Quick Post: What can the ALP learn from the Coalition about ministries? #auspol

English: Australian politician Craig Emerson a...

It increasingly looks like the ALP isn’t learning the lessons of the past six years.  The key question is simple to frame: ‘How was it possible for the ALP to achieve a series of significant wins and yet be so thoroughly reviled by the voting public?’

The fashion of the moment among opinion writers and bloggers is to declare everything ‘a complicated issue’.  I sometimes wonder if it leads on from policy makers in the 1980s and ’90s declaring everything to be a ‘wicked problem’.

This unwillingness to sharpen our analytic tools to concentrate on one aspect of the problem means that we’re not really discussing the issue at all.  The case of the ALP’s last stint at government is a case in point.  Nobody’s really discussing what went so hideously wrong beyond vague platitudes about ‘talking about [themselves]’, ‘leadership tensions’, and ‘Murdoch press!  The Murdoch Press is so bad!’

We should take the Mad Hatter’s advice and simply begin at the start then come through until we get to the end.  With this idea in mind, let’s start with ministries.

The ALP had major communication problems even beyond the perceived bias of the media.  Over on New Matilda, I questioned the wisdom of having then Tertiary Education Minister, Craig Emerson, scream ‘FLAME ON!’ and Peter Van Onselen instead of explaining why a reduction in a proposed increase wasn’t a slash and burn for the university sector.

But the problem of poor communication was endemic to the former government, as could be seen in the ministerial titles.  Because Australia (foolishly, to my mind) has a system of matching public servant departments to the ministerial portfolio (rather than the other way around, as it should be), it was inevitable that we’d eventually get Departments of Everything, Everywhere, and His Nasty Parlour Tricks.

The ALP tried too hard to be the Party of Everything and Everybody.  It’s this scattergun approach that meant we never knew precisely for what the ALP stood and what the ALP wanted to achieve.  ‘Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities’?  The same person (Robert McClelland) was, simultaneously, ‘Minister for Housing’, ‘Minister for Homelessness’, and ‘Minister for Emergency Management.’

But the exemplar of this was Dr Emerson, mentioned before, who was ‘Minister for Trade and Competitiveness’, ‘Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research’, and the ‘Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Asian Century Policy’ all at the one time.

Where Tony Abbott can perhaps be praised is in his resetting of this trend.  There are only three ‘Minister for Misc’ titles.  The ‘Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development’, ‘Minister for Trade and Investment’, and the infamous ‘Minister for Immigration and Border Protection’.  From these titles of his ministry, the average person can see clearly what the priorities are (and, by extension, what his priorities aren’t).  It has created some other problems for him, sure (for example, the ping pong match over who’s getting the research portfolio, even though the Administrative Arrangements Order says it’s with Industry), but it’s also provided space for clarity.

Although Abbott’s move was, on the whole, good, it wasn’t perfect.  More could have been done with the Assistant Minister and Parliamentary Secretary titles to show a nuanced and precise plan for government.  Assistant Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries exist to provide additional resources for particular portfolio priorities.  So Abbott has a Minister for Health, for example, and they’ve got an Assistant Minister.  Instead of giving the Assistant Minister a particular role (for example, ‘Assistant Minister for General Practitioners’, ‘… for Hospital Performance’, ‘… for Preventative Health’, or — given that 900,000 people will be affected by 2050 — ‘… for Dementia’), they have been given the title ‘Assistant Minister for Health’.

The ALP can learn from both the strengths and the shortcomings the Coalition when it forms the shadow ministry.  Keeping the titles simple means that you can highlight the points of difference between the ALP and the Coalition, but making the Assistant Minister and Parliamentary Secretary titles too short means you lose the opportunity to punch hardest where it counts.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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