Friday, 6 February 2015

Research: Role of political advisors in Australia

The searchlights are presently clipping the edges of a political industry that attracts solid bi-partisan political and media support, even in times of heated confrontation.  Until recently, the role of political advisors at state and federal level has escaped scrutiny. 

There are a couple of problems with political advisors.

Firstly, the cost associated with political advisors is ruinously expensive. The cost does not simply rest with the direct cost of salary and expenses. Advisors also generate costs throughout every sector - governmental, business, community.

Secondly, in the hands of a well organised party, the appointment and management of advisors is akin to the operation of a massive service company. While engaged at public expense, many of the participants are entrenched within one or the other party and the consequent risks of patronage and abuse.

Thirdly, the advisors, particularly in a ministerial suite, take on many of the duties of their supposed employers – in some cases formulating government policy, sometimes involving themselves in departmental employment decisions and the broader range of government appointments. They can exert political influence of an unimagined nature.

Fourthly, in the case of a member or minister out of their depth, advisors often fill the gap - constructing the public and official dialogue of the member by preparing correspondence or speeches.

In other cases, political advisors become convenient scapegoats, sometimes invited to take the fall for some indiscretion by a member.

Some advisors leverage the role to eventually become political candidates or take public office – and, indeed, the business of managing advisors is partly carried on with an eye to that outcome. Others become captive to the news-purveyors, dined and wined and plugged, feeding the media monster with content both intended and unintended.

While it is easy to poke holes in the present scheme, there are some benefits. The content of some speeches have a degree of sophistication, flair and linguistic purity. Sadly, this comes at a cost.  Debates in Parliament have stopped being hard fought tennis matches where the players have to be at top form and alert to every nuance of the moment – instead they are largely pre-programmed exchanges of artillery fire where the outcome is known well in advance and the noise is carried on for reasons of form and public consumption.

There are, of course, exceptions. An alert and capable member paired with a competent advisor can be a formidable team, particularly when the advisor resists the opportunity of exceeding their role. There are such advisors in present ranks. Some are competent and apolitical, imbued with a detailed understanding of parliamentary process, and keenly sought by either side of politics. But then there are the others.



The question of the role of political advisors may have escaped scrutiny in the past - but it has not been without its critics and defenders. There have been a number of useful contributions to this debate.

Business Council of Australia 

In 2012, the Business Council of Australia called for a radical overhaul of the way governments are run at the top.

Jennifer Westacott from the Business Council of Australia made a number of specific observations:

1.  a "culture of reticence" has affected the quality of public policy
2. business are “at the beck and call of short-term requests from ministers' offices [and] that their advice is second-guessed by political advisors”
3. “The numbers in ministerial offices have grown considerably over the decades. We now have more advisors per minister than many other comparable countries”
4. “The more people there are in ministers' offices, the more likely they are to want to second-guess policy work and redo things from the public service.”

Jennifer Westacott argued the case to halve the staff of Government ministers and give the nation's top bureaucrats back their permanent tenure. She went on to call for a comprehensive audit into the size of the public service.

She argued that:
"We need to be saying, 'Look, what are the roles that people are playing? What are the things they're doing, are those things adding value? Could we get more productivity, could we do them more efficiently? Could we use technology better?

A report of her comments can be found here.  

Lynne Ashpole, former chief of staff in the Rudd and Gillard administrations.

Ms Ashpole responded to the Business Council of Australia call dismissing the proposal.

She made the following considered points about political advisors:
1. They have proved to be an important constraint on the powers of bureaucrats (which might otherwise overwhelm the views of elected members).
2. According to New Zealand research (Eichbaum and Shaw) they make “a positive contribution to the policymaking process”.
3. They serve an important role in modern minority governments – “minority governments like those in New Zealand and Ireland create a need for advisers to conduct inter-party negotiations considered too political for the public service”.
4. A code of conduct for staffers was introduced in 2008 – but her own research into Rudd government staffers suggests that “accountability arrangements for staffers could probably be strengthened”.
While this makes a number of important points, she did not address any of the criticisms raised by Jennifer Westacott.

A report of her comments can be found here.

Finance and Public Administration References Committee Report 2003: Staff employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984

This report provided useful information on political views on staffers, following the children overboard incident.

"Members of Parliament need staff. They need staff to assist them in dealing with their constituencies; to help them deal with policy issues and to liaise with their parties; and to help manage their parliamentary responsibilities. These are not roles to be undertaken by public servants, who serve the government of the day. Having political staff is intended to ensure these roles are adequately and professionally performed, and to help ensure that the public service does not become politicised. For the last twenty years, these staff have been employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act (the MOPS Act), and are commonly referred to as MOPS staff. "

"The number of MOPS staff working both in Parliament and in membersí electorates has grown steadily over the past few decades. The total number of positions has grown from around 700 in the early 1980s to nearly 1200 in 2003. Around 680 of these are the electorate staff serving MPs of all parties. By 2003, there were over 370 government MOPS staff, and it has been the growth of this category often referred to as ministerial staff that has caused public concern."

(research continuing)

Peter Quinton
February 2014

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