Full steam ahead: mind-reading mandarin Phil Gaetjens says APS can look forward to stability


Philip Gaetjens. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Canberra’s new top mandarin, Phil Gaetjens, says things are looking up for federal public servants because he can tell them all what Prime Minister Scott Morrison is thinking and they can expect the PM to stay in office for the full three years.

Political stability would “make the lot of the public service a bit easier” and the expectation that Morrison won’t be torn down in the party room should be a source of “optimism” in the APS, according to Gaetjens.

“That could be a luxury I have that my predecessors have not for a long time,” Morrison’s former ministerial chief of staff told the Australian Financial Review, just before his first day as secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which makes him chair of the Secretaries Board and head of the Australian Public Service.

But what about the impact of former PM&C chief Dr Martin Parkinson’s early retirement and his own move from Treasury to the top job?

“I’m not sure I would do it materially differently [to Parkinson] but the fact I have worked with the Prime Minister before and being the head of PM&C … is unique in that I can tell the rest of the public service what’s in the Prime Minister’s mind,” he said.

“My job … is to make sure that message gets spread far and wide and as the PM said, we don’t want silos, obstacles and other things, we want a joined up public service.”

Morrison has worked to ease ideological tensions that have wracked the Coalition for years but even if they return, his colleagues are still unlikely to tear him down. His position was also strengthened considerably when federal Liberal parliamentarians agreed to change the rules a few months after he seized the leadership. As a sitting PM, he can only be replaced as leader with the consent of at least two-thirds of his federal party room.

Despite the PM’s strong focus on service delivery and policy implementation — which some have interpreted as a sharp turn away from the Westminster tradition that should ring alarm bells for conservatives in particular — Gaetjens says the APS is still expected to deliver frank and fearless advice. They just have make sure whatever they propose in that advice could be delivered rapidly, according to his interlocutor, Phillip Coorey.

“It has been forever thus … that the public sector’s job is to provide advice and that is the contestable space where you can seek to influence ministers and the cabinet,” Gaetjens said. “Once the government has made a decision then it’s the public service’s job to implement that decision.”

While many senior public servants have spent time working for ministers and this is generally seen as a feather in the cap, the opposition sees Gaetjens as a Liberal operative due to the length of time he has spent in the offices of very senior Liberal ministers, and his seniority in them as chief of staff to Morrison, and to former federal treasurer Peter Costello for about a decade.

The new head of PM&C thinks this is an unfair political attack, with no basis in fact or specific actions on his part. He also has a lot of experience in very senior public service jobs, and told Coorey there was no evidence of him breaching the public service legislation.

“I think the time I’ve spent in Treasury, and the people who know me around the traps, they know how I do think and they know what my ethical framework is and my passion for good governance and effective public service.”

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