Lessons from Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff

RAW Rhodes and Anne Tiernan, The Gate Keepers: Lessons from the Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2014

In 1990 Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s office had seventeen staff. In 2010 Prime Minister Julia Gillard employed fifty three. Many view such growth in purely cynical terms – either political staffers undermine the public service or simply feed the media machine. Rarely examined are the professional skills to manage the political and administrative demands of a modern prime ministerial office.

In The Gate Keepers RAW Rhodes and Anne Tiernan provide unique insight into Australia’s machinery of government. The work of a chief of staff is obvious – know the boss, coordinate the policy agenda, manage political expectations and so forth.

The book, however, reveals other prime ministerial insights rare for a nation not usually enchanted by its political leaders. Here is Grahame Morris, for example, on the dietary habits of Liberal leaders: ‘Andrew Peacock would pretty well eat anything but, despite the playboy image, had to be in bed by eight o’clock. Hewson would eat anything providing it came from McDonald’s, and John Howard would eat anything but it had to be three times a day on time or he got glassy-eyed.’

Keeping the leader’s tummy full is one thing but managing tempers is another. Hawke’s chief of staff Sandy Hollway, for example, only saw Hawke ‘lose his temper twice.’ In both cases, he adds, ‘it was on a matter of substance that he felt strongly about, not a petty matter.’

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