Who’s in line to lead ASIO? Major moves draw congratulations, trepidation and speculation

By Stephen Easton

Monday July 29, 2019

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Last week’s major movements at the top of the Australian Public Service were followed by tributes, trepidation and congratulations, as well as a report that ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis would also retire at the end of his term.

News that Lewis would finish up when his term ends in September came via a newspaper report on Friday attributed to “several senior government sources” and was followed up with an interview over the weekend.

A media spokesperson for ASIO told The Mandarin we should take this paywalled interview as confirmation that Lewis was indeed retiring, in lieu of any official statement from the agency or minister, whose media officers were too busy to talk to us this morning.

The Australian Financial Review reports on speculation that three officials from the Department of Home Affairs could be in the running to be the next head of ASIO: counter-terrorism coordinator Lisa Geddes; the head of the infrastructure, transport security and customs group, Paul Gigson; and the “counter foreign interference coordinator” Chris Teal.

The report also suggests Australian Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin, who steps down from his post at the end of September, “could be a shock contender” for the ASIO job, and notes the three deputy director-generals — Heather Cook, Peter Vickery and Wendy Southern — should be considered potential contenders.

Tributes and trepidation

We also first learned of the accelerated retirement of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Dr Martin Parkinson via a newspaper interview on Thursday morning, followed by the announcement that he would be replaced by Treasury secretary Phil Gaetjens a few hours later.

Tributes soon began to flow for Parkinson, including from the Canberra Times editorial writers, who also included some mild criticism:

“If one had to criticise any aspect of his leadership, one could argue he was too responsive to the government of the day, to the point where he openly undermined the Freedom of Information Act — a law he was obliged to uphold — pushing the specious argument that it hampered public servants’ ability to give frank and fearless advice.”

The appointment of Gaetjens was met with some trepidation, particularly from the opposition and others who doubt his ability to maintain political neutrality.

On the other hand, it seemed there was little but universal praise and congratulations for Dr Steven Kennedy, the secretary of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development, who will replace Gaetjens at Treasury.

His appointment was reason enough to celebrate with cocktails for members of the Australian National University’s economics faculty. “The economy is in steady hands,” tweeted Professor Rabee Tourky.

Former federal MP Tony Windsor said he was “a true public servant with extraordinary intellectual capacity” and there was a sign of esteem from stakeholders, too; the Australian Trucking Industry Association wished him well and thanked him for his work as head of DITCRD.

Labor had no qualms about Kennedy either. “Steven Kennedy is an excellent economist and public servant and a welcome appointment as Treasury Secretary,” tweeted shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers. “I congratulate him and wish him well as he takes up his new role at a challenging time for the Australian economy.”

On his own appointment, Kennedy said:

“It is two years since I joined the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development. It is a privilege to serve the people of Australia through the Government of the day in any capacity. It has been exceptionally rewarding to do that in this department, given the importance of what we do, and how it affects the lives of the people and communities we serve.

“I congratulate Mr Gaetjens on his appointment and look forward to working with him in our respective new roles. I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate Dr Parkinson on his many years of outstanding service in the APS and wish him all the best for his future.”

Labor, Greens fear Morrison’s take on APS reform

“Being Secretary of the Treasury and leading the Department is an enormous privilege and I will continue to thoroughly enjoy my current responsibilities until joining PM&C,” Gaetjens said in a brief comment on his new role.

“The confidence shown in me to undertake this new role is also a positive reflection on the performance of all staff in this Department.”

While Prime Minister Scott Morrison was well prepared to reel off a list of past public service chiefs who had worked in ministerial and prime-ministerial offices, including Kennedy and quite a few of the present APS department heads, Labor’s concerns stem from Gaetjens’ past roles as not just an advisor but a chief of staff to both Morrison and former Liberal treasurer Peter Costello.

Having already made its criticisms quite clear when Gaetjens was appointed to lead Treasury, the opposition’s response was somewhat measured. Canberra MPs led the milder concerns this time around.

“The Prime Minister says he wants to implement immediate and sweeping changes to the Australian Public Service,” said Labor senator for the ACT and former chief minister Katy Gallagher.

“It is a matter of concern that Mr Morrison has appointed a long term Liberal staffer to implement these changes. The APS review is an important opportunity to implement change in the public service in a positive way, but this review cannot and should not be a vehicle for the Morrison Government to cut jobs or slash services.

“It is absolutely crucial that the independence of the APS is protected through these changes. Whether Mr Gaetjens is capable of providing the leadership the APS needs at this time remains to be seen. Labor thanks Dr Martin Parkinson for his service over his long and distinguished public service career.”

Her colleague Andrew Leigh described Gaetjens’ second-most recent appointment as “an extraordinary, unprecedented politicisation of the Treasury” in a television interview. “It’s concerning that that might spread to other departments,” he added.

On the other hand, the chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, Innes Willox, was out of the gates early with a flowing tribute to Parkinson and a warm welcome to both Gaetjens and Kennedy.

“Throughout his outstanding career as a senior public servant, Dr Martin Parkinson has been forthright, thoughtful and far-sighted in his perspective and his advice. Ai Group thanks him for the dedication he has shown to public service in his many roles and his willingness to consult and engage with business. We wish him well for the future.

“We are very pleased that such a high calibre successor as Philip Gaetjens has been chosen to follow Martin as Secretary to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Philip’s experience at the highest level in numerous Federal and State economic roles make him well placed to deliver the cross-government policy leadership necessary to kick start Australia’s ailing productivity growth.

“The appointment of Dr Steven Kennedy as Secretary of the Treasury is also most welcome. Steven’s most recent experience in infrastructure, regional development and cities will be highly valued in his new role addressing the challenges of a softening economy.”

Another early response was from the Greens MP Adam Bandt, who took a stronger position than Labor in preemptive defence of the public service. Bandt worries that the Morrison government is “increasingly authoritarian” and predicts the talk of immediate, sweeping APS reform and a focus on implementation of the government’s policy agenda is an attempt to “weaken” the public service.

Morrison’s Thursday announcements were “riddled with euphemisms that foreshadow an attack on the public service” in his view:

“The erosion of the public service has been steadily occurring under the old parties, through privatisation by stealth and relentless outsourcing. Now, emboldened by the election, the government looks to be preparing for a direct attack. The Greens will take up the fight to this government to defend the public service and will not allow the outcomes of the Thodey review to be a stalking horse to weaken the public service.”

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