Who Should Run The Biggest Business In The Country?

Peter Garrett displayed “monumental incompetence” when it came to managing the government’s insulation scheme, claimed Tony Abbott in February.

Put aside for a moment whether Abbott is right.

The federal government spends nearly 28 per cent of our GDP. It’s the biggest business in the country. So imagine being Prime Minister. Imagine choosing who makes up your cabinet – who should be in charge of all that?

They’ve all got to be politicians with a spot in federal parliament. That’s the first major hurdle.

Skills that make someone an effective politician are not necessarily skills that make someone an effective manager of a national, multi-billion dollar enterprise.

It’s a rare preselection which takes into account a candidate’s capacity to run a large enterprise. The art of politics is the art of accumulating rank and power at the expense of others – not the first priority when looking for a capable manager.

Sure, everyone claims to have “leadership qualities” (parliament is full of future Prime Ministers) but few claim to be future executives.

Nevertheless, out of this less-than-inspiring crop of 226, you can only pick from your team. Labor has 115 MPs and Senators. And there are nearly 50 cabinet, ministerial, and parliamentary secretary positions to fill.

You have to take into account seniority and potential, youthfulness and senility. Then factions – you don’t want your controversial pick for the Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion and the Voluntary Sector to be the reason you are rolled two years down the track.

And you’ve got to get the gender and geographic balance right.

All that is before you start considering who would actually be good at managing a government department. Or who is interested in the department you’d like for them. A parliamentary secretary for ageing in the Howard government reportedly once let it slip that he was less interested in his portfolio than his real “passion” – foreign affairs.

You have to hope that the best people are in the safe seats.

It’s a bad look for your government if at the next election you hold power but lose your three most important ministers in one per cent swing.

Choosing from such a limited pool, the question isn’t why ministers fail. It’s how they ever succeed.

So one of the weakest attacks you can make on a government is that it is incompetent – could you expect anything else? Oppositions like claiming the other side is incompetent because it implies they would do better even if they had the exact same policies.

That way, when the opposition identifies widespread failures, it need not undermine all the grand plans they have for their turn in power.

The Labor Party in opposition was no exception. They were fairly certain the Howard government was the most incapable, inept,and (lest-we-forget) most “out-of-touch” in Australia’s history.

But the Rudd government’s problem isn’t incompetence. It’s ambition.

In early 2009, the insulation scheme seemed like a small element of the Rudd government’s stimulus package, but, in retrospect, it was actually a pretty big deal. It is hard to imagine any government minister, no matter how skilled at policy implementation, could dump $2.7 billion into an industry and not have it flooded with dodgy operators out to make a quick buck.

Yet this was the whole point – funneling (presumably unemployed) workers into an industry which required little skill. In one stroke of a multi-billion dollar pen, the Prime Minister could save the economy and save the environment.

Over-ambition, not incompetence, explains why the government is still struggling to deliver its election promises. The school laptop program has still barely started, and the GP super clinics, and the childcare drop off centres. FuelWatch and Grocery Choice have been abandoned.

But it’s only by chance we’ve been able to peek behind the curtain to see other government policies which have been badly undercooked.

Yourhealth.gov.au was supposed to be a major health initiative – a forum for consultation where Australians can go with their ideas about the health system. But according to a whistleblower writing in The Sunday Age, it was done in a weekend; conceived on a Friday, released on a Monday afternoon.

And, as we learnt from the Godwin Grech affair last year, Ozcar – the “vital” bailout package of the automotive sector – was entrusted to a solitary, sickly bureaucrat, clearly in way above his head. Grech was the only one the Treasury Department put to work on it. So every time he took time off work, progress on the apparently essential bailout simply stopped.

These make the insulation scheme look like an exemplary model of policy implementation.

Dealing with policy failures is not a matter of shuffling around ministers, or even voting out governments. The surest way to avoid policy failures is to have fewer policies.