It would bode poorly for Coalition ministers if they hadn't brought their government departments under control by the year 2000, according to former deputy prime minister John Anderson.
The ex-Nationals leader says MPs would receive unwanted attention from then-prime minister John Howard if he noticed they had let bureaucrats take the reins.
"If we were not in control of our departments, particularly by 2000, he was really starting to question whether we should be a minister at all," Mr Anderson said.
"We were expected to be in control of our departments, to work co-operatively with them, but we were the boss."
Part-way through the second term of the Howard government, relations between the bureaucracy and its ministers had settled into a fruitful dynamic as they co-operated in designing and implementing the landmark goods and services tax.
Cabinet documents from 2000, released on Friday by the National Archives of Australia, reveal the Australian Public Service was also undeterred from taking strong and practical positions on two issues that would come to replace the GST in dominating public debate.
On problems in detention centres emerging from the growing number of asylum seeker arrivals, several departments gave frank advice against measures eventually adopted by the Howard government cabinet.
In the early stages of cabinet discussions of action on climate change, public service advice also promoted market-based, sector-neutral measures to reduce carbon emissions.
We have degenerated into a purely tactical policymaking phase, and the reason is a lack of historical perspective.Professor Chris Wallace
Associate Professor Chris Wallace, the National Archives cabinet historian, said she was surprised while reading the 2000 cabinet documents to see the extent to which the public service was still delivering high-quality, intact and frank advice.
"I'm going to be really interested as successive cabinet papers are released to follow the trajectory of that," she said.
"But certainly on controversial issues like illegal boat arrivals, sectoral departments like Prime Minister and Cabinet, critical policy departments like DFAT and Attorney-General's, did not hold back on concise but very clear concerns about the path the government was moving down, and that impressed me."
It was the year before the Tampa incident projected asylum seeker arrivals to the front of Australia's public debate, an issue that eventually led to the Coalition controversially embracing offshore detention as a chief deterrent.
Asylum-seeker arrivals rose by 450 per cent to 4175 people in 1999-2000, stretching detention centres' capacities, while the cabinet grappled with a series of mass escapes from facilities at Woomera, Curtin and Port Hedland.
An analysis of the breakouts in June, considered by cabinet several months later, suggested "frustration over the perceived delay in issuing protection visas" was to blame, as detainees had been given false information by people smugglers, and processing times had grown under the pressure of enormous increases in unauthorised arrivals.
Newly released cabinet papers include then-immigration minister Philip Ruddock's submission on sanctions against immigration detainees who engaged in "inappropriate behaviour", proposing powers to perform strip searches without a warrant.
The cabinet ignored the objections of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Attorney-General's Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and agreed to the new strip-search powers.
Professor Wallace said this appears to have been a key moment when the Howard government might have paused, reflected upon and improved the implementation of its deterrent strategy.
She wonders how history may have unfolded differently had the public known about the concerns raised by government departments about the crackdowns on detainees.
"[Had we known all this then] I wonder whether at the time there would have been a public call to pause and rethink that route," she said.
John Anderson said the GST was the last full-blooded policy debate Australia had. Cabinet documents released last year showed the robust discussion required to sell the concept, but the 2000 cabinet papers show the economic reform finally coming to fruition.
It was all nearly undone by a minor rise in petrol prices. The Howard government stuck by Treasury's calls to keep the tax applied to petrol, after it had been pulled from food and other goods.
By listening to the department, Mr Anderson recalled, the government had to deal with intense criticism from lobbyists and the public about a 1.5-cent rise in fuel costs.
"We took Treasury's advice," Mr Anderson said.
"The rest of it is history [and] it was seen as a breach of faith, and the motoring organisations absolutely clobbered us."
The 2000 cabinet papers show the government and bureaucracy successfully rolling out the GST despite the naysayers, but the major economic reform cast a long shadow on another policy debate emerging in the documents.
One reform the government didn't succeed in drafting and implementing was a greenhouse gas reduction plan. Twenty years later, it's an area of policy still haunting the nation.
The documents show 2000 was the year a feasibility study into an emissions trading scheme took place, but it would take seven years before the Coalition would officially adopt the policy.
As the history books show, the Coalition lost the 2007 election to Kevin Rudd's Labor Party. The Liberals under Tony Abbott saw a sharp turn toward doubtfulness and partisanship on climate change. The chain of events meant an ETS scheme would never be allowed to flourish.
It's another area Professor Wallace considers to have been a possible fork in the road for Australia.
"If we had known then the incredibly broad [bureaucratic] support for a sectorally neutral market-based solution to greenhouse gas emissions ... I wonder whether, in fact, things could have been hastened to a satisfactory policy solution," she said.
While an effective, economically rational mechanism to reduce carbon emissions remains absent in Australia, Professor Wallace believes the 2000 cabinet documents reflect a time when politicians knew the importance of good political strategy.
Her worry is that this knowledge has been lost, and future generations will be poorer for it.
"We have degenerated into a purely tactical policymaking phase, and the reason is a lack of historical perspective and an inability of politicians to see strategically what's necessary for the long term, and to make the tactical movements required to get us there," she said.
"Until we get politicians who understand the difference and will go strategic rather than tactical, we're going to remain in a period of junk policy very much to the detriment of the national interest."