The terrible truth about staffers


Poor Jack Walker, by now probably an ex-adviser to Christopher Pyne. Not only has he and his eight Sydney mates spent the past four days in the shadow of a Malaysian noose, facing an almost certain death penalty for budgie smuggling (well, at least social death), but he has also managed to spark an entertaining debate about the merits and demerits of young political staffer, the likes of which we haven’t witnessed since the public soul searching about the kindergarten masquerading as Kevin Rudd’s Prime Ministerial office.

The most entertaining of the exchanges has unfolded on the digital pages of Spectator Australia’s Flat White, one of my favourite local blogs and not just because it often publishes my work. In the dismissive corner we’ve had the pseudonymous “Robert Campbell”, a sometime ministerial staffer himself, with his “Budgie smugglers and the rise of the staffer brat” J’accuse:

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.

Sounds familiar? I’m sure it does.

For the defence, there stepped forward the similarly anonymous sometime staffer “Sally Bennett”, asking “What was that about swaggering sophomoric staffers?“:

Long hours, bad coffee, average hotels and Virgin Lounge popcorn instead of a home cooked meal. It ain’t glamorous. It ain’t the West Wing…

There is a reason why many advisers are young, childless and single. It is a thankless task and many do it out of simple loyalty to their boss…

Between the infinite meetings, abusive phone calls (often from MPs without the guts to say it to their colleague – your boss); rent-seeking stakeholder lobbyists hassling you for a legislative change they are too incompetent to advocate for in the public sphere, and endless letter writing, these jobs can sometimes seem like glorified secretarial work.

Getting out of the office to grab a coffee world can be a brief respite, but even in that innocent act Campbell sees hubris and arrogance. Did one of these staffers cut you off in the Aussie’s queue? If you look closely, most of the young people in the Aussie’s queue look like zombies!

Sounds familiar too? I bet.

The terrible truth about staffers is that there is no terrible truth.

I have been a staffer for almost 16 years – not pseudonymously either. I’ve worked in government and in opposition, in ministerial office (carpet: blue) and backbench office (carpet: Senate red), for Cabinet minister and shadow minister, for Parliamentary Secretary and shadow Parliamentary Secretary, in the House and the Senate. In my time I’ve met hundreds of staffers from all parties and of all demographics; the good, the bad, the ugly and the eccentric – the brats, as well as the saints, but for most part just ordinary, average men and women, no different to what you would find in any other large workplace or environment.

Someone has once described flying a plane as hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Working in politics is not dissimilar, except for boredom – there is no time for a solitaire or LOLcats in a ministerial office – substitute tedium. And tedium it is, except for those few whose great passion for their specific area of policy somehow does not get tarnished when working in a sausage factory.

“Sally” is right; political staffing is not a particularly glamourous job. The hours can be long, work repetitive and frustrating, and conditions difficult. You realise all to quickly that not you can’t make everyone happy, but more often than not you can’t make anyone happy. You are constantly surrounded by the people who want something – from you, from your boss, from the government. Are you changing the world or merely staring in a remake of “Yes Minister”? Often it’s difficult to say, though you often wish for some canned laughter.

In this sort of work environment, the perks of the job that “Robert” waxes so lyrically about, are few, far between, and often with strings attached – and only very few would describe coffee at Aussies as a perk. It makes as much sense to judge a staffer’s life to be exciting based on Instagram as it does model’s. You only see the best few seconds of any given day – and in politics there is no coke or beautiful people to help get you through.

Having said all that, being a ministerial adviser clearly can be an attractive job for a man or woman in their 20s. The salary is quite good for a job only a few years out of uni, though I’ve never known too many people who after paying their accommodation and food were left with much travel allowance to save. If you are interested in politics, as I hope you would being in such a position, it can be exciting to meet a lot of prominent people, see our democracy backstage, and feel like you’re doing something important, not just for yourself but for the country. “They’ve seen the inside of the Qantas Chairman’s Lounge,” writes “Robert”, “and they won’t let you forget it.” Personally, I consider it a minor compensation for the fact you are flying all the time (Oh, you like flying? Then become a pilot. You’ll earn a lot more money and public respect, and as a bonus you can marry a hostie). You spend twenty working weeks of the year – from Sunday afternoon until Thursday evening or Friday morning – in the effervescent and hyper-exciting Canberra (not that it matters; you’re working from dawn past dusk anyway). That’s one third of your year living out a suitcase at a motel or more likely sharing an apartment with a few other fellow staffers.

For most, that’s the extent of their jet-setting lifestyle. I have been extremely fortunate in my last year and a half in politics to have worked for the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Yes, King Arthur had managed to find the Holy Grail of political work – overseas travel. But I would have to frequently explain to my friends, slightly jealous about my destinations like Switzerland, Nepal or Fiji (PNG and the Solomons, strangely, not so much) that I’ve been merely given an unparalleled opportunity to see the insides of many government buildings in some of the most beautiful and exotic destinations in the world. You are not a tourist – and rightly so – you’re there to work, but even more so: the department fills up your schedule to a brim, lest you have five minutes of free time in which you can create a diplomatic incident by stripping down to your Malaysian flag bathers.

So, brats or zombies?

Sometimes one or the other, most often neither. When you get down to the bottom of it, the criticism of 20-something staffers is really nothing different to the standard criticism that the Gen Xers have of the Gen Ys (the Boomers tend to go easier on Ys; they’re their children after all). They are underqualified and under-experienced but nevertheless overpaid, unrealistic and self-important, temperamental and lazy, vacuous and social media-obsessed. Now that sounds familiar. Is it true? To the same extent it might be true of brats at law firms, business offices, gyms or retail outlets. After all, only one of the Budgie Nine was a staffer.

So maybe there is a terrible truth about staffers, after all, but it’s a pretty boring one: they are just like us.

(In the photo: a much younger, more innocent, but definitely un-bratty Daily Chrenk)