Beyond the nadir of political leadership

SHORTLY AFTER SEIZING the prime ministership in September 2015, Malcolm Turnbull told reporters covering their third leadership coup against a sitting Australian prime minister in five years that the culture of his administration would be ‘consultative’. He promised his Cabinet would ‘make decisions in a collaborative manner’. Drawing an unmistakable contrast with the governing style of his predecessor, Turnbull noted, ‘The Prime Minister of Australia is not a president; the Prime Minister is the first among equals.’[i]

Hours earlier, Turnbull had outlined his rationale for challenging Tony Abbott’s leadership – it was a damning indictment of his shortcomings. But most devastating was his assessment of the changes needed at the heart of government:

We also need a new style of leadership in the way we deal with others, whether it is our fellow Members of Parliament, whether it is the Australian people. We need to restore traditional Cabinet government. There must be an end to policy on the run and captain’s calls. We need to be truly consultative with colleagues, Members of Parliament, Senators and the wider public. We need an open government. And open government that recognises that there is an enormous sum of wisdom both within our colleagues in this building and of course further afield.

But above all we have to remember we have a great example of good Cabinet government, John Howard’s government most of us served in…so that’s what we need to go back to.[ii]

In declaring his intention to return to the ‘Howard model’, Turnbull demonstrated awareness that there were lessons to be learned from the problems and difficulties that bedevilled his three prime-ministerial predecessors and which, in different ways, precipitated their respective demises. He is not the first to pledge to run a more collegiate and consultative style – Julia Gillard promised something similar when she replaced Kevin Rudd – but Turnbull’s actions, in the first few weeks of his prime ministership at least suggest a break with the Rudd, Gillard and Abbott administrations. At the time of writing in November 2015 he had remade the ministry and met with the Senate crossbenchers who Abbott never met, but were essential to passing legislation. Turnbull loosened central control over Question Time, introducing changes that allow MPs to raise constituency matters, rather than reading from scripts prepared by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). He revoked the Abbott government’s ‘blanket ban’ on re-appointments to government boards, delegating more responsibility for appointments to individual ministers, requiring only genuinely ‘significant’ appointments to be considered by Cabinet.

Australia’s most enduring prime ministers – Robert Menzies, Bob Hawke and John Howard – were each great learners. Menzies’ and Howard’s willingness to adapt their leadership style, drawing lessons from earlier defeats and disappointments, earned from colleagues a second chance to lead. During the long years in opposition, Howard reflected on his experience of the Fraser years and gave considerable thought to the approach he would bring to the prime ministership.[iii] The Liberal Party invested significant time and attention in understanding the reasons it lost the ‘unloseable’ 1993 election. The foundations for the Howard government’s later success were laid in the party’s focus on reforming internal policy and decision-making processes and determined efforts to professionalise its organisation and staff between 1993 and 1996.[iv]

The Labor Party learned similarly from the Whitlam government’s failure to project discipline and coherence and to moderate the pent-up ambitions of its supporters after twenty-three years in opposition. For a subsequent generation of Labor leaders, the Whitlam experience provided a guide to what needed to be avoided if they were to prove themselves fit to govern. Labor and the Quality of Government – the ALP’s policy for reforming the public sector and organising the machinery of advice to ministers – was developed by a Federal Parliamentary Labor Party taskforce on government administration, led by Gareth Evans. Released during the 1983 election campaign, it provided a detailed plan for making the transition to office when Bob Hawke defeated Malcolm Fraser at the March poll.

But this ability and willingness to learn and adapt, to reflect on and draw lessons from experience has become increasingly rare. If, as is often argued, politics has become increasingly professionalised – practised by people whose primary career has been in and around politics – it is paradoxical that the recent generation of Australian political leaders has been so ill-prepared and apparently unsuited to the task of governing. What explains their failure to successfully take over the reins of power, and to use the many institutional and personal resources available to them to govern effectively?


