Nicola Roxon’s ‘Good Housekeeping’ advice for any new government

Nicola Roxon captured the television news at the end of the past week with her bucketing of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who declined to comment. It was done coolly, and with judgment, and she has promised to say no more, to write no book, and to stay at the kitchen table rather than at the Cabinet table.

I liked the look and sound of her when she a Minister , even if I didn’t agree with what she said. I felt the same about Penny Wong, even though I disagreed with nearly everything she said when she was Minister for Climatey Things. They seemed like competent and cool members of a team, and a good deal more sensible than some of the male members of those governments.

I’m not going to say anything further about the bucketing. Ms Roxon did it inside her John Button Oration, and I went to find the text, which you can read in full here. I knew John Button reasonably well, and corresponded with him over the years as well once having had a long conversation over dinner in Melbourne. I think he would have approved of Ms Roxon’s speech. She intended it as advice for the next Labor government, in preparation in Opposition as I write.

But I think it is such good advice that Mr Abbott and his colleagues should get hold of it, read it and take its elements to heart. I can say that it applies not just to governments, but to any organisation that is large enough to need a team at the top to run it. You may think that that it is just commonsense — but then (you might ask) why didn’t Labor take notice of it when it might have done, in coming to power? Ms Roxon doesn’t deal with that, but you can infer from the text that large egos and lack of loyalty were at the heart of the problem. What follows is my brief summary, using her words only, but occasional emphasis from me in italics. It is worth reading in full.

1)  Labor must always focus on the fact that good policy improves people’s lives and that is why the party exists.

This must be a constant focus. In government, a Labor party needs to choose a few big areas and focus on them, taking people with them. A government needs to take time to explain the problem, work on a range of solutions, build coalitions to campaign for them, understand the opposing arguments so as to improve its own and measure their validity. It must allow enough time and sufficiently foreshadow the change so local MPs, branch members and citizens can be part of the campaign for change. And take time to get all the technical detail right.

So a related issue here is: don’t do too many things at once.

The truth is a government can’t cope with it and the public can’t absorb it. At best, no one will know you’ve done it and you won’t get any credit. At worst, people will be confused or stressed by too much movement and activity, and end up opposing something that with more time might have been palatable. And in a rush or confusion, the policy might not be the best one either.

2)  Governments as a whole, and the prime minister in particular, need to keep their focus high level — spending time and energy on the things that really matter.

3) Good leaders are good delegators.

If they don’t delegate, they and their governments ultimately drown in less important matters. My overriding point here is that future Labor Governments need to allow ministers to act, give them real responsibility with consequences if they fail to deliver.

4)  Labor needs to welcome debate, not fear it.

5)  Be polite and be persuasive. Or I could call this “Keep yourself nice”.

6)  Always ask what you can do for the party (and the nation) not what it can do for you (with apologies to JFK).

7)  Good governments run best with good diaries – so boring, but universally true.

The machinery of Government is enormous. And it can be put to enormous good. But it is a slow moving beast — no matter how bold or impatient a government may be. If plans and projects are set, parameters identified and clear instructions given, with regular and consistent oversight, the work produced can be excellent. Thousands of people can work more effectively around you if direction is set early, timetables stuck to, and materials are read.

But if political direction chops and changes, if the questions being asked constantly move, if deadlines come and go without meaning, it is very inefficient, and ultimately dispiriting. It’s politically confused too.

8)  Choose good people – as leaders, as MPs and as staff.

9)  Accept you are not always right, and cannot always fix everything. It’s easier with this as your starting point.

 In 2007, Kevin was great at cut-through, then struggled at follow through. In contrast, Julia was brilliantly thorough at delivering, but couldn’t always deliver the message.

10)  And lastly, never forget polling is only a snapshot, not a predictor.

It’s hard to imagine in the Button era that the Hawke Government would ever have introduced Capital Gains Tax or Fringe Benefits Tax if the polling was slavishly followed, yet they won the 1987 election.

Some of the post election analysis has been similarly blunt, and dominated by the number of seats allegedly “saved” by Kevin at the election. It stems from the same type of thinking that allows fortnightly polls to dominate decision-making. I don’t agree with the analysis that Kevin’s poll popularity saved us more seats than Julia’s more consistent and planned campaigning would have, but as there is never a control test I won’t waste limited time arguing the toss tonight — my point is broader than that.

This is such sage counsel, and it comes from sad experience — but my guess is that no one will hold on to it now, or remember it when Labor is next in power.




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