Mind the rise — and ever rise — of ministerial advisers

By Graeme Dobell

February 24, 2016

Minder (noun): Body guard; staffer working for a politician/minister. Derived from London West End slang for a muscle man who protects a criminal or shady operator.

Minding (verb): The act of working as a Minder, to protect, promote, serve or help.

When created by Gough Whitlam in 1972, they were called ministerial staffers. Or simply staffers. Then a decade on, by 1982, the “staffer” usage was subverted in Canberra. Minders they became, and so they have remained.

The nomenclature switch was driven by British comedy-drama series Minder, which quickly hit the ABC. The minder in question, Terry, was streetwise but always in thrall to his boss, Arthur Daley. “Arfur” was a wheeler-dealer with one eye on the cops and the other fixed on the next deal, and had a great way with words. Not for Arthur the cliché about the world being your oyster: “The world is your lobster, my son!”

Any Australian minister would understand. Any Australian minder could merely nod.

The TV minder inhabited a grey area between law and crime, just as the Oz minder works a shadowy zone where politics meets power and the Parliament meets the executive. The zone operates as a pressure cooker and clearing house: push policy, run politics, skirt Parliament and ride the public service.

Arthur would be amazed at the scope, but energised by the bounteous opportunities. And the lack of oversight by anyone outside the executive.

“Arthur would be amazed at the scope …”

Having provided the Westminster model for what has become the platypus model of the Australian political system (works only in practice, not theory), London also has naming rights for the minder as the strongest new creation of Oz politics.

Created by Whitlam (1972-75), the minder model was cemented in place by Malcolm Fraser (1975-83). Both sides of politics tried the minder model and found it good.

The Bob Hawke-Paul Keating governments (1983-96) pumped power into the model and numbers boomed. The Hawke government formalised the existence of the minders in ’84 with the Members of Parliament Staff Act. The law enacted what had already been established: minders serve at the minister’s (or member’s) pleasure and can be dismissed in an instant. If the minister falls from office, the minder goes over the cliff at the same moment.

The act created a unique legislative framework for staffers and consultants working for ministers, members and senators — giving minders four notable features:

  • They work directly for individual members of Parliament;
  • Their salaries come from the public purse;
  • They have little security of employment; and
  • Unlike public servants, they may perform political functions.

The trend line for minder numbers, from the moment of creation, has been steadily upward. New governments sometimes slash at the numbers in the executive wing to show how different they are to their despised and defeated predecessors. Then the upward trend resumes.

The minder momentum reached warp speed with the move into the new Parliament in 1988. The old Parliament imposed a physical limit on numbers. The new building meant the executive wing at the rear of the building could easily hold 400-plus ministerial minders. Glory days had arrived.

Much speculation at the time of the move up the hill was about how extra parliamentary space would allow the Senate committee system to expand in power and scope. It didn’t really happen.

The big change was the minder phenomenon, as both driver and expression of the presidential pretensions of the prime ministership.

By the end of the Hawke-Keating period, the minder was still a shadowy element in the power structure. Few in Canberra doubted, though, that the minder was also a central element in the way power flowed. From the ministerial suites, minders stood eye-to-eye, as equals, with the elite public servants atop departments — a remarkable rise in only two decades of minder existence.

Consider the judgement in 1996 by Sandy Holloway, a senior public servant, who had been top minder (1988-91) as Hawke’s principal private secretary/chief of staff:

“I would hazard that ministerial offices are as important now in big policy, big program design — and big crisis management — as departments. More selectively to be sure, differently to be sure, but as important in their own way. If departments often not only generate some creative ideas but also do the bulk of the hard, slogging work … ministerial staff can be crucial in choices about prospective lines of work, sifting options, running an ever critical eye over what is put forward, tossing out ideas (in both senses), and navigating propositions forward through the political labyrinth in Parliament House to a point where decisions are made.”

Holloway listed minder attributes as:

  • Fast footwork;
  • Capacity for troubleshooting;
  • Immediate access to the minister of a kind the public servant generally does not have; and
  • Personal closeness to the minister — “a relationship of trust, and savvy about the political, media and parliamentary environments”.

The attributes build on the legal framework created by the Staff Act.

This article was originally published at The Strategist, an Australian Strategic Policy Institute publication — the next post in a series will discuss minder administration

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