Inside the Gang
comprehensive trashing of Kevin Rudd's management of government during the
Labor leadership battle early this year struck me as extremely perverse.
Inevitably, it was highly exaggerated; that's how politics works.
real surprise was the identity of the perpetrators. Key players in that
government who are now leading figures in the current government rely heavily
on their record of having protected Australia during the global financial
crisis and having kept unemployment low when external economic threats were at
their greatest. They are right to be proud of these achievements, but it's
difficult to see how they can continue to lay claim to them when they publicly
describe the government that presided over them as a dysfunctional shambles.
avoided contributing to these agitated retrospectives until now for several
reasons. The main reason is my desire to avoid damaging the interests of the
Labor Party, to which I owe so much. At some point in the future, an incumbent
Liberal prime minister will use Labor's own words about its performance as a
first-term government under Rudd as a good reason not to elect another Labor
government. Previous Labor leaders like Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating have
faced plenty of internal criticism about their style of leadership; but,
largely, the most pointed commentary has remained private. Even the outpouring
of bile in The Latham Diaries was greeted with calm forbearance by the Labor
leadership group at the time. The attack on Rudd's legacy during the leadership
challenge early this year was unprecedented.
that the circus has moved on, I feel it is important to reflect on the
strengths and weaknesses of the Rudd regime, particularly surrounding the role
of the fabled Gang of Four. For
most of 2007, while in opposition, Rudd, Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan, and I met
regularly as an informal group carrying the innocuous title of "leader's
planning group". At the end of 2007, now in government, this group
re-formed to sort through a vast array of savings options. As 2008 unfolded,
prime minister Rudd began to use the group more broadly, and it was soon given
official status as a cabinet committee: the strategic priorities and budget
committee. Its central role was cemented by the famous all-weekend meeting in
mid-October 2008 that designed the first stimulus package and bank guarantees.
January 2009 we met almost continuously for two weeks, in almost every capital
city, to craft the second stimulus package. We later moved on to conduct
extensive deliberations on the National Broadband Network proposal, and on
complex health reform and tax reform proposals.
new decision-making mechanism became entrenched, it became our preferred
vehicle for dealing with the most complicated and difficult issues facing the
government, as a result of which the role of cabinet shrank noticeably. The
scheduling of regular cabinet meetings on Thursday evenings of sitting weeks
contributed to this trend.
Gang of Four didn't deal with everything: all defence, immigration, terrorism
and foreign policy issues were still dealt with by the national security
committee; the expenditure review committee continued to handle the nuts and
bolts of budget decision-making; the climate change committee laboured for
countless hours to produce the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme; and
asylum-seeker issues were handled by an immigration subcommittee.
beginning of 2010, the SPBC process was deteriorating. Meetings were called,
rescheduled and cancelled with great regularity, so that I lost the ability to
schedule diary appointments any more than two or three days in advance with any
matters of middling importance were left unresolved for extended periods, and
ministers and public servants were sometimes kept waiting for hours before
getting a chance to enter an SPBC meeting to discuss their particular issues.
In some cases, the issues weren't even discussed because of the logjam in the
2009, concerns about our decision-making processes were raised in cabinet. Only
a couple of ministers complained at the time, while several indicated that they
were quite happy for others to spend half their lives in arduous meetings about
matters outside their own portfolios. It wasn't until March or April 2010 that
serious rumblings about the role of the Gang of Four began to emerge.
SPBC was the crystallisation of an underlying reality of all governments: all
decisions of any consequence need to be filtered through a very small group of
people -- a handful of senior ministers and public servants. Other ministers
will be involved in matters that are relevant to them; but, to pick just one
example, the foreign minister is not likely to spend much time picking over the
intricate details of health reform.
governments have some kind of kitchen cabinet arrangements, and all governments
sometimes employ flawed decision-making processes. Those criticising the Rudd
government seem to have forgotten the gestation of John Howard's $10 billion
water plan, which was announced with so little preparation that finance
minister Nick Minchin later admitted that it hadn't even been costed by his
were positive aspects of the SPBC process. With key public servants and
relevant ministers around the table, many hours of detailed examination of
complex questions ensued in a way that would have been extremely difficult in a
full cabinet context. This is because public servants only rarely present to
cabinet meetings, and the weight of individual portfolio responsibilities is so
heavy that ministers have very limited time to dedicate to major matters
outside their portfolios.
