We’ve spoken about Ministers, Senators and MPs, but there are whole other bodies and groups of people that exist within our federal and state political systems, such as ministries, departments, and agencies.
In Australia at both the federal and state levels, the term ‘Ministry’ refers to the ministerial office held by a member of Cabinet (a Minister), which is then responsible for one or more ‘departments.’ The collection of departments responsible to a ministerial office and hence the Minister, is referred to as the Minister's "portfolio".
The Federal Government can appoint up to thirty Ministers of State and twelve Assistant Ministers (also called Parliamentary Secretaries). Some Ministers will oversee a single Ministry, such as the Ministry for the Environment, while some might have multiple in their portfolio – at the time of writing Marise Payne is both the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Women. Some Ministries will group together numerous things, such as the Ministry for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts.
A Minister (sometimes assisted by an Assistant Minister) is supported by a team of staff, including a chief of staff, ministerial advisors, and/or ministerial officers. These are often known as ‘political staffers.’ These staffers advise and assist the Minister in a number of roles (political, administrative, policy, events, etc.) and differ greatly in their professional background and level of experience. They are political appointees and answer to the Minister.
Ministerial staff can potentially have a lot of power and influence, and so being able to find, make contact, and build a relationship with them can be quite valuable. However, they’re hard to find; there is no official list, and there is a high turnover of staff, including changes when there is a change in Government, or when a Minister changes portfolios.
The party in opposition appoints ‘Shadow Ministers’ to lead and co-ordinate their activity in each portfolio. Sometimes these match up to the exact portfolios that government has allocated, but not always. Shadow Ministers are not part of the government but can be useful advocacy targets as they will develop policy and programs that the Opposition will plan to implement if they are in government. They also have staffers, but fewer than Ministers.
At the time of writing there are fourteen Departments of the Australian Government, including the Department of Health, Department of Finance, and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.
Each Department is the responsibility of one or more Ministers. The head of the Department is known in the Commonwealth and some states as a ‘Secretary’, and in other jurisdictions as the Chief Executive. Each Department is made up of a range of smaller sections (e.g. Office for the Arts, Creative Victoria and Arts Tasmania are each sections of a larger department).
People who work in departments, from the Secretary down, are public servants, not political appointees. They are also referred to as bureaucrats or the bureaucracy. They are expected to serve the government of the day, but to be politically impartial. They can generally expect to keep their jobs when there is a change of government.
People working in Departments provide advice to Ministers, and then enact decisions made by the Minister. They don’t have direct abilities to influence policy or other major decisions, but they do often write briefs with recommended actions for the Minister and their advisors. They also administer programs on behalf of the government.
Depending on your goal, it can sometimes be helpful to make contact with staff from the relevant department. They can often advise you on what the process for something is, if it requires ministerial approval, and/or if it would be helpful to talk to the Minister. If you meet with a Minister, they will ask the Department to prepare a brief for them, so that they are prepared for your meeting, and so a good relationship with the Department can be beneficial; if you can get the Department socialised into your request and it framed as a positive, their backing can be helpful.
Prior to each election, Departments prepare what are called “red books” and “blue books.” Put simply, these are guides for the new (or returning) Ministers with information on small things like phone numbers and where their office is, all the way to how to implement the policies that the Minister went to the election with. They also provide advice on key issues in the portfolio that the Minsiter will have to deal with, and suggested policy responses. One is written each for Labor and the LNP, hence “red” and “blue.”
Agencies (also called ‘statutory agencies;’ or ‘statutory bodies’) are special government organisations set up for a specific purpose such as the management of resources, financial oversight of industries, or national security issues, and are typically created by legislative action.
Each agency sits within a Ministerial Portfolio, and the Minister is ultimately responsible for the agency. The head of the agency engages directly with the Minister, and does not report to the Department head. The agency is governed by a Board, which is usually appointed by the Minister.
Examples of agencies are the Australia Council for the Arts, and Film Victoria. They operate at “arms-length” from the Government. This means that while they have been set up by the Government to facilitate arts investment by the Government, they operate independently as their own organisation.
YOUR BEST BET
As a single voter, the most effective thing you can do is still to make contact with your local MP. Every piece of communication received by an MP’s office is tallied, indicating how many constituents are for or against a certain issue, and this then influences what the MP takes to Canberra.
Even the most self-serving MP’s will act on an issue if too many people are unhappy because it could cost them votes and subsequently their seat at the next election. Good party leadership also relies on information and feedback from backbenchers (MP’s who are not Ministers). It is for these reasons that the importance of people contacting their MP’s cannot be understated.
While campaigns using templates or forms to send emails en masse have their place and can be useful to indicate numbers of constituents who feel one way about an issue, they are easy to dismiss and you will not get a response from your MP. Finding ways to personalise your communication and add your perspective is a far more effective way to get your point across, get a response, and build a relationship.
Here are some other tips:
Go with a solution, not a demand – MP’s get flooded with people asking for and demanding things all the time, and they don’t have the power to do everything. However, if you can reframe your issue to be a solution to an existing problem, particularly one that is important to your electorate/MP, then taking action is in everyone’s best interests. As an example, instead of saying that the arts needs more funding, you can talk about how arts organisations in your electorate are an effective way to connect the community and combat loneliness and mental health issues. If you have new data or experiences, you can also offer to share what you’ve learnt.
Use their language – an MP is more likely to understand and support your issue if it ties into their existing priorities and commitments. For instance, if your MP is passionate about education for young people, find ways to demonstrate how solutions to your issue also link into and support that. Listen to your MP’s maiden speech and scan their social media to pick up on issues they talk about and words they use.
Don’t forget Shadow Ministers –Even though they don’t have power to make policy decisions, they can apply pressure to the Government. The Shadow Minister is also sometimes the person that will become the Minister if that party wins the next election. Raising issues and building a relationship now is not only easier, but can give you a good foundation if they are elected.
Don’t forget the candidates – Just like the Shadow Ministers, get in early with candidates before the election. They could be your next MP or Minister in just a few months!
They’re people too – Don’t forget that MP’s and candidates are also just regular people like you, so make them feel good by acknowledging and thanking them for their work and time, and emphasising that you’re open to having an conversation with them to talk about how to best serve the electorate.
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