MANY years ago I was chatting with a respected Labor figure in a supermarket car park and, in the course of the discussion, he mentioned that a young man from the north-west coast, whom he knew well and greatly respected, had been elected to parliament.

He said he had a lot of time for the young man and expected him to do well, possibly become premier of the state. That young man was Bryan Green and, sadly, my informant’s prediction has not worked out — at least not to this point — although, in the fullness of time, his prediction may yet be realised. Funnier things have happened in politics.

Reflecting recently on that exchange I was moved to think of some of the reasons why some ministers do not come up to the mark. In Bryan Green’s case I think it was hubris — he simply got too pleased with himself much too quickly. Once he settled in to parliament and especially when he became a minister there was the hint of an increasing cockiness, a self-satisfied smirk that suggested he might trip up and possibly do so sooner rather than later. In the event, he didn’t just trip up — rather, he went hurtling, base over apex, in a massive self-destructive crash. He was not the first and he won’t be the last. Indeed, Bryan Green is becoming something of a tiger for punishment given that he is now in the gun over yet another issue which the Premier has in turn passed to the Auditor-General for judgement. Gee, Bryan must be really tickled pink that he was able to strike up a relationship with John White.

All of this could have been avoided if, at the first signs of self-satisfaction, the leadership at the time — Jim Bacon or Paul Lennon — had taken him aside and delivered a robust verbal knee to the goolies. This would have caused a sharp intake of breath, after which Green would have got on with the job in a diligent and professional manner. Premiers like Reece and Gray were known to do that and it worked.

Too old for the job

Another reason for ministerial failure is that the minister is simply not up to the job. For example, Michael Polley hardly distinguished himself as a minister over the two or three years he was given a chance back in the late 1970s. In fact, he was a dud as a minister but he was shrewd enough to accept the situation and he thus set off in a different direction to become the most powerful figure in the parliamentary Labor Party for the past three decades, as well as a long-standing speaker of the House of Assembly.

Then there are those who are simply too old for the job, which can afflict some in their fifties, while there are others who can handle the job into their eighties. Ken Bacon was not up to it as a minister because he came to it too late. I saw a lot of him some twenty years ago when I was a minister and he was state secretary of the TWU, in which role he was widely respected as a competent professional. However, by the time Paul Lennon unceremoniously dumped him — with about as much subtlety as a third nostril — Ken was showing all the signs of age, ill-health and generally being no longer up to the job, but he did not deserve the brutality of his demise.

A common contributing factor for ministerial failure is in the appointment of minders — that is, ministerial staff, professional and clerical — who are simply not up to the job. This happens time and again, with all parties, and it mostly happens when inexperienced and/or inept people, who happen to be personal friends of the minister, are appointed. I have seen a lot of ministerial offices, of all political persuasions, over the past forty years and a very high percentage of them would have been immeasurably better if the minister had not appointed his life-long cobber and mate at Woop-Woop primary school to be the head of his office.

Another factor in ministerial failure is not doing one’s homework. Every single meeting of any substance at all should involve a briefing note from the relevant department/agency, with additional comment from senior office staff as required and the minister should find the time to read those papers, diligently. Similarly, given the collective responsibility of cabinet ministers, all Cabinet papers should also be read closely and debated as thoroughly and as long as it takes to reach the best decision. If such processes are not treated seriously it is akin to showing two fingers to the citizens who voted you into parliament. Clearly, Bryan Green did no substantive homework on the Tasmanian Compliance Corporation and is suffering as a consequence.

Booze, bonking and betting

Related to this matter of homework is the sin of not listening to the senior public servants who provide the briefings. I have occasionally heard ministers of the cowboy variety — of whom there may be one or two in most cabinets — assert that they don’t want to hear a load of boring bureaucratic bullshit. Such behaviour is crass stupidity. With rare exceptions, senior Australian public servants at both state and federal level are professionals in the best sense of that term. They are human and they will make mistakes but not all that often and very rarely on a critically important issue. It is of course ultimately for the politicians, not the bureaucrats, to make the political judgements as well as the substantive policy judgements but those judgements will be of little value if they are not informed by the history, the substance, the options and the pitfalls that emerge from a comprehensive professional briefing brought forward by those who know what they are doing, not least because of the experience, qualifications, training and analytical skills that they bring to their task.

Then there is the media, an area in which I am less equipped to pontificate than most who have had some involvement in politics. I have never found it easy to “give” of myself in a public context, perhaps because of some innate wariness that a psychiatrist would assert had its origins in my rural up-bringing or bedwetting or having been twice circumcised! But, to be serious, skilled and experienced journalists are quick to detect and exploit any variance from the norm whether it be by way of nervousness, convoluted answers or anything else that may alert the pack to the likelihood of something newsworthy. It is my view that all politicians would benefit from attending a media course when they first take their seats in parliament and, if the taxpayer doesn’t pay, they should fund it themselves. Such is the importance of the media factor for the contemporary politician, especially one who aspires to cabinet status.

Another time-honoured trap for politicians has been that faithful, age-old trilogy of sex, drinking and gambling. In the nature of things, these traps can only be left to the judgement of the individual and the broad over-sight of the party leadership but booze, bonking or betting have probably brought more politicians undone than anything else — except, ultimately, the voting public.

Oh, and of course, there is also the trap of hubris, in which context Bryan Green may yet make a mark in politics but only if he stumbles upon that most necessary of political attributes. It is called humility and it is best accompanied by what might be described as measured professionalism. To date, these attributes have been conspicuously absent from his performance.

 

 

Nick Evers

Reflecting recently on that exchange I was moved to think of some of the reasons why some ministers do not come up to the mark. In Bryan Green’s case I think it was hubris — he simply got too pleased with himself much too quickly. Once he settled in to parliament and especially when he became a minister there was the hint of an increasing cockiness, a self-satisfied smirk that suggested he might trip up and possibly do so sooner rather than later. In the event, he didn’t just trip up — rather, he went hurtling, base over apex, in a massive self-destructive crash. He was not the first and he won’t be the last. Indeed, Bryan Green is becoming something of a tiger for punishment given that he is now in the gun over yet another issue which the Premier has in turn passed to the Auditor-General for judgement. Gee, Bryan must be really tickled pink that he was able to strike up a relationship with John White.