Changing of the guard: a closer look at the PM’s new secretary picks

By Melissa Coade

Monday July 12, 2021

There are a number of surprises in the department secretary changes, yet all of the appointments are solid. (BISURJADI/Adobe)

Who are the top federal bureaucrats leading Foreign Affairs and Trade, Social Services and the Attorney-General’s departments?

Prime minister Scott Morrison announced his pick for three secretary appointments on Friday, following Governor General David Hurley’s acceptance of his recommendations for the new leaders of the Attorney-General’s Department, Department of Social Services, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)

Ray Griggs (Social Services) and Kathryn Campbell (DFAT) will take the reins of their respective departments later this month on July 22 and Katherine Jones (AG’s) will commence her role in mid August. All three appointments are for a five-year tenure.

“I congratulate Ms Campbell, Mr Griggs and Ms Jones on their appointments,” Morrison said.

“I have every confidence that they will lead by example and ensure the Australian Public Service continues to play an integral role in our nation’s COVID-19 recovery and provide high-quality services to all Australians.”

A closer look

If the public servants’ post-nominals are anything to go by (Public Service Medal (PSM) for Jones, Conspicuous Service Cross (CSC) for Campbell and Griggs), they sure have achieved a name for themselves as competent organisational managers and leaders — but their track records are not without some controversy. 

A closer look at the people the PM has chosen to guide these major commonwealth departments through one of the most challenging periods in living memory unearths some interesting facts. 

Two of the PM’s picks have glittering military resumes as top brass in the Australian Defence Forces. Griggs is a former Chief of Navy (2011-2014) who will leave his current post as CEO of the National Indigenous Australians Agency for his new role, and Campbell is a top-ranking Army Reservist, whose current day job is heading the social services department.

Campbell’s switch to DFAT clears the way for Grigg’s appointment as the new leader of social services.

Senior bureaucrat Jones steps in to lead the AG’s department on 16 August, fresh from the department of defence where she was one of the few women in the leadership group. Her promotion was made possible with the vacancy created by former AG’s secretary Chris Moraitis who is spearheading the Office of the Special Investigator into alleged war crimes by defence force personnel in Afghanistan

‘Outstanding record of leadership and public service’ haunted by Robodebt stuff up

Kathryn Campbell, who takes over from Frances Adamson as DFAT secretary, will commence her new post on 22 July. She is the second woman to lead the department as secretary.

Campbell has previously worked with foreign affairs minister Marise Payne in her capacity as social services secretary when Payne was the human services minister. She has also held the position of deputy secretary in the finance and education portfolios.

In a joint statement with international development and the Pacific minister Zed Seselja, the ministers said they were both looking forward to working with Campbell to ‘advance Australia’s interests internationally, and prosecute the government’s Indo-Pacific agenda’.

“As secretary, Ms Campbell will lead an organisation with an important role to play in continuing to support Australia’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular through its tireless work assisting Australians overseas,” the ministers said. 

“Ms Campbell has an outstanding record of leadership and public service through senior roles with government departments, including as secretary of the department of social services, and as an officer in the Australian Army Reserve,” they added.

During Campbell’s time overseeing social services one of the most serious government bungles – the unlawful Robodebt scheme – occurred.

In 2016, Centrelink introduced a new automated system in an attempt to detect any past or present overpayments in social security. If the system identified what it considered to be a difference between reported income and information held by the Australian Tax Office, Centrelink would issue a letter to recipients advising them of potential debt and asking for further information to prove that the payment was made based on accurate information. 

Should recipients fail to respond to the letter, Centrelink would use an automatic process to average that person’s income from the ATO over multiple fortnights to determine their alleged debts. Those who were unable to provide Centrelink with additional information were required to repay the debt, which the federal government later conceded was an unlawful way to accurately calculate a debt.

In June this year the Federal Court approved a $1.8 billion settlement for hundreds of thousands of Centrelink recipients who were wrongfully issued with debt notices. Justice Bernard Murphy outlined in a scathing decision against the Commonwealth that it ‘should have been obvious’ to public servants and ministers running the scheme that the process for determining debts was flawed. At best the scheme was a ‘stuff up’, he said. 

“The proceeding has exposed a shameful chapter in the administration of the commonwealth social security system and a massive failure of public administration,” Murphy’s judgment read.

“Ministers and senior public servants should have known that income averaging based on ATO data was an unreliable basis upon which to raise and recover debts from social security recipients […] 

“I am reminded of the aphorism that, given a choice between a stuff up (even a massive one) and a conspiracy, one should usually choose a stuff up,” Murphy said. 

Speaking to Campbell’s role in the Robodebt debacle last Friday, Labor’s Bill Shorten said there were questions that remained unanswered.

“It has never been satisfactorily explained to me what Kathryn Campbell did or didn’t know about the four-year rollout and implementation of the unlawful ­Robodebt scheme,” Shorten said.

Trade, tourism and investment minister Dan Tehan also issued a statement welcoming Campbell’s new appointment. Tehan said he saw first-hand Campbell’s ‘hard work, passion and intelligence’ when he was minister for social services.

