John Button, the best writer ever to hold high office in Australia, once compared power to electricity. He imagined power flickering and spluttering across his desk like an electric charge. As a minister, Button contended, you had to be quick and brave enough to grab the charge if you wanted to put power to use.
Power balances between prime ministers or ministers and their chief advisers - their genesis, gathering and transmission - are especially closed to outsiders. So they should be. Ties between the two are tested only behind closed doors, in quiet talks with no third party present and no holds barred.
I once suggested to an old stager in Parliament House that the intimate, idiosyncratic interdependence between ministers and advisers was different in each case, defined only by its quiddities. He ridiculed that proposition, arguing that the bonds between the two were always and everywhere the same. "They kill each other."
The two ended up unduly reliant on each other's judgment, unwittingly hobbled by each other's pre-conceptions and prejudices. The point about exhausting one another should ring through to any humble labourer in the vineyards at Parliament House.
A mate of mine used to joke that a dose of cocaine must have been added to the air conditioning each morning, to give some renewed fizz to permanently tired staff. I used to worry when the seat of my chair seemed warm when I returned at seven in the morning, as though I had never actually gone home to bed.
The sole - and only partial - exception I have encountered to the killing each other rule was a most senior South African adviser who worked for President Nelson Mandela.
He mentioned to me that, after each public engagement, his president was always to be found out the back of the venue, chatting and enjoying a cup of tea with folk who had waited on tables, opened car doors or cleaned the dishes.
One night he suggested to Mandela - ageing, not well, an indispensable national asset - that he might better conserve his energy. In a restrained and courteous manner, the president replied that, had the adviser spent 27 years in gaol, he too would realise that his life was lived for other people. Said adviser went off covered with shame, determined to work 24/7, even if he did kill himself.
Despite those closed doors, two crib-sheets have recently explained the alchemy between ministers and advisers. Both purport to be fiction. One is now 32 years old, the second just finished. The first is Yes, Minister, later Yes, Prime Minister, a British television show. The other is Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy of novels.
One series concerns a hapless minister/prime minister, propped up but also duped and mocked by the heads of his department and office. The other chronicles a purposeful, remorseless adviser, who props up but rightly fears King Henry VIII.
The two commentaries on power are separated by four-and-a-half centuries, but united in the depths of their cynicism about how things work. In Yes, Minister, although that cynicism is leavened by gentle wit and genuinely funny exchanges, the essential message is that good government cannot be entrusted to those in power. In Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell trusts in himself alone, but is at least inspired by the notion that government can perform good and useful tasks.
The Yes, Minister model is easily recognisable, even though I have known ministers to complain that their advisers laughed in the wrong places. In the first episode, the chief of staff opines that ministers sit on two types of chair: "one sort folds up instantly, the other sort goes round and round in circles". The senior official notes that he "never met a minister who needed my help to make a fool of himself". A "controversial" policy will lose a government votes, a "courageous" one an election. "When the Treasury understands the questions, the cabinet doesn't understand the answers." "Almost all government policy is wrong but ... frightfully well carried out."
On and on go the irony and sarcasm, Latin tags and bureaucratic gobbledegook. Yes, Minister is too smart and snide for its own good; anyone harbouring delusions about the efficacy of government power does better to return to the insidious Cromwell and his invidious fate.
Substituting "minister" for "king", there a reader can find current, practical advice. "Never enter a contest of wills with the king." Or, "do not turn your back on the king, This is not just a matter of protocol." Even possessed of "a sorcerer's wit and conjurer's wiles", weighed down by grand titles, advancing on "ladders or wings", power can still deceive and destroy those who seek to use it.
Cromwell reminds us that most political careers end badly. He reckons that advisers' job is "to animate and quicken virtue in their prince". That ambition never crossed the mind of the cast in Yes, Minister. The quest for ministers who want their virtue quickened, and who will grab the electric current, may occupy studious advisers for some little while.
- Mark Thomas is a Canberra-based writer.