Answers to Estimates questions have revealed the Government’s replacement for the notorious Coalition Government Members’ Secretariat is up and running with a million dollar budget and a brief to provide “information and advice” to Labor MPs and Senators and Labor caucus committees.

The Caucus Committee Support and Training Unit, established back in January, is a 10-strong group of government-funded advisers working out of the executive wing of Parliament House specifically charged with supporting Labor members.

According to answers tabled in response to Opposition probing at February’s Estimates hearings, the unit’s tasks include organising training for members, “administrative support” for caucus committees and backbench taskforces, advising backbenchers on the Electoral Act, FOI and using parliamentary procedures, and how to run their electoral offices effectively. The Unit is run by long-time Labor staffer Koula Alexiades.

The working assumption when the unit’s existence was revealed was that it was GMS, or Labor’s own National Media Liaison Service under Hawke and Keating, reborn. The units provided ammunition for Government attacks on the Opposition.

Robert Ray has argued that the new unit will not have a media monitoring role or prepare attacks on Opposition members, unlike the GMS or NMLS. The Government’s responses paint the unit as an administrative secretariat in charge of such anodyne activities as “liaison with the Former Members’ Association and Parliamentary Partners’ Association” and overseeing caucus room refurbishment. And the staff, appointed by John Faulkner and answering to the peculiar caucus triumvirate of Ray, Arch Bevis and Kate Lundy, are only at Adviser and Assistant Adviser level, placing them relatively low in the executive foodchain.

Nevertheless, they’ll provide an in-house communications, training and political strategy resource for Government members. While the focus has apparently shifted from targeting the Opposition, the unit will enable coordination of Government messages, packaging of information and even advice on the design of electorate offices and how to staff them to ensure maximum effectiveness.

The unit, kitted out with IT and communications equipment and two support staff, will cost $1.2m p.a. Small in the scheme of things, but continuing the fine tradition of taxpayer support for the privileges of government.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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