Phil Gaetjens ‘was never doing politics’ in my office: Costello


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The inbound secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet was always a public servant, even when working as the Treasurer’s chief of staff.

That’s the final word from Peter Costello, one of the two former treasurers who employed Phil Gaetjens in their office, before his return to Treasury late last year as the departmental secretary and his latest appointment to PM&C.

“It was said before the election that Phil was political. Let me tell you, Phil Gaetjens was not political,” Costello told a Canberra book launch of the new history of the Australian Treasury.

“He was never doing politics, in my office when he was the chief of staff. Phil was a public servant. He’d come out of the public service. He worked for Hawke government, and frankly, I didn’t mind who worked for who. I mean, Ken Henry had worked for [Paul] Keating and I made Ken Treasury secretary.”

Costello said as long officials could get on board with the agenda of the government, it didn’t matter whom they had previously worked for, or what the internal policy view of a department has been.

“If the minister’s taking the decisions, then it doesn’t matter what side of politics the department’s on.”

Gaetjens, who also served as secretary of the NSW Treasury for several years, would likely have lost his job if Labor had gained office in the 2019 federal election, and both his senior APS appointments have been labeled by critics as evidence of politicisation of the public service.

In a rare interview with the AFR last year following the announcement he would be appointed secretary of the Treasury, Gaetjens addressed the conundrum for public servants who take up roles in ministerial offices:

“There’s a bit too much media focus on defining people by who they worked for rather than defining them by their own capabilities,” he told the newspaper.

“As most public servants would know, you do have to combine the art of the possible and look at what can be achieved in the politics of the day, which is getting more and more difficult.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the second former treasurer who employed Gaetjens as chief of staff, added to the fire by name-dropping three more departmental secretaries in his government who had previously worked in the offices of Labor ministers.

“This is not uncommon, that people have worked in the political sphere and the bureaucratic sphere,” Morrison told journalists. “I think that aids them well in the tasks that they have.

“In the secretaries that I currently have working under the Coalition Government, Rosemary Huxtable, Steven Kennedy, 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. It is about merit and it is about quality.”

Leave it off the résumé?

While few departmental secretaries keep up-to-date LinkedIn profiles, both Gaetjens and Kennedy are among them. As is Department of Defence secretary Greg Moriarty, who was chief of staff to the prime minister during the Turnbull government.

Of them, Gaetjens is the only federal departmental secretary that lists his ministerial chief of staff roles in his LinkedIn profile.

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