Thawley quits, still no confirmation on Martin Parkinson

By The Mandarin

November 24, 2015

Michael Thawley will resign in January and Peter Varghese in July as part of a reshuffle of top mandarins in Canberra.

Thawley, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary, has advised the PM he intends to return to the private sector. He will leave in late January.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Varghese will step down as Australia’s top diplomat in July next year for a new career in academia, expected to be a very senior role at the University of Queensland, with possible additional work for the Melbourne School of Government.

This follows confirmation that Department of Communications secretary Drew Clarke will not be returning to his position, as he makes his secondment to the Prime Minister’s Office permanent.

New leadership in waiting

No announcements were made Tuesday regarding replacements for the three federal departmental secretary positions.

Former Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson has been tipped to return to head PM&C, while his wife Dr Heather Smith, a former DFAT deputy secretary and currently at PM&C, may be one of the other secretary replacements.

Turnbull is placing a large bet of economic renovation and innovation to be the foundation of his government and is expected to look for a candidate with strong economic credentials and high level relationships with business leaders.

Thawley had a long pedigree in international relations, but the Prime Minister is wanting a secretary that can bring to life the large-scale productivity and innovation changes he believes are necessary to drive up incomes and support efficient government services.

Michael Thawley’s reforms

When the former ambassador returned to the Australian public service at the request of Tony Abbott, he said he wanted to get things done. On that front Thawley has been successful. PM&C has had a modernising push reflected in almost every way it does business, from relationships with other agencies to recruitment and leadership on issues under its span of control like Aboriginal Affairs.

Thawley never shied away from speaking openly on topics that a PM&C secretary has, in recent years, been quiet. Weighing into debate on China, Thawley told the national security community in Canberra that Australia was too eager to see China play a leadership role instead of focusing on the United States.

Public sector reforms were high on his agenda. He told an IPAA ACT forum:

“The hierarchy we deal with is far too inflexible. We need to get rid of layers. One way of doing this is to introduce structural changes, and that will take a long time, [or] we can actually do this in a very practical, immediate way.”

If nothing else, he wanted the APS to open the doors to private sector thinking. And by extension, recruits at all levels with private sector experience. In an opinion piece he wrote:

“The public service more widely must open its doors to the outside world. We must reach out more to the private sector, universities, think tanks, not-for-profits, state governments and other countries. We must invite into our ranks colleagues from outside who have expertise and useful experience.”

He also lead by example in recruitment processes. He ditched selection criteria at his department in favour of the one-page pitch that the private sector has long adopted as standard.

He argued the public sector should be a melting pot of policy ideas where good ideas reach the surface, no matter their political implications, or the rank of the person who offered it. And above all he wanted his staff to be fearless and dogged in pushing their bosses and ministers to take up those good ideas:

“How to make them happen is crucial, because we’re not just here to write papers, elegant or otherwise — and if they’re cabinet papers, mostly unreadable — we’re actually here to ensure that things change. It’s no use us shrugging our shoulders if the government doesn’t accept our very wise suggestions about how to reform this or the other thing.”

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