Flat White

From the archive: The rise of the staffer brat

20 February 2021

7:23 PM

20 February 2021

7:23 PM

This article on the conduct of ministerial advisers first appeared in October 2016. It made such a mark that it was republished in The Weekend Australian. After this week’s revelations, it’s worth revisiting to see how much we called out then — and, sadly, how little has changed.

Once again politics and budgie smugglers have divided a nation and provided days of rather unusual commentary.

The familiarity is comforting.

So it’s come to pass that Jack Walker, a Turnbull government adviser, was one of nine men arrested in Malaysia after a premeditated strip at the local Grand Prix.

Clad in undies depicting the Malaysian flag, they drank from the shoes of victory and, remarkably, offended the deeply conservative Muslim nation.

While there’s much to be said about cultural respect and old fashion Aussie larrikinism, one element deeply concerns.

Walker is Christopher Pyne’s defence innovation adviser, a senior and newly created role within the crucial Defence Industry portfolio.

A prime ministership turned, in part, on defence policy. Its mishandling has cost more than a few ministerial careers.  South Australia, the eternal Achilles’ heel of the Liberal Party, has shown it will throw votes behind defence.

It’s a critical portfolio for Pyne at an important time for his party, which only just pulled itself over the threshold of government. A pragmatic operator, he knows he has to get it right.

However, he has entrusted one of its key elements to a boy of three years’ professional experience who can’t read Smart Traveller.

The staffer brat is a twenty-something, arts degree graduate, typically moderate-leaning, Kool-Aid drinking political adviser.

With their Young Liberal membership firmly tucked in their chinos, they stroll the blue carpet of the Ministerial Wing with superficial busyness, often in the direction of free booze and networking. They flash their blue ministerial passes at Aussies to crush the spirits of junior staff who secured a rare trip to Canberra. They’ve seen the inside of the Qantas Chairman’s Lounge and they won’t let you forget it.

They greet senior ministers as close friends. They are the fly-in-fly-outs, over-promoted, under-qualified and full to brim with travel allowance to supplement their already over-inflated salaries. They do not serve on the frontline, rarely accountable to voters and lean heavily on their department for support.

Their policy expertise often only extends to PVO Newshour and 140-character commentary. Their Instagram is laden with West Wing-style images of riding VIP jets, post-run selfies with the Foreign Minister and artsy pictures of the parliamentary courtyards.

The wanker filter is, unsurprisingly, always in heavy use.

And while potentially bright and occasionally competent, the electorate often proves more complex than their life experience allows.

Peta Credlin’s notorious “Star Chamber”, an approval process for wannabe advisers seeking the ministerial lifestyle, was heavily criticised both during and after the Abbott regime for its high standards.

It demanded expertise and experience, an inconvenient hurdle for young staffers in a hurry.

The Chamber knocked a number of now-vogue staffer brats when the Liberals first came to government or approved them for much less glamorous positions. Instead a number of old hands, with specific policy experience or who helped craft an effective opposition, were installed across portfolios.

Credlin knew better than to trust children with the house keys.

However, since the ides of September last year, there have been increased sightings of staffer brats in the corridors of power. They’re in the Prime Minister’s office; they comprise the majority of staff in some Cabinet offices.

When Jack Walker did the no trousers dance in front of the world’s media, he did it with zero thought for his Minister or the broader government agenda. After all the Neverland he lives in has never had consequences.

Already flailing under the crush of great expectations, the Turnbull Government cannot afford days when the most compelling coverage involves the actions of a foolish and inexperienced staffer. They cannot potentially lose a weeks’ worth of media in favour of a boys’ trip gone wrong.

Time to bring in the grown-ups.

Robert Campbell is a pseudonym for a sometime ministerial adviser

A response to this article can be read here while further thoughts on the matter are available in this piece.

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