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‘We’ve seen it before’: what secretaries talk about during leadership spills

Each time there’s a prime ministerial spill you can’t help but wonder what the departmental secretaries think of it all.

Of course, none would go on the record with their personal thoughts, but a freedom of information disclosure released on Tuesday gives an insight into what the secretaries’ board talked about during two teleconferences leading up to the most recent spill for the Liberal leadership.

“Parkinson noted that secretaries should not be seen to speculate, and should continue to present as calm professionals, we’ve seen it before, we’ll do our jobs.”

Chaired by Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary Martin Parkinson, the mandarins discussed the latest developments in the ever-changing political landscape, as well as potential pathways for leadership matters and their budget implications.

“Parkinson noted that secretaries should not be seen to speculate, and should continue to present as calm professionals, we’ve seen it before, we’ll do our jobs,” read the meeting notes from the first teleconference, on Wednesday, August 22 — the day after then-PM Malcolm Turnbull called the first spill to pre-empt any challenge by Peter Dutton.

The secretaries then discussed the incoming PM briefing “and lessons from the previous (2015) transition”.

Managing the chaos

The FOI request was prompted by Parkinson’s run-in with The Australian over a series of stories about how public servants were managing the chaos. The day after the prime ministership changed hands, Parkinson said in a statement he had emphasised to secretaries that “departing ministers and their office be supported and accorded utmost courtesy and respect.”

Both meetings covered by the FOI took place during the period when ministers were progressively announcing their intentions to quit, though the PM was refusing to accept some resignation letters.

“The day after the prime ministership changed hands, Parkinson said in a statement he had emphasised to secretaries that ‘departing ministers and their office be supported and accorded utmost courtesy and respect’.”

“Secretaries discussed arrangements for ministers who have resigned (and had resignations accepted).

“Parkinson was asked about arrangements for ministers who had tendered their resignation but for whom the resignation had noted [sic] been accepted,” reads the heavily redacted document.

“Parkinson noted that we were not providing any direction about handling this but that secretaries should continue to exercise their judgement in handling these matters. Secretaries discussed these matters.”

In the meeting on Thursday, August 23 — the day before the spill that brought Scott Morrison to the prime ministership — the PM&C boss indicated that once it was clear who was running, “he will contact chiefs of staff to indicate we’ll be ready to brief”.

Parkinson then outlined “current arrangements” for the other secretaries:

“We are preparing incoming PM briefing (and will follow up with a more structured briefing on all matters the PM should be across),” say the notes.

“We are planning transition — and it is important that in all these arrangements utmost courtesy and respect should be provided for departing and incoming PM/ministers.”

The FOI release then includes two and a half more pages, which are completely redacted.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.