Professor James Walter asks why after decades of national leadership, the office of prime minister has rarely seemed quite so confounding.

The Pivot of Power front cover

By the middle of last century, the means by which prime ministers and their governments could control national politics had been settled. The authority of the prime minister, limited at the time of federation, had been increased through the efforts of successive incumbents over forty years. Acknowledgment of the need for powers sufficient to exercise national leadership had been reinforced by emergencies: two world wars and a major depression. There had been consolidation of the two major parties, development of party discipline, a realignment of financial control from the states to the Commonwealth, and the institution of expert policy advice from a professional public service (including a Prime Minister’s Department). It was an achievement that prompted John Dedman, a minister in Ben Chifley’s Labor Government, to remark in 1949 in a letter to his chief: ‘the office of the prime minister is becoming more and more the pivot around which the whole government machine turns’.

The story of the prime minister as ‘the pivot of power’, however, was far from over. Between 1950 and 2016, the role would become not only more central to and authoritative within national politics, but also more precarious. A prime ministerial machine of which early incumbents can hardly have dreamed emerged. In the right circumstances, it amplified the prime ministerial capacity to get things done. But in some situations, unless properly understood and carefully managed, it could also destroy an incumbent. The volatility of recent years, with prime ministers regularly frustrated in their aspirations and frequently dispatched not by the electorate but by their own parties, illuminates the quandary. How did it come to this?

Leader centrality: the years of amplification

During the long tenure of Liberal Party prime minister, Robert Menzies, (1949–1966) he established a leadership repertoire that became a benchmark for his successors. He was commanding in public performance and communication, dominant in parliament and the media, advantaged in party control by having been central to reviving the anti-Labor cause (by creating the post-war Liberal Party), and skilful in managing cabinet government. Capable too of ruthlessly destroying opposition leaders (and catalyst of a devastating split in the Labor Party), he generated public expectations that others would later struggle to match. He also benefited from the much enhanced, professional public service that had emerged, under the guidance of Labor leaders John Curtin and Ben Chifley, from the demanding context of war and post-war reconstruction. He trusted the mandarins, and they reciprocated by providing the essentials of the Coalition policy program.

The Coalition retained power for another 6 years after Menzies retired, yet while his Liberal heirs—Harold Holt, John Gorton and William McMahon—began to address the unfinished business of the Menzies era, none of them were his match. The man who looked most likely to emulate Menzies’ capacities was Labor leader, Gough Whitlam. His role between 1967 and 1972 in developing a new policy program and dragging the divided Labor Party through reform back into contention was almost a match for Menzies’ creation of the Liberal Party. But now the leader image and communication of the message were burnished by the first modern media campaign: Labor’s 1972 It’s Time advertising blitz. It was designed to recast the Whitlam story and to offset critical responses from focus groups following a close result in the 1969 federal election, and it became a template for campaigns that followed.

Following his success in 1972, Whitlam wanted to translate the network of policy advisers developed in opposition into government. Those advisers were sceptical of the loyalty and capacity of the public service in addressing Whitlam’s ambitious plans. So reform of ministerial offices and the prime ministerial office itself was undertaken. New cohorts of private office staff (and consultants) would work in parallel with and ginger up the public service. Competition and robust debate would generate more options and better decisions. Initially, it proved only a modest success, and the fall back was to increase the power of the Prime Minister’s Department (PM&C, to which Whitlam appointed one of his key advisers from the opposition years, John Menadue, as Secretary). The centrality of PM&C to executive government, and the increased heft of the private office were resources on which successors would build.

When Liberal Malcolm Fraser became prime minister after the controversial dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975, he determined to bring order and due process to institutions that, the Coalition argued, had contributed to the chaos engendered by Whitlam. The rationale was to rectify Whitlam’s misguided attempts to realise expensive reformist ambitions and substantial public sector reform at a time when deterioration of the world economy demanded financial restraint. Fraser would not entirely succeed in his own attempts at prudent financial management; reform of post-war Keynesian orthodoxy would await his departure. Yet Fraser’s due process reforms led to further augmentation of PM&C, and further empowerment of the prime minister’s office (PMO)—executive resources that reinforced leader centrality, and that no later prime minister would sacrifice.

It was on these resources that the governments of Bob Hawke, Paul Keating (Labor, 1983-1996) and John Howard (Coalition, 1996-2007), credited with successful reform that ensured Australia’s economic resilience in the 1980s and 1990s, would rely. The interaction of PMO loyalists with a ‘can-do’ PM&C’s capacity to achieve whole of government co-ordination was integral to much that was achieved. Despite episodes of dysfunction, it was a period when orchestration of those executive resources amplified the power of prime ministers. It worked largely because each of these prime ministers ensured that chiefs of staff in the PMO had not only political nous but also experience in the public service and an understanding of its protocols. Political loyalty reinforced the prime minister as the pivot of power, but pragmatic appreciation of the public sector’s significance in policy management and implementation guarded against over-reach. It would not last.

An impossible job?

