Gaetjens reflects on success of national cabinet in valedictory speech

By Melissa Coade

July 22, 2022

Phil Gaetjens
Phil Gaetjens always had a sense of purpose and a need to do practical things for the good of Australia. (The Mandarin)

Phil Gaetjens left the APS at the end of May, resigning from his post as PM&C boss three months before his contract was up. It marked the end of more than 45 years as a mandarin. Here are some of the top bureaucrat’s takeaways from a colourful career. 

Reflecting on his career, the long-time public servant told an audience in Canberra he always had a sense of purpose and a need to do practical things for the good of Australia.  

“I feel a deep sense of pride and gratitude knowing I’m leaving a dynamic, resilient, capable and future-focused APS that has continued to grow and adapt to tomorrow’s challenges, and opportunities,” he said.

Gaetjens dipped into political advisor roles over the years, having hatched his career as an assistant research officer at the Bureau of Transport Economics in 1977. By 1993 he had worked his way up the ranks and into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. 

Most recently, he was PM&C secretary from September 2019 to May 2022, and had previously served as Treasury secretary, and then chief-of-staff to Scott Morrison when Morrison was treasurer.

Gaetjens said the national cabinet — established during the COVID-19 pandemic — may not have been ‘perfect’ but was a critical governance mechanism for the prime minister and state and territory leaders to share information when quick decisions were needed. 

National cabinet was a useful forum to bring the top mandarins from each jurisdiction together, he added, which helped achieve better outcomes and an understanding of perspectives to achieve national uniformity.

“I firmly believe it brought more harmony and coherence to the COVID response than otherwise achievable,” he said.

“That national cabinet continues is a positive.”

Gaetjens highlighted driving a one-APS approach and culture as one of his greatest achievements as PM&C secretary. 

He also said he was able to shift the work of the Secretaries Board from passive stewardship to active governance while still respecting the individual responsibilities and accountabilities of the secretaries. 

“I consider I made significant improvements to the functionality, strengths, purpose and dynamism of the Secretaries Board, and I thank my former colleagues for collaborating to achieve this. I also add that as secretaries over the last few years, we did not have much choice but to lift our commitments,” he said, noting the complex and compounding events of a period from 2019 when the government and APS was managing the final stages of droughts, followed by some of the most damaging fires in Australia in 2020, and then a global pandemic.

“A long tail of response and recovery activity followed for all these natural disasters and, before the fires were out, the COVID pandemic started.”

Gaetjens said he was pleased to see the APS given improved architecture to serve its purpose by machinery of government changes late in 2019, and also that the new Labor government had chosen to retain some ‘essential elements’ in its structure of government. 

He lauded the efforts of the Chief Operating Officers (COO) group during the pandemic, which he established with the authority of the Secretaries Board early in 2020.  

“During the pandemic, we saw rapid reform in action and changes to how the APS worked to support and protect Australians during the health and economic crisis,” Gaetjens said. 

“While one of [the group’s] first roles was to seek a coherent approach of agencies to adopt in responding to bushfire smoke risks, it worked also through COVID response to ensure that the coordinated decision-making and the mobilisation of APS operations occurred to meet the challenges of the APS.”

“The COO committee played a key role in implementing the APS [reserve] workforce, putting in place the largest mobilisation of APS staff in living memory. More than 4,500 people were redeployed between APS agencies and between the commonwealth and the states and territories to ensure high priority and urgent work could be undertaken,” he said.

Over a career of more than four decades, Gaetjens worked for federal and state governments mostly serving in finance and treasury portfolios. From 1997 to 2007 he served as Peter Costello’s chief-of-staff during a time when the GST and other major tax reforms was introduced. 

Working for Costello was intellectually challenging every day, he said, noting it was a special privilege to work with someone who was capable of delivering the GST package to Australia. 

“[Costello has] a large brain, and a large political presence in a policy sense, not just the party sense of politics,” he said.

Gaetjens described his time working under the former Coalition treasurer as a constructive time of linking the public service to the government ministers — stressing it was a common misunderstanding people had that his time working in parliament made him ‘more political’.

“I was never the head political honcho in an office — that was someone else’s job.

“What I did was to [sic] try to achieve that point where the cabinet and the ministry, and the public service did things in sync so that the machinery of government and you could act,” he said.

Just how much a public servant (who has wielded the kind of influence Gaetjens has) is perceived as a political animal was also aired by the former PM&C boss. He acknowledged that while others may contest the view, he always saw himself as a champion of the APS, its expertise and approach in political circles — not the other way around. 

“I regard myself sometimes as a bit of a public service plant up in Parliament House,” Gaetjens said, explaining effective public servants should be familiar with the entire process of lawmaking.

“It’s that understanding of the process that means you can understand from policy inception to delivery — because unless your policy is delivered as government policy or government statute, it doesn’t go anywhere,” he said. 

Gaetjens made his remarks as part of a traditional valedictory speech to the IPAA ACT branch on Thursday. Most of the government’s top mandarins were in attendance, including Australian Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott.


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