With politics now in the thrall of a 24/7 news cycle, media advisers are becoming worryingly central to decision-making. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Political advisers wag the dog

This story could begin anywhere – in NSW’s Macquarie Street or in Spring Street, Melbourne, or on Adelaide’s North Terrace – but for the sake of currency it will begin in Canberra.

For weeks now, rumours have been traded about the insufferable tension in Senator Ricky Muir’s office – the cagey body language, the long silences. On one side was Muir’s chief of staff, Keith Littler, who’s also the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party’s founder. On the other, the preference shaman Glenn Druery – who so successfully applied his arcane talents to Muir’s party – and Peter Breen, a former NSW parliamentarian. Muir has been wedged uncomfortably in the middle. There has been acrimony and accusations, and so far Muir has favoured Littler. As it is, his office is without any parliamentary experience for the time being, more vulnerable to the weird crosswinds of the crossbench. In the space of a week Muir jettisoned Druery and Breen. There have also been rumours that Littler is agitating to replace Muir. The situation is less about the unfledged senator and more about the control of his ancillary power by his staff.

In Victoria, police are now investigating what has been obligingly labelled Tapegate. The Age newspaper journalist Farrah Tomazin, covering the ALP State Conference earlier this year, accidentally misplaced her dictaphone, which contained sensitive and confidential conversations with a number of political figures. One of those was former premier, Ted Baillieu, who could be heard making muscular denunciations of Liberal colleagues.

Dutifully submitted to lost property by a security guard, the device was quickly pocketed by Labor operatives tipped off by the Fairfax sticker plastering the back of it. Very soon it found its way into the hands of opposition leader Daniel Andrews’ closest advisers. Later still, an unknown figure – possibly a Liberal – emailed the Baillieu recording to every Liberal member. The tape – and recorder – have since been destroyed.

The Age, understandably, has pursued this doggedly. The police are doing the same. Andrews has referred to it as a “mess” and Labor staffers are desperate to bury the story. Approached for comment, a spokesperson for Premier Denis Napthine simply referred me to the transcriptions of five broadcast interviews. A sample from Matthew Guy, the Victorian planning minister: “This is about the character and the judgement of a man who wants to be the premier in November. If he can’t answer these questions now, how on earth can Victorians believe a single promise he makes in the lead-up to November.”

Political advisers have been around for a long time – mocked and lionised in popular culture, but largely ignored by voters. They are easy subjects of contempt, and the most famous adviser of all – Machiavelli – has since been boiled down to a pejorative, his work simplistically interpreted as a template for the amoral assumption of power.

1 . West Wingers

There is always the risk of blowback with dirt campaigns, but the risk doesn’t always have a restraining effect – the frisson of danger itself is the thing fuelling some operatives. I saw this as a lowly staffer in Western Australia, indirectly serving the premier in a Labor government. I was a junior speechwriter in title, but was called upon for all sorts of political miscellanea. Chaperoning cabinet to community events; partially managing a local campaign during the 2008 election. I was a proud grunt.

We all knew of a terribly kept secret. For months, those in the premier’s office – and many outside it – knew that the opposition leader, Troy Buswell, had committed a memorably bizarre act, one that we suspected might conclude with his embarrassed retreat to the backbench.

The whispers shared by advisers and journalists were that Buswell had, at a private gathering of staff, sniffed a seat freshly vacated by a female colleague. It is not known if this unpolished burlesque was met with silence or supportive cackling, but the woman in question was unimpressed. It was variously interpreted as demeaning vulgarity, “Troy being Troy” or simply the silver bullet Labor needed for a third consecutive term in a state historically suspicious of the party. We were astonished that Buswell could gift us this own goal, an act that both confirmed suspicions that Buswell’s “larrikinism” was really booze-fuelled loutishness, and that was so uniquely memorable water-cooler chats and comics would happily propel the story for us. We wouldn’t have to do anything.

Back then, there was some hushed consideration of Buswell’s mental state, but the principal concern was how best to use this information – or if it should be used at all. As the more mature staff realised, the use of dirt was morally volatile. The story was given to one of Perth’s two major newspapers, which sat on it – perhaps awaiting corroboration, or perhaps out of some rare sense of discretion. And so we did, too. We waited for months.

The proud custodians of this information were senior apparatchiks, an unruly cabal of saints and clowns. There was an adviser who seemed forever stuck in a cloud of panicked gesticulation – hectoring, impatient, always exhorting obedience without ever defining it. There was another confidante of the premier who made a habit of sharing very little information, as to simultaneously empower herself and weaken others. It had a ruinous effect on morale. Another junior staffer – partially in control of the dirt unit – seemed to float down corridors, serenely aided by a cushion of self-congratulation. I dubbed him a “West Winger” – a bloke who had transposed his love of the American political series into a comically enlarged belief in his importance. His boastful aspiration was to some day serve as chief of staff to a prime minister. He was the cynic’s archetype of the staffer – cocooned, duplicitous and itchy with ambition.

