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Ministerial staff have become a threat to good policy advice

By Scott Prasser - posted Wednesday, 14 January 2009


A new book, Power without Responsibility: Ministerial Staffers in Australian Governments from Whitlam to Howard, focuses on staff employed mostly from outside the public service who provide advice and support for federal ministers. Such staff have been dubbed "ministerial staffers" indicating their close political and personal affiliations with ministers. The book, as its sub-title indicates, claims to cover such staff during the Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating, and Howard governments and to "provide a foundation for informed debate about the place of ministerial staff in Australia's system of governance".

As Tiernan outlines, interest in ministerial staff stems from their increased numbers, their perceived importance in providing advice, and the alleged lack of accountability concerning their activities. Indeed, this issue of accountability is the book's prime focus, taking up much of the discussion, the two major case studies, and the concluding chapters outlining reforms. Tiernan argues there is an accountability gap with ministerial staff in relation to parliamentary oversight, ministerial supervision, and their roles in directing public servants. For Tiernan, "in constitutional and managerial terms, the ministerial staffing system is out of control".

In the first three short chapters the history and growth in ministerial staffing are summarised. While setting the scene, more could have been done to clarify their functions and roles. Greater use of archival evidence, now available, could have been made in assessing the origins of ministerial staff during the Whitlam era. Also, the place of ministerial staff in the current web of federal policy advisory arrangements needed amplification if accountability issues were to be fully analysed in the book.

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Although the book purports to cover ministerial staff from the Whitlam to Howard governments, the focus is mostly on the Howard period. The Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke-Keating governments are dealt with from chapters one to four, but from Chapter Five the book deals almost exclusively with the Howard government. Indeed, the book could have been more appropriately titled "Ministerial Staff under the Howard Government". While there are two case studies concerning ministerial staff during the Keating government, these are brief compared to those covering the Howard government. Also, tables and the appendix on staff numbers only start at 1983, rather than in 1972 when the Whitlam government expanded ministerial staff numbers.

It is not until Chapter Nine that the issue of ministerial staff accountability is directly addressed. The book may have benefited from placing this chapter earlier to allow the case studies to be analysed more thematically in the context of an articulated analytical framework.

Suggestions for reform outlined in Chapter Ten are moderate and process driven. Indeed, the issue of "accountability" pursued in this book is a red herring. The real issue lies in the broader context of the decline of executive accountability, the increasing politicisation of the public service, and the degrading of independent advice mechanisms under successive governments. Also, why do governments continue to appoint so many staff when given the politicisation of the public service ministers clearly have advisers who are responsive to their demands?

Ministerial staff have become a threat to good policy advice given their increased numbers and lack of experience as well as their interference in public service processes. Such staff, as one former Keating minister observed, were too often careerists looking for parliamentary seats. Checking those ministerial staff who have sought or won seats would have been illuminating.

This book provides an up to date account of ministerial staff, but there are other issues warranting investigation. For instance, a book on ministers rather than the staff who work for them is now overdue.

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First published in the Australian Journal of Politics and History in September, 2008. Power without Responsibility: Ministerial Staffers in Australian Governments from Whitlam to Howard. By Ann Tiernan (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2007).



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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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