Departmental secretaries: how the pecking order really works

By Harley Dennett

November 13, 2017

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with the APS secretaries.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with the APS secretaries. Source: IPAA ACT

Don’t look to the official order of precedence to find out who really ranks among Australia’s heads of departments.

Several times a year the little book of names that includes politicians, judges and generals, bishops and bureaucrats is updated for overly eager young aides-de-camp and protocol officers.

But it’s to Australia’s great credit that just about the only time the Commonwealth Table of Precedence is adhered to is when the Queen is in earshot.

In practice, Australia’s dignitaries walk into state functions in whatever order they arrive. Even in the High Court, one this country’s last vestiges of precedence protocol, if the Governor General’s car is ‘disastrously’ late, or early — as happened at the farewell for outgoing Chief Justice Robert French — the Vice-Regal heels do not cool waiting for the First Law Officer to scramble in first.

This is most noticeable when spending time in the home of the Westminster system, where the British class system and generous honours and knighthoods mean nearly everyone in Whitehall knows exactly who ranks higher, and who shouldn’t even think of cutting line before them.

Enter the great (in)equaliser: the Rem Tribunal…

If official precedence is irrelevant in modern Australia, how do senior departmental secretaries know their internal pecking order?

Salary is the only universal measure of importance among horizontal ‘equals’ in the modern workplace, and the Australian Public Service’s top tier is no exception. The “Departmental Secretaries – Classification Structure and Terms and Conditions” determination from the Remuneration Tribunal in June this year set out a new hierarchy that raised some departmental secretaries and lowered others.

The winners

At a practical level, all 19 departmental secretaries got an incremental payrise far above those of the rank and file APS employees, so they’re all winners, although some clearly more than others.

Foreign Affairs and Trade — was held by Peter Varghese and now by Frances Adamson — bumped up from Tier 1.2 into 1.1 and with it comes a salary bonus of ~$30K.

Infrastructure and Regional Development — was held by Mike Mrdak at the time and now by Dr Stephen Kennedy — bumped up a band from Tier 2.3 to 2.2 and a ~$20K salary bonus.

Industry, Innovation and Science — was held by Glenys Beauchamp and now by Dr Heather Smith — bumped up a symbolic tier from Tier 2.1 to 1.3 but comes with no bonus in salary.

The rest

Defence — was held by Dennis Richardson and now by Greg Moriarty — was always in the top tier along with the secretaries of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (Dr Martin Parkinson) and Treasury (John Fraser). But now the Secretary of Defence (SECDEF) is instead paired with their partner in the diarchy: the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF). Air Chief Marshall Mark Binskin and Moriarty are on both on more than $800K so they’re not doing it tough.

When the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-era mega department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations was split up, it went from being a Tier 1.1 alongside Finance (Rosemary Huxtable) and Health (Glenys Beauchamp), to Tier 2.1 for Education (Dr Michele Bruniges) and Tier 2.2 for Employment (Kerri Hartland).

The new pecking order

Level Pay point 1 July 2017 Department
Level 1A $878,940 (salary:$615,258) Prime Minister and Cabinet
Level 1B $857,630 (salary: $600,341) Treasury
Level 1 1 $831,000 (salary: $581,700) Defence; Foreign Affairs and Trade
2 $788,380 (salary: $551,866) Finance; Health and Ageing
3 $745,770 (salary: $522,039) Social Services; Industry, Innovation and Science; Human Services
Level 2 1 $745,770 (salary: $522,0399 Attorney-General’s; Education and Training; Immigration and Border Protection
2 $719,140 (salary: $503,398) Agriculture and Water Resources; Employment; Communications and the Arts; Environment; Infrastructure and Regional Development
3 $692,500 (salary: $484,750) Veterans’ Affairs

From this perspective is becomes clearer who the real winners and losers were in the recent reshuffle of departmental secretaries that saw some rise several tiers (with questionable runs on the board to justify such a promotion) and others sink.

Top photo: Only 12 months ago, but how many faces have changed. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with last year’s APS secretaries. Source: IPAA ACT

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