Walt Secord was Bob Carr’s longest-serving communications director, credited with helping mastermind historic election victories in 1999 and 2003. He moved on to the Labor Party palace of spin Hawker Britton, before joining Kevin Rudd’s office shortly after he became leader, where he oversaw yet another election win.

Then, as Alex Mitchell reported in Crikey in December, something happened. He ended up in the office of the Minister for Ageing, Justine Elliot. Chief of staff to a junior minister within the Health and Ageing portfolio.

Whatever the reasons for Secord’s humbling, aged care is a significant issue that, with an ageing population, becomes more important and more costly each year. The relationship between aged care, the wider health system, housing and income for older Australians is a complex one, and critical to the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people. Moreover, as Warwick Smith and Bronwyn Bishop discovered during the early years of the Howard Government, it can be an extraordinarily sensitive portfolio.

And Queenslander Justine Elliot is entirely new to the area, having been appointed over the respected Jan McLucas, who was shadow Minister for Ageing when Labor was in Opposition.

Given that, you’d expect Secord – especially with his background in media, rather than policy – would want advisers with expertise in aged care issues.

Instead, he has created a miniature version of the NSW ALP within Justine Elliot’s office. His deputy is Patrick Muhlen-Schulte, a young Labor apparatchik who worked for Secord in Carr’s office and for NSW Roads Minister Eric Roozendaal. And Angela Koutoulas, who commenced with Elliot last week, is a former NSW Labor staffer and is currently a councillor on Rockdale City Council. In his inaugural speech in the NSW Parliament, Frank Sartor singled her out for thanks, along with ALP heavyweights such as Roozendaal and Mark Arbib.

None have any experience in any ageing-related issues, although Ms Koutoulas was an adviser to the Assistant Health Minister in NSW.

Minister’s offices are highly political places. Ministers want people they can trust advising them, people who understand politics, not just the policy content they deal with. Good staff can turn their hands to new issues and, with the aid of advice from the bureaucracy and industry, pick them up quickly. But the complete lack of any experience in ageing issues in Elliot’s office, in favour of young NSW Labor talent, is remarkable.

Indeed, Secord, whose operating style has all the subtlety traditionally associated with the NSW Labor Right, has overseen the removal of all aged care experience from his staff. As Crikey reported in February, Heather Witham, who worked closely with Jan McLucas in developing Labor’s ageing policies, left after barely two months working for Secord (Witham declined to comment when approached). Bureaucrats from the Department of Health and Ageing who have filled in as advisers have been sent back to the bureaucracy, although some remain as departmental liaison officers.

In contrast, senior portfolio minister Nicola Roxon has staffed her office entirely with health experts or experienced former bureaucrats who have a solid grasp of health issues. The difference, industry sources say, is plain when you deal with both Elliot and Roxon. They say Secord and his staff are up front about their lack of experience in aged care issues, and are trying hard to get to grips with the sector. But the lack of in-depth understanding, and a tendency to focus on spinning issues – something we’re familiar with from the Carr era – has them concerned, particularly given Elliot is inexperienced and lacks confidence.

Secord says that his team is first rate. And for all the criticism of Secord and his style – and there’s loads of that – the problem isn’t necessarily limited to his office. Government makes different demands on staff than Opposition, where you can be reactive and focus on dealing with the media. Government requires policy development skills and a capacity to effectively utilise both your own staff and the bureaucracy, as well as the ability to manage the media. The extent to which Labor’s staff have made the transition to government will be the subject of an ongoing Crikey focus.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey