Australian Minister Crisis: Our Leader Knowledge Deficit

English: en:Julie Bishop, Deputy Leader of the...

Julie Bishop, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I had a brief but interesting conversation with a work colleague which ended in this person angrily denouncing the background of former Finance Minister Penny Wong – explaining that she didn’t really have any finance experience at all, and also revealing they voted Liberals in the same sentence.  I took the mention of these two things together to suggest my colleague was making the assumption that the Liberal party had candidates that were more educated and better suited to their roles.  So I decided to do a bit of my own research and answer the question with some actual evidence.

I created a spreadsheet of each of the newly announced Ministers for the Abbott Government and compared them against the previous Labor Government minister that was in the role the longest (as there were quite a few changes at the end – but I’m going to ignore those for the purpose of this exercise.  Then I went about confirming the educational and industry experience background of each and every single member and based on that, judging whether their experience and education was relevant to their appointed portfolio.

Note that I have NOT counted experience managing a folio in government as “experience” in the industry.  I don’t think this information is available anywhere on the internet and it took me about 4 hours to do so hopefully its useful to people other than my curious-self!

Alright, drum roll for the results…

(Newly appointment Abbott Government Ministers)

Portfolio Liberal Minister Education Experience Relevant?
Prime Minister Tony Abbott Bachelor Economics, Law Journalist, Plant Manager, Political Advisor (10 yrs), Parliament (17 yrs) N/A
Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop Bachelor Law, Harvard Mgmt Program Lawyer (20yrs), Parliament (14yrs) No
Infrastructure & Regional Development Warren Truss Highschool Farmer, Chair on multiple regional agriculture boards (12yrs), Parliament (12yrs) Part
Employment Eric Abetz Bachelor Arts, Law Lawyer (28yrs), Parliament (6 yrs) No
Arts George Brandis QC  Bachelor Arts/Law, BA Civil Law Lawyer (20yrs), Parliament (7yrs) No
Social Services Kevin Andrews Bachelor Arts, Law, Masters Layer/Lawyer Education/assistance (11yrs), Parliament (22 yrs) No
Human Services Marise Payne Bachelor Arts, Law Political and public affairs advisor (10 yrs), Parliament (16 yrs) No
Small Business Bruce Billson Bachelor Business, DipEd Mgmt Public Service (3yrs), Parliament (17yrs) No
Environment Greg Hunt Bachelor Arts, Law, MA Public servent – advisor on foreign policy (10yrs), Parliament (12yrs) No
Immigration & Border Protection Scott Morrison  Bachelor Science Policy and research council (6 yrs) Senior roles in tourism (7 yrs), Parliament (6yrs) Part
Finance Matthias Corman Bachelor Law Health (4yrs), Public service (7yrs), Parliament (6 yrs) No
Health and Sport Peter Dutton Bachelor Business Police Officer (9yrs), Parliament (12yrs) No
Defence David Johnston Bachelor Jurisprudence Barrister & Solicitor (20 yrs), Parliament (17yrs) No
Agriculture Barnaby Joyce Bachelor Commerce Grew up on cattle farm, Army reserve  (5yrs), Accountant (5-10yrs), Parliament (5-10yrs) Part
Justice Michael Keenan Bachelor Arts, Philosophy Bar attnt/salesman (8 yrs), real estate  (4 yrs), Parliament (6 yrs) No
Education Christopher Pyne  Bachelor Law Public service (3yrs), Solicitor (3yrs), Parliament (20yrs) No
Industry Ian Macfarlane  Highschool Farmer, President on multiple regional agriculture boards (25yrs), Parliament (10 yrs) Yes
Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion  Rural leadership program graduate Fisherman, Business Owner, Mining co researcher & manager, company director, Seafood councils, Parliament (11 yrs) No
Veterans Affairs & ANZAC Michael Ronaldson  Bachelor Law Barrister & Solicitor (18 yrs), Parliament (21yrs) No
Trade and Investment Andrew Robb  Bachelor Economics and Agricultural Science Animal health officer (2 yrs), Agricultural economics (5 yrs), ED Farmers Assoc (7 yrs), Senior exec/SEO/Chair multiple pharma co’s, Praliament (9 yrs) Yes
Communications Malcolm Turnbull  Bachelor Arts, Law, Civil Law Journo (4 yrs), Barrister/Gen Counsel (7 yrs), Biz owner & grazier (10yrs), Chairman Ozemail (5 yrs), Parliament (12yrs) Yes
Housing & Homelessness N/A N/A N/A N/A
Financial Services & Superannuation N/A N/A N/A N/A
Treasurer Joe Hockey Bachelor Arts, Law Banking and finance lawyer/public policy (10 yrs), Parliament (14 yrs) Part

