01 November 2008

One man band

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard liked to go-it-alone on major policy decisions, according to a new documentary on his administration.

Howard adviser Arthur Sinodinos made it clear the office knew how radical a GST was.

According to a colleague, Mr Sinodinos said: "We've taken a boat, we've sailed it down the coast of Africa and we've gone into the jungle and pulled out the meanest, nastiest gorilla we could find, sailed back to Australia and let it loose on the streets."

That same lack of consultation is clear regarding Mr Howard's historic letter of December 19, 1998, to then Indonesian president BJ Habibie telling him Australia was changing its policy and backing for the first time an act of self-determination for East Timor. Says then deputy prime minister Tim Fischer: "Let me tell you something: the most important letter ever written during the Coalition government's period of office, leading to the creation of East Timor, never went to cabinet."

Given current trends, one wonders how much of this approach applies in parliamentary democracies. 

In some instances, it might appear that the first minister is clearly the one directing things. 

In other instances, the first minister's staff appear to have a hand in the ongoing management of government including extremely serious policy issues, sometimes without apparent adult supervision.

There are certainly parallels in the Australian experience to trends Donald Savoie identified in his recent book on the Canadian and British experience.

One-man band's appear popular.

Being popular doesn't mean they are either effect or - from a constitutional perspective - desirable either.