Chapter One: Understanding the System
Since Federation, Ministerial staff have supported Ministers in their roles. Until the 1970s, staff working for Ministers were traditionally seconded from the APS.
A period of time working in a Minister’s office was considered an important part of a public service career. Public servants witnessed the intersection of policy and Parliament, and Ministers and governments benefitted from the policy expertise of the public servants working directly for them.
From the early 1970s, staff working in Ministers’ offices began to be drawn from a wider range of backgrounds and were not exclusively public servants. The changing nature of government and politics in the 1970s meant that Ministers and the Government expected more contestable advice and a political overview of policy and its implementation.
Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984
To address the “blurring of the lines” between an apolitical public service and political advice, in 1984, the Parliament passed the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 (MOP(S) Act). The Act created a legislated employment framework for Ministerial staff. The Act formalised an arrangement for Members of Parliament, and particularly Ministers, to employ personal staff to provide political advice. The Act created a new type of taxpayer-funded employee – different, but complementary, to public servants – the Ministerial adviser.
MOP(S) employees have a variety of roles. The APS most often engages with Ministerial policy advisers and Chiefs of Staff. Other MOP(S) roles include media advisers, diary managers, office support staff and electorate office staff. The Prime Minister determines the number of staff allocated to each Minister.
Public Service Act 1999
Public Servants are employed under a different legislated framework. The Public Service Act 1999 establishes “an apolitical public service that is efficient and effective in serving the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public”. The Act prescribes a Code of Conduct and defines APS Values, which includes impartiality, and delivering for the Government of the day, chosen by the people.
There are a variety of roles within the APS. These include policy, corporate and service delivery roles, each requiring diverse skills and experience.
Ministerial advisers come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences and a typical Minister’s office will include staff with a mix of skillsets and professional experience. Some Ministerial advisers will be “generalists” as opposed to policy experts in any one particular area. Some advisers may come from the APS. Others may have worked for the Minister in Opposition or when the Minister was a backbencher. Some advisers may have backgrounds in the Minister’s political party. Some may have backgrounds in the private sector, may have worked in policy roles or may have worked for non-government organisations, such as research institutes, community groups, trade unions or employer organisations. The Minister determines their suitability for the Ministerial office and the role they will occupy, in consultation with the relevant staff committee.
Ministerial advisers have a close proximity to the decision maker. This characteristic sets them apart from other roles in government.
The Special Minister of State issues the Statement of Standards for Ministerial Staff, which outlines the standards that Ministerial staff are expected to meet in the performance of their duties. Implementation of this Statement of Standards is the responsibility of the Prime Minister's Office and the Government Staffing Committee. The Standards direct Ministerial staff to treat the APS with respect and courtesy and confirms that Ministerial staff do not have the power to direct APS employees in their own right.
The Role of a Ministerial Adviser
Today Ministers have the benefit of two primary sources of advice – political advice from advisers employed under the MOP(S) Act and apolitical advice from APS staff employed under the Public Service Act 1999.
Ministers also receive advice from a wide range of other sources outside government.
Ministerial advisers are integral to the process of government. They work in conjunction with the APS to deliver the Government’s priorities. They ensure the Minister is aware of stakeholders’ views and support the Minister in almost all aspects of their role, not least by the provision of political advice. They also support the Minister in undertaking communications, including traditional and social media activities.
To provide their advice, Ministerial advisers draw on APS knowledge and experience, amongst other sources. The partnership and a close working relationship between Ministerial staff and the APS is therefore critical.
It is important to note that having political staff employed under a different legislative framework to public servants enables the APS to remain apolitical. This is a critical and central feature of the Australian system. Political staff provide political advice, and APS staff do not engage in party politics.
More information about the role of a Ministerial adviser is available in the Panel’s guidance paper, The Operating Environment of a Ministerial Office (Appendix A).
Changes since 1984
A change in the operating environment of the Ministerial office since the introduction of the MOP(S) Act is the professionalisation of the role of Ministerial adviser. There has been a significant growth in the numbers of Ministerial advisers. The number of Ministerial advisers has risen 32% from 339 in July 2000 to 449 in June 2019. In the past, working in a Ministerial office was often undertaken as a secondment or a temporary placement. People now make careers out of being a Ministerial adviser, and will work for a Member of Parliament in both Opposition and Government.
The speed at which issues move is another key feature of the contemporary operating environment of a Ministerial office. The APS should appreciate the speed of the development of issues and be agile in its response.
The stakeholder environment, including the role of peak organisations and registered lobbyists, is also far more dynamic and demanding today.
Australia now has a concentrated media model, with 24 hour news channels, electronic media and social media all providing news and content in a crowded and competitive media marketplace. This is in addition to traditional media outlets. There has been a marked focus on the work of the Government, Ministers and their staff. This has increased the scrutiny of Ministers and their staff. To support the Government of the day, the APS must be conscious of the media landscape and the media’s interest in government.
 Public Service Act 1999 (Commonwealth) s3(a).
 Special Minister of State 2021, Australian Government, accessed 26 October 2021. https://www.smos.gov.au/statement-standards-ministerial-staff
 Thodey, D. 2019, Our Public Service Our Future: Independent Review of the Australian Public Service, p137.