Verona Burgess: grand milestones and renewal for Commonwealth elite

By Verona Burgess

May 3, 2017

The legendary and much-feared former mandarin Sir Lenox Hewitt turns 100 on Sunday, May 7.  He is the oldest surviving former secretary of the then Prime Minister’s Department.

During some 40 years in the public service he served as a deputy secretary in Treasury and ran several departments under the Gorton, McMahon and Whitlam governments during one of the most tumultuous periods in Australian politics.

While now extremely hard of hearing, his formidable brain still powers along. His daughter Patricia, a former Cabinet minister in Tony Blair’s British Labour government, said this week: “Although my father retired from the public service several decades ago, his commitment to public service values is as strong as ever. He keeps up to date with changes in Canberra and has been vocal in his disapproval of some of them – especially the disappearance of ‘permanent’ from ‘secretaries’.”

Hewitt’s birthday will be celebrated on Saturday May 6 in Sydney with a party at which former Prime Minister Paul Keating (whose government, ironically, introduced term appointments for secretaries in return for a pay hike) will propose the toast.

Headline names on the 100-strong guest list represent a slice of public service history in the broader sense: former Labor federal ministers John Faulkner and Kate Lundy; former coalition ministers Ian Sinclair and Philip Ruddock; representatives from the business community including Catherine Livingstone; and, from the judiciary, former High Court judge Michael Kirby. Former colleagues include Defence secretary from 1998-99 Paul Barratt, a Hewitt protegé whose sacking by then Defence minister John Moore drew Hewitt’s famous ire in no small measure.

Defence leadership headed for shakeup

More history will be made when another legendary, equally formidable but very different public servant, Defence secretary Dennis Richardson, pulls the pin on 48 years of service on May 12, two days shy of his 70th birthday.

Richardson, a skilled diplomat whose genius for networking puts Telstra to shame, joined the public service in 1969 as a graduate when Hewitt was at the top, running the PM’s department – and when up to 40% of today’s public servants weren’t even born.

Richardson may well be the best head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) that we never had.

Many tributes have already been paid to him but perhaps Defence industry minister Christopher Pyne summed up best with uncharacteristic understatement: ‘Dennis’s frankness and fearlessness in counsel is legendary. I can personally attest to that.’

So can Richardson’s staff. One former division head was ill in hospital when a concerned Richardson arrived, flowers in hand. Afterwards, the curious nurse asked, ‘Who on earth was that man?’

‘My boss, why?’

‘As soon as he came in your blood pressure shot right up!’

Richardson, whose five-year term would have finished in October, is the seventh and longest serving Defence secretary since Tony Ayers retired in 1998. It’s a huge job involving a heavy burden of administration and is not for anyone seeking glamour.

Nevertheless, there is massive competition going on behind the scenes to replace him – it is one of the top three public service jobs.

As reported, the likely short list includes Peter Baxter, Mike Pezzullo and Peter Jennings, amongst others. After the Centrelink robodebt debacle, Human Services secretary Kathryn Campbell may have slid down the list but could replace Pezzullo at Immigration.

Another iteration is that the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, might be prevailed upon to cross the khaki divide once more and become Defence secretary.

Others would prefer him to become Chief of the Defence Force (CDF) if the incumbent, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, retires when his first three years – the usual term for a CDF – are up on June 30.

However, the three-star Commander, Joint Operations Command, Vice-Admiral David Johnston (like Campbell an alumnus of Operation Sovereign Borders), is tipped to succeed Binskin.

The current Vice CDF, Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs, is expected to retire, as is Navy chief Vice-Admiral Tim Barratt, who is otherwise a favourite to replace Griggs.

If Campbell were to move, his replacement might well be another SAS Regiment alumnus, Major General Rick Burr, currently Campbell’s deputy.

Not just Defence likely to see renewal

The only other secretary whose term is officially up this year is Infrastructure’s Mike Mrdak who completes his second term, this one three years, in July. If the highly regarded Mrdak moves on perhaps Blair Comley, who heads the NSW public service, might be invited to return to Canberra armed with his experience of the NSW infrastructure boom under the NSW coalition government.

So far, that’s all about the boys. But if Simon Lewis, who runs Veterans Affairs, were to retire this year or next (when his five-year term is up) he might be replaced by his deputy, former Major General Liz Cosson, bringing to eight out of 18 the number of female secretaries.

We’ll get back to the women another time. Meanwhile, may both Hewitt and Richardson enjoy their birthdays, happily free of the 2017-18 budget.


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