Can Drew Clarke restore the integrity of the PMO?

The changing role of the PMO could be a key factor in the inability of any prime minister since Howard to balance support and policy agenda. Former mandarins say the chief of staff is critical to effective use of the public service and Drew Clarke could restore trust and relationships.

Malcolm Turnbull’s choice of Communications Department head Drew Clarke as his acting chief of staff might signal a shift back to a more consultative cabinet government last seen under John Howard, and a more trusting, two-way relationship with the Australian Public Service.

Turnbull told his Liberal colleagues yesterday that Clarke had agreed to act in the extremely important and demanding behind-the-scenes role. Tony Nutt, a key political adviser to both Howard and Abbott, is directing his transition into the office.

The new Prime Minister’s decision to put a highly experienced public servant into the central role — even if only as an interim arrangement — is seen as a positive sign by many knowledgeable observers with experience at the highest levels of the APS. One former departmental secretary said the appointment was “hugely significant” and suggested we could see a return to the way the PMO was run under Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard.

A senior bureaucrat who worked closely with the PMO during the Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard years said the shift to more politically-minded chiefs of staff — which continued under Tony Abbott — had caused a lot of the problems that hamstrung the ability of those prime ministers to effectively lead the government.

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