Inside Story

Governing in times of crisis

What does history tell us about Anthony Albanese’s prospects?

James Walter 24 October 2022 2651 words

Consensus leader? Anthony Albanese and premiers at a national cabinet meeting at Parliament House in June. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

Anthony Albanese’s government is generally conceded to have made a strong start. It has distributed responsibilities sensibly within its leadership team, with each minister gaining visibility in their portfolio area. It has delivered swiftly on important headline policy objectives and is clearly preparing the ground for others. It is working to strengthen a rundown and demoralised public service by undertaking to act on the critical recommendations of the Thodey review, which its Coalition predecessors commissioned then ignored. It is striving to tackle the serious economic challenges provoked not only by past pandemic-related spending decisions but also by deteriorating geopolitical circumstances.

The news isn’t all good. The government has been less assured in its treatment of its unwise commitment to the lingering and now discredited heritage of trickle-down economics, in the form of tax relief for those who need it least at the expense of more urgent spending demands.

It is not a propitious time to be in government. Everywhere, problems crowd in: the need for rapid transitions to slow climate change; the deterioration of the US polity and the West’s declining investment in the rule of law; the rise of China; the backsliding of some democracies towards autocracy; a war in Europe threatening energy supply, resources, supply lines, trade and international relations; and galloping inflation, exacerbating cost-of-living pressures.

On the one hand, it’s heartening to recall that Labor governments have taken the helm before in times of crisis, notably during the two world wars, and in the second instance drew on that experience to initiate the programs that transformed Australia’s postwar development. A later Labor government, whatever its shortcomings, was much more successful than most of its international counterparts in limiting the depredations of the global financial crisis.

On the other hand, Labor struggled in the 1930s to reconcile the expectations of its supporters with the stringencies it felt induced to impose on the country during the Great Depression, with disastrous electoral consequences. The risk lies in another disjunction between political demands for relief and what are interpreted as global economic forces beyond our control, but to which our leaders must respond.

What we do know with certainty is that when perceptions of crisis are elevated, anxious people can be persuaded to back individuals who think themselves strong leaders who alone have the answers. This is the obverse of what is needed. Leaders must be able to communicate a sense of purpose, of course, but they must also know salvation lies in their capacity, with their team, to orchestrate the many in cabinet, in the public sector, in advisory capacities, in adjacent repositories of influence or authority (law, business, unions, community movements, non-government organisations) who can jointly contribute to solutions. The channels for outreach to all of these sectors will not only rely on personal and political networks, but must also run through the public service and the ministerial minders entrenched alongside the executive.

While it is foolhardy to predict the future, looking at each of three elements — communication, orchestration and managing the prime ministerial machine — from a historical perspective clarifies the factors that might assist or impede the Albanese government’s ability to meet the challenges we face.


Leaders must communicate a sense of purpose for their administration. Yet, just as the default to strong leaders often proves problematic, so too does the expectation that fraught conditions or urgent reform are best served by inspirational leadership. Australia has had inspirational leaders — Bob Menzies, Gough Whitlam, Paul Keating, perhaps Bob Hawke — and all, arguably, had transformative impact in their day. Treating this as a necessary element would give us pause: inspirational rhetoric is not part of Albanese’s skill set, nor that of his cabinet colleagues.

But this is not the only way transformation happens. I’ve argued before that Winston Churchill’s war record is sometimes mistakenly thought to be the epitome of salvation by inspirational leadership. Once the war was over, though, he was defeated by Labour’s Clement Attlee, who was considered a pygmy against the Churchillian lion and was once described by a colleague as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” But Attlee was a straight talker, buoyed by research — including the landmark Beveridge report on the welfare state — showing what needed to be done, and persuaded the country to invest in a postwar nation-building and welfare regime that hardline Tories have taken sixty years to unravel.

Examples are available closer to hand. In the 1930s, United Australia Party prime minister Joe Lyons, never a patch on Menzies as a parliamentary and public performer, was able to establish a rapport with the public that induced a predecessor and critic, S.M. Bruce, to concede that “he knew how to win elections.”

And then there is John Howard, who would scarcely figure as an inspiring leader. He doggedly prefaced every policy announcement with a statement of its relation to Liberal values; travelled the country constantly, speaking at party branches, to carry the party with him; and cleverly exploited favoured media channels to disseminate his message. Nobody could misunderstand his purpose. The leading historian of the Liberal Party, Judith Brett, concluded that he was the most creative conservative leader since Menzies.

