APS leadership turnover set for another jolt — for better or for worse


The high turnover of APS secretaries is expected to continue next year, but a ministerial reshuffle could cut short even more top mandarins’ careers, writes Verona Burgess.

It is two months since former Defence secretary Dennis Richardson retired, leaving a gaping hole in leadership of the Australian Public Service.

Usually the next appointment to Defence is immediate. But the associate secretary, Brendan Sargeant, remains acting in the job while all roads in Canberra point to a Cabinet reshuffle by Christmas — which could directly affect some secretarial positions.

The next election, whether Malcolm Turnbull survives or not, is expected between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019 (the half-Senate rolls over on July 1, 2019).

Further afield, Infrastructure secretary Mike Mrdak’s second term, which finished on July 1, has been extended by just six months, after eight years in the job. Mrdak, now the longest serving secretary of the 18, is an exceptional talent.

No other department secretary’s term is up this year but the turnover has been incredibly high in the last decade  — 31 have resigned, retired or been fired.

Four finish their five-year terms next year: Simon Lewis (Veterans Affairs), Renée Leon (Employment), Gordon de Brouwer (Environment) and Glenys Beauchamp (Industry).

Long delay on Defence keeps reshuffle rumours alive

The money is increasingly on Army chief Angus Campbell becoming the next Chief of the Defence Force when CDF Mark Binskin’s official four-year term ticks over on July 1 next year. On the civilian side, the heavyweight department needs someone with proven skills in big organisational administration — preferably a deeply experienced secretary — as well as a sharp strategic brain. A good ‘EQ’ is more than highly desirable.

If Defence minister Marise Payne, a staunch Turnbull ally, keeps her job, the front runners for secretary are two former Defence deputy secretaries: Martin Bowles (secretary of Health and formerly Immigration) and Peter Jennings (who runs the Defence-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute but has never been a secretary).

Others include two more former Defence deputies, Mike Pezzullo (secretary of Immigration) and Peter Baxter (who under Richardson oversaw the reintegration of the Defence Materiel Organisation and previously ran AusAID).

Then there is former Immigration and Agriculture secretary Andrew Metcalfe, sacked by Abbott with three others after the 2013 election. Metcalfe was a great loss to the public service. He has long national security credentials, including as a former deputy of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and big department management expertise.  He is currently a partner at EY on the agriculture side but was frequently mentioned as a future Defence secretary before his career was rudely interrupted. There is also Sargeant himself.

Political play around the sought-after Defence job is nothing new. If Payne were replaced by the powerful chief warrior of the right, Peter Dutton, he might wish to bring Pezzullo — who would love Defence — with him. However, with Australian Border Force chief Roman Quaedvlieg under a cloud for allegedly misusing his position to find a job for a young woman, Immigration, a truly difficult department, needs stability.

Of course, someone else might get Defence, such as Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne — though he’s currently in the sin bin — and Dutton could get the consolation prize of an expanded Department of Home Security, retaining Pezzullo.

Ministers’ favourites no shoe-in

Under the Public Service Act 1999, secretaries are appointed for an initial five-year term by the governor-general, on advice from the prime minister. Beforehand, the PM receives a report from his department secretary, currently Martin Parkinson (except for a new secretary to PM&C, when the report comes from the Public Service Commissioner, currently John Lloyd). Parkinson must prepare his report after consulting Lloyd and the minister or expected minister. If he and Lloyd disagree, Parkinson must tell Turnbull why.

Parkinson does not have to recommend the minister’s favourite. This is important because ministers, especially new ones, often have no idea what is good for them — and no interest in what is best for the public service.

Naturally, ministers can (and do) bend the PM’s ear. It can be a measure of the strength of the PM as to whether a minister prevails against the PM&C secretary’s professional advice.

However, a wrong pairing can be a disaster. A minister has only to lose trust and confidence in the secretary to trigger a sacking, as the Federal Court determined in the 1999 case of axed Defence secretary Paul Barratt.

But trust and confidence can be a spurious excuse — both the Howard and Abbott nights of the long knives were simple acts of political bastardry.

Still a sore point is the loss of tenure under the Keating government. Although prominent secretaries, including Richardson and former PM&C head Peter Shergold, have insisted they still provided frank and fearless advice, the acid test is when a less powerful secretary knows that telling a minister what he or she does not want to hear will certainly result in being sacked — or not having the appointment renewed.

The tenure horse has long since bolted, but the high turnover — whether in part retribution for unwelcome advice, toxic political whim, too many changes of prime minister, or all three — needs to stop. A weakened public service with unstable leadership would be the worst possible outcome for the nation.

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