Australia’s top public servant leaves post after Labor election victory

By on 23/05/2022 | Updated on 23/05/2022
A map of Australia in flag colours

Phil Gaetjens has left his post as Australia’s top public servant after the country’s incoming prime minister signalled he was prepared to dismiss him.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese had indicated that he would remove Gaetjens from the post, despite an overall pledge not to sack public servants as part of an effort to improve relations with the federal workforce. Gaetjens has worked closely with outgoing Liberal-National Coalition prime minister Scott Morrison, and during the election campaign Albanese said he would seek to change the head of the Australian Public Service (APS) if he became prime minister.

Gaetjens has been replaced by Stephanie Foster as secretary of the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet (PM&C), who stepped into the role in an acting capacity yesterday. She was previously PM&C deputy secretary governance.

However, Albanese has issued a statement of support for public servants overall. “We’ll be valuing public servants and respecting them. And the fact that we’re able to have discussions and put measures in place to allow whatever the outcome of the result… for those arrangements to be put in place, says a lot about how professional our public service are,” he said.

The Labor Party has so far secured 74 seats in the lower house, ending a decade of Coalition rule. Counting continues to determine whether Labor can get the 76 seats needed to form a majority.

Global Government Forum interviewed Stephanie Foster in March as part of its Leading Questions podcast series. Listen here:

Labor had also emphasised its plan to reinvest in public services in the run-up to the election. At a election debate earlier this month, Jim Chalmers, who has since been sworn in as treasurer, said that the APS’s capacity and capability was crucial to meeting the recommendations of the Thodey Review.

The independent review, led by Australian businessman David Thodey, was delivered in December 2019. It was the most significant review of the APS in 40 years.

“Part of [Labor’s] plan to trim spending on outsourcing in the public service, is to invest in the capacity of the public service in key areas where it’s been especially hollowed out,” Chalmers said. He added that Morrison had not done enough to progress the recommendations of the report.

Read more: Australian election heats up as Labor’s pledge to cut public service contractors sparks political ad battle

“Part of [progressing the recommendations] is investing responsibly in people in the public service so they can continue to deliver the high quality of services, the high quality of advice, that we need in this country and that Australians deserve for their taxpayer dollars,” he said.

The Labor Party said in the lead-up to the election that it would wean the APS off its use of consultants and contractors and instead hire more public servants. The party would deliver on its commitment to “revitalise the public service” by attracting top talent to government, Albanese said at the time.

“We need to stop the contracting out that’s occurred, the use of labour hire, the gutting of the capacity of the public service,” he said. He stressed that Labor’s key aim is to improve productivity, and that it would not grant APS staff a real wage increase despite the Reserve Bank’s warning that real wages could tighten by 3% this year.  

Ending the ‘climate wars’

After three years of record-breaking extreme weather events across Australia and what many saw as the Morrison government’s poor record on environmental sustainability, climate change became a key election issue among voters.

While on the campaign trail, Albanese promised to end what he called the ‘climate wars’. “Australian business know that good action on climate change is good for jobs and good for our economy, and I want to join the global effort,” he said.

The new prime minister has also promised to adopt more ambitious emission targets, though he has so far refused to phase out coal use.

As the full election result emerges over the coming days, a possible hung parliament could give the Greens and Independents a say over how the new government forms its climate policy.

Read more: Vote of confidence: how climate-conscious electorates are forcing governments to get serious about going green

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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