Few are the public servants who can speak their minds, even in as guarded a fashion as Ken Henry did earlier this week. Most department heads keep a low profile, even in the world of 24/Kevin where frank’n’fearless advice is encouraged, and in any event their influence heavily depends on their ministers and where they sit in the Prime Minister’s priorities. But who are these people?

Prime Minister and Cabinet, Terry Moran:

Perhaps it’s not surprising that PM&C Secretaries reflect the governments they serve as primus inter pares bureaucratic leaders. Max Moore-Wilton reflected the slash-and-burn attitude of the early Howard years. Peter Shergold was cheerfully emblematic of the wholesale politicisation of the bureaucracy and a willingness to justify whatever means the Coalition employed to stay in power. Hell, Paul Keating even had a Secretary with the same name.

The tradition continues with Terry Moran. Moran’s background is in education and training, having worked in the Commonwealth and State bureaucracies, before becoming Steve Bracks’s head of Premier and Cabinet. The primary intellectual ballast of the Rudd Government has been inherited from the Bracks Government, and is mainly found in Julia Gillard’s office where a number of former top-level Victorian advisers work. Moran has worked to reorganise PM&C to enhance its intellectual and strategic firepower.

Under Howard, it operated mainly as a central clearing house and compiler of ever more complex reporting requirements designed to maximise political control of policy implementation. Rudd has demanded a more strategic approach and, via John Faulkner’s role as Special Minister of State, required work on a whole agenda foreign to PM&C since 1996 — accountability.

Moran has also brought in external talent to PM&C, poaching David Tune from Treasury, Mike Mrdak from Infrastructure (Mrdak has had ‘future Secretary’ written all over from his days as a graduate in the Roads area of Transport), and Ben Rimmer from his former department.

Finance, Ian Watt:

The influence of Finance waxes and wanes with the political cycle. It is at its strongest at the start of a new government, and ebbs from there. The early Howard-Costello budgets were its moment to shine, but in the last years of the previous Government its influence, even with rightwing hardman Nick Minchin in charge, was at a nadir. Whether that cycle repeats under Labor is yet to be seen but having Lindsay Tanner as Minister might yet ensure that fiscal discipline is maintained a bit longer than two or three budgets — assuming, that is, that Tanner doesn’t find his way to Treasury.

Watt received an unexpected promotion from Communications to Finance in 2002, having only recently entered Secretarial ranks. He has a very strong economics background and, like pretty much everyone in Finance, works punishing hours — Finance was working 24/Kevin hours when Rudd was still a backbencher. The challenge for Finance is not just to say “no” to everything, but to identify ways of doing things more efficiently. Watt made a start on this last year when he started looking at internal red tape, but he might be up against it with a Prime Minister as devoted to KPIs and evaluation as this one.

Defence, Nick Warner:

Warner was a late Howard appointment, moving to Defence from John Howard’s office in December 2006. Even though Warner had a strong Foreign Affairs background, he was regarded as a Howard loyalist. Despite being off-limits in terms of budget cuts, Defence was almost permanently in trouble under the Coalition, with the sacking of Paul Barrett, the children overboard affair under Allan Hawke and the continuing problems of Defence’s budget under Ric Smith.

However, Warner had a small triumph earlier this month when he was able to provide the first unqualified set of Defence accounts since 2000. The biggest problem in Defence is always keeping control of the money, and Warner, while doubtless building on previous work, has succeeded where other highly-talented people have not.

Family and Community Services, Jeff Harmer:

Harmer has worked extensively in social policy and became Education Secretary in 2003 before moving to Family and Community Services in 2004. He’s the other half — the quiet half — of the Henry Review, working on the politically more sensitive issue of transfer payments and, of course, pensions.

What he and Henry — with the help of Greg Smith, John Piggott and the inevitable Heather Ridout — cook up on pensions in February will have a major bearing on the Government’s electoral fortunes, especially in a declining economy. No pressure Jeff.

Health, Jane Halton:

The former Jazzercise instructor is a strong candidate for the most hated woman in Canberra for Kids Overboard. But she had the last laugh when the Government reappointed her earlier this year despite universal expectations she’d be taken out and shot. There was some logic to the Government’s desire to avoid upheaval, especially after veteran health bureaucrat Mick Reid came and quickly left Nicola Roxon’s staff.

The Howard Government treated Health as a vast research arm and program delivery agency, while keeping policy control firmly in the grip of the Prime Minister’s Office and PM&C. Under Rudd and Roxon, Health is now doing more hard policy yakka, particularly in relation to population health initiatives. But Health will always be about Commonwealth-State relations, and that means the PMO will continue to be the real arbiter of health policy.

Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Lisa Paul:

Another social policy veteran, Lisa Paul heads the truly vast Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, the only Department the org chart of which needs an A3 piece of paper to be properly viewed. Like Health, much of DEEWR’s activities are devoted to working with, plotting against and putting up with the states. Unlike Health, DEEWR’s Minister has the power base and intellectual firepower to run her own agenda how she likes.

Foreign Affairs and Trade, Michael L’Estrange:

A history graduate from Sydney University — he must be a top bloke — L’Estrange is the most solidly Coalition-aligned of the Secretaries and even Greg Sheridan was canvassing his departure when his appointment expires next year. L’Estrange was part of the Howard inner circle as long-time adviser and Cabinet Secretary, and had a stint as Howard’s High Commissioner in London before taking over at DFAT.

L’Estrange’s biggest problem, however, is that he has a Prime Minister who is his own Foreign Minister and wants to be a Player on the world stage despite taking a healthy chunk out of DFAT’s budget earlier this year.

Climate Change, Martin Parkinson:

Rare is the Secretary who gets to start up a whole new Department. Although cobbled together from bits of Treasury and Environment, the Department of Climate Change is front and centre in the Government’s agenda. Dr Parkinson — who worked for John Kerin, Ralph Willis and John Dawkins last time Labor was in power — has unimpeachable economic credentials, including a doctorate from Princeton and experience with the IMF. The problem, critics say, is that there are too many economists at DCC and this is skewing the Government toward a highly conservative position on emissions trading.

Peter Fray

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