Turnbull’s new brooms: Woolcott and Mathieson are no apparatchiks

By Verona Burgess

Wednesday August 1, 2018

Both well-regarded, with only short stints in ministerial offices, the recent appointments of Peter Woolcott and Clive Mathieson show Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull still trusts in professionals — even with an election looming.

The new Australian Public Service Commissioner, Peter Woolcott (pictured), is a career public servant with a highly distinguished diplomatic career behind him. He is more than capable of handling the job, even if it is one to which he might not have aspired in his international career.

Woolcott also bears the stamp of coalition governments, having served most recently, albeit briefly, as Malcolm Turnbull’s chief of staff and, during the Howard years, as chief of staff to former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer from 2002 to 2004.

This makes his surprise appointment the fourth in a row that is tinged with blue after Phil Gaetjens to Treasury, Michael Brennan to the Productivity Commission, and Simon Atkinson to Treasury deputy secretary fiscal group.

“Serving three years out of a 37-year career in ministerial offices is more like useful work experience than the path of an ideological foot soldier.”

Both Brennan and Woolcott are statutory officers, which means realistically that an incoming Shorten government would need to work with them. In Woolcott’s case, there should be no problem, not least because he is public service royalty, being Richard Woolcott’s son, and is married to the late Fred Hollows’ daughter Tanya.

The only pity in terms of potential perceptions of bias is that he is coming straight out of the PMO.

Yet, serving three years out of a 37-year career in ministerial offices is more like useful work experience than the path of an ideological foot soldier.

Indeed, his appointment seems more of a personal choice. Turnbull evidently likes to try out senior public servants in his office for a short while; if he trusts them, he moves them out to key professional jobs — think Defence secretary Greg Moriarty and Foreign Affairs secretary Frances Adamson as well as Atkinson.

Insiders were quick to spot, by the way, that the march of Foreign Affairs into the top of the APS continues apace with Moriarty, Adamson and Woolcott all senior alumni.

Besides, career public servants often prefer to return to the APS when an election is looming, especially one that is on a knife-edge at best.

What it all means for the high turnover of Turnbull’s chiefs of staff is another matter, but his elevation of the former editor of The Australian, Clive Mathieson, in the run-up to the election also suggests he places trust above credentials in political bastardry.

Mathieson, who is enormously well regarded (and his departure still lamented) by those who worked for him at The Australian, has just two and a half years’ experience as a ministerial staffer: hardly the classic party apparatchik.

As for Woolcott, the Community and Public Sector Union has given a positive initial response. It marks a much-needed truce for both sides before Woolcott — a highly skilled negotiator not least, ironically, in non-proliferation and arms control — enters the fray of the current bargaining round.

After his high-level negotiating experiences, the business of agency bargaining might seem quite mundane, especially if he takes more of a dispassionate, overwatch approach. We’ll see. What is highly likely, and desirable, is that he does not permit it to become personal.

As well as becoming actively involved in the Thodey review, Woolcott has a great opportunity to strength the commission’s authority and professional oversight of the public service. The job is about far more than agency bargaining.

Let’s hope that as a first cab off the rank he rebuilds the State of the Service Report, which has been dumbed down in the last few years.

But the John Lloyd story is not quite over

John Lloyd departs on August 8 with not one but two complaints still outstanding (at time of writing) under the auspices of the new Merit Protection Commissioner, Linda Waugh. It is an unprecedented situation.

It has been reported that everything must be wrapped up by the time he leaves.

This is based on an exchange between the then-acting merit protection commissioner, Mark Davidson, and Labor Senator Jenny McAllister at the finance and public service committee estimates hearing on June 21:

Senator McALLISTER: If the inquiry proceeds beyond the date of Mr Lloyd’s departure — he’s indicated that he will leave the Public Service in August — is the intention to conclude the inquiry?

Mr Davidson: There is no power to continue the inquiry under the Public Service Act once Mr Lloyd ceases to be the commissioner.

Yet this is a tad problematic, at least ethically.

The Public Service Act 1999 is silent on whether the MP commissioner can continue an inquiry into the APS commissioner once he or she no longer holds that office.

Yet the same clause (Section 50) provides for the MP commissioner to inquire into whether “an APS employee or former APS employee” has breached the code of conduct.

In practice, this rarely happens, but it provides the power to pursue a “former APS employee” who has committed a serious breach of the code of conduct but who resigns before an inquiry takes place and rides into the sunset, retaining an unblemished record, only to pop up elsewhere.

So, what is sauce for the goose is not, it seems, sauce for the gander if the APS commissioner is not technically an “APS employee”. Yet the commissioner, who is appointed by the Governor General under Section 45, only exists because of the Public Service Act. Go figure.

Obviously, the parliament did not contemplate this situation when amending the act to allow the pursuit of former public servants.

Perhaps that is something for the Thodey review to consider. In the meantime, Woolcott is a much-needed new broom.

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