Our man in the press gallery, Hugo Kelly, reports on changes at the top in diplomacy: We reported on 18 October: "DFAT Secretary Ashton Calvert has notified the government that he is taking indefinite sick leave. Word is that he is very ill. Crikey wishes him a speedy recovery."

John Howard called the media together at noon today to confirm our story: "I want to start this news conference by announcing that the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Dr Ashton Calvert, has informed me that he wishes to retire as Secretary of the Department with effect from the 4th of January 2005."

His replacement? Michael L’Estrange, a former Howard advisor whose term as Australia's High Commissioner in the UK expires next month.

The diplomacy dominos are starting to fall. With former Howard Minsiter Richard Alston about to be announced as L'Estrange's replacement in London, what price defence force chief Peter Cosgrove heading to Washington?

Howard quashed that idea: "That General Cosgrove could be going to Washington? What as Ambassador? He is a splendid Chief of the Defence Force, an outstanding Chief of the Defence Force."

L'Estrange is being welcomed in DFAT. He's much more pro-anglo than pro-American and established an excellent reputation with the Blair Government.

Calvert was not a strong people manager and was regarded as "elitist" in the Jesuitical sense - in that he built a young praetorian guard around him who were regarded as being promoted for their ruthlessness and loyalty, rather than their ability.

L'Estrange gets the gig but will Alston go to London

Crikey email - December 2

The PM has formally announced the appointment of Liberal Party veteran Michael L'Estrange as head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in a move that further politicises a once broadly independent public service.

In this wide-ranging press conference, the PM started with this announcement but only chose to highlight the following aspects of L'Estrange's CV:

Michael L’Estrange has had a particularly meritorious period as High Commissioner in London. He’s won wide praise both here and in Great Britain for the work he’s done in further deepening the already very close relationship between Australia and the United Kingdom. He has a lot of previous experience in government including as head of the Cabinet Policy Unit after the election of the Coalition in March of 1996.

Sadly, none of the hacks bothered to ask the obvious question about his Liberal connections. Crikey came across a former major party secretary recently who observed that he would never take a job in the bureaucracy after being in charge of running a political party.

It is one thing to work for a Minister but something else to actually be in charge of the operations of a political party. This is where the appointment of Michael L'Estrange is interesting because, whilst never a state or federal director, he did spend time as Executive Director of the Liberal Party's Menzies Research Centre and a further five years as a senior adviser to successive opposition leaders Andrew Peacock and John Hewson from 1989 through to 1994.

It will make for an interesting list to track what happens to former state and federal directors of the ALP and the Liberal Party. Here are eight names (four Liberal and four Labor) to kick it off and please send your submission to [email protected]:

  • Petro Georgiou: uninspiring Liberal federal backbencher.
  • Gary Gray: millionaire Woodside Petroleum executive.
  • John Lenders: Finance Minister in the Bracks Government.
  • Stephen Loosely: Murdoch columnist and lobbyist for the likes of James Hardie.
  • Grahame Morris: Rupert Murdoch lobbyist and now Jackson Wells Morris spindoctor.
  • Scott Morrison: $350,000 Federal tourism gig.
  • Andrew Robb: Packer lobbyist now in Parliament.
  • Geoff Walsh: lobbyist with Gavin Anderson.
Why Alston lacks credibility

Meanwhile, the rumors continue to swirl about Richard Alston replacing L'Estrange in London and we can only endorse what the UK tech site The Register writes:

The "World's Biggest Luddite" could be getting a cushy job in the UK amid reports that Richard Alston has been fingered for the Aussie post of high commissioner to London.

Although the appointment hasn't been confirmed, reports from Down Under suggest he's being lined up for the job. One colleague described him as a "great guy...[who] did an excellent job as the communications minister".

Which is where El Reg first stumbled across Alston. He's the chap who tried to ban online gambling, attempted to outlaw the forwarding of emails and blamed South Koreans' love of porn for the country's enthusiastic adoption of broadband.

He also managed to blow AU$4m (¡1.6m) on The Department of Communications, IT and the Arts website - a mere AU$3.4m (¡1.4m) over budget.

He also described a non-profit organisation representing Internet users concerned with online freedoms and rights as "the spokespeople of the porn industry" and was embroiled in a row concerning the loan of a swish plasma screen TV from monster telco Telstra.

Still, if we will send our minor celebrities to the Australian jungle for our televisual amusement it's perhaps only fair they retaliate with the Luddite. Fair dinkum.

CRIKEY: And to think the bloke would even consider dumping two recently acquired board seats to scamper off to London. The government should have scotched this one immediately or announced the appointment. Letting it swirl makes it more difficult to justify.