Policy advice submerged by 24/7 media whirlpool

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The evolution of a supercharged 24/7 media cycle and the steady decline of old media has seen the role of media advisers in ministerial offices elevated to a new level.

Labor Governments have attracted some brilliant media strategists, with many skilled media advisers playing crucial roles on ministerial staffs.

In some cases ascendant media advisers have held sway beyond their traditional skills in communication, and are exercising increasing influence in areas formerly the realm of policy advisers.

As a ministerial policy adviser myself, drawing on experiences over three years working in the Brumby Government, I understand why Ministers need high quality media advice and strategy.

But I also question the impact of the ravenous, superficial media cycle on the development and implementation of good policy, and the occasional subjugation of considered political advice to short-term messaging requirements.

At the risk of sounding self-serving, I believe political advisers get a bad rap. 

When asked what I do for a quid, I reply ‘I’m an adviser to the Minister’, or, ‘I work for the Minister’, or the even lower key ‘I’m with the Minister’. The rebuke is always: ‘Oh, you’re a minder.’ It’s assumed that I am just a middleman whose job it is to prevent the public having any meaningful conversation with my employer. 

The role of the adviser has diminished over the years for a combination of reasons. Increasing scepticism of politics and mistrust of politicians has seen ministerial staff tarnished by association.  Scandals like the one the Victorian Deputy Premier’s adviser Tristan Westin found himself in last year don’t help. To the average punter, the idea that an unelected – ‘faceless’ – political staffer could wield enough power to almost bring down a Police Commissioner is indicative of everything that is wrong with the system.

But other forces have also been at play. The demise of traditional print media has radically altered the media cycle and how politicians respond to it. Local content has been on the decline for years. As a kid I remember when the 7:30 Report was state-based – the program scrutinised state governments and also provided a forum for in-depth debate. Today that scrutiny is reduced to a weekly state-based edition of 7:30.

The public are not the only loser in this scenario. Governments are less able to explain the complexities of public policy, leaving them at the mercy of an insatiable media cycle that spits out superficial snippets of news and current affairs that are not so much abridged as they are misrepresented. The old adage that today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper is understating the ephemeral nature of news today. 

Some policy issues cannot be explained accurately in a couple of column inches or a sound bite. More detailed analysis is required so that people can make an informed decision. This vacuum plays into the hands of opposition parties who – regardless of political persuasion – deal more in speculation and conjecture than government, which has a bureaucracy to apply rigor and evidentiary weight to its policy proposals. 

In short, the decline in the standard of journalism has made it easier for opposition parties to tear down governments, and harder for governments to justify their actions. 

The acute difficulty in ‘selling the message’ or ‘telling the story’ has seen governments rely more on a pool of media advisers – separate to policy advisers employed in ministerial offices – to manage the media cycle and make sure the different arms of government are ‘on message’.

This is a logical reaction to a very modern problem, but poses its own threat to the traditional structure and functioning of political parties. Ministers are inclined to rely upon media advisers for more than just media advice. Increasingly we are seeing media advisers promoted to chief of staff where they are responsible for the Minister’s office, including the policy advisers employed within.

The archetypal policy adviser is best described as an information junkie: a devourer of current affairs, biographies, historical fiction and the kind of political anecdotes that are only amusing to their fellow advisers. The best ones are also policy wonks. They are constantly looking at ways in which governments could do things better. In many respects these unique skills, coupled with a genuine desire to change things for the better (which still burns bright in many political advisers), make these advisoers a potent force for good. 

I know the above description of the archetypal adviser may not be something the voting public can easily relate to. However, the truth is the public needs us. Dare I say, democracy needs us. 

Voters elect political parties to form government and make policy. The bureaucracy, on the other hand, is responsible for providing ‘frank and fearless’ advice to the government in relation to its policy proposals and, ultimately, implementing that policy. It is at the discretion of our elected representatives to accept or reject that advice.

Policy advisers work from within ministerial offices to help that Minister and his or her government deliver on election commitments. The bureaucracy may do everything in its power to see election promises delayed, altered or abandoned. This is where political advisers step in and support their Minister to ensure the commitments made to voters are kept. Without them, governments are at the mercy of public servants who are free to drive policies of their own.

So, how is the distinction between media advisers and policy advisers relevant in this scenario? Media advisers usually arrive to government from media outlets. They are employed for their skills in turning complex policy positions into a simple, easy to understand media message. They are not employed for their skills in formulating that policy in the first place. Most often they do not have any background in a political party. 

This is all fine when the role of media advisers is limited to media. It makes sense to have media advisers who are capable of looking at issues free of political ideology, as this will improve government’s ability to communicate. Some media advisers have made excellent chiefs of staff, with skills in policy development complimenting their established media abilities. 

But, in some cases, when that media role expands into policy, it can diminish a government’s ability to be the driver of policy, as it trades proactive policy-making for a more reactive approach. Good policy, both in the formation and implementation, is a long-term process that requires everyone to ‘keep calm and carry on’, and not lurch from one defensive position to another like an outmatched swordsman; all parry and no thrust. 

Labor has always prided itself on being the party of ideas. Progressive, forward thinking reformists. Remember the first days of the Whitlam Government when the new PM and Deputy Lance Barnard, flying solo with their cabinet yet to be sworn in, made 40 policy decisions in 14 days? 

If we are to retain this mantle we must attract policy thinkers, people with a passion for reform, and provide them with an opportunity to ply their trade; to work free of the strictures of the media cycle (wherever possible) and resist the very real temptation to fill our ranks with managers rather than thinkers.  

Being in Government is like sitting aboard a battleship with a slow leak. It’s a big, gleaming machine replete with indefatigable armoury and shoe-shined staff. But this leak cannot be plugged, and eventually the Good Ship Government will sink under its own weight. Better to go down guns blazing than to spend what little time we have bailing her out.

Author: Blair Boyer

Blair Boyer is a policy adviser for SA Labor Minister Jennifer Rankine. He previously worked for the Brumby Victorian Labor Government.


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