We discussed Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff; how and why the job has changed; and some of the implications of its increasing public profile.
ANZSOG recently made available video presentations from its Annual Conference Opening Government: Transparency and Engagement in the Information Age held in Melbourne from 4-6 August 2015.
I was pleased to be part of a panel session with Dr Oliver Hartwich, Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative, ably chaired by ANZSOG Board Member and Chair of the National Mental Health Commission, Ms Robyn Kruk
Here’s a link to my presentation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6VQKTNPHl4
Oliver’s is also available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dok_IPgt8JE
There’s also a link to the Q&A session that followed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8SyQXueiD0&feature=youtu.be
Who says Australian politics is boring? Tough, brutal and unpredictable and very, very exciting. The nation waits on the outcome of tonight’s leadership ballot.
Until we know, here’s my analysis on ABC 612 this afternoon: https://soundcloud.com/612abcbrisbane/emma-griffiths-the-spill-coverage-with-prof-anne-tiernan
A plea – it’s a scholarly one, but a civic one too. Can people please get clear that the Prime Ministership IS NOT the gift of the people – the Prime Minister is the leader of the majority party. So the party decides. Okay?
Okay, I can report first hand that the Victorians are right! The Wheeler Centre is indeed a fantastic cultural institution. Part of the Victorian government’s ‘City of Literature’ initiative, and collocated in a renovated wing of the State Library of Victoria, the Centre hosts a dazzling array of events that celebrate writing, books and ideas.
Sally Warhaft hosts The Wheeler Centre’s popular live journalism series, The Fifth Estate. On 14 October 2014, David Epstein (former Chief of Staff to PM Kevin Rudd) and I, together with an audience of more than 100 Melburnians, joined Sally to discuss prime ministers’ chiefs of staff – what they do, how they work and why, over time, they have become both more important and increasingly visible.
In a discussion that ranged far and wide over Australian governments from Whitlam to Abbott, we explored the skill set of the chief of staff, the challenges they face and why they describe the job as ‘pest controller’ and ‘shock absorber’.
David shared some fascinating insights about the competing responsibilities of chiefs of staff to support and advise the prime minister, while being loyal and maintaining important networks within the party or “body corporate”. Through the audience Q&A, we uncovered some of the less well-known duties of chiefs of staff, including managing the prime minister’s family arrangements, a task that far exceeds what most people would consider within the ambit of the chief of staffs’ office.
The podcast of the event is now available to be downloaded here. A video of the discussion will also be posted in the coming days.
Thanks to Sally, David and the audience for helping reveal more about this little known and understood, yet crucial role at the centre of Australian government. Thanks too to Gemma Rayner and staff of The Wheeler Centre for their superb organisation of the event.
Do take the opportunity to check out the rich content available on the Centre’s website and make sure you put it on your list of things to do and places to visit next time you’re in Melbourne.
New approaches to disseminating research: or what I learned from Griffith University’s digital innovators
There are times when a collaboration just works. There’s a natural fit between a team’s skills and ambitions; new insights and complementary strengths become clear as relationships develop – opening to this academic at least, a whole new world of possibilities for enriching and making accessible the great content that we develop in our research and teaching.
Over the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of working with an incredibly creative and talented team, drawn from the Information Services and Learning Futures groups of my home institution, Griffith University. Together we have experimented with an innovative and I think really exciting new means for disseminating research: the digital story-telling platform Creativist
Pest Controller, Shock Absorber: 40 Years of Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff was developed as a companion to two recently published books co-authored with my colleague, Professor R.A.W. Rhodes. These are: Lessons in Governing: A Profile of Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff and The Gatekeepers: Lessons from Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff, both published by Melbourne University Press.
The project was led by e-publishing and social media guru Julie Blakey, who envisaged, imagined and produced the whole concept. Sheila McCarthy’s project management and relationship management skills, together with the technical expertise of her Innovation Futures team: Oleg Estrin, Geoff McIntyre and Gary Tischer, enabled Julie’s vision to be realised. Results so far have been encouraging – in the week since it was published the story has (my guru tells me) had ‘good analytics’. It has been read, tweeted and retweeted all over the world. Pleasingly too, it was featured on the Creativist website.
