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The ultimate insiders' job

Date

Nicholas Reece

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Chief of Staff Peta Credlin. She is probably the second-most talked about person in Canberra.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Chief of Staff Peta Credlin. She is probably the second-most talked about person in Canberra. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Stories abound about the power and persona of Peta Credlin – among the political class, the Prime Minister's chief of staff is probably the second most talked about person in Canberra.

The intrigue is easy to understand. 

In a city where the main currency is power she has more of it than most cabinet ministers and departmental secretaries.  

Paul Keating and his Chief of Staff, Don Russell.

Paul Keating and his Chief of Staff, Don Russell.

Tony Abbott’s calls her “the force majeure” and she has been known to finish his sentences in meetings.

When backbenchers grumbled about her “obsessive centralised control” Finance Minister Mathias Cormann launched a defence of Credlin that confirmed her status in the new government. “She obviously has a very important job at the heart of the government and she will be central to our success,” he said.

Credlin holds the ultimate backroom role in Australian politics.  Despite her extraordinary power, she does not hold an elected position. She is not appointed by the cabinet, nor is she directly subject to the scrutiny of Parliament. And she does not do press conferences that would allow open questioning by journalists.

And despite all the chatter, the job of chief of staff to the prime minister is little understood.  Profiles of the role by journalists seem almost cartoonish in their focus on the “hidden face of power”.

TV programs such as The West Wing, In the Loop and The Hollowmen reflect the shift that has occurred in the balance of power in government from public servants to political staffers compared with the days of Yes Minister. 

But how did the job of CoS, which did not exist until the 1970s, come to be one of the most important in the political system? And how did its occupants become such high-profile figures, yet still escape formal institutional scrutiny?

Two new books by academics R.A.W. Rhodes and Anne Tiernan – Lessons in Governing and The Gate Keepers – set out to explore these questions. 

They have undertaken a detailed examination of the job with 11 people who have held the position, a roll call of names well known to political insiders: David Epstein, Arthur Sinodinos, Grahame Morris, Geoff Walsh, Don Russell, Alan Hawke, Graham Evans, Sandy Hollway and David Kemp.

And the observations about recent holders of the position including Peta Credlin, Ben Hubbard, Amanda Lampe, Alistair Jordan and Tony Nutt are sure to be the source of further intrigue and chatter.

Lessons in Governing is an example of political science where it matters – at the cutting edge of power and Gate Keepers is a “how-to” manual for would be chiefs of staff.They reveal the extraordinary support needed by the Australian prime minister and his or her office and the central role of the chief of staff in navigating the challenges and landmines of political leadership.

While Australia has had prime ministers since 1901 the position of CoS or an equivalent was established only in 1972. In the 42 years since, 25 people have held the position serving eight prime ministers. With an average tenure of less than two years it is not surprising the job is considered by many to be the toughest in politics.

The former chiefs of staff use metaphors such as gate keeper, javelin catcher, shock absorber, pest controller and Dr No to describe the role. Other common descriptions include mood manager, confidante, alter ego and sounding board. And it seems the ultimate compliment for a CoS is to be described as “a good operator”.

These labels are an attempt to capture the harsh human realities and mind-boggling mechanics of running government from the prime minister’s office in the modern era.

Former CoS to Bob Hawke Sandy Hollway says: “My one word to the next CoS would be ‘priorities’.  It sounds mundane but it is important to help the prime minister, who is the pinnacle of the governmental system, not to get lost in the minutiae and not to let the urgent crowd out the important.”

Former Paul Keating Cos Don Russell says: “I think you’ve got to be willing to use your judgment – that’s what you’re paid to do. That’s what your role is, to have a view and be willing to back it. Some people find that quite stressful; some people thrive on it.

The history and growth in the number of ministerial advisers and the CoS who leads them is a fascinating reflection on modern politics.

Until the 1970s ministers of the Crown relied on a very small staff to perform administrative and secretarial duties. The prime minister had a single press secretary. During this era the public service, and more specifically the senior public servants known as mandarins, effectively ruled. 

Gough Whitlam was the first to use staffers in a systemic way. Influenced by the US model of executive administration he wanted to assail the virtual monopoly of the public service in the formulation and co-ordination of policy. 

Whitlam saw staffers as a way to strengthen the control of democratically elected ministers over policy creation and implementation.  To that end he established a private office for himself and asked former academic Dr Peter Wilenski to run it.

As opposition leader Malcolm Fraser was critical of the role of political staff in Whitlam’s office and when he became PM he initially cut their number. But by his third term, after massive policy wrangles with Treasury, he set out to build more advisory capacity around himself and his ministers.   

