Saturday, June 26, 2010

"The young men in Kevin Rudd's office could get old and not even notice"

How it used to be, from Katherine Murphy, a year ago

"The young men in Kevin Rudd's press office could get old and not even notice. The nerve centre of the 24/7 enterprise hums in a Neverland-like present. This illusion is reinforced by clocks along the wall. There are four, but three have stopped working.

It's 6am. Spring fog hangs heavy outside and the hair of Sean Kelly, a prime ministerial press secretary, is still wet. Suite MG65 smells stale on first contact, like discarded running socks or the signature left by the alpha males who have inhabited the PM's press office for the past 20 years.

A forlorn pot plant on the window ledge swoons; another leans into the frame, its will to stand upright lost.

The press office has an almost ostentatious lack of adornment, like a bunch of Swedish modernist freaks have moved in and swept the joint clean. This is not the environment of a particular aesthetic but the reflection of its inhabitants who live almost entirely at the whim of the man running the country, who have little more certainty than the next bullet point on the Prime Minister's ''tick tock''. Dried rations are stashed under the desk. There are no family photographs because there are no families... dogs, lawns or detritus of any kind, apart from some long-suffering girlfriends. A half-eaten punnet of cherry tomatoes sits on a desk.

Looking down benevolently from a framed black and white photograph on the wall is Bob Hawke in budgie smugglers clutching a beer. On the pin board is the word ''perspective'' accompanied by its various definitions.

Lachlan Harris strides into the office at 6.02am and plops down at a round table strewn with newspapers and press clippings. ''Perspective'' is framed neatly behind his head as he shuffles papers and speaks to Kelly in a low voice. Serious calls are taken outside, out of the earshot of snoopy.

Harris, at 30, is chief warden on the prime ministerial prison block, except his weapon is a BlackBerry, not a baton. If Harris calls you, it's serious. If you call Harris, then that's usually serious as well. The media office is only 10 per cent of Kevin Rudd's operation, but its tentacles stretch across the Government imposing an unprecedented level of discipline on a tame-cat caucus and on cabinet ministers, who rarely strain in the yoke.

In the office next door sits another relentlessly youthful aide who has clocked on at 4am to collate every major story running on television and radio. Four LCD television screens are on his wall - an innovation of the Rudd Administration. John Howard vetoed such new fangled machinery. All the televisions work, all at low volume, creating a wall of white noise, and a vague sensation you could be at Cape Canaveral. It's a miracle nobody's head explodes. By 11 o'clock, the young man tips his hat to humanity and springs a nosebleed. He needs to fetch his own paper towel. I suggest he tip his head back, which seems to do the trick.

Things are calmer in the PM's office now than they were in the heady days of setting up government after 11 soul-sapping years in Opposition. People are more relaxed, hence my presence with notebook and pen on the couch at the fag end of the sitting week.

The Herald was given unprecedented access to the Prime Minister's office to record a day in the life of the people running the country. Senior staff in the office spoke about their roles and their experiences, some for the record, others on background.

When the invaders of November 2007 first took possession, no one dared speak lest it denote hubris or lead down the slippery slope of ill-discipline. Many fretted about the adrenaline-charged punks running the PMO, and wondered whether the Prime Minister should go crazy and hire the odd grown-up.

The office has seen substantial turnover. Some were eased out. Others couldn't hack the madness, or the Swedish minimalism, or the cliques that spring up in political offices, the unreconstructed fiefdoms fuelled by cult of personality. ''Kevin is not an HR manager,'' says one senior figure. ''He is hands on and unpredictable with working hours. He can rest but they can't. Coming out of opposition, some people didn't make the grade. If people aren't up to it, then you can have some abrupt departures.'' Women also struggle to make the cut at senior levels in this office. They want inconvenient things, like infants and lives. And the blokes absolutely run this show. They like football, and novellas, and blogs, and popular culture in boxed sets of DVDs they can devour down the back of the Prime Minister's plane. One suspects baby is very much in the corner in this atmosphere.

