Part 1 and part 2 of Graeme Dobell's series on Bob Carr's first six months as foreign minister.

As Bob Carr prepared to ascend to his dream job, he consulted Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Dennis Richardson on the vistas and the visions about to open up.

The travel schedule the Secretary outlined was embraced as a glorious gift. In just over two years in the job, the just beheaded foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, had gone to nearly 60 countries in 27 international trips. Carr happily announced that his caravan would not slacken the pace.

Always there to help, Richardson then moved to the issue of personal staff for the new minister's office in the executive wing of parliament. No problem, according to the Secretary. The department had already penciled in people to do all the jobs in Carr's personal office bar one – they could all be out of the department and up to the desks in Carr's new office in a jiffy. In the rosy glow of the moment, about-to-be Senator Bob agreed that this was also great. Staffing fixed, the discussion happily shifted to other things.

As it turned out, the personal staff appointments didn't go quite to the DFAT playbook. This was an intriguing moment in the eternal struggle to see whether the department runs the minister or the minister rules the department. In this, the personal staff – the minders – are crucial. 

The biggest institutional change made possible by the shift from the old parliament house in 1988 was the significant growth in ministerial staff numbers. As we moved into the new parliament, I mistakenly thought that the Senate committee system would be the great beneficiary of all that new space and the glorious suite of new committee rooms.

Alas, the committee system has not grown much muscle. The executive keeps the committees on a tight budget and staff numbers are even tighter. The Australian committee system is but the merest shadow of the US, both in power and people. Lack of staff limits the Australian committee system – even the estimates process. The discipline of party politics does the rest. 

The growth industry in the new parliament building was the avalanche of 400 minder jobs serving the princely court that sprung up in the executive wing. Physically, the executive sits at the rear of the parliament, but politically it drives the place. Ministers now had lots of new office space to utilise their power, using people in their own personal offices. This was the Oz version of the West Wing. 

In the old parliament, there was no room for more than a handful of people in the cramped ministerial offices; the line back to the departments was clear, direct and often dominant. In today's West Wing, the lines to the department are just as direct, but the power equation has shifted markedly. In the tussle to run the department, not be run by it, the minders matter. 

Carr knew much of this from setting the record as NSW's longest continuous serving premier. As premier, he once talked about the vital need to impose discipline, to get 'a snappy, no-nonsense, oversight of the whole sprawling apparatus.' In the DFAT scheme of things, there was one vacant spot in the office for Carr to bring with him from Sydney: Graham Wedderburn, his former chief-of-staff in the Premier's office. Wedderburn duly came; that's where the struggle began.

Wedderburn became one of two senior advisers in the office. The other senior adviser, the foreign affairs guru Dr Carl Ungerer, came into the office from four years heading the national security program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He previously served as foreign policy adviser to Simon Crean when he was opposition leader.

This was not quite the lineup DFAT imagined for its new minister. But in West Wing terms, it is a strong mix of policy punch and political savvy. Carr's office is now about half people from DFAT and half from the foreign policy world but not directly from the department’s orbit. In the terms defined by Carr, he is indeed getting 'snappy, no-nonsense, oversight'. The next column will look at how he is driving the caravan.

Photo by Flickr user 350.org.