SURVEYING THE CARNAGE of the past twelve months, it is tempting to imagine that personal failings can explain why three first-term political leaders, two state premiers and a prime minister were unceremoniously dumped by voters and their party-room colleagues respectively. The ‘extreme personality’ thesis undoubtedly played a role in the defeat of former Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, who in January 2015 squandered the historic majority he had won only three years before. It has found support too in accounts of Tony Abbott’s premature departure. Newman and Abbott are pugnacious characters, whose leadership style and approach to governing had a polarising effect within and outside their own parties. But that was not true of Liberal Premier Dennis Napthine, who nonetheless lost the November 2014 Victorian election after just one term.

Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly to those who do not immediately see the parallels, these three defeats have much in common. And in Queensland and Canberra they repeated a pattern that was evident in the Bligh, Rudd and Gillard governments that they replaced.

The reasons leaders are struggling are not idiosyncratic to individuals, colourful as several in this cohort are, nor do they reflect, as some commentators have suggested, ‘a trend’ to one-term governments. Based on fifteen years of researching the Australian core executive, I am confident that the failure of the three most recent prime ministers and a litany of state leaders on both sides of politics is structural. It reflects an inability and unwillingness to learn from experience. So they repeat the mistakes of their predecessors and fail to adapt their modus operandi to suit the situation and context. Even when they have ‘a near death experience’, like the challenge to Tony Abbott’s leadership in February 2015, or suffer crushing by-election defeats with swings nearing 20 per cent as Campbell Newman did in the seats of Redcliffe in March and Stafford shortly after in July 2014, they stubbornly persist with people, policies and arrangements that are not working; and they retreat to ever-decreasing circles of people who they will meet and to whom they will listen.


ELECTION POSTMORTEMS ARE a ritual of grieving – a necessary safety valve to contain the damage and internal recrimination that might otherwise break out after a devastating and unexpected election loss. After ceding power to Labor’s Daniel Andrews, the Victorian Liberal Party commissioned former president and party elder Dr David Kemp to lead a review of the election defeat, to: ‘investigate and report on the reasons for the election loss, to advise on how government can be regained in 2018, and how the next period of Liberal (and presumably National Coalition) government can avoid the mistakes, and build on the achievements, of the last.’ The final report, delivered in July 2015 (but which only became public in November), highlights themes that echo a similar, though truncated, review process conducted by the Liberal National Party in Queensland after its January 2015 election loss.[v]

The Kemp Review highlights dysfunctions in operations at the heart of the Liberal–National government: an inability to manage the business of government, and a failure to develop and communicate a persuasive narrative to voters – a failure that fed perceptions that it was a ‘do nothing’ government. The report argues these problems were entrenched from the beginning. They can be attributed to the lack of ‘a satisfactory transition to government plan’ and excessive centralisation within a defensive and cautious premier’s office that distrusted the capacity of ministers and sought to limit and constrain their autonomy by imposing centralised control and approval processes. Inevitably, this led to delays in decision-making as the leader’s office struggled to cope with the volume of work its own processes generated, and to disenchantment as ministers bridled at being ‘managed’ by senior ministerial staffers who, though unelected, seemed to enjoy higher status.

The report details problems with the operations of Cabinet as a forum for deliberation and debate, with the result that ‘the bureaucracy was completely in charge of that first [the Baillieu] Cabinet’.[vi] It cites a lack of leadership: the tendency of the leader’s office to ‘shut down debate’ and a more general isolation and lack of engagement. This included being unwilling to hear and reflect concerns raised in the party-room and the inability to build party unity on the basis of values and direction, addressing the main issues faced by the electorate. But the most striking conclusion of the Kemp Review is the question of philosophy: what a Liberal Party government stands for, its public-interest framework and the values it brings to the task of governing. This, of course, is well-worn ground for Kemp, who has long emphasised philosophy and purpose, invoking party founder Sir Robert Menzies. But that he saw it as necessary to reprise this in his final report is revealing – perhaps of the tribal and careerist nature of the contemporary party and those coming through its ranks seeking pre-selection.

