The game of musical chairs played in Canberra reveals yet again one of the fundamental problems with our political system – the lack of leadership.

While being ridiculed by commentators and trashed in the polls, Scott Morrison has played the game of musical chairs that accompanies a leadership change: Promoting supporters, demoting detractors and in the case of Peter Dutton, keeping his enemies close. Track record, ability and portfolio experience counts for very little.

Former Education Minister Simon Birmingham – who never worked in any educational institution – has been rewarded with Trade, Tourism and Investment. At least he will have been a tourist at some stage.

Birmingham’s role has been given to Dan Tehan, a merited academic whose work experience outside of politics amounts to one year as a farmhand, according to his website. He’s never taught, never worked in or managed an educational institution of any kind, either.

Marise Payne has been promoted from Defence to Foreign Affairs. She is another who has spent her whole career in politics. “Marise has been part of many engagements with our key allies … and participated with Julie Bishop in other engagements …” is Morrison’s justification for her suitability for the role. A few meetings with foreign officials and loyalty to the new Prime Minister is all it takes to score what is arguably the second most important ministerial position in the land.

The list goes on.

I have no doubt that all of them are hard-working people dedicated to whatever portfolios they are fleetingly exposed to. But the majority of them have little or no experience outside of politics. Scott Morrison was a Treasurer who had never run a business, worked in finance or sat on a company board. Josh Frydenberg is now Treasurer with about as much experience in financial matters as Health Minister Greg Hunt has in hospital administration. At least Attorney General Christian Porter is a lawyer who did practice law for a few years.

And in the case of this particular lot of Ministers they are unlikely to remain in their anointed roles for more than 12 months at the most. And there is no reason to think that Bill Shorten’s team will be any better qualified.

Fortunately, the Government Departments which Ministers take charge of for short periods are run by well qualified and competent bureaucrats with tenure to match. But whatever advice they impart on their ministers is having to be repeated and reset with a new minister coming on board after every election and Cabinet reshuffle.

A Lack of Leadership

This ‘longevity vacuum’ is one of the problems with modern democracy: the glaring absence of long-term plans and strategies – ministers without ambition beyond the next position or the next election – the absence of vision for our collective future.

The big issues call for planning many years ahead, not just a few months. It calls for leaders with deep understanding and the kind of insight that only comes from experience. It’s not just about the politics.

In the Westminster system of conventions the Cabinet is formed from the party of the Prime Minister. Section 64 of the Constitution requires that ministers be members of Parliament. It’s a flaw which contravenes the fundamental principle of democracy: the separation between legislature (Parliament), the executive (Government) and the judiciary (Courts).

It effectively stops us from having the people best suited for the roles of Ministers, and it is another reasons we have ended up with party delegates and political careerists rather than people’s representatives in Parliament.

Selecting Ministers from the winning side of Parliament provides for a very limited ‘talent pool’ – in effect roughly half of the 226 parliamentarians (i.e. those representing either house of the ruling party or coalition). If including the so called ‘outer’ ministry and parliamentary secretaries, the current number of positions to be filled is 42.

Limiting selection of candidates for the ministry in this way means not only that it is a very shallow pool, but it depletes the Parliament of representatives to debate and enact legislation and to hold Executive Government accountable, which should be the primary functions of the elected chamber as a whole, not just ‘the members opposite’.

Instead, those selected to the executive branch of Government should be the best of the best, people with deep experience and knowledge of their portfolios. The appointment of ministers should still be the Prime Minister’s role, but vetted and approved by Parliament, serving at the ‘pleasure of the people’, not at the pleasure of a lovely old lady in a palace far, far away – nor beholden to a party and its donors.

Would it not be great to have a treasurer who is a respected economist who has, for instance, sat on the Reserve Bank board? How about a minister of education with diverse experience in a variety of schools and universities? Or a health minister with first hand knowledge of running a hospital?

The Government should be seen as the ‘board of directors’ of the nation, answerable to the people’s representatives in Parliament. Not only would it increase the chance of better policy making, it would also significantly serve to restore the respect for Government ministers who will speak with the authority of knowledge and experience, not just sing from the hymn sheet of party room decrees.

What we have now are people who only know politics. Politics is important, but it is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Or to quote the forever relevant Sir Humphrey Appleby from ‘Yes Minister’: “A career in politics is no preparation for government.”

This post was first published by Independent Australia.

Lack of Leaderhip


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