Dr Ian Watt, Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australia: Exclusive Interview

By on 11/11/2014 | Updated on 09/03/2016
Dr Ian Watt retired from his role as secretary to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) in November 2014

On 30 November 2014 Dr Watt retires as Head of the Public Service in Australia, as well as Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In an exclusive interview with Global Government Forum, he looks back and also looks forward.

Dr Ian Watt has been a public servant since 1985 and is about to retire. He is looking forward to a life that is ‘slightly less hectic’. The hectic times have included being Secretary of several major departments including Finance, Communications and Defence. His final job is actually his second stint in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Backing that up is a rigorous academic record, with an Honours Degree, a Masters Degree and a PhD. As he says: ‘I am an economist by training, an economic historian by inclination’.

Three Months, Three PMs

This long and informed perspective means he has a rare view of how his department has to work. He explains:

‘The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet provides policy advice on a range of issues the PM needs to be advised on, and we also implement things for the PM. But different PMs require different policy advice. Different PMs have various stages of understanding of issues, and they have different ways of governing.

‘Every Prime Minister is different. Every government is different. My role doesn’t change but the ways I have to do things do change. That doesn’t change what advice is right but it does change the atmospherics around the advice.

‘For new governments, the long term is next week. It’s often difficult to get a lot of focus on the long-term issues at the start with a new government because the focus is on the immediate. On the other hand, sometimes a new government creates opportunities to move on long-term issues, so it varies.’

Dr Watt has had a rather intense experience of dealing with new PMs and administrations. Not many senior civil servants have to handle working with three Prime Ministers in three months. In 2013 he worked with Prime Ministers Gillard, Rudd and Abbott. Looking back on that year, Dr Watt says:

‘If I had to single out the biggest challenge I faced in my final role, it would be dealing with three PMs in under three months. Adjusting to, helping prepare advice to and supporting two new PMs in that period of time was a major exercise.’


But whichever government or Prime Minister is in power, the threats remain constant. Dr Watt singles out terrorism as one of the two great threats to Australia (the economy being the second). He explains how that threat is manifested.

‘There is no doubt that a very significant threat to Australia at the moment is terrorism. And that is a concern to the government of the day, and it is a concern to many Western and non-Western governments. Given the situation of ISIL in the Middle East, there is a real possibility of radicalised Australians coming back to Australia and performing terrorist acts. This is a very serious concern for the Australian government.

‘The answer is a global solution as much as an Australian one. We provide increasing funding and support for the intelligence agencies. We have also introduced a number of pieces of legislation designed to make it harder for terrorists to operate in Australia.

‘Internationally, we have participated in the coalition, operating against ISIL in Iraq. Not in Syria in our case, but in Iraq, and we are strong supporters of that coalition. We are also working with our friends and partners to encourage them to do more about the terrorist problem that they might have one day. Because there are a significant number of foreign fighters in the Middle East and they come from a large number of different countries, including in our region.’

(Global Government Forum examined Australia’s counter-terrorism measures in depth in a recent interview with Professor Jill Slay )

Organising the G20

One event where security is high on the organiser’s priorities is the gathering of the G20. Australia is hosting this year’s event in Brisbane on November 15-16 and Dr Watt and his department are responsible for organising and managing the G20. With around 5000 delegates and 2000 media it is both a major opportunity and an organisational headache, as he discusses.

‘We are running the biggest gathering of leaders that Australia has ever had. That is everything from security, all the way through to making sure the hotel groups are appropriate to delegates. We have to ensure the convention centre is an attractive one in which leaders can interact, which the world will see. And we have to make sure the art on the walls reflects Australia. It is quite an interesting process!’

G20 Agenda

But of course all of that is the background, the stage setting to the main event. To Dr Watt, the G20 is the only international forum to focus almost exclusively on the second issue that he sees as a threat to Australia – the economy. Dr Watt is clear on its focus.

‘It’s important to remember that G20 is primarily an economic forum. Don’t try and broaden the agenda too much because then G20 will lose its effectiveness. This is the only economic forum that the world has to discuss economic issues, and they are essential for all of us. I do think it is important. There was a time when the G7 could play that role. It played that role very well but when you look at the G7 now, they are the slow-growing economies, not the fast-growing economies – except perhaps for the USA and Canada. Most are debtors rather than creditors and they are a shrinking part of the world economy.

‘If we talk about the international economy we have to have the emerging markets on the table – China, India, Indonesia. We don’t have that at the G7 and that’s why the G20 is so terribly important.’

The Australian Economic Challenge

So what does he hope to see as the outcome from the event? To answer this he goes back to the question of the Australian economy as it stands now, a situation which he finds concerning:

‘Australia had great economic performance throughout much of the 1990s, but in the late 2000s that started to become less unequivocal. Australia didn’t go into recession in 2008-9, unlike most of the rest of the Western world, but we’ve had poor productivity growth performance and that’s leading to sluggish overall economic growth. The biggest long-term challenge to the Australian government is to help the economy to undertake a period of structural change and position the economy to grow faster. That is, long-term, our biggest challenge in my view.’

G20 Outcomes

In terms of the G20 summit, Dr Watt is optimistic: ‘We’ve got quite good things on the table and the 2014 G20 will hopefully be a very productive meeting.’

What successful outcomes would he like to see from the G20? ‘I think deciding on an enhanced growth strategy; I think some progress on energy efficiency; some progress on IMF and financial sector reform; and also some further progress on trade reform. These would all be good outcomes.

‘It’s also important for Australia because that burnishes our image as a medium-sized power that gets things done. If the G20 doesn’t get good outcomes in Brisbane, then the risks start to grow that it will become irrelevant and leaders will stop coming.’

End Game

Dr Ian Watt will have done what he wanted when the G20 is finished. He will have overseen the transitions in government caused by rapid changes of Prime Ministers and government, and he will have worked to make the G20 a success both for itself and for Australia. At the end of November he will retire having been in public service since 1985.

Rather than looking back, he’s looking forward: ‘The Australian civil service has been going through a series of sharp changes in the last decade. We had a major review in 2010 but that needs to be built on. I think we need to keep evolving to meet the increasing challenges that all governments face.

‘I think the priority message for governments around the globe is that we do need to focus on the world economy. I would say we need to look at driving growth harder because that, in the end, is the fundamental thing on which we base all of our prosperity and our future. I think that’s what the world has to do in the next two or three years.’




About Graham Scott

Graham is an experienced editor and publisher and an award-winning writer. He has travelled extensively and is interested in world cultures.

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