The election of the so-called ‘teal independents’ and their dispute with the federal government over staff numbers has re-ignited the debate about the role of political advisors.
As a former political advisor myself, I think it’s important we understand and agree on why ministers and backbenchers have personal staff. The answer is simple enough. It’s because their workload has been judged to have increased and become more complex such that they need support to do their jobs effectively.
Decades ago, ministers had to settle for a couple of private secretaries plus a press secretary and a ‘typing pool’. Backbenchers had one or two ‘electorate secretaries’.
These days many, ‘though not all, ministers hire advisors with high-level subject matter expertise in their portfolio. Others hire political operatives substantially on the basis of personal relationships.
Ministers and backbenchers have a number of staff whose specific role is to assist them in serving their constituents. These work primarily from an electorate office rather than a ministerial office or Parliament House.
Personal staffers whatever their specific role should be seen as an extension of the politician they serve. They are there to supplement the work of their boss and sometimes to deputise for them.
The ‘department’ used to refer to me (sometimes less than generously) as ‘The Shadow’. It was understood and accepted that if I asked them to do something I did so with the authority of and on behalf of the minister.
Unlike officers in the public service, personal staffers are allowed to perform their duties in line with their politics — or more specifically, the politics of the politician they serve.
Given they are paid by the public, we have the right to expect certain standards, rules and regulations to apply to political staffers.
Those rules and regulations might not be the same for ministerial advisors as for electorate officers, although some common standards would certainly be applicable.
Because pubic servants act as ministerial surrogates and administratively report to them, politicians should be accountable for the adherence of their staff to any standards, rules and regulations. In the same way in which a CEO is held ultimately accountable for the employees reporting to them.
It has been suggested political advisors should appear before parliamentary and other inquiries. This needs to be carefully considered. Trust and confidentiality lie at the heart of the relationship between a politician and their personal staff. Only in extremely limited circumstances would it be reasonable for personal staffers to be required to give evidence in relation to their work. This is no different to the restrictions on public servants being interrogated in parliamentary hearings. Only senior officers appear and they have a right not to answer certain questions. In both cases, it is the elected politician who should be publicly accountable.
For political staffers to be effective, and therefore be justifiably paid by the public, they need to be governed in a manner that protects them to the same extent as public servants who do their job diligently and honestly. Their role should not be elevated to the point that they become a highly visible part of the political process.
An old hand once put it this way, “political staff are like children in that they should be seen but not heard”.