E-Day and the beauty parade: how two elections will impact the public service

By Verona Burgess

Wednesday January 30, 2019

Verona Burgess looks at how two critical elections could trigger another round of politically and personally favoured musical chairs at the top of the public service.

With the tennis and the long weekend behind us, the nation’s two biggest elections – for the next NSW and federal governments ­­– cast long shadows over both public services, which are already carrying the weight of de-facto caretaker mode but without the fun.

It is now generally but unfortunately accepted that a change of government in NSW would trigger yet another round of politically and personally favoured musical chairs at the top of the NSW public service. A change of government is not widely expected but  anything can happen between now and March 23.

Besides, the people of NSW often plant a foot in each camp and despite this week’s slight bump in Newspoll, things are hardly going well for the Morrison government in NSW (think the south-coast marginal seat of Gilmore, where last week’s Warren Mundine parachute went down with locals like a lead balloon).

Nights of the long or short knives

At a federal level, the Australian Public Service clings to the tradition that nights of long or even short knives are the exception rather than the rule, and are abhorrent because they push the APS further towards politicisation and undermine its long-term and legislated professional impartiality.

Sacrificial knives are more often wielded in bulk by incoming Coalition governments than Labor (think John Howard in 1996 and Tony Abbott in 2013) – and with evident glee.

“Gaetjens is the only secretary likely to be perceived by Labor as an out-and-out Coalition warrior.”

While Kevin Rudd made a pre-election promise, which he kept, that all secretaries would be retained, Bill Shorten is unlikely to do so – especially since former PM Malcolm Turnbull installed then Treasurer Scott Morrison’s immediate past chief of staff, Phil Gaetjens, as Treasury secretary last August when John Fraser pulled the pin. If that does not qualify as a political appointment it is hard to see what does, despite Gaetjens’ years in public service and avowals to the contrary.

Shorten has not said he will sack him, but Opposition Treasury spokesman Chris Bowen said he was unsuited to the job because of his role in Morrison’s office, and that a Labor government could not accept any incoming briefs he prepared, according to the Financial Review’s Phil Coorey. This puts Treasury in a tricky position leading up to the budget and the election.

Shorten would be extremely unlikely to go against Bowen’s wishes even if they differed from his own.  And after the Federal Court case over the 1999 sacking of Defence secretary Paul Barratt a minister needs only to lose ‘trust and confidence’ in a secretary for a dismissal to be allowable.

Gaetjens is the only secretary likely to be perceived by Labor as an out-and-out Coalition warrior even though two others did have brief pit stops in Turnbull’s office immediately before their appointments (Greg Moriarty, Defence, and Frances Adamson, Foreign Affairs), as did the Public Service Commissioner, Peter Woolcott, who is a statutory officer in any case.

It is more accepted nowadays, if uncomfortably, that the job of the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, currently Martin Parkinson, is a personal choice for the prime minister of the day.

Parkinson, having been sacked from Treasury by Tony Abbott, was Turnbull’s pick to head PM&C after Michael Thawley’s brief sojourn under Abbott.

The Parkinson riddle

“Because of Turnbull’s 2017 reshuffle of secretaries, hardly any are approaching the end of their five-year terms.”

Parkinson’s relationship with the former Labor governments of both Rudd and Julia Gillard as secretary of the departments of Climate Change and then Treasury was, however, very good.  So if elected, even by an unwilling public, Shorten may retain him at least during the transition and wish to keep him longer or employ him in another capacity. How ironic it would be if Labor wanted him back in Treasury once the dust settled.

All of these events, of course, mean the Thodey review of the APS urgently needs to make specific legislative recommendations on secretarial appointments, including whether they can be parachuted in from a ministerial office or shortly after; the powers of said offices and the various other issues that fester about the role of the APS in serving the government of the day, the parliament, the laws of the Commonwealth and, through them, the people of Australia.

Chris Moraitis

Because of Turnbull’s 2017 reshuffle of secretaries, hardly any are approaching the end of their five-year terms.

The secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, former career diplomat Chris Moraitis, is first cab off the rank, due in September.

If he leaves, it might trigger a transfer for Renée Leon from Human Services (to which she moved from the then Department of Employment in September 2017) to Attorney-General’s, a position for which she is generally regarded as being ideally suited.

Speculation always swirls about the controversial secretary of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, first appointed to Immigration in October, 2014. It is unclear whether another five years was triggered when it morphed into the powerful Home Affairs behemoth in December, 2017; if not, he would be the next whose term finished late this year.

Renee Leon

Apart from earlier serving two senior Labor figures – former Foreign Affairs minister Gareth Evans and former Opposition leader Kim Beazley – it is quite possible that Pezzullo would stay put for a while if the government changes, if only to shore up the hard line on people smugglers, refugees and terrorism. It might be convenient to keep him on as a kind of Voldemort figure, if Peter Dutton were vanquished.

Much may depend on whether the Opposition spokesman, Shayne Neumann, retains the Immigration and Border Protection portfolio in government (Labor doesn’t call it Home Affairs).

Much could obviously change before May 18, which many believe will be E-Day.

The next cabs on the rank have not yet reached the three-year mark: Michele Bruniges was appointed to Education and Training in April 2016; Daryl Quinlivan (Agriculture), in June 2016; Frances Adamson (Foreign Affairs and Trade) in July 2016; and Rosemary Huxtable (Finance) in December 2016.

That’s it for this week’s beauty parade.

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