Though I have long been interested in the potential of digital stories as a means of communicating research findings beyond traditional academic audiences, and for developing interactive teaching materials for my postgraduate courses, this project was my first foray into what really is possible. It won’t be my last. There are many platforms and possibilities. What scholars like me need to get started (and overcome our reticence) is access to genuine experts. We have them at Griffith – a noted leader in innovative, student-centred learning. I’m hooked and thinking about all the ways I can harness digital and social media across the full range of my scholarly endeavours. I look forward to more collaborations with this outstanding creative team.
Tony Abbott has a problem. Persistent rumblings from early in the government’s term have become a crescendo of complaint about the modus operandi of his Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and particularly his high-profile Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin.
The press gallery is feasting on reports that Credlin berated Immigration Minister Scott Morrison over his poor performance at a media conference. Last week in Parliament, Queensland Senator Ian Macdonald (a Shadow Minister who described being left out of Abbott’s ministry as ‘the worst day of his life’), accused the PMO of exercising ‘obsessive centralised control’. Unhelpfully for Abbott, a number of disgruntled (and not surprisingly, unnamed) Coalition MPs have weighed in to express ‘private concerns’ about the behaviour of ‘unelected advisers’, notably Credlin. The Prime Minister has been forced to weigh in to defend his staffers, telling journalists ‘Decisions made by my chief of staff and my office have my full backing and authority’.
Abbott’s rebuke of internal dissenters was followed up by his Finance Minister. Mathias Cormann launched a staunch defence of Credlin, calling on her critics to ‘back off’. Abbott’s CoS had played a central role in Opposition and securing the Coalition’s election victory, he said. ‘She obviously has a very important job at the heart of the government and she will be central to our success’.
In contemporary politics, an effective and well-organised PMO is indeed essential for prime ministerial success. As head of the office, responsible for organising the system of advice and support across the spectrum of the prime minister’s relationships and dependencies, the CoS – whom the prime minister selects – is crucial. But much also depends on the leader him or herself – the organisational, political and other skills and experience he or she brings to the task. Important too is their ability to learn and grow in the job.
My Griffith colleague Professor Rod Rhodes and I have just completed a major study of prime ministers’ chiefs of staff (PMCoS) under governments from Whitlam to Rudd. It will be published by Melbourne University Press in 2014. Our book draws on the experiences of former PMCoS – eleven of whom participated in two lengthy roundtable discussions about the work of the CoS in supporting and protecting the prime minister. We examine the evolution of the job from its tentative first steps under Whitlam to the present. That Peta Credlin has become so public a figure only confirms our finding that the PMCoS has moved from the backroom to centre stage of Australian politics. He or she is recognised within and outside of government as a pivotal actor at the centre of key governing networks.
One aim of our research was to draw insights and lessons from former CoS that could be passed on to their successors. Our CoS identified eight key lessons that we address at length in our book and which we ‘road-tested’ against the experiences of the Rudd and Gillard offices. Several of these have salience for the current difficulties facing Tony Abbott’s PMO and for the Prime Minister as he considers what to do about them.
First, though, we should acknowledge that complaints about ‘control freakery’ from the PMO are so common as to almost be routine, particularly during the transition to government. Similar complaints were levelled against the offices of Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Central control over staffing and other appointments, over the timing and scheduling of media appearances and policy announcements are insurance against mistakes and missteps due to inexperience, as ministers and ministerial staff adjust to the rigours and scrutiny of being in government. As long as the tone is respectful and the transition is going well, most members of a new government will wear it. But we saw in Rudd’s case what can happen if ministers and elected representatives feel they are not being heard, are not getting a share of the leader’s time and attention; and if central control becomes entrenched as a governing style.
Partisan organisations lack institutional memory. It resides in the stories political leaders; party officials, parliamentarians and their staff tell each other about what has happened in the past. They draw lessons from previous experience on their own side of politics and from their critique of the failures and shortcomings of their opponents. The elite narrative of Abbott ministers is the Howard government, which in their memories was highly successful. Over time that became true, but it was not at the beginning. Indeed, its early months may explain why Abbott’s Government Staff Committee is so assertively intervening into staff appointments –to the chagrin of several ministers.
