The mystery men (and a few women)

It is now known that one person in the Prime Minister’s office drew up the spreadsheets for both the sports and car park rorts.

While this is unsurprising, given the nature and standard operating practice of the Morrison Government, it raises questions about the way the role of advisors has developed.

While the Prime Minister insists Ministers make decisions in cases such as these everyone in Canberra knows they are made in the PM’s office – representing a major change in the number, role, nature and accountability of staffers.

Given the power of this individual and the role they played in the rorts we ought to know who this staffer is; and, what his/her authority (probably not her given the PM’s attitudes to women) was to make the decisions.

No doubt everyone in the Canberra media knows who the individual is. One might ask why they aren’t they being named and why shouldn’t the public be allowed to learn which unelected staffer is making decisions about hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars being spent on rorts?

The obvious answer is that any journalist brave enough to do so would be immediately taken off the drip of background briefings which provide most of the Canberra Press Gallery’s copy.

John Daley’s new Grattan Institute report – Gridlock – which analyses why Australia has descended into policy paralysis and a relentless pursuit of political rather than national advantage throws light on the role of Ministerial advisors in this failure.

In the Whitlam era staffers made the news in their own right – witness Junie Morosi – but there were also a lot of policy wonks and experienced professionals who also had their say.

The Fraser era was more subdued in some respects and Ministers such as Andrew Peacock had expert, experienced advisors such as John Ridley. Ministers also had a leavening of public servants trained to serve whoever was the government of the day.

Since then there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Ministerial advisor and major changes in their backgrounds and how the operate.

Daley reports that “the number of Ministerial staffers grew from 210 in 1983 to 339 in 1996, fell back under the Rudd Government and has risen to 450 today. Traditionally, for instance in the Keating years, many of them were public servants but now only 20% of staffers are drawn from the public service and the rest are party hacks.”

Their names are not public and although they are subject to a Statement of Standards for Ministerial Staff there is a big black hole about who they are and what they do.

The Thodey Review of the Australian public service came up with recommendations which would produce a better Australian administrative system.

Among his recommendations was for a legislated code of conduct and limits on political appointments. Morrison rejected the recommendation along with anything else which would get in the way of the government using national resources to further its party political objectives.

Daley says: “for more than 30 years, governments have not shown any interest in restraining the growth and politicisation of ministerial advisers with little accountability. That’s a pity, because institutional changes…..would improve the chances of policy reform.”

“Ministers would receive less advice focused on the short-term impact on public debate, and more advice focused on the long-term public interest. As observed by Martin Parkinson, previously Secretary to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, advisers tend to focus too much on ‘message over substance’.

“Ministers would also probably receive less advice to avoid the high-quality inquiries that improve policy evidence bases and the ways that systematic policy processes can shift public opinion over the long term rather than simply shifting the media coverage the next day.

Most importantly “The echo chambers that reinforce shibboleths would be less reinforced by partisan ministerial advisers concerned to toe the party line to improve their future career prospects,” Daley said.

Thodey recommended a formal arrangement for Ministerial advisors with a series of measures to make them more accountable and to ensure that expert public service advice was part of the advisory mix.

Currently advisors are invisible despite everyone in Canberra media knowing who they are and reporting daily on the drips they get fed by them. Sometimes it’s not even the advisors who do the dripping. Whenever you see reference to a source being ‘a senior Liberal’ it usually relates to a text from Morrison – often sent during parliamentary sessions.

Indeed, whenever he turns his back on the Opposition in Parliament and plays with his phone that’s generally what he is doing – ridiculing the Opposition and giving a few select journalists a quotable line.

None of the Canberra media can afford to let their readers know what is happening and who the sources are for fear of being taken off the drip.

Daley also points out how policy development has also been undermined by the way senior public servants are prevented from saying anything other than the Government’s official talking points.

“Since 2015 Commonwealth Treasury Secretaries have not published speeches on long term policy and the eight articles a year analysis relevant to economic policy issues published a year from 1997 have been discontinued,” Daley said.

The end result of all this abandonment of traditional practice is probably epitomised by a comment Daley cites from an Inside Story article (25 June 2021) pointing out that 12 out of the 23 members of the current cabinet have been involved in incidents which might have led to their resignations in the past.

And as for our anonymous spreadsheet staffer – Ministerial advisors can’t be compelled to appear before parliamentary committees; no-one in the Press Gallery will name them for fear of retribution; and Morrison and Co will continue to deny that that there was any corruption involved. Only the voters will be left in  the dark