Aside from being a tonic to the paranoid tendency of Australia’s political parties to prevent the detailed findings of internal reviews from becoming public, the Kemp Review warrants close examination for two other reasons. It comprehensively documents the reasons for the Baillieu–Napthine government’s failures, and identifies the work it argues is necessary to begin now for the Victorian Liberal Party to be competitive at the 2018 election. The second reason, more compelling for my purposes because its diagnosis is so eerily familiar, is that its findings could be applied almost verbatim to the experience of Queensland under Newman, and in Canberra under Rudd, Gillard and, most recently, Tony Abbott.

Kemp himself raises the question that has confounded me this past year: why, if the Coalition knew how to run a successful government federally for nine years under John Howard,[vii] was that knowledge and expertise not available to colleagues in Victoria? The same question applies in the case of the LNP, which won a landslide victory in Queensland in March 2012, and also to Tony Abbott, who knew from as early as the 2010 election that he would likely win the September 2013 federal election. Why couldn’t relevant lessons be learned and applied to the respective parties’ preparations for government? What are the barriers and impediments to learning among Australia’s political professionals?


LEARNING CONNOTES THE capacity to interpret and reflect on experience. For Daniel Ponder,[viii] who has applied concepts of organisational learning to the American presidency, it implies the ability to use insight to make changes to the way an organisation (in his case, the institution of the presidency) approaches its work. Learning becomes evident if new ways of thinking are absorbed into an organisation’s ‘procedures, rules, routines, informal communities of practice, the collective memory and the agency culture’.[ix] In the presidential context, learning can be thought of as lessons adapted for different tasks at different times. Ponder cites Julianne Mahler’s three elements that indicate learning. These are: problem perception – where an organisation perceives a problem with current performance; this prompts it to reflect and analyse and to act to address perceived deficiencies. A third indicator is evidence of a change of mind; learning can be said to have occurred if the change is institutionalised – that is, incorporated into the routines and practices of the organisation

Each of these elements was apparent in the ways John Howard adapted his leadership style during his second incarnation as Liberal leader. By contrast, there is little evidence that Campbell Newman or Tony Abbott exhibited any of the four elements of learning outlined above. Neither seemed to perceive there were problems with their leadership or management of their governments. Even if they reflected on and analysed their situations – as both were forced to do after Newman’s resounding by-election defeats, and in Abbott’s case when he retained the prime ministership after the February 2015 leadership ballot – there was no evidence that either leader (or their courts) changed either their minds or their modus operandi. Nor did those events, party-room murmurings, leaks, or consistently poor opinion polls prompt fundamental changes to the structure and operations of their private offices, nor their approach to Cabinet government.


IT SEEMS TO me the barriers and impediments to partisan learning, the ability and willingness of political leaders and their parties to learn from experience, exist at two levels. The first is in the pathway to attaining government. This encompasses the career backgrounds and experiences of political leaders and their (now many more numerous) fellow travellers, the nature of Opposition and how transitions of government are managed. The second impediment is embedded in the hybrid advisory model that has evolved to support political leaders. It deprives them of institutional memory and the capacity to learn. At the same time it enables, or at least does not inhibit, a leader like Abbott, Newman or Kevin Rudd from developing relatively insular and self-reinforcing networks of advice and support until, inevitably, the party-room revolts.

It is the performance of political leaders, not of officials, that has fostered the elite consensus that Australia’s political culture is broken; that the nation’s leaders are incapable of governing, let alone of delivering genuine reform. This lament began in the Rudd years, rising to a crescendo under Gillard and Abbott. It was graphically illustrated in August 2015 when leaders of business, unions and community groups joined together to debate the options for long-term reform at the ‘National Reform Summit’ – a process organised by the Australian Financial Review and the Australian newspapers, which specifically included politicians. The post-summit analysis confirmed the central premise. Fairfax journalist Peter Hartcher described the summit as ‘a heartfelt cry for national leadership’, a ‘spontaneous rebuke to the political parties’, and as an attempt by the nation’s elites ‘to goad Australia’s political leaders into doing their jobs’.[x]

The nature of Opposition is a second impediment to learning along the pathway to government. An election loss (particularly one that is expected) often triggers the departure of long-standing ministers and MPs and the staff who support them. It deprives the parliamentary party of knowledge and understanding of the business of governing, and of access to public-service experience and expertise. This is a gap that only grows during their time on the Opposition benches, as does the tendency to rely on political staffers for policy advice. Prime ministers determine the allocation of staff resources – by convention, an Opposition receives around 21 per cent of the staff available to the incumbents. These factors foster close relationships between Opposition staff and shadow ministers, and account for at least some of the difficulty in accommodating a wider group of advisers that accompanies the transition to government; the volume of work shared across a fairly lean operation confronting the ‘permanent campaign’ leaves little time for learning or reflection.

