Dr Maria Maley: Ministerial advisers play a vital role - and are shrouded in secrecy

Dr Maria Maley: Ministerial advisers play a vital role - and are shrouded in secrecy
Former Prime Minister John Howard. Picture: Jamila Toderas courtesy of The Canberra Times
Tuesday 4 February 2020

By Dr Maria Maley, School of Politics and International Relations, ANU

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times, on 4 February 2020. Published with permission.

The Independent Review of the Australian Public Service which was handed to the government last year has brought ministerial staff into the news. The review recommended the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 be amended to establish a legislated code of conduct for staff, with "appropriate" mechanisms of enforcement (for "appropriate", read "independent").

At the moment staff must adhere to a Statement of Standards which sets out the behaviour expected of ministerial advisers. But its wording is weak. It says advisers must "acknowledge" they are not authorised to direct public servants and "recognise" that executive decisions are the preserve of ministers and public servants.

Enforcement of the standards is private and secretive, in the hands of the Prime Minister's Office and the Government Staffing Committee, a body internal to the government which does not report publicly on its actions. To many, strengthening the accountability of ministerial staff is long overdue. However the government rejected the Independent Review's proposal. It clearly considers the current weak forms of regulation to be adequate.

The accountability of ministerial staff was a major public issue during the Howard government. In contradictory moves, two of Prime Minister John Howard's most senior advisers resigned in the first term, due to the Travel Rorts scandal, but in its third term, the government refused to allow its ministerial staff to appear before the Senate's Children Overboard inquiry.

There is more to the Howard government's legacy than is suggested by these two decisions. Structural changes, professional experiences and decisions made at that time have fundamentally changed our ministerial staff system and there is ongoing impact on both the ministerial office and cabinet.

When the Coalition formed government in 1996 they didn't undo the structures Labor had created in 1984 when it passed the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act. This Act established ministerial advisers as a separate category of staff who were by definition political, and who were employed personally by ministers outside the public service. John Howard was initially critical of the number of ministerial staff and reduced them by around 20 per cent, but over time their numbers swelled beyond what they had been under Labor. In fact the number of staff working for ministers at the end of the Howard period (437 in May 2007) was the highest we have seen until recently. In October last year, the numbers grew beyond this for the first time, now reaching 441 staff. The most dramatic growth in the Howard years was in the size of the Prime Minister's Office, which grew from 30 staff under Paul Keating to 50 under John Howard. Today it has 57 staff.

The Howard government went on to entrench and elaborate the ministerial staff system it inherited from Labor, especially by reorganising the Prime Minister's Office to be more focused on political management and executive coordination. There was an increased dominance of political actors and political considerations in government. In their book about prime ministerial chiefs of staff, Anne Tiernan and Rod Rhodes describe the way that John Howard staffed his office as the "triumph of the political". Political considerations moved to centre stage.

Perhaps the most fundamental legacy of the Howard government for our ministerial staff system is that of secrecy.

Important structural innovations strengthened the ability of the Prime Minister's Office to exert political control and manage its tasks. Howard broke with tradition and installed a political staffer as cabinet secretary, initially Michael L'Estrange. The role had traditionally been played by the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, but now a political actor was put in charge of managing the operation of cabinet and its documents and its meetings. The wording of cabinet decisions - which are always important, contentious and have consequences - was now in the hands of a political operator, not a senior public servant.

Working under the cabinet secretary was a new unit known as the Cabinet Policy Unit, which was small, but proved to be effective. It enabled political management of the cabinet process and more strategic thinking, keeping an eye on the government's long-term agendas.

The cabinet secretary also worked closely with the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and with a new unit created in 2003, called the Cabinet Implementation Unit. This was a departmental unit whose job was to monitor how top priority programs arising from decisions of cabinet were being implemented. This kind of centralised tracking made ministers nervous at times, but it also increased discipline across the government. It was an early warning system, alerting the prime minister and the government to potential problems. All these mechanisms formed part of an interlocking system of political and bureaucratic coordination at the centre of government.

Of course how well these mechanisms worked in practice varied, depending on the individuals involved, but these structural innovations made it possible to achieve centralised political control across the ministry and the bureaucracy.