Has Albanese such capacities? Leading up to the 2022 election he was criticised for his cautious policies, but he nonetheless managed to persuade people of his principal purposes. After his election, some were inspired by his intended referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, the commitment to an integrity commission, and the rapid coordination of the Job Summit, through which he sought to initiate “a culture of cooperation.” Still, he continued to face criticism for his modest suite of policies and a lack of vision. Against that view, Paul Strangio has persuasively argued that Albanese has signalled, in speech and action, that “he wants to be a collaborative prime minister, a leader who does not assume he has all the answers, a leader who forges consensus from alternative viewpoints.” Has Australia got the message?


Successful administrations delegate responsibilities and allow those so charged to get on with their jobs without undue meddling, while maintaining a commitment to common purposes. The master of distributed leadership was Bob Hawke, who was central, with Paul Keating, in setting his government’s objectives. Hawke ensured cabinet members knew to keep him informed but famously trusted them to do what was expected without surveillance. He also used summits to draw in advisers and experts, and reached out to specific interest groups.

Less successful as prime minister was Gough Whitlam. A remarkable change agent in opposition, he reformed his party and developed its policy agenda while building up a notable contingent of experts who provided the detail necessary to implement his broad aims. Yet, having written “the Bible,” he assumed people would simply follow its dictates. Always forging ahead, he ignored the need for a watching brief, and was unprepared and dismissive when people faltered or failed him.

Some of Whitlam’s successors were excessively controlling, expecting everything to pass though their hands, creating logjams and delay (Kevin Rudd), or believing themselves responsible for everything (Scott Morrison) and therefore licensed to act unilaterally.

Albanese can’t fail to be aware of these precedents. To date, he has worked consistently with his ministers, who in turn have already made an impression in their roles. Few can doubt who speaks for key policy areas: Jim Chalmers for Treasury; Penny Wong for foreign affairs; Mark Dreyfus as attorney-general; Katy Gallagher for finance, women and the public service; Chris Bowen for climate; Tanya Plibersek for environment; Linda Burney for Indigenous affairs; and so on. This too is an encouraging start. But it is still possible that everything will be refracted, for good or ill, through the prime ministerial machine, which has chewed up many of Albanese’s predecessors.

Managing the prime ministerial machine

The accretion of resources around leaders — the much-enhanced Prime Ministerial Office, or PMO, and the powerful, coordinating Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, or PM&C — that began with Whitlam and Fraser and was augmented by Hawke, Keating and Howard has created a legacy with which later leaders have struggled. It is a strategic resource, but it encourages prime ministerial rather than cabinet government.

Under Hawke and Keating, with the PMO growing relentlessly and the prime minister given greater power over senior public servants’ tenure, two things restrained the leader-centric trend. One was that practice of distributed leadership, of which Hawke was the master. The other was the custom of appointing as principal private secretary an experienced public servant, which served, by and large, to promote cooperation and collaboration between the PMO and PM&C, and hence the public service at large.

As Paul Kelly has argued, Howard took a different route, perfecting the art of prime ministerial government. The PMO had grown from seventeen staff under Hawke to thirty under Keating; Howard boosted it to forty-plus. While policy development was ideally collaborative, the intention behind the development of the PMO was clear: it would have the capacity not only to engage with but to direct the public service, and an unrivalled ability to dictate the government’s story.

After a rocky start, Howard’s approach worked successfully largely because Arthur Sinodinos — a partisan certainly, but an experienced public servant — was appointed as his chief of staff. Sinodinos brought political understanding, an appreciation of the prime minister’s objectives, and bureaucratic experience to the PMO and facilitated the networks necessary for policy development, especially in the crucial relationship with PM&C. “It was a strong relationship.” Peter Shergold, the department’s secretary from 2002 to 2007, told me. “A lot of the relationship was about policy and Arthur… Well, I think he was quite exceptional… because he liked policy. And he was interested.”

The concept of the prime ministerial machine emerged from my discussions with Howard’s senior officials. “If a prime minister comes in and doesn’t understand the history of the machine… they’re inheriting, they’re at a grave disadvantage and are likely to be chewed up by it,” one senior official said. “Outside of the government, outside of the prime minister’s office — the media, the lobbies — all have grown to have a particular understanding of what the prime minister is capable of. I don’t mean personally but what… his or her machine is capable of, what they’re responsible for and what they should be doing. It’s not so much the character of the individual but the office and what the office has become that dictates the way it works.”