Recently, because parties have been unable to reconcile internal tensions, or find an experienced candidate capable of ‘cutting through’ with the public, they have resorted to candidates from outside the leadership mainstream. For Labor, Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd fall into this category. For the Coalition, Tony Abbott’s one-vote ascendancy emerged from the vacuum that followed John Howard’s defeat, and the instability that followed Peter Costello’s refusal to take up the mantle, and subsequently Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull’s incapacity to unite the disparate interests that comprise the Liberal Party’s ‘broad church’. The same was true of Campbell Newman in Queensland – drafted in as LNP leader to campaign to become Premier from outside the parliament. This resort to outsiders presents a problem for partisan learning. Frequent turnover of leaders (as occurs often in Opposition but was, until recently, relatively rare in government) further inhibits learning, since such changes disrupt the composition of the leaders’ staff and the knowledge and expertise available to the new boss.

One consequence of recent political volatility may be that political parties spend too short a period in Opposition. Peter van Onselen noted this rather presciently in 2011, when he argued that Labor’s failures meant Tony Abbott may win power too soon. He argued, ‘The current Liberal Party hasn’t had the chance in the short time it has been out of office to move from acting like a de facto government to an alternative government. De facto governments act as if they have a right to rule; alternative governments develop a set of reasons why they should.’[xi]

In the United States, the transition to government spans a three-month period – from the day after the presidential election on the first Tuesday of November to thirty days after the inauguration. There is public funding to support both candidates during the election campaign to form transition teams to develop comprehensive plans for taking over the reins of power. The situation could not be more different in Westminster-style systems, where over night people exhausted from an election campaign move from Opposition to being in charge. As Paul Corrigan, a special adviser to the Blair government, notes:

You do the second most difficult thing in politics – which is to win an election – and then, without even time for a good night’s sleep, you start to do the most difficult thing in politics, which is to run a country.[xii]


BARRIERS TO LEARNING in government compound the deficits accrued in Opposition. They are both embedded in, and a consequence of, successive waves of public-sector ‘reform’ and change over the past four decades. Ministers, and especially prime ministers, have driven many of these changes. However, taken together, their actions and decisions have had the effect of undermining the quality of advice that is available to them and the routines and processes that provide new ideas and options. Another consequence has been to reduce opportunities to debate and contest such choices. Indeed, as recent experience shows, and the Kemp Review carefully documents, centralisation, executive overreach and their associated lack of transparency have been constantly exposed. Symptoms include: a lack of co-ordination and coherence across the ministry; the tendency to unilateral decision-making (which has entered the lexicon as ‘captain’s picks’); poor communication and sequencing of decisions; and policy reversals in the face of apparently unexpected resistance and blowback.

Overcoming these problems, which are of their own making, would require our politicians and their political parties to reform and change their modus operandi, and be persuaded to adopt arrangements and frameworks that would support rather than systematically undermine their capacity to maintain a focus on priorities; their ability to control the political and policy agenda; and their ability to negotiate the many relationships and dependencies that characterise life at the centre of modern government. Importantly, it would require political leaders and their parties to become more organisationally focused; more conscious of the governance arrangements needed to achieve desired outcomes. It would necessitate too a level of self-awareness and a capacity for self-reflection to which career politics seems inherently hostile.

Internationally, political leaders are reshaping their advisory arrangements to cope with common pressures. Thus scholars have identified convergent trends in the way advisory systems are developing. Everywhere there has been growth, institutionalisation, politicisation (the advent of partisan advisers) and hybridisation (the boundaries between partisan and non-partisan sources of advice have become increasingly blurred). There has been significant centralisation around political leaders – in the sheer numbers of people and units dedicated to supporting them, but also centralisation of decision-making, including communication and issues management. Such changes are a response to complexity, fragmentation and power dependence, but though often interpreted as augmenting and strengthening the capacity of leaders, these developments reveal leader dependency. They reflect and reinforce their constant preoccupation with coping and surviving the daily slings and arrows, rather than longer-term, more substantive policy concerns.

As I have documented elsewhere, the quest of leaders for assistance to cope with what they perceive to be the overwhelming demands of their jobs, their desire to assert political control over the public service and the parliament, and their search for greater responsiveness to their political priorities has, over time, replaced the traditionally bilateral relationship between ministers and public servants. Officials have been supplanted as the primary source of advice and support. Their relationships with ministers are mediated through steadily proliferating numbers of partisan personal staff. Increasingly, officials are not in the room when policy decisions are contemplated. Research underway for a forthcoming book[xiii] comparing Westminster-style central executives suggests, in Australia and Canada at least, a growing view within prime ministerial courts that bureaucratic perspectives are neither necessary, nor especially useful.

In their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (Time Books, 2013),[xiv] Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir argue that ‘scarcity’, whether of time or money, tends to focus the mind on immediate challenges. They describe a ‘scarcity trap’ where people experiencing any form of poverty (of food, of love and company, of time or material resources) become intently focused on their urgent needs. The authors show that, quite literally, scarcity ‘captures the mind’. The mind’s focus on one thing steals cognitive and attentional ‘bandwidth’, impairing its capacity to perform other tasks, including the ability to make well-reasoned judgments and to assess the long-term consequences of current decisions. Mullainathan and Shafir show that, just like the poor people in their study, chronically busy people, suffering from a scarcity of time, demonstrate similarly impaired abilities and make self-defeating choices.

The relentless focus on coping and survival among political-administrative elites is suggestive of a ‘scarcity trap’. It is perhaps no coincidence these difficulties have been experienced by leaders bedevilled by the time-compression and exponential demands of the 24-hour news cycle and an increasingly globalised and interdependent leadership context. Such difficulties are often attributed to the pace and complexity of contemporary leadership, and to the fragmentation and resource dependence inherent to network governance. The contextual and contingent factors that undermine leaders’ efforts to assert central control are well recognised. But the recurrence of the same types of difficulties suggests a structural cause that I argue is rooted in the dynamics of the hybrid advisory system that has developed to support Australian political leaders.


AMONG THE MOST damaging of the unintended consequences of what have become known as the ‘political management’ reforms has been the loss of institutional memory in the public service and, by extension, the prime ministership. Institutional memory is essential to any organisation’s identity and its ability to remember and learn from past experience.[xv] Hugh Heclo in A Government of Strangers (Brookings Institutional Press, 1977) describes government agencies as ‘bundles of memory and practices that are inherited from a particular past and carried forward’.[xvi] Institutional memory resides in the stories people hear and tell one another. Stories that are told and retold ‘form an important part of the way that institutions remember their past and use that remembering to create identities for both the institution and its members’.[xvii]

The decisions of Australian prime ministers to shift their main source of advice and support from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to the Prime Minister’s Office, and to staff the PMO with personal loyalists often from outside the public service, have had marked effects on the centre’s institutional memory. Partisan organisations like the PMO are inherently, indeed deliberately, temporary. They exist to serve a particular prime minister and are staffed mostly by people selected by them. PMO staffers’ backgrounds and preparation for the job differs from the traditional career pathway. Besides, as we have seen through the experience of recent leadership spills, their tenure in their position is bound to that of the prime minister who chooses them.

Partisan organisations like the PMO lack the storage locations for institutional memory available to those that are more stable and continuing. Unlike public service departments, they do not inherit the beliefs and practices of a long-established organisation, which provide some certainty and an element of continuity. At the change of government, each new PMO starts afresh, perhaps not even conscious that ‘institutional amnesia’ is built into their design. The likelihood of pathologies associated with ‘organisational forgetting’ have increased because the flow of departmental officers to ministerial offices has declined. From the mid-1990s public servants began to fear that working in the PMO could limit their future public service careers. There may be more continuity in the PMO after a leadership succession, but even then only a few former staff are likely to remain to serve a new prime minister.

