Chiefs of Staff – from the backroom to the front page
Prime Ministerial Chiefs of Staff have gone from backroom figures largely unknown to the public to making the headlines of the national media. They have even been described as ‘the hidden face of power’.
For most of the twentieth century, a Prime Minister’s support staff was recruited from the Public Service: the top position was known as the Principal Private Secretary. The role of Chief of Staff was formalised by the Whitlam Government in 1972.
Basically, the Chief of Staff runs the Prime Minister’s office, manages the staff, and serves as principal adviser. They can play a role, too, in terms of who has access to the Prime Minister and who doesn’t. Thus they are very influential, if not powerful.
A dimension to the role that has attracted media and public interest relates to the necessarily close personal relationship between the Chief of Staff and the Prime Minister. In effect, the Chief of Staff ‘manages’ the Prime Minister as well as the many staff in the office. The Chief of Staff works closely with the Prime Minister, observes the Prime Minister on a daily basis, and makes sure the Prime Minister has opportunity for relaxation and family time.
The Wheeler Centre, which organises public talks by experts in their fields, summed up the Chief of Staff’s role in a promotion for a talk on the topic:
‘The prime minister’s chief of staff has a unique role in Australian political culture. With immeasurable influence – some much more than others – as confidantes, mediators, gatekeepers and advisors, the chief of staff steers the prime minister through the challenges and landmines of leadership, fine tuning and coordinating the things that matter to help win the support of cabinet, caucus and country’.
One of the Wheeler Centre speakers, Anne Tiernan, is co-author of The Gate Keepers: lessons from Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff, an analytical work published in 2014 based on interviews with several former Chiefs of Staff.
The Museum’s Oral History collection
The Museum’s Oral History collection has interviews with five former Principal Private Secretaries and Chiefs of Staff of Prime Ministers. Conditions of access vary for each but they are:
(Principal Private Secretary to Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies from 1963 to 1966 and Prime Minister Harold Holt from 1966 to 1967). This interview is open and available on-line: http://oralhistories.moadoph.gov.au/frank-jennings-1930-2014
AM (Principal Private Secretary to Prime Minister William McMahon 1971 to1972)
BE (Principal Private Secretary to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser 1975-1978)
(Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister John Howard 1997) (Part of the ‘Sturgess collection’ and also recorded for the Old Parliament House Political and Parliamentary Oral History Project)
(Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister John Howard 1997-2006) (Part of the ‘Sturgess collection’)
The Museum's Interview Collection
Other perspectives on Prime Ministerial Chiefs of Staff are offered in the collection through interviews such as the one with Caroline Cooper, who was Secretary to Dale Budd, and with former Prime Ministers themselves.
The Museum’s oral history collection also includes interviews with former Prime Ministers Malcolm Fraser and John Howard. These are part of the ‘Sturgess collection’ of interviews, acquired by the Museum several years ago. The interviews were originally recorded for the television series, ‘Liberal Rule’, screened by SBS-TV in 2009. Most of the extensive interview material was not used in the documentary film and was acquired by MoAD from Garry Sturgess.
Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke has been interviewed for the Old Parliament House Political and Parliamentary Oral History Project, which is cooperatively run by the National Library and the Museum.