ExecInsights Podcast

ExecInsights – Kevin Rudd on Leading for Public Purpose

The Hon Kevin Rudd, Former Prime Minister of Australia

In this episode of the QUT ExecInsights podcast, The Honourable Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia speaks about his achievements in public office, the importance of cooperative federalism and why a professional public service is vital to a high functioning nation.

This episode is different from our usual ExecInsights format. Like many podcast interviews over the last few months, the interview took place over Zoom with an audience of 120 public servants who are current or former participants of our QUT Public Sector Management Program. Mr. Rudd answered questions submitted by the group, including his proudest achievements as PM and his advice for practising public servants. This is an edited version of a longer webinar recording, which is available to watch on our blog.

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Kate Joyner 0:09
Welcome to QUT ExecInsights, brought to you by QUTeX professional and executive education for the real world. I’m your host Kate Joyner. Today we bring you an interview with former Prime Minister of Australia The Honorable Kevin Rudd. Mr. Rudd was the 26th Prime Minister of Australia and held his office from 2007 until the labour leadership spill of June 2010. Prior to joining the Australian Parliament, Kevin Rudd had a career in public service, including diplomatic postings as well as policy and Chief of Staff roles in both federal and state governments. In this interview, he is proud to point out that he’s played all the roles of the key characters in Yes Minister, including Bernard, Sir Humphrey, Minister and Prime Minister. This episode is different from our usual ExecInsights format. Like many podcast interviews over the last few months, the interview took place over Zoom with an audience of 120 public servants who are current or former participants of our QUT Public Sector Management Program. Mr. Rudd answered questions submitted by the group, including his proudest achievements as PM and his advice for practising public servants. This is an edited version of a longer webinar recording, which is available through the QUTeX website. The event was brought into being by QUTeX colleagues, Dr. Tony Peloso, who was the host and Catherine Batch who was event impresario. Enjoy Kevin Rudd on leading for public purpose.

Dr. Tony Peloso 1:36
In your time as Prime Minister, so what we did we actually asked across all of the jurisdictions questions that people would like to ask him one of the questions certainly is in your time as Prime Minister, what is the one thing that you’re most proud of?

Hon. Kevin Rudd 1:51
Yeah, I’m not very good at answering those questions, for the simple reason as Prime Minister, I was engaged across the field. So, let me just list two or three which come to the top of mind, because I’m by nature, a creature of public policy and by training international policy. For me, the most important achievement was to secure Australia at the top global table, called the G20. My predecessors as Prime Minister, for a long time had sought to secure Australian membership of core global institutions. Bob Hawke sought to secure us membership of what was then being debated as the G10. So, through some frenetic personal and national diplomacy, when the global financial crisis hit, the United States government was then engaged in internal debate about how to create a body beyond the G7 which would represent the principle economies of the future, who could then collectively decide what we could do to stabilise the global economy and to stabilize global financial systems. A) I persuaded, together with others, the United States to go for a G20 rather than a narrower body, which would have excluded Australia. 2) Having secured that, then worked frenetically to populate its agenda to make it substantive and useful for all governments and the international community. 3), Then to persuade President Obama to make it a permanent institution and not a temporary one associated with that crisis. So for giving Australia as it were a public policy voice in the central policy councils of the world, for the first time really, I think that is a fairly significant achievement. And I am pretty confident that had we not grasped that by the neck, it would have escaped us. So I say that as one international policy. The second one, I think at a symbolic level nationally was the national apology to help in the process of reconciliation with Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. But then to put flesh on the bones of that through the national Closing The Gap strategy. And the reason I emphasise that, though it’s often still much criticised a decade later, is because it established clear annual benchmarks for success or failure in closing the gap between Indigenous non-Indigenous Australians in health and and housing and in employment and in longevity, and in other areas. And we’ve achieved some progress on that. But I think at last, we’ve got to the stage where the old forms of racism of the past are no longer acceptable on either side of politics. And that I think was one of the enduring legacies of the apology and the Closing the Gap framework which came with it.

