New Heads of Departments in Canberra

Jun 24, 2022

The appointments announced by the Prime Minister on Wednesday 22 June seem mostly sensible, offering the APS a more professional leadership which can both provide strong support for the Government and demonstrate its impartiality in its policy advising and management of programs.

Like the Administrative Arrangements Order, however, it may not have gone far enough and there are legitimate questions about some decisions.

Having the new AAO not take effect until July, and delaying the announcement of secretary appointments until late June, both well after the swearing in of ministers, is unusual. It has meant that new ministers keen to get on with the job have not been able to draw immediately upon the departments and secretaries they will be working with (in most cases) from July. No doubt this has added difficulties for departments trying to support the new ministers.

On the other hand, the delays have allowed a more careful approach to the secretary appointments process, giving the new Secretary of PM&C and the APS Commissioner time to identify possible candidates, consider their capabilities, check their availability, consult the relevant ministers and report to the PM. That report, one hopes, provided strict merit-based recommendations.

Former PM&C secretaries might, however, have felt that such delays, and the separation of the AAO, ministry and secretary decisions, allow individual ministers greater opportunity to press their personal preferences about secretary appointments without sufficient regard for merit.

As I have stated before, the AAO is an improvement on the Morrison arrangement. But it is disappointing in its lack of sufficient alignment between departments and the senior ministry. This makes more difficult establishing close relations between secretaries and the cabinet ministers with prime portfolio responsibilities. I suspect it also made more complicated the process of consultations with ministers required under the Public Service Act before the PM&C Secretary and APS Commissioner provide their report to the PM and he in turn makes his recommendations to the Governor-General.

Had Albanese decided on 17 departments and no more than 20 cabinet ministers, a far better alignment could have been achieved which in turn would have assisted secretaries to build the constructive relationship with their (mostly singular) portfolio ministers that is so important. Maybe the PM can revisit this next year in the light of experience and as he looks to the Government’s longer-term policy agenda.

Returning to the announced appointments, a number are very pleasing:

  • Jan Adams will bring back to DFAT the diplomatic experience and wisdom that Frances Adamson and Peter Varghese showed in the past, ensuring under Penny Wong that diplomacy is given the weight it should in all aspects of international relations;
  • Jenny Wilkinson will strengthen Finance’s policy and financial management capacity drawing on her experience in Treasury in both social and economic policy and her experience as head of the Parliamentary Budget Office;
  • The interesting appointment of Gordon de Brouwer as Secretary for Public Sector Reform confirms the Government’s desire to revisit the Thodey Report recommendations rejected by the Morrison Government (de Brouwer was on the Thodey team). While I remain sceptical about much of the Thodey Report, having Glyn Davis and Gordon de Brouwer as well as Jenny Wilkinson and Peter Woolcott (the APS Commissioner) able to assist Katy Gallagher (Minister for Finance and Minister for the Public Service) suggests public sector reform will attract serious attention.

While Katherine Campbell may be disappointed about losing her secretary position, the Government has in my view been very fair in offering her a role in the Defence portfolio. She is under a cloud over Robodebt but I believe it would have been wrong simply to terminate her appointment ahead of the proposed Royal Commission.

There are nonetheless some questions about the changes.

One question concerns the termination of Simon Atkinson. Like some other secretaries, Atkinson has been a staffer, but on the conservative side. I hope that was not a factor in the termination of his appointment.

I am not convinced that Mike Pezzullo and Brendan Murphy should have been kept in their current roles. Pezzullo is far too strongly linked to an authoritarian approach to the Home Affairs portfolio and seems unlikely to be able to shift towards the focus on immigration and settlement that is so sorely needed now. A different secretary position for him, and a new broom in Home Affairs would have been better. Murphy was a very able Chief Medical Officer but that department now needs a strong policy person to help Mark Butler address the critical but complex policy challenges ahead. Surely Murphy could be found a suitably prestigious position.

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