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The cabinet maker

Nov 20, 2019 • 15m 48s

Since becoming prime minister, Scott Morrison has stamped himself on the cabinet process. There will be more PowerPoints, and less debate about issues he sees as being routine.

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The cabinet maker

125 • Nov 20, 2019

The cabinet maker

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

Since becoming prime minister, Scott Morrison has stamped himself on the Cabinet process. There will be more PowerPoints, and less debate about issues that he sees as routine. Karen Middleton on the new processes and how they work.

Archival Tape – Scott Morrison, IPAA:

“... you remember President Clinton and his famous lines about ‘it's about the economy, stupid’. He would say, well, for us, it's about the implementation. That's an important guidepost. We need a step change on service delivery, ensuring services are delivered seamlessly and efficiently when and where they are needed. This is a key priority. The key priority of my government, just as good business strategy is always about how you execute it. The same is true in government policy.”

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

Karen, Scott Morrison has made some changes to Cabinet processes. What is it that he's trying to achieve?

KAREN:

Well, he wants to streamline the Cabinet process and to get Cabinet to focus more on the biggest and most controversial issues and things that are more routine or mundane and that are less likely to be controversial, to be dealt with basically outside of the physical Cabinet process. So he doesn't want ministers sitting in the Cabinet room thrashing over regular, ordinary issues that could be dealt with by correspondence outside. He wants them to be focusing their attention on the biggest issues.

ELIZABETH:

Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

KAREN:

What that says really is that he's very conscious of managing Cabinet decisions and of the way that they are presented to the public and of making sure that there is follow through on process and delivery. So he doesn't want ministers coming to Cabinet with a fait accompli submission. He wants them to come now with something to talk about, perhaps in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. So he's really trying to just shake up the way these decisions are made and get people thinking about them before a submission is put where there's a predetermined recommendation to be rubber stamped.

ELIZABETH:

Gotcha. And so that process, that means the greater involvement of the Cabinet’s budget committee?

KAREN:

This committee has existed for a very long time under various governments. It's the Expenditure Review Committee or the ERC, it's the budget committee of Cabinet... I think it back in the Malcolm Fraser days it was called the Razor Gang. It's the core committee that makes decisions related to the budget and in the lead up to a budget period, that committee is running the ruler over all the proposed decisions and looking at how much they'll cost: spending and savings and the like. Under the Morrison government, the ERC is the prime minister, Scott Morrison, the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack is also the leader of the Nationals, the Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann, and the Health Minister, Greg Hunt. And it was put to me at the beginning of the week that perhaps this committee was now getting involved in non-budget related decisions. Now, that doesn't seem to be the case. It does seem to be the case that they're still confined to budget decisions, but they are being engaged in that decision making process earlier than they used to be and more intensively. The ERC has been meeting a lot more and dealing with more issues in a more intense way than it used to ever since the election in May.

ELIZABETH:

And what does it mean that that group is potentially meeting more frequently and are more engaged?

KAREN:

Well, I think that goes to the point about Scott Morrison wanting to keep a greater eye on policy development at an earlier stage and to anticipate any problems. And by that, I think we mean political problems. So what he's doing is getting this group of senior ministers, of whom he is the chief, to keep an eye on the development of policy and the sorts of proposals ministers are bringing forward. So he doesn't want ministers to have as much autonomy as they used to have, that they won't be the sole arbiter of what a recommendation to Cabinet should be. The ERC now is getting engaged in these discussions a bit sooner and considering the full implications of every policy proposal, not looking at them in isolation.

ELIZABETH:

And in your reporting, what kind of responses were you hearing from some ministers?

