Dr Smooth, Brendan Nelson, has jettisoned wives, earrings and principles to climb the greasy pole. But now he’s finding his progress impeded by his staff. Nelson has performed well in the higher education portfolio. The universities may have largely been already beaten into acquiescence, but Nelson can point to the fact that there have been none of the flops or flare-ups associated with his predecessors Amanda Vanstone or David Kemp.

His office, however, went into lockdown mode last week. The press secs’ phone was off. Why? It was a special staff love-in. There’s too strong a departmental influence in Nelson’s office, from a chief-of-staff level down. His advisers think like bureaucrats, not party political types. They think policy, not party politics – and they’re not responsive to the constant demands on-the-ground political types are under.

Nelson has high hopes, but his staff are irritating his Cabinet colleagues and backbenchers alike. They might do a good job running the portfolio – but that won’t get their boss many votes in the party room.

Peter Fray

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