When I was first appointed to a senior executive role in the Commonwealth Public Service all those years ago, I was interviewed by the Department’s Secretary, the Deputy Secretary and my prospective Division Head. At the time, I was enrolled in a PhD as an external student at the University of New England writing a biography of David Drummond. Part of my focus was on his role as an activist minister for Education in NSW. This included his observations on the role of minister, staff and department. For that reason, I read up on changing ministerial and staff roles.
Reflecting on this, I commented in the interview on the way that the rise of Prime Ministerial control had forced an ever increasing volume of water (matters for decision) into that narrow cabinet pipe. “Very dirty water too”, the Deputy Secretary commented.
My point at the time was that the progressive decline in ministerial authority mean that there was less and less time for consideration of particular issues as higher volumes in given space increased velocity. Mr Fraser, an authoritarian PM, was in charge at the time. Ministerial advisers had emerged strongly during the Whitlam period, but were still less powerful than they had become in the UK.
I was reminded of all this by recent events in NSW. The continuing ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) inquiry into Obeid related matters has provided a public circus that has now brought down Premier O’Farrell over a rather expensive bottle of wine and has also extended into the Newman Administration in Queensland.
One recent issue involved a “doctored” NSW Cabinet Minute, I have put doctored in inverted commas because the matter conceals a significant constitutional issue. The story is complicated. However, by all accounts (this is one example), former Labor Minister Kelly was just too busy to read draft cabinet minutes even when they had been altered. A cabinet minute, by the way, is the top expression of advice from a Minister to Cabinet. At Federal level, they are called cabinet submissions.
Looking back at that earlier experience of mine, I wondered just when Ministers became too busy to read cabinet minutes or submissions. Of course, with sometimes high volume Ministers have to pick and choose which items they respond too. But too busy even to read your own?
Australia’s current political systems display a number of common features. These include a continued decline in ministerial power; a growing separation between ministers and the portfolio agencies they are responsible for; and the continued rise of the ministerial adviser.
I am not sure just what ministerial advisers actually do. As a senior public servant I dealt with them all the time. My job was to provide the best advice I could within the frame set by overall Government policy and especially that relating to my areas of interest. Their first job was to check my advice to identify political hooks that the Minister should be aware of. I did in fact try to do this myself, but I was totally comfortable with their double checks, given that my advice had to be objective including advising steps that might be politically damaging.
I also found the advisers quite useful. Our roles were different, but there was a natural harmony between us because, in the end, we both wanted to get things done. So I involved my staff including junior staff in discussions and gave the advisers access to my own people. This is who you should contact to find out about this and so on. In system terms, I was given trust and freedom and was able to pass that on. This is no longer possible in today’s centralised systems, for the central focus now is on message control, avoiding risk.
Today, the role of ministerial adviser has, somehow, become subsumed in political and personal games. The separation between Minister’s office and agency has become acute. In some cases, and this was shown clearly during the various ICAC inquiries, advisers and especially senior advisers have become participants in Minister’s personal financial games. In other cases, the advisers are active participants in external political games where the end point is their advancement. In still other cases, advisers have ideals and objectives for the public good but have no way of moving them forward because they don’t know how, don’t have access. Then there are the advisers sucked into the public policy game where presence in the Minister's Office gives them the illusion that they can write a note and something would happen. I call this the West Wing syndrome.
Just after the Rudd Government was elected, I sat on the plane beside a new staffer on the way to Canberra. We chatted. I tried to emphasise the importance to him of building links at all levels within his new Minister’s agency. What do they think? What might be happening? I gave examples. He looked at me blankly.The Minister was the Minister, the agency did as it was told. He would change the world.
The fish rots from the head. In the end, the fall in power of ministers has nothing to do with the rise in power of advisers. However, the rise in power of advisers is causally connected to the fall in power of ministers.