David Epstein’s departure as the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff will probably allow him to see his family properly for the first time since mid-2007.

“My wife and children have supported [me] through thick and thin,” he told colleagues in his email announcing his departure last Friday, “but I think it might be the last time they willingly let me say I am just going off to Canberra for a short time to work on an election campaign.”

While there are suggestions now is not the time for instability in the Prime Minister’s Office, observers think the ascension of Alister Jordan to Rudd’s CoS merely confirms the de facto power structure in there anyway. It also further Ruddifies the PMO, which now more than ever reflects the Rudd inner sanctum — and Rudd’s control freakery.

Some external balance will be provided by David Fredericks, the new deputy chief of staff, who moves from arguably the toughest staff job outside the Government’s leadership group — CoS to Climate Change Minister Penny Wong. Fredericks was Beazley’s CoS when the latter was leader and had also worked for Bob McMullan. He took time off after Rudd replaced Beazley but returned after the election to take on the job of working with Wong on emissions trading and water which, until recent weeks, were two of the biggest issues in the Government’s first term.

Even so, don’t expect Rudd’s office to deviate from the hardball approach that has characterised their approach to bipartisanship. Brendan Nelson’s office was repeatedly rebuffed by the PMO in its attempts to pursue a bipartisan course on indigenous issues. Greg Hunt’s office struggled to even get the same briefing on the Government’s Green Paper as that given to the press and industry back in July, let alone any genuine dialogue with the Government on the supposedly critical issue of an ETS.

Tony Wright in The Age today suggests Turnbull is getting the same treatment, even if you suspect some of Turnbull’s calls for bipartisanship result from his fear of being marginalised politically by the financial crisis. But no issue is beyond politicking for Rudd’s office and Turnbull will probably get the same short shrift that Nelson got.

From one end of the Parliamentary spectrum to the other, some of Steve Fielding’s problems — he copped a pasting from Dennis Shanahan today — are blamed by other parties on the poor quality of his staff. While Nick Xenophon has been playing the balance of power game for years and the Greens received a resources boost from their shift to party status, Fielding has no natural pool of party talent to draw on for staff and limited numbers he can employ anyway. It’s a tough ask for independent senators to attract experienced staff — the hours and travel are difficult, the pay, even with a $12K+ overtime allowance, is none too flash and there’s no prospect of government to keep good people in the game.

Even so, after copping it for declaring that economic conditions were sufficiently bad that he felt the need to back the Government’s budget measures, Fielding might be wondering what he has to do to get some respect at a time when bipartisanship is supposedly the new black in post-meltdown politics.

Peter Fray

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