The trials of apprenticeship: the limits of vicarious power

THE CASUAL OBSERVER might imagine that a sweeping election victory after years in the political wilderness would be cause for celebration – vindication for the effort, the campaign strategy and the political tactics used to achieve the result; the opportunity to give effect to the policies and reform initiatives developed in opposition, and to seize the trophies that accrue to election winners: the public service and the power and resources of the Treasury benches. Government MPs, senators and particularly those appointed to much-coveted positions in cabinet and the ministry are exhilarated. Their families, friends and supporters are euphoric. But for the personal staff who may have done the hard yards in opposition – day after day, month after month of 6am starts and B-grade motels, working feverishly in multiple roles because opposition staff resources are so limited – the situation is less certain. Elation is overwhelmed by a pervasive anxiety about one's future prospects. It might be days or weeks before the situation is resolved, fuelling endless rumours, gossip and speculation about who is and who isn't in line for a role in the new administration. The uncertainty is agonising and all-consuming.

In the transition to government there are no guarantees. Though there are many more positions than in opposition, opportunities are, relatively speaking, limited. There is plenty of competition, once jobs have the potential of government attached to them, from people willing to take substantial salary cuts for the contacts and experience to be gained from a stint in a minister's office. Even if the person you work for has made it to the ministry, it may not be to the portfolio area he or she served in as shadow minister. Your skills and expertise may no longer be required or may now be available from the department. All ministerial staff appointments above the most junior levels are carefully vetted and scrutinised; in the Howard Government's case by the ominously nicknamed "Star Chamber" – a committee of senior ministers and key prime-ministerial staffers. This can be a perilous time. Those managing the vetting process might have doubts about your political skills; about how successfully you might make the transition from opposition to government. They might have views about what the minister needs by way of support in his or her private office. The prime minister and his advisers might decide that the minister, who was perhaps included in the ministry as a compromise option or to thwart the ambition of a potential rival, needs to be minded by more familiar or experienced hands. They may be suspicious of the new minister's loyalty to his or her existing staff – judging it misplaced or unwarranted. A prime minister determines the allocation of staff resources to the ministry and the conditions under which the staff serve. And in making those assessments, the opinions of his or her staff will have significant influence. There is an increasing hierarchy of influentials with whom prospective staff must ingratiate themselves or at least take pains not to cross if they want to become part of the government's team. Strong ministers might get the staff they want but it is by no means assured. Weak and junior ministers get less of a say and are wise to accept the advice and support they are given. Staff help a prime minister remember past transgressions if he or she needs any reminding.

For the staff, the uncertainty recurs with every change – an election, a ministerial reshuffle, a political crisis, or when, through the loss of preselection, bad health, family reasons or just sheer exhaustion, the person on whom your employment depends decides to leave. The position of the staff is never assured; always precarious. No matter how close the relationship, how strong the bond between a minister and staff, it is fundamentally an employment relationship – one that is based on the rather uncomfortable concept of personal service.


PEOPLE COME TO staff roles with a variety of motivations – some with a policy or ideological agenda; most for the experience. Vicarious power has many attractions: the chance to work closely with a minister or prime minister; to influence policy; to make a real difference; to cut through the layers of bureaucratic intransigence. It might be the next best thing to being a minister. There's no preselection, no fronting the media to explain why you've taken a particular decision and, on the basis of recent practice anyway, no danger of being called before a parliamentary committee to account for your actions. There's excitement, travel and the thrill of being at the centre of things. Some are attracted by the opportunity to help a charismatic boss achieve his or her political destiny. If things go well, the experience can provide a launch pad for one's own political or other career aspirations.

Ministerial staff are the ultimate backroom players. They are anonymous save for the most senior (Arthur Sinodinos, Don Russell) or the notorious (Peter Reith's former press secretary, Ross Hampton). Ministers, and especially Prime Minister Howard, prefer it this way. Staff exist to serve the minister – to help the minister discharge his or her constitutional authority and to cope with the complex demands of his or her job. Staff have no individual agency and no personal power. That's the theory anyway.

Notwithstanding government denials that staff exercise executive authority, participants and observers are in broad agreement that the new breed of ministerial staffer – the one that has emerged over the past decade, is more active and interventionist than his or her predecessors. There are larger numbers of them employed to assist ministers in a ruthlessly competitive and unforgiving political environment. More significant than numbers is the fact that recent governments have taken a broader view of the role and potential of ministerial staff. The staffing system has evolved substantially from the rather modest efforts of the Whitlam and Fraser governments. Under Hawke and Keating, ministerial staff became important policy as well as political actors; a trend that has continued (albeit with a somewhat different emphasis) under the Howard Government.

Australian political leaders have always turned to personal advisers for advice and support, but their displacement of the public service as their primary source is a relatively recent development. There is little evidence about the influence and impact of ministerial staff except what emerges from the reflections of insiders – such as Don Watson in his biography of Paul Keating (Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, Knopf, 2002) – or from controversies such as the court case that followed the sacking of Secretary of the Department of Defence, Paul Barratt. The actions of staff came into sharp relief in the children-overboard affair. The ensuing public debate raised questions about their legitimacy; about the appropriate demarcation of roles between staff and public servants; about whether they are acting in their own or their minister's interests; whether they have the requisite experience and expertise to handle the roles they hold; and about whether there are adequate controls over their conduct and behaviour. Opinions are divided between those who see the growth in staff numbers and importance as damaging and politicising the public service, and those who recognise that the demands on contemporary ministers are such that they are entitled to garner support from individuals whom they know and trust and who share their political philosophy.

