The Tides of Lake Burley Griffin


A tide of Labor people is currently washing into Canberra as the Coalition ebbs out.

There are about 880 positions on the staffs of the PM and Federal Ministers. Some of these are departmental liaison people – when a Minister asks for information, these people know where it can be found, or someone who does. Some are advisors – subject-matter experts in areas relevant to the minister’s portfolio. Some are media people, who write media releases and build relationships with journalists. Some are admin staff. Each minister has a chief of staff, and a private secretary to manage the diary.

Over the past year or so, all but the most fervent Coalition loyalists would have sounded out other opportunities.

First to go would have been the subject-matter experts. Bluster about loyalty from backroom Party operators would have the least effect on them. They could get re-employed easily within their field and besides, a Government on the slide stops listening to experts.

Next would see the smarter researchers and media people jump across to client organisations. Liberals understand upward mobility, and years of loyal service through tough times mitigate harsh accusations of ‘betrayal’.

Meanwhile, the permanent public servants on staff would have lined up jobs within the departments from which they were seconded. They would have seen out the full term, including the transition period, unless a really great job appeared that required them to start earlier.

Last to go would have been the loyalists who still can’t believe it’s really over, who shredded documents and lugged boxes to the Opposition Wing or out the door. The urgings of backroom toughs count for little in defeat, especially when they’ve landed cushy jobs themselves. There are far fewer staff jobs in Opposition, and fewer perks. The skills required to scrounge information in Opposition are different to those navigating the oceans of information available to the Government. These people find it toughest to be re-employed and may be struggling now, even in a buoyant economy.

There aren’t that many jobs in State Opposition even for those who deign to apply. Coalition staffers descending to State divisions of the Liberal Party will find smoking ruins occupied by well-entrenched partisans who would rather complain about Labor Governments than beat them, and accuse would-be reformers of being Labor patsies. This will inspire some to fight, others to leave.

Never in his years as Federal Liberal leader did John Howard act to stop his Party losing State Government or help them regain it. Policies discussed with Labor Premiers were announced with no forewarning to Liberal State Oppositions; they looked silly when ambushed, sillier still if they protested. Party funding was directed to Federal campaigns over State ones. State policy initiatives were smothered by a B-team from head office led by Darcy Tronson, a Fraser Government veteran whose career has been to place a soothing pillow over the faces of a generation of State Liberal politicians. Howard Government staffers have learned contempt for State politics.

Lobbying firms often associated with the Liberal Party include Crosby Textor, Parker & Partners and Cannings, to name a few. All of these employ former Coalition staffers, on much more money than staffers get. Each of these firms would have been inundated with staffers’ resumes over the last few months. They would have all been binned for three reasons:

One: The indispensable quality a lobbyist needs is political acumen. Anyone with political acumen could see that Howard was going to lose, and would avoid having their own career trapped in the wreckage. Why hire a lobbyist who lacks acumen?

Two: Liberal-identified lobbying firms will do it tough with Labor Governments across the country. Why hire more staff who can only increase costs without increasing revenue?

Three: There are only so many jobs, some of which may be held by people less qualified than the applicants.

Those with transferable skills will find something eventually, although they may have to adjust their expectations. Ministerial staff earn $60-120,000 on average. They mix with lobbyists and businesspeople earning many times that, and come to regard these high-fliers as their peers. One recruiter in Melbourne grew weary of telling ex-Kennett government staffers on $70,000 that they were unlikely to walk into a role earning $150,000+.

Contrary to popular opinion, big companies do not warehouse Liberal staffers until they next come to office.

By contrast, those ALP loyalists in lowly Opposition staff roles learned from Howard how not to govern, and will now have the responsibility to demonstrate how governing should be done.

There will be people working for the union movement who’ll be looking for a change of scene and a chance to stroll the corridors of power. There are fewer ministers from the union movement in Kevin Rudd’s ministry than the Coalition scare campaigns said there would be. It’s in the unions’ interests to have sympathetic people in ministerial offices, although how they’ll replace key staff is an issue for them.

There will also be State Government staffers looking for new challenges in Canberra. They will be attractive to the Federal Government as they can mitigate the naïveté of a new Government, especially when it comes to reshaping Federal-State relations. Already, Mick Reid from NSW Health has gone to work for Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon, and Victorian Premier’s Department official Chris Barrett has taken a job with Treasurer Swan.

All Labor State and Territory Governments have been in office for some years. All have made mistakes, and some good ideas and people have languished. All are vulnerable to a brain drain to Canberra, leaving them even more stale and accident-prone than they are now. The Federal Government already has the whip-hand in its relationship with the States. John Gorton lacked both the gravitas and the policy tools to impose his will over Premiers like Bolte or Askin; if Kevin Rudd clashed with Morris Iemma or Paul Lennon, who would bet against the PM?

It is in this reshaping of Federation that opportunities exist for the Coalition, and dangers for Labor. Coalition staffers might swallow their pride and find in State/Territory politics that fix that only political victory can satisfy. It’s now possible for Coalition Oppositions to forge new identities independent of Howard and advance on depleted State Labor Governments.

Watch where the brighter staff – from both Labor and the Coalition – are going. This will tell you where the political shifts are occurring, well before they manifest themselves in polls and election campaigns.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.