John Howard commanded it “superbly,” the official added. “He knew what he was getting… He took it on in a particular way and ran it in his way.”

This approach helps account for Howard’s lengthy tenure of office and ability to achieve much of his agenda. Yet some episodes revealed telling flaws and the potential for overreach by the prime minister’s inner circle. Patrick Weller’s and Anne Tiernan’s analyses of the “children overboard affair,” for instance, demonstrated how and why the guardrails were less than adequate.

Under pressure or in a crisis, ministerial staff were significant influencers, not simply cooperating with officials but improperly attempting to direct them and to spin the dissemination of information. An emphasis on what ministers wanted stifled public interest concerns or the integrity of processes. Inconvenient detail was seemingly suppressed by staffers in communicating with the media, and possibly with their political masters, allowing ministers to take refuge in “plausible deniability” when those details emerged. Unlike public servants, those staffers were not subject to rigorous accountability: it was their minister who was technically responsible but could evade accountability by claiming not to have been told.

None of Howard’s successors has been as effective in commanding the prime ministerial machine, and some have indeed been chewed up by it. Rudd’s problem was his retreat into a small inner circle — a handful of senior colleagues and personal advisers — impeding the networks essential to tackle the challenges he identified, and generating dysfunctional relations between the PMO and PM&C, and eventually with his caucus.

Julia Gillard was more successful administratively, both in negotiating the passage of legislation and in generating the loyalty and admiration of staff and the public service. But she failed to win the public. She couldn’t muster the rhetoric to counter the Coalition’s relentless antagonism, couldn’t demolish the proposition that her carbon trading scheme was a tax, and couldn’t explain why the negotiation and compromise necessary to sustaining minority government didn’t inevitably sacrifice principles.

Her successor, Tony Abbott, was opposition personified, and so intent on demolishing everything Labor had achieved that he failed to develop a coherent program. He, too, was immured in his warrior-oriented PMO, and so preoccupied with his unrepresentative party base that he failed adequately to register broad public concerns. He rapidly lost support.

Malcolm Turnbull was genuinely interested in policy, established stable relations between his PMO and PM&C, and successfully communicated with a broader, liberal, voter base. But he shattered their hopes by making too many concessions to the right — concessions that failed to resolve the divisions in his party. So, in a signal struggle over an ambitious policy, the National Energy Guarantee, he was brought down.

Scott Morrison was perhaps the one most definitively chewed up by a machine he failed to understand. His department was seen as politicised, the public service as hobbled, and his PMO as defensive, secretive and addicted to spin. Having ensured that both the public service and the PMO were geared to respond to his wishes, his enterprise was undermined by the lack of any guiding purpose. Even John Howard finally, ruefully, conceded that “the absence of a program for the future… the absence of some kind of manifesto, hurt us very badly.”

Morrison revealed not only the extent of his misunderstanding of the role, but also why responsible cabinet government — the necessarily collective enterprise — had been so undermined when he claimed after his election loss that he had assumed extra portfolios because it “was put to me on a daily basis by members of the media, by the opposition, constantly telling me that I was responsible for everything… The expectation was created of that responsibility, and I made sure that I was in a position to act should I have to.”

The prime ministerial machine is both a powerful resource, promising strength, influence and coordination (as it did under Hawke, Keating and Howard), and a potential trap. The misadventures of every prime minister since Howard show why it must be handled with care. So far, Anthony Albanese’s administration has demonstrated its careful awareness of this conundrum.

In expounding purpose, encouraging cooperation and emphasising collective responsibility, Albanese promises to restore distributed leadership and cabinet responsibility. It is a stance most unlikely to encourage the delusion of being “responsible for everything.” Having been in politics a long time, the prime minister has seen firsthand the consequences of an untrammelled and unaccountable PMO. His appointment of Glyn Davis — a highly regarded analyst and researcher in public administration, widely experienced in leading roles in the public sector, philanthropy and academia, and a key member of the Thodey review — to head PM&C bodes well for a revitalisation of the public service.

Yet challenges of the dimensions we face always threaten to push leaders back into the secure confines of small, trusted circles, with the danger of groupthink and over-reliance on the machine; and extreme partisan antagonism and intra-party division, such as Gillard experienced, amplify the problems. Will the magnitude of the difficulties ahead encourage the return of civility and collective enterprise, a rejection of the warrior culture and the fostering of bipartisan consensus needed if we are to prosper in these hard times? •