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Beware the axe: stability is good, but loyalty is better for some incoming ministers

Would a Shorten Labor government bring another night of the long knives? Some executives could be seen as turn-coats, but there’s reason to think wiser heads will prevail, writes Verona Burgess.

With the appointment of Elizabeth Cosson as the next secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has not only hit a milestone worth celebrating – equal numbers of women and men at the top of the Australian Public Service – but has also, probably by default, planted a test for the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten.

Simon Lewis, whose five-year appointment as DVA secretary finishes when Cosson takes up the job on May 18, is the last of the secretaries still occupying the position to which he was appointed under the former Labor government.

Five others reached the top during the Rudd/Gillard years, but not in their current jobs.

The secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, was appointed by Kevin Rudd to the then Climate Change department in December 2007; by Julia Gillard to Treasury in March, 2011; was sacked by Tony Abbott, leaving in mid-2014, and brought back by Turnbull to PM&C in January 2016.

Communications and the Arts secretary Mike Mrdak was appointed by Rudd to Infrastructure and Transport in July, 2009; Social Services secretary Kathryn Campbell by Gillard to Human Services in March, 2011; Health secretary Glenys Beauchamp by Gillard to the then Regional Services department in December, 2010; and Environment secretary Finn Pratt by Gillard to Social Services in April, 2011.

The latter four – Mrdak, Campbell, Beauchamp and Pratt – all took up their current positions in Turnbull’s reshuffle of secretaries on September 18 last year.

After Lewis, no secretaries’ five-year terms run out in the near future. The next is Chris Moraitis, at Attorney-General’s, in September 2019. John Fraser, at Treasury, is up next in January 2020.

This means that if Shorten were to win the next election – either late this year or before July 1 next year to keep the Senate in sync with the House of Reps – he would have to decide what approach to take to his mandarins, in the absence of a convenient and timely bout of natural attrition.



A shaky record for tossing our mandarins

Although state Labor governments are, just as much as state Coalition governments, in the swing of frequently tossing out their mandarins, often on what looks like a whim, federal Labor has, on the whole, taken a much more traditional line.

Rudd upheld his promise before the 2007 election that there would be no nights of the long or short knives. He kept the whole lot on, including a few coalition favourites, letting natural attrition and judicious job offers take their course over time.

This was just as well from the point of view of stable government, especially given the political and administrative turmoil that developed under his prime ministership.

Julia Gillard largely followed suit, appointing only one long-term Labor favourite from outside – Don Russell – to Industry (Abbott then sacked him during his night of the short knives on September 18, 2013).

Ironically, the current senior office holder who is perceived as most politically loaded is also one of the most pivotal to the wellbeing of the APS: the Public Service Commissioner, John Lloyd. Anathema to both Labor and the unions, Lloyd is a statutory officer whose five-year term won’t be up until December, 2019. Given the Roman Quaedvlieg affair, nobody needs reminding how hard it can be to remove an unwanted statutory officer.

The next most controversial might be Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo. He worked for both Labor foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans and for Labor Opposition leader Kim Beazley before returning to the public service, going on to write the 2009 Defence white paper in the Defence department during the Rudd era.

So you might assume Labor considers Pezzullo one of ‘theirs’ – that is, unfortunately, how politicians tend to think of senior public servants.

But given his enthusiastic support for implementing the coalition’s immigration and border policies that have been used so often to taunt and wedge Labor, this may no longer be the case. Incoming governments can take a dim view of public servants whom they perceive, usually wrongly, of having become ‘turncoats’.



Shorten’s positive bipartisan support for this week’s announcement that the Chief of Army, Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, would – as expected – become the next Chief of the Defence Force is a sign that he is prepared to back good coalition appointments.

The new (all male, as usual) Defence leadership, that takes its place in July, also marks the full ascension of Special Air Service Regiment alumni. Campbell is a former officer of SASR and the incoming Chief of Army, Major-General Rick Burr, a former commanding officer of SASR. Both are steeped in the arts of reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, stealth, daring and the use of controlled, minimal force to achieve maximum impact.

Shorten would be under pressure to maintain gender parity at the top of the public service if, as the polls continue to suggest, he won government. The women are now of a critical mass that could, down the track, provide the first female secretary of PM&C, with Foreign Affairs secretary Frances Adamson an obvious potential ‘next-gen’ pick. Treasury and Defence might be harder to crack.

Wise incoming governments don’t make wholesale, dramatic changes to administrative arrangements and top appointments to start with, nor sack department secretaries in misplaced, vicious vendettas. They work with what and whom they are given until they learn what more they need to do to get their policies implemented. This is not a utopian fantasy. It can, and should, happen.

Verona Burgess’s column will not appear next week due to Anzac Day, but will be back in The Mandarin in May.

Author Bio

Verona Burgess

Verona Burgess is a former Government Business Editor and senior columnist for the Australian Financial Review. She has been writing about the Australian Public Service since 1990. A former Jefferson Fellow, she was also joint winner of the inaugural Richard Baker Senate prize and won a Walkley award with The Canberra Times for team coverage of the 2003 Canberra bushfires.