Two secretaries resign from Australian government

By on 25/11/2015 | Updated on 25/09/2020
Michael Thawley

Two of Australia’s most senior civil servants have announced their resignations this week.

Malcolm Turnbull who became Australia’s prime minister after successfully challenging the leadership of Tony Abbott, yesterday announced that Michael Thawley, secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), and Peter Varghese, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), will be leaving the civil service next year.

Thawley’s resignation comes less than a year after he was appointed to his current role by Abbot.

There has been some disquiet in government ranks about Thawley’s performance during the changeover from Abbott to Turnbull, with suggestions he was not as responsive as he should have been, according to Australia’s state broadcaster ABC.

The PM&C did not respond to these allegations.

In a letter to staff obtained by ABC, Thawley wrote: “It has been a highlight of my life to have worked in PM&C with you all over the past 12 months.

“I am very proud of the work we have done together. But more than anything else I have enjoyed your camaraderie, the sense of purpose and dedication in the department, and the fun we have had in the interstices of the work demands we all face.

“I will be around for another few weeks and we still have some time to talk about what the Government’s agenda might be and how we can make our department more successful in its ambitions.

“I expect that an announcement of my successor will be made in the next couple of weeks or so.”

Thawley became PM&C secretary in December 2014, after working as a senior executive at Capital Group, a major US funds management group, where he had a variety of roles including being vice chairman of the boards of a number of global mutual funds in the American Funds family.

Before 2005, he held various roles in the Australian government, including that of Australia’s ambassador to the US; international adviser to the former Australian prime minister John Howard; head of the international division of PM&C under previous prime minister Paul Keating; as well as a variety of roles in DFAT and the Office of National Assessments in Australia and overseas.

He first joined the Australian civil service in 1972, and was appointed an officer of the Order of Australia in 2006 for his contribution to Australia’s strategic and economic interests.

Born in London, he moved to Australia as a child and graduated from the Australian National University.

Turnbull said: “I am grateful for Michael’s support as my department head and I thank him for his leadership of the Australian public service” and added that Thawley “wishes to return to the private sector in late January 2016.”

He continued that “Peter Varghese has advised me that he will be stepping down as secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in July 2016 to take up the position of Chancellor of the University of Queensland.”

Varghese said in a statement: “I turn 60 in March next year and will have completed 38 years in the public service.

“I now wish to turn my attention to the next phase of my career which I would like to build across the university, corporate and community sectors.

“It had always been my intention to return to Brisbane after DFAT.

“The timing of this decision has been driven by the wish of the University of Queensland, which is keeping the chancellor position open for six months, to make an announcement about my appointment.

“It still leaves me with seven months in the secretary’s job to take forward our big policy and management agendas.

“It is never easy to leave a career which has been so much more than a job.

“But I know that the time is right. There will be plenty of time for reflection and farewells and in the meantime there is much that still needs to be done.”

Varghese took up his current position in December 2012. Prior to that, he worked as Australia’s high commissioner to India from 2009 to 2012 and director-general of the Office of National Assessments between 2004 and 2009.

He also previously worked as the senior adviser (International) to the Prime Minister.

Throughout his civil service career, Varghese has held a wide range of senior positions in the DFAT, including as deputy secretary, first assistant secretary of the international security division, head of the White Paper Secretariat which drafted Australia’s first white paper on foreign and trade policy, first assistant secretary of the public affairs division, and assistant secretary of staffing.

He was seconded to the PM&C as first assistant secretary of the International Division for one year in 1998.

He was appointed an Officer in the Order of Australia (AO) in 2010 for distinguished service to public administration, particularly in leading reform in the Australian intelligence community and as an adviser in the areas of foreign policy and international security.

Varghese was born in 1956 in Kenya to Indian born parents and migrated to Australia as a young child in 1964. He is a graduate and university medalist in history from the University of Queensland.

Turnbull, who also announced the appointment of former secretary of the Department of Communications Drew Clarke as his new chief of staff “after acting in the role since my appointment as prime minister”, said Thawley’s and Varghese’s successors would be announced “in due course.”

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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