The pressures of contemporary politics, the 24-hour news cycle and the problems of fragmentation and coherence are why internationally leaders invest so much effort and resources into central coordination. The bureaucracy once performed many of these tasks, but in Australia they have become the province of the PMO. The prime minister’s dependencies are primarily political. It is more appropriate that political staff rather than public servants interface with media, the parliament if the government lacks a majority (as Abbott currently does in the Senate), their colleagues and stakeholders. The most successful PMOs (Bob Hawke’s and John Howard’s under the leadership of Arthur Sinodinos, now Assistant Treasurer, but formerly the longest-serving PMCoS) recognised the prime minister would be better served if these tasks were shared across an experienced, senior group. Concentrated focus on one individual can problematic, as Kevin Rudd’s CoS Alister Jordan and Gillard’s first, Amanda Lampe, each found.
Our CoS identified eight lessons. Most salient for Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin at this juncture are the lessons pertaining to ‘managing key dependencies’. Prime ministers may seem powerful, but in reality they depend on many others – the ministry, the party-room, the public service, amongst others – both to stay in the office and to achieve their political and policy goals. Managing the colleagues and keeping them ‘on-side’ is time-consuming, requiring constant work and attention. That Abbott and Credlin have at least some of them offside suggests they need to moderate the perception (if not the reality) that the PMO is controlling. They also need to ‘duchess them’, as our CoS described it. Here Abbott could learn from John Howard’s attention to the party-room, the Cabinet, the leadership and tactics meetings. There are lessons that Credlin might draw too from Sinodinos’ ability to balance the need for the PMCoS to speak for the prime minister without transgressing the boundaries of what ministers and elected officials consider the ‘proper’ boundaries of the staffer.
Some have questioned Credlin’s suitability for the job of PMCoS. Before her, only two women have held the CoS position. Both have had short, difficult tenures in the job and have faced relentless criticism about their quality and calibre. Like Credlin, they were frequently the target of unpleasant, sexist innuendo about how they came to their positions. Abbott’s CoS has the added difficulty that her husband is Federal Director of the Liberal Party. This form of ‘court politics’ is unprecedented in Australia and features prominently in complaints about the inner circle that surrounds the prime minister.
Certainly Credlin has a much higher profile than her PMCoS predecessors. Her height, her relative youth and striking looks (alongside Abbott’s predominantly male Cabinet, which has an average age of 52.6 years) make Credlin easy to spot in the prime ministerial entourage. It is arguable she has been too visible – accompanying Abbott to key meetings and briefings, as well as on international visits. She has consistently offended the unwritten rule that staffers should avoid becoming the story.
But Credlin’s high profile is the result of the deliberate political strategy that sought to overcome Abbott’s well-documented ‘problem’ with women voters. This could be one aspect of his colleagues’ concerns. John Howard would never have described a staffer as ‘the boss’ as Abbott did in a feature interview about Credlin in 2011. Nor would his CoS have ‘gone public’ in the manner Credlin did in discussing Abbott’s empathetic response when she underwent fertility treatment while on his staff. In allowing herself to be constructed as dominatrix, in her own words in one of the many articles written about her, as ‘the Queen of No’, Credlin may have stoked the anxieties it seems are unleashed in Australia by the prospect of women in power. It could yet undermine her potential to be the first woman to succeed as PMCoS.
Abbott is fiercely loyal to his staff and particularly to Peta Credlin. But the strength of the backlash within the government shows there are risks in allowing his senior staffer to develop so public and independent a political identity. It highlights too that the position of CoS within our system of government remains ambiguous, despite its obvious importance to prime ministerial performance and effectiveness.
