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Wreckers at work in leaky Labor


Leaky pipeJulia Gillard's cabinet has been leaking. Most recently, such leaks puprorted to reveal a split among ministers over asylum seeker policy, following the collapse of her Malaysian Solution. Such disagreements aside, leaks themselves are a sure sign of government instability.

Cabinet solidarity is one of the essential characteristics of the Westminster system of government. Furthermore its central feature is common to all expressions of collective leadership because it enshrines virtues like unity and teamwork.

Cabinet solidarity operates alongside associated concepts like cabinet secrecy, which protects official documents like papers and minutes from publication, and collective ministerial responsibility. These guiding rules make cabinet discussions sacrosanct, assisting the whole team to work together.

Solidarity and unity are understood by most groups, including trade unions, political parties and pressure groups, as necessary for success. Slogans like 'In unity is strength' and 'Solidarity forever' sum them up. That is why disunity and breaches of solidarity are taken seriously.

Importantly the concept does not mean cabinets should not have private disagreements about policy before, during and even after decisions are made. Unity does not mean uniformity. That would be both unrealistic and unhealthy. But disagreements should not be public.

In berating her ministerial colleagues the Prime Minister has rightly pointed out that if the system is working properly there should be frank and fearless discussions within cabinet. What we know of past cabinets suggests discussion is often fierce and passionate.

But solidarity means that eventually the team must come first. If a team member has such strong feelings about an issue that they cannot accept the discipline that comes with cabinet solidarity, then they should resign their position. If they stay on and then break cabinet solidarity by speaking out against a cabinet decision then they can and should be sacked.

A cabinet decision, such as the Gillard Government decision to process asylum seekers onshore rather than explore the Nauru option, binds all cabinet members. There is one practical reason for this. Ministers have to defend the government's position in Parliament and in the community even if they disagree with the majority view.

That can be extremely uncomfortable. But cabinet solidarity means ministers can retain their dignity even if they are 'rolled' in cabinet, as they often will be if it is not to be just a rubber stamp. Secrecy and solidarity mean ministers are saved from some of the ignominy that comes with being unable to win the argument.

Cabinet leaks are extremely damaging. This was evidenced by the Labor leaks, attributed to Kevin Rudd or one of his supporters or staff, during the last federal election campaign. These leaks purported to reveal who said what in the Rudd cabinet. Gillard, the new PM, was severely damaged by these leaks, which allegedly revealed her position on several cabinet decisions, including paid maternity leave. The kerfuffle derailed the Government's election campaign for at least a week.

Managing breaches of solidarity is difficult. Refusing to comment on the grounds of 'what happens in cabinet stays in cabinet' can seem defensive and unconvinving even though it may be the best strategy. The alternative, commenting, is itself another breach and gives further publicity to the leak.

The impact invariably benefits opponents of the government. It gives the impression of division and disunity, even though it would be remarkable if on such a controversial issue as the handling of asylum seekers the decision was unanimous. The recent leak makes Bowen's job more difficult as they reveal that he was in the minority.

Finally, the existence of leaks shows that there is a wrecker in the cabinet; or at least someone who is irresponsible enough to think the ends justify the means. Someone in the minority thinks they know best. They may do, but that is not how cabinet works.

The worst aspect of the cabinet leaks is the likelihood that they are the product not just of understandable policy differences, but of leadership destabilisation. If Gillard is the target then this is a particularly unethical way of undermining her authority.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a columnist with the Canberra Times.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Labor, Chris Bowen, Malaysia solution, asylum seekers, cabinet leaks



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Existing comments

Thank you Prof Warhurst for this lucid evaluation of the role of administrative bodies and the neessity for 'solidarity', even though within that administrative body there must be room for differences of opinion and discussion but not in the public domain. You have outlined clearly the destructive capacity of loss of solidarity through breaches of confidentiality in the determinations of the administrative body. "Unity does not mean uniformity. That would be both unrealistic and unhealthy.But disagreements should not be public". Do you believe that this same political truth is applicable to the Bishop Morris affair and the attacks on the Church administration in public petitioning by people wanting to force change according to their own agendas?

john frawley | 02 November 2011  

Oh my GOSH!

Wow! I never thought of that!

"Finally, the existence of leaks shows that there is a wrecker in the cabinet; or at least someone who is irresponsible enough to think the ends justify the means. Someone in the minority thinks they know best."

I think that person is a 'politician'. We have parliaments and councils all over the nation full of these people who all think they know best, and all seem to have extreme egos blinding them to the reality.

Hardly news John, hardly news.

Harry Wilson | 02 November 2011  

What we need is open government. All this secrecy only hides incompetent members. Every time members meet to discuss government business there should be recorded minutes freely available to the electorate. Judge them on performance not the lies they tell prior to an election.

John Ryan | 02 November 2011  

Pride or lust may be the cause of the leaks and may be criticised, but is this being too selective among the 'seven deadly sins?
Even some church leaders see no reason to condemn and seem to approve another one of the seven:'greed' - despite a tiny majority owning the bulk of the wealth - and grasping for more.

Bob Corcoran | 02 November 2011  

I disagree. Cabinet solidarity makes liars out of people who have to support the party line in public, though they are disagreeing in private. What does that do for their integrity? What's more, we know they're lying. What does that do for respect for our political system?

Think of all the years Carmen Lawrence kept mum about asylum seekers, only to appear on TV, in tears, after her career had finished to say she thought the government's position had been wrong.

Why not trust that the electorate can handle the fact that people have differences of opinion. If those differences are really important, the person leaves that party. But I would be quite happy to have my local member, Melissa Parke, who we all assume disappoves of the way the refugees issue has been handled, be able to say that she accepts that the policy is decided by the majority, but that she is hoping to be able to persuade her colleagues that .....

Russell | 02 November 2011  

Solidarity to commit crimes is hardly worthy and leaks showing it up are.

Marilyn Shepherd | 02 November 2011  

Cabinet solidarity is the antithesis of the open society.It has been used by a controlled cliques within organisations to foist their policies on the members of their organisations. Policies that are counter to the stated aims of the organisation.The history of the Labor Party is an example. The founding platform of the party and been traduced by caucus cliques obsessed with privatisation. The Commonwealth Bank is an example. Confining that decision to a closed cabinet meant the voice of Labor's constituency was ignored. Democracy and sound economics was the loser.

A current issue is the war in Afghanistan. Again caucus solidarity, controlled by the " all the way with the USA' clique. is at odds with the majority of the populace. Under the guise of caucas solidarity many crimes have been committed. It's time to end it.

The leaks are an indication that it is happenning. The caucus deliberations should be transparent. they would encourage political debate which would engage the public in reaching informed decisions instead of decisions that are based on the political opportunism of a clique within the caucus. The leaks, like Wiki-leaks, strike a blow for the open society. The closed caucus is it's enemy

Reg Wilding | 02 November 2011  

It would be nice one day to have open and honest Governments. If our elected members would have one drop of honesty and integrity in their system, then we would have open and honest Government. In the meantime we all put up with the current tragedy of a system which pretends to display characteristics of democracy. The people of Australia should have the ultimate power and not a selected group of puppets owned by various interest groups. We have a very long way to go until we see something in Australia which looks like Democracy.

Beat Odermatt | 02 November 2011  

You adopt an idealist solution totally incongruent with the reality we have come sadly to see as passing for government in these times. The only rule left after manners and process have disappears is - 'anything goes'.

graham patison | 03 November 2011  

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