Like the Shadow Cabinet, the institution of Cabinet is based more on unwritten convention than on constitutional provisions. However, the de facto executive branch of Australia’s political system has a solid formalised, institutional, basis. As Patrick Weller argues, ‘Cabinet is an institution, in the sense that it is a forum structured by a series of rules, norms and behaviours that alter over time’. In 1926, the first edition of the Cabinet Handbook was produced, outlining the processes and rules governing the operation of Cabinet. In the 1980s this handbook was made publicly available and now it appears on the Internet. The relative openness of Cabinet about procedural practices stands in contrast to the less-formalised, more elusive Shadow Cabinet. No Shadow Cabinet Handbook exists, and in effect, each new opposition in the Australian federal parliament has to reinvent what the Shadow Cabinet does, and how its party’s version operates.
In this chapter, I will discuss the operational aspects of Australian Shadow Cabinets. I will begin by discussing the form and functions of Shadow Cabinet, including meetings and the appointment of, and resources allocated to shadow ministers. I will then examine the policy-making role of the Shadow Cabinet, as well as the duties and roles of individual shadow ministers.
Recent Australian federal Shadow Cabinets have tended to model their meeting structure on that of the Cabinet. This is largely a product of the similar work done by each, with the important difference that Cabinet discusses new legislation the Government will introduce, while the Shadow Cabinet considers the Opposition’s response.
A notable difference between Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet meetings is their relative scale. Shadow Cabinet meetings may run in many of the same ways as Cabinet meetings, but on a smaller scale. Labor Shadow Cabinet meetings tend to be what one member described as ‘a middling level of formality’, with formal minutes taken and motions put to a vote. Coalition meetings, on the other hand, rarely proceed to a vote, and decisions are instead usually based on a ‘sense of the room’.
One shadow minister noted also that the Shadow Cabinet parallels the actual Cabinet, but without the bureaucratic support. Minus this support, Shadow Cabinet submissions face considerably less scrutiny, than their Cabinet equivalents. A shadow minister with ministerial experience also commented on this aspect, noting that Cabinet submissions tend to go back and forwards between multiple departments before they are presented to Cabinet. They are therefore more rigorously analysed and detailed as a result. Shadow Cabinet submissions, while they will be the result of some consultation between colleagues, are seen by far fewer people by the time they are submitted to the Shadow Cabinet for discussion.
The current Coalition Shadow Ministry—including all shadow ministers, but not parliamentary secretaries—meets on the Monday of every sitting week, with additional special meetings called as required (Labor, when in opposition, followed the same schedule). They are joined by Brian Loughnane, Federal Director of the Liberal Party, and Brad Henderson, Federal Director of The Nationals. These extra-parliamentary members, however, are present in an observer’s role; they participate only when asked to do so. Under Brendan Nelson’s leadership (December 2007–September 2008), Shadow Cabinet meetings were also attended by Peter Hendy, Nelson’s chief of staff, who acted as the official record-keeper. During Nelson’s leadership, the position of Shadow Cabinet Secretary was filled by a Shadow parliamentary secretary, Don Randall (Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Cabinet Secretary). After Malcolm Turnbull became Leader of the Opposition, he appointed Special Minister of State Senator Michael Ronaldson to the ‘new role’ of Shadow Cabinet Secretary.This appointment reinforces the argument made in the previous chapter about the Shadow Cabinet modelling itself directly on the Cabinet. By having a shadow minister also serve as the Shadow Cabinet Secretary, the Coalition followed the Labor Government’s organisation. Upon the election of the Rudd Government, Senator John Faulkner became the first Cabinet minister also to serve as Cabinet Secretary—a dual role which attracted the interest of Coalition Senators in Estimates Committee hearings during May 2008.Later that year, in the first Shadow Cabinet reshuffle after the election, the Coalition followed Labor’s lead by having a Shadow Minister also fill the Shadow Cabinet Secretary position.
