Movers & shakers: national security reshuffle reaches across four departments

By Harley Dennett

October 19, 2018

For appointments and promotions this week exceptional women have taken the leap into new and exciting roles. The Mandarin also learned even deputy secretaries sometimes get picked from recruitment merit lists.

Two important updates are included below, relating to Defence associate secretary Rebecca Skinner and an unnamed secondee to DTA.

National security reshuffle

While Prime Minister Scott Morrison was yesterday ordering an inquiry into leaked classified ASIO advice concerning moving Australia’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a cross-agency deputy secretary reshuffle has occurred. It follows the departure of Allan McKinnon, who has been the Commonwealth’s top national security adviser for the last three years.

Caroline Millar

Moving into the role at PM&C, which has been styled as ‘deputy secretary, national security’ in recent years, is Caroline Millar.

Millar is only the second woman to have occupied the role — the first was Dr Margot McCarthy — which sits at the epicentre of a community that is dominated by men in its senior roles, no better illustrated than by the governance board of ANU’s National Security College or the shrinking number of women on the National Security Committee of Cabinet. Unlike her male predecessors, there was no prime ministerial statement announcing the appointment and espousing Millar’s credentials.

A senior career officer from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Millar has focused most of her career on international security, humanitarian and multilateral issues as well as Australia’s relations with the United States. Millar’s most recent overseas posting was to Brussels, and has held previous special ambassadorial appointments for disarmament and people smuggling, to the United Nations in New York and Geneva, as well as senior roles in Australia’s embassies in Washington and Hanoi. Miller has also worked in the Office of National Assessments on secondment, and officially departs DFAT as deputy secretary of the International Security, Humanitarian and Consular Group (better known as ISG).

This move has sparked a surprisingly wide reshuffle across Australia’s national security landscape.

Tony Sheehan, Commonwealth Counter-Terrorism Coordinator and head of the Centre for Counter-Terrorism Coordination moved sideways to DFAT, as the new deputy secretary for ISG. For Sheehan it’s a return to the foreign service where he began his career with postings to Taipei, Beijing and Jakarta. It follows two years as the counter-terrorism chief in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and later the Department of Home Affairs as a result of the recent national security and intelligence machinery of government changes. Sheehan has also been a deputy director-general in ASIO, and deputy secretary and chief operating office in the Attorney-General’s Department.

Linda Geddes

At the same time, Linda Geddes was named as the new Commonwealth Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, which as mentioned now resides in the Home Affairs portfolio. This too was a sideways move, having appointed the department’s deputy secretary for policy earlier this year. Geddes was previously responsible for leading the external engagement on Australia’s immigration reforms, leading the development and delivery of policy and strategy for the movement of people and goods across Australia’s border, and leading the delivery of the Australian Trusted Trader Programme. Geddes has also worked in PM&C, the Office of National Assessments, Defence Intelligence, the Australian Defence Force and the National Library of Australia.

Marc Ablong

To fill the policy position Geddes used to occupy, Home Affairs tapped a former acting deputy secretary from Defence. Marc Ablong, who was awarded a Public Service Medal earlier this year, will be officially promoted to Band 3 on Monday.

Earlier this year we speculated Ablong would soon join the Band 3 elite but he took a detour first. Ablong moved into an acting role in Home Affairs earlier this year following a stint as Defence’s acting deputy secretary of Strategic Policy and Intelligence (SPI) that capped a 25-year career in Defence. Ablong had put his hand up for a top role in the Australian Signals Directorate — that role was dropped from the organisation chart after recruitment had begun — instead he was picked up by Home Affairs.

During his Defence career, Ablong held many roles responsible for industry policy, capability development, international policy, military strategy, and strategic reform. It was his work on the 2009-2011 ‘Black Review’ (formally known as the Review of Defence Accountability Framework) and the 2016 Defence White Paper that led to him being awarded the Public Service Medal on Australia Day this year.


As important as Caroline Millar’s appointment is in Australia’s national security leadership, there are a few other highly sought roles that still elude women.

Rebecca Skinner is acting in one of them now. At least, she might be acting associate secretary of Defence, or the position might be now be substantively hers. We’re not sure, and neither is Defence.

Last month it quietly removed the word ‘acting’ from the Senior Defence Leaders page of the Defence website. All other references in official documents, including Skinner’s biography, remain unchanged since she began acting in the vacant role 12 months ago.

Her appointment would be a big deal for women in Defence. Former senior Defence women have been concerned about the message sent by it taking so long for Skinner to be officially appointed. One of these women told The Mandarin the department has mishandled the opportunity, depriving women of a moment to celebrate the smashing of another glass ceiling.

The unannounced sly website edit has probably confirmed that missed opportunity, but we’ve asked the department to verify anyway.

Update: The department has verified Skinner has been appointed associate secretary.

Ms Skinner was permanently appointed to the Associate Secretary role on 27 September 2018.  Her appointment was announced via a Defgram, in which the Secretary congratulated her on her appointment and noted her substantial contribution to Defence and broader government.

The Defence website update that removed the acting from her title in the organisational structure was done as part of a standard update, but her biography on the external website was not a part of this. We have subsequently asked for this to be rectified, and her biography now reflects her permanent appointment.

Defence has been undertaking a number of senior level recruitment activities and the role of Deputy Secretary Strategic Policy and Intelligence will be recruited to in due course.


Rachel Bacon

Another woman to watch is Dr Rachel Bacon. This week the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities revealed it was poaching Bacon to become one of its deputy secretaries from another department’s merit list.

Bacon is currently a first assistant secretary in the Department of the Environment and Energy leading the Policy Analysis and Implementation Division, and was recently deputy chief executive in the NT Department of the Chief Minister and also held a senior role the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet with responsibilities such as regulatory reform and implementation.

Bacon will commence as deputy secretary for the Regional and Territories Group on November 19.

Digital Transformation Agency

The entire roster of women in the DTA’s leadership has left the organisation, which is extraordinary even by the agency’s colourful track record of executive turnover. This week it appears to have begun refilling those positions, or at least smoothing out the gaps in its new organisation structure.

Joanne Hutchinson is the first of the new appointments. Hutchinson will be promoted to Band 2 and move to the DTA from the Department of Jobs and Small Business, where she heads its NSW/ACT employment section.

Update: this section has been amended. It originally stated all the senior women quit, however one was a secondee from the Department of Human Services who had agreed to lead the Division while they were undertaking a search for a permanent replacement.

See last week’s movers and shakers update here.

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