Our 227 federal politicians have more than 1600 full-time equivalent staff between them. Each MP is allocated at least four electorate officers — more for larger seats — whose job is to deal with constituents’ problems and keep in touch with the community. Prior to 1985, each MP had only two electorate officers; the fourth position was added in 2007.
There are another 670 “personal staff” across the Parliament, an increase of about 150 over the past decade. They’re the ones who do policy development, deal with media and Parliament and perform other more political jobs.
All are governed by laws that include a rule MPs must make sure their electorate office staff aren’t conducting factional business on the taxpayer dollar.
When Victorian Labor was found to have used $388,000 of taxpayer money to pay staffers to carry out campaign work in the 2014 state election, the party paid the money back. Police chose not to press charges after an investigation.
The work is both big picture and mundane, says Australia Institute executive director Ben Oquist, who spent 15 years working for former Greens senator Bob Brown.
“Everything from making sure the boss has got something to eat or their dry cleaning … It really is whatever it takes to make an amendment in the chamber go well, to making sure this next meeting is going to go on time, [that] they had something to eat before it,” he says.
“How to make the politician be their best and do their best is about making sure the whole package of things that are required to live an effective, good life are attended to.”
The job is all-consuming, which often means it ends up being a young person’s game.
Sean Kelly, a former adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, says there is some fairness to criticisms about staffers being young and sometimes shallow — but then they’re the only people with the time and lifestyle to do it.
“The constants are absolutely early mornings and the fact that you don’t know when you’ll finish that day,” he says. “There’s every chance that you’ll get a call at 11pm that suddenly means a whole bunch of extra work has landed in your lap. That sense of grind is very constant.”
Nevertheless, Kelly says his experience was that colleagues were “fervently committed to changing things” and that that passion meant they were willing to put up with a lot.
People come into the job in different ways. Many rise up through the party ranks or unions but current staffers say few who rise to senior positions in the ministerial wing are pure party hacks. Those who end up in the spotlight for meddling in party matters might shape the caricature of staffers in the public mind, one senior adviser says, but they rarely achieve great heights.
Oquist’s golden rule was that staffers should be heard but not seen. Some Labor offices have a rule that anyone other than the politician who ends up on the TV news has to shout their colleagues a case of beer.
“It’s a tough life because ultimately you’re completely dispensable,” Oquist says.
A close relationship and high level of trust with your politician is vital, since staff will hear everything from great gossip to state secrets. Spending so much time together, it’s not unusual for staff to pick up the mannerisms of their boss.
On the flipside, MPs become highly reliant on their staff. Under the pandemic restrictions placed on Parliament this week, there have been many sitting alone in their Canberra offices, feeling bereft without their staff.
The one thing every staffer says is that reality is nothing like The West Wing – but they will quote you scenes from the 20-year-old show off the cuff.
Katina Curtis is a political reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra.