Verona Burgess: power and strategy behind APS top talent positioning


As the next wave of turf wars and churn looms, a look back at some key appointments reveals the influence of one department. DFAT’s skill at placing its people into the most sensitive Commonwealth offices is seemingly unique.

Just a few weeks ago there was still a vacancy at the top of the Department of Defence; Environment secretary Gordon de Brouwer had not announced his resignation; and the ill-advised decision to award Immigration minister Peter Dutton a new Home Affairs super-ministry was under wraps (just).

As for upgrading the Office of National Assessments [ONA] in the Prime Minister’s portfolio to a more powerful Office of National Intelligence [ONI], that was still a twinkle in the eye, or rather the excellent report on the intelligence agencies by former Foreign Affairs secretary Michael L’Estrange and former Defence deputy secretary Stephen Merchant.

Now the next wave of changes has begun and once again the pervasive influence of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is showing.

But first to the new national security machinery-of-government arrangements, which will be a work-in-progress until late next year.

They might be achieved with minimal disruption to most of the law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, but it is unlikely because of complexities involved, including in conflating the implementation of the L’Estrange-Merchant recommendations on the overhaul of the intelligence community with the creation of the Home Affairs portfolio.

Not least, there is new legislation to be drafted and enacted, including turning the Australian Signals Directorate into a statutory authority within Defence and transforming the statutory remit of ONA, which could collide with the next election.

Additionally, one should never underestimate the effect of bureaucratic and ministerial turf wars when it comes to the heady spoils of national security policy and operations.

On the secretaries’ front, De Brouwer’s departure in September means the loss of another deeply experienced economist and continues the churn of mandarins. Including the 18 incumbents, a total of 50 will have held secretarial positions in the last decade.

Which brings us to the Defence secretary designate, Greg Moriarty, who starts on September 4. He has never headed a department, let alone a big one, but has a strong intelligence background. As reported, he will leapfrog from the Prime Minister’s Office, Malcolm Turnbull having been unimpressed by the short-list.

He is the second secretary Turnbull has appointed directly from his office (Frances Adamson, at the DFAT, being the first) after working with them closely for a short period. This is not entirely surprising – personal relationships always matter, and the best DFAT people are consummate professionals who can dazzle. But Turnbull, who is besieged on all fronts, now needs his third chief of staff since April.

Unlike some agencies DFAT remains expert at succession management, not only its own but in quietly slotting people into key jobs, not least in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and, traditionally, to head the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, ONA and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. DFAT’s legendary ‘stud’ book of diplomatic appointments didn’t get its nickname by accident.

Three of the 18 secretaries –­ Moriarty, Adamson and Chris Moraitis (Attorney-General’s Department) – come from the DFAT stable, while economist Heather Smith (Communications) had a three-year stint as deputy secretary from 2010-13.

Moriarty is also the fourth Defence secretary in the last 15 years whose previous career has been spent substantially in DFAT, the others being Ric Smith (November 2002 to December 2006); Nick Warner (December 2006 to August 2009); and Dennis Richardson (October 2012 to May 2017).

In between Warner and Richardson came Ian Watt (August 2009 to September 2011); and Duncan Lewis (September 2011 to October 2012).  Watt went on to run PM&C; Warner was appointed head of ASIS in 2009 and Lewis, after two years as Ambassador to Belgium, head of ASIO in 2014.

Moriarty’s career trajectory to Defence brings to mind that of Warner. Like Moriarty, Warner came directly from the PMO as John Howard’s senior international adviser for a year or so. He too had no big-agency management experience, but brought a wealth of expertise on the spookier side of Foreign Affairs.

Both served on the intelligence side of Defence (Warner in the then Joint Intelligence Organisation and Moriarty in the then Defence Signals Directorate) before joining DFAT; both are former ambassadors to Iran, one of the most sensitive posts in the DFAT arsenal; both also served in Papua New Guinea (Warner as High Commissioner); both are highly experienced in South-East Asia (Moriarty, like Ric Smith, as Ambassador to Indonesia); both had a stint running DFAT’s public affairs area; and both served as DFAT deputies.

Warner never really looked happy with the cumbersome (and often boring) administrative burden of the defence bureaucracy but has evidently been a perfect fit at ASIS.

Let’s hope Moriarty takes to Defence like a duck to water, rather than adding to the high turnover that former Rio Tinto chairman David Peever, in his 2015 First Principles Review of Defence, found unacceptable.

“Leadership churn and budget uncertainty are the critical root causes of the organisation’s complacency,” he noted. “The frequent turnover in ministers and secretaries, in particular, does not enable effective leadership of change.”

Peever’s criticism remains an important warning for the future — and not just for Defence.