Those concerned about the apparent emphasis of the Rudd Government on spin and stunts won’t take much comfort from the make-up of the Government’s staffers.
The first comprehensive analysis of the new Government’s advisers shows that ex-NSW ALP staffers and senior bureaucrats are playing a strong role in shaping the new Government’s policy and political direction.
Crikey has looked at the backgrounds of over 100 of the 200-odd ministerial advisers in the new Government and found that 22 of them are Carr or Iemma Government veterans, or were senior bureaucrats in the heavily-politicised NSW State Government Public Service. This includes nine of the Government’s Chiefs of Staff, about a third.
The number of ex-NSW staff is significantly greater than any other state. There are only nine Victorian ALP figures – mostly in Julia Gillard’s office – and there is definitely no Pineapple Mafia amongst advisers – only a handful of Queensland ALP staffers have switched to Canberra.
However, the approach of Walt Secord, chief of staff to Ageing Minister Justine Elliott, who has stacked his office solely with NSW Labor figures, is relatively rare. Anthony Albanese’s chief of staff, Michael Choueifate, was top adviser to former NSW Deputy Premier Andrew Refshauge and there are several former NSW Labor staff in his office. Tony Burke’s office is headed by former Reba Meagher and Morris Iemma adviser Kirsten Andrews and includes former NSW Young Labor President Troy Bramston. Assistant Treasurer Chris Bowen’s office is headed by former Sandra Nori COS Brett Gale, and includes another former NSW Young Labor president, Damian Kassabgi.
Julia Gillard, in contrast, has handpicked several former senior Bracks advisers. Under Bracks, the Victorian Government was the strongest policy outfit in the country and Gillard has drawn on the talents of Ben Hubbard, her chief of staff; Mark Burford and UK Labour import Tom Bentley. Former senior Bracks bureaucrat, Beazley adviser and economist Chris Barrett heads Wayne Swan’s office, which includes one of the few Queenslanders, Labor veteran Jim Chalmers, who worked with Morris Iemma in last year’s NSW election campaign.
In contrast, John Faulkner has avoided political staffers altogether, obtaining Gilbert and Tobin partner and FOI veteran Kate Harrison, to head his office, with Margaret Swieringa, a former Parliamentary committee secretary with experience across security, foreign affairs and public works, and former Governor-General’s secretary and PM&C division head Martin Bonsey. Nicola Roxon, too, has assembled a strong specialist team of health and indigenous affairs experts under former NSW Health Director-General Mick Reid.
There’s no magic formula for the right mix of ministerial staff, especially when the Government has significantly reduced staffing numbers, from 476 under the previous Government to 326, and everyone is under pressure from 24/Kevin. Political smarts are needed, but an understanding of the relevant portfolio area, especially if the issues are technically complex, and the key stakeholders is invaluable. But politicians also prefer people whose judgement and capacity to cope under pressure has been demonstrated over the years.
This Government’s approach to its staffing has been decidedly patchy. When things are going well, and they have the excuse of being new to Government, inexperience and lack of subject knowledge don’t matter a great deal. But when things get tough – and they will get tough sooner or later – it will be interesting to see where the weaknesses emerge.
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