Reportage

Fragile spoils of victory

You have 1 free articles remaining for this month.

Once you reach your limit, to continue reading this and other quality writing

subscribe to Griffith Review for as little as $60 per year.

AUSTRALIA HAS ALWAYS prided itself on its political stability, but after World War II the country quickly settled into an equilibrium that sometimes seemed dangerously close to rigidity.

The Labor states of New South Wales and Tasmania stuck with Labor and the Liberal states of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia entrenched their conservative governments. Only in Queensland was there change and even that was a single upheaval; what had appeared to be a rock-solid Labor administration was replaced by an equally immovable dynasty in control of the then Country Party. And, of course, in Canberra, from 1949 on, the coalition under the paternal tyranny of Robert Menzies established itself as the natural – indeed, the only possible – government of Australia.

Inevitably, each of these dynasties, over time, generated its own political culture, a culture that reached well beyond the confines of Parliament House and even the warrens that housed the public service. But in the commonwealth at least, there were mercifully few serious examples of the government stacking important positions with its friends and cronies. Indeed, in the senior ranks of the public service the reverse was the case.

 

TO UNDERTAKE THE task of postwar reconstruction Labor's Ben Chifley had assembled a formidable array of talent, including a team of vertically challenged but intellectually triumphant men, known as the seven dwarfs. Most were openly inclined to socialism and could be seen as ideological enemies of the free-enterprise system espoused by Menzies and his colleagues; but Menzies recognised their integrity and dedication as public servants and made no attempt to purge them. Indeed, Richard Randall, Roland Wilson and Nugget Coombs became his key economic advisers. It is said that whenever Menzies planned a major policy statement, he would try it on this group first. They would listen politely and then one would reply along the lines, "Prime Minister, you have just told us what you would like to do. Now let us tell you what you are able to do." And they would, and he would do it.

In those days, of course, senior public servants enjoyed the advantages of permanent tenure – they could not be sacked on a ministerial whim. But they could certainly be shifted and sidelined. To his great credit, Menzies never attempted to do so on purely political grounds. Nor did his conservative successors, although some shuffled the deck a bit to find people they considered compatible. John Gorton, for instance, took his secretary from the education portfolio, Lennox Hewitt, with him to head the Prime Minister's Department, and his successor, Bill McMahon, reinstated John Bunting. But such fiddling did nothing to disturb the bureaucratic edifice that saw itself, with some justification, as the permanent repository of wisdom on which its political masters of all colours could rely for frank and fearless advice.

Over the years its views inevitably became more and more conservative, in tune with the government it served. Many Labor politicians regarded it as in league with the enemy and it was therefore expected that when Gough Whitlam came to power after 23 years of Labor in opposition there would be a mighty purge. But this did not happen; perhaps influenced by the fact that his father had been a distinguished and impartial public servant, Whitlam kept changes to a minimum. Just two permanent heads – Hal Cook in Labour and National Service and George Warwick-Smith in Interior – were pensioned off with ambassadorial rank to posts in Geneva. The remainder stayed on and Whitlam waited for retirements to provide opportunities for his own team, which included Peter Wilenski, Jim Spigelman and John Menadue.

Malcolm Fraser followed a similarly low-key approach; despite the tumultuous nature of his accession to the Lodge, he made few changes at the top – indeed, he even retained Menadue as head of the key Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. And eight years later Bob Hawke was again reluctant to buck a system that had, to that time at least, worked pretty well.

 

IT WAS DURING the Hawke years that the major cracks appeared in the bastion of permanent tenure. The institution of what became known as the Senior Executive Service meant that high-flyers could be employed on contract, which may or may not be renewed. This left the way open for the service to be stacked by any prime minister to whom personal loyalty was more important than experience and insight; and John Howard, of course, was and is such a prime minister. When he came to power he sacked a full third of the existing departmental heads – a bloodbath on a totally unprecedented scale.

Their replacements were equally unconventional. The new head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Max Moore-Wilton, had last been seen in Canberra as a deputy secretary in the Trade Department and a loud-mouthed regular at the bar of the National Press Club. Having established a reputation as an equally brutal manager, he became Howard's personal confidant and axeman. Moore-Wilton did not even bother to make a pretence of impartiality; indeed, he broke the public service convention by taking part in the Liberal Party's 2001 election victory party.

