Cartoon by David Rowe.
The practice and, more so, the rhetoric of government and politics are often marked by both predictability and irony.
This is unusually the case with the top cadre of the Australian Public Service, the secretaries of departments, previously known as permanent heads.
They have long been favourite subjects of journalism and dinner table gossip.
The preferred hunting season usually follows an election that brings a change of government. Even a modest turnover in secretary ranks will give rise to much confected Sturm und Drang.
And so it has occurred lately; as the Abbott government has settled in and effected several changes among secretaries, notably removal of three - one had to go because of a reduction in the number of departments - and the prospective stepping down of a fourth, there has been quite a deal of breast-beating and other outpourings of grief.
It is not only changes of government that bring changes among top officials for, from a professional perspective, doubtful reasons.
Following the 1990 election, the then head of the Immigration Department, Ron Brown, was removed unceremoniously. Although there was little public or media comment, it was a termination that sent shockwaves through Canberra (not just the sort of ripples of the past few days). There has never been an authoritative account of that particular exercise of executive prerogative; some of those involved have subsequently prospered mightily.
Likewise, after the 1993 election, the then head of the Treasury, Anthony Cole, was reassigned to the Department of Health; no one thought it a promotion and he left the APS within little more than a year.
The roll-call of secretaries also reveals a number of fairly doubtful mid-term departures. A case might be made that these personnel decisions were based on performance, but the unwritten story usually focuses on some form of personal incompatibility or tension.
In more recent times, the individuals receive handsome payouts, but their departure usually means a loss of talent; a number, of course, prosper in the dubious ranks of consultancy.
This feature of the present structure of the secretary group is the most potent symbol of the politicisation of the APS because it entails the termination of a career in the merit-based public service by ministerial decision, not professional appraisal and judgment.
It never dawned on the architects of these arrangements that it was one thing to concede the rights of, as they are described, "elected" governments to decide who should head the departments and, as such, be the principal advisers to ministers; it was quite another matter to concede the termination of a career. This distinction was, however, lost on most of those in high places.
Initially, the traditional tenured public service arrangements for departmental secretaries were reduced by various surreptitious means on the grounds that new governments were entitled to have, as departmental heads, individuals in whom they had full confidence. The barely hidden subtext was that Labor governments should be able to shed top officials too steeped in conservative ways, either because this is the nature of those who rise to the top in bureaucracies or, more particularly, because they had worked too long for Coalition governments.
John Menadue, secretary to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 1975-76, and before that, secretary-designate, is a prominent advocate of this analysis.
Doubting that the public service was "politically neutral" when he moved to Canberra from his post as general manager at News Limited in Sydney, Menadue considered that, "with its service to conservative governments for 23 years", the APS was "steeped, however unwittingly, in traditional ways of thinking and doing things. It was culturally, if not politically, conservative."
A related problem was that too many of the new ministers were "too impressed with the reputations of heads of major departments who found change hard". The government "should have replaced them on day one".
But the wheel turns. Speaking at Parliament House in 2002, in the wake of the ''children overboard'' controversy, Dr Don Russell, then in the private sector, reflected on changes in the role of departmental secretaries. Tellingly, he concentrated on the question of tenure.
"Losing tenure and a subsequent move in the Howard years to put secretaries on to fixed-term contracts appears to have had the biggest impact on behaviour, reducing the willingness of secretaries to speak up even within the confines of the public service itself."
Russell finished by proposing that "tenure be returned to secretaries".
"It is hard for secretaries to speak their mind when they are on fixed-term contracts and the person chairing the meeting is responsible for the terms of that contract."
The irony in this progression is that removal of the traditional tenured structure, often by stealth especially where the Remuneration Tribunal has been involved, and its replacement by quasi-contract relations was conceived and designed in the interests of Labor governments for reasons admirably expounded by John Menadue.
But it has been the Coalition side of politics that has used the weakened arrangements and deployed them in its own interest; similar arguments apply to the growth and development of the ministerial private office (which also caused Russell considerable angst in his 2002 address).
The sackcloth and ashes that have accompanied this week's announcements have obscured important aspects of the new government's establishment.
The first is continuity. Well nigh three-quarters of the secretaries continue to work in the same fields as they did under the recent Labor administrations; in a few cases the field of responsibility has been changed, notably in the welcome split of the Employment and Education Department (which should never have been joined in the first place).
The second important feature is that the two new secretaries have been drawn from the APS, indeed, from APS HQ, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
This is a contrast with the Rudd Labor government. It won some kudos for retaining all secretaries it inherited from the Howard government.
However, as vacancies arose, it looked to state public services, especially NSW, for replacements.
This reflected practice in Queensland after the Labor government, with which Kevin Rudd was closely associated, came to office in 1989; most of the inherited departmental heads were replaced by "Mexicans", people recruited from down south - the Commonwealth or other state public services.
Finally, APS HQ seems to be on a roll again. Rare is the department head who has not done time in Prime Minister and Cabinet at deputy secretary or division head level.
It is not the first time this has occurred in APS history. And the appointees may, as individuals, be well suited to the posts to which they are assigned.
But it always comes with an apprehension that the search for people for top jobs is not as wide-ranging or as thorough as it ought to be.
John Nethercote is adjunct professor, Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University; editor, Liberalism and the Australian Federation (2001).