Illustration: Kerrie Leishman

Illustration: Kerrie Leishman

Micromanagement has its own inexorable corrective and - if recent Australian history is any guide - a fairly fatal one. So why are political leaders so attracted to the practice?

It killed Kevin Rudd, first time around at least. He had it doubly bad: unable himself to resist the impulse to control, to fiddle, to agonise and to irritate and annoy, and accompanied by an army of fellow, if subservient, control freaks. Either is usually fatal. His, on any day of the week, could bring any semblance of orderly and routine government to a halt. And, typically, if anything worse on the little things - matters that ought to have been beneath Rudd's notice. Long before the alienation of the caucus was complete, Rudd and his office had became so overwhelmed by things, big and small, that they ceased to know which was which.

The Julia Gillard personality was neat and organised, but she did not seem to have the same ego or desire to control. But, increasingly, her office did. Particularly with communications. It became totally centralised and, not by coincidence, more and more inept. Speeches by ministers had to be parsed by, co-ordinated with and ''cleared'' by her office to make sure that everyone was ''on-message''. Everyone, down to the merest ambitious backbencher, was doing the doors with the message. And the message began to get stuck. It wasn't the communication of it at fault so much as the message itself. Government ceased to communicate. And people stopped listening.

Tony Abbott, in opposition, was very disciplined, and always on-message, which was generally a simple slogan, one of only a few repeated over and over for nearly four years. A stern task-mistress and instinctive combatant in Peta Credlin herded any natural tendency to expand, to dilate, to make self-deprecating jokes or to commit some unwitting atrocity. His self-control and her invigilation worked. The contrast between the ''real'' Abbott and the focused aggressive campaigner led some to see him as a tightly coiled spring that might, in power, suddenly let go. That hasn't happened yet, but Abbott is slowly changing persona, leaving the bayonet work to Credlin. He is presenting himself as rather more relaxed, regal, generalist and presidential.

But his Prime Minister's Office is in perhaps more total control of affairs or communications than any of his predecessors, even the monsters. The PMO's control over ministers, ministerial staff and the senior bureaucracy is tighter than ever. Efforts to manage who is saying what, where and when, and to whom seem to be as maniacal as any effort to organise the personalities, presentation, ideas and style of presenting ideas or facts of the frontbench by Rudd or Gillard.

Dangerously for Abbott, the PMO focus seems as much on disciplining his followers as it is of him, or in seeking to control events and the message. In opposition against a minority government Abbott played hardball with numbers, refusing any sort of automatic pairs to the government and, by tight control of his team, could threaten Gillard in Parliament at any time. He now has a comfortable majority. But, if murmurs from his backbench are any guide, he has not loosened the tight discipline on them.

Any prime minister has inducements or sticks to use with supporters: ministerial jobs, post-career appointments and influence over preselections. There is moral pressure to stick with the team, to focus on the opposition and simple solidarity.

Some backbenchers have a power base, a personality resistant to being told what to do or think, or ordered about like a sheep, or are at that stage of a career when they are immune to offers of reward or punishment. It is when control freaks are as focused on controlling supporters as on trying to influence opinion or control events that leaders get into big trouble. If they have great power over their followers, so do their followers over them, as Kevin Rudd discovered.

When John Howard was first an opposition leader, he had a tendency to micromanage, and to get lost in detail. His office staff's work often suffered because everyone reported to him. His difficulties were compounded by disloyalty (deserved since he gave little loyalty to others himself), and by events. But Howard learnt from the experience, and not by becoming more intense and distrustful, but by being willing to allow some freedom of manoeuvre to others.

In this sense he was similar to Bob Hawke, whose effectiveness as prime minister turned in major part of his playing the chairman, and by giving considerable latitude to his ministers, particularly those whom he saw as effective. Hawke had, for his time, a big PMO, but it operated as an intelligence service and early warning system for political trouble, and on the grand narratives and messages. Hawke did not like criticism but he did not insist that ministers follow scripts or march in step. He could quickly master a brief but rarely bothered to immerse himself in the detail.

Howard had sometimes to resist compulsions to interfere. Like Hawke, Howard had excellent antennae. His PMO was busy and effective but not a choke point - and the centralising tendency was mostly reflected not only in efforts to manage the message but to frighten and terrify everyone, but particularly minders and public servants, away from leaks and indiscretions. He also erected a curtain of deniability between himself and the front door of his PMO - so that he could blandly deny knowledge of, or involvement in, anything inconvenient.

But bad changes to process, including secrecy, become cancers in his system. Good government, in particular, thrives on debate, on ideas and arguments, and, sometimes the collisions of interests. One can seek to keep arguments behind closed doors, to conceal the spillage of blood, or attempt not to frighten the children. Party processes, caucus, cabinet and co-ordination processes are designed to control and direct the energy of such debates, and to bind participants in outcomes. But people must participate first.

Debates are sometimes messy. But this is better than suppressing any discordant voices in the name of appearances, or pretending that all conflicting interests and opinions have been reconciled. That's particularly true in government. But it ought also be true of opposition, not least when the party is battered and flattened by defeat. Labor seems genuinely at some loss about how to proceed, and is still in the grips of an organisation and history that has ruined the party's reputation with voters (something about to be confirmed in two states on Saturday). Labor's wounds need the disinfectant of open debate.

What better time, some might think, for reorganisation to ensure tight message control from the ''leader's'' office, group think, personality cults and the exercise of raw numbers to close off any debate and to freeze out any evidence? Abbott and Shorten would each be better leaders if they arrayed their forces against their enemies, not their allies.

Jack Waterford is Editor-at-Large.

jack.waterford@fairfaxmedia .com.au

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