The Leader of the Opposition’s office serves as the Shadow Cabinet secretariat. An example of the flexibility of Shadow Cabinet procedures occurred when the Liberal-National Coalition was last in opposition (pre-1996), the official record-keeper was a senior member of the federal Liberal Party Secretariat. In contrast, the Labor Party, when most recently in opposition, had its Shadow Cabinet meetings attended only by shadow ministers, as well two members of the Leader’s office in a note-taking capacity. No representatives of the Federal Secretariat regularly attended these meetings, and briefings from the National Secretary were more likely to occur at full caucus meetings. Each of these aspects illustrates the ways in which the operations of the Shadow Cabinet can be modified to suit the preferences of the party in opposition or its leader, or to align itself with the practices of the Cabinet.
For the current Opposition, a member of the Leader of the Opposition’s staff organises the logistics of Shadow Ministry meetings, including setting the agenda in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition and his or her chief of staff. This agenda is then sent to all shadow ministers, with a request for relevant papers for the upcoming meeting to be submitted to the Leader’s office by close of business the Thursday before the meeting. These papers are then circulated by mid-Friday, giving members the Friday afternoon and weekend to read them. Meetings start at nine am Monday and generally run for about two to three hours. This compares with an average of three to three and a half hours for Cabinet meetings during a sitting period, or day-long meetings during parliamentary recesses.
The first part of a Shadow Cabinet meeting consists of the leader’s report. This is a general political overview which can vary in length depending on the situation. The Leader outlines the Opposition’s critique of the Government, as well as the Opposition’s own ideas, and a sense of how these are faring in a political sense. The notion of a political ‘narrative’ is one which several shadow ministers referred to when describing the leader’s report. The report gives the Leader of the Opposition an opportunity to reflect on recent successes or failures.
General political discussion of the topics raised in the leader’s report follows the Leader’s presentation. One shadow minister with Cabinet experience noted that being in opposition allowed much greater capacity for a broad discussion at this time of political issues than does the more time-consuming demands of government. The ‘frank and fearless’ nature, as one shadow minister described it, of this portion of the meeting was a quality emphasised by many of those I interviewed. For that reason, the importance of confidentiality was one of the themes most frequently raised by current and former shadow ministers. Without the official conventions of Cabinet secrecy, the Shadow Cabinet relies on the personal confidence and discretion of its members to safeguard the content of its meetings—especially these discussions. As several shadow ministers argued, without this personal trust and confidentiality allowing robust debate and the airing of differing viewpoints, these meetings would be diminished in value. Times when the Opposition or Shadow Cabinet is troubled or divided often result in an increase in Shadow Cabinet leaks as different groups or members seek to continue in public these arguments. The leader’s report and the ensuing discussion usually last for around an hour and together they serve one of Shadow Cabinet’s most important functions, by emphasising the Opposition’s political position.
The leader’s report is followed by what many shadow ministers describe as the primary purpose of the meetings: consideration of the Government’s proposed legislation. Each Bill introduced by the government is responded to by a Shadow Cabinet submission by the relevant shadow minister. These submissions are similar in structure to standard Cabinet submissions and are preceded by a one-page covering note. This consists of the name and portfolio of the responsible shadow minister, an outline of the objectives of the government’s proposal and a summary of the opposition’s position, including the shadow minister’s recommendation on how to proceed. A typical Shadow Cabinet submission is comprised of the following sections:
1. background (around one page)
2. issues (one page)
3. consultation (a short list of relevant stakeholder groups consulted in the formulation of this response)
4. recommendation (the Shadow Minister’s recommendation for the Opposition’s policy position on the issue)
5. chamber tactics (an outline of how the Opposition should respond in the two houses of parliament).
The chamber tactics section is the only notable change from the template of Cabinet submissions. Shadow ministers noted that the current Opposition found particular use for this section during the first seven months of the Rudd Government, when the Coalition held a majority in the Senate and thus had considerable capacity to influence the passage of Bills through parliament. As of July 2008, however, when the composition of the Senate changed in line with the results of the October 2007 election, that capacity was correspondingly diminished.