Dr. Tony Peloso 4:53
Thank you. Okay, well, I’m going to take a sidebar, you mentioned a magic name – President Obama. So do you have some reflection or some insights that you think would be useful and insight in terms of relationships and Australia’s standing?

Hon. Kevin Rudd 5:12
President Obama and I did not know each other prior to this election. I think I can share this because I think I’ve written it elsewhere. When he was elected, I mean, we were delighted those of us who followed American politics, because here was this African American who’d been elected after several hundred years of entrenched racism in the United States, notwithstanding the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, etc, and the reforms of the 60s. So, I followed his campaign quite keenly. And he had rejoiced in the fact that when he was a candidate, trying to obtain recognition that he’d been attached directly by John Howard during the US presidential election campaign. Howard was Prime Minister, I was leader of the opposition at the time. So when I won the election, he used that as, I won’t say a significant development in his own political campaign, but he found it encouraging. I wrote him a letter after he became president of the United States as president elect, which began in handwriting – Dear Barack, you poor bastard. Welcome to Messiah syndrome. Infinite expectations, finite resources. Others call it public policy. Anyway, when I met him, he found that the most amusing letter he got from any head of government and we developed a pretty strong relationship and we worked intensely and collaboratively on the G20. On stabilizing the global financial crisis. We also worked a lot on global climate change action in the early days around the difficulties of the Copenhagen conference of December 2009. So, we’d established a strong working relationship, so did our staff. And it was the days where Australian officials were working semi-seamlessly, the most senior levels with the White House with the German chancellor’s office with Number 10, as well as with our Chinese friends in Zhongnanhai, a decade or so ago in dealing with the challenges of the global financial crisis, and it worked effectively.

Dr. Tony Peloso 7:29
Thank you. I’m so glad that I asked that question. What a wonderful story and he would have loved that Australian lack of respect, but actually kindness and trust. I think that I’m sure he remembers that very well. Now let’s go to, and given the audience that we have today in your experience, so here’s a question that’s been directly put to me to put to you. How can we in Australia develop sustainable public policy given we have these big differences between regional issues versus those that some call the Canberra bubble?

Hon. Kevin Rudd 8:02
Well, somewhat contrary to the tradition often associated with the Labor Party, I’ve always been a federalist rather than a centralist. Perhaps that’s because I’m the son of a Queensland dairy farmer, I’m not sure. But I’ve always had a view that the Federation matters and that the states matter, that they’re not inconveniences, political inconveniences, which is often the underlying assumption of Prime Ministers both Liberal and Labor in decades past. So secondly, in terms of dealing with regional differences, the reality is, all Australians should be guaranteed a comparable level of service delivery in terms of let’s call them national public goods, in health and education and the rest and because of the differentiated income raising potential, of the various states and territories of the federal jurisdiction, it therefore means that you’ve got to have some redistributive mechanism back to smaller, more remote and frankly more difficult to service states. And that in the trade is called horizontal fiscal equalization. And so understanding the principles of that and not just regarding it as a pain in the in the derriere, as folks in Sydney and Melbourne often do, is important in holding the fabric of the Federation together. Remember, we have a population half the size of California, with a continent the size and country the size of the landmass of the United States minus Alaska. So holding this show together with a thin population and therefore an expensive infrastructure to sustain is a challenge. The second point I’d make is in terms of holding Australia together is along these lines – I also sought to turn the Council of Australian Governments into the workhorse of the Federation. And I had familiarity with that, because when I was working as the Director-General of the Cabinet Office in the Queensland Government back in the Mesolithic period, when I was a state government official, it was a joke by the way, I wasn’t really alive at the Mesolithic.

Dr. Tony Peloso 10:20
I wasn’t sure if I could laugh or not.

