Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

No, Minister: So You Want to Be a Chief of Staff?

No, Minister: So You Want to Be a Chief of Staff ? by Allan Behm Behm - No Minister

Many reasons have been offered for why the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government fell short, but fundamentally I believe it came down to a failure of governance. They had smart, capable people, there were good ideas and policies and no shortage of hard work. But they couldn’t put it together in a sustained or effective fashion.

‘No Minister: So you want to be a chief of staff’ helps show exactly what that means. To be clear, Behm’s purpose is not to explain what went wrong, but rather try and show how to make government work, at least from within a single Minister’s office. Behm spends much of the book explaining how he set about his task as Greg Combet’s Chief of Staff, and how he thinks about issues of leadership, management, and building an efficient, trusting, value-driven team.

Behm’s position in the Minister for Climate Change’s office was always something of an oddity around Canberra. As Allan reveals early on, the intention had been for Combet to take over the Defence Portfolio, hence bringing in the ‘bow-tied assassin’* who offered a deep knowledge of the Defence organisation, the public service and a fine strategic mind.

One of the values of this book is that it focuses on the governance of governing. That is, how do you do the job? How do you build and manage relationships internally and externally so that you can achieve what you want to achieve.

That’s a vital issue and one often sidelined in our discussions of why the three baby boomer PMs (Rudd, Gillard and now Abbott) have been collectively viewed as failures. As one perceptive piece in The Atlantic recently noted ‘A great deal of political writing these days is indistinguishable from theatre criticism: Its chief concerns are storyline, costumes, and the quality of public performances’. Behm’s book is a good antidote to that. While there are some amusing character sketches, the weight of the book is on the process of running a government, rather than lumping it all on the ability of the PM to spin their way ahead.

Behm spends a lot of time in this book talking about wisdom, which he views as experience diffused through reflection. As such, he is quite critical of many of the young jocks that often ran the show in the Rudd era, though he is quick to sincerely praise many of the young staffers he personally worked with.

On this score, I must stress that I bear no actual wisdom as to life on the hill. I’ve never worked in a ministerial or political office, though like many in Canberra I’ve wondered if I could endure. But I do have friends and colleagues who have toiled those long hours at a variety of levels, and I’ve read my fair share of memoirs and accounts, so take the rest of this review with that caveat in mind.

One notable theme is the issue of ‘wheel-spinning’: That is, lots of effort for little result. While making no excuses for the long hours, Behm rightly notes how much work seems to be done that doesn’t end up furthering the aims of the government. While it’s something we can all reflect on in our own areas, I admit to wondering about the willingness of so many political operatives to sweat the small stuff. Every issue is treated as fundamental and worth responding to rather than keeping a focus on the larger issues of strategy that ultimately determine elections and legacies. Instead as Behm laments ‘in the current environment, politics is totally preoccupied with and consumed by tactics’.

One other message of the book is the idea of civility as a requirement for the process to occur. Behm stresses the necessity of politics being a hard business and he is happy to criticise individuals and parties he disagrees with. Yet he argues throughout that notions of ‘civility, decorum and respect’ are the functional basis for being successful in the profession of politics. In one intriguing line he suggests ‘a government’s image of competence is not really helped where scorn and disdain replace civility and decorum.’ While we often don’t link the concepts of capacity and civility, the most capable figures I’ve encountered have often been the most civil. It’s those who doubt their ability to perform at that level who tend to be the real scrappers searching for every inch of advantage.

Two final concerns that resonated with me were his concern about the rise of cynicism about and in politics, and the need for clear agreement and articulation of principles before policies are developed and announced. Neither claim is new, but they seem fundamental starting points for constructing a more effective political environment.

While I love a good memoir, I’ve largely left alone the stream of books by the politicians of the Rudd-Gillard era. They are all out much too soon for any real reflection to have occurred. ‘No Minister’ however is the second book by a staffer I’ve read and enjoyed. Given my favourite book on the Keating government is Don Watson’s beautiful ‘Reflections of a bleeding heart’, maybe more encouragement should be made for staffers, rather than their bosses, to pen memoirs and tomes.

Of course, with such a theme, this book will only be read by Canberra insiders, but that’s probably the audience who need to read it most. Highly recommended. As Greg Combet says in the foreword ‘it’s a gem.’

*Behm is famous for his preference for bow-ties. And pleasingly, if you look carefully at the cover, the advisor is also fashioned with a bow-tie.