by Professor Anne Tiernan
Terms such as pest controller, shock absorber, and javelin catcher have been used by Chiefs of Staff (CoS) to Prime Ministers and Presidents to characterise the challenging and unpredictable nature of the problems they must confront on a daily basis.
If an issue reaches the Oval Office in the White House or the Prime Minister’s office, it is because no one elsewhere in government has been able to solve it. The stakes and the expectations are high.
This post examines the development of the CoS office in Australia. Despite differences in constitutions, institutions, and politics, there are striking similarities in the Prime Ministerial and U.S. Presidential offices and functions.
Much of what scholars and others know about the work of CoS comes from the insights and reflections of individuals who have held the position at what has been called the ‘nerve centre’ of American government, and in Australia the ‘nexus of key core executive networks’.
In the US the position of CoS to the President has been the focus of considerable attention by practitioners, scholars, and in popular culture, notably the much-loved television series The West Wing. The origin of the office in the United States stretches back to President Eisenhower’s designation of his top aide, Sherman Adams, as the President’s CoS.
In the Australian context, the Prime Minister’s CoS is a comparatively recent development. In the forty years since Prime Minister Whitlam challenged the traditional Principal Private Secretary model, the position of CoS has evolved considerably.
Australia’s founders envisaged a modest role for the Commonwealth government. Its powers were enumerated in the Constitution — and assumed all other powers would rest with the states.
Six departments were created when Australia federated on 1 January 1901. These were: Attorney General’s, Defence, External Affairs, Home Affairs, Trade and Customs, and Treasury.
Robert Garran, a lawyer who had been active in the Federation movement, was briefly the Commonwealth’s only public servant.
As Secretary to the Attorney General, Garran was responsible for administrative and legislative arrangements, including the Commonwealth Public Service Act 1902.
In the absence of an established bureaucracy, Thomas Bavin became the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary (PPS). Australia’s first PPS was a political appointee, a lawyer and committed Federationist. Bavin had strong ties to key ‘founding fathers’ served both Prime Ministers Barton and Deakin as PPS until 1904.
From 1904 until 1980 the ‘public service model’ was the norm. Following the model of the British Civil Service, promising officials were seconded to the Prime Minister’s private office — first from the Department of External Affairs (1904–1910) and later from the Prime Minister’s Department, established by Andrew Fisher in 1911. Their key tasks as Principal Private Secretary (PPS) included providing administrative, clerical and sometimes political support to the prime minister.
They were also responsible for a small team that gradually expanded to personal secretaries, typists and a press secretary.
In Australia as in Britain, the job of PPS was a proving ground for public service high-flyers. Some, like Malcolm Shepherd, Percy Deane and Geoffrey Yeend, went on to become Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department.
The public service model came under pressure as Prime Minister’s sought greater responsiveness and political support. Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser each attempted to redefine the work of the Prime Minister’s Private Office (PMO), but the shift towards more personalised appointments would come in Fraser’s second term.
Prior to 1972 there was limited personal staffing capacity for Australian prime ministers. Their primary source of support was the Prime Minister’s Department (1911–71), now the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), together with a small private office led by seconded departmental officer at Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary (PPS).
The Whitlam government was the first to challenge the PPS tradition. The new Prime Minister used his 1973 Garran Oration to assert the political executive’s primacy in policy-making. He challenged the traditional power of the Canberra mandarins, describing them as only one part of the system of advice and support to the Labor government.
Labor intended that the PMO would become a policy powerhouse that would drive the implementation of its election commitments and platform. It would appoint outsiders to ministerial offices, notably the PMO.
The progenitor of Labor’s reforms, Whitlam PPS, Peter Wilenski, envisaged that the infusion of young, well-educated advisers from outside the public service would provide ministers with support to deal with their departments and be a source of independent advice.
Though initially contentious, the experience of Whitlam’s advisory innovations was mixed. Ultimately the Prime Minister recognised the need for greater coherence and administrative discipline. In his second term Whitlam relied more on the public service for coordination and control. He substantially upgraded the policy functions of PM&C and in October 1974 appointed his former PPS, John Menadue, as its permanent head.
The immediate impact of Labor’s changes were limited during the government’s short life. However the long-term consequences of its advisory experiments were profound. Greater numbers of ministerial staff broadened the channels of advice to Ministers, as well as the issue of political advice to prominence.
The Whitlam years marked a watershed in executive bureaucratic relations as ministers asserted their prerogative to engage their own sources of information and advice, as well as their expectations of greater responsiveness from the bureaucracy. Labor’s establishment of the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration (RCAGA) set the framework for a much-needed debate about the role of the public service.
In 1974 the Whitlam government commissioned a Royal Commission into Australian Government Administration (RCAGA) under the chairmanship of H.C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs. By the time the inquiry was completed, the Whitlam government had been controversially dismissed. The report would be handed to the new Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser in 1975.
While Fraser’s response to the commission’s recommendations was generally favourable, his willingness and ability to pursue administrative reform was constrained. Weller and Smith (1977) argue that in light of the circumstances facing the Fraser government,
… it would be difficult to find an economic and political climate less suitable for any bureaucratic experiment that might require increased expenditure than the one that exists at the moment.
