The Canberra Minder
25 Jan 2016|


The Canberra ministerial adviser—the Minder—is 43 years young. The Minder is the strongest new creation of Oz politics, often more important than the public service in the way policy and politics gets done.

The idea of the political staffer in the ministerial office as more powerful than the public service at key moments is striking. Yet in a couple of decades it has become the reality.

Ponder that claim: the 400-plus ministerial staffers in the executive wing of Parliament throw more weight than the massed ranks of public servants in Canberra and all across Oz.

The public service runs the show but the Minders do a lot of steering. That’s a power shift that has changed the system and how it works.

Those who administer don’t admire those who convey the minister’s orders. Little wonder that a Treasury Mandarin, John Stone, attacked the Minders as ‘meretricious players’.

Stone’s fellow Mandarins have used many worse epithets. The Minders occupy space that once was the exclusive terrain of Mandarins.

The Minders have shifted power in Canberra in ways that greatly hurt the public service. And greatly helped the Minders’ political masters. That’s why the political staffer quickly settled close to the heart of the Canberra system. If this is a transplant rather than a Westminster evolution, then the operation worked.

The Minder sits at the intersection where politics meets power, the Parliament meets the Executive. The presidential pretensions of the prime ministership are fuelled and carried by the Minders who throng the ministerial wing.

The Minders are the creation and creatures of the Executive; they live and die at the Minister’s pleasure. They have few rights but great privileges. Access to power comes by standing on a permanent trap door. The Minister can hire anyone (as long as the PM’s office gives a tick) and can dismiss in an instant.

This column launches a series on the Minders. It will be based on five Canberra facts.

The first two facts are so intertwined they reflect one reality:

  1. The Minder is a shadowy eminence, operating beneath the cloak of ministerial power.
  2. The Minder is untouchable, accountable neither to Parliament nor the public service.

The third point is contested and controversial, varying across ministers and issues, but it’s the fact stated at the head of this column.

  1. The Minder is often more important than the public service in the way policy and politics gets done.

Facts four and five are conclusions to be drawn from the consistent actions of different governments over 43 years. The political consensus decrees:

  1. The Minders are a permanent feature of the system.
  2. Minders are essential to ministers and the functioning of the executive.

Taking those facts as the reality, this series will come neither to praise nor bury, merely to acknowledge a significant element of the way Australia does government.

Any praise would be atypical. Minders may be essential but usually they are dragged from the shadows to be blamed and whipped.

The Minders are seldom mentioned publicly without being spat upon. Paul Keating scorned those around Bob Hawke as the ‘Manchu Court’. Keating, who had his own set of Minders, was putting his finger on what matters about courtiers—the power they sit close to and the power they can guide.

The spleen and spite directed at staffers over the decades should be read as a backhanded acknowledgement of their significance.

To give the flavour, here’s Keating on his 1986 battle with Hawke’s Manchu Court, consisting of Peter Barron, Bob Hogg and Ross Garnaut.

‘They would sit like courtiers around him, and I would come to Bob’s office and he’d be hunched at his desk, and he’d be saying “Ross says…” or “Peter says…” and he’d never finish a sentence and they’d pipe up. And on one occasion I spun on them and said, “You speak when you’re spoken to.” One of them said to Hawke, “Are you going to let him speak to us like that?” and Bob says, “Oh, don’t be like that. Don’t be like that.” I’d be brought before them knowing they’d be passing on opinion to Bob after I’d left, and they’d intersperse my comments with their own. They always sat in the same position in that narrow office of Bob’s in the old Parliament House. I’d be sitting in front of his desk, and their three chairs would be set a little off the wall. You were appearing before the court and the courtiers would say what they thought of you, usually after you’d left.’

Draw a few key facts from this vignette.

Staffers have influence because of the intimate relationship with their political masters. Proximity equates to power. Proximity gives the staffer the ability to shape their master’s thinking and often to have the last word on a debate or decision.

The minders are political staffers.

A later piece in this series will define some differences between what I call Political Minders and Policy Minders. The Policy/Political is a useful distinction yet deeply artificial because Minders must dance to both drums. While characteristics and demands differ across and within offices, Minders are all the same species and all carry political stripes.

The Minders are the small animals inside the political cage with the politicians.

The public service also serves in the zoo—theoretically standing just outside the cage. Bureaucrats are often a few steps away from the action in the cage when the claws fly and the meat is killed.

The scene Keating describes when a Prime Minister, a Treasurer and three Minders argued the toss is something many senior public servants have witnessed. And top public servants have always argued their case with great vigour—this is Australia, after all.

Yet even the most confident and combat-hardened public servant rarely needs to be told, ‘You speak when you’re spoken to’.

The public service understands there are things done and said inside the cage where it isn’t their place to go. That shadowy place is where Minders have stood since their creation by the Whitlam government in December 1972. To be continued.