Chris Moriatis

The surprising and powerful farewell speech by Peter Varghese, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, highlighted one of the unfinished pieces of business by the Turnbull government.

Although he announced in November 2015 that he would retire after 38 years in the diplomatic service, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop failed to announce his replacement before the marathon election campaign.

Perhaps this has been so occupying her mind that she has simply not had time to master any of the Coalition’s policies, such as superannuation, which she so spectacularly flubbed in a recent radio interview.

She has, according to well-placed sources, sent a list of six possible replacements to the Prime Minister’s Office for consideration by the PM and his departmental head Martin Parkinson — a man who will, in all likelihood, play a key role in the process, no matter which side wins the election.

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Parkinson was appointed Treasury secretary by Labor, only to be sacked by Tiny Abbott, by all accounts because of his views on climate change (he had the hide, apparently, to believe the vast majority of scientists). Then, after he rolled Abbott last year, Turnbull brought Parkinson back as the No. 1 public servant in Canberra.

As Crikey noted earlier this week, for all his talents, Parkinson has a track record of getting China wrong when he was the deputy Treasury secretary in charge of forecasting. He won’t want to get it wrong this time. As China becomes as much a diplomatic problem as an economic one, the head of DFAT will be a key player.

Perhaps the decision was delayed until after the election so Turnbull can reward Frances Adamson, who moved straight from the ambassador’s residence in Beijing, where she played an incredibly straight bat for four years, to head his foreign affairs advisory team.

This has given her the rare distinction of having served in senior political roles for both sides. Adamson was then-Labor frontbencher Stephen Smith’s chief of staff when he was the foreign and then Defence Minister. But maybe it’s too soon if Turnbull is returned, after only nine months in the PMO and with only a couple of years under her belt as a deputy secretary, in terms of the bureaucracy, relatively junior.

Still, Adamson is the only woman on the list, and the word from Canberra is that there is a preference for youth and/or a woman.

There are two other rising start on the list. One is the impressive immediate past Indonesian ambassador Greg Moriarty, who is presently cooling his heels between posts in Canberra as the  government’s anti-terrorism co-ordinator, a new cross departmental role created by Tony Abbott.

The other is Chris Moraitis, who, after a 25-year career in DFAT — including a stint as ambassador to Papua New Guinea and gaining a promotion to a DFAT deputy secretary (there are bunch of them) — moved to head the Attorney-General’s Department in 2014. He would likely have the support of Turnbull ally George Brandis and is also well regarded.

Then there are three veterans (although none with any direct China experience, save the last, and we will get to him):

Gary Quinlan, who is acting in Varghese’s role has been in DFAT since the early 1970s and was Kevin Rudd’s senior foreign affairs and defence adviser from 2007-2009. He has been UN ambassador and Singapore high commissioner — loads of experience, but probably too old and definitely in the Labor column.

Paul Grigson is the current ambassador to Indonesia. He’s been envoy to Thailand and Myanmar and, like Adamson, has worked in senior positions on both sides of politics through the Keating, Howard and Rudd 1.0 governments. But it would be surprising to see him moved back to Canberra after only two years running the embassy in a country regularly touted as Australia’s most important relationship. At least by Turnbull.

Perhaps the oddest name on the list is veteran serial spy Nick Warner. After 15 years as a junior DFAT officer, he went on to an 11-year career in the Office of National Assessments, the independent intelligence division of the Cabinet National Security Council, which co-ordinates Australia’s foreign spying activities. Warner was ambassador to Iran in the mid 1990s and later high commissioner to Papua New Guinea. The son of storied Australian war correspondent Denis Warner, he has been head of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service — Australia’s offshore spy agency — for the past seven years. And here is where it gets interesting …

Warner, 66, is particularly notable for his role in the 2004 East Timor spy scandal, where the Australian government, under the auspices of former foreign minister (and present London high commissioner) Alexander Downer, is alleged to have installed spy equipment in a cabinet room built by Australian aid money. Warner was involved with the East Timor negotiations — as was Varghese. Warner was briefly an adviser to Howard and then appointed head of Defence in 2006, where he lasted until he was appointed to ASIS in 2009.

The whistle was blown on the affair by a former esteemed ASIS officer and decorated war hero who was tasked with leading the operation for ASIS, now known as Witness K. He has been in limbo since 2013, when his passport was seized. In February 2016, on the advice of Warner’s ASIS, despite ASIO having no objections, he was refused a passport to attend the arbitration now ongoing between East Timor and Australia in the International Court of Arbitration in the Hague, where East Timor is seeking to have the treaty on its maritime border with Australia torn up.

Warner is said to be close to Bishop, but as former senior diplomats will tell you, “foreign ministers love spy chiefs”.

Some are concerned that Bishop might recommend Warner, despite his age, to help cover a load of Liberal, Labor Party and DFAT arses on the East Timor scandal. But the appointment of a veteran spymaster as head of DFAT would hardly be the sort of message Australia wants to send to China, Indonesia — or, indeed, any of our neighbours.

Under a Labor government, the calculus for DFAT chief could change slightly, but as China continues to amp up its aggression in the East and South China Seas, it’s an appointment that should be made as soon as possible after July 2.

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