The Prime Minister’s former chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos is sorely missed, Coalition insiders say.

Now, one senior government source has told Crikey that it’s not only the absence of his astute political judgement that is being missed – but his role policing the traffic up and down the greasy pole of political power and influence.

People are positioning themselves to make the most of the new order because its reign will be short. There will be yet another regime relatively soon, either following an election loss or change of Liberal leaders.

Crikey understands that more and more political players are positioning themselves for a change of government, thanks to the inward focus that seems to be restricting the outlook of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The Prime Minister’s chief of staff is also the chief of the chiefs of staff. And the change in the PM’s chief of staff from Sinodinos to Tony Nutt has resulted in strategic movements of staff across the ministry, just as ministers themselves will move when the PM either retires or is repudiated by the electorate.

Crikey is aware of concerns from ministers over interference from the PM’s office in their choice of advisers and at all levels of the process of filling vacancies. Concerns have been expressed to Crikey that the organisational health of the government has been compromised.

Nutt has been a good internal Liberal Party diplomat. He has run the fractious South Australian and Western Australian divisions of the party. He established a solid reputation for his work in smoothing down internal issues within the government as Sinodinos’ 2iC. But he’s just doesn’t have to same deft touch as Sinodinos.

Sinodinos was also a master fixer. He was renowned for his political judgement, but he also had a firm and fair hand dealing with the sibling rivalry that flourishes in ministerial officers.

Court politics still survive in the sycophantic circles of staffers. Flattery, backstabbing, suck-ups and kick-downs occur constantly during policy development and issues management – and often detract from the processes.

Some government insiders worry all of this is getting out of hand, that the Coalition’s performance is suffering and is slipping in the polls for reasons that have nothing to do with Kevin Rudd.

To make matters more difficult, this is an invisible problem. It is not apparent to outsiders. When it is raised by figures in the government themselves, it can all too easily be portrayed by their enemies as destabilisation and criticism of the PM.

Perhaps the only outwards sign has been the increase of leaks in the past few months. Take the recent Bulletin story about the “dirt unit” hidden in Attorney-General’s office in Sydney. The remarkable thing about that story was not that the unit existed. It was that it remained unreported for so long.

Crikey seemed to be the first media outlet to notice that the most remarkable thing about the Howard Government was its appearance of unity.

Court politics — the vigorous court politics that occur when the days of the king seem numbered – threaten this. The internal mechanisms for expressing and managing discontent have been weakened.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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