The Royal Commission’s consideration of the role of ministerial staff took place in the context of significant debate about proper role and function and amidst uncertainty over whether the expansion of ministers’ personal staffs would continue in future.
The Commission’s report was a catalyst for public sector reforms of the subsequent decades that ushered in greater ministerial control, expectations of public service responsiveness and reform of public sector employment arrangements, including an emphasis on equity and merit in selection and promotion.
In Opposition, Malcolm Fraser was highly critical of the Whitlam government’s advisory arrangements. Dismayed by the Whitlam experience, he looked to the public service as the principal source of advice and support to his government. Ministerial staff were retained, although — at least initially — they were curtailed in size and functions except in the PMO.
Fraser brought with him a loyal staff developed in opposition. Like Whitlam, he enlisted the help of an academic, Professor David Kemp a political scientist, to design the structure and functions of his office.
In office, Fraser’s decision to retain an extensive private office staff was vindicated. The combination of personal style, a formidable private office and an expanded Department of PM&C enabled Fraser to achieve policy dominance.
His advisory infrastructure evolved during his term. Unhappy with the quality of advice he received from Treasury, and determined to curtail its power, Fraser split the Treasury in December 1976. He broadened his sources of advice by strengthening PM&C and recruiting expert advisers to his PMO, many from academic backgrounds.
The 1980 election convinced Fraser of the benefits of a strong PMO and a politically appointed CoS. Kemp who had returned to academia in 1976, was invited to lead a restructure and upgrading of Fraser private office. Consistent with advice he had provided previously to Fraser, Kemp’s job was primarily a political one, focused on supporting the leadership functions of the Prime Minister.
Former Chiefs of Staff believe the Fraser period marked a critical juncture in the development of the role, because the rationale for requiring the position was clearly articulated, forcefully argued and ultimately justified by public service intransigence.
David Kemp has written about the extraordinary battle for control over the direction of policy between Fraser and his senior official advisers in the Treasury, the Department of Foreign affairs and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Fraser wanted to drive policy from the centre. If he could not get support from the public service he would do it himself.
Although Fraser had come to office ambivalent about the utility of ministerial staff and mindful of the dangers, he created a PMO that would serve as a significant resource for subsequent governments.
Fraser’s decisions about the design of the Prime Minister’s office in the new Parliament House were also crucial in creating precedents for his prime ministerial successors. Where in the old building staff numbers in the PMO were constrained by a lack of space, the new building was designed to allow the Prime Minister a range of advisers within easy reach.
Labor carefully planned its transition to government in 1983. In Opposition, it extensively analysed the Whitlam government’s failings. It worked hard to prove it was fit to govern.
Hawke believed many of the issues the Whitlam government had encountered were a consequence of its poor relationships with the public service. Accordingly, he insisted an experienced public servant would lead his PMO. All four of Hawke’s CoS had significant public service experience — all later became departmental secretaries.
Hawke’s model was strongly premised on harnessing the complementary skills and capacities of the PMO. with the skills and expertise of the public service. He made clear he did not want to party political advice from the public servants in his office.
He looked to them to ensure he received effective and balanced support, and that he received information and advice from the widest possible variety of sources.
The job of PM’s CoS evolved considerably under the Hawke government. Passage of the Members of Parliament Staff Act (1984) and political management reforms to make the public service more responsive were decisive. The MoPS Act resolved some of the ambiguities and tensions about public servants’ involvement in partisan activities while seconded to ministerial offices.
Hawke’s PMO was very much a reflection of the leader. As Prime Minister he encouraged an open office, welcoming frank advice and a diversity of views. He fostered good relationships with the Head of PM&C, Mike Codd and the senior public service who became partners in Labor’s agenda for economic and social reform, and reform of the public service.
Hawke was disciplined with his time and efficient with his paperwork. He liked order, structure and process. This combined with and a sense of purpose that characterised Hawke’s government, bred strong staff loyalty.
His ‘model’, with its emphasis on due process, consultation with Cabinet colleagues and good relationships with the public service, is often cited as an exemplar.
In 1988, the strenuous parliament relocated from its temporary accommodation to the new Parliament house on Capital Hill.
Many lamented the shift, noting the physical space restrictions on the old building promoted better relationships between ministers and other parliamentarians, with the public service and the media.
The collaborative and complementary relationship that existed between Hawke’s office and the public service was challenged by this altered ‘geography of influence’. The intimacy of the old building was lost. With security cards required to access the ministerial wing, there was greater formality gaining access to the prime minister and his staff.
For the CoS these arrangements made regulating access to the Prime Minister much easier. There were other benefits: quite simply the new building was a better a working environment for the Prime Minister’s staff. The increase in space made it possible to appoint more specialists and to provide secretarial and administrative support to alleviate the demands on senior staff.
The growth in staff numbers more generally, but particularly in the PMO expanded the coordination challenges increased, as did the leadership and management responsibilities of the chief of staff.