The Shadow Cabinet’s role as a policy-making centre will be discussed further below, but it is important to note that this section of the meeting, coordinating the Opposition’s response to legislation introduced by the Government, forms the heart of the Shadow Cabinet’s purpose. As one shadow minister noted, reacting to the Government and responding to its legislation, is the minimum the Shadow Cabinet has to do—‘it clearly takes the majority of time, but not the intellectual grunt’. For each Bill introduced by the Government, the Opposition must decide whether to support, oppose or seek to amend its provisions. A Coalition Senator argued that the Coalition’s recent experience in government gave current shadow ministers a good idea of what would or would not work in a legislative sense, and that therefore they considered it part of their role to work with the Government to improve legislation proposals, seeking to amend those Bills which they broadly support. In these discussions of government policy, there is serious consideration and debate about the Opposition’s response, which sometimes results in a turnaround in the party’s, or coalition’s, policy. An example from the current Opposition is that of its abandonment of the WorkChoices policy, which occurred, according to both Liberal Party Shadow Ministers interviewed for this project and media reports, as part of the Shadow Cabinet discussion in response to the Labor Government’s industrial relations legislation.
The final stage of Shadow Cabinet meetings is discussion of the Opposition’s own policy initiatives. Unlike the first two components of the meetings, this does not occur every time, but only when needed. During this part of the meeting, general opposition policies can be discussed, as well as specific measures such as Private Member’s Bills. As with responses to government legislation, Shadow Cabinet submissions prepared by shadow ministers outline the policy, from background information through to possible courses of action. These policies can be reactive, for example, by outlining a Private Member’s Bill that a shadow minister will introduce to counter a recent legislative change. They can also be entirely independent of government-introduced Bills. In this part of Shadow Cabinet meetings, its role as the alternative government is most readily apparent. By discussing policy measures the Opposition would introduce the Shadow Cabinet seeks to outline an agenda to differentiate itself from the Government.
As can be seen, the Shadow Cabinet in many ways presents itself as the alternative government. With no formal guidelines as to how it should operate, each Shadow Cabinet has a reasonable degree of flexibility in its arrangements. Yet because its role so closely mirrors that of Cabinet, it makes sense for the Shadow Cabinet to model itself on its executive counterpart. In the two key areas of meetings and papers, the Australian Shadow Cabinet, under either of the major parties, operates in large as a scaled-down version of the Cabinet.
In mid 2008, Senate Estimates Committee hearings focused briefly on the question of charter letters, and whether or not new ministers had received one from Prime Minister Rudd. These letters were, in theory, supposed to outline to new ministers their responsibilities and identify some ‘performance benchmarks’. Prompted by these events, I asked members of both the Coalition and Labor what sort of process their appointment as a shadow minister had taken. All of them noted that they had received only minimal instruction upon taking on their duties. In most cases, they were simply told which portfolio areas they would be responsible. They were left to establish for themselves what issues they should prioritise and how they should go about the process of shadowing in that portfolio. This was true for shadow ministers of all levels of experience, from those facing their first such position to those who had served in a variety of roles in government and/or opposition. A small minority of those I interviewed reported receiving some general instruction from their leader, or meetings organised with other shadows with similar portfolios in order to discuss responsibilities; fewer still mentioned receiving a handover briefing from their predecessor. None reported having received any formal outlining of duties, priorities or responsibilities from their leader or party. Yet none had considered this a disadvantage, and few voiced any complaints about lack of guidance.
For shadow ministers, this minimal initial guidance to some extent dictates the shape of their term. Most, as is the case with many ministers, come to their portfolio without specialist knowledge of that field. This means that the initial period after their appointment is spent coming to understand the issues involved, as well as getting to know the stakeholders concerned. At the time of my interviews, the Coalition had been in opposition for less than a year but several former Labor shadow ministers told me that it took them a year to come to grips fully with their area’s demands.
With limited staff resources, shadow ministers are frequently left essentially to work within their portfolio area with a high level of autonomy. The Nelson Opposition was allocated 70 advisers, of whom approximately 20 were given to The Nationals, with the Liberal Party retaining the other 50. These were to be divided amongst the Shadow Ministry, which comprised 20 Shadow Cabinet ministers, 13 shadow outer ministry members and 13 shadow parliamentary secretaries (a total of 46). The actual distribution of staffing levels to individual shadows, however, is left to the discretion of the Opposition Leader. This process does not always work smoothly, as was illustrated in early 2008 when concerns were reported about Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson’s decision to allocate nearly 30 of the available 50 advisers to his own office. In describing this arrangement, academic Peter Van Onselen, also notes that Kevin Rudd centralised in much the same way upon his election as Labor Party leader in late 2006, but argues that in the lead-up to an election, this decision made strategic sense. In addition to the standard electorate office entitlement of four staffers received by all members of parliament, the shadow ministry is allocated further staffing resources.