(Rudd Government Ministers / Gillard Government Ministers)
*Note, I have chosen the “main” minister – that is, the minister that spent the most time in the position while Labor was in government.

Portfolio Main Labor Minister Changes Education Experience Relevant?
Prime Minister Juilia Gillard 1 Bachelor Arts, Law Industrial Lawyer (12 yrs), Parliament (15 yrs) N/A
Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd 2 Bachelor Arts Diplomat (7yrs), CoS/Dir-Gen (7yrs), China consultant(3yrs), Parliament (15yrs) Yes
Infrastructure & Regional Development Anthony Albanese 0 Bachelor Economics Bank officer (1yr) and researcher (4 yrs), Party official (6yrs), Policy advisor (1yr), Parliament (17yrs) No
Employment Bill Shorten 3 Bachelor Arts/Law Superannuation director (9 yrs), Workers Union (6 yrs), Parliament (6yrs) Yes
Arts Simon Crean 2 Bachelor Law, BA Economics Labour Unions (20yrs), Parliament (23yrs) No
Social Services Jenny Macklin 0 Bachelor Comms Researcher (9 yrs), Health strategy (8yrs), Parliament (10yrs) Yes
Human Services Multiple: no one had this role for more than 12 months under the former Labor govt 5 Multiple Multiple No
Small Business Gary Gray 4 Bachelor Economics ALP Secretariat (14yrs), ED Med research (1yr), Snr Mining exec (6 yrs), parliament )6yrs) Part
Environment Tony Burke 2 Bachelor Arts, Law Shop assistant (9 yrs), Electorate office (2 yrs), Union (7 yrs) No
Immigration & Border Protection Chris Bowen 3 Bachelor Economics Researcher (1yr), Union (5 yrs), Public service (6 yrs), Parliament (9 yrs) No
Finance Penny Wong 2 Bachelor Arts/Law Law (6), Unions (4yrs), Parliament (11yrs) No
Health and Sport Tanya Plibersek 1 Bachelor Comms/Masters Politics & public Policy 20 years in public policy and parliament No
Defence Stephen Smith 2 Bachelor Law Barrister/Tutor (7yrs), party treasurer & advisor (10 yrs), Parliament (10yrs) No
Agriculture Joe Ludwig 2 Bachelor Arts, Law Industrial inspector (10 yrs), Training consultant (6yrs), Parliament (13yrs) Part
Justice Jason Clare 1 Bachelor Arts, Law Corp relations (4 yrs), Policy advisor (6 yrs), Parliament (10yrs) No
Education Peter Garrett 4 Bachelor Arts Musician and activist (28yrs), Parliament (11yrs) No
Industry Kim Carr 2 Bachelor Arts, MA, DipEd Teacher (11 yrs), Ministerial advisor and policy analyst, parliament (20 yrs) No
Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin 0 Bachelor Comms Researcher (9 yrs), Health strategy (8yrs), Parliament (10yrs) No
Veterans Affairs & ANZAC N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Trade and Investment Craig Emerson 3 Bachelor/MA/PhD Economics, PhD Philosophy UN Economic analyst, CEO SQ transit authority, Public service (10 yrs), Parliament (20 yrs) Part
Communications Stephen Conroy 1 Bachelor Economics Superannuation officer, research assistant, Parliament (14 yrs) No
Housing & Homelessness Brendan O’Connor 5 Bachelor Arts, Law Union official (11 yrs), Parliament (12 yrs) No
Financial Services & Superannuation Bill Shorten 3 Bachelor Arts/Law Superannuation director (9 yrs), Workers Union (6 yrs), Parliament (6yrs) Yes
Treasurer Wayne Swan 1 Bachelor Arts Lecturer (12 yrs), Analyist and advisor (4 yrs), Parliament (14 yrs) No

