Twice in the past week Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has blindsided his Attorney-General Robert McClelland and made hugely important legal appointments.
First, he brushed aside the candidacy of NSW Chief Justice Jim Spigelman to appoint Federal Court judge Robert French who stood as a Liberal candidate against Kim Beazley Snr in the seat of Swan at the 1969 federal election at the age of 22.
Now he has chosen Roger Wilkins, a handpicked senior official of the Liberal Greiner Government, as head of the Attorney-General’s Department.
Both start in their new jobs on September 1.
The Wilkins appointment promises to be the most interesting. When Bob Carr came to office in 1995, he didn’t remove Wilkins as director-general of the Cabinet Office and appoint a Labor administrator – he kept him on.
Indeed, throughout Carr’s record-breaking 10 years in office, Wilkins was his right-hand man managing the Cabinet Office and later he was given the job of running the Arts Department as well.
While the Director-General of the Premier’s Department, Col Gellatly, took charge of crisis management and strategy, Wilkins was Carr’s man whose chief responsibility was to roll out Carr’s plans and outmanoeuvre any opposition.
A former minister told Crikey: “Ministers feared Wilkins but they respected Gellatly.”
The fear appears to be based on Wilkins’s studied aloofness, his intellectual snobbery and his ability to put down opponents with withering commentary.
When the Iemma forces took over in 2005, Gellatly and Wilkins both left, Wilkins to take a highly-paid position with Citigroup as head of its Government and the Public Sector Group for Australia and New Zealand.
After the Rudd Government was elected last November, Wilkins was called into service to leading a strategic review of the government’s climate change policies.
But the friendship between Rudd and Wilkins goes back a long way. When Wayne Goss was elected Queensland premier in 1989, Rudd served as his chief of staff and then became Director-General of the Cabinet Office until the government was defeated in 1995.
Rudd’s opposite number in the NSW Liberal government was Wilkins and they quickly realised that they had much in common and a firm friendship resulted.
When Goss left office in February 1996, strenuous behind-the-scenes efforts were made to find Rudd a job in the NSW bureaucracy because he was already considered a “chosen one” by the right-wing machine in Brisbane and Sydney. It failed.
Wilkins who is permanently attired in a bowtie – according to friends he has more bow ties than Imelda Marcos had shoes – is married to the Sydney public relations operative Sue Cato, who was previously married to Liberal man-about-town Ian Kortlang.
Wilkins, who is a keen student of the German philosopher Nietschke, will make a perfect match with the Rudd who is determined to change the culture of the Canberra mandarins from cautious cynicism to intellectual meritocracy.
As one of the two most senior bureaucrats in NSW throughout the Carr administration and the first year of Iemma, Wilkins has a lot to answer for.