Life on the (Canberra) Hill: providing political advice during a time of huge strategic change

25 Feb 2021
Life on the (Canberra) Hill: providing political advice during a time of huge strategic change
On 15 Minutes in Canberra, Senior Policy Fellow Hayley Channer interviews Raoul Heinrichs. Like his personality, Raoul’s career has followed a colourful and exciting path. He has published analysis for world-leading think tanks including the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Lowy Institute, given lectures on behalf of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU, and worked as a Senior Advisor to two crossbench Senators.

Listen to the 15-minute conversation here and read the key takeaways below:

Pivoting in Parliament House

For fans of NBC’s The West Wing (a memorable clip here), you’d be forgiven for imagining (or hoping) that working in the Australian Parliamentary system up on Canberra’s Hill might have some comparison. In reality, rather than spending the majority of your day directly resolving policy problems, a large portion of time can be spent reacting with agility to sudden shocks.

Raoul recounts his experience of accepting a Senior Advisor position with Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie, only for the Senator to be ousted from Parliament due to her dual Australia-United-Kingdom citizenship. When a Senator or Member loses their seat in Parliament, all their office staff are also immediately out of a job – placing Raoul in a precarious position after only five days. Fortunately, Raoul was quickly snapped up by Senator Lambie’s replacement. However, this new opportunity brought its own challenges: Raoul had to bring his new boss up to speed on a plethora of policy issues while himself still learning the ropes of a staffer’s life at Parliament House.

Skills for aspiring political advisors

Reflecting on his time on the Hill, Raoul says the two personal qualities that served him the most were gumption and irreverence. In Raoul’s words, “People shouldn’t imagine that somehow the legislative or policy processes occur in some rarefied world that you don’t have access to – it can be a bit of a sausage making process; don’t be afraid to get in there and get your hands dirty”.

Raoul’s point, that despite your status within the Australian Parliamentary system, you can and should take a leading role in the policy making process is a positive sign for the Australian political system. Advisors who are informed, engaged, and employ critical thinking provide an invaluable service to their representatives, who require the best quality advice, and quickly.

On this last point, Raoul emphasises the importance of speaking concisely and the value of being able to write a short, sharp one-page brief. Challenging and unfamiliar issues arise constantly in political offices, often driven by breaking media. Learning how to translate complex issues into a short summary and recommend a course of action, as well as identify sensitivities, will help ensure your office has the information and advice it needs.  

Tectonic shifts in the Indo-Pacific’s security dynamics

As Australian Government defence statements articulate, our region is undergoing rapid strategic change and we face increasing strategic competition. Raoul characterises this shift as “the biggest change in our strategic circumstances since we became a nation”. Raoul contends that, this new era, defined by intense geostrategic competition, will test Australia’s pragmaticism like never before and has created an extremely difficult environment for Australian policy makers.


Hayley Channer is an independent analyst with the Perth USAsia Centre. The views expressed above are the author’s own and do not represent any organisation or entity.  


Hayley Channer
Hayley Channer
Senior Policy Fellow
Based in Canberra, Hayley produces analysis on foreign and defence policy in the Indo-Pacific, engages with key Australian Government agencies and other policy stakeholders, and builds and sustains the Centre’s domestic and international network.
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