Ian Watt carried the message to sack Martin Parkinson

By David Donaldson

December 8, 2015

Ian Watt’s wife Lorraine had to move out of the department he was transferred across to lead — not once but twice — he’s revealed in an interview with The Australian Financial Review.

The first occasion was when he became secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration in 2001. He told the Fin:

“I remember when I was rung up and told by [then-PM&C secretary] Max Moore-Wilton. I said, ‘my wife’s there’. He said: ‘we’ll fix it’. So she was picked up and unceremoniously dumped in Defence.”

The same thing happened again when Watt (pictured left, with former prime minister Tony Abbott) was made secretary of Defence in 2009.

“She never forgave me for that.”

Incoming secretary of PM&C Martin Parkinson will also displace his wife Heather Smith, a dep sec in the PM’s department.

Watt also spoke of delivering the bad news to the victims of the so-called night of the short knives, when Abbott sacked four mandarins in September 2013: former Keating chief of staff Don Russell, then-Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry boss Andrew Metcalfe, then-Treasury secretary Parkinson, and Blair Comley, who is now the top bureaucrat in the New South Wales government. He told the paper:

“If you can’t deliver those messages, then you shouldn’t be doing the job. That doesn’t mean you take any delight in it.”

Watt is also sceptical of the argument made by Parkinson and Ken Henry — the 15th and 16th secretaries of the Treasury — that there has been a loss of institutional memory from the ranks of the public service, recently elaborated upon in Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay. He reckons it takes an overly Treasury-centric view of the world:

“The thing that always puzzled me is how Treasury got to 1800 people. I mean seriously … Treasury got enormous. It was trying to do everyone else’s job.”

Treasury wasn’t alone in its excessive size, though.

“In the 2000s, we all had too many staff. We all grew fat and happy. And we all needed to be cut back.”

The holders of the purse have such an influence in public discourse about the public sector for two reasons, he thinks.

“One: the Treasury secretary has always had a public presence. The other thing is they leak. Just like Defence.”

Watt resigned as head of the public service at the end of 2014 to pursue a career as a non-executive director. He now sits on the boards of Citigroup, lease company Smartgroup, and will soon chair the new Prader-Willi Syndrome Medical Research Fund.

Upon announcing his retirement last year he told staff that “I will miss my job greatly but, I suspect, much more than my job will miss me”:

“For the last 30 years, I have wrapped my life around my work as a public servant. The proportion of my life absorbed by work has grown over time, with significant increases when I first became a Portfolio Secretary and, more recently, when I became Secretary of PM&C.  It is now time for me, instead, to wrap work around my life.”

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