Inside Story

Peephole to power

Private secretary, chief of staff, enforcer? Stephen Mills looks at the role of the prime minister’s most influential gatekeeper

Stephen Mills 19 September 2014 1705 words

Legal vacuum: prime minister John Howard (centre) with his longstanding chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos (right) in September 2004. Alan Porritt/AAP Image

In the wall of prime minister Bob Hawke’s office in the old Parliament House there was a tiny hole, about the size of a thumbnail. It was not a design flaw or a listening device snuck in by a foreign spy agency. It was a peephole, a beautifully simple way for the occupant of the adjacent office, the principal private secretary, to monitor his boss.

Put your eye to the tiny glass lens and you’d get a miniature image of the prime minister at work behind his desk. Sometimes Hawke was alone, attending to his paperwork or holding forth on the phone. More often, a meeting would be under way and you’d see, seated opposite him, whichever foreign leader, cabinet minister, public servant or staff adviser was occupying the attention of the government’s central figure. Once I saw the Pope in there.

The peephole is a reminder of the peculiar working environment of our prime ministers: even behind closed doors, they remain under surveillance; even alone, they are surrounded. It’s a reminder, too, of how proximity provides power. In the old Parliament House, no one was physically closer to the prime minister than the principal private secretary.

Two new books by political scientists Rod Rhodes and Anne Tiernan, The Gatekeepers and Lessons in Governing, provide a detailed picture of this group of highly influential prime ministerial minders, whom they describe as gatekeepers or, less satisfactorily, as chiefs of staff.

When I joined Hawke’s office as speechwriter in 1986, Hawke’s principal private secretary was Chris Conybeare. A diplomat and senior public servant whom Hawke had seconded from his department, Conybeare had an extraordinary ability to organise turbulence: to manage messy and volatile sets of ideas, documents and people into properly sequenced streams of advice and decision points. There would always be knots of ministers, public servants and staff waiting outside Hawke’s office; Conybeare could deftly untie them and redo them as a coordinated procession. He was across every policy issue and, while he was not political, he understood politics and worked in seamless tandem with the political adviser, then Bob Sorby. Hawke recognised Conybeare’s organisational supremacy by dubbing him the “Field Marshall.”

Sadly, Conybeare was not one of the “gatekeepers” involved in the two roundtable discussions on which these books are based. In late 2009, eleven former prime ministerial gatekeepers from the Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard and Rudd offices – but not from Gough Whitlam’s – were brought together in two roundtable discussions designed by the researchers to elicit “lessons” about how this job should be done.

Taken as a whole, they are a diverse and talented bunch of high achievers. David Kemp was a politics lecturer at Melbourne University who joined Malcolm Fraser’s staff on the back of an article he had written about prime ministerial leadership, and went on to serve as education minister in the Howard government. Sandy Hollway, another of Hawke’s principal private secretaries, later staged the Sydney Olympics. Paul Keating’s longstanding confidant Don Russell would go on to serve as Australian ambassador in Washington. John Howard’s trusted and long-serving adviser Arthur Sinodinos became a senator (and would eventually stand aside from the Abbott ministry). David Epstein, the savvy media operator, had led Kevin Rudd’s transition into office.

Many – Conybeare, Hollway, Russell and Sinodinos – were senior public servants, while others had explicitly partisan backgrounds: Epstein, Keating’s Geoff Walsh, a former Labor national campaign director; and Howard’s Grahame Morris, a former Liberal state campaigner director. Some served as the PM’s gatekeeper for a couple of months, most for a couple of years, and Sinodinos for nine years. Almost all of them are men, though Howard’s Nicole Feely was neither the first woman (John Gorton’s Ainsley Gotto gained that distinction in 1968) nor the most recent (Tony Abbott’s Peta Credlin). And while many of them were in their forties when they worked in the prime minister’s office, some were much younger. Jim Spigelman, later chief justice of New South Wales, was appointed by Whitlam at the age of twenty-eight (which puts in perspective the charge that Rudd’s Alister Jordan was too young and inexperienced, at twenty-nine, for the job).

Despite this diversity, Rhodes and Tiernan focus on shared characteristics. Just as prime ministers are different but ultimately similar in their exercise of their role, so it is for prime ministerial gatekeepers. By considering the individuals as part of a group, in a sequence, Rhodes and Tiernan are seeking to discern patterns and routines and “lessons” to illuminate the emergence within the Australian political system of a profession and of an institution: the head of the office of the prime minister.

