APS in de facto caretaker mode as speculation swirls over secretaries

By Verona Burgess

Wednesday August 22, 2018

A Dutton government could shake the earth under the APS given his right-wing ideology; a Morrison or other middle-of-the-road challenger’s government less so, says Verona Burgess.

Once more, the Australian Public Service enters a de facto caretaker mode as another government tears itself apart.

Tawdry doesn’t begin to describe it.

With major policy vacuums now occurring in energy, tax, education and a slew of other areas, government is heading for a prolonged holding pattern (pattern being a generous description), whatever happens to Malcolm Turnbull, as early as today.

This means the public service will be effectively running the country for the next couple of months at least, even if an early election does not eventuate. If an early election is called, then don’t expect much truly substantial policy development until the new year.

At the time of writing, Turnbull is almost history, the pretender Peter Dutton is on the nose everywhere except Queensland, a compromise candidate has yet to be firmed up (though the money seems to be on Treasurer Scott Morrison), and Bill Shorten is chortling. But a day is a long time in politics.

A Dutton government, however short-lived, could shake the earth under the APS given his right-wing ideology; a Morrison or other middle-of-the-road challenger’s government less so.

All eyes on two top secretaries

As Tom Burton has suggested, in a Dutton government eyes would first turn to the secretaries of the departments of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, and Home Affairs, Michael Pezzullo.

Michael Pezzullo

Whether Dutton would take Pezzullo with him and remove Parkinson (pictured above) is the big question. If he picked someone else for PM&C, Pezzullo might at last get the nod for Defence.

It is convention for the secretary of PM&C to offer his (or her, but there hasn’t been one yet) resignation to an incoming prime minister after an election or, these days more commonly, a coup. Usually, they stay on for a few months or so to help settle in the new lot before departing politely, making way for the new PM’s personal choice.

With Dutton as PM, that period of grace would be unlikely for Parkinson, since puppet-master Tony Abbott originally sacked him from Treasury, apparently for the perceived sin of believing in climate change or at least for having administered the then climate change department.

Under the Public Service Act, it is the prime minister, not the portfolio ministers (who don’t even have to be consulted) who decides on secretarial appointments.

Either way, the review of the APS being chaired by David Thodey might run out of puff or become quite a different beast, since it was largely a Parkinson initiative.”

With a middle candidate, Parkinson’s future is less certain. Morrison or another dark horse might (wisely) opt for a transition period for the sake of stable administration.

Either way, the review of the APS being chaired by David Thodey might run out of puff or become quite a different beast, since it was largely a Parkinson initiative.

Whether Parkinson’s spouse, Heather Smith, would survive as Industry secretary is another issue, even though the pair being married should have no bearing.

The Industry minister’s job is currently being seat-warmed by Michaelia Cash, who is running both it and the Jobs department in a super-portfolio while Arthur Sinodinos is being treated for cancer.

Splitting that super-portfolio back into its two parts would be sensible, whoever is PM,  and relatively easy, but this is hardly the time for major machinery of government changes.

Riddle over Treasury’s new man

Meanwhile, the new Treasury secretary Phil Gaetjens, who only started on August 1, might be rubbing his hands with glee – or else wondering whether he would have been better off sticking to the appointment as ambassador to the OECD in Paris that had been announced less than a month before his sudden elevation to Treasury.

Phil Gaetjens

Gaetjens is, of course, a former long-term Liberal staffer as well as a former Treasury official, but his political associations are on the damper side of the party as a former chief of staff to Peter Costello and Morrison and a secretary to the NSW Treasury under two wet premiers, Barry O’Farrell and Mike Baird.

Realistically, Gaetjens, unless elevated to PM&C under Morrison, would probably stay put at Treasury – at least until the election when, in the event of a Labor win, Chris Bowen would probably get rid of him.

A Tony Abbott Defence ministry might put a question mark over the tenure of secretary Greg Moriarty, a career diplomat who was appointed straight out of Turnbull’s office in 2017 after a short stint as chief of staff.

Greg Hunt, expected to be Dutton’s running mate according to those in the know, is said to want Foreign Affairs.

Foreign Affairs secretary Frances Adamson was also appointed straight out of Turnbull’s office after a short stint there as international adviser, but she was a shoo-in for the job anyway, and it’s hard to imagine her being removed by anyone with any brains.

Were Dutton to put a hard-right climate change denier into Environment, there might be uncertainty over the future of secretary Finn Pratt (who, by the way, is an excellent career public servant) given his role as secretary in advising on the effectively imploded National Energy Guarantee.

Whoever goes into Education, if that minister changes, might also want someone new given the row over Catholic school funding.

The best thing that any incoming prime minister can do is to keep all the secretaries in place until the government settles down. Not, of course, that that’s any guide.

Recently departed Treasury secretary John Fraser must be glad he’s left it all behind.  Guess he knew what he was doing.

You would not blame any department secretaries who decided that they just didn’t want to keep working for such dreadful people. But someone has to keep the show on the road, and that’s the job of the APS.

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