Tom Burton: changing of the guard at the PMO, mercifully without fanfare


Malcolm Turnbull’s new chief of staff, Greg Moriarty, steps into office at a time of rising military tensions and as the Prime Minister struggles to craft an effective political strategy.

In a world where there is a minute-by-minute obsession with who is the real power in Donald Trump’s White House, it is refreshing the retirement of Malcolm Turnbull’s chief of staff, Drew Clarke, is occurring with little fanfare.

Clarke is being replaced by another career public servant, Greg Moriarty, continuing Turnbull’s practice of having an experienced administrator running his executive office.

It has been widely known Clarke has been looking to move on since the election last year. An unlikely person to hold such a high profile position, the quietly spoken former surveyor was brought across from Turnbull’s previous Communications portfolio.

Clarke had been appointed secretary by then Labor Minister, Stephen Conroy, in 2013. Conroy had plucked Clarke from the Energy and Resources department, where he had risen to secretary off the back of his work leading the energy market agenda for the better part of a decade.

Clarke is a fully paid up member of the mandarin tradition that believes a bureaucrat’s best work is done quietly and without fanfare. I recall debating with him the need for his SES to take the lead if agencies are to become effective players in the world of direct digital engagement. While he was happy for others to take that role, he was adamant he would continue the practice of not being seen or heard.

In this regard he could not have been more different than his predecessor, Peta Credlin, the high profile chief of staff to former PM, Tony Abbott. Just as the story of the battle of Trump’s advisers — Bannon, Miller, Kushner, Conway plus the gaggle of Trump family — has dominated much of the narrative around the early days of the 45th President, Credlin had become a media obsession, fuelled by Credlin’s take-no-prisoners approach to her adversaries.

More machinery, more intelligence, less politics

Turnbull is a big believer in the system and Clarke’s appointment as COS to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), together with the selection of John Howard’s former COS, Arthur Sinodinos, to drive the Cabinet program, signalled Turnbull’s determination to bring regular practice to the machinery of government.

A smooth running Cabinet process — with proper timings and inputs to Cabinet submissions — is in many ways the best barometer of the maturity and effectiveness of the PMO. It was the virtual breakdown of this process that led to Kevin Rudd’s first downfall as PM.

Moriarty comes from a similar mould to Clarke, and his appointment comes despite criticism of the lack of high level political capability in the PMO. Much of this is fuelled by Turnbull’s struggle to bring to life an effective political narrative. To date this has largely described the PM as marginalised between a super slim parliamentary majority, a divided Senate, and a predecessor intent on stalking him — exactly as Turnbull did to Abbott, a little more than a year ago.

Turnbull takes his counsel very widely and probably was never going to have a larger-than-life political adviser. In any case, finding an experienced operative, at a time where key party positions are struggling to be filled, was always going to be problematic.

Turnbull himself is strangely unpolitical, a combination of not being a product of the political class, and his personal bias towards intelligence over crude populism. This makes him appear to sometimes have a tin ear for politics, and a marked contrast to previous PMs like John Howard and Bob Hawke, who both had native talents for driving broad political agendas.

The COS role in the PMO has more often than not been filled by mid-to-senior bureaucrats, usually out of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, as short term secondees, to act as the direct line of engagement between that department and the broader public service. The job is often seen as a stepping stone for higher office — the departing Defence chief, Dennis Richardson, served as Hawke’s principal private secretary, as it was then called.

Despite Turnbull’s obvious political issues — it is a political reality that no leader can survive long term against a determined contender — Turnbull is heavily committed to getting on with the job and creating a narrative of a government able to navigate the swirling currents of the parliament and his own party.

In this regard Moriarty’s role will be to keep the pipeline of reforms and changes coming through. Yesterday’s 457 visa changes being a case in point.

Moriarty comes to job with a solid bureaucratic CV around counter terrorism, defence intelligence and international diplomacy and has been serving his apprenticeship in Turnbull’s office as international adviser. In his role as counter terrorism coordinator he has sat in on the powerful National Security Committee of Cabinet.

This is expected to further strengthen the relationship between the PMO and the military community, echoing the recent rapid rise in influence of the ‘.mil’ agencies in Washington. And at a time where there is a gaggle of larger-than-life ‘strong men’ leading strategically important countries, and talking up their willingness to assert their military authority.

Unavoidably, media still dominates daily strategy

As is so often the case in political leaders’ offices, Turnbull’s day-to-day political advice is expected to come from the four former media types in his office: Sally Cray, David Bold, Sid Marris and Mark Simpkin. Marris and Simpkin are ex journos, Bold was Turnbull’s communications director, while Cray was formally at the ABC as a part of the corporate affairs team.

Much of their efforts will inevitably be focused on winning the day-to-day horse race that typifies modern politics. This has inevitably become a Malcolm vs Bill contest, and while it is the fodder of press gallery journalism, it also goes to the heart of the widespread discontent with the modern political class.

Crafting a political strategy that sees government as the solution, rather than the problem, remains the biggest challenge for all parties.