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Abraham on Hill: Insights from the political bubble


Some of the more hapless members of the Weatherill Government should have a good look at former minister John Hill's political memoir, writes ABC broadcaster Matthew Abraham.

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“The way the camera follows him in slo-mo, the way he smiled at us all.” – The Boy in the Bubble, Paul Simon’s Graceland.

John Hill spent the most productive years of his adult life in a bubble, the years when the horizon is no longer a shimmering, distant haze.

We could all see him, but he was protected from us. He was transparent, but invisible.

He was elected to state parliament in 1997 as the MP for the southern seat of Kaurna – a marginal electorate that became a Labor stronghold under Hill.

After Mike Rann’s ridiculously lucky 2002 election win, John Hill got a gold pass to one of the modern western world’s last secret societies. He became a Minister of the Crown. Welcome to the plastic bubble, boys and girls.

Now retired, John Hill has written a book – On Being a Minister: Behind the Mask.

It is an intimate and disarmingly frank peep into the mind of this policy-focussed minister, a serious man who thankfully did not take himself too seriously.

It will not be a stocking-stuffer, but it should be stuffed in the stockings of any MP aspiring to be a Minister.

In fact, a few hapless, coasting members of Team Weatherill could read the book and take more than a few leaves from it. Their desks, their portfolios and their state would be in better shape if they did.

Hill’s Behind the Mask poses no sales threat to an Annabel Crabb or Maggie Beer. But it is something of a collector’s item.

While the current crop of federal politicians – and the journalists who cover them – churn out books with the speed of a blackjack croupier on Bobo cordial, only a handful of books have been written about South Australian politics over the last 50 or so years.

I’ve got most of them – you can usually pick them up for a song at garage sales.

They include It’s Grossly Improper by journalists Des Ryan and Mike McEwen on Dunstan’s peccadilloes, the late Stewart Cockburn’s fine and meticulous biography of Tom Playford, Benevolent Despot, and Chris Kenny’s State of Denial, a demolition of the Bannon-era State Bank disgrace.

However, books written about South Australian politics by politicians are even rarer, and this is a pity. And it is a puzzle, given the wacky, riotous roller-coaster of bastardry that has been a trademark of politics in this state in the post-Playford era.

So, John Hill’s is only the second biography written by a former South Australian Minister in at least the past two decades. It has been a long time between drinks. Maybe none of the others felt they had much to offer.

Funnily enough, the first was also by a long-serving, controversial and reforming Health Minister, John Cornwall, a member of Labor Premier John Bannon’s Cabinet.

And surely Mike Rann, in the quieter moments of running his green consultancy in London, is right now tap-tap-tapping away at a tome explaining his political legacy, just in case people have forgotten.

So, what do we learn from John Hill’s book?

We learn about the process of becoming and being a Minister, starting with his first days setting up an office from scratch, choosing staff and a trusted driver. He was allocated Paul Adey, who before the election had chauffered a Liberal Minister, Iain Evans. He was Hill’s driver for almost 11 years – “I spent more time in his company than anyone else’s in that time” – and valued him not just for his driving skill, but his discretion.

With few exceptions as Minister, he employed journalists, lawyers and academics, all professions where “precision about details, working to a deadline and strong opinions are to the fore”. Or, as he puts it more blunty, “people who are paid to be paranoid”.

On choosing staff he quotes Chairman Deng, former leader of the People’s Republic of China. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a white cat or a black, I think; a cat that catches mice is a good cat”. In 11 years he had just 17 or so political staffers filling the five or six key slots, a low rate of churn in politics.

He devotes a whole chapter to paper – the stuff bureaucrats use to bury new and experienced Ministers alike. From day one, Hill had a “clean desk” approach that he says was at the heart of his strategy for managing files involving “no clutter, no overflowing in-tray, no piles of paper”.

“Paper discipline is at the heart of good decision-making, which is at the heart of being a successful minister,” he writes.