Overseeing this development was his CoS, Dr David Kemp, a towering intellectual figure in Liberal politics for four decades.  By the end of his term Fraser had more ministerial advisers than Whitlam.

Bob Hawke continued the trend but formalised arrangements through a Members of Parliament (Staff) Act that recognised their place in this system. In this era many career public servants took roles in political offices – leading economist Ross Garnaut worked in Hawke’s office as did Rod Sims, now head of the ACCC, and Peter Harris, now head of the Productivity Commission. 

Several chiefs of staff interviewed in the books talk about how the move to the new parliament house in 1988 changed the geography of power. Politicians no longer worked in cramped accommodation and had the space to employ far more personal staff.  Meanwhile, the departments and their officers were located in another suburb and needed to catch a  taxi to meet the minister.

Keating introduced a more centralised approach to running government and Howard oversaw the triumph of the political office, which continues to prevail with an expansion of political staff in the Australian government to about 450 and the establishment of a government staff committee to take a tight reign over staff appointments.

At the top of this new layer of government sits the prime minister’s CoS. Rhodes and Tiernan identify the key tasks for a chief of staff and the political staff as: supporting and protecting the prime minister; the day-to-day running of the office and crisis management;  developing and controlling the policy agenda and setting priorities; and political management including the PM’s dependencies in the cabinet and ministry, the party room, media and public service.

All the chiefs of staff interviewed agree that the political office must adapt to meet the PM’s needs and work preferences, not the other way around.

The two books also contain some insights into the lessons learnt by our former prime ministers. Grahame Morris providers the secret of his former boss' success: “In Howard’s case you had a massive transition in the man himself from a difficult period in the mid-1980s to prime minister in the mid-1990s. To me the difference was ‘man management’. He used to place great importance on the party room meeting, on the cabinet, on the leadership meetings and on the tactics meeting. So you sort of had three big touch points most days, or certainly most weeks, with the colleagues … whenever there was something really, really important, like the Senate vote on Telstra or industrial relations or the GST or something, invariably those with the crucial vote would want to have a talk to the prime minister. He used to handle those very, very well.”

Don Russell explained of his former boss: “Keating always liked to tell the story about when he first became treasurer. He used to religiously take all the paper that came out of the department and read it. It dawned on him after about six months that he was basically just working for the department. He never saw this as a smart use of his time, so he stopped reading the paper as it came across. He would consume every bit of paper that he thought was important and put that in his head.”

David Epstein explains Kevin Rudd’s early frustration with the public service when the head of PM&C was "unavailable" during Labor’s transition to government in 2007: “It was the most disappointing thing about sitting down with PM&C – how little preparation had been done on [the transition]. Peter Shergold had told me he was going to move on. He didn’t quite tell me that he had booked a holiday to the US with his daughter, which was really unhelpful.”

These books could have benefited from a more detailed exploration for the reasons for the growth in the power of the CoS to the prime minister and the ranks of ministerial advisers as this provides an insight into the complex, contested and unforgiving environment of modern professional politics.

This is a very hard time to be in executive government – the reform game is tougher than ever. Power has become easier to get, harder to hold on to, and harder to use to get things done. The Prime Minister has an unbelievably tough job, the role of chief of staff is arguably harder again.

The factors that have caused this shift are not well understood but include: the relentless pressure of the 24-hour media cycle; the challenges of parliamentary politics where majorities are hard to come by; the complexity of the leadership function in a web of decision-making networks; and a cynical and fragmented electorate that is hard to lead.

The simplistic critique of the growth in ministerial staff and the rise of the CoS is that modern politicians are obsessed by spin. The reality is that it is a response to these new challenges.

It has occurred despite the criticism of oppositions, the glare of unfavourable media scrutiny and the concerted opposition of the public service. Even the person and position of CoS now attracts regular media attention and criticism – everything it seems is fair game. 

But politicians are prepared to cop this criticism because they have come to find their staff as a necessary element in their survival. 

Rhodes and Tiernan’s books conclude with a synopsis of the key lessons for success for a prime minister’s office. Some suggestions are self-evident but overall they make for a solid contribution to the craft of public management. 

They do not, however, amount to a comprehensive guide to success for a national leader. Unfortunately no such guide exists.

So for now our political leaders are condemned to losing their jobs faster than ever before and finding it harder to get anything done in the short time they have at the top.  

And chiefs of staff are the poor souls who have become the shock absorber between the dreams of our national leaders and the brutal reality of modern government.

The Gate Keepers – Lessons From the Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff by R.A.W. Rhodes and Lessons in Governing – A Profile on Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff by Anne Tiernan are both published by MUP.

Nicholas Reece is a public policy fellow at the University of Melbourne and was a senior adviser to fomer prime minister Julia Gillard.

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