Lessons From Victoria: The Perils of Internal Parliamentary Centralisation

Amidst the navel gazing and blame-shifting in the fallout of the disastrous Victorian State Election result, one simple story has so far escaped media attention.

This is an issue that cuts through the spin and goes to the heart of the Victorian Liberal’s woes – and, more importantly, is a cautionary tale for the Abbott Government – one they ignore at their peril. For those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

Few people remember the radical and historically unprecedented changes that Victorian Liberal Premier Ted Baillieu made to staff selection mechanisms upon his election.

And why would you? The internal hiring processes of a government is hardly front page news.

But what was instituted really was revolutionary. Under the Westminster system, Members of Parliament traditionally had the right to determine their staff. Under the new system, however, all Ministers had to have their staff cleared by Premier’s office in what was then dubbed the “Star Chamber”, run by factional warrior Michael Kapel. The result was brutal – hundreds were denied positions, with only Yes-Men let through, staff guaranteed to not challenge the head office line.

The Victorian election result was the inevitable outcome. Too focussed on the goals of appeasing the Leader’s Office, staff were either unwilling or unable to give the advice needed to enact meaningful reform for Victoria. Short term goals trumped the long term, and, with talent and political insight being almost guaranteed as a veto quality in job applications, despite a few good staff slipping through, is it any wonder after 4 years of a sclerotic yes-man regime, that the Victorian electorate voted as it did?

More disturbingly – and perhaps more tellingly – is that this practice of refusing all but yes-men has spread Federally, and even expanded in scope.

Following the previous Federal election, rules issued by the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, set out that – not just ministerial staff, but all parliamentary staff, had to be cleared by the Leader’s office.

Just think about this for a moment. Every backbench constituent officer had to go through an approval process by the Prime Minister’s Office.

What sort of a mentality do you think this has created in the Federal Parliamentary Wing of the Liberal Party?

When anyone who might ask questions about a policy, or question a communication, is automatically ruled out of an advisory role, is it any wonder that the Liberal Party is in the shape it is?

Granted, a number of very capable and talented staff did get through. However, when the word was out that “the fix was in” and dissenters wouldn’t be approved, is it any wonder that hundreds didn’t even bother to apply?

The Liberal Party is built on principles of individualism and free markets, yet they have seemed to have recently embraced a command-and-control style of government for their party, which has locked out anyone capable of issuing any sort of meaningful advice. Despite some very capable staffers, the simple fact that they exist at the whim of the Prime Minister’s Office will obviously stifle genuine criticism or lead to proper advice.

For the Liberal Party to once again attain the political ascendency Federally, it needs to learn the lessons from the Victorian election – not just in terms of policy, but in terms of how a government should operate. And allowing diverse views in your staff should be at the top of that list.

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