2 . Hollowmen

The response to another TV series – the Australian satire The Hollowmen, which was then screening – was even stranger. Rather than being chastened by what was an accurate excoriation, a sort of cognitive dissonance kicked in and the show was adopted as fond recognition. Their recondite art was now being installed in popular culture. But others trembled with the shock of recognition.

This kind of enchantment made some oblivious to the seam of banality that runs through state politics. There are more appearances at the WA Kitchen and Bathroom Awards then there are with foreign dignitaries. In Don Watson’s celebrated biography of Keating – which serves also as a memoir of Watson’s time as his speechwriter – he’s lyrically aware of the schizophrenia of political life: the romantic and prosaic; the strategic and guilelessly improvised; the pointy heads and bleeding hearts.

But few, it seems, are. Prominent Melbourne broadcaster Neil Mitchell referred to the dictaphone scandal on his show like this: “These tricks make the TV drama House of Cards seem deadly accurate”, which to be true would mean Daniel Andrews is literally murdering political opponents. Hyperbole aside, Mitchell was conjoining an act of banal mischief and probable criminality with a show of camp and lushly baroque intrigue. It’s more fantasy than satire, and a world away from the Kitchen and Bathroom Awards. Mitchell’s was a throwaway line perhaps, but it’s also a telling conflation.

When news finally broke of Buswell’s sniff, it was as catastrophic for him as we wished it to be. Buswell convened a press conference, generously flanked by his wife, and wept. Amid the raw contrition, he relinquished the leadership. The next day, Premier Alan Carpenter called the election – the earliest poll date in decades. It was just another opportunity.

The treatment of this story was restricted by the trope of palace drama fixed upon it by staffers and journalists. For the media it became a B-grade Greek tragedy, and an opportunity for the premier to ruthlessly exploit the opposition’s temporary disarray – although it backfired. For Labor, it was a triumph in a zero-sum game – although it wasn’t. For the callow young man I was, I simply appreciated a ringside seat to the fiasco.

Lost in all of this were serious discussions of the sexual harassment and its contested parameters. Sidelined was the effect on the woman involved – she took stress leave while the story blew up around her. Largely ignored were questions of alcohol and self-destruction, which sorrowfully unfurled for Buswell recently, who had since resurrected himself as WA treasurer. Gone entirely was the fact that the Labor government was almost completely bereft of ideas – or had long stopped listening to those who had some. The aching sense was that no one could behold all these elements simultaneously. The narratives of politics, the media or personal rationalisation are often simple.

3 . Rise of the media adviser

Missing so far from this account are the staff possessed of awesome seriousness, intelligence and despair at the systemic commitment to spin. In all of my discussions for this piece – and it’s consistent with my own experience – is a frustration with generalisations. I met people of unswerving loyalty, convinced of political and personal principles that were larger than themselves. That loyalty was manifest in hard work and responsible service, not as engagement with the darker practices of politics. They were impressive.

“It’s impossible to give a profile of the average staffer,” a senior Canberra adviser told me. “It’s not necessarily where you come from, either. That’s another contradiction. I know awesome people who have come up through the machine, but they really care about outcomes. Others are purely there because they want to be preselected. It’s hard to generalise.”

A Victorian Labor staffer said: “I’ve worked with some incredible people who outshine the politicians who employ them, and I’ve worked with some deadshits who think it’s all an episode of The West Wing.”

The Canberra staffer has seen how the dramatically increased pressures of politics – largely the result of a breathless enrapture with a 24/7 news cycle – have created an environment that repels the highly accomplished. “I think the quality of people you’d ideally want, are ex-dep secs of departments. But those people don’t want to work in the kinds of environments we’ve now created: the constant pressure and ridiculous volumes. Staffers get paid well, don’t get me wrong, but dep secs get paid much better and don’t have to put up with the kinds of bullshit that staffers do. So you’re not going to get those really experienced hands.”

In such an environment the primacy of the media adviser has grown, and it was a hotly recurring theme among the staffers I spoke to. The Victorian staffer lamented that “media units seem increasingly central to decision-making processes. Media advisers aren’t just selling policy now, they’re helping decide what the policy is. In opposition that tendency is manageable, but in government it becomes damaging and unsustainable. At best your agenda becomes insipid and uninspiring like the last days of [Victoria’s] Brumby government; at worst you have brain-farts like ‘Cash for Clunkers’ becoming party policy.”

The federal adviser grew frustrated by what he considered the retarding influence of media handlers during 2012 and 2013 – a serial complaint not only of the staffers I spoke to, but public servants. He was exasperated as he spoke. “I saw reactive changing of a policy position. We might be thinking about doing something for the budget, and a story breaks that we’re doing it so we rule it out by the afternoon and completely fuck ourselves. There’s definitely a sense of the tail wagging the dog. I’ve heard horrendous stories of media advisers saying things like, ‘That policy doesn’t sound good, so let’s change it to x.’ It’s ridiculous. The thing about media advisers coming up with policy in the middle of the night – that’s not just about the calibre of advisers, but the calibre of ministers and what their values are. They’re ultimately signing off. If you have high-quality people in ministry, hopefully there’d be less of that crap. But you need backbone.”

