Inside Story

What the leader wants

ScoMo, Teflon Dan and the democratic deficit

James Walter 2 May 2023 1631 words

The centralisers: Victorian premier Daniel Andrews (left) and then prime minister Scott Morrison at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance on 11 November 2021. James Ross/AAP Image

Two recent inquiries, one federal, the other in Victoria, have revealed striking failures of governance and policymaking. One concerned the actions of the Coalition, the other of Labor, but they shared one important characteristic: the relevant ministers — including the prime minister and premier respectively — allowed ministerial staff to direct public servants in an improper way. Believing they were following the wishes of their minister and the government, the public servants then engaged in conduct that fell far short of expected standards and ethics.

The first of those inquiries, the royal commission into the former federal government’s “amateurish, rushed, disastrous and ethically indefensiblerobodebt scheme, is undoubtedly the more consequential of the two. The scheme involved large sums of money, affected significant numbers of vulnerable people with sometimes fatal consequences and — despite politicians’ efforts to lay the blame on public service advisers — left an ineradicable taint of corruption on all of those involved.

The second inquiry, the Operation Daintree probe by the Victorian Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, or IBAC, concerned the Andrews government’s awarding of a $1.2 million training contract to an entity controlled by the Health Workers Union not long before the 2018 state election. Compared with robodebt, it appears small beer; indeed, premier Daniel Andrews has shrugged off the inquiry’s recent report as a merely “educational” account covering long-ago events and containing “no findings against anyone.”

Integrity experts think otherwise. Griffith University’s A.J. Brown described the premier’s response as a “serious mischaracterisation” of the report, while a former judge, Stephen Charles, KC, declared that the facts found by IBAC “amount on Transparency International’s definition to findings of clear corruption.”

In its present form, IBAC can’t make such findings. The corruption body is constrained by the necessity of identifying an indictable criminal offence or narrowly defined common law crimes such as bribery, perverting the course of justice, and misconduct in public office. It is precisely this higher bar that allowed Andrews to spin the narrative on this occasion, as he also did in relation to the “red shirts” scandal and other instances of “grey corruption.” His success in so doing is reflected in one of the nicknames he has acquired, Teflon Dan.

For IBAC, the evident breach of standards reflected the centralisation of power under the premier’s watch and a “significant erosion” of ministerial accountability, a conclusion equally relevant to the robodebt fiasco. The two scandals might be different in scale and seriousness, but I’d argue they were similar in kind — and were fuelled by similar changes within the parties, similar changes in what is expected of leaders, and a similar spread and intensification of partisan advisory structures now evident in every state and territory.

The class and community coalitions and party loyalties that once sustained the major political parties evaporated in the late twentieth century. The smaller, professionalised party organisations that emerged in their place relied instead on their leader to articulate a message, often mediated by polling, focus groups and marketing research, to “win the vote.”

Leaders have been given more resources — including partisan staff in their private office — with corresponding high expectations of their performance. If the party base, a now-small group of true believers whose views increasingly diverge from the mainstream, isn’t satisfied, then conflict is likely within the party room. If the message doesn’t “play” (by building broad polling support or arresting decline) and colleagues become convinced that the leader can’t capture popular support, they are likely to attack.

Leaders who have failed to sell the message and resolve these contradictory demands have repeatedly been torn down in recent times. What can we learn from Morrison’s and Andrews’s contrasting experiences?

Morrison took office in precisely the circumstances I’ve described. The incumbent leader, Malcolm Turnbull, was challenged when he failed to contain the battles within the party room after trying to introduce a National Energy Guarantee. Peter Dutton triggered the challenge, but Morrison came through the middle and seized the leadership. He was able to contain early division by winning the vote at the 2019 election, not by proposing policy innovation but by negating everything Labor proposed under Bill Shorten. It was a highly successful exercise in communication and marketing.

Having won that miracle election, Morrison set about gaining control of the public service and amplifying the centrality of his prime ministerial office. But once he neutered the public service and ensured ministerial minders could interfere wherever they chose, he struggled to find larger objectives, save for the AUKUS deal in which, arguably, he was not the lead player.

