The Abbott Government got to work quickly, as it said it would, and my chief interest in it has been in the new administrative arrangements and their consequences. Every government has to organise a mix of responsibilities across its various ministries. The result is always a compromise. It can’t really be otherwise, because so many apparent departmental ‘responsibilities’ these days can also be seen as ‘whole of government’ — ‘education’, for example, involves a great variety of other activities that are administered elsewhere: rural and regional, disadvantaged, health, sport, science, foreign affairs — and of course finance.
So what happens when a new Prime Minister takes office is that he (in this case) and his colleagues want the government set up this way, rather than the way the other mob had it. The new government will have new priorities, so some ‘departments’ are ‘abolished’, which means that the names and letterheads and all that stuff disappear, and in their place come new ones, new protocols, and new secretaries. The new Department of Employment, Education and Training, created in 1987, had 29 different computer systems that came from where the constituent bits of the new organisation had been. It took some years to rationalise it all, and only a year or so later Youth Affairs was added, so DEET became DEETYA. Then Employment was sent elsewhere, and DEETYA became DETYA… And all that happened within the same Prime Ministership.
So what Mr Abbott has done is neither unusual nor untoward. His Minister for environmental things, Greg Hunt, has abolished the Climate Commission, and that was part of the Coalition’s policy, so it was hardly unexpected. Since I thought that some of the Commission’s published work was appalling, I commend his action. It did not surprise me that departing Commissioner Flannery worried about where the Government would get ‘independent advice’ on climate. The assumption that he and his colleagues were independent, let alone that they provided unbiassed advice, indicated just what a one-eyed thing the Climate Commission was. That’s the easy bit of the Coalition’s ‘climate change’ approach; the rest will take more time and more negotiation.
Mr Abbott has served as a Minister for many years, and knows the public service well. There have been been no wholesale sackings. Four of the mandarins are going, however, and the Prime Minister has said nothing about the reasons, and I don’t expect him to say anything, even when pushed. Departmental secretaries have contracts that allow the government of the day to terminate their contracts if the need arises.
There are conventions about it, when the sacking happens after the government has settled in: some discussion goes on between the Minister, the Prime Minister, the unwanted secretary and the head of the Department of PM and Cabinet. A deal is struck, and a change is made, the departing secretary going to a diplomatic appointment or something similar. He or she has a spell away from running a department, but can return, perhaps. One such secretary didn’t like the deal, objected to being displaced, took his case to the High Court, and lost. As I recall it, the Court’s view was that it was sufficient for the minister to want another secretary.
Three of the men who have been displaced include two, Blair Comley and Martin Parkinson, who had a role in the devising of the carbon tax, while Parkinson carried the burden of the inaccurate Treasury forecasts of likely government revenue during his turn at the Treasury wheel. He will stay on until after the first budget of the new Government.
Don Russell worked in Paul Keating’s office, rose to be chief of staff, then went to the US as our Ambassador, then returned to run Keating’s office again in the latter stages of his Government. Russell seems to have been an exemplary secretary, but is said to have stated that he would not wish to hold such an office in a Coalition government. Perhaps the Prime Minister anticipated his decision.
Andrew Metcalfe is another well-respected and senior public servant, who spent some time with Phillip Ruddock when the latter was Minister for Immigration. As I understand it, having had a role in the devising the Howard Government’s policy on how to deal with the boat people he then stated, during the Labor period, that that policy would no longer work. If this is the reason for his displacement it’s a tough call, since secretaries are expected to be loyal to the government of the day, not to the one they last served.
The Gillard Government appointed former Victorian Labor Premier Steve Bracks to the Consul-Generalship in New York. It did so in May, when plainly that Government was going to destruction. He was told within hours of the election result that he would not now be going to Manhattan. Yes, the Consul-Generalship in New york is a plum job, often for one of the boys. Both sides have made that kind of appointment. But to do so as you are on your way out is not at all applaudable.
Otherwise, the changes in personnel are few, and Mr Abbott has not brought in outsiders, like ‘Max the Axe’ (Max Moore-Wilton) of the early Howard period. Nonetheless, I don’t expect that what we have seen in the last day or two is the end of the process of change — it is simply enough to get going. Within a year I think there’ll be further changes in the administrative arrangements, with a consequent change in secretaries. By then we will know much more about the new government’s difficulties in stopping the boats, abolishing the carbon tax and bringing back the budget deficit.