Some within and outside Government still don't like the operation, but they worry less. Now government staff can occasionally be sighted in Canberra restaurants with a beer in hand, apparently in high spirits. Sometimes Rudd's Lost Boys even laugh. Out loud. With people watching.

The office has survived two critical stress tests: the global financial crisis and the political crisis created by Utegate and the rogue public servant Godwin Grech. Some close observers believe the Grech episode was critical in defining the new ''settled'' psychology of Rudd HQ.

For an agonising 24 hours, the Prime Minister's career hung on the word and the bureaucratic tidiness of one of his young advisers, Andrew Charlton. One person puts the analysis this way: ''The question was could they trust Charlton - an inexperienced 27-year-old only several months in the job - when he said he didn't send the email. Was the Prime Minister right to put his trust in these people - the micro-managing, inexperienced, immature office. History shows Rudd was right. If that episode had turned out differently it would have legitimised the criticism.''

Charlton, a pale, conventionally handsome economist, drifts in and out of my sightline during the day. He is often pegged as Kevin Rudd's economics adviser, but his real job is part sherpa, part emissary, part son surrogate, and his function is executive.

He runs an operation some heretical Government types dub the ''Hollowmen Unit'' - responsible for co-ordinating question time and the lines crafted to pitch the Government's message into the news cycle.

Harris and his operation is complementary to this process, although gossip around the Government suggests occasional tension between the two. Government press secretaries co-ordinate their activity according to a strict routine. The first phone hook-up is 6.15am, when major news stories are briefed. Advisers craft the message of the day and decide who will deliver it. Issues are ''incoming'' or ''outgoing'' - potential problems coming in, and the messages going out.

''Incoming'' this morning is the continuing controversy over the Government's stimulus-related spending on schools and border protection. Outgoing material is good news from an OECD report overnight, and the continuing splits within the Coalition.

Backbenchers hand-picked from the class of 2007 are nominated to field questions from journalists camped outside the doors of Parliament House. Further discussion follows at 8am, then the office rolls forward into the tactics meetings that determine the Government's question time strategy. By 6.30pm, the press secretaries hold their final hook-up of the day, where they report back on the news cycle, courtesy of whatever intelligence they can gather via a trawl through the press gallery upstairs; and they resolve on the message to push for the next day.

This degree of orchestration is unprecedented in Canberra, and the disciplined routine is replicated across the other 80 per cent of the Rudd operation, which funnels policy material into the now very powerful subcommittees of cabinet where actual decisions are made. Cabinet itself is little more than a rubber stamp and a political debating forum.

John Howard's team ran a tight ship but Liberals would not cop this strait-jacket. Running on a rat wheel, day in, day out, rain, hail or shine. ''Is there an upside to this madness?'' I ask one sensible government staffer. ''It works,'' he replies.

By 11am, we are outside Kevin Rudd's private office. Sean Kelly, his trademark Wolfmother hairdo now dry, is beside me. Inside is Kim Beazley, who in about five minutes will be Australia's new ambassador to Washington. Brendan Nelson suddenly materialises, smiling. He notes me and tries not to look startled. Nelson is ushered inside. Kevin Rudd grins like the Cheshire cat through the open door, which quickly shuts again, muffling Beazley's booming laugh.

After a short time, the door opens again and we are ushered in. Harris tells me out of the side of his mouth the conversation is off the record. Rudd, Beazley, Nelson and the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, sit in a circle of squat orange chairs, making polite small talk. Over near Rudd's desk is Alister Jordan, the PM's chief of staff. His demeanour is priest-like. He cups his chin in one hand, the gesture of a man much older than his 30 years.

Rudd's office is warm and intimate, littered with the human touch: of books and photographs, and illuminated with ambient light. The space seems to swallow sound, protecting the intimacy of its conversations. It is hard to imagine Beazley and Nelson looking any more pleased. The group whisks out the door to face the waiting media, transformed from my altered vantage point into a hunting pack.