Shadow ministers are paid at the same rate as backbenchers; only the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition earn an additional allowance—an extra 85 per cent and 57.5 per cent of the base annual allowance, respectively. This is compared with 160 per cent and 105 per cent for the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister respectively. As with shadow ministerial staffing allowance, this topic was raised in the media in early 2008 as some senior shadow ministers made informal advances to the Government proposing that shadow ministers should be paid extra. Journalist Annabel Crabb commented:
One shadow minister yesterday described the system as a ‘historical anomaly’. He pointed out that other jobs—like the chairmanships of parliamentary committees—brought extra pay, while hard-working shadow ministers were forced to subsist on backbench salaries… The Coalition's new-found interest in the issue of fairer pay for opposition frontbenchers has coincided precisely with its arrival on the Opposition benches. The Howard government was always firm in its refusal to recommend any adjustment to the system—a stand now regretted by some Opposition figures.
A Liberal with shadow ministry experience echoed these comments in an interview for this project, also describing the situation as an anomaly and arguing that it was important to pay shadow ministers at a higher scale than backbenchers. In part, this would be recognition of the amount of work and long hours which come with a shadow portfolio. It would also rectify the situation whereby whips and deputy chairs of parliamentary committees earned more than shadow ministers. While no change has been made to this pay system, it will no doubt remain a topic of interest. One member with experience in both the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet noted, even though shadow ministers do have a significantly greater workload than backbenchers, ‘you should keep them hungry—it’s bad for democracy if you can make a career as an opposition member’.
How shadow ministers are appointed and the resources allocated to them affects the way in which they undertake their roles. The shadow ministerial role is largely an informal one, as is indicated by the appointment process common to both major parties, as well as by the low level of recognition afforded it in terms of salary and staffing allocation. The absence of formal guidelines or responsibilities allows considerable scope for shadow ministers to approach the position in a variety of ways. ‘It’s what you make of it’, a shadow minister commented. At the same time, while this autonomy is a central theme of shadow ministerial experience, a corresponding theme is that shadow ministers’ priorities are directed by those of their corresponding minister. In that sense, it can be argued that it is not their leader, but the minister whom they shadow, who exerts the greatest influence on shadow ministers.
The Shadow Ministry has a significant function as a policy-making body. One of the key issues which came out of the interviews I conducted was that of the autonomy of shadow ministers in terms of policy formulation. This applied to members of both major parties. It can first be seen in the comments reported above in which few, if any, were given much policy direction by their leaders. In general, shadow ministers are left to work within their portfolio with only minimal guidance from their leader or the Shadow Cabinet. Shadow Cabinet meetings operated mostly to approve, amend or reject policy ideas brought by individual shadow ministers, rather than formulating these policies. However, shadow ministers will almost always seek to work with their leader (or the leader’s office, at least) and frequently with fellow shadow ministers whose portfolios are also relevant to their policy area. Aside from the advantages of collaboration in formulating policy, this also serves to ease the passage of policy proposals through the formal process of Shadow Cabinet approval. One Liberal shadow minister noted that since the Leader of the Opposition has near-veto capacity, it is important to involve his or her office in the preparation of policy submissions. Within the Leader of the Opposition’s office, regardless of party, each portfolio area is represented by an adviser responsible for liaising between the Leader and the relevant shadow minister. In this way, each shadow minister has a ready contact in the leader’s office.