I also did a quick analysis of a number of other things I often hear people spouting like “There’s much more experience in Liberal” or “Labor are riddled with Unionists” or “Liberals have a shitload of Lawyers”…or something along those lines.  Now here’s the truth:

Item Liberal Labor
Number of Lawyers 13 (59%) 11 (47%)
Number of Unionists 0 (0%) 6 (26%)
Number of Biz/Comm/Economists 5 (21%) 6 (26%)
Number of Arts Degrees 8 (33%) 12 (52%)
Years experience in Parliament 272 years 265 years


  1. The level of appropriate skills matching between ministers and their portfolios is an absolute JOKE with BOTH parties, in the Liberal Party only Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Robb and Ian Macfarlane had the necessary industry background for their roles.  In Labor – only Bill Shorten, Jenny Macklin (not her role in Indigenous Affairs) and Kevin Rudd (as Foreign Minister) had the necessary backgrounds for their roles.  This is just not good enough.  There wouldn’t be a CEO in the world (unless he or she were a startup CEO), who would be hired by the board if they didn’t have extensive experience in their area.  Let’s take Telstra CEO David Thodey for example.  He worked in sales and the senior exec positions for IBM and then Telstra for close to 20 years…the guy knew his telecommunications before he stepped into a role with a company that hires 45,000 Australians and manages 25.5 billion in annual revenues.  Yet, just as an example Marise Payne who managers Human Services has no background in it, and yet she’s responsible for a portfolio containing Medicare AND Centrelink – equal to probably over 200 billion or more each year!  Whhhhatttt?  Let me make this clear to BOTH parties: 20 years experience as a Lawyer DOES NOT make you an experienced leader fit for a role managing a portfolio you know nothing about – no matter how you want to argue it!
  2. There is WAY too much change, surely making it nigh on impossible for anyone to get any real work done when ministerial management changes up to once every year.
  3. A bunch of Lawyers run our country…well 50% at least.  And its NOT just Liberals…its both parties.  Given the kind of mistrust most people have for the profession, its no wonder people are apathetic about politicians, and its no wonder they’re so good at spinning the truth – that’s what they’re all trained for.
  4. It’s true, Labor DO have more Unionists in their ranks (just over a quarter to be precise) – given Liberals have zero.  This claim is true.
  5. Labor actually has more finance knowledge and capability than the Liberals (based on education and experience alone – obviously I can’t judge talent), but it IS true that Wayne Swan as Treasurer, didn’t have broad experience in finance, although he was acting treasurer for many years.

Putting all of this another way just to show the absurdity…

  • We have Indigenous Affairs ministers who have never lived in Northern Territory where majority of the aboriginal population reside
  • We have Education Ministers who have never been teachers or principals or curriculum advisors
  • We have Health ministers who have never been doctors or nurses or health executives
  • We have Finance ministers and Treasurers who never did a degree in economics or finance
  • We have Ministers for Small Business who have never run their own business
  • We have Defense Ministers who have never fought in a war
  • We have social and human services ministers who have never worked in and with those disaffected communities
  • We have employment ministers who have never hired someone or been a HR manager
  • We have housing and homelessness ministers who have never worked in real estate or construction, or worked for any organisation that assists with homelessness

Ultimately, we have Ministers who seem so intellectually and emotionally removed (in terms of their non-parliament backgrounds) from the areas they look after, its beyond me how this country gets anything done at all.  How can they truly represent the country without having strong knowledge of the areas they look after?  It’s absolutely bizarre.  I guess we have to thank the public servants in making up for the shortcomings of their on-again/off-again bosses.

