What it’s like to be a new minister in a federal government

The Coalition has insisted its priority is to "get back to work." But for new cabinet ministers like Senator Linda Reynolds that will involve a testing schedule, in trying to get up to speed and then hitting the ground running.

Cannings Purple 27 May 2019
4 mins
Linda Reynolds has taken on the role of Defence Minister in the Federal Government.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced the new ministry for the third term of his Coalition Government. With several key ministers retiring, the leadership team combines new blood and experience and introduces a number of tweaked portfolios, such as emission reductions sitting with Energy and the National Disability Insurance Scheme standing alone.

As the incumbent government, the Coalition has insisted the priority is to resume Parliament and ‘get back to work’. But what do those frantic first few weeks as a new minister really look like?

For first-time cabinet ministers like the impressive Linda Reynolds, the new Defence Minister, it will involve a brutal schedule of trying to get up to speed in their portfolios while somehow still hitting the ground running. Here’s a look at how things might play out for them.

Week one:  Think about the last time you moved into a new job and you probably won’t be far off the mark. The first week for any newly-elected minister is a whirlwind that sees them adjusting to what is effectively a new workplace, while simultaneously being expected to be fully on top of things and make major decisions from day one.

The incoming minister will likely know who most of their ministerial office staff will be.  But there will still be new hires to be made and important meetings with senior policy officials.

Ministers will be faced by masses of briefs and meetings in the first week. None are more important than the Incoming Government Briefing (IGB) – documents affectionately known as the blue (Coalition) and red (Labor) books. Ministers in the party that forms government receive summaries outlining information about the responsibilities and challenges they face in their portfolio. The IGB also outline commitments made during the election campaign, costs and implementation timeframes. The contents of the IGB are a closely-guarded secret, protected like a cabinet document under FOI laws, with the briefing for the other party destroyed once the elected government is in place.

Oh, there’s a green book as well. It contains commitments by minority parties and is a reminder to any government that compromise can be a key to running the country!

Weeks two and three: The feet will be well-and-truly under the desk by this stage and briefings notes will be flooding in – trust me, there will be lots of them. For a minister it might be 20 a day, for the Prime Minister more like 100.

All staff will likely be in place by the end of this time frame and ministers will have started meeting with departments and probably key stakeholders as well, including the heads of large corporations and peak industry bodies.

Courtesy of the caretaker period, there will usually be a number of urgent decisions that will need to be made ASAP, including policy decisions or contractual arrangements the Commonwealth could not enter into during the election campaign.

There will also be fan mail (otherwise known as “congratulatory letters”) arriving in plentiful supply. These letters will nearly always be accompanied by requests: for meetings and/or attention to specific issues.

For ministerial staff, it is important to establish how a minister operates and likes to receive information and correspondence. Finding ways to ensure all of it gets in front of an interstate-based minister can be a tricky proposition.

Week four: By this stage a minister should be ready to act on the steady flow of information received. New ministers should have established how they want to manage their portfolios and how they want to articulate certain policy, and will have built trust with their private office policy staff and public officials in their portfolio. A charter letter will have arrived from the Prime Minister as guidance to the government’s priorities for its first year.

If you’ve put in a request for a meeting with a minister, this is when it is likely to turn into an appointment in their calendar.

The three-month outlook: By 12 weeks in a minister should definitely have found a rhythm. Any machinery-of-government changes should have settled and the minister will have established their style (including how they like to run meetings) and the roles of their staff. They will be more confident in their ability to make the correct calls and calibrate the politics of the position.

The best analogy I can come up with is that point in any new job where you’ve passed the probation period and start feeling like you actually know how you fit into the overall scheme of things.

A minister’s working life might be more high-profile than most but in many ways it’s really not that different at all. We congratulate all new and returning ministers and wish them all the best in their new roles.

Jennifer Kirk is an Associate Director in Cannings Purple’s Government Relations team and spent more than seven years working for the Commonwealth government, including leading stakeholder and regional engagement on important economy policy reform during her time in the Treasury Perth office. Contact Jennifer.

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Photo: Linda Reynolds Twitter.