If turnover or churn is a problem for institutional memory in the public sector, it is especially a feature of partisan ones. Their culture of intense pressure, long hours and, in Australian federal politics, long periods away from home travelling to and from Canberra leads to ‘burn out’ and people moving on. Partisan organisations live in a world where time is compressed. The haste and busyness of pressured work environments lead people to attempt to cope with impossible work demands by taking shortcuts. So, they ‘leave things aside or out’. They are selective, focusing only on ‘headlines’, with bad results for memory. In such workplaces, remembering may be seen as ‘a time-consuming activity and not appreciated, or maybe not functional’.[xviii]

The lack of institutional memory available to Australian prime ministers is comparatively recent; and it is a problem of their own making. Their reasons for relying on their private offices are clear enough: the pressures to cope and survive are intense and public servants cannot do many of the things that personal staff can. But the lack of institutional memory and the associated failure to learn from experience is a problem that recurs. The dilemma is illustrated by the experience of Prime Ministers Rudd, Gillard and Tony Abbott and by Premiers Baillieu, Napthine and Newman.

Malcolm Turnbull’s rhetoric since becoming Prime Minister and some of his early actions suggest that he and those around him – most significantly, Arthur Sinodinos – understand the problem and are taking steps to address it. Interestingly, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made a similar commitment to reject the centralised and secretive style of his Conservative predecessor Stephen Harper. Whether these two newly-minted leaders can maintain a more collegial and consultative style remains to be seen.


Malcolm Turnbull, MP. Transcript: Vote on the Liberal Leadership. 15 September 2015. Available at:

[ii] Malcolm Turnbull, MP. Transcript: Doorstop Interview Canberra. 14 September 2015. Available at:

[iii] For a detailed account see Tiernan, A. 2007. Power Without Responsibility: Ministerial Staffers in Australian Governments from Whitlam to Howard. Sydney: UNSW Press. Howard’s Chief of Staff Grahame Morris reflected on the contrast between Howard’s first period as leader (1987-89) and the style he brought on return to the Liberal leadership in February 1995. See Rhodes, RAW and Tiernan, A. 2014. Lessons in Governing: A Profile of Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff. Carlton: MUP. p. 158.

[iv] Tiernan, A. Power Without Responsibility, esp. Chapter 5. Also see Williams, P. 1996. The Victory.

[v] Borbidge, Rob and Sheldon, Joan. 2015. Election Review: Report and Recommendations. Liberal National Party. Available at:

[vi] Kemp, 2015 Ibid p. 49.

[vii] There is broad agreement that Howard’s first eighteen months of his government were pretty ordinary, as was the last year or so when his colleagues pondered, but did not act to bring about, leadership change ahead of the 2007 election.

[viii] Ponder, Daniel E. 1999. ‘The Presidency as a learning organisation’, Presidential Studies Quarterly, 29 (1) March, pp. 100-14.

[ix] Julianne Mahler, quoted in Ponder (1999, 102). Ponder adapts Mahler’s research on organisational learning and applies it to the institutional presidency.

[x] Hartcher, P. 2015. ‘Hot air fills the leadership vacuum’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August.

[xi] van Onselen, P. 2011. ‘What’s right? The future of the Liberal Party', The Monthly. May 2011.

[xii] Quoted in Barber, M. 2015. How to Run A Government: So that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don't Go Crazy. London: Penguin, p. xvi.

[xiii] Rhodes, RAW and Tiernan, A. (forthcoming) Ministers’ Courts and Courting Ministers. London: Palgrave.

[xiv] Mullainathan, S. and Shafir, E. 2013 Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Time Books, Henry Holt & Company LLC, New York, NY.

[xv] Covington, G. 1985.

[xvi] Heclo, H. 1977. A Government of Strangers, p. 47

[xvii] Linde, C. 2009, p. 73.

[xviii] Sabelius quoted in Pollitt 2008: 208.

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