‘Adviserous horribilis’: MP unloads on political staffers

By David Donaldson

Friday April 15, 2016

Fat, lazy Arts dropouts … advisers — or “snouts” — have spread like myxomatosis, says bureaucrat-turned-MP David Speirs. Beyond the hyperbole, he tells The Mandarin they threaten frank and fearless advice.

For years public servants have spoken darkly of the malign influence of political staffers on government, but one bureaucrat-turned-parliamentarian has taken that criticism to the next level, describing them as Arts degree dropouts and pests who enjoy “fatty and sugary foods”.

South Australian Opposition MP David Speirs, who spent five years working on policy in the Department of Premier and Cabinet, also claimed a public servant told him he arrived at work one Monday morning to find a political hack had been appointed “on about $150,000 a year or more” without an open process.

Speirs tore into staffers as a bane on good government:

“Like a particularly bad strain of myxomatosis, advisers have spread through political offices since the 1990s, multiplying at a catastrophic rate and providing, in my opinion, the biggest single challenge to accountable, intelligent, evidence-based public administration.

“Advisers. Latin name: ‘Adviserous horribilis’. Usually under qualified and overly confident, largely aged 25 to 35, characterised by having the log-in details of multiple fake Twitter accounts stored in the notes section of their iPhones. Their habitat is a murky half-world, a purgatory somewhere between public service and political office.”

Serious intent

But, Speirs says, this was more than just a spray. The theatrical language was to draw public attention to a more serious point about a loss of expertise and the recession of frank and fearless advice.

” … [knowledgeable bureaucrats] are in a far better place to give ministers advice.”

He’s worried about the number of advisers moving in and out of public service jobs, particularly in the Department of Premier and Cabinet, and says both former colleagues and current bureaucrats he’s never met have contacted him to convey their concern.

And although he thinks the current state government is guilty of politicising the public service, he is upfront that it’s a problem across Australia and for both sides of politics.

“The breakdown of the Westminster system is a big problem in 2016,” he told The Mandarin.

He notes Business Council of Australia CEO Jennifer Westacott’s call to cut the numbers of advisers in half. “I would be in favour of reduction in the number of advisers,” Speirs says.

“People who have worked in government and know the systems are in a far better place to give ministers advice. If I were a minister in the future I would want to be given frank and fearless advice and I don’t think that that gets through to ministers today.”

He’s also on board with a legislated code of conduct for staffers floated by former top mandarin Terry Moran, among others.

An overabundant species

Advisers “drink at small bars”, have an affinity for foam balls and “enjoy fatty and sugary foods and have the physical characteristics associated with enjoying fatty and sugary foods,” he told parliament on Wednesday.

“Chameleon-like, they have the unique ability to change their skins, depending on the location of the safe seat they aspire to represent. They often interbreed, leading to a reduced gene pool, and are loved only by their mothers. While their day-to-day habitats tend to be open plan offices, enabling them to throw foam footballs to one another, every fortnight or so on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays they congregate in the shadowy benches of the Speaker’s gallery to watch their favourite sport: question time.

“They are, for sure, an interesting pest, an overabundant species, to use the latest vernacular from the environment department, and as observers of the environment department would know, whether it is corellas or fur seals, this government is loath to deal with overabundant creatures.

“I am not an advocate for slashing the Public Service, but I am an advocate for slashing the use of political advisers. As their title would suggest, these guys and girls come up with advice, but it really does not need to be good advice. Advice is a very subjective term, so it can just be advice. They will make changes for the sake of change, just to justify their existence and remind themselves that despite having dropped out of their arts degree to concentrate on student politics, they are geniuses, masters of political strategy, and so they tell themselves a hundred times a day that they are normal, with emphasis on that very subjective word ‘normal’, and lucky to have landed jobs serving the good folk of South Australia.

“Advisers are a social species, particularly due to the increasing numbers of them. Back before they had government protection they were actually a threatened species, like the bare-rumped sheathtail bat or the Gilbert’s potoroo, both on the EPBC critically endangered list. There was one day not so long ago when there was only one adviser per minister — only one. Can you believe it? How did government survive? Regardless, there are many more today and they have that status of abundancy.”

In a follow-up speech on Thursday Speirs recalled his experience working alongside staffers.

“Back when I worked in the Public Service, we had an unsubtle code name for politically appointed public servants or advisers. We called them ‘snouts’: snouts in the trough, lapping up the spoils of office, the gruel of government. When they walked past our desks, we would flick the tip of our noses and oink, likely too obvious, indicating a snout in the house, someone sniffing around looking to make the transition from political adviser to public servant or back again.”

The experience was more than mere rivalry. As someone from the other side of the political fence, Speirs claims he was poorly treated by Labor staffers in the then-Rann government. He threatened to reveal the identities of those who made life difficult for him.

“Someday, and that day will come, I will tell this parliament how difficult a number of former staffers made my life as a young public servant in my early 20s. When that day comes … I will use parliamentary privilege to describe and for the first time name (because I have not done that to date) the people who bullied and intimidated me during my time as a 23 year old in the Premier’s department. I have been very specific about not naming individuals to date, but that day will come.”

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Laurie Patton
Laurie Patton
4 years ago

This coin has two sides. There are certainly political advisors who don’t have the qualifications or the experience to match more senior public servants. That’s an issue to do with the recruitment process and the pay, not the concept. There are also public servants so lacking in real world experience that it stymies their ability to provide contemporary and relevant advice. I well remember a certain departmental secretary bemoaning the quality of his executives and his inability to secure suitable high calibre candidates for senior roles (especially located in Canberra). “They know a lot about the XXX Act”, he said, “but not much else”. The answer is to have a balance of people providing advice to government and a bit of mutual respect for the important, equally valuable, roles played by advisors and public servants.

The Mandarin
themandarinau
4 years ago

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