One voice, one message: Presidentialism in Australia

by Alex Hamilton

There has been a shift over the last ten or so years from a parliamentary mentality to politics, to a more presidential one. Nothing epitomised this more than the national outcry of the axing of a sitting PM by his deputy a year ago; when the nation was aghast at the loss of the 'president' they had 'elected'. Whilst it is an interesting shift for a relatively new country, and it should be debated as to whether it is a good thing or not, what I think is more relevant is the effect it has on policy and messaging in the political sphere.

Julia Gillard like her predecessor runs a tight ship. The messaging is controlled, there is one voice, everyone is on the same page, and unity is the order of the day. It has been called the 'Hawker Britton" model of politics, but it could easily be referred to as a 'presidential style' too. This efficient corporate model has consequences for the things that a government does that are not high profile: it hides them. There are policies, departments and ministers, that get no oxygen because they are not part of the narrative that is being played out on the grand arena by the heavy weight figures, but especially by the leader of the party.

This is not a criticism of Gillard or of Rudd per se, I have written before that they are both pretty great in their own ways, but the lack of prominence afforded to 'smaller' policies and ministers is harming the Government.

Federal governments are huge in comparison to previous versions, even just looking 20 years back, but instead of sharing prominence of policies and people around, it is now more concentrated than ever. It is not that the wheels of the government stop turning when the microphone is off, they are there churning away in some profound ways that affect the lives of millions of people, but we the people don't hear about it unless it is an election, and even then, maybe just in a ten point list of achievements. The Government is doing really good work in areas of policy that aren't sexy or controversial like carbon taxes, cigarette plain packaging or the like, but it is difficult to hear about it unless you are a Labor tragic (ahem), or specifically interested in the area involved.

Higher Education reform was controversial when we were losing students, violence was being reported regularly, but as soon as it died down, away it went from the talking points. Likewise in the Health portfolio with Nicola Roxon, there are major shifts in health policy being worked on right now, but she and her department are relatively low profile. E-Health is going to change the very face of health care in this country for generations to come, but it is little talked about comparatively. Penny Wong is a powerful figure, smart, hard working and senior figure in the cabinet, but she too is playing a small role in the media compared to the PM. Greg Combet too is a figure of great intellect, passion and accomplishments, but we rarely see him on his own, holding his own, despite having a high profile portfolio.

This is all of course exactly how John Howard engineered it. Which is ironic considering his love of QE2, but nonetheless here we are operating in an environment that he set up. Kevin Rudd took Howard's mantle, but he did not discard the culture (or the department heads) that was dominant by the end of the Howard years. Howard exercised complete control over cabinet and the country, he was so powerful by the end that he was making up policy by himself and announcing it without consulting anyone in his senior team, let alone backbenchers.

The problem with presidentialising our system of politics is that we are not a presidential system of democracy, so the checks and balances that would apply, don't. Particularly, that the president has her own policy people and own power base, and the parliament has their own. The Americans for example do this very well (as you would expect); with the president setting the big agenda and pushing for reform etc, but with congress having their own policies and priorities. In Australia the 'president' drowns out the smaller issues of other parliamentarians or ministers. I am not advocating for a change to the US system at all, but more for a lessening of the power of the office of the Prime Minister.

I know that politicians rarely cede power once they have fought hard for it, but I think it is necessary for the long-term health of the country, and for the Labor Party. Gillard has done this already with her selection of ministers and some other changes from the Rudd days, but I think that she should go a bit further; lessen the reigns on policy, let the power of your ministers grow, and they will shine. The Gillard Government has some exceptional talent and given a bit more oxygen they could help the public see the great work being done in their name, and with their money. This wouldn't stop the leader setting the agenda, or fighting the big battles for our future and our fate, but it would lessen the load, strengthen the team and fill out the policy picture.

Alex Hamilton is the Secretary of the ALP Kings Cross Branch and Editor of The Xavier post.