Outgoing head of the Australian Public Service urges commitment to evidence-based policy in face of reform

By on 04/08/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Martin Parkinson has said he is not stepping down as secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet as a result of any friction between he and Scott Morrison. (Image courtesy: Commonwealth of Australia 2016 / Wikimedia Commons).

Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, has called on the Australian Public Service (APS) to “continue to have a view, be curious, understand what is happening at the forefront of policy and policy-related research, engage widely with stakeholders from all parts of the community, and be resolutely committed to advocating for truly evidence-based policy,” as he prepares to step down from his role on 30 August.

Parkinson’s comments, shared exclusively with Global Government Forum, come at a time when prime minister Scott Morrison is pursuing public service reform. David Thodey, the former chief executive of Australia’s largest telecommunications company, Telstra, is producing a review of the APS – commissioned by former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull – which Morrison revealed last week is “in its final stages”.

Morrison has made it clear to senior civil servants — who have been lobbying for greater flexibility and autonomy through Thodey’s review — that officials should focus on delivering the government’s policy agenda and not get bogged down in “administration” and “bureaucracy”.

Thodey released an interim report in March including the views of senior civil servants, some of whom describe the public service as slow, reactive and siloed and feel ministers are obstructive, disengaged and uninterested in making government departments and agencies more productive.

“From what we know so far about the [Thodey review] panel’s findings – we expect it will call out a number of areas that public sector leaders will need to focus on to meet the expectations of the government and the public we serve, including how we engage with those outside the service,” Parkinson said. 

“As the public’s expectations change with respect to delivery of services – for example, through the provision of digitised services you can access quickly on your phone – we need to make sure we are doing all we can to foster a strong and effective public service that is, as the prime minister says, public-facing in all respects.”

The question, he added, “is the extent to which we are willing to dig in and make real progress in these areas”.

‘Opportune time for new leadership’

Morrison announced Parkinson’s retirement in Canberra on 25 July, explaining that he and Parkinson agree that following the federal election in May, now was “an opportune time for new leadership” of his department.

He described Parkinson’s career as “distinguished”.

“[Parkinson’s] policy acumen across a range of domestic and international policy areas has helped Australia navigate a complex and rapidly changing world,” Morrison said. “I wish him well for the next phase of his career and I look forward to him serving the national interest in other capacities.”

Parkinson, who says his leaving is not a result of any friction between he and Morrison, said: “After nearly 40 years in the public service, I’ve still only just reached my sixth decade and there will, no doubt, be other new and different challenges for me in my career ahead. But for someone who grew up as a kid from a small Victorian country town, it’s pretty incredible to have had the opportunities I’ve had to ascend to some of the most important offices in the APS and contribute as I have to improving the lives of everyday Australians, and I’m extremely grateful for that.”

He said he looks forward to spending more time with his family and friends and to travel before considering his next steps but that he “won’t be taking on any new opportunities before the end of the year”.

Morrison announced last week that the former chief of staff and current Treasury chief Phil Gaetjens is to take over from Parkinson as secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and head of the APS.    

Gaetjens served as the former treasurer Peter Costello’s chief of staff from 1997 to 2007 and was Morrison’s chief of staff before his appointment as Treasury secretary in August 2018.  

The Guardian reported at that time that Labor, the opposition party, criticised Gaetjens’ appointment alongside the appointment of the finance minister Mathias Cormann’s chief of staff to a deputy secretary role, warning it amounted to the politicisation of the Treasury.

However, last week, Labor’s financial services spokeswoman, Katy Gallagher, told reporters in Canberra it “remains to be seen” if Gaetjens’ appointment will politicise the public service and Labor intended to give him “the benefit of the doubt”.

Morrison said Gaetjens will “bring enormous experience to the position and help drive the government’s ambitious agenda over the next three years in delivering for the Australian people. He is the ideal person to street the Australian Public Service into the future”. 

The infrastructure department secretary, Steven Kennedy, will take over from Gaetjens at the Treasury.

Other imminent departures

The news that Parkinson is to step down follows the revelation that Morrison is preparing to appoint a new director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) to replace Duncan Lewis who is expected to retire in September, senior government officials are reported to have told The Australian.

Lewis, who is a decorated former army officer, has not officially announced his decision to leave the organisation but The Australian reported that it understood government has been aware of his retirement for some time and is actively identifying a successor, who is expected to be announced soon.

Australian Federal Police (AFP) commissioner Andrew Colvin, who is a former defence secretary and ambassador to NATO, has also opted not to extend his term and will leave in September.

There has been no announcement yet as to who will replace Colvin or take over Kennedy’s role at the infrastructure department. 

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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