Indeed, their principal concern is a lack of “institutional memory” about the gatekeeper role. Given high staff turnover, relatively frequent changes of government and partisan competition, every new gatekeeper seems to start afresh, and part of what Rhodes and Tiernan want to do is to help future occupants of the role with some advice from their predecessors. They even take a leaf from West Wing by asking their participants to set down their advice and wisdom in a memo to a hypothetical successor.

Their findings are sensible enough. Prime ministerial chiefs of staff, they say, have four key tasks: supporting and protecting the prime minister; coping and surviving; coordinating the policy agenda; and assisting in political management. In practice, of course, the job has more complexity and drama than those neat lessons suggest, and it is not surprising that they fail the reality check when Rhodes and Tiernan “roadtest” them against the experience of the Rudd and Gillard offices. In dysfunctional, stressed-out conditions, the lessons were, for different reasons, largely ignored or not implemented.

Rhodes and Tiernan’s roundtables produce much that is valuable and fresh. But mixing Labor and Liberal staff may have encouraged too much courtesy and needlessly smoothed too many sharp edges of opinion, contrast and rivalry. Nor is it entirely clear that the raw material is strong enough for two books, one aimed at a general readership and one with a more academic target, but with considerable overlap.

Problematic, too, is the authors’ insistence on the term “chief of staff,” a title that came into usage in the mid 1990s under Paul Keating but that is not easily retrofitted onto the “principal private secretaries” (or, in Kemp’s case, “director”) of earlier prime ministerships. Each title is, in fact, at once revealing but misleading. Principal private secretary, imported from Whitehall, may imply a public servant on temporary assignment in Parliament House, exercising clerical discretion and nonpartisan neutrality with a career commitment to the public service rather than to the prime minister. In practice, political nous and personal commitment to the PM were as important for the principal private secretary as policy expertise and administrative capacity.

The title chief of staff, by contrast – an import from Washington – conveys managerial responsibility for an increasingly large prime ministerial workforce. Conybeare managed a prime ministerial staff of seventeen. In Keating’s time there were thirty staff, and by the end of Howard’s time there were over forty; they now number in the fifties. Increasing staff numbers go hand in hand with increased responsibilities and influence. So the prime minister’s personal office has become centralised and stratified under the direction of the chief of staff who, atthe same time, has taken on a broad leadership role over the entire army of ministerial advisers. The whole effort is focused on prioritising the government’s policy agenda and imposing consistency on its public communications.

Despite this managerial overtone, the role has also become more politicised and more high-profile. From Don Russell onwards, the chief of staff has become the prime minister’s main political confidant – someone whose loyalty and trust is unquestioned, someone who can act as an authoritative proxy for the leader both in the corridors of government and in the party backrooms. The key for this role, regardless of the title, is a personal commitment to a specific leader. Indeed, building a long-term, trusting relationship with the politician is the critical determinant of success as a prime ministerial gatekeeper. Many of the most successful partnerships between elected leader and adviser appear to have started long before either of them set foot in the prime minister’s office: Peter Wilenski, Dale Budd, David Kemp, Don Russell, Arthur Sinodinos, Alister Jordan, Ben Hubbard and Peta Credlin had all worked with their future prime ministers in ministerial portfolios and/or as opposition leader.

Moreover, and perhaps unexpectedly, this intimately personal role, linked as it is to the fortunes and wellbeing of one elected leader, has not prevented chiefs of staff from building a successful post-PM career back in the public service or in elected office.

The title chief of staff, then, is a bit of a misnomer, an import from the US executive branch that sits uneasily in Australia’s parliamentary system and only catches one aspect of a complex and multifaceted role. If we were able to select a term that accurately captured the contemporary role, it would be something like prime ministerial enforcer. But that would throw up too many uncomfortable questions. From where is this force derived? And to whom is it accountable?

Surprisingly, Rhodes and Tiernan do not address the issue of accountability. Yet surely this influential role, relying solely on a personal relationship and operating in a legal vacuum, requires a robust framework to ensure accountability? The dilemma in a system dominated by the prime minister is that it is hard to identify any authority sufficiently robust to impose accountability. Once, the public service might have done this. The parliament’s efforts to do so, by seeking testimony from ministerial staff during the “children overboard” inquiry, for example, were rebuffed.

Back in the old Parliament House, the prime minister’s office has declined into museum status, and the peephole provides nothing more than a perve for visitors who discover it on their tour. But in the new Parliament House, the peephole was replaced by CCTV, providing continued opportunity for the senior prime ministerial staff to monitor this central site of Australian political power. •