The surest way to the top of a Commonwealth government department is to be well regarded by the Prime Minister. Yesterday the PM announced that his international adviser, Nick Warner, will head the Department of Defence when current Secretary Ric Smith retires.

Arguably, it’s a political appointment; in reality, Warner has a wealth of senior public service experience, did an outstanding job in setting up the RAMSI mission to the Solomon Islands, and in past administrations could well have been slated for a top job anyway. But being in the PM’s Office will not have hurt. Both the previous advisers in this particular role, Peter Varghese and Paul O’Sullivan, have gone to head key security agencies (Office of National Assessments and ASIO).

The top of Australia’s security, defence and foreign relations tree is now inhabited by people with whom the Prime Minister has a close personal relationship of trust. One of the most important relationships is that between Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

DFAT is headed by Michael L’Estrange, formerly Howard’s Secretary to Cabinet and head of the Cabinet Policy Unit, and someone who’d been with the liberals in opposition before. It shows the priority Howard attaches to the international security issues – and that he wants to know, personally, the people advising him on them.

The top levels of the public service are increasingly filled by people with the trust of the Prime Minister. What the government is looking for in senior jobs is not necessarily Coalition party members but what former PM department secretary Max Moore-Wilton called “alignment”.

It’s not party politics so much as just having come to the favourable attention of the PM or his office. So there is a trend for Deputies out of the Prime Minister’s department to be appointed as Secretaries elsewhere (Ian Watt, Finance; Jane Halton, Health; Patricia Scott, Human Services; Andrew Metcalfe, Immigration).

Senior public servants do have a variety of ways to demonstrate that they are ‘aligned’ – not only being noticed by the PMO or having overt political allegiances, but also implementing government policies effectively and making Ministers look good.

Dr. Peter Boxall (now at Employment, appointed to Finance out of the Treasurer’s office) and Mark Paterson (appointed to head the Industry department from a position of CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry) are political appointees in one sense – but also all by accounts can capably run a department.

It’s worth recalling that it was the Keating government that abolished the previous system where Secretary appointments were considered by a broader committee in favour of the current practice where they are made solely by the Prime Minister on the advice of his department head. Howard was never going to turn that clock back.