Your chance to make those West Wing dreams come true

By Melissa Coade

June 2, 2022

parliament-house
There are a number of surprises in the department secretary changes, yet all of the appointments are solid. (BISURJADI/Adobe)

A new government means new political staffers — and they’re hiring. While the view from Parliament House in Canberra is nothing like the West Wing, the work is important and the pay is good. 

Just ask Labor’s Murray Watt, the newly minted cabinet minister for agriculture, fisheries and forestry, as well as emergency management. 

On Tuesday the Queensland senator tweeted to his followers: “Want to work for prime minister Anthony Albanese? Ministerial staff will be a big part of it.”

The social media post included a link to a landing page hosted by the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet (DMP&C), with a deadline for EOIs of June 5. Click through, and you get a sense of the salary a political advisor can earn in the latest commonwealth MOPS enterprise agreement. It’s not peanuts. 

Canberra’s public servants have a thing or two to say about the encounters (good and bad) they have developed with ministerial advisors — including frustration about developing a working relationship with some individuals who are either intent on metaphorically head-kicking on behalf of their minister or merely sent to give the impression of consulting with the bureaucracy. 

There had been some hope in Home Affairs about the new relationships with ministerial advisors that might have been forged if Kristina Keneally had won the seat of Fowler and taken up the national security portfolio. But this is politics — that outcome did not materialise and instead, Victorian frontbencher Claire O’Neil will take on the challenge. 

Some in the department, which had aggregated budgeted expenses totalling more than $8.5 billion in 2021–22, can recall another, less constructive period with Peter Dutton as their political master and his advisors to contend with. 

Even when Dutton was promoted to Defence, the folks at Home Affairs continued to see the fallout of bad relations between his political advisors and that of his successor, Karen Andrews. It was an awkward space for the bureaucrats to navigate when even the ministers’ people could not play nice with each other. 

Beyond the internal political posturing that happens within a governing political party, the growing influence of ministerial staffers has also been cause for concern by public administration experts like the new DPM&C head professor Glyn Davis. The issue cuts across the political spectrum and has been identified as an issue from Terry Moran’s time as APS boss under former Labor prime minister Keven Rudd from 2008 to 2011.

Davis said a stocktake of the APS undertaken by Moran exposed the consequences of running the public service under a model that expected ‘government to steer but not necessarily row’. More power in the hands of ministerial advisers was not so much the problem — it was about accountability. 

“[Moran’s report] ‘Ahead of the Game’ abounds with quiet warnings. The public service, suggests the report, needs to find a working relationship with ministerial staff, who now issue orders about matters which should remain the prerogative of ministers and public servants,” Davis said in a lecture about APS capability last year

“The report worries too that departments, struggling with controls on staffing numbers and budgets, will contract out ‘business as usual’ tasks. Read a decade later, the dominant theme is growing deficiencies within the contract state rather than an optimistic future vision for better administration.”

Davis’ appointment as head of DPM&C will start next week but he has spent a lifetime thinking about the challenges the APS faces and what solutions can help address them. 

When the latest APS review was presented to then DPM&C secretary Phil Gaetjens in September of 2019, the document addressed what to do about the increasing politicisation of roles or decisions previously in the remit of the public service. What this called for, the Thodey Review suggested, was clear induction programs, HR support for ministerial advisers and a new code of conduct that was legislated for. A more transparent regime to show voters what role the bureaucracy played in making particular decisions was also crucial. 

“This complements other measures in this review to ensure a clear understanding of the respective roles of ministers, their advisers, and the APS as a basis for strengthening the partnership between the APS and ministers,” the review said.

“Genuine partnership requires openness. Administrative barriers to openness need to be assessed, with privacy, FOI and record-keeping arrangements reviewed to support better access to data, administration and decision-making. To support the APS’s central role in advising the government freely and robustly, materials prepared by the APS to inform deliberative processes of government should be exempted from release under FOI laws.”

Speaking to The Mandarin ahead of the election, Moran had observed there was no apparent interest on the part of politicians of the past 10 years to do anything on this point. He was also circumspect about whether a new government would mean much for improving the ratio of power to the accountability ministerial staffers wielded in government. 

“If you look at Thodey’s report on the public service, and I did one 10 years before, they both say pretty much the same thing about the APS and what needs to be changed,” Moran said. 

“But I don’t see any special interest on the part of politicians to do anything about political advisers who now loom large in policy decision-making.”

Davis’ appointment might just help reinvigorate the appetite for this important issue to gain traction so that the balance of influence on matters of Australian policy can start to be restored. 

“To be a partner, one among many operating across a lively network, the commonwealth must not assume control but rather work within a coalition of service providers around a shared goal,” Davis said in his Jim Carlton lecture last year. 

“It requires humility and collaboration from everyone involved, including public servants and ministers impatient for results.

“If implemented with skill, the ideas of partners within a network, a rich ecology of communities and charities, agencies and activists, could offer an exciting future for public service.”

Should you want to be part of this ‘rich ecology’ as a ministerial staffer transforming Australia for the better, the new government is hiring. There are less than four days left to apply.


READ MORE:

Is the appointment of Glyn Davis the beginning of real APS reform?

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