“I look forward to working with her again and wish her the best of luck in her new appointment,” Tehan said. 

Campbell is an ADFA graduate and the first woman promoted to the rank of major general in the Army Reserves. She was awarded her Conspicuous Service Cross in the 2010 Queen’s birthday honours for her service as commanding officer of the Sydney University Regiment. 

In 2019 Campbell was recognised again, this time as an Officer of the Order of Australia (general division) for her ‘service to the public administration and the army reserve’. 

Although a diplomatic ‘outsider’ by DFAT standards, Campbell has worked closely with the prime minister leading the federal COVID-19 welfare program and was previously described by Morrison as ‘one of the finest public officials in our public service’. 

It is Campbell’s lack of diplomatic experience that is expected to ruffle a few feathers at the department as she steps into her new role.

A strategic operator who has found his sea legs

Before Griggs stepped up to lead the National Indigenous Australians Agency (which supports the work of the minister for Indigenous Australians) as its inaugural CEO, he was the associate secretary of PM&C’s Indigenous Affairs Group. He stepped into the role only two months into his retirement as Vice Chief of the Defence Force in 2014. 

At the time of his appointment, Griggs told The Mandarin that he was honoured to lead a dedicated team of people working on issues of such importance to Australian community. 

“I am very much looking forward to starting in the role and being able to bring my range of leadership and organisational skills to complement the team,” he said. 

Griggs’ focus at PM&C was on mental health and youth suicide, improving education and employment rates and community safety. He also declared that constitutional recognition through an Indigenous Voice to Parliament was a ‘big architecture piece’ he wanted to see realised, but would not be drawn on the government of the day’s position about the Uluru Statement of the Heart.

As a Navy officer, Griggs was deployed to the North West Indian Ocean in 1981 to support Australia’s independent presence in the region following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. With over 40 years in the service, Griggs was recognised with a commendation for distinguished service in 2003 for his work in the Persian Gulf and appointed as a member of the Order of Australia in 2009. 

Griggs went on to attend the National War College in Washington DC in 2004, and was later seconded to the Defence White Paper team where he developed the Force Structure Review of the document in 2008.

During the Vice Admiral’s appointment as Chief of Navy, he shared some of his philosophies about maritime strategy which speaks to his wider views on teamwork. Addressing a land warfare conference in 2012, Griggs outlined how the ADF needed to see itself as working for a ‘joint fight’ rather than as single army, navy and air force services ‘jointly’ working together. 

All military strategies are inherently ‘joint’, Griggs told the conference of uniformed personnel, but a strategy must be integrated with other national capabilities and ‘draw on all instruments of national power’. 

Griggs’ theme of leveraging integrated capabilities spoke of a need for strategists and leaders to reimagine traditional approaches. He urged them to appreciate all ‘interests, relative strengths and weaknesses’, and ‘framed by a clear statement of […] national aims and the manner in which we wish to pursue them’.

“[A maritime school of thought] must recognise the importance of collaboration and cooperation in keeping our global maritime trading system free and open,” Griggs said.

“No single maritime focused force can achieve this mission, there must be cooperative arrangements and contributions across the whole system. And of course this mission cannot be achieved solely with the military instrument as the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper reinforces.”

Griggs’ perspective on defence strategic thinking is an interesting metaphor for the challenges of the important social services portfolio he will be responsible for from 22 July. 

Civilian associate secretary of defence still a uniform appointment

The elevation of Katherine Jones to AG’s department secretary on 16 August from the department of defence where she was associate secretary, is yet another example of the store Morrison puts in the capabilities of public service leaders with some ADF background.

Jones joined the defence department as associate secretary in June last year and previously served as the department of finance deputy secretary for business enabling services.

Jones is no stranger to the AG’s, having previously held a senior role at the department as deputy secretary responsible for national security, criminal justice and emergency management. She also led the international crime cooperation division and the social inclusion division which oversaw policy and programs concerning Indigenous justice, native title, legal assistance and human rights. 

With degrees in arts (La Trobe University) and law (UNSW Sydney), Jones spent over a decade in educational and academic publishing before she joined the public service in 1999. Jones was awarded a Public Service Medal in 2017 for her ‘outstanding contribution to the field of national security’. 

Jones has experience delivering whole of government digital systems such as the GovTeams platform.

In conversation with an ‘APS 20201 and beyond’ podcast for IPAA last year, Jones said that for genuine change to happen in an organisation it needs to have buy-in from leadership and staff.

“You need leadership and whole-of-organisation commitment, and a structured approach to driving change. You need the culture that is supportive of change,” Jones said.

“But you need individuals who know their areas of work – they know their customers, they know their clients, they know their stakeholders – and they’re the ones that are capable of making those step-changes.

“So you can have the most wonderful, bling approach to reform at a whole-of-organisation level but if you haven’t got the commitment of people to make a difference where they work, you’ll have something that could look good in a glossy brochure but actually won’t drive long-term, enduring change in an organisation.”

Hopeful words from someone who will soon have responsibility for implementing the government’s Respect@Work response, which was widely criticised when it was released in April for being a cursory plan for tackling sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.


Militarisation of the public service continues

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