Political advisers stifle public service

Labor’s siege mentality has, typically, blinded it to the reality of business concerns about the undue influence of Ministerial staffers and political advisers on our system of governance.

This is a blight afflicting not just the federal bureaucracy, not just state and territory bureaucracies but, increasingly, local government across the nation as well.

The issue is complex, the consequences are far-reaching, remedying it will be painful and protracted – and perhaps not even possible – but the causes are quite simple. There are two key elements: proximity to power and the 24-hour news cycle.

It has become almost a cliché that the bureaucracy is there to provide frank, fearless and impartial advice to administrations of the day. Certainly that is the hallmark of public service professionalism. Yet what increasingly gets ignored is a fundamental tradition of Westminster practice: that the bureaucracy provides considered advice. This is the crucial change that has characterised our system of governance over the past six or seven decades.

The immediacy and urgency of contemporary media has come to dominate political processes. The news cycle now never ceases. It is a continuum with an insatiable appetite and bureaucracies, by their very nature, cannot respond in kind.

So, Ministers and senior office-holders have increasingly expanded their own staffs to provide the capability of responding to the media on its terms. Because these advisers are distinct and separate from traditional public servants, they have crowded close to their patrons, so their input can be immediate.

The natural consequence of this is that Ministers (and their ilk) are physically compartmented with their advisers while the bureaucracy is at a remove. When the media are demanding commentary or answers, speed is of the essence, and bureaucrats simply tend to be overlooked. There is insufficient time to brief them, allow them to consider the issue/s and promulgate a response which methodically addresses all contingent matters. The advisers win, almost by default.

Of course, advisers are frequently attracted to their roles by proximity to power. It is a heady aphrodisiac which can certainly alter mind and mood. Advisers, being human, are subject to venal frailties like enjoying the enhanced status that enables them to wield a small portion of the authority of the office they serve. For those who need this kind of ego boost, bullying behaviour is often a corollary.

These political staffers frequently develop a Praetorian Guard mindset in which anyone who gets close to their patron could be a threat and, so, they tend to deny access. This is a form of power play in itself but, either way, Ministers become increasingly isolated from those who will tell them the truth. It leads to errors of judgment.

It is just as pertinent that party political considerations – and electoral priorities – frequently clash with proffered impartial advice from an avowedly apolitical public service. With votes at stake, guess which wins out?

The hiring of political apparatchiks by Ministers and other parliamentary office-holders is today little more than a swill trough of patronage. The practice is simply a levy on the public purse to pay for party political activities that are all about protecting vested interests and scandalously little to do with enhancing governance. Those actually employed to serve the community interest are sabotaged by those serving party political interests.

This scandalous state of affairs was highlighted by the recent imbroglio of the Gillard administration being caught out digging dirt on the Abbott Opposition. A classic example of one party using public funding to smear its political foes. That it attracted any attention at all was the revelation that it emanated from the Office of the Prime Minister. For many voters, that was an uncomfortable insight into the exercise of national political power.

But anyone who thinks the Coalition is not every bit as guilty need only consider the deafening silence that rapidly cloaked this issue after the initial, and very brief, flurry of outraged sanctimoniousness. No party has any vestige of a claim on moral high ground on this issue. And none want our subsidisation of their nefarious activities to be halted.

One only needs consider the level of slander, smear, vitriol and denunciation that passes for Question Time to realise our elected representatives are anything but a group of sensible adults working determinedly for the betterment of the nation. If only!

You almost get an unclean feeling when contemplating the backroom hacks who spend inordinate periods of time staring at computer screens in their relentless quest to find a hint of a scandal that might land a telling blow on their political foes. Rather like dirty old men in plastic raincoats who cannot quite adjust to acceptable mores in society.

What we must not lose sight of is that most of the raincoat brigade responsible for uncovering purported sleaze are employed on the public payroll. That makes them ‘public servants’.

At a time when layoffs are curbing the size of the public sector in just about all states and territories, these creatures of the night remain a protected species because they are ‘political staffers’. Their job descriptions specify high-minded pursuits such as policy development, research and communication. What a farce that so many are suborned, for at least a portion of their work hours, into violating the precepts of public service ethics.

Both sides of our national political divide are currently engaged in trench warfare on the issue of productivity. Regrettably, debate on this vital component of national prosperity is clouded by posturing and point-scoring. Rhetoric abounds but reform is absent. Perhaps the time has come to demonstrate that the community allocates a higher priority to this issue than our leaders have so far been willing to accord it.