Can nice guy Clive Mathieson save PM Malcolm Turnbull from himself?

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Can nice guy Clive Mathieson save PM Malcolm Turnbull from himself?

Prime Minister John Howard’s chief of staff, Arthur Sinodinos, was a policy wonk. Tony Abbott’s, Peta Credlin, was a political warrior. Malcolm Turnbull’s new chief of staff, Clive Mathieson, is, well, a nice guy.

He has never run a government department, been active in party politics or worked in business, apart from newspapers. But the most newly powerful man in the federal government is an inoffensive personality skilled at managing up and down. 

“Everyone who knows Clive knows of his integrity and his capacity for hard work and his ability to remain incredibly calm under pressure,” says Mike Baird, the former NSW premier who hired Mathieson in 2016.

The 45-year-old father of three, a former editor of The Australian, this week replaced diplomat Peter Woolcott as the Prime Minister’s top adviser, office manager and chief confessor.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with his outgoing chief of staff, and new public service commissioner, Peter Woolcott.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with his outgoing chief of staff, and new public service commissioner, Peter Woolcott.

Brad Hunter – brad.hunter@pm.gov.au

Woolcott, who will become public service commissioner on Monday, was focused on working with public servants to develop policy, according to a government source.

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Looking for a political edge

As the Prime Minister prepares for an election, Mathieson will bring a more political edge to the running of the 50-person office, the source said.

How well Mathieson does the job will impact whether Turnbull can keep his. 

The former Goldman Sachs partner has admitted he isn’t a born politician. Mathieson will bear the primary responsibility for stopping Turnbull damaging himself; such as his declaration that the Longman byelection was a test between him and Labor leader Bill Shorten. The government lost, inviting ridicule.

Delivering bad news is not easy because “prime ministers are not wilting flowers”, says Sinodinos, who was an adviser to Howard and then ran his office from 1996 to 2006 and is currently recovering from cancer treatment.

“Your first job, in a way, is to protect the prime minister’s back,” he says, “Which means having a capacity, without being stuck in any one area, of being across policy. To make sure that policy and politics are being matched.”

Different taste in staff

Other responsibilities include managing relations with backbenchers, business groups and unions, ensuring the prime minister’s time isn’t wasted, overseeing the government’s public relations strategy and, sometimes, playing peace maker with other ministers.

The appointment illustrates Turnbull’s very different taste in staff to his predecessor, Tony Abbott. Credlin, who has a long Liberal Party history, was a famously aggressive adviser unafraid to speak bluntly to ministers, and fought a long-running conflict with deputy Liberal Party leader Julie Bishop. Abbott fired Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson, who was then rehired by Turnbull to run his department.

Turnbull prefers chiefs of staff from outside the Liberal Party. 

Mathieson joined Turnbull’s office one year ago as deputy chief of staff, and his emollient personality appears to have endeared him to the Prime Minister. “He works better with those types,” says one associate of the Turnbull family.

A spokesman for Turnbull wouldn’t confirm if Mathieson will attend cabinet meetings. Credlin’s presence in the cabinet room under Abbott created a perception that her power was equivalent to cabinet ministers and contributed to resentment towards her.

Keeping Turnbull on message

Although described by colleagues as capable and hard working, Mathieson had no direct experience in the federal government before joining Turnbull’s office. He could now be central to the Coalition’s attempt to be re-elected by protecting Turnbull from making political mistakes.

Mathieson established his reputation as the business editor, and then editor of The Australian, the conservative newspaper controlled by Rupert Murdoch.

Mostly gentle towards staff in the hard-charging News Corp culture, his main job was overseeing the paper’s front news section each night, and the business pages, according to then editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, who focused on the national political coverage, opinion pages and features.

“Clive grew into the job quickly and I trusted him implicitly,” Mitchell says. “He and I became friends and socialised outside work.”

Mathieson, who declined to be interviewed, left the paper in February, 2016, after he wasn’t appointed Mitchell’s replacement. He coordinated cabinet submissions and the cabinet agenda for the Baird state government, a job that required an acute sensitivity to political and bureaucratic agendas.

Baird’s successor, Gladys Berejiklian, added deputy chief of staff to Mathieson’s title, formalising a job he was already doing. But Berejiklian was regarded as a micro-manager by some advisers and Mathieson switched to Turnbull’s office eight months later.

In his farewell speech he offered a characteristically diplomatic reason for leaving.

“When the Prime Minister’s office calls, you can’t really so no,” he said, according to a person present.

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