The initial politics of the “non-war” war cabinet

The so-called “war cabinet” or “joint policy commission” on indigenous affairs formally announced by Kevin Rudd in his wonderful address to parliament on Tuesday poses some interesting challenges for the government, moving forwards. Our modern democratic system of government is predicated on the existence of a somewhat antagonistic duopoly, consisting of the holders of government and the remainder of parliament. Effectively inviting the Leader of the Opposition to the policy-making table raises some interesting questions about how policy will be formulated. How will responsibility (and potentially, blame) be divided between the participants? Will indigenous policy henceforth be based on a consensus of what the major parties think, or will Rudd as Prime Minister still hold a firm whip hand and dictate the policy approach? If the latter is true and the commission is not going to be consensus-based, what does Doctor Nelson gain from being a part of the process?

It’s these sorts of questions that Shadow Indigenous Affairs Minister Tony Abbott is asking about the proposed commission, as reported in today’s Age:

“If this committee really is a genuine attempt at partnership … if it’s going to be a genuine bipartisan committee co-chaired by the Prime Minister and (Opposition Leader) Brendan Nelson, then it has to be a body where the Opposition have real authority and real power,” Mr Abbott told The Age.

“Real authority” and “real power” seems to be quite strongly-phrased – almost as if Abbott wants the Coalition to have equal input to the commission as the government will have. I am not sure this is quite what Rudd had in mind, considering, after all, who is really in government and who is not. This proposal from the Opposition Leader also seems to be trying to take the war cabinet a step too far:

Dr Nelson, who first heard about the proposal during the speech and subsequently backed it, wrote to him [Rudd] yesterday seeking more details and asking that former indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough be considered to join the commission.

History will record that Mal Brough was a somewhat divisive figure during his time as Minister for Indigenous Affairs, and lost his seat at the election after his controversial control of the portfolio commenced. I therefore think it is a bit unreasonable for Nelson to request that Brough, so recently disendorsed by his electorate, be invited to once again play a strong role in indigenous affairs at the highest levels of government. If Brough was still in parliament, I think it would be a fair cop for Nelson to request Rudd that Brough be involved, but inviting him to participate so soon after effectively being fired by the people he represents is, to use a Ruddian term of phrase, something of a bridge too far.

If the Opposition wants someone of its ideological streak on board for the commission, I think somebody like Noel Pearson would be a better bet – although perhaps controversial in other ways.