Policy-making, for the Opposition, comes in two forms, in a way it does not usually for the Government. Like the Government, the Opposition will announce policy ideas—putting forward discussion papers, introducing Private Member’s Bills into parliament and releasing policy documents. However, the Opposition must also respond to the Government’s legislation and other policy announcements. The Government can choose to respond to the Opposition’s announced policy in any way it sees fit, but most opposition policy is not introduced into parliament as bills, whereas most government policies are. Opposition must therefore decide whether to support, amend or oppose each bill the Government produces. Additionally, media pressure and the expectations of relevant stakeholder groups, amongst other things, essentially force the Opposition to react to every move of the Government. All of this means that the Opposition in general—and the Shadow Cabinet, which spends much of its meetings considering Government legislation, in particular—does have a considerable role in policy-making, even if most of this is in the type of work generally described as reactive.
However, the extent to which Shadow Cabinet as a body actually develops policy is much less obvious. The first reason for this is possibly the autonomy of individual shadow ministers to develop their party’s policies in opposition. While they may have direction from, and certainly will have consultation with the Leader of the Opposition’s office, shadow ministers for the most part have the freedom to respond to government initiatives and statements on their own. If the minister they shadow makes a statement, suggests a new policy or otherwise publicly releases a policy direction, most shadow ministers interviewed for this project felt that their duty would be to respond as quickly as possible. This would be without necessarily consulting with their leader, let alone the Shadow Cabinet as a whole. Longer-term reactions would certainly involve Shadow Cabinet discussion, but initial responses are usually left entirely in the hands of the shadow minister. Primarily, this is a pragmatic approach, since when responding to a government announcements, the shadow minister will always try to get a response into the same news cycle. This means that shadow ministers must be ready to put forward the Opposition’s case when journalists contact them, which in most cases precludes much consultation with colleagues. Further, governments rarely make entirely unexpected policy announcements, which mean that in most instances the shadow ministers will know what their party’s position is on the issue and will not need to check that with their leader or other colleagues.
Another reason why Shadow Cabinet’s role as a policy-making body is sometimes unclear is the existence of parallel policy-building processes within the Opposition. The most notable of these are the Policy Review Committee, the leadership group, and party policy committees. These all will be discussed at greater length in the following chapter, but their role in the process of policy development has an impact on the ways in which Shadow Cabinet works.
Additionally, while a shadow minister is typically given considerable autonomy when it comes to short-term responses to government policy and in the day-to-day operation of his or her portfolio, longer-term policy agendas are mostly driven in consultation with the Opposition’s policy committees.
The Shadow Cabinet’s major policy role is one of approving or amending submissions brought from the shadow ministers. While policy positions—such as Private Members’ Bills—can be debated and considerably altered within a meeting of the Shadow Cabinet, its role as a policy-making body is often removed from the process itself. There can be exceptions: one example is the Coalition Shadow Cabinet meeting of 19 February 2008 which decided to abandon the WorkChoices industrial relations programme. Media reports noted that two lengthy meetings debated the Coalition’s policy in responding to the new Labor Government’s industrial relations legislation, with the result that several members, including party leaders, altered their publicly-stated positions.According to a member of that Shadow Cabinet, this policy turn-around could only have happened in the context of a Shadow Cabinet, rather than Shadow Ministry or entire party-room, meeting. Such a politically sensitive decision required the conditions which are unique to Shadow Cabinet meetings. While this type of significant policy change is uncommon, it demonstrates the capacity for Shadow Cabinet meetings to alter policy directly. In that sense, therefore, the Shadow Cabinet has a significant role in the process of opposition policy development.
While the dominant focus of this project has been the role of the Shadow Cabinet as a group, it is important also to consider the functions of individual shadow ministers. Most shadow ministers, past and present, report that duties relating to their own portfolio and to the Shadow Cabinet more generally, take up the majority of their working time. Sometimes, several reported, this was to the detriment of their duties as a member of parliament representing an electorate. For shadow ministers, like their government counterparts, the position entails spending more time in Canberra and elsewhere around the country than in their own electorate. Some of those with Cabinet experience, however, noted that life in opposition allowed them considerably more time to fulfil their role as a local member than did their time in government. Ministers are even more constrained, with members of both parties estimating that they could afford an average of about two days per month acting as a local member owing to their responsibilities.
