Australian ministers have an office at Parliament House and a ministerial / electorate office elsewhere. Treasurer Swan has an office at Parliament House, a ministerial office at Eagle Street Brisbane, and an electorate office at Nundah. He also has a suite of offices at Treasury, although these only get used for a few days prior to the budget. In fact it can be quite expensive when a minister changes, as the ministerial office will also generally move, since the tradition now seems that ministers spend most of their time at their ministerial office in their own city.
This is a contrast to other administrations, including many of our States, where the minister is co-located with his or her department. The UK Chancellor of the Exchequer is based at HM Treasury, similarly for the other UK ministers. The US Secretary of the Treasury is in the Treasury building in Washington; the US Secretary of State in the State building in Washington.
In fact, the Australian taxpayer is spending quite a lot of money indulging our ministers who wish to have multiple offices that are not static and to not live mainly in Canberra. So, for example, there was a major upgrade to a ministerial office in Adelaide for Defence minister Hill (2001-2006) including special extra thick doors etc to be rated to take high level military secrets – this suite of offices is now rarely used. This seems rather inefficient – a permanent Minister of Defence office would allow all of the bells and whistles to be installed in the one location.
Even in Parliament House, though, ministers move around, as did Wayne Swan when he moved to be deputy prime minister and took Julia Gillard’s former parliamentary office.
There are advantages and disadvantages of the Australian arrangement. The fact that ministers are located together in Parliament House might encourage communication among party colleagues – but that is principally during Parliamentary sitting periods (about 16 weeks out of 52 weeks). At other times ministers can be rather remote, both from their Cabinet colleagues and their department. Indeed, the Australian arrangement might lead to a preference for politics over good policy.
Our arrangement makes it (relatively) difficult for the minister to influence his or her department through the natural build-up of loyalty from co-location. In Peter Costello’s time, this meant that the left-leaning department became isolated – the control of the Secretary became relatively stronger. Under the Howard Government, the public service went its own way while the ministry went in another direction, and there were attempts to bring the public service along, but many of these failed. Rather than rectifying this situation, the Howard Government found itself relying more on external advice and its own ministerial staff. The vast resource of the Australian Public Service was underused – effectively used to deliver and administer programs rather than develop programs. Then, too, when problems of administration became apparent, it was frequently too late to do anything about it. If the relevant minister had been co-located with the department, there would have been a better chance of detecting the problem early and having ministerial buy-in to make the requisite changes for the program to get back on track.
I think this is a significant risk for a Coalition government. It is one of the reasons that the public service is able to quietly go its own way. When a minister is co-located there is certainly a risk of the minister ‘going native’. But on the other hand, a strong minister is in a much better position to influence the department and get a better sense of the relative qualities of the various public servants.
For Labor governments, it probably doesn’t matter too much – overall the public service leans that way anyhow.
Let’s not fool ourselves about ‘frank and fearless advice’ though. That may be the benefit of being a secretary, but for the average public servant they find themselves mouthing the views of their secretary, not the minister. ‘Frank and fearless’ rarely means arguing against the secretary in front of a minister.
On balance, I think it would be preferable for ministers to be located with their departments. There should be one and only one Treasurer’s office, located at Treasury, and a smaller office at Parliament House for use during sitting period. And so forth.
What do you think?