Meet the second-most powerful man in Canberra: Malcolm Turnbull’s new chief of staff, Drew Clarke. And he couldn’t be further from his predecessor, Peta Credlin.

Turnbull already has a close working relationship with Clarke, as Clarke was secretary of the Department of Communications during Turnbull’s stint as communications minister. By choosing a public servant liked by both sides of politics, Turnbull is sending a message about the depoliticisation of the office of the prime minister.

Much of the downfall of Tony Abbott was — both fairly and unfairly — blamed on Credlin. Credlin was always seen as an ideological warrior, fiercely defensive of Abbott, and he was utterly reliant on her for almost everything during his almost two years as prime minister. She has spent her entire career as a political staffer for the Coalition, working for Richard Alston, Robert Hill, Helen Coonan, Brendan Nelson, Turnbull, and then, finally Abbott in his time as opposition leader and prime minister.

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As Credlin said herself after Abbott’s downfall, her hard-headedness got the Coalition into government, but many felt that the government was acting as though it were still in opposition. Everything in Abbott’s office was tactical, and political, with Credlin reportedly encouraging a tribal us-v-them approach. Credlin often even got Coalition MPs and ministers offside, due to her interference and gate-keeping in running the prime minister’s office.

Clarke, who reluctantly accepted the role permanently this week, could not be more different. Turnbull has said science and innovation is at the heart of the government’s agenda, and his chief of staff is a fellow at the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. Clarke has been a career public servant, working as a surveyor in Australia and the Antarctic before taking roles in the Deparment of Resources, Energy & Tourism. He was awarded the Public Service Medal in June 2009 for his work in reforming the energy market.

In awarding the honour to Clarke, then-governor-general Quentin Bryce noted that Clarke had “demonstrated outstanding leadership, high level communication and liason skills, and a strong strategic approach” to the energy market reform, and he had been “instrumental in the effective development of climate change policy and communicating its implications for the energy market”.

Clarke eventually became the secretary of the Department of Resources, Energy & Tourism in 2010, where he served for three years. Julia Gillard then appointed him as the head of the controversial — because of Turnbull’s campaign against the NBN in opposition — Department of Communications in February 2013. Clarke served under two communications ministers in Stephen Conroy and ever so briefly under Anthony Albanese before the Abbott government came to power at the end of 2013.

When the Abbott government came to power, the sacking of a number of heads of department sent a message that those who weren’t falling in line were expected to go. In Turnbull’s own portfolio, this was seen in the government’s decision to sack the board of the NBN and eventually replace most of the executives in the company.  Turnbull’s respect for Clarke is evident in that although NBN as a company was completely overhauled, Clarke remained.

Throughout the drastic change to NBN, the implementation of the Digital Transformation Office, all the ABC and SBS controversies, and calls for media reform, Turnbull has relied on Clarke’s measured advice.

It is clear Clarke shares Turnbull’s ideals for open government — particularly around open data — and for digital government.

In his last annual report for the Department of Communications before becoming Turnbull’s chief of staff, Clarke said the Department of Communications had made great strides in leading the way on digital government:

“Internally, and in keeping with our aim to be at the leading edge of digital government, we signed a contract to move our entire IT infrastructure to a secure cloud service— the first Commonwealth Department to do so. We redeveloped our website in the GovCMS platform—the whole-of-government content management system solution—meaning that we have built an open source product, reaping the gains of cloud hosting and contributing back to a new government digital web community.”

Clarke’s YouTube video on the annual report is laden with key words that are all now considered Turnbull-speak:

“We have a new focus, new priorities, and renewed enthusiasm. We’re now much more agile, more efficient and more capable. Better placed to respond to the rapidly evolving communications sector.”

Clarke’s appointment, along with the expected return of former Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson as essentially the head of the public service — secretary of the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet — signals a return to the depoliticisation of the public service under Turnbull, and a respect for the advice the public service can offer to politicians.

In her Quarterly Essay “Political Amnesia“, Parkinson told Laura Tingle there had been an erosion of the independence and capability of policy development in government departments:

“The blurring boundaries between the public servant and the political adviser, and the relentless focus on message over substance, results in a diminution of the ‘space’ in which the independent adviser can operate. Becoming an effective policy adviser also requires ‘learning by doing’ under the guidance of experienced hands — an apprenticeship, if you will. “

In welcoming Clarke’s appointment this week, it is clear that Turnbull is looking for that experienced policy hand: “I am very pleased that Mr Clarke will bring his APS and policy experience to my office.”

If Clarke is seeking advice on how to handle the transition from public service to the PMO, Tingle also quotes the outgoing head of PM&C, Michael Thawley. Thawley has gone back and forth between the public and private sectors, and in January will return to the private sector once more, with Parkinson his expected replacement.  Tingle quotes a speech Thawley gave to the ACT division of the Institute of Public Administration Australia this year is saying he always learned to leave the politics to the politicians:

“John Howard used to say to me when I first arrived in his office and I was trying to be politically sensitive, ‘I’d like to know what you think about international relations. Leave the politics to me. I’ll work out how to do it’. And I think that is the way we need to think.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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