Campbell’s AUKUS appointment was probably justified

Jul 30, 2023
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Secretary Kathryn Campbell during Senate Estimates at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, February 16, 2022. Image:AAP /Mick Tsikas

Criticism of Kathryn Campbell’s appointment a year ago to a $900,000 a year job to assist with implementation of the AUKUS agreement is mostly based on hindsight following the adverse comments about her performance in DHS and DSS by the Robodebt Royal Commission. To be fair to those who made that decision, it is important to disentangle the different issues involved and to consider what information was available to them at the time.

The new Albanese Government was committed to establish the Royal Commission. It had also made firm commitments to strengthen the public service and its professional independence. There were certainly serious questions around about Campbell’s performance in DHS and DSS, and about her suitability to head DFAT, but terminating her employment in the APS a year ago would undoubtedly have led to accusations by the now Opposition of political interference and hypocrisy. In the absence of clear independent evidence of misbehaviour or mismanagement at that time, it is understandable that those advising the new Prime Minister would look to find Campbell a job that her experience suggested she could undertake successfully; and it needed to be one that did not involve her in any matter that might be related to the issues the Royal Commission was to investigate. To do otherwise could have been seen as sub judice ahead of the Royal Commission.

The approach taken was consistent with the Thodey Report recommendations for constraining political decisions on secretary appointments and terminations, going further towards the model I prefer that displaced secretaries be found other positions of a similar seniority so far as is feasible, so long as there is no evidence of poor performance in meeting responsibilities.

That said, there were questions about Campbell’s performance arising from previous inquiries, but it highly doubtful that Campbell and other secretaries were subject to sufficiently robust performance assessment through the framework that exists under the Public Service Act. The Royal Commissioner endorses a number of Thodey Report recommendations including ‘that the PM&C Secretary and APS Commissioner undertake robust and comprehensive performance management of secretaries’. Given the successive appointments of Campbell from DHS to DSS and then to DFAT, it seems unlikely that the then PM&C Secretary and APS Commissioner gave the then Prime Minister frank and well informed advice on her management performance (though it is of course possible that he received such advice and rejected it). Accordingly, it is unlikely that Davis and Woolcott had sufficient non-partisan evidence last year to advise formally that Campbell should not be found a new position, thus providing the Prime Minister with justification of her termination consistent with the merit processes he had been espousing.

An argument could be mounted that Campbell should have been suspended without pay as the Royal Commission’s Hearings revealed evidence of poor behaviour, but that too would have raised concerns about sub judice ahead of the final report. Some may argue that such concerns are in sharp contrast with how welfare recipients were treated under Robodebt, but extending that injustice to Campbell would only reveal willingness to suspend procedural fairness from time to time. Another possible option would have been suspension with pay pending the final report, but even that would have been controversial, drawing the APS Commissioner and Defence Secretary into Robodebt-related issues ahead of the Royal Commission’s Report.

A separate issue is Campbell’s $900,000 pay. No doubt that eye-watering amount is a major contributor to complaints about her privileged treatment. Frankly, as I have argued previously, the Remuneration Tribunal has been far too generous in its determinations of secretaries’ pay. The market comparisons it used to justify the big increases a decade ago, that have been largely maintained ever since, were entirely spurious. Moreover, as the Thodey approach to constrain terminations and to strengthen merit processes for secretary appointments is being pursued, the 20% increase in remuneration provided in 1994 for loss of tenure should be reconsidered. Something along the lines of the Thodey approach to appointments and terminations, explicitly endorsed by the Royal Commission, needs to be included in the Public Service Act Amendment Bill now before the Parliament; then the Remuneration Tribunal should be asked to re-examine secretary remuneration.

The decision to suspend Campbell without pay was an appropriate first step following the royal commission’s report and its adverse findings about her. It was announced on Monday that Defence has accepted Campbell’s resignation from the department. But this must now be followed by the investigations the commission seems to have called for into possible breaches of the APS Code of Conduct (and any other possible charges).

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