When I was a young academic I received lots of books to review for Saturday newspapers, but found the financial rewards rather underwhelming. You had to read the book from cover to cover, and that took some time. It still does. Then you had to organise your thoughts into the form of a one-thousand-word review, which had to be fair, worth reading in itself and satisfying to the reviewer. After a while, I found better and more financially rewarding things to do in my spare time, like writing newspaper columns. But I still read almost any book as though I were going to review it, the result in part of three years doing Eng. Lit. at university.
What follows is the first review I’ve done for a while. The book is well worth reading by anybody who is interested in politics and government — and also by anyone who is interested in dear old ‘climate change’. It is entitled No, Minister. So you want to be a chief of staff, and was written by Allan Behm, who was chief of staff to Greg Combet, Minister for many things in the Rudd and Gillard Governments, including ‘climate change’. The book is published by Melbourne University Press.
Chiefs of staff are the people who run the Minister’s private office. Their job is to make sure that the office serves the Minister well, and to prevent the Minister from making egregious mistakes — hence the principal title of the book. Such a person needs to be discreet, well-connected, reliable, trustworthy, and able to work for twelve-hour days at a stretch. Why does anybody want to do it? Well, politics fascinates many people, and of course it is a most important aspect of our nation’s life, whether or not we recognise it. I have been close to it for some of my time, and recognise its pull.
Allan Behm has written an excellent primer for anyone seeking such a post, and in doing so he has illuminated a great deal of the politics of the last Labor period in Canberra. He writes well, is pleasant in the way he talks of instances of less than sensible behaviour on the part of other ministers and their staffs, and has some good stories to tell. His advice is, I think, most sensible, though not always practicable. As he says, there are Ministers who won’t listen, and staff members who have their own horses to ride.
There are chapters and sections of chapters that I think would be invaluable for anyone who had to work in the hothouse environment of Parliament House, or who found, as a public servant within a department, that he or she was going to have to work closely with a Minister’s office. Again and again I nodded, in agreement, and in respect at the author’s insight and generally dispassionate approach to politics and government.
My real engagement with the book came with his account of Combet’s work as Minister for Climate Change. We need to start with Allan Behm’s own account of himself as a ‘sceptic’.
‘Chiefs of staff must be sceptical,’ he states, and about himself, ‘a natural scepticism distinguishes my approach to all public policies and public utterances’. That is an admirable trait, but you won’t find any examples of that scepticism with respect to ‘climate change’, and it’s easy to see why. Combet was given the job, and the policy was already decided. Indeed, Ms Gillard had to be committed to it as the price for her being Prime Minister.
Nonetheless, Behm does not seem at any time to have brought his sceptical perspective to bear on the issue. There were many ways that he could have done so, but in this matter he can only be described as ‘a believer’. He now works for an NGO in the area of post-traumatic stress disorder, and his book was written after Combet resigned when Gillard was displaced. He has had ample time to reflect on what all that ‘climate change’ stuff was about.
But he still believes. He now writes, about the principles underlying the Clean Energy Future package of policies, The principles still hold, and at some stage in the future an Australian government will rediscover them if the effects of climate change are to be addressed at the national level — whether driven by the demands of citizens trying to adjust to a hotter, drier climate or by the pressures of an international community that refuses to let Australia off the hook.
It has to be said that there are no obvious adverse effects of ‘climate change’ that will pass the data test, and there is no ‘international community’ that has yet shown any liking for a binding international agreement about ‘climate’ that would affect Australia. I greatly doubt that the coming Paris meeting at the end of the year will produce one.
I wrote about the tension between policy and politics in a recent essay, and Behm offers a good example. Having worked on an issue that was divisive, he unavoidably chose one side, and he has stuck to it when there is not any real need for him to do so. Indeed, he has some well expressed pages on what happens when the Minister resigns, like Combet, or when a government is defeated, as Rudd’s was in 2013. There is such a sense of loss, and he has some wise words about how to deal with it.
My own advice would be to look back at what was done, and whether in hindsight it was all as important as one thought at the time. I’ve had to do that with respect to my own work over the last fifty years. When we have a little authority we try to push the ship of state, or whatever it is, in what we thought at the time was the right direction. We ought never to forget that all the benefits we foresaw also came with costs of various kinds. And remedies for one time can quickly become obsolescent, and even pernicious.
I haven’t thought about ‘the national interest’ much over those years, but Behm’s book has prompted me to do it, and I hope to write an essay on that subject in the next little while. Like Paul Kelly, whose book on the same period I wrote about some months ago, Behm feels that we have lost sight of ‘the national interest’, and that too much of our politics is about short-term victories — the tactics rather than the strategy of it all. I think he’s right, too, but now I’m beginning to wonder just what it is we mean by the phrase ‘national interest’. That ties in with another niggling theme — who is the ‘we’ who are said to have lost sight of it?