It has been an honour: Don Russell's farewell to SA public servants

By David Donaldson

March 22, 2018

Dr Don Russell is now perhaps Australia’s most eligible bureaucrat, following his dismissal by South Australia’s new government on Wednesday.

The Department of Premier and Cabinet chief executive was shown the door, along with three other department heads: Michael Deegan of the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure, Sandy Pitcher of Environment, Water and Natural Resources and Ingrid Haythorpe of the Attorney-General’s Department.

“It has been an honour to lead the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, and before that the Department of State Development,” Russell said in a statement supplied to The Mandarin.

“I have been very proud to have led a team of such talented and dedicated people to the benefit of the people of South Australia.

“In particular our accomplishments with the sale of Techport to the Commonwealth, the implementation of the previous government’s Energy Plan, new incentives for gas exploration, the sale of Arrium, the success of Tonsley, the Northern Economic Plan, the Buthera Agreement with Narungga, success with the data sharing reforms and MySAgov digital licensing and all the good work of the Economic Development Board stand out for me.

“I have enjoyed working with so many talented people in DPC and across the public service in South Australia.”

New challenges

Before moving into the SA public service — though he never actually moved to SA, commuting back to Sydney on the weekends, which earned him the ire of local tabloids — Russell was a man of the Commonwealth.

He was famously an adviser to then-treasurer Paul Keating between 1985 and 1993, before serving two years as ambassador to the United States. In 2011 he was appointed secretary of the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research before being sacked by the incoming Abbott government in 2013.

He started as head of SA’s Department of State Development in mid-2014.

Despite having run a much bigger department previously, Russell was convinced to take up his first role with SA because he saw that much of the genuinely challenging work of contemporary government sits at the state level.

The move to head of DPC just over a year ago put him in charge of South Australia’s largest employer — the public sector.

When he began the role, Russell took the energy portfolio with him into the central agency — an unusual move but one that allowed him to work closely with the premier on what has been a major point of focus for the SA government over the last year. Not only is he well-versed in energy, but bringing the imprimatur of the public service’s top role, as a man who met with the premier every day, meant other agencies would listen when he spoke.

He holds master’s degrees in economics from the ANU and London School of Economics, as well as a PhD from the LSE.

So now Don Russell has the taste for state government, where will he pop up next?

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