KAREN:

Well secondhand mostly, but people suggesting that it's a difficult thing for some ministers to get used to. That they're finding now that suddenly after six or seven years in office, that they're having to be a bit more answerable for the things they're recommending and have a lot less autonomy. It was put to me that for some of them, it's a bit of a shock, that they're struggling with the idea that they're not getting to determine things quite as absolutely and quite as early as they used to. And it depends how you look at these things, really. Some people say, it's Scott Morrison's natural inclination to exert his personal authority and to keep a very close eye on things at a personal level. He's got a lot of authority in the party since he won the election virtually single handedly. So some people are saying that it's him doing that. Other people are saying, well, this is really just restoring the kind of order and rigor that existed in Cabinet processes in years gone by that had been lost a little bit with all the leadership upheavals on both sides of politics over the last decade, that Cabinet processes had fallen away, that individual ministers were being allowed to range freely a bit more, and that perhaps the discipline had been lost. So some people are arguing that that's all that's being restored, is a form of Cabinet discipline and collective decision making, particularly that small collective at the top that had existed in the past.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

So, Karen, we're talking about changes that Scott Morrison is making to processes in his government, part of that has been written into the Cabinet handbook. For the uninitiated, what is the Cabinet handbook?

KAREN:

Well, it's the guidebook for Cabinet. It dictates how Cabinet operates. It's an interesting institution because Cabinet is not described in the Australian constitution. So it's a convention of government rather than one that's written down in law. So governments down the generations determine how Cabinet will operate and what the rules of that operation should be, they’re pretty standard usually. But then each prime minister tweaks and makes changes as he or she sees fit. Interestingly, there was a, a Cabinet handbook update issued in August of 2018, three days before Malcolm Turnbull lost his job as prime minister.

And it has a letter on the front of it from the prime minister describing what he hopes. What he hopes Cabinet will do and be and the role that it will play. Scott Morrison issued one in November of last year, a few months after becoming prime minister. And the content of it was exactly the same as Malcolm Turnbull's. But the letter on the front was different. It was a shorter letter and it was talking about him wanting to restore processes to the best ways that Cabinet had operated in the past. And he is very much modeling himself on John Howard here. He sees John Howard's government as a very successful government. Interestingly, of course, John Howard had all the Cabinet processes in place, but he often took decisions with just one or two other ministers, sort of pre decisions, particularly on national security.

And so, Scott Morrison with his Cabinet handbook was really pointing back to the processes of John Howard. This latest update of the handbook from October is Scott Morrison really making some direct changes to the way the Cabinet processes will work. So that's the first time we've seen him actually saying, no, no, I want to change this, this and this and make things work a bit differently.

ELIZABETH:

And how would you describe some of the specific changes he's made in this most recent update last month?

KAREN:

Well, he's certainly sending a message to ministers that he expects more discipline from them, not only in the way we've just spoken about, but also they themselves will turn up a bit more often. So sometimes for some particular ministers who have to travel a lot or who have external commitments, they were either appearing by video link or they were sending an official to Cabinet meetings sometimes. Scott Morrison is saying he doesn't want that to happen unless there are exceptional circumstances. It seems to be a bit of a reference back to a criticism that was particularly made of the then foreign minister, Julie Bishop, during the last term of parliament when she was traveling a lot and a lot of her commitments meant she was forced to either appear on a phone link or a video link, secure link, or just to have someone go in her place.

He's now saying unless there are exceptional circumstances, he expects people to turn up in person. He's beefed up the role of the Cabinet secretary a little bit. The Cabinet secretary is Andrew Shearer, who was a former deputy head of the Office of National Intelligence, a former adviser to John Howard. Andrew Scheer has been given more of a role of kind of policing a lot of this stuff. It's traditionally the role of the Cabinet secretary, but there does seem to be an emphasis on him making sure that people are turning up. You have to read between the lines sometimes in these Cabinet handbooks for the for the meaning, in the motivations. But it's interesting that the prime minister's making some of these changes.

ELIZABETH:

And then in terms of kind of reading between the lines. You talked a little earlier about follow through, but I wouldn't mind picking your brain about that a little bit more. What detail or what kind of narrative can be parsed there?

KAREN:

Well, Scott Morrison is establishing himself as a prime minister who cares about delivery. And he gave that message to the public service earlier in the year where he said, your input is important and welcome. We want all your ideas. But you're not the decision makers, we’re the decision makers, we're accountable to the public. We elected politicians are the ones that have to answer for the decisions, so we're going to be making the policy decisions. So it's a bit of a jab, I guess, at the public service to say, don't think that you should be telling us what to think, you should give us the range of options and we'll make the choice.

