Josh Manuatu

Josh Manuatu

On November 22, Josh Manuatu told the audience of The Drum he supported Peter Dutton, despite the Immigration Minister’s recent controversial comments about Lebanese migrants. Just who is Josh Manuatu? As viewers on social media noticed, on a show usually staffed with politically independent commentators, Manuatu was a current political staffer to Senator Eric Abetz, albeit just one of his wide variety of side activities including executive positions in the Young Liberals and the Australian Monarchist Movement. Just who was he representing when he defended Dutton’s comments?

When you see a political staffer in the news, it’s probably because they’ve screwed up somehow. Whether it’s stripping down to one’s underwear at the Malaysian grand prix or getting trashed on budget night, Australian politics has a pretty low tolerance for staffers who draw attention to themselves. They’re easy to jettison, should the going get too tough.

Perhaps for this reason, few Australian staffers have public profiles. Even a figure as controversial and central as Peta Credlin spoke little publicly while working in the Prime Minister’s Office. She’s on various Sky News shows now, of course, joining a long tradition of staffers leveraging their experience into commentary gigs after more or less leaving party politics.

In America, political surrogates often appear in the media, where they function as paid representatives of candidates to appear on talk shows and to give statements. Australians have historically expected to see and hear from politicians themselves. And politicians gain from this, too — as one high-ranking former staffer told Crikey, a media profile is often leveraged into better party positions: “It would be a pretty unambitious politician who’d allow their staff to go do media in their place.”

[So you wanna be a ministerial staffer …]

But appearing on The Drum was far from Manuatu’s first media appearance. He’s a regular columnist in The Spectator, has had columns published in Fairfax and appeared on ABC TV and radio, where he’s usually introduced as an adviser to Eric Abetz. His work has largely echoed the social conservative views of his employer, leading to some fierce criticism. In October, media entrepreneur Mia Freedman tweeted that he must have “internalised homophobia” (Manuatu is gay), leading to the highly unusual situation of Abetz putting out a press statement defending Manuatu against the characterisation.

At the other end of the (political) spectrum is Peter Wicks, who has been running the WixxyLeaks blog for years. His columns are frequently syndicated in Independent Australia, where his author bio discloses his current work for “a federal MP”. Wicks joined Labor MP Michael Danby’s office last month and didn’t retire his blog when he did so.

Since his employment as a staffer, Wicks has posted a number of columns highly critical of the way The Australian has written about the Health Services Union scandal, particularly the paper’s Brad Norington. That led to him being “outed” in the Oz  (although his identity has hardly been secret — the website’s name is a play on his own surname). The story was highly critical, accusing the website of making “defamatory and factually incorrect claims in attacks on the Coalition and may others”, and suggested it could be a front for Andrew Landeryou, of the infamous Vex News (Wicks disputes these characterisations). Danby defended his staffers’ “free speech”.

Many political staffers are highly ambivalent if not downright antagonistic to the idea of staffers speaking publicly. Being relatively voiceless is, one said, is the price of service. “It’s an enormous privilege being a staffer to a politician, but one of the things you give up is the right to have a broad public view.” Nonetheless, political commentator (and former staffer for John Howard) Paula Matthewson suspects this will only become more common over time. She offers the “depressing” thought that partisan commentary is exactly what audiences want.

“The broader issue for me, and it’s been canvassed by [Guardian Australia political editor] Katharine Murphy lately in her Meanjin pieces, is that people seem to be less interested in hearing non-partisan analysis and just want to hear former political operatives spouting the party/faction line. Twitter in particular has become an exercise in mass confirmation bias, and Facebook is fast moving that way too.

“Alternative views are just not entertained. And that is very troubling. So I think it might be inevitable that more and more existing staffers become commentators, being wheeled out by their respective sides to deliver the daily lines to their blinkered supporters.”

The rise of former staffers as commentators, she says, is a harbinger of this.

“If you look around at the political commentators these days, many are still politically active, one way or another. Either they have an official political role — like Nicholas Reece, who just got elected to local government, or Michael Kroger, who’s president of the Vic Libs — or they have an unofficial role — like Kroger before he was elected as Vic Pres, or Credlin and [Kristina] Keneally — who are clearly spear carriers for their respective factions in their respective parties. As long as this is declared … then the audience can take the allegiance into account.”

[Staff envy in the halls of Parliament House]

University of Melbourne political communication expert Sally Young made a complementary point, telling Crikey that in today’s world of self-expression through social media, it might be simply unrealistic to expect young staffers to freeze their sense of public identity.

But there remains a great deal of opposition to the idea. Many say it is a disservice to audiences for there to be any ambiguity about what a politician is saying. When a staffer speaks to or in the media, audiences can assume their politician employer agrees. It’s in a politician’s interest to muddy the waters — staffers can be a good way to fly kites, or float controversial ideas to see how they’re taken. If the staffer’s comments are taken badly, it’s very easy for a politician to disown the staffer or what was said. Having staffers appear in lieu of politicians thus avoids accountability. And staffers also can’t be held to account through Parliament for false or misleading statements the way politicians can.

And what do the staffers say for themselves? Crikey spoke to Manuatu on the phone, but he didn’t respond to emailed questions by deadline. Wicks was more forthcoming. He said he kept up his blogging because he really enjoyed it. He didn’t just write about politics, he added, but also took a keen interest in animal rights. He acknowledges the risks, saying one “can be misrepresented in the media”. And he figures a key reason more staffers do it is rather practical: “I used to put up three pieces a week. Now, I’m just too busy. I think it’s purely a time thing — most staffers don’t have the time.”

His boss, Michael Danby, is well aware of his writing, particularly as it used to appear on Independent Australia, a publication Danby reads. When The Australian wrote about Wicks’ identity, Danby came to his staffer’s defence, writing a letter to the editor disputing several facts in the Oz’s story and describing it as “unfair political campaigning for [Brad] Norington to use The Australian as a platform to enhance the views of his Far Left informants against Labor moderates” (that bit was cut out of the published letter to the editor).

Wicks doesn’t think his employment should affect his writing too much, though he acknowledges he “might have to be a bit more careful” about it. He told Crikey he might start flagging his posts through the office, just to be safe.

Peter Fray

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