GOVERNMENT: by Alan BarcanNews Weekly
The rise of Australia's new political class
, April 30, 2011
A remarkable feature of Australian political democracy in the mid-1980s was the rise of a new type of politician. The phenomenon appeared first in the Labor Party, particularly in New South Wales. Nevertheless, the new-style political class is strong across Australia as a whole.
Four salient features define this class: 1) Politics is the sole career of its members. They have had no experience in other occupations. 2) Members of this class are more concerned with power than with policy; the terms “left” and right” are mere conveniences, lacking any major distinction. 3) These politicians are often the products of universities, student politics providing their initial training. Sydney University was a leading nursery. 4) The politicians often rely for their short-term political program on public opinion polls, focus groups or friendly think-tanks.
Thus the contemporary concept of “a political class” refers to a relatively small group of activists who made their careers only out of politics and to their agents or acolytes in senior levels of public administration.
How did it emerge? Why did it emerge?
Mike Carlton summarised the phenomenon in the Sydney Morning Herald (March 12, 2011). He focused on the Labor Party’s NSW state secretary, Sam Dastyari, who had stated that the Liberals would win the approaching elections. Dastysari had been a party functionary virtually since puberty, rising through student politics to Young Labor and the Sussex Street machine, thus missing the experience of “what the rest of us would call a proper job”.
Carlton continued: “This explains a fair bit about what is wrong with the ALP these days. There is no corporate memory any more, no regard for party tradition and practice, nor even commonsense.
“Once it was the role of the Sussex Street supremo to support a Labor premier to the bitter end, but that old-fashioned idea was trashed by Dastyari’s immediate predecessors in the gig, Karl Bityar and Mark Arbib.”
The rise of this new class was linked with the decay of the Westminster system. This became established in eastern Australia in the late 19th century when entry into the public service by open competitive examination replaced what had been predominantly a system of patronage in which any preliminary entrance exam was a toothless adjunct.
Political parties did not, of course, then exist. Individual politicians formed and dissolved alliances, resulting in frequent changes of government. Stability of policy came from the work in each administrative area of a dominant figure (e.g., in New South Wales Ben Martindale in railways, William Wilkins in education, Edgar Eager in Treasury).
By the beginning of the 20th century, the states had established public service boards and conducted a range of examinations, thus greatly curtailing patronage.
The increasing influence of politicians, who were sustained by their advisers and agents, was associated with the decline of mass membership in political parties, the growing importance of factions, and the decay of the Westminster tradition of objective advice from an independent civil service.
The BBC television and radio comedy series, Yes, Minister, in the early 1980s, depicting the struggles between a senior minister and the permanent head of his department, was a nostalgic farewell to a steadily fading tradition.
When I deplored the decline of the independent public service, a defender of the new public service legislation responded that “the basic logic of government accountability means that senior bureaucrats should not have any permanent hold on their positions. If they can’t or won’t competently perform the duties lawfully assigned to them they should be sacked, as is the case for any of us (except perhaps academics, though that has changed too)”.
A prime example was the slash-and-burn tactics of Jeff Kennett during his term as Liberal premier of Victoria during 1992-99. Two decades after he came to power, he boasted of this. He said: “I think I got rid of 16 permanent heads before lunch, another eight after lunch and I think I kept five.” (Sydney Morning Herald, February 24, 2011).
The concept of “permanent” had lost its validity. The Westminster system, where the permanent heads had gained office after lengthy experience in the field, was disintegrating. The new political class appoints its own (often inexperienced) acolytes as senior public servants and to head government departments.
Thus the day before the Liberals under Barry O’Farrell won the March 26, 2011, elections in New South Wales, the potential incoming minister for education told the director-general of education, Michael Coutts-Trotter, who was married to the federal Labor minister Tanya Plibersek, that he had lost his job. The assistant general secretary of the Public Service Association denounced this as shocking. He said that the PSA believed the department of education “needs to be run by administrators, not [educationists]”.
The increased authority of individual politicians and their acolytes in the leadership of their departments permitted the speedy implementation of considered policies. It also entailed a speedy fall from power should activist ministers promote impractical initiatives.
Three relatively recent examples are Paula Wriedt, whose downfall related to her support of the “Essential Learnings” program (Tasmania, 2006), Ljiljanna Ravlich in Western Australia whose resignation followed her advocacy of the outcomes-based curriculum (2007), and Lynne Kosky in Victoria (2010) who came to grief over transport.
Entry into the political class comes mainly through membership of factions. As the mass membership of parties shrank, factions became the pathway to power. The purpose of the factions was no longer primarily the implementation of distinctive policies; it was the pursuit of power. In fact, the factions often promoted similar policies. Although factions might retain traditional names, such as “Right” and “Left”, these names meant very little; they were simply useful titles lacking much political content.
A distinctive feature of members of the new class is that they had had no employment other than with politicians. Many of them had learnt their trade in student political clubs. Some gained their training or found their employment as officials in trade unions. The University of Sydney was a leading site for such training. Indeed, the back-cover blurb of Dominic Knight’s recent novel Comrades focuses on such goings on. He wrote: “Sydney University, Australia’s pre-eminent finishing school for politicians, and its Students Representative Council is the nursery where generations of future leaders have cut their first dodgy preference deals and performed their first backstabbings.”
It is a menagerie of campus lefties, closet Liberals (who prefer to be known as Independents) and “Trots”, who are more likely to stick to their ingrained beliefs, at least for a few years. Amateur comedians use humour as a way of achieving their goals. “Principles are abandoned, loyalties forgotten, and party lines crossed.”
In his contribution to a recent collection of essays on The Howard Era (Quadrant Books), former Secretary of the Treasury John Stone explores the implications of the new politics for public administration at the Commonwealth level. He says that while his resignation from the Commonwealth public service was prompted in part by the Hawke government’s Public Service Reform Act of 1984, he felt even greater revulsion towards the Howard Government’s actions in this area.
This was not because on taking office Howard dismissed six departmental heads, most of whom owed their appointment to Labor Party patronage. Howard’s Public Service Act 1999 delivered an even more severe blow, completing the transformation of the “once-respected role of Commonwealth public servants to that of mere servants”. Decisions on whether departmental heads would or would not be reappointed, whether their appointment should be for a relatively short term, and the level at which his or her “performance pay” component should be set were obvious coercive processes. The new act also highly increased the power of the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
In interviews conducted in 2008, but not publicised until two years later, 19 Commonwealth departmental secretaries expressed their discontent to the Remuneration Tribunal. What better forum could they choose?
Their complaints? They often had to manage illegal and inappropriate directions from their ministers; they had to deliver government initiatives which had more to do with politics than the national interest; they were invariably made scapegoats when their ministers made mistakes; they had to manage large and complex organisations in the glare of a constant news cycle and lacked the time to develop a long-term strategic approach. (Sydney Morning Herald, March 31, 2010).
The English journalist, Peter Osborne, analyses the new-style politicians in his book, The Triumph of the Political Class (2010). He emphasised their disdain for the traditional restraints on political power, i.e., for the independence of the judiciary, the neutrality of the civil service, and the accountability of ministers to parliament. Recently some Australian ministers, particularly in New South Wales, came to grief because of their inclination to ignore their parliamentary accountability.
Rodney Cavalier, himself a leading figure in the rise of the new political class in New South Wales (he was an admirable, strongly focused minister for education in the mid-1980s), assesses the situation cogently in Power Crisis: The Self-Destruction of a State Labor Party, in which he considers both “the political class” and its “host body” (the unions).
He writes: “In the 1970s and 1980s, as blue-collar unions were no longer able to rely on talent emerging from their ranks, so their benighted ageing leaderships brought in tertiary-educated young blokes with a stint in the ALP, political operatives who did not come from the ranks of the workforce covered by the union. More likely than not, these operatives had never held nor would ever hold a real job in their lives.”
The ALP factional leaders were placing these men, and in due course women, on the union staffs. “Inside one generation, the placemen of faction became the union leaderships.”
Politicians also appointed their acolytes as their personal advisers. Until the 1980s, ministers usually obtained their personal staff from their departments. But the practice was being reversed. Politicians were appointing their own political agents as senior administrative staff.
Professionalisation of the factional leaderships reduced the importance of the party membership. The rank and file found their influence on policy and practice declining. Party branches became smaller; many closed down. Party conferences now had minimal influence on propagating policies.
The large number of politicians lacking a strong ideology, the reluctance of the political leadership to proclaim detailed programs, has led to greater reliance on opinion polls (often a party’s own qualitative polling) and on focus groups in determination of policy.
These changes in the nature of political democracy entail more obscurity in the policy-making process and an increase in trial and error. The reduced autonomy of the administration is likely to result in politicians receiving the policy advice they wish to hear rather than an objective view of likely outcomes.
Alan Barcan is a conjoint fellow of the school of education at the University of Newcastle, NSW; he was formerly a lecturer at Newcastle Teachers’ College. He has written extensively on the history of Australian education. His latest book, From New Left to Factional Left: Fifty Years of Student Activism at Sydney University (Australian Scholarly Publishing), is in production.