Unruffled: the new order of APS leadership keeps calm in eye of the storm

By Verona Burgess

November 2, 2017

It might seem an aeon ago already, but it was only last week that the Senate supplementary estimates committees blew in and out again, almost taking Employment minister Michaelia Cash’s ministerial scalp with them.

Then there was the High Court’s application of its own black-letter blow-torch last Friday to blast out five of the ‘citizenship seven’ along with the government’s majority – with Senate president Stephen Parry falling on his sword this week and surely more to fess up or be winkled out.

In the eye of the storm, department secretaries in the new order of ‘who’s who in the zoo’ at the top of the public service were quietly taking their places in front of the eight senate committees, after Malcolm Turnbull’s September 17 reshuffle of mandarins.

It must have been a baptism by fire for new Employment secretary Kerri Hartland when all hell broke loose around Cash on Wednesday in relation to her staffer’s tip-off to media on Monday about the imminent police raids on the Australian Workers Union.

But Hartland, ever the professional, managed to look like an unruffled observer –  thankfully for her, it was not a departmental matter.

“What did Mr Mrdak do to get the NBN, or something? What was going on there? — Senator Barry O’Sullivan”

The reshuffle of secretaries has already had consequences further down the tree in some departments, with more likely to come as various deputy secretaries take stock of their prospects under their new bosses.

First up was the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, where economic deputy secretary David Gruen took the lead before the finance and public administration committee, replacing Elizabeth Kelly, who has been fronting at estimates as deputy secretary, governance for the last few years.

Kelly is off to the Industry department as a new deputy secretary, where she is working for another newly moved secretary, Heather Smith.

Replacing her at PM&C, Gruen explained, will be Stephanie Foster, who appeared later on the same day for the last time in her role as the deputy Public Service Commissioner.

Warrior in residence

Meanwhile the Public Service Commissioner, John Lloyd, is evidently going nowhere (his statutory term is not up until December, 2019) but he faced a barrage of questions from Opposition senators, primarily in relation to two things.

One was an email exchange, released under Freedom of Information, between himself and someone in the right-wing think tank the Institute of Public Affairs; the other was his role in agreeing to Cash’s request to have a chat with the now former statutory head of the reborn Australian Building and Construction Commission, Nigel Hadgkiss and advise that he resign (which he then did) after he admitted breaching the Fair Work Act in his previous job.

If there is any senior official in Labor’s sights it might well be Lloyd, who has never made a secret of his continuing membership of both the IPA and the right-wing HR Nicholls Society but has always maintained that those links, and his own employment history, have no detrimental effect on his impartial conduct as commissioner.

Foster sat by quietly, perhaps privately thanking her lucky stars that she’d be out of there before the next election.

On another note, Annwyn Godwin made her last appearance as Merit Protection Commissioner of both the public service and the parliament while Jenny Wilkinson made her first as the new Parliamentary Budget Officer, replacing Phil Bowen.

Back at PM&C, Gruen explained that Yael Cass was acting as deputy secretary, governance; HK Yu was acting deputy secretary, national intelligence while Allan McKinnon works on establishing the new Office of National Intelligence and the Home Affairs portfolio; and Mary Wiley-Smith was acting deputy secretary of innovation and transformation after Steven Kennedy’s promotion to become the new secretary of Infrastructure and Regional Development.

In turn, Kennedy made his first appearance before the rural and regional affairs and transport committee along with his (now suddenly former) regional affairs minister, Fiona Nash.

Everyone paid glowing tributes to Mike Mrdak ­– who has moved to Communications but was absent during estimates – and the chairman, Nationals senator Barry O’Sullivan, asked, “What did Mr Mrdak do to get the NBN, or something? What was going on there?”

Liberal Senator Eric Abetz: “Clearly did something wrong!”

Kathryn Campbell – who has been replaced at Human Services by Renée Leon but stays in the same committee, community affairs – has inherited a stable group of deputies at Social Services from the highly regarded Finn Pratt, who now has the happy job of helping solve the energy conundrum at Environment after the resignation of Gordon de Brouwer.

New Defence secretary Greg Moriarty also inherits a stable leadership group for now, as does Glenys Beauchamp at Health while acting deputy secretaries were sprinkled over several other departments including Infrastructure, Immigration and Attorney-General’s.

Decentralisation delayed

By way of a postscript, there was also a small but interesting update on the now-departed Nash’s infamous public service decentralisation policy.  Surprise, surprise: there’s been ‘slippage’ in the time-table – the agency business cases that were due to be finished in December, are now expected early next year, although none have been done yet. The business-case template, developed by Finance, is ready to go, according to officials, but alas, it isn’t a public document.

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