Thoughts people?  Is this a serious gap or a non-issue for you?

*If you want a copy of the excel spreadsheet, let me know and I can send you a copy.

6 thoughts on “Australian Minister Crisis: Our Leader Knowledge Deficit

  1. I don’t have specific comments about particular ministers who practised law, but I think it is simplistic and naïve to assume that lawyers bring no relevant experience for non-legal portfolios. You have to look at the areas of law in which they have practised and see what sort of industries they dealt with. I am sure that this also applies to other professions.

    Furthermore, how do you reach the conclusion that decades as a performing artist has no relevance to being Arts Minister?

    These glaring errors detract from what I initially considered a very interesting analysis. Now I am of the view that the data of which I have no first-hand knowledge are unreliable.


    • Hey 🙂

      You’re definitely right it would be simplistic and naive to assume legal experience is not useful. In fact, its highly useful in politics because (I’m not sure if you read my earlier posts) but after looking at what politicians actually do with most of their time at a federal level, its creating tax law – and without knowledge of the legal system its almost impossible to create bills that become legislation and can then be enforced by the justice system. But that probably wasn’t clear because it was 3am when I wrote this and I did get a bit ranty toward the end! lol

      What I am saying, however is that just being a lawyer is only half of what you need. Actually the ideal might be to have a law degree, a degree in something else and a shit load of experience in your portfolio area because that is what gives you the emotional and deep intellectual connection to the area rather than simply a peripheral one from a legal perspective.

      And regarding your point on the conclusion I came to of a performing artist having no relevance as minister for the arts…are you referring to Peter Garrett (as he is the only politician that had decades of experience in performing arts)?
      Just to clarify, you might notice my analysis was of the person who spent the most or most recent and most time in the role. So in the last three years Peter was actually the Minister for Education and Youth, not the Environment and Arts (which if that had been the case, of course I would have concluded that as a YES given he was both a performing artist and an environmental activist from the early years). And unfortunately the shift of Peter Garrett to the new portfolio was actually called demotion for him in response to Garrett’s administration of the Home Insulation Program (HIP) that was linked to four deaths, over 100 house fires and allegations of fraud. It was revealed in May 2010 that Garrett had written to Prime Minister Rudd on four occasions raising concerns about safety. So Garrett had done his job…Mr Rudd had not.

      But apart from all that – the people I was assessing as Minsters of the Arts definitely had no experience in the arts (Simon Crean and George Brandis).

      Also regarding your concern about the validity of the information, I’m more than happy to give you a copy of the excel spreadsheet because it has links to the source of each piece of information so that you can check it yourself. Actually – the links on each name go to the source too so you can check it straight from here. Most of the time I used their official parliament biography which states their education and what they did before entering parliament, but in the case of anyone who has retired from politics I had to refer to Wikipedia.

      I also had to refer to Wikipedia lists of ministers by portfolio to confirm (for Labor) which Minister I was going to pick to do the analysis on (because multiple people held a variety of roles) and as I mentioned before I made that assessment based on the person who had both the longest amount of time in the role and was also the most recent. In the case of picking Simon Crean vs. Peter Garrett, Peter Garrett did spend slightly longer in the role but only by 50 days or so – and because Simon Crean was the more recent and still was in the role for the same amount of time, I chose him to assess.

      Anyhoo – hope that clears stuff up for you 😀


  2. George Megalogenis’ Quarterly Essay ‘Trivial Pursuit’ might be of interest to you. It makes the point that — perhaps more broadly than the point you’ve made — the diversity of careers prior to parliamentary service has reduced.

    I work as a policy adviser in a few portfolios. I’m not sure that it’s accurate to say I’m not as good at my job simply because I have not worked on the ‘front line’ of my industries. If anything, I’d argue the opposite: people with whom I interact on the frontline are often completely unaware of the broader issues. It’s like asking a cog to opine on how a watch should work.

    Take research policy. Should we ask academics how best to run universities?

    See also:

    What’s more important for ministers is to have excellent advisers and a frank and fearless public service. We want ministers to represent the people more generally, rather than to be specialists in their field. They’re like a jury, really. You don’t want a jury to be made up of people who are all experts in criminal law. You want them to be ordinary folk who reflect the opinions of the broader community. When we give ministers information, we don’t want them to respond as an expert; we want them to respond as a representative of the electorate.

    So the overall complaint is correct — narrow sectors of the community are becoming politicians — but the specific complaint might be misguided.


    • I definitely agree that diversity of understanding and certainly a building of knowledge that may start at the front line is important – because similarly those that have never been on the front line aren’t aware of the day to day issues that policies or procedures created by those higher up the chain may create when it comes to operationalising them.

      When you have had a level of experience in all areas of an industry either at frontline or at an administrative level, you have a level of insight that enables you to actually guide both the public and those public servants within your portfolio. Most of all, it helps you to call bullshit when you see it!

      I can’t count the amount of times I saw this disconnect between policy or procedure makers and frontliners in my corporate roles. So I think this happens across industry and government alike (I’ve not held roles in Public Service so you would had much better insight than I there).

      At the end of the day it would be silly to suggest that a Doctor who has only ever been a Doctor could or should become a politician and navigate legal tax systems without a background in law or an understanding of the media. But the point I was making was simply that there was a major disconnect and the balance isn’t ideal.

      I think having both is really important and the fact that there is a lack of one and an overabundance of the other is a real worry. 🙂

      Thanks for those reading suggestions – I’ll check them out!


  3. Great article. I’ve often bemoaned the lack of diversity in the lower house. In terms of ministerial experience in the given portfolios, I think that having a background in the area would be highly invaluable, and if we did have people with a variety of backgrounds, then it would probably make for more a productive and efficient parliament.

    However, in practical terms, I think it’s unrealistic that a) former teachers, doctors/nurses, military personnel, builders, climatologists, scientists, small business owners, etc. would all stand as candidates for the lower house, and b) if they were to stand, whether they would even be voted in by the good people of Australia. Given that, I think it’s important that ministers consult with the subject matter experts in the areas of the portfolio when it comes to formulating policy, and I do think that, generally, this is being undertaken.

    Then again, there are many reviews that have been completed and findings presented to parliament for nothing to have been done at all, and both major parties continuing on with mudslinging and the tone of government policy debate degenerating so much so that we have populist policies pandering to opinion polls. Oh dear, you’ve started me on a rant on the lack of leadership and vision in Australian politics…now to go stab myself in the eye.


    • Haha yeah most of the other comments suggest similar things – its about balance. I think I got a little ranty toward the end and I didn’t mean it to come across like as if I’d expect they should all or only have that experience at the expense of legal or other important management experience. Ultimately I feel like they should have both and you’re probably right – given the years people have spent already in parliament or in their seat prior to being in government – maybe its dreaming and unrealistic right now. But it doesn’t need to be an impossible ask or expectation given that there are some doctors, farmers and performing artists that have been in there (with the relevant supporting legal experience), its just that right now they happen to be the exception rather than the rule.

      The business world would never accept a CEO who had no experience in the industry and was just going to consult experts. So if its not good enough for a business turning over a billion dollars, it surely isn’t acceptable for a government running an economy turning over 400 billion where each portfolio is worth at least $3b and at most maybe $100b.

      The parties are responsible for finding candidates in the various electorates who would (if voted into govt and the house of reps) be taking on a portfolio, so that diversity could easily be something they think about from the beginning – when they are recruiting potential new candidates for an electorate. Because as you very rightly pointed out, it is only through being voted in to the HoR by the Australian people that they would then ever get the opportunity to handle a portfolio (and even then only if their party were in government).

      HAHAHA please refrain from eye stabbing. I’d need to put on a cape, fly over and save you, and I do so hate wedgies and flying has never been a talent of mine.


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