The recent ministerial reshuffle on Capital Hill and the machinery of government changes it catalysed may have far reaching effects, but it’s pretty much business as usual for the seasoned bureaucrats running the show.
“Oh, it was no big deal really,” Treasury secretary John Fraser (pictured) told the ABC’s Emma Alberici last night, after a dinner event hosted by the ACT division of the Institute for Public Administration Australia.
“I mean, we did all the preparation that you’d normally do. The first week was remarkably quiet. It was pretty seamless.”
Department of Finance secretary Jane Halton, who was also invited to talk shop with the Lateline host, was equally unfazed by the leadership spill that elevated Malcolm Turnbull to the top job, and Scott Morrison to Treasurer. She said she could sense that “something was happening” when she walked up to Parliament House on the morning of that fateful Monday.
“So yes, we’ve been there before,” Halton said. “The good thing is of course everyone in this room knows we transition from one government to another, and that includes prime ministers within the one government, and so we are doing what we always do, which is to manage it professionally. Yes, we’ve been here before and yes, we will have a very solid support to the [new] Prime Minister.”
But how was it for her personally, asked Alberici, who made a speech of her own earlier in the evening containing what Halton described as a “blatant budget pitch” for the ABC.
“You have to be quite discreet. Turning up with a pile of boxes when people are possibly still in shock and grieving is possibly not the most sensitive thing.”
“You dust off the incoming government brief, and you decide whether it’s adequate,” said Halton. “And then you have people scurrying around because you’ve discovered it’s not adequate.”
Pro tip: when staff have to move around physically with structural changes, she advised, be careful to make sure people have time to digest the news before the moving boxes turn up.
“You have to be quite discreet,” she explained. “Turning up with a pile of boxes when people are possibly still in shock and grieving is possibly not the most sensitive thing.”
Reflecting on his return to the public service after just over 20 years, Fraser said there had been a massive expansion in the volume and diversity of commentary and advice on economic policy.
“When I left in ’93, business economists used to just prattle on about macroeconomics,” he said. “It’s moved on from that, we have people giving very good advice, at times, and other views on a whole range of economic issues that relate to how organisations run, Commonwealth-state relations, tax and [other issues], which means it’s a lot more contested there.”
He also said the APS commissioner John Lloyd had been a “breath of fresh air” for public service mandarins like himself.
Asked whether the public service was, in her view, performing at its best, Halton told Alberici she didn’t think it was the right question to be asking.
“I don’t think it’s a question of saying ‘are we at our best’,” said the longest-serving departmental secretary in the APS. “The reality is, change is a permanent feature of our lives, the speed of it’s changed though. So the speed of it’s increasing. We have to run at an increasingly fast pace.”