Thursday, November 11, 2010

Paul Kelly's The Hawke Ascendancy

I use the term train reading to describe the reading I do travelling to and from work. This applies even where the travelling is by bus!

The thing about my train reading is that, quite consciously, I use it as an opportunity to read things that I might not otherwise look at. Inevitably, this translates into a series of posts under the train reading banner.

My present train reading is Paul Kelly's The Hawke Ascendancy: A definitive account of its origins and climax 1972-1983 (Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, paper back edition, 2008). I originally bought this book as a present for my wife because I knew that she would be interested; she worked as one of the advisors to Minister John Button, a key player in the events of the time.

Originally published in 1984, the book itself is a  gripping account of the rise to power of Bob Hawke as leader of the Australian Labor Party and then, from March 1983, as Australian Prime Minister. It is also the story of the rivalry of three men: Hawke, Liberal leader and PM Malcolm Fraser and Bill Hayden, leader of the Labor Party before Mr Hawke. I found the book especially interesting because it is entwined with elements of my own life, providing a very personal perspective. 

I will write about some of the personal elements in due course in a post on my personal blog. Here I want to deal briefly with two professional elements: the way in which our differing positions affect  our perceptions, along with the rise of professional campaigning and what it means.

I have spoken before about the way our position in an organisation affects our views.

For the individual manager, I have emphasised the need to manage up and sideways as well as down. In so doing, I have also emphasised the need to understand the perception from the other side.

For the senior manager, I have emphasised the need to recognise that their perception of the world is almost certainly not shared, or shared only in part, by their staff. They actually need to know what their people think, not just assume.

How does this fit with Paul Kelly's book? Well, for part of the time I was a player in events.

In 1976, for example, I was an acting branch head in the Commonwealth Treasury when Malcolm Fraser decided to split the Department into two. In my acting role, I attended the last drinks put on by Secretary Sir Frederick Wheeler for senior staff of the combined department. I still remember Sir Frederick's distress and anger.

Later I was Assistant Secretary Economic Analysis in the Department of Industry and Commerce. Here my role was to act as a sort of Treasury in Exile for our Minister Sir Philip Lynch, a former treasurer who still wished to play an economic policy role. When Paul Kelly talks about the mining boom of 1980 and the way it affected policy, I was there as one of the official players.

By contrast, at other times I was a mere external observer, back at University undertaking post grad studies. Here I saw events from afar.  

Reading the book, I realised just how little I knew of certain developments, but was also struck by the way my varying positions affected my perceptions of the time. 

I have also written a fair bit on organisational change, most recently in Scoping the decline in organisational performance. As part of this, I have looked at the professionalisation of politics, and the way that this has adversely affected public policy. Many of these posts have been on my personal blog where I can be more opinionated, less objective.

As I write, NSW Parliamentarian Joe Tripodi has announced his intention to resign. Mr Tripodi is a NSW Labor numbers' man, part of the group that has effectively controlled the party and has led it to almost terminal decline. He is, in fact, the fifteenth NSW Labor Party Parliamentarian to announce retirement in recent months. Everybody knows that this Government will go in next March's elections, but the scale of retirements is still staggering.

In his book, Paul Kelly reports approvingly of the strength and professionalism of the NSW right. He also reveals clearly the way in which opinion polls plus qualitative research including focus groups affected policy and approaches. Mr Hawke became leader because polls showed that he had the best chance of winning.

Reading the book, I was struck not by the rise of professionalism in politics, but by the way each of the key protagonists had different views and values.

Each was an ambitious man, each wanted to win, but their views and values affected their approach. Professional political approaches including market research set a context, but the outcomes were determined by the interaction between individuals and the market research. This is very different from an environment where the market research itself comes to set, to control, the political and policy agenda.

I will finish here. I know that I will have more to say later.

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