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Australia’s system of Shadow Cabinet remains an under-studied research area. While the Cabinet itself rests on constitutional convention, it nonetheless has a strong institutional basis, and has received considerable attention from both researchers and participants.[1] Shadow Cabinet, however, has largely been ignored by both groups to date. It seems likely that this is first and foremost a reflection of the fact that the Cabinet is, by virtue of its role as the de facto executive branch of Australia’s system of government, is considered more worthy of study than the Shadow Cabinet. ‘Cabinet is about decision-making’, commented a shadow minister interviewed for this project, ‘but Shadow Cabinet is more like opinion-forming’. Therein is perhaps the primary reason for the dearth of material on Australia’s Shadow Cabinet system.

This may appear counter-intuitive, since the Shadow Cabinet is a group frequently referred to in discussions of Australian politics and its basic functions are fairly straightforward. To an extent, though, the Shadow Cabinet is more often mentioned than it is understood. People with an interest in Australian politics probably know less about the Shadow Cabinet than they think they do. An indication of this is the fact that many introductory books on Australian politics do not even mention the Shadow Cabinet and most of those that do, describe it in the broadest possible terms. It is not so much that basic questions about the details of Shadow Cabinet remain unanswered as that they have rarely, if ever, been asked. Little attention is paid to the questions of what it actually does, in practical terms, how it goes about doing it and what constraints or limitations Shadow Cabinets face.

Therefore, the first tasks for this project were to understand the fundamental roles and to describe the basic functions, of the modern Australian Shadow Cabinet system. Three central roles for the Shadow Cabinet have been discussed: organising the Opposition, providing an alternative government and training and testing potential future ministers. As has been argued, for the most part, the Shadow Cabinet, regardless of which party or coalition is in Opposition, operates along lines similar to those of the Cabinet itself. This is a consequence of the similarity of the work done—the difference being that the Cabinet is deciding Government policy, while the Shadow Cabinet debates how the official Opposition will respond. It is also a reflection of the way in which the Shadow Cabinet serves as the alternative government. Given that the highest priority of an opposition is to win government, this is a not insignificant goal. Therefore, many of the processes of Shadow Cabinet are modelled upon those of the Cabinet, albeit usually in a scaled-down form.

I have argued in this monograph that the Shadow Cabinet is only one component of the Opposition’s approach to building policy ideas. By its nature, the Opposition must consider all policy ideas introduced by the Government—from those made in media interviews or public speeches to legislation introduced into parliament. Therefore, a large component of the policy decisions made by any opposition is in the form of considering their parliamentary response to legislation. Shadow Cabinet sits at the top of that process, and ultimately all policy decisions made by the Opposition are approved by the Shadow Cabinet.

However, the existence of other bodies, such as the leadership group or policy review committee, as well as party policy committees, means that the Shadow Cabinet plays only one role in the process of the Opposition’s policy development. Further, initial public responses to announcements made by government ministers are often solely the work of individual shadow ministers, as the demands of ensuring that the Opposition’s response is part of the same news cycle as the Government announcement usually preclude much consultation. In such cases, the Leader of the Opposition will quite likely be the only colleague a shadow minister will be able to consult with before outlining the Shadow Cabinet’s position. For these reasons, it is clear that the Shadow Cabinet, as a body, does have an important role in development of the Opposition’s policy, but also that there are several other groups which contribute to policy development.

It can be argued also that the modern Australian federal Shadow Cabinet is the peak Opposition policy body, while the various aspects of opposition business are dealt with by specific groups. Primarily, there is the leadership group, which organises both the day-to-day running of the Opposition during parliamentary sitting periods, including deciding upon strategies and coordinating Question Time. When quick decisions are required on policy issues, this group can take on a significant role in determining Opposition policy. Policy-focused bodies are also significant components of modern Australian Oppositions, with groups such as the current Opposition’s Policy Review Committee, or Labor’s Shadow Economic Review Committee, operating to guide Shadow Ministers in the development of party policy on a medium or long-term basis. Both major parties also provide opportunities for backbench members to contribute to the development or refining of party policy through specific policy committees for each portfolio area. The extent to which these backbench committees are actually able to shape their party’s policy is highly variable, however, since Shadow Ministers can choose to essentially by-pass this process. In all these ways, some of the roles considered to be responsibilities of the Shadow Cabinet can, in fact, be overseen by other groups, parallel processes to the Shadow Cabinet within the organisation of the Opposition.

In addition to discussing the Shadow Cabinet as a body, in this monograph I have investigated the roles of individual shadow ministers. To a large extent, the day-to-day experience of a shadow minister depends on his or her opposite number. Different ministers approach their job and engage with their shadows, in a variety of ways. The shadow minister’s role can change dramatically depending on the style of the minister opposed. While most shadow ministers agreed that the role is nowhere near as demanding as a position in the Cabinet, they agree that a Shadow Minister has limited time to focus on electorate matters. Many felt that their role as local members was restricted by their shadow ministerial duties. A further component of the shadow minister’s role is to contribute more broadly to the work of the Shadow Cabinet. Aside from attending meetings and producing their own papers, shadow ministers need to read their colleagues’ submissions in preparation for meetings. Shadow ministers can also serve a more general role as senior figures of the Opposition and may choose to participate in public debates in that capacity, rather than merely on areas directly relevant to their portfolio areas.

The demands of modern politics, often require shadow ministers to respond to the Government within tight timeframes, which frequently makes consultation with the rest of the Shadow Cabinet and sometimes even with the Leader of the Opposition, impossible. To that extent, shadow ministers have a reasonable amount of autonomy and discretion afforded them when responding to positions taken by the minister whom they shadow. As several Shadow Ministers interviewed for this project noted, politics is rarely surprising, most government initiatives or positions develop over time, rather than as sudden, shock announcements. Thus, most shadow ministers generally would be able to state the Opposition’s position on any given topic if a response to the Government was required. Most shadow ministers also felt that they had considerable autonomy for longer-term purposes as well, having extensive capacity to shape their party’s policies in their own portfolio areas. However, all such policies are ultimately subject to the approval of the Shadow Cabinet as a whole and guided by the party’s various forms of policy and expenditure committees. Particularly towards the end of the electoral term, oppositions tend to focus on centralising the processes of finalising policy priorities and announcing the platforms for election. Thus, when it suits an opposition to do so, it can limit the autonomy of individual shadow ministers, reinforcing the fact that shadow ministers are primarily party appointees.

Another key theme of this monograph is the resources available to shadow ministers. Most significantly, shadow ministers receive a fraction of the staffing allowance allocated to government ministers. Consequently, many of the shadow ministers interviewed for this project described their difficulty in staying on top of all their duties. Lack of access to information and advice was also an area of concern to many of these shadow ministers; without either public service departments or the number of advisers allocated to ministers, their ability to respond to the Government is limited. However, several shadow ministers argued that this was not entirely a negative experience, since it does force shadow ministers to do their own work, which in turn can prove useful if they become government ministers. Nonetheless, the issue of access to resources—most particularly, advisers—was one of the most persistent themes of the interviews conducted for this research project. Particularly for those with experience in both Shadow Cabinet and Cabinet itself, this disparity was identified as a challenge.

Interestingly, while the topic of shadow ministerial pay was one discussed in the news media in early 2008, only two of this project’s interview subjects raised it. One made the case that an additional allowance for shadow ministers should be introduced in recognition of the level of work involved when compared to a backbencher or to committee chair (which position does include an allowance above that of backbenchers and shadow ministers). The other shadow argued that such an increase could create a situation whereby shadow ministers were less ‘hungry’ for government. This issue, therefore, seems less important to shadow ministers than that of staffing allocation.

The final area of interest, and one which arose regularly in the interviews conducted for this project, is that of the shadow ministers’ relationships with stakeholders in their portfolio areas. For many shadow ministers, particularly those with more experience, this was regarded as one of the key components of the position. There are several aspects to this relationship. The first is that of consultation, of working with the portfolio area’s constituents in developing the Opposition’s policy platform. Some shadow ministers also noted that interest groups within their portfolio area would produce research reports which could be used either to support the Opposition’s policy ideas or to attack government initiatives or statements. The extent to which this is true, however, is dependent on the political persuasion of both the shadow minister and the groups within the portfolio area. For some shadow ministers, the majority of the stakeholders with whom they deal will be traditional supporters of another side of politics, in those cases, the shadow minister’s role is to try to neutralise these groups as much as possible. Yet regardless of the political persuasions of stakeholders within their portfolio areas, most shadow ministers consider the establishment and ongoing maintenance, of these relationships to be one of the central duties of the shadow minister.

A starting point

This monograph has investigated the processes, functions and roles of the modern Australian Shadow Cabinet. In doing so, some light has been shed on this little-studied political institution. The monograph has investigated the primary roles of the Shadow Cabinet, how it goes about undertaking these, the limitations and priorities faced by individual shadow ministers and some key issues facing modern Australian shadow ministers. However, the dearth of work to date on this topic means that much more research is needed on Australia’s system of Shadow Cabinet. The limitations of this project meant that the historical development of the Australian Shadow Cabinet could not be traced in any great depth, yet this history would prove useful to future students of Australian politics. Comparisons between Australia’s system and those operating in the states and territories, or in other Westminster-derived parliamentary systems would also be interesting, as would in-depth research projects on a specific Shadow Cabinet. While this monograph has begun the process of understanding the federal Shadow Cabinet in Australia, it must be emphasised that this work is only a starting point.

[1].       Weller, Cabinet government in Australia, 1901–2006, op. cit., pp. 8–10.