JOHN HILL On Being a Minister: Behind the mask. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress
On Being a Minister is an ideal primer for the political class.
We’re in election mode and it’s a long campaign.
Plenty of politicians (aspiring and actual) are waiting to be either elected or re-elected. I think of one of my all-time favourite political quotes from Gough Whitlam. As prime minister he proposed cutting costs by getting MPs to travel economy class. When the move provoked outrage in Cabinet he responded:
I fly economy class and I am a great man. I could fly economy class for the rest of my life and I’d still be a great man. But most of the people around this table are pissants and they could fly first class for the rest of their lives and they’d still be pissants.
How many great men (or women) will we see in the Australian Parliament (House of Representatives and Senate) after we go to the polls on 2 July? I suspect not many, but there’ll be lots of pissants.
I have a largish personal library – around 4000 books – half of which are on sport. Part of it is a significant collection of 300 books on Australian politics and political history. Ninety per cent of those are on federal politics, including a number (mainly from the last 20 years) by or on Cabinet ministers – Tom Uren, Neal Blewett, Gareth Evans, Susan Ryan, John Button, Barry Jones, et al. OK, there’s a Labor bias, so let’s throw in Garfield Barwick, Jim Killen, Chris Puplick and even Tony Abbott (written when he was a Cabinet minister), from the other side. Of the 30 or so books on state politics, fewer than 10 are biographies of various state premiers – Sir Thomas Playford, Don Dunstan and Sir John Downer from my home state, William Holman, Jack Lang and Neville Wran in New South Wales, Henry Bolte in Victoria, and Joh Bjelke-Petersen in Queensland. Books by state Cabinet ministers (if they are published at all) are not likely to sell well outside their own state and not marketed there.
John Hill’s On Being a Minister: Behind the mask thus has a unique place in my political library. Why buy it? Why read it? Why, now, write about it?
Hill was an interesting politician. A former teacher, he was a ministerial adviser in the Bannon Government before becoming South Australian secretary of the ALP, winning a seat in the House of Assembly and serving as Minister for Environment and Conservation, and Minister for Health, in the Rann governments as well as holding other minor portfolios. He was factionally non-aligned and I, being naïve enough to wish that factions would go away, would support him on that score. He also possessed a mellifluous voice, and often tone matters as much as message. When he became an MP I hoped he might eventually become Premier. It was not to be.
In his preface Hill writes, ‘You don’t need to be an intellectual genius to be a successful minister’, but you do need to be organised. Describing himself as mildly obsessive compulsive, Hill began with, and maintained, a clean desk, which allowed him to stay on top of issues as they arose. Of the ten chapter titles in the book, all but the first (‘The Ministerial Office’) is a single word. Those that follow – ‘Paper’, ‘Bureaucracy’, ‘Policy’, ‘Speeches’, ‘Media’, ‘Challenges’, ‘Party’, ‘Parliament’ and ‘Personal’ – convey a strong sense of order.
The lessons are manifold. Some sound obvious. In choosing ministerial staff, select people who are efficient and trustworthy and build a strong rapport with them. Deal with files in the order in which they arrive. Develop a good working relationship with a departmental CEO.
Other distinctions are made clear:
Ministers are responsible for policy. It’s what they are there for; it’s the most interesting and creative part of the job, the part that gets you up in the morning, and makes the battles in the media and parliament worthwhile. Yet strangely enough some who become ministers aren’t terribly interested in policy, as long as they get to drive in the big car and have enough people around to call them ‘Minister’.
The implementation of policy, however, is the job of the agency. And no matter how attached the minister is to a particular initiative it is important to step back and let the agency do its job … delegate authority, and don’t interfere unless they deviate from policy.
There are challenges aplenty in the political life. From within one’s own office, from inside and outside the Party, from political supporters and other constituents, from the Opposition, from media outlets, and all while attempting to balance life with family and friends. Much is learned and applied on the way, with important advice given on campaigning:
… nothing beats face-to-face canvassing at the front door. People remember it and it helps them believe you are real and seriously want their vote. Mind you it doesn’t work if you are a jerk; I went doorknocking once with a candidate who, as soon as the voter opened the door, would regale them with a list of his qualifications and his opinions. He lost.
Behind Hill’s mask is a wise and modest man. On Being a Minister is a delightful political memoir and an ideal primer for anyone seeking representative office at either state or federal level. It is also an absorbing guide for the reader interested in the nuances of the political process, all the way from grass-roots action to the polished benches of Parliament.
John Hill On Being a Minister: Behind the mask Wakefield Press 2016 PB 248pp $29.95.
Bernard Whimpress is an Adelaide-based historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book is The Official MCC Story of the Ashes, 2015.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.