On Being A Minister, Behind the Mask, John Hill

On Being a Minister
Behind the Mask

On Being a Minister
Behind the Mask

by John Hill


On being a Minister almost reads like one of the ‘for Dummies’ publications. After all, there are no special qualifications required to become a politician or even minister. It turns out to be a manual of what to do or not to do, what works and what doesn’t. It also provides plenty of information and advice on how to be a good and efficient minister as well as how to manage the office or a department and get all the assistance possible from the Public Servants.

At the same time Hill’s 'handbook' examines many of the day-to-day issues during his nearly 30 years in the political arena, 11 of which as Minister for Environment and Conservation as well as Minister for Health. It doesn’t take long before we get to see what makes Hill, the man, tick and we realise what is behind the mask.

John Hill has provided an intimate and captivatingly look at what goes on in politics. At the same time he has given us a charming look at the inner workings of a political party, government and parliament. Born in Sydney in 1949 Hill settled in South Australia in 1974 and started his career as a teacher but changing eventually to become a ministerial assistant in 1986. In 1994 he became ALP state secretary and three years later member for Kaurna. He was appointed to the Rann Government on 6 March 2002.

From day one he has made an effort to keep his desk uncluttered and clean, reduce the number of files and save paper and trees. Even so, in 2012 his office processed 6215 files and issued 133 press releases. He attended 866 formal meetings, gave 201 speeches and his chauffeur driven car clocked up 44,645 kilometres.

All this was possible because he headed Ronald Regan’s advice to surround himself with the best people available. He ran the show like a business and held weekly meetings which provided the backbone of the decision-making process and ensured that everyone was on the same wavelength. It was also the place where thought bubbles could be workshopped or deflated and where propositions contrary to government policy, or politically dangerous or stupid could be killed off.

Hill tried to visit as many people as possible who could or would be affected by new or changed regulations, policies or laws. His opinion was that it would increase the understanding of what the top wanted and made those who did the real work feel that they were part and parcel of the big thing. Although he knew that changing legislation could be achieved by administrative action, which was easier and faster and not at the whim of the Legislative Council, his advise was Legislate, Legislate and Legislate.

As a former teacher he wanted to educate his audience, give them the facts and explain as to why somethings had to be done in a certain way. He also encouraged those who were trying but not quite there.

For Hill it was important that public servants had a minister who cared about the work they did, understood it to a degree and who defended them from unfair attacks. This could only create loyalty and trust. It could also mean that politicians and public servants didn’t lower standards and refrain from describing others by such demeaning statements as ‘useless as tits on a bull’ or that they ‘didn’t know their arse from their elbow’.

Throughout the book Hill has spiced-up his writing with many amusing and at times amazing examples to make his points about what did work and what did not. Concerning Policy he states that ministers are responsible for it, that’s what they are there for. However, according to him some aren’t very interested in policy, as long as they get to drive in a big car and have enough people around them to call them ‘Minister’.

Being able to compromise was essential to Hill who saw it as an irreplaceable tool of politics. Not everyone would agree with it as somethings are worth fighting for. His charter dealing with this topic contains most of the battle fought and won to build the new Royal Adelaide Hospital. This chapter is a real eye-opener as it highlights the fear of change - the fear of the unknown.

Being able to cope with always being in the public eye can be difficult for any person, even a politician but more so for a minister. There are the interviews with newspaper, radio and television reporters. While most reporters were affable, given an opportunity they ‘will slit your throat and use against you whatever they can. Some says Hill ‘wouldn’t hesitate to put the boot in’.

Hill learned early in his career that the public doesn’t judge you so much on what happens when you are a minister, but on how you respond and deal with it. This was clearly shown when some 200 elderly people were potentially infected with AIDS in the Berri Hospital. The story barely made the news in Adelaide. People expect problems, mistakes or breakdowns. What they want is for their minister to take charge and fix it. It was a completely different story when a few people died from listeriosis in three different hospitals, two Public and one Private.

To make his point Hill mentioned the Cyclone Tracy disaster in 1974 which not only wiped out Darwin but also much of Gough Whitlam’s credibility when he continued his European trip (holiday) and didn’t bother to come home. Another requisite for a minister who wants to be successful is ambition and to love the job. Hill was sworn in as Minister of Health on 4 Nove4mber 2005, upon his own request, and the first one to ever do so. Ambition is a powerful motivator and the really successful leaders are driven and, as history demonstrates ‘often slightly mad as well’.

Thirty years in politics is a long time and Hill, after his retirement from it, decided to write down his experiences, successes and failures, providing not only aspiring and new politicians with the knowledge to make Australia a better place but really anybody who wants to do things better.

Review by Nic Klaassen

On Being a Minister by John Hill,
PB 240 pp, with colour photographs and index is available at $29.95, from
Wakefield Press
Telephone 08 8352 4455


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