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Ministerial shambles: Soup dunking

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24 September 2010 10:31

Canberra is agog as it comes to grips with a new ministry, a reconstituted government, a finely-balanced Parliament and the Speaker squabble.

Even so, amid the agogness a sense of appalled amazement still lingers. How could the Prime Minister's Department have allowed Julia Gillard to commit to paper the series of blunders in the announcement of her ministerial line-up'

Key elements in the names of major departments omitted. The order of precedence stuffed up so that, as announced, Kevin Rudd ranked third in the government. This went beyond blunder to bizarre. The titles of various ministers and parliamentary secretaries were renegotiated and renamed virtually en route to Yarralumla for the swearing in.

In making the corrections, Rudd slipped down the hierarchy. The Foreign Minister now ranks sixth in Cabinet. As is usual the Prime Minister and deputy Prime Minister rank one and two. The leader and deputy leader in the Senate rank three and four. And sitting above Rudd in fifth spot is the Prime Minister's consigliere, Simon Crean.

Putting Crean between Rudd and Gillard isn't just a matter of hierarchy, it's about protecting the Prime Minister's back. The Crean consigliere role will be to play wise head and ensure that Gillard is never blindsided by the Party the way Rudd was. Oh, and to help herd independents.

The appalled amazement in Canberra over the ministry shambles has little to do with Gillard. As any politician would, she laughed it off, made some quick changes, and moved on quickly. The head-shaking is about what this strange episode says about the very top of the public service.

In a rapidly changing world, some in Canberra cling to a few old faiths: the public service is the race memory repository, offering calm competence and knowledge of how to do things. The mandarins are meant to caution and quietly steer the pollies on the mechanisms, if not the meaning. 

In an earlier era, the shambles would have been the prompt for a shaming lunch. The ex-mandarins would have gathered at the Commonwealth Club. The head of PM&C, Terry Moran, would have been marched up the hill to the Club in ignominy. There, the reigning Poo Bah of the Public Service would have been ceremoniously dunked in the tomato soup and pelted with bread rolls. Then the ex-mandarins would have counseled Moran on his career prospects.

Moran has been having a tough year with prime ministers. Amid the mega-agogness following the decapitation of The Kevin, a special part of the tale for Canberra was how the Prime Minister froze out his own Poo Bah in the final months of his reign. From about February/March, Moran was allowed little direct or informal contact with Rudd. The secretary of the Prime Minister's Department could not get in to see the Prime Minister.

Brian Toohey gives an account of this extraordinary four-month shutdown here, arguing: 'Mr Rudd's treatment of Mr Moran has no precedent in post-war Australian politics. After Mr Rudd froze Mr Moran out, other senior departmental officers found it increasingly hard to obtain a response from the prime minister's personal office on a wide range of topics.'

Moran couldn't talk to Rudd, and now it would seem can't get Gillard to listen. The alternative version, which is almost too horrible to contemplate, is that Moran didn't detect the blunders buried in Gillard's first attempt to create a ministry. The ex-mandarin club is hoping that Moran's failure was merely his inability to talk to his new Prime Minister (a serious defect but one that can be quickly remedied). If, however, the Poo Bah missed the traps Gillard set for herself, the farewell dinner at the Commonwealth Club looms.

Photo by Flickr user gkamin, used under a Creative Commons license.