The trials of apprenticeship: the limits of vicarious power

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  • Published 20040302
  • ISBN: 9780733313868
  • Extent: 268 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm)

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.

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