But under Howard, such blurring of the lines was to become common. The public service was now expected not just to administer government policy; it had the secondary job of boosting government politics. Dissenters were dealt with ruthlessly, but the rewards for the faithful were great. Jane Halton, a middle-ranker heavily involved in sustaining the government's claims in the "children overboard" myth of 2001, found herself promoted to head of the Health Department after the election that followed.

In such a culture, short-term expediency becomes the norm. There is no point in looking beyond the next election; if your political patron loses, you are automatically out of a job. If, on the other hand, your patron wins, you will share in the victory. Senior public servants under the Howard Government are now in a similar position to the CEOs of large companies, with whom they frequently compare themselves. They see their primary – indeed, only – responsibility as being to their shareholders, by which they mean not the taxpayers but the Government. The taxpayers are mere customers, valued not for themselves, but for what they can contribute to the company's bottom line: votes. As for such amorphous concepts as the good of society as a whole – forget it. If we want a visionary, we'll hire an astrologer.

 

IT IS TIME for a change of name: the public service is now the government-of-the-day-service. In the past, senior bureaucrats liked to refer, with gentle irony, to the government as their political masters. There is no longer any irony involved. Using carrots and sticks, greed and fear, Howard has completed the process of subordination. The concept of a truly independent public service is probably now dead forever. All that matters is which party is in control.

Thus the takeover of the public service can now be seen as a key aim of any government that aims to monopolise control of public debate and reinvent popular culture; a hostile or even neutral bureaucracy is a major impediment to the swift and efficient implementation of policies that might otherwise be dubious or controversial, and of their enthusiastic promotion through political advertisements paid for by taxpayers' money. The executive government of the day can now exercise close to total control over the public service.

And, as a final guarantee of obedience, ministers now insist that all public service contact with the public on any matter that could conceivably be considered political must go through their offices, where a fiercely loyal republican guard of unaccountable personal staff members has the sole function of shielding the ministers from any possible embarrassment. Ministers are answerable to the parliament and public servants can be quizzed by parliamentary committees. But political staff, who pass on ministerial orders and filter the bureaucrats' replies, are answerable to nobody; they are the ultimate example of power without responsibility. And since they have assumed the authority of the minister and depend on his political success, the bureaucracy is now effectively a branch of the ruling political party and is expected not only to obey the executive government but to give it active support.

 

BUT, AS EACH incoming executive quickly discovers, it is only one of three arms of government in the broader sense, the other two being parliament and the judiciary. The government obviously runs the agenda in the lower house, where it may or may not allow a certain amount of dissent – Howard's take-no-prisoners style allows none at all from his own side and as little as possible from the Opposition. But the Senate, where governments seldom have a majority under the proportional system, can only be kept in line through threats and bribes.

In a real sense, the Senate has now become the most serious competitor to the Government in the ongoing culture wars; while the Senate continues to resist, Howard can never have the complete victory over his ideological opponents for which he yearns. But by portraying the Senate as some kind of undemocratic, obstructionist mafia whose only aim is to thwart the will of the electorate, he can certainly minimise its credibility. All prime ministers get to loathe the Senate; Paul Keating's jibe about "unrepresentative swill" is simply the best remembered. But few have felt the need to take away its power, by one means or another, as urgently as Howard does. If he is to finish the task of remaking the country in his own image, the Senate is the greatest remaining obstacle.

The other arm of government, the judiciary, and particularly the High Court, can be equally problematic. At least since 1977, when a referendum was passed forcing judges to retire at the age of 70, most governments that serve more than a single term have been able to put at least a couple of their own appointees on the bench. This does not guarantee compliance; judges, particularly when elevated to the only court from which there is no appeal, can be both fiercely independent and totally unpredictable. But the power to hire – if not, in practical terms, to fire – gives the Government a certain edge, and one that it will always try to use.

