Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 01:12 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 01:12 | SYDNEY

'Presidential' foreign policy in Australia


Michael Wesley


11 January 2012 09:13

At the risk of sounding pedantic, the centralised foreign-policy-making system Andrew refers to in his post was not created by Prime Minister Rudd, but rather was inherited from his predecessor John Howard.

In a chapter in the latest Australia in World Affairs collection, I describe this as the rise of a 'presidential' system of foreign-policy-making in Australia. Globalisation and transnational threats have broadened the foreign policy remit to include most departments of state, while creating complex interlinkages among issues.

Howard's logical response was to progressively strengthen coordination mechanisms to guard against contradictory responses, lapses in communication, and embarrassing or dangerous security leaks. The experience of leading the INTERFET operation in 1999 further deepened the need for clockwork-like coordination across government. Between 2002 and 2009 the international and security policy staff in PM&C increased by 290%.

Howard was also determined to play a central role in national security policy-making. On coming to office he strengthened and regularised meetings of the National Security Committee of Cabinet (NSCC), as well as establishing powerful supporting bodies within the bureaucracy as a single hierarchy of advice and decision. The creation of the position of National Security Adviser gave the PM single-point delegation of all security policy decisions, without having to rely on his Ministers or their Departments to transmit his wishes.

Perhaps the greatest change was Howard's development of relationships of trust and loyalty with all of the significant agency heads: Howard instituted the regular attendance of agency heads at NSCC meetings: the Secretaries of PM&C, Foreign Affairs and Defence, the Chief of the Defence Force, Directors-General of ONA and ASIO and the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police.

For the first time, agency heads participated in discussions – though not decisions – of the NSCC. Never before in Australian government has a Prime Minister had such regular and unmediated access to agency heads, and never had the Prime Minister's policy deliberations with his Ministers been so augmented by the views and direct advice of the heads of those Ministers' departments.

The presidential system responded to two of Howard's preferences: the need to establish his personal leadership on national security; and his determination to surround himself with people he knew and trusted. This was the system Rudd inherited, and it suited his inclinations to personally direct Australian foreign policy down to the ground. Rudd kept in place all of the structures of Howard's personalisation of policy advice, including by leaving in place the advisers that Howard had so trusted.

Where it all went awry was that Rudd had a Bill Clinton-like attitude to process; and his personal involvement meant that key decisions in foreign policy got lost among all the other key decisions in his in-tray.

Australia is not the only Westminster-system government to have moved to a presidential system of foreign-policy-making. In May 2010 the British Government announced the establishment of a National Security Council of Cabinet, to be chaired by the PM and attended by senior Ministers and agency heads; a new National Security Adviser role was also created. It seems the pressures towards foreign policy presidentialism are compelling; the jury's still out over whether they produce better foreign and security policy.