Yes Minister/No Minister grumbles at the top

STONE the crows! The hollow persons are on the nose

On Thursday, BCA chief and former bureaucrat Jennifer Westacott suggested what stood between ministers and good government were the hacks and flacks in their offices that public service authority “has been undermined by political gatekeepers, often with little expertise and no accountability”. [i]

Um, up to a point First Assistant Secretary Copper.

Certainly ministers stack their staffs with party animals who think policy planning is a synonym for political ploy. They also employ people who belong to their tribe.[ii]

Popular culture reflects Ms Westacott’s disquiet. Where staffers in The West Wing were secular saints, The Hollow Men presents them as brutal in a beige sort of way. According to The Thick of It, they are as dishonest as they are profane. Even in the amiable VEEP, their amusing incompetence cloaks moral corruption.

But what all these presentations ignore is that staffers fulfil functions that public servants either should not or cannot.

As Anne Tiernan points out, ministers need adepts in the dark arts of media relations and political influence, jobs department based bureaucrats cannot do.[iii] They also hire people who will, as President Bartlett asked C J Cregg, “jump off a cliff” for them.[iv] And staffers, “can bolster ministers’ confidence and comfort in dealing with portfolio departments and agencies.”[v]

Which is rather the point. Ministers come and go but departments and their own interests and agendas endure forever. John Howard understood this when he sacked seven department heads in 1996. The orthodox interpretation is that he was politicising the public service.[vi] The obvious alternative is he feared the sacrificial heads were too close to Labor. The realist rationale to both is Howard feared that, after 13 years, Labor had drunk the policy cool-aid served up by the public service and he had different drinks to serve.

While bureaucrats will always ask how high when a minister tells them to jump, their feet do not always leave the ground by much, if at all. Consider the condition of Stephen Smith who ended up looking like a critical observer of his own department in response to Defence’s handling of the Duntroon skype scandal.[vii]

And the idea that both Treasury and Finance, at state and federal level, are bossed by anybody is nonsense. Frank Sartor speaks for every minister, with a plan knocked back by central agencies; “The NSW Treasury doesn’t just exercise fiscal oversight but has manoeuvred itself into a position where it can influence policy formulation, often before a policy ever gets near Cabinet or even the relevant minister.” [viii]

Not, the Crows caw, that this is a bad thing. Central agencies are often all that is standing between the taxpayer and spending departments with social engineering schemes.

But how do ministers behave when the economists and sundry second-guessers among the 680 staff in PM and C dismiss what their department tells them?[ix]

They can turn to their personal staff. The issue is not whether ministers need their own trusted sources of advise on policy and process, the question comes down to the quality. Or as a Howard Government minister’s chief of staff quoted by Anne Tiernan and Patrick Weller puts it; “Good staff help a good minister to be better and a bad minister to remain in office. Bad staff will retard a good minister and will be unable to protect a bad minister from himself.” [x]

Public servants on the other hand unworriedly work with whoever they are given because they know ministers are like buses – there always is another one along in a minute.


[i] Jennifer Westacott, “Restoring a high-performing public service,” Speech to the IPAA Congress, September 20 2012, @ recovered on September 23

[ii] Milanda Rout, “Williamson’s daughter ‘planned’ to leave PM’s office”, The Australian July 28

[iii] Anne Tiernan, “Spinning it: the power and influence of the government advisor,” The Conversation, August 31 2011 @ recovered on September 23

[iv] The West Wing Episode Guide, “Third-day story,” March 11 2004, @ recovered on September 23

[v] Anne Tiernan, Power without responsibility: ministerial staffers in Australian governments from Whitlam to Howard, (Sydney, 2007) 30

[vi] Brian Toohey, “The lone ranger: John Howard’s concentration of power,” The Monthly, April 2007

[vii] Brendan Nicholson, “Stephen Smith unrepentant over his handling of Skype sex scandal,” The Australian, March 8

[viii] Frank Sartor, The fog on the hill: how NSW Labor lost its way, (Sydney, 2012) 96

[ix] James Whelan, “The state of the Australian public service: an alternative approach,” Centre for Policy Development, 2011, 11 @ recovered on September 23

[x] Anne Tiernan and Patrick Weller, Learning to be a minister: heroic expectations, practical realities (Melbourne, 2010) 258