For the most part, a shadow minister’s day-to-day duties are based on those of his or her opposite number in the Government. The clearest example of this is seen through the Opposition’s response to legislation introduced to parliament by the Government. For each Bill introduced by the Government, the shadow minister of the relevant portfolio is responsible for coordinating the Opposition’s response. The primary component of this is to prepare the Shadow Cabinet submission dealing with the legislation. Yet since the Government’s introduced legislation is not evenly spread over all portfolios, for some shadow ministers this will comprise a greater commitment than it does for others. Nonetheless, all shadow ministers are expected to have read and understood submissions brought to Shadow Cabinet meetings, so even the workloads of those whose portfolios do not generate as great deal of legislative activity are dictated by the Government’s legislative agenda. One shadow minister, whose portfolio fell into this category, noted that he considered his role in commenting on other areas, based on his experience in government and in multiple portfolios, to be almost equal in importance to attending to his own portfolio.
Another way in which the activities of the minister will influence those of his or her shadow is through media appearances and announcements. One Labor former shadow minister recounted how this sometimes works in unexpected ways: the minister he shadowed appeared on the Sunday television programme, and announced an entirely new initiative. Consequently the shadow had to spend the day with advisers and in conference with the Leader of the Opposition to put together a detailed response as quickly as possible. This is undoubtedly a common occurrence and one that reflects a simple truth about the work of shadow ministers—much of the job is dependent on the actions of the minister being shadowed.
A further duty of shadow ministers is to prepare for parliament and most particularly for Question Time. Question Time is one of the few opportunities for shadow ministers to challenge their opponents directly, and the only regular one, although other instances include media interviews/debates and community forums. Question Time however, is the most visible part of the parliamentary process and the best opportunity for shadow ministers to appear on the evening news bulletins making a case against their government counterparts. Preparing for Question Time each day during parliamentary sitting periods is therefore an important part of the shadow ministerial role. The extent of each shadow minister’s capacity to question the minister he or she shadows is, of course, dependent on a range of factors, including political issues, the visibility of each portfolio and the political strategies of the Opposition. Furthermore, many shadow ministers have responsibility for additional portfolios beyond their own during parliament sessions and especially during Question Time. This is primarily the case when the minister and shadow minister for a particular portfolio area sit in different chambers. In this instance, another shadow minister takes responsibility in the relevant chamber, although it is still the shadow minister who prepares briefing notes and suggested questions.
The final major responsibility of shadow ministers is to work on their own party’s policies, particularly in the lead-up to an election. An integral part of the shadow ministerial role is dealing with portfolio stakeholders. This will often involve meeting with competing groups and working to both sell their party’s message to the various sides, as well as receiving input on policy discussion papers. Several shadow ministers identified working with stakeholder groups as the main part of their policy-development role. This is partly a reflection of the need for shadow ministers to ensure that the Opposition’s policies are well-received, and partly on their acknowledgement that many stakeholder groups have better access to resources, including research, than shadow ministers. This aspect of the shadow ministerial role will be further discussed in the following chapter.
Such consultation is only one component of the shadow minister’s role in developing party policy, however. With the limited resources afforded shadow ministers, the task of drafting portfolio policy statements falls largely to the shadow ministers themselves. While less visible than the role of responding to government ministers, or questioning ministers in parliament, or even the role of consulting with interest groups, developing policy positions is one of the major responsibilities of shadow ministers.
Across these main areas of activity for shadow ministers the extent to which their job is dependent on the actions of the minister they shadow can be seen. In responding to government legislation, in putting forward the Opposition’s case in public, including through the media and in parliamentary duties, such as Question Time, shadow ministers undertake a variety of roles, most of which are directly related to those of the Minister they shadow. However, developing their own party’s policy is the one significant area where shadow ministers act independently.
In this chapter I have discussed the various procedures and practices of the modern Australian Shadow Cabinet. As has been argued many of these can be compared directly to those of the Cabinet. Partly, this is a consequence of the similarity of work undertaken by both bodies. The main differences between the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet can be seen as consequences of the comparative lack of resources inherent to oppositions. Without the support of the public service, and with considerably fewer resources available, the Shadow Cabinet operates as a scaled-down version of the Cabinet.
In the following chapter, I will discuss some of the key issues facing the Shadow Cabinet and shadow ministers, many of which arise from themes outlined in this chapter.