Comment: It was, I think, October 29, 1990. The election had been held on the 27th, and the Labour Government had been shown the door in no uncertain terms. National came into office under Jim Bolger promising a return to ‘the decent society’.
I had skin in the game. Following the resignation of Prime Minister David Lange the previous year, a review was commissioned into the Prime Minister’s Office and broader departmental support system. It was completed by two of the leading public servants of their generation, Don Hunn and Henry Lang, ably assisted by Victoria University’s Jonathan Boston.
Following the review, a decision had been taken to establish a department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, with a separate Prime Minister’s Office staffed in the main by political appointees. So, an advisory team to the Prime Minister under Margaret Wilson was established and I was one of them.
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Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer brought over his Private Secretary to become Senior Private Secretary, a woman of consummate ability and professionalism.
And Palmer inherited the services of a Principal Private Secretary by the name of Ken Richardson, a man with equal measures of discretion and administrative talents who had more institutional knowledge in his little finger than most would even hope to possess in a lifetime of service. Ken stayed to the end of the Labour Government, with a number of Palmer’s former staffers once he moved on, and experienced the surreal premiership of Mike Moore.
(Palmer mused afterwards that, had he fought to retain the position of Prime Minister as he could have, the outcome could not have been any worse. And he was right.)
Back to October 29, 1990. Representatives of the new government convened a meeting in the Beehive of the staff who had served the Prime Minister and his ministers going into the election. It was part of the transition. It wasn’t easy, although I recall a large measure of sensitivity from those tasked by Bolger with facilitating the smooth departure of one set of staffers and the intake of a new cohort.
That sensitivity wasn’t uniform. Private secretaries did tend to be part of the institutional furniture and that allowed a measure of continuity from one government to the next. But not everything was handled with tact and sensitivity.
I recall a colleague – one of the cohort of private secretaries who were, at this time, non-partisan public servants – who had been allocated a new incoming minister ensuring that all was in readiness for that minister, being there to welcome that minister into his new office, only to be told his service was not required and he should get out. He broke down. He was treated with contempt and deserved better. I very much hope that, even though continuity of personnel is nowhere now what it was in 1990, this kind of thing will never happen again.
So, back in 1990, six years before the embrace of the MMP system, we had political staff and we had staff seconded from departments to assist ministers – the non-political public servants. This latter group were (and still are) known as private secretaries. They are employed by, and responsible and accountable to, their ‘home’ departments. As Rose Cole has pointed out in an excellent doctoral dissertation lodged in the Victoria University Library these folk are caught at the confluence between political and administrative drivers, effectively trying to serve two masters – the team back in the department, and the minister (and perhaps associates. The ‘purple zone’ is murky and can be unforgiving.
The present, MMP topography of the ministerial office has political appointees employed through the Department of Internal Affairs. These days that will include Senior Private Secretaries who ‘run’ the office (although some will opt, as per Australian practice, for a chief of staff), and political advisors who offer a range of services. Sometimes they are the deep divers into the weeds of policy detail, and sometimes they are the big picture strategists. It will include press staff, press secretaries and their assistants, and perhaps even a speech writer. And then we have the private secretaries – the representative of the departments, entities and agencies that make up the incoming minister’s portfolios.
Depending on the government of the day these political staff may enjoy a direct reporting relationship to the minister, and a further reporting relationship to the Prime Minister’s chief of staff. That was certainly the case for me when I rejoined the Beehive staff in a ministerial office following the 1999 election, and then eventually moved to Helen Clark’s PMO.
A word on chiefs of staff: these folk are intimately involved in the processes of government formation that are now underway. But unless you are a beltway player (or a fastidious follower of LinkedIn) you may never have heard of them. They are appointed, not elected, but they exercise considerable power and influence.
How much they exercise will depend on the Prime Minister or party leader they work for. How much discretion they have will also depend on the preferences (and risk appetite and degree of trust) of their political masters. And we should make no mistake about it. Some Chiefs of Staff have allowed free rein to political staff to indulge in the dark arts of dirty politics and have given their masters the protection of plausible deniability. It’s a matter of public record, and it is – for me – a matter of some mystery as to why some of their excesses have never been a matter of greater public accountability.
Turning to the present, it’s a matter of legitimate public interest just who these people are – transparency is, without exception, a good and healthy thing. The intention is not to demonise these folk. It is to acknowledge that they are – and will continue to be important players – and we need to know something about them, and their backgrounds.
So, what we have going on at the Beehive now is one team, or at least most of them (with the probable exception of departmental private secretaries) cleaning out their desks, and another team working out whether to turn left or right to find their new offices when they exit from the Beehive lifts.
It is not patronising but indeed a statement of the obvious to say many of the new intake will need to complete some kind of induction programme to get a sense of where they fit in relation to other actors; on what the limits might be on their spheres of activity and influence; on the Westminster architecture and guard-rails they will need to understand and operate within.
The good news is that there is plenty of advice available. These days much of it is codified, including a Code of Practice for (political) Ministerial Advisors (it’s up on the Public Service Commission website and accessible here) – a code that while it was recommended by the State Service Commission and a Minister of State Services, had to be fought for as it was initially rejected by one Prime Ministerial chief of staff on the grounds that most risks were of a theoretical not a real or pressing kind. Events would prove him wrong. Very badly wrong. (See here).
So, we have a Code of Conduct. And we have the Cabinet Manual – for many of us the ‘jewel in the crown’ of accessible, but deeply constitutional advice.
It’s the province of the Cabinet Office – part of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – and will be on the agenda for the first meeting of the new Cabinet.
They need to confirm it. New Cabinet members should read it – some of those who they have replaced may well have made the mistake of not doing so.
And there are sections of that Manual that do go directly to the role of political staff and their engagement with public servants. It should be required reading before anyone can exit a Beehive lift. If that’s too big of an ask, then at least for ministers, their non-departmental private secretaries and their political staff.
Its about good and proper governance; it about keeping all staff safe; it’s about guardrails, where to find them and how to best use them; it’s about where to go for further advice; it’s about how to make multi-party government work in a constitutionally sound and proper way.
Again, it’s not patronising to suggest this material is important, substantive, incredibly relevant, and has to be read and discussed. It’s the basis of a government forging a sound working relationship with the public service and drawing on the deep institutional knowledge and experience that our public service has to offer.
And that means, in the language of the moment, it’s about helping to get things done.