“Howard is a great believer in what he calls ‘perpetual election campaigning’,” bright young things Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington write in the SMH today. “Permanent campaigning involves parties in government using the considerable resources of the state to ensure their re-election,” they add.

And to emphasise their point, Special Minister of State Gary Nairn has announced federal Members and Senators will get an extra staff member each “to meet community demands”.

It’s valiant spin. “The advent of e-mail and heightened awareness and availability of government services have raised community expectations. Constituents now have open and direct communication with their MPs and therefore expect prompt replies,” Nairn says. “The additional staff resources will enable Members to better serve and represent their constituents’ needs and Senators to represent their States and carry out official Parliamentary and Committee duties.”

Shadow Minister for Public Administration and Accountability, Senator Penny Wong, says the ALP was not consulted about the decision. She points out the new allocation will give the Howard Government an extra 126 staff.

“Australians will be very suspicious about the Howard Government’s decision to allocate more staff to politicians at the beginning of an election year,” Wong says.

She points out how the decision comes on top of:

  • $1.27 billion spent by the Howard Government on advertising;
  • Last year’s 20% increase in printing entitlements for MPs, taking the annual entitlement to $150,000; and
  • A steady increase in personal staff for ministers.

“Clearly, the Howard Government has had no hesitation in spending public money to stock its war chest,” Wong says.

That’s one of the crucial considerations here. Nairn’s media release doesn’t mention costs.

The figures that have appeared have been based on the bill for the salaries. But staff need desks. And phones. And computers. And, maybe most importantly, office space. There are set allocations for all of this.

“The staff allocation of MPs has not varied since 1 July 1984,” Nairn says. How long to the other allocations change – and how much will they all cost?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey