Chief of staff to Prime Minister Julia Gillard
Born in: Bendigo, Victoria
Friends: Julia Gillard | Steve Bracks
Home Town: Melbourne
Ben Hubbard was Labor's beacon of hope when he took over as Julia Gillard's chief of staff last February. Here was the man, thought the true believers, who could end the policy stuff-ups, sharpen the government's message, and bring order to an out-of-control office.
A year on, it's hard to judge the boy from Bendigo's tenure as anything but a disappointment. HMAS Gillard is floundering -- and could soon go under altogether.
Ask Labor insiders for their thoughts on Hubbard and you'll hear the same words again and again. Organised. Well-liked. Calm. Policy-focused.
While blokey and bawdy – a frequent dropper of the 'f' bomb – he's not bad-tempered.
"I can't imagine anybody not liking Ben," says a former senior Gillard staffer; "It's hard to think of a bad thing to say about him," remarks a former ALP national secretary.
Hubbard helped the PM manoeuvre the carbon and mining taxes through a hung parliament – both legislative triumphs. And there's no doubt he's made Gillard's office a smoother, more cohesive unit.
One of Hubbard's first decisions was to launch a "war on crap" to clear out piles of unread paperwork. He set up clear structures to deal with bureaucrats and ministers. And he instituted a more formal dress code, telling staff: "This is not an abattoir or a f-cking ad agency. This is the prime minister's office."
But Hubbard is not just an administrator: he's also the prime minister's chief political adviser. And there's no escaping the Gillard government's political blunders. They all lead to one conclusion: Gillard is being given poor advice – or she's receiving sound counsel and ignoring it.
The first mistake was perhaps the most damaging: failing to foresee the fury that Gillard's decision to break her "no carbon tax" promise would unleash. Gillard's line – that she'd always supported putting a price on carbon – simply didn't cut it with voters. By March 2011 Labor's primary vote, according to Newspoll, had crashed to 30% and it's been stuck there ever since.
Later came Gillard's speech to the ALP National Conference – widely panned for her use of the trite phrase "we are us" and the pointed omission of any reference to Kevin Rudd's achievements as prime minister. Then there was the Australia Day tent embassy debacle that claimed a media adviser's scalp. And, most recently, Gillard's disastrous decision to appear on the ABC's 4 Corners special on the Labor leadership.
Still, the primary charge against Hubbard is not incompetence. It's impotence. The hung parliament has weakened the prime minister's authority and, consequently, her chief of staff's. White-anting from Kevin Rudd supporters, ruthless oppositionism from Tony Abbott, and hostility from the populist media have made a tough job even tougher.
Being the prime minister's chief of staff, at any time, is one of the most challenging gigs going. When parliament is sitting, a work day for Hubbard starts before 7am, finishes after 10pm, and involves everything from scrutinising legislation to meeting with business leaders and trade union bosses.
"You are the head of the praetorian guard for the prime minister," explains veteran ALP strategist Bruce Hawker on the role. "You have to take overarching responsibility of all the ministries in the government. You have to be the confidante of the prime minister in a way that no one else would be. You have to handle political and administrative duties."
A senior Gillard staffer describes the job more bluntly: "Everything that's shit lands up on your desk."
When Independent MP Rob Oakeshott confirmed over summer that he would not support poker machine pre-commitment, Hubbard helped Gillard devise a fall-back package. When Alan Joyce decided to ground Qantas' fleet last October, Hubbard took the call from Qantas HQ. And when GetUp! sent an email to members in June regarding disagreement within the Multi-Party Committee on Climate Change, it was Hubbard who took charge. He got on the blower and left a brutal message on Simon Sheikh's voice mail (a rare example of him losing his temper).
Hubbard never thought it would be an easy gig – and he certainly didn't lobby for it. When Gillard asked him to replace the struggling Amanda Lampe, his first child was under six months old. He had a job – CEO of the Victorian bushfire reconstruction taskforce – that was well-paid, rewarding, and gave him enough spare time to play district cricket on the weekends.
Still, Hubbard said yes. The former senior staffer to Victorian premier Steve Bracks is a Labor man to his bones. He has enormous personal respect for Gillard, having spent two years running her office during her time as Deputy PM and Education Minister. The PM, in return, trusts him implicitly – making him, without doubt, one of the most influential people in Canberra.
Labor's wise heads have been heartened by two of his recent, high-profile hires. Late last year, Hubbard brought in John McTernan, who he met while working on Tony Blair's 1997 election campaign, to craft Gillard's political narrative. And he's recruited former Fairfax corporate affairs boss Bruce Wolpe to build bridges with the business community.
But as the drumbeat of leadership speculation grows ever louder, a question hangs in the air, begging, screaming to be answered. Is it all too little too late?