Some parts of the media were a bit mystified by the reshuffle of Secretaries yesterday. Surely such appointments are all about partisanship, about appointing those friendly to the Government and knifing Coalition appointees?

One journalist quoted Government sources who “insisted political considerations played no part in a reshuffle they said was based on merit.”

In truth, even during the Howard era, when the Public Service came close to being entirely debauched, appointments were made on merit. Governments might appoint mates and fellow travellers to authority boards, and diplomatic posts, but Public Service Secretaries are too important for that. Ability to get the job done is the necessary, though not sufficient, criterion for appointment.

No one believed the Prime Minister when he promised before the election there’d be no Howard-style Night of the Long Knives, named after the day in March 1996 when six Secretaries were sacked by the new Howard Government, including at least one because Howard’s staff had confused him with another, Labor-aligned figure. We all figured at least some Secretaries, and most particularly the loathed Jane Halton, would be sent packing.

Instead Rudd’s priority was to bed down his new, inexperienced Government and then set about repairing the damage inflicted by Howard on the Public Services’s policy development capacity and confidence. Terry Moran at PM&C has been the key to that agenda and Moran is driving a slow but systematic overhaul of the Public Service.

That some in the media are still trying to decode the partisan nature of Secretarial appointments shows how quiet Moran and Rudd’s overhaul has been. After the election, Secretaries were given the chance to prove themselves. Some, like Halton, have done so. At a recent community cabinet meeting, Nicola Roxon left the meeting and Halton stood in for her, handling queries from the public. Kids overboard has been consigned to history.

But there have been shorter-term problems to be fixed; and they have been in the Foreign Policy and Defence establishments. It is clear the Government is deeply unhappy with the service it has received from Defence, particularly, and Foreign Affairs. In John Faulkner and Ian Watt, the Russell recalcitrants now face the most formidable leadership combination there since Tony Ayres and Robert Ray. Watt has been grappling with the Defence budget for years at Finance, so there’ll be nowhere to hide financially any more.

It’s also clear the Prime Minister is unhappy with the responsiveness of his old department of Foreign Affairs. Many in Foreign Affairs seem to resent a Prime Minister who actually has ideas of his own about foreign policy. It will be Dennis Richardson’s job to get the diplomats dancing to Rudd’s tune.

Speaking of which, David Tune, from Treasury via a stint as “Associate Secretary” under Moran, will replace Watt. Finance is a demanding job but there’s less visibility if you stuff up, making it an ideal proving ground for senior Secretaries — Watt himself had only been a recent promotee to Secretary level at Communications before he was shifted there by Howard. The main “casualty”, along with Michael L’Estrange, is Patricia Scott at Broadband, who has been moved to the Productivity Commission and seems likely to lead a major review of aged care. Right from the outset, Scott’s relationship with Stephen Conroy has been the subject of constant speculation.

The NBN process, while hardly bungled, took considerably longer than the Government’s absurdly optimistic timeframe. It is more likely, though, that Rudd felt the NBN process need someone with a bit more get-up-and-go. That will be provided by Peter Harris, currently head of the Victorian Department of Sustainability. Harris was an energetic Deputy Secretary at Transport in the 1990s where he ran aviation policy (in the manner, one senior colleague said, of the biggest section head of the biggest section in the world), which eventually saw him move to the doomed Ansett as its Government Relations head.

There were suggestions at the time that Max Moore-Wilton had taken a dislike to him, despite the Howard Government installing him on the board of its replacement for the old Commonwealth Employment Service when it commenced its shift to private sector employment services. His appointment is the equivalent of putting a bomb under the NBN rollout, since Harris is not the type to sit back and wait for things to happen.

Moran has also taken the opportunity to announce several new appointments in PM&C, completing the transformation of that Department from the one he inherited from Peter Shergold early last year. Paul Grimes from Finance takes over David Tune’s Domestic Policy position and Glenys Beauchamp moves from FAHCSIA to take Mike Mrdak’s original position (Mrdak was appointed to head Infrastructure earlier in the year).

The overhaul of the APS isn’t complete, by any means. It’s far easier to bring in or promote new talent at Secretary level; the task of strengthening the Service reaches down to Deputy Secretary and Division Head level, which Moran is separately working on through a major drive to find external talent to bring in at that level. But without the drama of mass sackings, Rudd has quietly transformed the bureaucracy.

Peter Fray

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