 

EVERY GOVERNMENT TAKES office with the promise that there will be no more jobs for the boys, and proceeds to break the promise almost before drawing breath. Some are more open about it than others; Labor heavy Sir Jack Egerton, appointed by Whitlam to a plum job on the board of Qantas, gloated simply: "To the victors, the spoils." Others, like Howard, prefer to murmur to their colleagues that an association with the Liberal Party should certainly not be seen as a barrier to any appointments they might make in the course of running their portfolios, and then slip their cronies into every available position as quickly and quietly as possible.

Alas, in the aftermath of the privatisations of the Hawke-Keating years, there are far fewer such positions than there used to be – the Elysian fields of the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas are no more, along with many less prestigious, but still satisfying, boards of management. There remains, however, the Reserve Bank – still the jewel in the crown.

The bank is, of course, a totally independent body, but this has never stopped successive governments from appointing to its board those whom they regard as sympathetic. Naturally, the bank will be fearless in its adjustment of interest rates to the overall benefit of the economy. But if the board takes the long view that the economy will benefit best by the retention of the current government, it may hesitate to raise rates just before an election – or at least that's the theory.

Not every apparatchik can aspire to a seat on the Reserve Bank board. But there are still plenty of troughs available for the willing snout. More than one longstanding party hack has been snivellingly grateful for the gift of a sinecure on the War Graves Commission. And then, of course, there is the ABC, one board that really does matter – although it must be added that governments of all shades continue to complain remorselessly about the national broadcaster, no matter how many of their own apparatchiks they have managed to put on the board.

The key appointment is not chairman of the board, but managing director, which the board itself determines. However, the board generally manages to follow the Government's wishes. Certainly Labor got its mates David Hill and Brian Johns up without trouble, and the Libs succeeded – if that's the right word – with Jonathan Shier. But even the most compliant board can sometimes revolt. In spite of his personal friendship (which has extended to chairing fund-raisers) with Howard, board chairman Donald McDonald insisted on the in-house Russell Balding rather than a Liberal high-flyer to clean up the mess left by Shier.

But the principal area of patronage remains the diplomatic corps. Countless has-beens and never-would-bes have been shunted around the world, as often to get rid of a rival or an opponent as to reward an ally. Whitlam sought control of the Senate by popping the Democratic Labor Party's Vince Gair off to Ireland, long seen as a dumping ground for retiring politicians. Long before that, Billy Hughes got rid of Sir John Forrest by elevating him to the peerage as Lord Forrest of Bunbury – "Oh, I'd have made him a bloody duke to get rid of him," the Little Digger chortled (although he had the grace to show some remorse when Forrest died on the voyage which was to take him to England and the House of Lords).

It should be said immediately that not all such appointments are bad: Hawke's appointment of his prime ministerial predecessor Whitlam as ambassador to UNESCO and Howard's of his long-time rival Andrew Peacock as ambassador to Washington were both amply justified. But more often than not some unlucky city, country or colony ends up with a second-rate political pensioner. Whitlam sent Lance Barnard to Stockholm; Malcolm Fraser sent Peter Coleman to Norfolk Island; Howard sent Michael Baume to New York – the list goes on.

Menzies used the diplomatic corps to rid himself of possible challengers like William Casey and Percy Spender; he even resorted to the High Court as a means of removing Garfield Barwick from politics. But then, Whitlam did the same with Lionel Murphy. There are few places within the public sector safe from a prime minister determined to embed his own structure in as much of society as he is able.

 

IN A MIXED economy, especially one like Australia in which the public is deeply suspicious and resentful about the intrusion of government, life for the would-be totalitarian becomes rather more difficult. But this doesn't mean that someone as ambitious as Howard won't try. He may not be able to control the output of individual writers, historians, playwrights and artists and the like, but he can and does have a big say in which of them qualify for public recognition, money, fame and approval.

The Government appoints the boards of the National Gallery, the Museum of Australia and the Australia Council, to name but three. Less directly, it funds the universities and is not afraid to use that power to bully and blackmail them into taking a government line – Brendan Nelson's attempt to tie funds to the implementation of individual workplace agreements is only the most recent and brutal of such pressures. The Prime Minister himself can publicly commend those whom he feels support his cause; Geoffrey Blainey is now regarded, perhaps unfairly, as Howard's court historian, with Keith Windshuttle inside the tent and Henry Reynolds definitely excluded. Academic historians, artists and all those in the field of communications are highly susceptible to such flattery. Even Les Murray, who has constantly attacked the grants system and has complained about being treated as a token fascist, has not rushed to return the lavish handouts and numerous prizes from which he has (quite deservedly) benefited.

