Government focus is on getting the right fit

By Chris Johnson

June 23, 2022

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

Anthony Albanese’s federal government has focussed on the job it needed to focus on and has made the decisions that needed to be made – for now.

The list of new department secretaries and the comings and goings at the highest levels of the bureaucracy is just the beginning. There are more announcements to come.

One department – Industry, Science and Resources – is to be left without a secretary until the government finds the right fit.

And that’s what all the changes, announced late on Wednesday, are very much about. The government has appointed the top mandarins it believes ‘make the right fit’ for the implementation of its agenda.

There are a number of surprises in the changes, both in those who have been parachuted into the top roles and those who have kept their jobs, yet all of the appointments are solid.

Glyn Davis, the most senior public servant in Australia as the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, has the primary role of recommending to the prime minister who should lead which department. He is joined in this job by APS commissioner Peter Woolcott

The fact that Gordon de Brouwer has been appointed to the newly created role of secretary for public sector reform indicates how much of a hand both Davis and Woolcott played in these changes. Public sector reform has been Davis’ catch cry for much of his career, and Woolcott is keen to see more of the Thodey review reforms driven.

As a former departmental secretary, as well as a panel member of Thodey’s Independent Review of the APS, de Brouwer is the right fit for this new job.

A couple of points to make here, though – de Brouwer’s appointment is more that of an ‘associate secretary’, as he has no department to lead but will work closely with Woolcott and public service minister Katy Gallager. 

Also, his appointment is only for two years, so we can expect a lot of action soon on the reforms the government wants to be implemented. And it is ‘public sector reform’ – a much wider task than just ‘reform of the public service’.

Foreign minister Penny Wong signalled from the outset that she wanted a diplomat to head up the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

She has that now in the appointment of Australia’s current ambassador to Japan, Jan Adams. Adams has previously worked with Wong in the climate change portfolio. Wong knows her well. Trusts her. She’s the right fit. 

From all accounts, there is no animosity on Wong’s part towards outgoing DFAT boss Kathryn Campbell, who was expected to be replaced once Labor took office. Wong just didn’t think she was the right fit.

Campbell has been handed a very real job – a substantial role – back in Defence driving much of the AUKUS agenda. While that role is still to be finely tuned, it’s a big deal and huge task, and by no means a ‘face-saving’ job.

Jim Betts, who was sacked by Dominic Perrottet before he could even take up the role as secretary of his NSW premier’s department, will be appointed secretary of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts. 

That’s a challenging task, but Betts has plenty of public service and leadership experience. The fact he is also a former British punk rocker will probably be a help in his new gig.

Jenny Wilkinson certainly has the confidence of this government and has just been handed the massive role of secretary of the Department of Finance. Currently the deputy secretary at Treasury, Wilkinson has a big job ahead in these big, big times. She will replace Rosemary Huxtable upon Huxtable’s retirement in August. 

In the piano accordion portfolios of education and employment (continuously being pushed together then separated), Michelle Bruniges will continue as secretary of the Department of Education, while Natalie James takes up the role as secretary of the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations.

James has previously worked with Julia Gillard’s government. She is someone who is really known, trusted and liked. 

It is also interesting that James has been a partner at Deloitte Australia. It is clear that the highest-ranking consultants bring skill-sets that modern governments seek (Betts is a former EY partner).  

Outstanding and proven performer David Fredericks leaves the top job in Industry, Science and Resources to take up the bigger role of leading the newly created Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water. 

Fredericks will be kept extremely busy considering the government’s climate change focus. He’s the right fit.

Simon Atkinson has been ousted from the top job in the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. 

As one insider said: “Simon is very well regarded. But the government didn’t think it could work with him.”

It is all about the government having confidence in the top mandarins, and these changes indicate where they have placed that confidence.

Interesting to note that the government’s confidence remains with Brendan Murphy (Health), Mike Pezzullo (Home Affairs) and Greg Moriarty (Defence) – for now.


Bureaucratic shake-up sees PM announce secretary for public sector reform

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