Hon. Kevin Rudd 10:24
Oh, it could have been Palaeolithic. I’m not sure. But certainly I was dealing with a number of Neolithic men at the time, but that’s a different story. I had a very acute sense of the value of what states delivered within the Federation. And so therefore, if you were to do a policy research history of the period of my Prime Ministership, and when we were in office, and that slice between 2007-2013 you’ll find in any against any matrix that this is the most intensely active period of national policy reform between the Commonwealth and the states, I think in practically any period of history, with the one exception being the period of the so called New Federalism under Bob Hawke, beginning in 1991, through to Keating’s loss of office in 1996. And that’s the period where I was leading the Queensland, as it were, officials’ delegation wearing a different hat. So whether it was frankly national housing reform and the birth of things like the National Rental Affordability Scheme, most acutely the National Health and Hospitals Reform scheme, which we decided in the special COAG meeting of from memory, April of 2010, which formed the fabric of frankly, the new funding relationship between the feds and the states on public hospital funding, or other areas of reform in terms of national Closing the Gap. My approach was the only way in which to use the French you get shit done in this country is to get the Premiers and the Prime Ministers regularly around the table around major national reform projects in order to make them work. Now, it’s, as Bismarck once observed the business of politics, it’s not a process to be observed up close, because it resembles the process of assembling sausages in a sausage factory. But it’s the only way in which you get stuff done, as opposed to just issuing press statements about getting stuff done. And so that record of achievement, both in health and in education and in housing, and in indigenous reconciliation, and the first national agreement on Closing the Gap between the Commonwealth and states, points to the essential importance of that being, as it were, if you like the precursor of the National Cabinet that we have seen at work during this emergency processes of the COVID-19 crisis.

Dr. Tony Peloso 13:00
Let’s come back to that. Now here’s a continuing question. Someone has asked – There was a time when public policy was often bipartisan and spanned a number of years or election cycles, regardless of government. Someone’s opinion. Do you see a time when we as a country may move back to an era where policy development is longitudinal and not partisan in development and execution?

Hon. Kevin Rudd 13:26
I think there are two preconditions for that. Let me go to the first and the most controversial for this gathering precondition of all, which is the internal culture of the mainstream political parties. I think up until, if I’m being fair about the days of Mr. Abbott, there was a reasonable degree of policy consensus across a number of major areas of reform for the nation. Often hard to achieve; Keating’s superannuation reforms, for example, were bitterly contested initially by the federal conservatives. But by and large beyond that, when I look back to the period that we were able to achieve major reforms in the period of the New Federalism in the first half of the 90s, that culture was still alive. It began to unravel during the Howard period. But can I say with the arrival of Abbott, what we found was that any single policy proposal that we put forward as a government irrespective of whether we had an electoral mandate for it or not, became automatically at that point, a political football match. Ideally from Abbott’s point of view with maximum outpouring of blood and gore. And it didn’t matter whether it was an Australian candidature for the UN Security Council, or whether it was mainstream indigenous policy reform or whether it was the development of a national curriculum for the education system, there was a view in politics by Mr. Abbott in particular, different I think, to Mr. Howard in degree, whereby he saw everything as an oppositional opportunity. And to contrast that with, frankly, the current crisis, Mr. Albanese’s approach to lending the current government a high degree of bipartisan support for the measures currently being taken by the feds in response to COVID crisis both on public health and in terms of economic recovery. So, as I said, there is a culture at play here, which I cannot attend to externally, because I’m not a member of the Liberal Party, but it actually needs to adjust for the long term future. Because if it’s simply driven by populist politics, and permanently driven by, let’s call it the retail politics of fear and anxiety, then it’s very difficult to construct a policy consensus around that, or let alone have elections based on public policy, because instead they become elections based on how anxious and how fearful can I make the voter base in order to make them vote conservative, as opposed to the dreaded socialists over there, who are going to kill the economy and flood the country, with migrants and refugees from anywhere that you care to mention. So that’s the political point. The public policy point is this, you know, something? National policy reform is much more achievable if you have a culture of policy innovation, alive and well within the ranks of the senior bureaucracy, federal and state as well. One of the reasons why we were able to succeed in those two periods of what I described as high federalism, first half of the 90s and then secondly, in our period in office, 07-13, based on any empirical analysis of what was agreed to and what wasn’t agreed to, was that there was a strong professional relationship among senior officials at the central agencies level PM&C and Treasury, Premier and Cabinet and heads of state treasuries, and from periodically through line ministers working together to, as it were, drive the policy agenda forward, because the political class to be fair to them, and I’ve been both Humphrey and the Minister, I’ve been both Humphrey and the Prime Minister. In fact, I began my life as Bernard as a political staffer for Wayne Goss, prior, that was after I was a diplomat. So I’ve kind of been around the racetracks a bit, is that one of the big differentiating factors is when you have a politically literate, but not politically aligned, senior Mandarinate, in Canberra and in the states, who can drive policy reform agendas forward onto the Cabinet table onto the Premiers’ and the Prime Minister’s desk and advance an argument that this is a good thing for the nation, a good thing for the state. And whatever your partisan politics might be, it’s probably a good thing for you politically, also. I think they’re the two elements I would put on the table for you.