4 . Departmental power and responsibility

For some time, the relationship between ministerial offices and their corresponding departments has been queried. A repeated complaint is that the ratio of political machine men to bureaucratic experts in political office has grown dispiritingly in favour of the former. An element of this is the new hyper-management of the media. In March this year, former secretary of the Department of Innovation Don Russell – also a former economic adviser to prime minister Paul Keating – gave a lecture at the Australian National University. Towards the end, he reflected on the relationship between political office and departments. “It is fair to say that Australia has developed a political culture where it has become commonplace for decisions to be taken in ministers’ offices with little or no departmental input or awareness. Departments end up with an implementing role.

“Such a dishevelled approach makes governments look untidy and confused. But, more importantly, it stops governments achieving the outcomes they want; they make decisions without all the information and without fully understanding the consequences.”

But Russell’s next line was surprising – it wasn’t an indictment of media advisers, rather the departments themselves: “It may seem harsh, but much responsibility for this unfortunate situation lies with departmental secretaries.” Russell argued that ministers shouldn’t become attached to the dubious power of media releases – but also that department secretaries must remember that “they have more power than they think” in correcting their relationship with their political masters.

The role of departments, and their often-fraught relationship with ministerial offices, is frequently overlooked. Our cognitive handle for politics is parliament, and the vital machinery of governance is ignored unless departments are being used as examples of government largesse. The forms of bureaucratic obeisance are hotly contested – public servants are democratically obliged to bend towards their elected masters, but how far? And what is the right response when the relationship of dominance is abused and political offices cherrypick their advice?

I wondered whether such banal spectacles as the stolen dictaphone might be mitigated against by a restoration of more senior bureaucrats as advisers. But I was reminded that this was too simplistic. The federal adviser told me: “Hubris can manifest itself in the public service, too. Senior public servants will often have a pretty clear view of what the outcome should be and will sometimes stack their advice in a certain way, or leave key bits of information out, so that they get the decision that they think is right. They’ll substitute themselves as the decision-makers.”

The same adviser also argued that there were very different mentalities in play, and that political parties should be served by those with a sincere belief in their philosophy.

 “It’s far too simplistic to assume that bureaucrats are good and political hacks are bad. Some of the political hacks have a better, more noble reason for being there than some bureaucrats. Like everywhere, I guess. The thing to remember about public servants is that they don’t necessarily believe in anything political. The ideal public servant is someone with great discipline and attention to detail, [who]implements the government’s policy – and when the government changes, undoes it and does the complete opposite thing with the same amount of zeal.

“So potentially, yes, you might have less scandals like Tapegate if you had more public servants in political office, but on the other hand, at least political apparatchiks actually believe in something. Public servants don’t necessarily have that vision, or guidance, or values. Of course, sometimes those values are bankrupt – they’re about beating the other side at all costs – but sometimes it’s a grounded sense of why they’re there.”

In Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, he recalls reading a letter written by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to the parents of a young murder victim, on behalf of Keating. “It was grotesque: it resembled a pro forma, opening with the usual formalities and maintaining an oppressive bureaucratic tone to the end. I wrote a new draft.” Sometimes enchantment is good.

5 . Staff tribalism

If there’s a simple evaluation to be made, and there aren’t many, it’s that tribalism can inspire publicly beneficial commitment, as it can toxicity. A federal adviser told me there should be limitations on time spent in political office. “One of the things that worries me about staffers – particularly the ones who’ve been doing it for a long time – is that there’s a bit of a disconnect from the real world. Canberra is not the real world. And the amount of money staffers are getting paid is well beyond what the average person is on. It’s why I think you shouldn’t stay in it for too long. It’s hard to stay in touch. It becomes all about today’s win and you lose sight of larger things.”

The adviser passionately circled back to this theme later: “The longer they’re in it, the more they drink the Kool-Aid. I think it’s easy for people to get wrapped up in the mentality of beating the other side. The more people get exposed to that, and make crap decisions which have poor public policy outcomes but might be beneficial politically, the more that becomes ingrained as the way to get stuff done. My personal view – and some colleagues strongly disagree with me – is that those jobs are really good jobs, and that the cynical view people have of staffers can be a bit unfair or misguided, but I don’t think they’re sustainable long term.”

The Kool-Aid is an imperishable belief in the rightness of the party, and it can stoke feverish competition. The adviser believes that’s what happened with the decision to swipe the dictaphone – the darkly competitive instincts of the tribe took hold. Disgraced champion cyclist Lance Armstrong was in a tribe of one, and the grubby maintenance of that tribe was disguised by charity work, obsequious journalists and the halo of cancer recovery. But today, after the fall, there’s still only partial contrition. Armstrong cannot accept that he was really cheating – by doping he was simply joining the synthetic status quo. If everyone else was doing it, he’d be destructively naive not to claim it for himself. Doping wasn’t so much an advantage, but the erasure of a handicap.

The same logic is likely to be at play here. A federal adviser said you can find people who “ask themselves the question: ‘Would the other side do it anyway?’ Everyone’s playing hardball. But ultimately you would hope the judgement is that, ‘No, this is fucked.’ But others would think: ‘If we show mercy, would our opponents do the same?’”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 9, 2014 as "Wagging the dog".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.