Treasury secretary Phil Gaetjens will lead the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet from September, and be replaced by the secretary of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development (DITCRD), Dr Steven Kennedy.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said an acting secretary would step into Kennedy’s role at DITCRD after the reshuffle, which is to follow the early retirement of Dr Martin Parkinson next month.
“Phil has 40 years of experience — state, and at federal level. He’s been more closely involved in central-agency planning and budgets than most people around this town, at all levels — again, at state and at federal level,” Morrison said.
“How we work with state governments is absolutely critical to my agenda.
“As you know, I’ve worked closely with Phil in the past and I’m looking forward to working closely with him again, and I’m looking forward to what he will bring to the government’s agenda and ensuring it’s well understood across the public service and that we’re getting on with the job of delivering on that agenda.”
The PM said he and Parkinson agreed it was “an opportune time” for new leadership at PM&C, before thanking its current secretary for his “long service to Australia” over a public service career spanning several decades, in which he has performed several senior positions.
Morrison emphasised that Parkinson still had his and the Coalition government’s enduring respect, adding that he and other ministers might “still call on him from time to time” for advice.
With the expectation of questions about the opposition’s lack of confidence that Gaetjens is able to be an apolitical public servant after his many senior roles in the offices of Coalition ministers, the PM brought along a list of other senior public servants who have also had experience in what he termed “political” roles.
Morrison also noted Kennedy was among those with this kind of experience, in his opening statement.
“He is an outstanding public servant and official, highly respected,” he said of the next Treasury boss. “I think he’s done a tremendous job as I know the Deputy Prime Minister shares that view, for the work that he has done at Infrastructure in pulling together and rolling out our hundred-billion-dollar infrastructure plan over the next decade.”
He also compared Kennedy’s “experience working in the political realm” to that of Gaetjens.
“Steven has obviously worked on the Labor side; Phil has worked on the Coalition side. This is about merit. This is about people who know how to get a job done and people who’ve earned the respect for the roles that I believe they will now be able to serve in.”
First up, he was asked how he could give an undertaking that Gaetjens would maintain the apolitical nature of the APS, given the inevitable claims that the appointment will politicise the public service.
Morrison said the appointment was no different to many made by previous Labor prime ministers.
“I mean, this is not uncommon, that people who’ve worked in the political sphere and the bureaucratic sphere — because it’s both, — and where they have that experience, then I think that aids them well in the task they have.
“In the secretaries that I currently have working under the Coalition government, Rosemary Huxtable, Steven Kennedy, Mike Pezzullo, Chris Moraitis, Daryl Quinlivan, Mike Mrdak, Frances Adamson — all of them have served in both political roles for Labor and are doing an outstanding job for me in the secretary roles they have.
“Look, it’s about merit, and it’s about quality,” he maintained.
“And in the two appointments that I’ve announced today, I believe they are two men who’ve done an extraordinary job and have earnt … my trust, and my respect and the respect of my government.”
From policy advice to pushing productivity
Press gallery veteran Michelle Grattan asked Morrison whether he believed the advisory role of the public service was “somewhat in the background these days” and implementation had become its primary purpose.
“Well, let me explain to you what I mean by implementation,” he said.
“It is the job of the public service to advise [ministers], of the challenges that may present to government in implementing its agenda. That’s the advisory role of the public service — to highlight [challenges].”
But the public service also provides policy advice, he was reminded. “And they do, but the government sets policy,” replied Morrison.
“The government sets policy. The government is the one that goes to the people and sets out an agenda as we have, which the Governor-General articulated in some precision when the parliament was brought back together. That’s the agenda we’re implementing. That’s the agenda we were elected to get on and do.
The public service will, rightly — and always do in my experience — be very full and frank in what they say to me as a prime minister and [have been in] what they have said to me previously as a minister. But once the government policy is set, it’s their job to implement it and that’s what the Australian people expect.”
In the PM’s view, the federal public service plays an important role in increasing national productivity.
“The Productivity Commission actually highlighted that in their Shifting the dial report, which I commissioned when I was treasurer, and so I want to see the public service able, equipped, supported, backed-in, respected, to do the job that I expect them to do.”
In his opening preamble, Morrison said public servants were at their best when “getting on with things” and responding to crises.
I’ve had that experience in multiple portfolios and as Prime Minister. I’ve seen it in the eyes of our public service officials when they’re responding to difficult challenges — the North Queensland floods, I think, was a very good example of our public service at its best, responding to people’s needs, understanding what needed to be done, getting rid of barriers that were in the way of them helping people.
“So when it comes to the public service, my view is to respect and expect — respect their professionalism, respect their capability, respect what they can bring to the table and what they can do — and expect them to get on with the job of implementing the government’s agenda.”