Government and governance | Australia

10 February 2022

To improve Australian policy-making, federal ministers should be rehoused within their portfolio departments, rather than at Parliament House, Lesley Seebeck writes.

That the Australian Government is troubled by governance, policy, and its delivery is evident from its performance during COVID-19. Its focus on key performance indicators, overbearing reporting regimens, ‘three phase’ or ‘four step’ plans that can fit into one clean graphic and media release suggest it has mistaken mid-level project management for policy leadership, competence, and accountability. Australian democracy is weakened as a result.

The federal opposition is little better. Its ‘small target’ approach is one of political expedience. Whether its cadre of capable women in more senior positions will make a positive difference is yet to be seen.

Both parties have contributed to the erosion of sound governance. Some issues, such as the increasing impermanence of departmental secretaries, can be traced as far back as the Whitlam government, but there are more immediate habits of time and place that are actively contributing to continued decline in governance.

Consider just one modest proposal to help redirect the ship of governance — Australia should require its ministers to be housed not in Parliament House, but with their portfolio departments, giving them greater access to in-house public service expertise and reducing the need for political staffers.

That’s it.

In fact, this was once the norm, albeit perhaps less so than in the United Kingdom, European nations, and the United States, where it remains the case. Only relatively recently have federal departments re-allocated space once reserved for ministers.

Currently, ministers are isolated from the ordinary business of government. Their focus, largely by virtue of location, is on politics – the type that ferments in the hothouse confines of Parliament House, exacerbated by co-habitation with the media.

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Ministers now have little awareness of the day-to-day business that their departments conduct — one reason why they are so dismissive of public servants and their work. One report noted that most ministers do not view the public service as their primary, or even preferred, source of advice.

Public servants are exposed to ministers directly only on a rare pilgrimage to Parliament House. More often, they interact with ministerial staffers who increasingly come from political rather than policy backgrounds.

There has been a shift in the locus of control to a new political class of unaccountable ministerial staffers, who inhabit roles that Paul Keating described as carrying “the live conduit of power”.

The growing number of staffers, enabled by a larger Parliament House, face little in way of scrutiny and accountability, also corroding Australian democracy.

Despite Australian taxpayers paying their salaries, it’s surprisingly hard to find out how many such staff there are — surveys put the number somewhere near 450, at its highest in Australian history. These tallies include administrative, media, and electorate staff, consultants, or the staff of parliamentary secretaries.

That’s in contrast to the United Kingdom and even the state government of New South Wales, which publish annual tallies and include salaries.

Dangers arise when these advisers have little experience in the challenges and sensitivities that surround the design of public policy and delivery of programs — classic wicked problems. To paraphrase Anne Tiernan, “ministerial advisers remain one of the last bastions of the amateur.” Currently, as few as 20 per cent of staffers have any public service experience.

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Physically moving ministers to departments would reduce an unhealthy reliance on staffers for policy advice, and even alert ministers to realities they would prefer to ignore.

It may help deter the more licentious, abusive, and corrupt behaviours that are apparently rife at Parliament House, after numerous allegations hit Australian headlines in 2021.

That’s not to say ministers should be denied access to Parliament House, as members of parliament they would of course have to attend during sitting periods.

Similarly, ministers do need staff for their roles as local members based in electorate offices around the country, administrative support, and political and media advice. The flow of government business through their office is managed by departmental liaison officers, not counted in the tallies above.

And, yes, they do need advisers, but of the calibre of Allan Gyngell, Michael Thawley, and Andrew Shearer.

Given subject matter expertise is typically held in the departments, advisers should be expected to possess a public service experience. For policy contestability, ministers already draw on a diversity of business, public sector, and community groups.

The conduct of politics, policy, and its reporting are compromised by the culture of Parliament House. That the government has then struggled in the face of a turbulent environment should be of little surprise.

These trends must be reversed, and a simple step to help is for ministers need to move their primary offices to their departments. There also needs to be greater transparency and accountability in ministerial staffing arrangements.

Whether Australian politicians are willing to take such a step would be a test of whether they are more interested in political power, or if, as they say they do, they value the sustainability and strength of Australian democracy above all else.

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