Peter Conran, a former adviser to the Howard government and senior bureaucrat has been parachuted out of retirement to work as Scott Morrison’s new cabinet secretary.

Conran becomes the second high-profile former Howard staffer to join the Prime Minister’s team, and represents another tie between the Morrison and Howard governments.

Who is Peter Conran?

According to The Australian, Conran’s appointment is an attempt to “bring more firepower” to the Morrison government. He certainly has strong Liberal credentials, holding various policy positions in state and federal governments and overseas. 

From 2001 to 2007, Conran worked for John Howard, first as a senior adviser and then as head of the cabinet policy unit. In 2008, he took up the role of director-general of the Western Australian Department of Premier and Cabinet under Colin Barnett, where he earned the moniker “Mr Fix It” among political insiders.

While Conran’s reputation in Liberal circles is that of an efficient and capable bureaucrat, he did manage to ruffle a few feathers in Western Australia.

In 2008, then-opposition leader Eric Ripper criticised Conran’s appointment, arguing that by picking a Liberal apparatchik, the Barnett government had left the integrity of the public service “in tatters”.

Conran aroused further controversy when, three years later, it emerged that he earned over $400,000 a year in his role.

The Howard Connection

With Conran’s appointment, more fingerprints from the Howard era are scattered across the Morrison government.

Scott Morrison, who sees Howard as his political inspiration, reportedly got on the phone with the former prime minister just hours after winning the second Liberal leadership spill in August to seek his advice. Morrison’s appointments also betray links to the Howard government.

The PM’s recently appointed chief of staff, John Kunkel, a former mining executive, also spent time as a senior adviser in Howard’s cabinet policy unit alongside Conran. Kunkel’s predecessor, Phil Gaetjens, who left Morrison’s staff to take up the role of treasury secretary, worked as chief of staff to Howard’s treasurer Peter Costello.

Costello has frequently been cited as Morrison’s “mentor”. During the 2015 leadership spill, while being courted by both Abbott and Turnbull, Morrison consulted the former treasurer over how he should direct his bloc of supporters to vote. Costello also stepped out for breakfast with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg days after the August leadership spill. 

Newscorp commentators have praised Morrison’s “Howardesque” vision for Australia, and have compared his affinity with the Liberal base to that of the Howard. 

Whether Morrison can emulate his hero’s electoral success, however, remains to be seen. 

Peter Fray

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