As head of the PMO, the CoS now also assumed responsibility for personnel management and performance across government. Many lamented the shift, noting the physical space restrictions on the old building promoted better relationships between ministers and other parliamentarians, with the public service and the media.
From the early years of the Labor government, Paul Keating was one of its most senior figures, second only to the Prime Minister himself. Until leadership tension spilled over between them during 1991, Hawke and Keating had been the ideal political tandem. Their partnership underpinned Labor’s unprecedented electoral and policy success. When Keating became prime minister in December 1991, he inherited a government in crisis. It was desperate unpopular and lacking direction.
Keating’s more personal and centralist approach to leadership was a marked contrast to Hawke’s consultative and consensus-based style. Ministers criticised Keating for his failure to consult, and willingness to develop and observe ‘proper’ Cabinet process.
Colleagues and senior officials resented his tendency to concentrate policy initiation and decision-making within a powerful and progressively more insular PMO and to delegate authority to senior staff, with whom he enjoyed close trusting relationships.
Keating’s term in office marked an important shift in the work of the Chief of Staff. It saw the emergence of the present-day CoS and a large and specialised PMO.
The PPS tradition was supplanted by a CoS who was personally appointed and had a far broader remit in policy coordination and political management.
While this, in part, reflected Keating’s style, the causes were more complex. They reflected changes in the broader context of governing — among them the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle, globalisation, fragmentation associated with the rise of network governance.
When John Howard became Prime Minister in March 1996, he inherited an advisory system in which the institutional resources available to the leader had been significantly enhanced. Ministerial staff had become much more significant actors than when Howard was a minister in the Fraser government.
Howard came to office with strong ideas about how he wanted to run his government. He proposed reforms to ensure Cabinet could function effectively in setting strategic direction and ensuring adherence to its policy priorities.
During its years in Opposition, the Liberal Party devoted much time and effort to developing a cadre of professional, politically attuned and media savvy personal staff. It committed to greater reliance on these staff when next in government.
The PM’s decision to sack six departmental secretaries — in what became known as ‘the night of the long knives’ stamped his authority on a public service that the Coalition considered had become ‘too close’ to Labor. He established the Cabinet Policy Unit (CPU), a small unit, collocated with the PMO and led by a political staffer, which took responsibility for strategy and longer-term policy. This gave Howard’s CoS increased capacity to focus on coordination, day-to-day political management and supporting the prime minister.
Arthur Sinodinos appointment as CoS in September 1998 brought stability and order to Howard’s PMO after some initial difficulties. Sinodinos held the role for nine years — a period that coincided with the peak of John Howard’s political success. By the end of the Howard era, PM’s CoS had become more public figures, closely associated with prime ministerial effectiveness and success.
Much has been written about Kevin Rudd’s tumultuous period as Prime Minister. The experience continues to be interpreted and reinterpreted through the bitter partisan divisions that tore apart the previously successful partnership between Rudd and his Deputy, Julia Gillard, which underpinned Labor’s election victory in 2007 and its early period in government.
Rudd had two CoS in his twenty months in the PMO. Initially David Epstein, a veteran of the Hawke and Keating governments who had joined Rudd’s office in Opposition to help smooth the transition to government, served as CoS. He, and many other experienced senior staff left Rudd’s office during 2008 and 2009, reportedly exhausted by Rudd’s unrelenting demands and frustrated at their inability to influence the PM.
Epstein’s replacement was Alister Jordan, who had worked with Rudd in Opposition and was instrumental to his election as ALP Leader in December 2006 and emphatic victory at the December 2007 election. Jordan’s appointment was widely criticised — he was derided for his youth, his relative inexperience and lack of Canberra networks. But as Jordan’s supporters rightly point out, he had a range of skills including those that are critical for any Chief of Staff — the ability to work with and foster a relationship of trust with the Prime Minister.
Rudd’s office, the public service and members of his Cabinet all experienced the effects of a Prime Minister whose personality has been described as extreme. The Rudd case illustrates a much broader point — that the practices of advisers, both partisan and official, are shaped by the pressure of events and the working styles and personalities of prime ministers. The CoS and PMO can help Prime Ministers with whatever they want to do and with how to do it. What they cannot do is stand in for Prime Ministers who do not know what they want to do or how to achieve it.
Historically up to and including Whitlam, and under Fraser, Hawke and Keating, the nomenclature remained Principal Private Secretary (PPS). Until nomenclature changed with Howard in 1996 Chief of Staff (CoS) was used informally, the official titles being Principal Private Secretary or Principle Adviser. The role is now titled Chief of Staff (CoS), and for ease of exposition this is used for all post-1972 appointments.
Quotes inserted throughout this piece are from Chief of Staff interviews and published in Lessons in Governing: A Profile of Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff by R.A.W. Rhodes, Anne Tiernan, Melbourne University Publishing, 2014.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anne Tiernan is Professor in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University.
Professor Tiernan’s research focuses on the work of governing. Her scholarly interests include: Australian politics and governance, policy advice, executive studies, policy capacity, federalism and intergovernmental coordination. She has written extensively on the political-administrative interface, caretaker conventions, governmental transitions and the work of policy advising.
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