Since its arrival in office two months ago, the Rudd Government has signed five-year job contracts with two departmental secretaries noted for their enthusiastic links to the Howard administration – Dr Peter Boxall, former head of the Industrial Relations Department, and Mark Paterson, former Secretary of the Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources. It hasn’t gone down well in Canberra, the seat of power. Here’s why.

In the days following Rudd’s victory there was intense speculation around the Manuka coffee houses that Boxall and Paterson would be axed by the incoming socialist administration.

But Prime Minister Kevin Rudd surprised everyone: Boxall, who oversaw the implementation of the hated WorkChoices legislation, was made Secretary of the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism while Paterson, a former head of the bosses’ trade union, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was awarded the newly-created Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.

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What’s angered other Canberra mandarins is the fact that while the two Howard conga-liners have received healthy five-year contracts, many of them haven’t received any advice about the renewal of their terms of engagement, including Treasury Secretary Ken Henry. They’ve simply been told that when their contracts are up, there will be discussions.

Another refugee from the Howard era, Jane “Children Overboard” Halton, has retained her job as Secretary of Health and Ageing, a position she assumed after Howard’s infamous 2001 election victory. But for how long?

Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon has hired Mick Reid, a former director-general of the NSW Health Department and a brother of Elizabeth Reid who was Gough Whitlam’s women’s adviser in 1973 at the age of 31, as her chief of staff.

Insiders say that La Halton’s first meetings with Roxon have been tense, with the Minister obliged to lay down the law on just who is running the nation’s health agenda.

Then there’s old Bill Farmer, the Secretary of the Department of Immigration during the 2001 asylum-seeker election who was subsequently posted to Jakarta. The Rudd Government has announced that Farmer will be staying in his diplomatic post, thereby snubbing the ambitions of any number of career diplomats.

Rudd seems to believe that by tip-toeing cautiously and confirming all senior bureaucrats, whatever their ideological positions, in their jobs he is being clever, eminently reasonable and not rocking the boat. Certainly, it is a different approach to John Howard’s: after his 1996 victory Howard conducted an ethnic cleansing operation of almost anyone with a Hawke/Keating taint.

The trouble is that the public service is an organic instrument of public administration which has been straining for 11 years against the conservatism, stuffiness, stupidity and wastefulness of the Howard era and its best and brightest must be now given their head if Labor is to make the dramatic changes that the electors voted for.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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