Which brings us to the field that all governments would most dearly like to have onside: the media. In my view the power of the media to influence public opinion, at least in Australia, has been largely exaggerated; but since politicians believe in the exaggerations and frequently add even more extravagant ones of their own, the media's influence on the politicians themselves is intense.

The efforts made to duchess everyone in the industry, from proprietors through editors to individual journalists, is relentless and usually shameless; the present government consistently belts the ABC for a perceived leftish bias, while heaping praise on the radio personality Alan Jones as a political asset. Every government compiles a list dividing the Canberra press gallery into friends and enemies and operates accordingly; favourable comment is rewarded by extra information, invariably not attributable to the minister's office from which the leak is arranged.

At a higher level, editors are wined and dined and frequently abused for real or imagined slights to the more sensitive politicians; Paul Keating, of course, was notorious for his vitriolic phone calls, particularly to the Fairfax group, for which he developed a special hatred – his media revamp was specifically designed to hurt Fairfax while boosting the rival Murdoch and Packer groups. Such discrimination is practised by all governments with the aim of locking in the support of proprietors on the receiving end, but such support is never more than temporary. Eventually the demands become too much for even the most compliant government and the former ally becomes a sworn enemy.

The best recent example of this was Rupert Murdoch's relationship with Gough Whitlam. In 1972, the Murdoch press ran a virulent campaign against the Liberal incumbent Bill McMahon, which had the side effect of helping Labor. As a reward, Murdoch demanded the post of high commissioner to London, while still maintaining his active role in the media. Whitlam regarded the demand as preposterous and refused it. Murdoch then turned on Labor and in 1975 outdid all his previous efforts in denigration, this time directed against Labor. Despite this experience, repeated in different forms many times, optimistic politicians still believe the media can be bought. They can't, but they can on occasion be rented, and for a desperate government that is enough.

 

THE SEDUCTION OF an opinion leader who actually works in the media is a huge prize for any government, but those outside it are also worthwhile targets. Businessmen, military types, churchmen, well-known professionals, sporting heroes, film stars, pop singers – all are potentially part of the network of support that governments seek to build around them in an attempt to make themselves the central part of a dominant popular culture. Of course, when similar groupings appear in opposition, they are contemptuously dismissed as an out-of-touch, unAustralian, elitist rent-a-crowd – unless there is a change of government, when the whole, painful process of setting up a new network has to begin again.

What is perhaps surprising is how quickly and effectively this can be done. The very flexibility of the new networks, the speed with which they can be constructed, means that they can be torn down as swiftly as they are erected. By their very nature they are there for a good time, not for a long time. Even within the lifetime of a government, those who have outlived their usefulness or have simply become unfashionable are discarded without compunction. Howard shows no nostalgia for former close allies like Peter Reith or Michael Wooldridge in the ministry or John Valder outside it, and of course we all know his attitude to Malcolm Fraser. Even that once sacred icon, the former Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh, may now find himself on the outer after snubbing Howard's invitation to barbecue with George Bush.

And with a change of government there is a complete makeover; the incoming prime minister redecorates not only the Lodge but as much of the political and social infrastructure as possible. Thus any sense of continuity is seriously endangered, if not actually lost. The stability a permanent public service provided is gone forever and the cohesion of a predictable set of community values and expectations is greatly disrupted. Political change these days involves not a smooth transition but an unpredictable lurch.

Both Keating and Howard have sought to impose a personal vision on Australia and, for a while at least, it seemed that each had succeeded. Keating's edifice, ranging from the governor-general down to the meanest Aboriginal outstation, was an imposing structure that looked fairly secure eight years ago; now Howard has reduced it to a smoking ruin while building his own utterly different, but equally comprehensive, model.

It remains to be seen if it will be any more resistant to change. Political and cultural paradigms in Australia, however well networked, seldom last long. Perhaps their transience is in itself a tribute to Australian democracy: even the wiliest and most determined politician can't fool most of the people for much of the time.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review