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Scott Morrison has gone on the front foot, rewriting the cabinet handbook and setting the agenda for how decisions in his government will be made. By Karen Middleton.

Scott Morrison imposes discipline

Prime Minister Scott Morrison addresses cabinet ministers during a meeting at Parliament House.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is further stamping his authority on the government, overhauling decision-making processes so individual ministers have less autonomy and cabinet’s powerful budget committee is more engaged.

Morrison is also insisting cabinet spends less time on routine matters, so it can better devote itself to more complex and contentious issues.

The changes are designed to rein in ministers and prevent them blindsiding colleagues with preordained policy recommendations that have had little wider discussion or input and could cause political problems.

The earlier scrutiny of issues allows the politics to be considered alongside the policy merits, and means Morrison can keep a closer personal eye on policy development across government.

As a result, the expenditure review committee – the five-person team responsible for the government’s budget priorities – is meeting more regularly and becoming involved in deliberations at an earlier stage.

The ERC’s gradually expanding role in decision-making and the changing focus of the whole cabinet process reflects Morrison’s drive to streamline policy decisions and instil greater discipline among his ministers and the wider public service.

One official told The Saturday Paper some ministers were finding it challenging to adjust to slightly less autonomy.

“The demand and discipline being imposed by the new prime minister, I think, is a bit of a shock,” the official observed.

The shift means ministers are being told to concentrate most on the biggest issues and not to waste cabinet’s time on lesser things.

Morrison has argued that those smaller matters can effectively be dealt with remotely, in written proposals – still requiring prior consultation with relevant colleagues – that are circulated outside a cabinet meeting.

He argues cabinet and its committees should therefore have more time to focus on the thorniest and most complicated issues.

Ministers are also being encouraged to bring those issues to cabinet in the form of an initial presentation – often using PowerPoint – rather than a fully formed submission.

These presentations have the security status of regular cabinet documents – protecting them from the reach of freedom of information law – but are no longer required to be attached to a cabinet submission.

The government’s deliberations on religious freedom are a recent example of the new process, with Attorney-General Christian Porter making a standalone presentation first and presenting a submission only after cabinet had thrashed it out.

These presentations canvass the range of issues likely to be associated with a proposal, any political problems, as well as possible solutions. They are meant to give cabinet ministers all relevant information before the key portfolio minister drafts a submission and makes a recommendation.

After cabinet’s initial discussion of a presentation, the issue may be sent to the ERC before returning to cabinet for final signoff.

The ERC, which the prime minister chairs, determines the government’s spending priorities and where savings will be made. It meets in the lead-up to the May budget and the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook statement, delivered in December.

Morrison’s ERC comprises himself, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Michael McCormack, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Health Minister Greg Hunt.

It has been meeting more intensively since the election.

The ERC is one of a raft of cabinet subcommittees that deal with specific areas of government, including national security, governance, investment and service delivery. In recent times, prime ministers have generally also established a special committee to discuss broad strategic or urgent issues on an ad hoc basis, and Morrison’s version is the cabinet office policy committee. He is the key listed member, with other ministers and bureaucrats invited as required.

Any decisions the COP committee takes require cabinet endorsement.

Some officials say the changes Morrison is making to processes reflect his inclination to exert strict personal control, with his surprise election victory giving him enormous authority within government, despite only a narrow majority. Others say he is simply returning to the way government has operated in the past, restoring a rigour they argue was lost from policy processes during the leadership instability on both sides of politics during the past decade.

In a 2015 report commissioned to examine the processes that led to the Rudd government’s controversial home insulation program and troubled rollout of the national broadband network, former secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Peter Shergold warned against shortcutting the cabinet process.

Shergold said having individuals or a small group of ministers develop policy uncontested had established the conditions for problems that beset the insulation program, which was introduced as part of urgent economic stimulus but led to the deaths of four young insulation installers.

“Things went wrong from the very start,” Shergold wrote, adding: “Cabinet consideration was either perfunctory or replaced by an inner group of ministers making decisions free from wider scrutiny.”

Scott Morrison’s cabinet process changes are reflected in a recently updated version of the cabinet handbook, in which Morrison makes it clear that more will now be expected of ministers.

That followed a speech to the Australian Public Service in August where Morrison laid out what he expects of the bureaucracy.

The 13th edition of the cabinet handbook, published last month, stipulates that ministers will be expected to turn up to cabinet meetings in person and not send officials in their place, unless there are “exceptional circumstances”.

In those cases, Morrison says, “telepresence or dial-in may be possible” – but only with the agreement of cabinet secretary and former deputy head of the Office of National Intelligence Andrew Shearer, in consultation with Morrison himself.

On this point and along with cabinet as a whole, the handbook singles out the national security committee as particularly requiring in-person attendance.

During the previous term of government, the then foreign minister, Julie Bishop, faced criticism from colleagues for missing meetings due to her travel schedule.

Morrison’s new cabinet handbook confirms he has formally brought forward the start of the proper budget process to September from the less precise “September or October” each year, ahead of a budget generally unveiled the following May.

It emphasises that the prime minister expects follow-through on program delivery.

“Ministers and secretaries will agree and implement appropriate reporting regimes for delivery of programs, services and new policy work designed around the government’s priorities for the portfolio,” the handbook now says, in an addition not present in the 2018 version.

In August, Morrison gave an address to the Institute of Public Administration Australia – before an audience of Commonwealth public servants – in which he outlined a doctrine of “respect and expect”.

He said ministers should respect the experience and professionalism of bureaucrats, set the policy direction and then expect them to “get on with it”.

“It is also about respecting the fact that responsibility for setting policy, for making those calls and decisions, lies with the elected representatives of the people, and expecting ministers to provide that leadership and direction,” Morrison said at the time.

He emphasised the supremacy of ministers over public servants in decision-making because ministers were accountable to the public.

“Only those who have put their name on a ballot can really understand the significance of that accountability,” Morrison said. “As much as you might appreciate the Westminster system, until you put your name on a ballot, that changes everything. So I know that sometimes you may feel frustrated, or go ‘How on earth? My brief was so perfect’, as I’m sure they all are. At the end of the day our ministers – I, my colleagues – have got to look constituents in the eye, face the public, look them in the eye, and be responsible for those decisions. And that gives you a very unique perspective.”

He also made it clear where his own motivation lies.

“The best teams are the ones where everyone knows what their job is and they do their job well rather than being in a constant running commentary about the job someone else should be doing,” Morrison said. “I’ve seen those teams. They lose. The teams where everyone knows what their job is, what their role is, and focus on that, those teams win. And we’re going to be a winning team.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 16, 2019 as "Cabinet displays". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.