Much of what we know about the staffing system – apart from our awareness that it is growing in importance and is consuming substantial public resources – is based not on fact or evidence but on myth and stereotype. This is not confined to outsiders unfamiliar with the nuances and intrigue of Canberra politics. These are the views expressed in interviews with a range of political actors conducted as part of a major study of the Australian ministerial staffing system. According to the stereotype offered by those who deal regularly with ministerial offices, the staff are young, arrogant, ambitious, impatient and, in their relationships with bureaucrats, frequently bullying. They are clever, confident, power-suited – attuned to the possibilities of a given situation. Bright-eyed, ruthless, on the make, they are hyped up, full of their own importance and ready to shaft anyone – including other ministers – who stand in the way of their minister's interests. This characterisation sits alongside the stereotype of the senior public servant that emerges from interviews with ministers and their staff: patronising, self-protecting, smart-arse, intellectually superior and expecting to outlast the minister and his or her staff. Though experience and relationships vary along a spectrum from antagonistic to genuinely collaborative, myth and stereotype are tenuous bases for crucial relationships.

Ministerial staff suffer, or perhaps invite, the greatest image problem. A perverse consequence of wanting to remain in the background is that you attract suspicion and hostility. What is not well understood and too rarely acknowledged is that the operating framework within which the staff work is fragmented and ambiguous, and the working environment often tense and fraught. Some of the behaviour that has fuelled the stereotype is rooted in this framework – in the partisan hothouse of Parliament House, in the combative political culture that permeates ministerial offices and in the lack of arrangements to support the staff to do their jobs effectively or to deal with those who might step out of line.

Given the stereotype, it seems odd to describe ministerial staffers as vulnerable, yet that is the reality of their employment situation. Their ability to be powerful or influential is highly contingent. It depends on the performance of the minister, on the strength of their relationship with the minister and key government influentials, and on a myriad of other variables. Thus the focus on the promise of vicarious power has the potential to understate its limits. Though many find ways of wielding it, for ministerial staff power is exercised within a system of constraints both institutional and personal. It's the personal that provides an opportunity to look beyond the stereotype.


ON A PERSONAL level, vicarious power is contingent upon the ability and willingness of staffers to cope physically, emotionally and psychologically with the lifestyle and the culture: the relentless pressure of 12– to 14-hour days, or more when parliament is sitting; the breadth of issues to be gotten on top of; the scope, complexity and intensity of the minister's office. The workload, for senior staff trying to filter and prioritise what the minister needs to read, is brutal. There are the endless schedule of meetings, the demands of constant travel, the absence of routines, the lack of time and space for thinking and reflection. It's physically exhausting and as Greg Barns noted in his commentary on the misfortunes of Senator Andrew Bartlett (The Brutal House on the Hill, The Age, December 9, 2003), it's not uncommon for staffers to suffer physical and mental breakdowns.

There are the bitchiness and backbiting of Parliament House. A recent fist fight in the corridors of the ministerial wing only confirms that some of the most vicious exchanges are among the staff themselves. The culture breeds competitiveness, zealotry and pathology. The staff watch not only their minister's back – that's what they're paid for – but also very much their own. Even within offices there is competition for the affection of the minister; always an aspirant ready to step into the role if things don't work out. Then there's the exhausting moods and tempers of the statesperson who provides your raison d'être – whose hurts and disappointments are felt as deeply by the staff as by the minister him or herself.

Taking on the role of a ministerial staffer also depends on the ability of one's partner and/or family to handle the absences, the ego, the preoccupation with the life of politics, the phone calls late at night and on weekends. Partners must be able to deal with the nagging suspicion that the heady mix of booze, sex and power might provide both motive and opportunity for infidelity. The lifestyle can take a heavy toll on relationships – not only with partners but also with kids who feel the absences keenly and with friends whom there are few opportunities to see, and with whom it might be dangerous to share too many workplace anecdotes.

Not surprisingly, there is high turnover among the staff, although those who choose to leave report a period of grieving as they "come down" from the experience. Some find it hard to settle into more conventional roles. They miss knowing what's going on behind the headlines and cycle back through the staffing system. Others take up positions as lobbyists or consultants where they can still enjoy inside knowledge and privileged access but can exercise a bit more control over their work and personal lives.

Although it's hard to prove, because of the lack of demographic information about ministerial staff, it seems that positions attract young rather than more experienced candidates. Many, of course, are deterred by the lifestyle; particularly, it seems, by the need to move to Canberra. That this deters certain types of people, narrowing it to those who thrive in the prevailing culture, should be of concern. There are clear implications for the quality of government. In the United States, concern that the personal costs of the lifestyle were deterring the best and the brightest, degrading the quality of candidate attracted to staff roles, has prompted the development of work/life balance initiatives for White House and congressional staffers. Thirty years ago, concerns that the Australian Public Service was unrepresentative and homogeneous sparked demands for substantial reform.

The limits on vicarious power may explain the desire of so many staffers to seek overt power by standing for elected office. A cursory look at the career backgrounds of a growing number of members and senators on all sides of politics suggests that a stint as a staffer is an essential apprenticeship. Becoming an elected representative may confer more legitimacy but not commensurate influence. Notwithstanding the contingencies and constraints, ministerial staffers who have proved their value to a powerful minister are closer to power than those in opposition or the backbench. But politics moves in cycles and when the government is defeated, a new network burgeons around those who take over the reins of power.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review