When a former practitioner of the dark arts of spin with a criminal past becomes chief of Australia’s largest stand alone organisation, it was inevitable that the spinners would be on overtime.

Following the recent NSW election, newly appointed Education Minister (and former NSW ALP General Secretary) John Della Bosca appointed as Education Director-General, Michael Coutts-Trotter, the Director General of Commerce and one time press sec and Chief of Staff to former NSW Treasurer Michael Egan.

As a teenager in the 1980s, Coutts-Trotter served three and a half years of a nine year sentence for heroin distribution. Fortunately for him the controversy engineered by the re-emergence of that story swamped any meaningful discussion of his manifest lack of sufficient qualifications or experience to manage the Education portfolio.

The Education budget is $10.7 billion, and accounts for a quarter of the NSW government accounts.

Coutts-Trotter cites his leadership of the Department of Commerce as standing for his new role. Commerce was established three years ago as an amalgamation of a number of disparate agencies, which still operate as relatively distinct entities, with their own Deputy Directors-General.

The performance statements in the last Commerce Annual Report are instructive. While the Departmental deputies variously report achievements such as cost savings of $595 million in procurement or management of a $500 million program of works, one of Coutts-Trotter’s highlights for 2005-06 was him “supporting, encouraging, directing and, very occasionally, correcting, other staff of Commerce.”

Left unexamined in the controversy is why Della Bosca took the risk of appointing Coutts-Trotter. Eyebrows were raised at the highest levels of the Government when Della Bosca insisted that he would only take on Education if he could have Coutts-Trotter as Department head.

Surprisingly, as one of the Government’s most senior Ministers, Della Bosca has up to now avoided taking on any of the heavy hitting portfolios such as health, transport, police or education. He had to be prevailed upon by Premier Morris Iemma to now take the step up to one of the major departments.

That ministers have their favourites they take from portfolio to portfolio is nothing new. In fact, the man Coutts-Trotter replaces, Andrew Cappie-Wood, was installed by former Minister, Andrew Refshauge, after service in Refshauge’s previous portfolios of Housing and Planning. But then, Cappie-Wood had managed major departments in a 20-odd year long career.

What is astonishing is Della Bosca’s lack of confidence in his own ability to run Education that he needs the comfort zone created by bringing along Coutts-Trotter to a role for which he simply is unsuited.