He sought instead to manage the perception of events, thus exercising power without purpose. Dutton later conceded that the party had not “stood for any substantive policy formulation” during Morrison’s prime ministership. Since Tony Abbott was removed, he argued, “we allowed ourselves to be defined by our opponents.”

But Morrison’s preoccupation with control led him to entertain the remarkable delusion that the media and the opposition held him responsible for “every single thing that was going on, every drop of rain, every strain of the virus, everything that occurred over that period of time.” During the pandemic he secretly took on the additional portfolios he thought necessary to meet those expectations.

In doing this, Morrison displayed an extraordinary misunderstanding of his role, and of the necessity of distributed leadership imposed by cabinet conventions and responsible government. His view of his role helped explain the mindset that led to the Coalition’s defeat in 2022, with the “Morrison brand” tagged as a decisive negative factor and former Liberal leader John Howard admitting that “the absence of a program for the future… the absence of some kind of manifesto, hurt us very badly.”

Daniel Andrews has also been a controlling leader, but of a different stripe. Unlike Morrison, he was a policy activist from the first, with big projects in mind and always ready to front the press to insist on how and why they needed to be done.

Political scientist Paul Strangio has astutely summarised the characteristics that have enabled Andrews to succeed: a kind of electoral genius; a series of giant infrastructure projects that have reshaped the state and its economy; progressive and in some instances trailblazing social policy; and an ability to withstand the torrents of conservative criticism. The last of those skills bewilders and incenses his opponents but leaves them unable to lay a glove on him. Strangio also acknowledges that Andrews’s grip on the government and tactics for evading scrutiny and accountability have created a democratic deficit.

Where Morrison was the wannabe strong leader, hungry for power but with no strong sense of what to do with it, Andrews is the real thing. He believes his role is to make the tough decisions and he is ruthless in pursuing his objectives. Anyone who fails to fall into line is brutally excised from his executive and politically marginalised, with the late Jane Garrett, once seen as a possible future leader, the standout but far from only example.

If this is how Andrews deals with able colleagues, how likely are public servants to resist his or his staff’s impositions? The capacity of the Victorian premier’s office to intrude on conventional practice has been amplified by its growth under Andrews to something approaching four times the size he inherited when he took office.

Which brings us back to what Andrews has dismissed as relatively inconsequential: the recent IBAC report. Its findings of undue centralisation of power, improper process, inappropriate influence over and intimidation of public servants by the premier’s staff, and a significant erosion of ministerial responsibility drew on the testimony of former ministers Jill Hennessy and Jenny Mikakos, with the latter describing how Andrews’s office had “its tentacles everywhere.” Ministerial responsibility is meaningless, Hennessy observed, when “ministers are directed by the premier’s office about how to manage their departments.”

As political scientist Patrick Weller found in Don’t Tell the Prime Minister, his pioneering study of just such an episode during Howard’s time, staffers knew what the boss wanted and did whatever it took to make it happen — while carefully avoiding letting him know the inconvenient details. Thus, confronted with assertions about intimidation by premier’s office staff, Andrews can safely say that he was unaware of any pressure applied.

These are two different cases, but each of them involved a concentration of power and each was criticised during formal reviews in similar ways. Collective cabinet decision-making and ministerial responsibility had been overridden or subverted, due process and transparency had suffered, and accountability was unattainable.

It might be said that Morrison’s failure shows that the public notices when a democratic deficit emerges, and reacts accordingly. But what of Andrews’s longevity? Does his endurance show that the public is willing to forgive a lot if a leader does what is promised, notwithstanding dodgy deals on the margins? And could bigger problems flow from small democratic deficits?

The Liberal Party’s Victorian branch is heavily factionalised, torn between moderates, keen to adopt positions more attuned to demographic change and public opinion, and conservatives demanding a harder right-wing line. It has repeatedly been unable to persuade most Victorians that it is fit to govern. With no effective opposition, no one — aside from the hapless journalists Andrews has faced down for twelve years — is asking the hard questions.

The bigger danger for Victoria, as Paul Strangio has also intimated, is that Andrews, in bending the state to his will, might unwittingly be paving the way for what would effectively be a one-party state. The Westminster system assumes parties of government will be held to account by parties in opposition — and its breakdown would serve none of us well. •