Despite some expressing pre-election scepticism, there was no night of the long knives for senior public servants from the Rudd government, now embarked on its project of “restoring Westminster”.

But Kevin Rudd hasn’t renounced all the tactics he observed in Queensland state politics all those years ago. He’d remember well, as a former chief of staff to an opposition leader that one way Joh Bjelke-Petersen reinforced his dominance was to deny resources to his opponents. The Labor opposition, and the Liberals after the Coalition split of 1983, had to make do with a handful of staff, and office space a long way from the centre of political action in Parliament House. Although Wayne Goss redressed the imbalance somewhat, it’s fair to say that a tight rein was held on staffing for the opposition parties under his government.

Under the guise of its laudable agenda of saving public money, the Rudd government has slashed the complement of ministerial advisers by 30%. Of course, that doesn’t do the Labor party much harm as the cut is a percentage of the staff numbers Ministers had under the old Howard government. But it does mean that Brendan Nelson’s opposition will have to make do with around 70 staff.

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Staffers, as well as massaging the administrative machine and providing political and media advice, also have a key role in policy generation. In her book on Ministerial staffers, Power Without Responsibility, Griffith Uni political scientist Anne Tiernan cites interviewees as perceiving a decline in the quality and energy of policy advice as the Howard government aged.

Policy formation in opposition, of course, isn’t impeded by the weight of advice from Departments, and that’s also part of the problem the Coalition will confront. With the prospects of government now so remote, it would be easy to let policy formation slide, as the reduced number of staff will have urgent political problems with which to wrestle.

But it would be a fatal mistake. State oppositions in New South Wales and Queensland stumbled fatally when transport and health policies respectively were concocted on the back of an envelope during election campaigns. State Liberal MPs across the board have often been criticised from within their own party for spending more time on branch stacking, jostling for position and in some cases, long lunches, rather than policy work.

The end result of this is further electoral oblivion and even the farcical situation in the Queensland Liberal parliamentary party, where incidentally a “lucky dip” leadership contest wasn’t avoided by Nelson’s intervention but by the refusal of Nationals leader Jeff Seeney to maintain coalition ties with a party that would elect “Toss up Tim” Nicholls by drawing his name from a hat.

Nor will the Libs, in straightened financial circumstances, be able to commission economic and policy consultancy and right wing thinktanks will have little electorally appealling to suggest. The business groups’ policy agenda follows power, and will be directed at influencing the Labor government, not at giving the Coalition a hand.

Nelson’s new frontbench haven’t got off to a flying start with Julie Bishop resurrecting the “Unions. Boo” approach. Part of the problem is that the Opposition still doesn’t know what it stands for, with a leader who rather injudiciously suggests his record of party flip-flopping might attract swinging voters, and the ongoing tug of war between progressives and the defenders of the Howard legacy. “Putting Australia first” is a meaningless slogan when it comes to guidance for the hard work of policy formation.

Nelson has rewarded many former Costello supporters, most of whom haven’t made much impact on policy debate to date. The onus will now be on them, and the old stagers, to do the hard yards on policy. They’d better perform, because they won’t be getting much help.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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