It appears Hill was obsessive about dealing with paper – he would continually grab handfuls of files from his in-tray and deal with them during the day or on the long trip home in the ministerial car.

It was, he says, not the case for all ministers.

“In fact on occasions when acting for other ministers on leave I was presented with bags and bags of files that they had been unable or unwilling to look at; either through fear of making a wrong decision or inertia,” he says.

“Sometimes it is prudent for a minister to delay in order to seek further information, but procrastination is not prudence.”

He argues that delay and anxious examination of options doesn’t change the decision, it “just wastes time and causes more anxiety” as the files pile ever higher.

From the outset, Hill declares “You don’t need to be an intellectual genius to be a successful minister”, adding that politics is littered with examples of really smart people who come unstuck.

True, and as he illustrates, really dumb ones who get lucky.

“During my period as minister, Caucus selected a particular candidate to the ministry who not even the most partisan Labor supporter would believe was chosen on the basis of talent,” he writes.

“On entering Cabinet he must have felt like Stephen Bradley (it should be Bradbury) winning a gold medal when all the other competitors fell over. Sure, it’s a gold medal and it can never be taken away but can it really be described as success if whenever your name is mentioned it is accompanied by sniggering.”

What a pity he does not share the names of these lazy and stupid colleagues, so that the voters who may still be paying their wages and perks can join in the joke. But from party state secretary, to backbencher to minister, John Hill was and always will be a loyal party chap.

When it comes to the media, however, he is quite happy to name names.

In a full chapter devoted to the Fourth Estate, Hill merrily critiques senior Adelaide journalists – including an unfair and gratuitous sledge of veteran Advertiser political reporter Greg Kelton, who died in 2013. When asked about this, Hill seems genuinely puzzled that his assessment of Kelton could be read as insulting a distinguished and much-loved journo.

This same naivety may be responsible for an unintended, but rare, insight into the Government’s relationship with The Advertiser.

Hill expresses his gratitude in particular to senior executive Mel Mansell and the paper’s ethos to “promote positive stories about South Australia, an important approach given the tendency to gloom and despair so easily exhibited by South Australians”. (Poor old South Australia, we never quite measure up to the expectations of those who govern us.)

He writes wistfully of the annual long lunches with Mr Mansell and usually a senior journalist from the paper, including at clubby Chesser Cellars where “on one memorable occasion lunch spread into dinner”.

It was all above board, of course.

“No matter how long the lunches went and how many bottles of wine were drunk these events never got out of control,” he writes.

“I imagine many people reading this might conclude that these were just drunken indulgences enjoyed by a couple of powerful blokes – and in part that’s true. But these lunches helped build a relationship – not an improper one, but one useful to both sides. Mel and I enjoyed friendly relations and, importantly, trusted each other.”

Yes, Minister.

Hill’s memoir plunges into his policy development record and this is unsurprising because he was a policy wonk.

Rather than taking the short cut of making change by regulation to circumvent a stroppy Upper House, he learned from one regret of his mentor, Greg Crafter, also a former Education Minister – not enough legislation. While regulations can be reversed, legislation is tricky to unravel.

“The conservative nature of the upper house can work both ways,” he writes. “I learned from his experience. Legislate, legislate, legislate!”

This little book is at its best when John Hill drops his guard at his own expense.

In 2011, he had decided to travel to England and Norway to look at new, big hospitals as models for the new Royal Adelaide Hospital.

His PA, Amy Kitselaar, was running through the bibs and bobs he would need while away – passports, currency, diary, European power adaptors.

“Finally she came to a blue cloth for me to clean the iPad screen,” he writes.

“‘I don’t need that!’ I said, ‘the screen’s always clean’.

‘Yes,’ Amy replied. ‘I clean it for you every morning’.

Well, somebody has to polish the bubble.

Matthew Abraham and David Bevan present the breakfast program on 891 ABC Adelaide.

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