but let me say also to you Pat, that your work on governance and public policy issues has been of enormous significance now for over 30 years – for academics, practitioners and the public. To both Anne and Pat, who are of course, two of Australia’s finest political scientists – I compliment you both on a job very well done. 

Ladies and Gentlemen for those interested in the way government in Australia works, this book is essential reading.

It is with pleasure I launch, “Learning to be a Minister, Heroic Expectations, Practical Realities”.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.