The mandarin shuffle: orderly departure more than dramatic purge

By Stephen Easton

November 25, 2015

Michael Thawley is scheduled to dispense his reflections after a year as the Commonwealth’s top mandarin two weeks from today, and the news that he will step down in late January will give his words special resonance.

The simultaneous confirmation that Thawley’s fellow federal secretary Drew Clarke will stay on as the Prime Minister’s chief of staff opens a permanent space at the top of the Department of Communications, where Clarke reported to Malcolm Turnbull in the previous government.

Wise observers noted when he took the reins at the PMO in September that the role is crucial to the good and orderly operation of cabinet government. Some hoped Clarke would take a more consultative approach than his predecessor that could lead to more stable government and keep Turnbull in the job longer than the past three incumbents.

Turnbull assured the nation Thawley just “wishes to return to the private sector” and hasn’t confirmed who will replace him, while the federal press gallery and all close observers are all but certain it will be former Treasury boss Martin Parkinson. The outgoing secretary says that news is still a few weeks away.

The third major departure announced yesterday — Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade chief Peter Varghese — is free of the political buzz, with a relatively wide field of candidates including all deputy secretaries under consideration.

The handling of the announcement of all three at once on the same day as a relatively restrained national security statement and the long-awaited response to the Harper Review of competition policy could be a sign of Clarke’s style as PM’s chief of staff. The impression was more of an orderly departure by mutual agreement than a sudden purge, while the more important actual work of the government went on uninterrupted.

Unlucky timing

Thawley’s tenure was a historically short one. The nature of Tony Abbott’s removal was always going to cramp Thawley’s ability to drive APS reform the way he intended. John Menadue and Michael Keating are among the names of PM&C secretaries who didn’t last long after a major political reset. To many observers, Turnbull is no less a reset of those proportions.

Turnbull is placing a large bet on 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 has a long pedigree in international relations, but the Prime Minister probably wants a secretary who can bring to life the large-scale productivity and innovation changes he believes are necessary to drive up incomes and support efficient government services.

Like Varghese, most of Thawley’s public service career was in foreign relations, most recently as ambassador to the United States, as John Howard’s international affairs adviser and in PM&C as first assistant secretary of the international division before that, when Paul Keating was in power. Earlier in his career he led overseas missions in Papua New Guinea and New Zealand and was minister at the embassy in Japan.

After the completion of Australia’s free trade agreement with the US in 2005 Thawley spent the best part of a decade in finance before being lured back by Abbott but, according to Turnbull, he’d prefer to go back into commerce. “I am grateful for Michael’s support as my Department Head and I thank him for his leadership of the APS,” Turnbull wrote in his statement.

An esteemed figure walks

Another cross-over with Varghese’s 38-year career is the shadowy Office of National Assessments, where Thawley was head of current intelligence, and the DFAT secretary was director-general from 2004 to 2009. Before leading ONA he was a deputy secretary at DFAT, ambassador to Malaysia, and had served in Japan, the US and Italy.

Afterwards Varghese returned to the fold as High Commissioner to India in 2009, before replacing current Defence boss Dennis Richardson as DFAT secretary in 2012.

Varghese will continue leading DFAT until next July, when he will become chancellor of the University of Queensland. He launched a Women in Leadership Strategy this week to cap off a program of management reforms that has followed the department’s merger with AusAID last year.

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Julie Bishop praised Varghese as “one of Australia’s most esteemed public servants and diplomats” and a “constant source of sage advice” as well as a key supporter of reform and innovation in government. “I have personally benefited from his calm, competent and insightful counsel,” she wrote.

Bishop’s opposite number Tanya Plibersek was also full of praise: “He is one of Australia’s best foreign policy minds, and has earned the respect of all sides of politics. In the finest traditions of the public service, Mr Varghese could always be relied on to provide frank and fearless advice to our nation’s leaders.”

UQ vice-chancellor Peter Høj said Varghese, who won the university’s medal in history when he studied there, has been recruited for his “well-rounded global perspective and his diplomatic and managerial experience”. The current chancellor he will replace, John Story, expressed similar confidence in the appointment.

The role involves ceremonial and external engagement as well as strategic advisory input. Varghese told the university community: “I look forward to working with the Vice-Chancellor and the University Senate to ensure that the University is in the best possible position to meet the exciting opportunities and challenges facing the higher education sector.

“I am also excited to be returning to Brisbane and to be renewing my connections to a University which has played a large part in my family’s Australian journey.”

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