From today’s AFR
Bob Hawkes election victory in 1983 was so sure that he and his treasurer-designate, Paul Keating, were able to meet treasury and finance officers within 72 hours of election day. The 1983-84 budget, was the agenda item because the Fraser government – with John Howard as treasurer – had bequeathed a starting point deficit of $9.6 billion (about $35 billion in todays terms), together with double-digit unemployment and inflation.
Kevin Rudds victory was also clear, and he and his treasurer-designate, Wayne Swan, are equally seized by economy issues. That is why the head of Treasury, Ken Henry, met Rudd within 24 hours of the election. This time, Rudd addressed the surplus to be targeted for the 2008-09 budget. The Reserve Bank has not decided to increase interest rates again, but it will if Rudd delivers his promises without finding sizeable savings. The Rudd governments financial character, and its approach to interest rates, will be set when he establishes the value of spending cuts which Cabinet has to find. If Rudd is earnest, the gross savings goal will be large, at least the ten billion dollars which Labor promised in the election.
Such savings are achievable because, for many years, the Howard government, swamped with tax revenues, became careless about its spending habits. Finance officers, who witnessed extravagance, are champing to regain their relevance and to exercise their savings brains. They already have their lists.
The first week will also require Rudd to form his ministry. During the election he claimed the right to select ministers, stripping this role from Labor parliamentarians. Caucus is unlikely to agree to that loss of power, but it will endorse the ministry which Rudd develops in consultation with senior members.
If the prime minister-designate – he has not taken the oath of office – does as he promised, only the best Labor parliamentarians will be nominated for the front bench. This means that shadow ministers who have shown inexperience, including perhaps Peter Garrett, the environmental spokesman for the ALP, will be offered lesser positions. And those who have seen their best days, such as Martin Ferguson, shadow minister for transport, would be retired from the front bench.
Rudd also has to allocate to responsibilities to each minister. There will be no upheaval to the structure of departments, but there will be changes and, without these administrative orders, there can be no Rudd government.
Rudd also needs a ministerial code of conduct to set the ethical standards for his government. The code first adopted by John Howard cost the jobs of several ministers and parliamentary secretaries. But Rudd knows that Howards second code was flummery: it permitted conflicts of interest and encouraged political corruption. If Rudd takes notice of former prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser, who recently complained about an absence of ministerial accountability and responsibility in the commonwealth, he will adopt a code with real standards.
As much as they regret it, the coalitions ministerial staff are packing their papers, preparing to depart the executive wing of parliament with Howard and his ministers. Rudd has already selected some staff but he has to decide how the bulk of ministerial helpers are to be selected. He has decided to have fewer officers than in Howards time and he will likely establish a centralised system to ensure safe candidates are chosen to help his ministers.
Then there is the selection of departmental heads. Rudd has said that there will be no night of the long knives, no mass sacking, something Howard practised in 1996. Yet Rudd is committed to fixing a politicised public service, and he knows that some departmental secretaries have been identified with the politics of the Howard government. The heads of foreign affairs, employment, health and Rudds own department could figure in such a list. If such officers voluntarily resign their positions, Rudd will be saved some trouble. If they do not, Rudd will have to ease them out of the service. He then must develop policies to depoliticise a broken public service.
Because parliament has to meet by mid-February, Rudd needs to move quickly if he is to deliver his promise to repair a parliament marred by bullying governments. He has to consider appointing an independent speaker (a non-core promise broken by Howard) and strengthening the Senate and the parliamentary committee system (a Rudd promise) so that it is above government pressure. This will be a major test of Rudds commitment to accountability.
What is evident is that Rudd has to complete a deal of administrative work before he starts to develop and implement his governments program. This work has started but, as inconsequential as it seems, it has to be finished within the first few days.