The Rudd and Gillard Labor governments dispensed with the Cabinet Policy Unit and sent its work back into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. They gave the cabinet secretary role to a minister. But when the Coalition returned to power in 2013 it replicated the structure developed under John Howard of the Cabinet Policy Unit (now called the Cabinet Office) and, with one exception, the cabinet secretary was again a political staffer. In the current Coalition government the role of the cabinet secretary has grown even further; they now wield much of the prime minister's authority in decisions around cabinet processes. In this way the Howard government created a model for Coalition prime ministers to follow of how to structure and organise the Prime Minister's Office.

We can also see a more direct legacy of the Howard government's for subsequent Coalition governments. Some of the advisers who worked in ministers' offices in the Howard government are, today, significant players in the Morrison government. Ten of the current ministers and assistant ministers - that is one quarter of them - worked as political staff in the Howard period. Greg Hunt, Alan Tudge, Josh Frydenberg, Mathias Cormann, Paul Fletcher, Dan Tehan, and Linda Reynolds are ministers who bring their experience as advisers in the Howard period to their work in today's cabinet.

Four of the five cabinet secretaries appointed since 2013 have previously worked as political advisers in the Howard government. Scott Morrison's current chief of staff worked as a political staffer for Tim Fischer, Mark Vaile and John Howard, including in the Cabinet Policy Unit. We can see the continuing influence of the Howard government, through its former staff now working in key political positions.

One of the major weaknesses of our system of ministerial advisers is that staff are temporary, they churn quickly and as a result they often bring to the job very little in the way of experience, institutional memory, or understanding of the public service and the operation of government. Advisers are sometimes denigrated as "the teenagers" or "the kindergarten". More experienced staff who return to work as advisers can provide a counterweight to these "boy scouts in the office".

My research on political staff recruited for the first Abbott government in 2013 shows that 27 per cent of the advisory staff who were recruited at this time had previously worked as political advisers in the Howard government. Many returned to work as ministerial staff again after working in other careers. Almost 70 per cent of chiefs of staff in 2014 were formerly political advisers in the Howard government. Many of them didn't stay very long (most staff don't), but they formed an important cadre of seasoned political operatives in that first period of the new Coalition government. This can only be seen as a good thing, providing a bedrock of experience in a workforce that is often young and churning rapidly.

The more negative aspects of the Howard government's legacy for staff relate to accountability and transparency.

In the wake of the Children Overboard affair a Senate Committee was established to examine the role and functions of ministerial staff, how they could be held accountable and the adequacy of their employment framework. The Inquiry into Staff Employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 released its report at the end of 2003.

Among other things, the committee recommended a code of conduct be developed for ministerial staff, which would clarify their role and its boundaries; it recommended there be an annual report on ministerial staff for greater transparency, in line with information provided on the public service, and that ministerial staff be allowed to appear before parliamentary committees in certain circumstances. The government senators on the committee rejected all of the recommendations. The Howard government never responded to the committee's report. In this way the Howard government dealt itself out of this crucial conversation about the accountability of ministerial staff.

When Labor came to government in 2007 it introduced a Code of Conduct for Ministerial Staff, and an annual report on their arrangements and it stated that it would allow its staff to appear before committees in some limited circumstances. When the Coalition returned to power in 2013 it maintained the code of conduct, under the new name Statement of Standards, and added some new standards. It abolished the annual report.

Perhaps the most fundamental legacy of the Howard government for our ministerial staff system is that of secrecy. Until 2001 the names of ministerial staff were published in the Commonwealth Government Directory, alongside the names of senior public servants. In 2002 ministerial staff names were removed and they've never since been in the public domain. In most other countries, their names are published. This was a turning point. We don't know why they were removed in 2002, and at what level the decision was made. This decision brought the shutters down on the identities of ministerial staff, who moved to a private arena, outside the public gaze.

Ministerial staff play a vital role in supporting ministers to be effective in their jobs. This role should be recognised by allowing the most senior staff to come out of the shadows and have their names published in the government directory. Because of decisions made during the Howard period, ministerial staff today remain shrouded in secrecy.

  • This is an edited version of a speech given in November at the Fourth Howard Government Retrospective Conference 2004-2007. Maria Maley is a member of the advisory board for The Howard Library at Old Parliament House and a senior lecturer in Australian government and politics at ANU.



Updated:  6 February 2020/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications