Public Servants or partisan dirt diggers? Inside the Government Members Secretariat
Community Services, Education and Social Sciences
Communications and Arts, Centre for Research in Entertainment, Arts,Technology, Education and Communications
The concept of the public relations (PR) state was introduced to Australia by Ian Ward in an article in the Australian journal of Communication (2003). Ward described the increasing resources being devoted to a whole-of-government approach to communications strategy. The Government Members Secretariat (GMS) was established in 1996 when the Howard government came to power. The purpose of the GMS is to assist government MPs to run their offices and disseminate government and party information to them. Responsibility for the GMS was transferred in 1998 from the Department of Finance and Administration to the Chief Whip~ Office, effectively making it unaccountable to the parliament. The GMS came under public scrutiny in 2004 when the opposition alleged that it played a role in government 'dirt digging' on the opposition. This episode brought unprecedented and unwanted attention to this small but important cog in the government's PR infrastructure. The allegations of dirt digging, however, are a distraction from the real influence of the GMS. Its importance lies in the way it connects the government’s national communications strategy with individual members of parliament, most notably those members in marginal seats. This allows government policy releases, advertising, and other communication on behalf of the executive to be made timely and relevant to the grassroots House of Representatives campaigns that help win elections. The GMS is a prime example of the way that government and party communication strategies have become inextricably linked.