The top contenders to replace Dennis Richardson at Defence department

By Harley Dennett

Friday April 21, 2017

Scuttlebutt about who would replace Dennis Richardson as secretary of the Department of Defence began almost as soon as he took over the prime coveted role in Australia’s national security bureaucracy.

Speculation (and manoeuvring) reached fever pitch when the 2016 Defence White Paper was completed. But Richardson defied the expectations of many that he would retire early. As such, several of the earlier contenders have now moved on, and new candidates have entered the running.

The media and political commentariat have thus far largely ignored the internal candidates, probably because they’re not as visible as those that regularly appear on the front page of newspapers, and aren’t the sort to personally brief journalists on their plans.

The internals: tinker, tailor, Sargeant, SPI?

Once top internal candidates included former deputy secretary of strategy Peter Baxter. He was the last director-general of AusAID, and served as deputy chief of mission in Washington and special envoy to the Solomon Islands. Baxter left Defence last year to follow his wife on an overseas posting.

Another former deputy secretary, Carmel McGregor, was once the only woman on speculative shortlists for the top job. McGregor, who headed Defence People Group and led the 2011 review of Pathways for APS Women in Defence, also has global experience with the OECD and the Immigration department. McGregor left Defence for academia.

Today there are two likely internal candidates. Associate Secretary Brendan Sargeant, who will act in the role from May 12, remains the easiest choice.

Sargeant took over a hefty chunk of the secretary’s direct reports under the old structure, including People Group, the CIO, and Estate and Infrastructure. He has also headed strategy, among numerous senior executive roles at the department as well as a stint running Defence policy at the Australian embassy in Washington.

If there could be any foil to Sargeant, it would be that there is mounting pressure, both inside and outside government, that a woman be prioritised.

The other candidate groomed for the position is current deputy secretary of strategic policy and intelligence (SPI), Rebecca Skinner. Although mere months into this appointment, only a fool would think Skinner hadn’t earned her place in the running to lead what is still, unfortunately, the blokiest of the big departments of state.

Skinner has been bouncing around senior roles in the department for a decade, including critical strategic policy and capability areas, and most recently as deputy secretary of Defence People Group. She has also been responsible for policy co-ordination across all Defence and Australian Intelligence Community issues at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and at one point was the Australian Signals Directorate’s representative to the National Security Agency in Washington.

The other top level executives are Defence’s chief scientist Dr Alex Zelinsky and its chief of capability Kim Gillis, but both are so perfect for their specialist roles it’s unlikely the government would want them in any other position.

The externals: a brigadier, a shark and a dark horse or two

A government in panic will sometimes recall a retired departmental secretary or political confidant to fill the key Defence position. While Turnbull’s government is undoubtedly in trouble, such a backward-looking appointment is unlikely so soon after a forward-looking restructure. One Defence, resulting from the recent First Principles Review, is the latest in a long line of Defence restructures — most of them were abandoned or superseded before achieving their aims. There’s a strong desire this time for history not to repeat itself.

The other well-trod path for the prized job is from other departments in the national security and intelligence space, such as PM&C, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Immigration and Border Protection, the Attorney-General’s Department, and especially ASIO. The present top spy, Duncan Lewis, was a once Major General and later secretary of Defence, but isn’t likely to be asked back.

One name previously cited often in speculation was Jane Halton, then head of Finance, who made many gestures of solidarity and collaboration with Defence during her time in the central administrative portfolio. However, The Mandarin understands Halton was informed before her resignation last year that the gig would not be hers.

Unusually the media has focused on a departmental secretary outside the obvious portfolios: Kathryn Campbell, from Human Services, has been seen as a top contender ever since her friend and former minister Marise Payne was appointed Defence Minister. A good relationship between MinDef and SecDef is considered essential for ensuring proper balance in the diarchy. Unlike all other portfolios with a uniformed workforce, the military Chief of the Defence Force and the civilian secretary of the department hold equal rank in Defence and are jointly responsible for leading the portfolio.

Campbell’s association with Defence dates back to the late 1980s when she enlisted in the Australian Army. Parallel to her successful public service career, Campbell has remained in the Australian Army Reserves reaching the rank of Brigadier (one star) and has been awarded a Conspicuous Service Cross. Her military service captured attention when she took three months unpaid leave from Human Services to serve as Deputy Commander, Joint Task Force 633 in Kabul. With far less fanfare, she also commands 5th Brigade, a combined arms formation of the reserves based in New South Wales, an association she has kept since her days in the Sydney University Regiment.

At the height of the media attention, Campbell gave this wonderful quote that exemplifies Defence’s cultural problem that became the focus of its One Defence restructure: “Some public servants might say I’m a bit too directive because I’m in the army. Military people might say I’m a bit too consultative because I’m in the public service. I think I’m somewhere in the middle.” She would not be the first who wore green to be given the top civilian role.

While less exciting to the media, her tenure heading the Commonwealth’s largest department of state and her previous senior executives roles with Finance, Administrative Services and Defence are her stronger qualification for the top role than her military service. However, the controversy over the so-called ‘robodebt’ implementation at Centrelink has dampened talk of further elevation.

Another former head of Defence strategy, Michael Pezzullo, remains in the running as a strong contender. Now heading the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, with a structure that looks quite similar to Defence’s diarchy involving the Australian Border Force, Pezzullo began his career at Defence as a graduate. He didn’t stay long initially, and didn’t return until he had already reached the senior ranks of the public service with a stint in PM&C and as a political advisor to Labor ministers. He later ran Customs and led significant reform in the agency.

Pezzullo stands apart from most of his peers in being perhaps the most expressive of his thoughts on leadership and culture. Known for his love of writing and briefs that are ‘rich with verbs’, Pezzullo has a disdain for rules and templates at the expense of ideas.

Although his radical clamp-down at Immigration has been seen as contrary to Australian values and open government, his implementation of government border policy has won him acclaim on the hill. Meanwhile, if international airports are less painful than they used to be, it’s Pezzullo’s vision that can be thanked for that — a rare example of a smooth digital transformation in government, even more impressive that it occurred during a period of extreme internal reorganisation.

Pezzullo’s predecessor at Immigration, Martin Bowles, has been suggested by some as candidate outside the usual suspects — but it’s not really so surprising to see his name in the list. Now heading the Health department, Bowles is another deputy secretary alumnus of Defence, albeit without as much strategy experience as most others in the running.

Another departmental secretary that hasn’t been mentioned, but perhaps should be, is Glenys Beauchamp. The current head of the Industry portfolio, who previously worked for Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne, has the nous when it comes to working with and building the supply side. The government has taken a keen interest in promoting Defence industry, as demonstrated by the Defence Industry Policy Statement.

Finally, from those now outside the APS altogether, only Peter Jennings, head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has been mentioned of late. Another former deputy secretary for strategy, Jennings has been involved in the development of several Defence white papers, including the latest, and held Defence and strategic advisor roles during the Howard government.

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