recall days when I was in the cabinet room at various cabinet, SPBC and
committee meetings from around 8am to almost midnight, with only minor breaks
in the anteroom for lunch and dinner. It is difficult to see how the
traditional cabinet process could have handled the endless meeting hours that
were undertaken by the SPBC without rendering the government genuinely dysfunctional.
hindsight, the central mistake that ultimately cost Rudd the prime ministership
was his failure to change gear once the immediate threat of the global
financial crisis had receded. In one sense, he was unlucky. New governments run
by people who have been in opposition for a long time typically take quite a
while to shed the habits and behaviours of opposition. Just around the time
that this psychological transition would have occurred within the Labor
government, the GFC hit. That drama entrenched the slightly manic habits that
are bred in opposition, and we didn't change gears once the GFC had faded.
early 2010, the problems were accumulating: too much was being dealt with by
SPBC, in an increasingly erratic fashion, and there were too many major items
on our agenda. The government was caught in a spiral of problems that it
was contemplating retirement, I was relatively agnostic about the growing
internal discontent about the Gang of Four. I understood why some ministers
were disgruntled, and I did my best to ensure that the reasons for their
unhappiness were minimised. But I also recognised the special pleading that was
involved, and what I felt was the true cause of our problems -- which was that,
with the aid of the GFC, we had put ourselves in a position where we were
simply dealing with too many huge and challenging issues at the one time.
time our internal problems started to come to a head, I had already advised
Rudd that I would not be recontesting my seat. Whatever capacity I may have had
to play a key role in fixing the problem had dissolved. In retrospect, I wish I
had done more; but, like the proverbial frog in gradually boiling water, it is
difficult to recognise just how serious such problems really are until a crisis
occurs. There are important questions about how governments are run that are
involved in the Gang of Four story. There are no perfect administrative
systems, and the challenges of dealing with the problems of an increasingly
complex and volatile world keep mounting. As a mechanism for dealing with the
global financial crisis, the SPBC worked extremely well.
once it began to usurp more and more of the ordinary business of government,
its utility declined. The real lesson from this, I think, is that the
traditional system of cabinet government is antiquated and is desperately in
need of a complete overhaul.
regimes are deposed by radical and extraordinary means, the new rulers
invariably demonise those who have been unseated, in order to justify the
enormity of their own behaviour. You can even see this in the way that
historians are still unravelling the web of Tudor propaganda that painted a
grotesque caricature of Richard III in order to justify Henry Tudor's seizure
of the British crown in 1485. Closer to home, Australian conservatives have
created an image of the Whitlam government that is almost fictional in order to
justify the constitutional atrocity they perpetrated in 1975.
a first-term elected Labor prime minister by a caucus vote, ostensibly because
of his management style, is such an extreme thing to do that those involved
have found it necessary to enormously exaggerate the deficiencies in Rudd's
leadership. There were some deficiencies, it's true. In fact, I suspect I
suffered their consequences more than most. The critical question, though, is
whether they justified a leadership ambush of the kind that occurred on June
23, 2010. I think the answer is clearly "No", and that many people
who supported that challenge would now privately concede it was wrong.
is now caught in a trap of its own making, publicly impugning a government that
remains central to its current identity: it is impossible to attack the Rudd
government without undermining the Gillard government. The Labor Party is
likely to live with the consequences of the 2010 challenge for a long time.
thing about all this is that Labor is trashing its own great achievement. In
spite of everything that has since happened, we should be very proud of our
government's handling of the 2008-09 crisis. With the spectre of the Scullin
government and the Great Depression looming over us, the fact that we kept
unemployment so low is of immense significance.
should be proud of the fact that, when it really mattered, four leading Labor
figures with a lengthy history of personal rivalries and conflicting ambitions
were able to put tensions aside and act to protect Australia in a time of
amount of criticism of Rudd's leadership style can change that, and Labor
people would do well to remember it.
Exclusive extract of the chapter Inside the Gang of Four, from Politics
with Purpose: Occasional Observations on Public and Private Life by former
Labor finance minister Lindsay Tanner (Scribe, $32.95), out today.