The experiences of the Rudd and Gillard offices demonstrate that attacks on the staff are proxy attacks on the leader. PMCoS are the lightning rod of discontent for those unwilling to confront the prime minister; just as they are the ‘shock absorbers’ of prime ministerial frustration and displeasure, or the conflicts they might want to avoid. Abbott’s partyroom has sent a shot over the bows of the prime minister and his office. His challenge will be how to respond; while Peta Credlin’s will be how to adapt the style that worked so well in Opposition to the differing expectations and mores of government.
ANZSOG Dean Gary Banks’ Garran Oration, delivered to the Institute of Public Administration (IPAA) National Conference in Canberra yesterday raised concerns about the capacity of the institutions and processes of public policy and decision-making to deliver good governance and policy reform. Such complaints have become a recurrent theme among the nation’s policy elite.
As Banks acknowledged, Business Council of Australia (BCA) Chief Executive Jennifer Westacott’s address to last year’s IPAA National Congress was a catalyst for what became at times a quite spirited debate about the impact and influence of ministerial staffers both on the quality of advice to ministers and their relationships with the public service. There has been much weeping and gnashing of teeth about the role of ministerial staff, whether they are of sufficiently high calibre and experience to hold such influential positions. I canvassed some of the dilemmas that have flowed from the development of a large, active ministerial staffing system in my 2007 book Power Without Responsibility.
Like many public sector reforms of the past four decades, the growth and evolution of ministerial staffing arrangements has had a range of consequences – both intended and unintended. The Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 (MoPS Act) that governs ministerial staff, envisaged a significant role for policy experts – specialist consultants who could be recruited to ministers’ offices to provide an alternative source and advice and policy ideas to that available to ministers from their portfolio departments and agencies. The Hawke and Keating governments made extensive use of consultants, but the practice changed under the Howard government, which made only occasional use of consultants and then only in the Prime Minister’s Office. It was not restored under the Rudd or Gillard governments.Whether this is because politics has changed – and it has profoundly under the pressures of contemporary governance – or whether the option is no longer necessary because pay and conditions for ministerial staff have improved significantly under recent governments is an empirical question. Partisan organisations struggle to develop and maintain institutional memory, so it is possible the practice has been forgotten or overlooked rather than deliberately abandoned.
A more contestable environment has forever eroded the public service monopoly over policy advising, but it is concerning that ministers and the ‘courts’ that surround them no longer regard the public service as their primary or even their preferred source of information, analysis and advice. Gary Banks canvasses what he considers to be some of the consequences of ‘the rise of the ministerial office’. Interestingly, such concerns are seldom expressed by ministers themselves. That’s something that’s worth pondering as we follow how new governments around Australia are approaching relationships with their public services.
I’ve just finished at the PSA Conference in freezing cold Cardiff. I presented two papers, both joint-authored with my Griffith/Southampton colleague, Professor R.A.W. Rhodes. Both are outputs from our Ministers and their Courts project, funded by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG).
The first, the rather inelegantly titled ‘From Core Executive to Court Politics: from a bucket of rice to a bowl of jelly’ discusses recent developments in executive studies and seeks to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a focus on court politics. The paper examines the ‘prime ministerial predominance’ thesis, presidential studies and ‘institutionalization’, the ‘statecraft’ thesis, and the ‘New Political History’. We argue these contributions converge on the study of court or high politics and hold out the prospect of the theoretical and methodological reinvigoration of executive studies.
The second, ‘Organizational Capacity and Prime Ministerial Effectiveness: Observations from Australia’ considers the organizational imperative that confronts contemporary prime ministers within core executive networks that are increasingly institutionalized. We introduce the concept of organizational capacity – a theoretical idea drawn from US presidential studiesliterature, where its salience is well established and well understood. In this paper, we adapt it to the Westminster context and explore its relevance to two Australian prime ministers: the contrasting cases of John Howard and Kevin Rudd. We argue that organizational capacity is a crucial but currently underemphasised resource for prime ministerial effectiveness and note that though critical, it is insufficient for assessing the performance of prime ministers. Interpretive approaches that focus on court politics offer potentially more fruitful means of examining the performance of political leaders and the networks that surround them – some of which they create.
We plan to revise both of these papers over coming months for submission to refereed journals.