Archival Tape – Scott Morrison, IPAA:

“Now, this imposes an important responsibility, I think, on ministers and I've made this very clear to my ministers. They must be clear in what they are asking of the public service. They must not allow, and my ministers will not allow, a policy leadership vacuum to be created and expect the public service to fill it and do effectively the job of ministers.”

KAREN:

And he also said to the public service that he thinks it's going to be important to keep tracks of how these things are delivered on both at the bureaucratic level and then at the ministerial level. And that's sort of the message he's conveying with some of these changes, that he expects ministers to be responsible not only for coming up for an idea for policy, but for making sure that it's implemented in a way that is answerable to the people and that actually does something good for them.

Archival Tape – Scott Morrison, IPAA:

“I want the APS to have a laser like focus on serving these quiet Australians. Those who don't meet here, and you never hear from largely. They're too busy doing life.”

ELIZABETH:

And then, Karen, there's this other point about Cabinet presentations and the security status of regular Cabinet documents. Can you talk me through that?

KAREN:

Yes. Documents that go before Cabinet have a particular status, a protected status, and that hasn't changed. That's the case. And these presentations that you mention that I've talked about, that are the things that ministers bring to Cabinet to have a discussion to form the beginning of the talk about a policy change. They used to be attached to a submission. So previously the minister would do all the work with his or her staff and departmental advisers, present a submission that canvas the issue, circulate that submission to relevant other departments for coordinating comments, and then bring it to Cabinet in the form of a submission with recommendations for change and a presentation attached to that.

Now those processes have been separated out and the presentations are being brought on their own. So, minister will now come with a PowerPoint presentation for Cabinet that doesn't have a submission attached. That might have indications of the minister's thinking on where the Cabinet should go. But it isn't a formal recommendation to be voted on on the spot. And those PowerPoint presentations as standalone documents, they're also going to be protected as they were when they were part of a Cabinet submission, which means they're not accessible under freedom of information laws.

It doesn't necessarily dramatically change the range of documents that are being protected. But certainly the prime minister is very keen to have as few top level documents accessible by FOI as possible. So this goes to the point about contestability in getting ministers to discuss, debate, argue about all the possible responses and problems of a particular policy idea. And really what overlays this is they're focused on the politics. Now, that's that's a logical thing. The politics and the policy is indivisible these days, a government has to be able to sell its message and sell its policy decisions to the public. And it does have to consider how they're likely to be received. And so the emphasis they should place on communicating them. But this whole change is really giving us a sign that Scott Morrison is extremely focused on the politics and wants to anticipate any problems much earlier in the decision making cycle and head them off if he can.

ELIZABETH:

Karen, thanks so much.

KAREN:

Thanks, Elizabeth.

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

The Federal Government is immediately halting a key part of the controversial robo-debt scheme and will freeze some existing debts. An email sent to staff within the Department of Human Services on Tuesday said they will no longer rely on income averaging data and will now, quote, “require additional proof when using income averaging to identify over payments.” Legal groups have long criticised the robo-debt scheme for causing inaccuracies in debt amounts, and argued it wrongly shifted the burden of proof onto welfare recipients. The Department now says it will conduct an extensive review of debts where averaging data was used.

And the Commonwealth Bank has pleaded guilty to 87 charges of hawking life insurance to consumers through unlawful phone marketing in 2014. It is understood to be the first criminal case brought against a financial institution since the findings of the banking royal commission were handed down earlier this year. The company, which reported a full year profit of over $9 billion in 2018, faces potential fines of about $1.85 million and will be sentenced at a later date.

This is 7am, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Thursday.

Since becoming prime minister, Scott Morrison has stamped himself on the cabinet process. There will be more PowerPoints, and less debate about issues he sees as being routine. Karen Middleton on the new processes and how they work.

Guest: Chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton.

Background reading:

Scott Morrison imposes discipline in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Brian Campeau and Elle Marsh, with Michelle Macklem. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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125: The cabinet maker