The birth of the Canberra Minder
4 Feb 2016|


The Canberra ministerial adviser—the Minder—was born on 5 December 1972, when Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister.

Like much that Whitlam did, the birth was attended by high purpose, low politics and scrambling.

The short, tumultuous Whitlam era changed much in Canberra. Some of it endures. The number of Minders exploded while their purpose stayed constant.

The previous column argued that 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.

For all the calumny heaped on the Minders, this was no bastard child. A new and different child—Whitlam knew what he wanted.

After 23 years in opposition, Labor was back and Whitlam wasn’t entrusting The Program solely to the public service.

Every government since has felt the same, reaching for Gough’s weapon to push policy, run politics, skirt Parliament and ride the public service.

In the 1973 Garran Oration, Whitlam made the Minder case.

The creation:

‘We have found a need to provide Ministers with greater help on the policy side. I have no hesitation in saying that the help Ministers have obtained from their offices has relieved departments of involvement in party-political matters and has given Ministers support as they have forged ahead in their own particular fields.’

The system effect:

‘This development in no way represents a departure from the principles of the Westminster system. Central to that system is the principle that Ministers as individuals and the Cabinet as a whole must exercise real control over the Public Service and accept full responsibility for policy.’

The policy and public service impact:

‘It is a perfectly objective statement to say that there have been notable cases in Australia in the past of a remarkable lack of ministerial control over departments and over policy…To the extent that the appointment of a competent personal staff assists Ministers to exercise their proper constitutional authority we are enhancing the basic Westminster tradition.’

The man who designed the system, the PM’s Principal Private Secretary, Dr Peter Wilenski, wrote in 1978 that the new ministerial advisers were ‘the most controversial’ change in the policy process.

Previously, most ministerial staffers (apart from press secretaries) were seconded from the minister’s department. The department was where staffer careers and loyalties lay. The Minder completely changed the loyalty calculus.

The Minders appointed by Wilenski were usually aged in their 20s or 30s and ‘were different in background to the majority of public servants—for instance, a far higher proportion of women’.

The Whitlam revolution opened new battle lines in the assault on the male bastions of Parliament, press gallery and public service. The old assumption was that women made the tea. A sign in one of the ladies’ lavatories in Parliament requested: ‘Please lift seat before emptying tea leaves.’

Whitlam’s 27-man ministry got 27 top Minders to serve as ministerial Private Secretaries, three of them women. One of those three, Patti Warn, came direct from the ABC TV where she’d worked on Four Corners.

Arriving in Canberra in January 1973, Warn remembered: ‘I had no specific training for the job…I had not the slightest idea what a Private Secretary did. I did not know how the public service worked. I did not know how to recruit and manage staff. I knew little about parliamentary procedure’.

She climbed on top of the role and spent two decades as a Minder and consultant to Labor front benchers. Her first Minder job proved the permanent trapdoor rule. As Warn noted, ‘ministerial staff lived and died at the whim of their minister, as they still do’.

She lost that first job after the 1974 election ‘partly because I had defended a junior woman staffer in a dispute about who was responsible for leaving a key paragraph out of a speech. [The Minister] Morrison came back to his office from the caucus election which had just re-elected him to the ministry and told me I could find another job’. Off she went to work in Whitlam’s office.

Labor’s battles with the public service reflected its wider frustration at being in office but not in power. Wilenski wrote that public service empires and bureaucratic habits of mind were threatened by the new government.

Mandarins fought masterful campaigns, warning, worrying, limiting options and running interminable committees. The Mandarins pushed hard against being usurped by advisers in having privileged access to the minister and the right to the vital, final word in the minister’s ear.

Wilenski categorised ministerial views of the public service this way:

  • Extreme suspicion of the bureaucracy ‘as the natural enemy of a reform government’
  • Saw the Mandarins as dedicated but ‘simply the wrong people to understand and carry out Labor’s program’
  • Became frustrated by public service inflexibility, delay, empire building and secrecy
  • Shared Whitlam’s view that the service was co-operative, eager and efficient

Wilenski judged that the first generation Minders ranged from the reasonably modest to the spectacularly active. Enthusiastic and sometimes inexperienced staffers ‘tested the limits of their power’. The Mandarins saw themselves as ‘the sole interpreters of a minister’s intentions’ and challenged, co-opted or worked around the Minders.

Whitlam’s early-model Minders had a tendency to crash and burn, argue with each other, and congregate in the non-Members bar. Yet the breed flourished.

Only five years after the creation, early in the life of the Fraser government, Wilenski pronounced the Minders had ‘become an established feature of the ministerial system whichever party is in power.’

Correct. The Minders performed as designed.