By noon, I'm in the office's geographical heart, surrounded by young women, the administrative assistants. The plants are healthier, the folders are imposing and colour-coded. Surrounded by sirens after a morning of testosterone. The office layout is ridiculous. It feels like a labyrinth. The uninitiated might get motion sickness, such is the pace at which these people move and take corners on two wheels.

A reception area divides the apparatchiks from the departmental liaison officers, who scurry about pre-question time, and the speech writers, Tim Dixon and former journalist Maria Hawthorne. The speech writing pod has a think-tank vibe with books and a designer chair. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama look down from walls littered with books. Across from them is a private dining hall, a 1980s monstrosity complete with mirrored panelling. Back a bit is the sitting room, where A Current Affair crew is camped out waiting for three minutes with Rudd.

Harris pilots me across the hallway into the cabinet suite with its little rabbit warren of offices. We enter a nook that contains another small clutch of advisers, and an apparent computer graveyard. This space once housed John Howard's cabinet implementation unit. The space also contains an enormous safe, large enough to hold all cabinet documents in pre-electronic days. People are coy about what it might hold now. An adviser tells me a bureaucrat still carries in a briefcase the codes to all safes. ''Like the nuclear codes?'' I ask. ''I don't think the briefcase is actually handcuffed to the official,'' the adviser replies.

By 2pm, question time beckons. It's Thursday and most of the parliamentarians just want to get the hell out.

Jordan and Charlton sit at the front of the advisers' box, looking learned and strangely unflappable. The messages of the morning are amplified here.

Back in the office, I speak with Harris about him, and his colleagues, about growing older in increments in Neverland. It's uncomfortable, not excruciating, for Harris to try to analyse the operation. Does he think that surviving the Grech episode is a turning point of sorts for the office?

''No single event is an end point,'' he says. ''Every day - we have to deliver every day. Politics is not a great industry to look for milestones.'' Does the office feel vindicated by the wash-up then? ''That may be a perception - I don't know.'' Does he accept any of the internal critique that his part of the operation is too controlling or too relentless? ''I don't think what we do is any different to the level of co-ordination that existed under the Howard government. This is a phenomenon of modern politics. The days of ministers refusing to answer questions beyond their portfolios are now behind us. The fact that people are hearing one view and not contradictory views makes it easier to understand our message; and it's the policy, it's the substance that matters.''

By 5pm, I float through the office to speak to Jordan, and to the deputy chief of staff, David Fredericks. Their offices face each other across the corridor. Neither will speak on the record. The boss is the focus, not the staff - but we chat about running an office and clarify respective roles and responsibilities. Jordan's mannerisms are a faint echo of Rudd's. There is a deliberation in the movement which reflects his even temperament, and his well-honed strategy of conserving energy for the things that actually matter.

Describe Jordan in a sentence, I ask one of his colleagues. ''King of the world,'' came the reply. Jordan has a closeness with Rudd that makes him singularly powerful. It is the gift of his long and patient apprenticeship with a very exacting taskmaster. The older Fredericks sits on top of the policy unit, managing 10 staff, but his political judgment is sought, too.

Tim Costello, brother of Peter, popped in to see Rudd this week. The two talked history. A few weeks earlier, Costello tagged along to Harris's 30th birthday celebration at a Narrabundah restaurant. ''I was really impressed with the camaraderie and the humour and, dare I say, the fun, of the evening,'' says Costello.

''There was a genuine sense that these people like being together. The Godwin Grech episode bonded them. They stood up in the fiery furnace and the belly of the beast.''

At day's end, I ask Harris if he's dreaming of life outside. ''I love politics,'' he says. ''I'm not just interested in the Labor Party; I'm interested in politics.

''The Obama victory for me was like a footy final. I love this job. I love the competition. I love the debate. Keep it coming.''

Related Posts

. So, who exactly is Andrew Charlton?

. Rudd never promised us a rose garden

. Kevin Rudd's morning