A period of prime ministerial dominance and policy success (from 1983 until roughly 2003) was followed, almost inexplicably, by a confounding series of reverses, policy stagnation and leadership routes. It is not accidental that the transition began before the largely successful Liberal prime minister, John Howard, completed his term. His lengthy exercise of prime ministerial government not only showed the potential of the amplified office, but also its intrinsic flaws. Yet this was compounded by social, economic and institutional changes beyond the control of any prime minister.

The flaw in the new office structure was that ministerial staff were subject to accountability only through their minister, whereas public servants could be held to account by parliament. And when an individual held power for a long period (as did Howard), a sense of usually being right could encourage groupthink in which PMO staff allowed loyalty to their invincible boss to over-ride pragmatic assessments of reality, and challenged the caution of bureaucrats. Late in Howard’s term, a series of notable conflicts over evidence and judgement led to public airing of dissension between staffers and bureaucrats, in some instances with staffers attempting to over-ride senior public servants. And when things went wrong, ministers could claim they had not been fully informed by staff, while denying parliament the option of interrogating those staff. Public servants were left to take the heat.

Other developments led to changes beyond a prime minister’s control. Demographic change eroded the class loyalties and associated philosophies that had sustained the mass parties of mid-century, while increasing professionalization saw those parties transformed into electoral-professional machines that paid little attention to party members in determining policy. Lacking the glue of tribal loyalty, leaders became integral to the party brand, more important than ever in explaining and ‘standing in’ for the party mission, and building the popularity to swing votes. It accentuated the sense that a strong leader was everything, and more resources and authority accrued at the top. But the leader who failed the test of communication and popularity could not now rely upon faith to a common cause for salvation: he or she would be sacrificed in the search for another messiah.

At the same time, the task of leading a national conversation became increasingly difficult. Competition from the internet and social media undermined the print and broadcast leviathans on which politicians long depended to mobilise majority opinion. The audience fragmented, using the net for information, and resorting to ‘echo chambers’—sources that reflected established predilections. As costs were cut, newsrooms diminished. Attempting to retain audience share, media conglomerates emphasised stories about leaders, but as ‘infotainment’ rather than investigative reporting or policy elaboration. The days when prime ministers could dominate countrywide conversations through a combination of well-timed speeches, press gallery domination, parliamentary prowess and selective radio and television appearances are gone, probably forever.

Hence the paradoxes that bedevil contemporary prime ministers.  There is substantial over-estimation of the significance of strong leaders. The most successful prime ministers—Alfred Deakin, Curtin, Chifley, Hawke, Howard at his best—have been those who practised distributed leadership through productive alliances, and reliance on colleagues to do their jobs. Those who thought all depended on themselves—Fraser, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott—created log jams, inhibited colleagues and ended prey to poor judgement and indecision.

The PMO is better resourced than ever, but if left to ‘political warriors’ and reliant on a loyalist inner circle, will reach unrealistic conclusions, generating untenable battles and policy paralysis, as the downfalls of Rudd and Abbott respectively demonstrate.

The leader who can generate popularity may prove incapable of bringing key legislation to fruition (Rudd), but woe betide the one whose negotiating and administrative skills carry legislation through, but cannot rise to the challenge of public persuasion (Julia Gillard).

And how is a leader, whose tenure depends upon gaining majority support, to straddle the gap between the electorate’s preferences and a party base in which opinion diverges from that of the public—the dilemma that faced Malcolm Turnbull?  The media now provide no reliable means of opinion aggregation in a fragmented audience. Yet party professionals, attentive to the polls, can threaten a leader when popularity slides, while those who claim to represent certain ‘core beliefs’ that have marginal public traction can mount a challenge in the party room. Meanwhile, in the community beyond, the twenty-first century ‘netizen’ asks: ‘Who do I choose to listen to, who do I choose to believe and who am I prepared to forgive?’ And, within the ideological echo chambers they have constructed via the web, they are quicker than ever to reach the conclusion that whoever happens to be in The Lodge falls short of the mark. The leader’s job is precarious indeed—some suggest it is impossible.

History, however, suggests we have been here before, mired in party confusion and policy stagnation, confused about where to go when the ideas long taken for granted have failed. The assumptions of market liberalisation are now exhausted, just as (in the 1970s) Keynesian economics had seemed to reach a dead-end and (in the 1930s and the 1890s) depression swept the land. In each case, figures emerged capable of kick-starting a new political cycle: Deakin inaugurating the early twentieth century ‘Australian settlement’, Curtin and Chifley initiating the boldest phase of post-war reconstruction and Hawke (with Keating) the reform cycle that assured prosperity and resilience as globalisation disrupted Australian expectations. It may seem a vain hope to trust in the wisdom or capacity of the right individuals simply to emerge again, but in the past, difficult circumstances have conspired to produce them. The prime ministership has been a hardy and adaptable institution. It might yet prove so again.

James Walter is co-author, with Paul Strangio and Paul ‘t Hart, of The Pivot of Power: Australian Prime Ministers and Political Leadership, 1949–2016, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2017