Dr. Tony Peloso 18:20
Now this is a something a little more personal for our listeners. So in its history, there are over 16,000 people who graduated from the Public Sector Management Program. There are approximately 120 people who are actually on this webinar at the moment. And these are folks who are out there every day, doing their absolute best with the pressures that they’re always under and the extra pressures that they are experiencing, right this minute and every one of these people in the program. They’re actually working on what we call a workplace project. So this is an over-and-above piece that they’re focused on. And they’re really focused on creating, delivering a piece of public value, so I just thought it might be really lovely if you can say something really personal, about, you know, getting on with things right in this very interesting time. And, as you suggest a relatively conflicted time in politics and globally as well. Let’s take it to, about these folks who are out there, you know, in Darwin or Alice Springs or Wollongong or somewhere like that just in their roles.

Hon. Kevin Rudd 19:33
Yeah, I mean, the reality is the Australian nation together with the states, which make up its Federation, advance on the basis of two things. One, that the laws we enact as a nation through the legislative process and the governments of the day, and two, the reforms we propose and then implement through the effectiveness or otherwise, of our professional and independent public service. And without those two things working in tandem, the nation does not advance. In fact it enters into stasis and regresses and having spent the last five years of my life living in New York and observing firsthand the chaotic nature of the United States Public Health System pre-COVID crisis, if you want to see, if you want a case study of dysfunctional federations where there is neither an independent professional and policy-driven Mandarinate teamed up with public policy minded legislators, then the United States of America at present provides us with a leading example. So I say that by way of, if you want conceptual introduction to my thank you to each and every one of you who’ve chosen to be professional public servants. A) it’s an essential career for the nation. B) those of you in management positions, which I assume is most of you who are engaging in this Public Policy Program, form part of a national elite corps, which determines so much of the success or failure of what we do as a country long term. And three, despite the fact that you’ve all got to navigate politics, of one form or another, high politics between parties, low politics within parties, including sometimes those shits who run around the place as ministerial staffers, which you’ve all got to put up with, the bottom line is still continuing to execute your craft of public policy development and implementation is essential, and reminding Ministers through the disciplines of the Cabinet process and how you construct the elementary machinery of a Cabinet submission around – What’s the policy objective here? 2) What are the alternatives to achieving that objective other than the one that’s contained in this submission? Three, what does the proposal cost and how could the resources be used elsewhere? 4) How do we know whether this measure of legislation or administration is going to succeed or not? In other words, what are the measures of success and when can we measure it? And 5) When’s the optimal period for rolling review as to whether this tool remains valid to the public policy purposes that have been set? Unless you folks in the Mandarinate carry that discipline forward, let me tell you, those in the political class are doing hand to hand combat with the battle of the six o’clock news in order to politically survive until nine o’clock the next morning, it won’t get done. So that job lies with you. So that’s why I value, in office and out of office, the professional contribution of an independent, confident professional Mandarinate.

Kate Joyner 23:03
Thanks for joining us for this episode of QUT ExecInsights. If you would like more information about QUTeX programs for you or your organisation, search QUTeX. That’s QUT E X, and you will find our full range of professional and executive development programs. Thanks to Sue York for sound recording and editing. See you next time.

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Dr Kate Joyner is the Interim Director, Corporate Programs and Learning Innovation in the Graduate School of Business, QUT. Kate provides academic leadership for the Public Sector Management Program and delivers executive education in the areas of leadership, systems thinking and strategy. Kate’s speciality is developing leaders and leadership groups for the challenges of the 21st century.

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