(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Once again ministerial staffers are front and centre in the biggest political scandal of the day.

Early this year, staff of the former sports minister Bridget McKenzie were shown to have played a key role in the systematic rorting of sports grants, after the Australian National Audit Office used its powers to force them to give evidence.

It reflected the highly problematic nature of a system in which staffers — who are neither elected like politicians nor accountable like public servants — make decisions and dictate to public servants.

Now ministerial staffers of Victorian Labor ministers are deeply involved in the alleged branch stacking carried out by Adem Somyurek, with an adviser to now ex-minister Marlene Kairouz, Nick McLennan, filmed receiving money from Somyurek in a car park meeting. There have been claims, including one recorded from Kairouz herself, that other, more senior ministerial staff are engaged in branch stacking.

It’s bad enough that Somyurek and Kairouz were preoccupied with out-stacking, and abusing, their internal rivals, rather than focusing on their days jobs as state government ministers. But they are at least accountable to the electorate. Taxpayer-funded ministerial advisers, paid — usually generously — to advise ministers on portfolio matters, are not accountable.

Ministerial staffers engaged in party political work — that is, work unrelated to their minister’s portfolio — is historic and common across politics. Activities such as branch stacking, or more acceptable forms of factional warfare, are standard for ministerial and shadow ministerial advisers, in support of either the personal and factional goals of their boss, or in pursuit of their own preselection.

Advising a minister is a long-cherished route to preselection for young politicos on all sides. Figures like Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, Josh Frydenberg, Marise Payne, Jim Chalmers and Anthony Albanese all worked as senior ministerial advisers before preselection.

Electorate office staff are also frequently employed — often part-time — in intra-party activities as well as assisting MPs and senators and providing electorate services.

But, increasingly, taxpayers pay for it. According to the Department of Finance, ministerial, shadow ministerial and electoral staff cost taxpayers around $306 million this year, compared to $100 million a decade ago. That covers all employees at the federal level; a couple of years ago, Adam Creighton and Stephen Murray at The Australian calculated there were over 1600 federal and state ministerial advisers alone; on those figures, ministerial staffers alone cost the best part of $300 million across Australia.

But as Creighton pointed out in an earlier analysis, there was also a shift in the appointment of ministerial staff in the later Howard years and Rudd/Gillard years away from portfolio subject matter experts to political staff. Rudd initially cut back the overall numbers of political staff, but the expansion of advisers resumed again after the global financial crisis.

Politicians argue they need political staffers — people whom they can trust and who have the party’s interests at heart, and who are able to bring a political perspective to policy issues in a way that public servants cannot and should not. Ministerial offices also provide a training ground for political talent, as the above list indicates. But at what cost?

Even accepting the argument that taxpayers should fund staffers to provide advice on securing partisan advantage to their employers, if taxpayers are spending $300 million a year funding ministerial staff around the country, what proportion of that is actually funding branch stacking, factional warfare, internal manoeuvrings or self-interested machinations? How much are taxpayers, in effect, subsidising the internal games of political parties, with no end related to the public interest?

As the Andrews government’s “red shirts” scandal demonstrates, there are supposed to be rules around paying staffers — whether electoral or ministerial — to engage in political work. In practice, for anything other than blatant and egregious violations, ensuring taxpayers only pay for political work linked (however tenuously) to the public interest is difficult.

The only way to really curb what amounts to a fraudulent abuse of taxpayer money isn’t tighter guidelines for what staffers can and can’t do, but large cuts to the numbers of staffers.

If ministerial and electoral staff have so little to do that they have time to collect cash in car parks and engage in intra-party feuds, we surely don’t need anywhere near as many of them. A 50% reduction might be a good start — and provide a substantial saving to taxpayers at both state and federal level.

Should taxpayers fund political staffers? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey‘s Your Say column.

It’s time to book your next dose of Crikey.

Through the week, news comes at you fast. Every day there’s a new disaster, depressing numbers or a scandal to doom-scroll to. It’s exhausting, and not good for your health.

Book your next dose of Crikey to get on top of it all. Subscribe now and get your first 12 weeks for $12. And you’ll help us too, because every dollar we get helps us dig even deeper.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.