Public service: Oh, what a year

Show comments

Canberra Avenue

By March, senior Finance Department officials had made a terrible mess of convincing a sceptical public works committee that a flash new office on leafy Canberra Avenue was good value for taxpayers' dough.

Enter Finance boss Jane Halton, who intervened when it started to look like her lovely new digs were going the way of the Seasprite helicopter.

Halton has no peer in the public service, except maybe Chris Jordan, in bending politicians to her will, and by the time she finished with the cross-party committee, they looked like they were ready to chuck in an extra few million bucks to sweeten the deal, drive the veteran mandarin home and pick up her dry cleaning along the way.

Yes, cynics might point out that Finance made sure the taxpayers of Australia, who will pay for the whole deal, won't be allowed to see key aspects of the transaction until it's far too late to do anything about it.

But we're confident that Halton will have little trouble convincing us that it's for our own good.

Hiring unfrozen

It was a blunt old instrument, the hiring freeze, punishing the just and the unjust alike.


It was embarrassingly easy to get around, and evidence is emerging that it may have led to many dud public servants getting promoted into jobs they could only have dreamt of in normal times.

To cap it all off, the former public service commissioner, the normally quite sensible Steve Sedgwick, insisted that it wasn't even a hiring freeze at all.

Safe to say that the freeze had long passed the point of peak silly before being finally put out of its misery in May after two years.

But wait, said Sedgwick's successor, John Lloyd, nobody better go off on an expensive hiring spree under threat of having their hiring licences revoked. I'll be watching, Lloyd warned.

Canberra mandarins wait six months. Then go on a hiring spree.


It's a small but vital part of public service life, those ubiquitous lanyards that mark out APS tribesmen and women all over Canberra and beyond.

But it can be a bit of a dog's breakfast really, everybody wearing all manner of lanyards to secure their security pass, one they picked up at a seminar or promotional event or even, most shameless of all, neckwear from a previous employer.

By June of this year, it had got to point where someone had to make a stand and who better than renowned stand-up guy and Defence Department chief Dennis Richardson.

Richardson declared there would be one lanyard to rule them all in Defence, perhaps reflecting the growing penchant for uniforms and uniformity in the APS (we're looking at you, Mike Pezzullo).

The good news about the new gear; you can have any colour as long as it's black. The bad news came later when some Defence science brainiacs stress-tested the new lanyards and declared them a health and safety risk.


They're the 800 men and women whose job it is to be the nation's economic clever clogs, but the kindest thing we can say about a decision made by Treasury officials in July is that nobody gets it right every time.

About two-thirds of the departments' eligible 823 staff voted to accept a pay offer totalling 4.5 per cent over three years: with an immediate 2.5 per cent rise followed by 1 per cent in each of the following two years.

Their working week stretches from 37½ hours to 38, and they gave up their time-honoured Christmas Eve half-day.

But a mere four months later, deals worth 6 per cent over three years are flying like confetti (and still being rejected amid concerns over lost conditions and entitlements), Treasury staffers would be forgiven for thinking they may have been a little hasty.

Still, could be worse. The poor old workforce at ComSuper took a one-off 2.6 per cent raise that has to do them for three years.

Chris Jordan

ATO supreme leader Chris Jordan is no career public servant and every so often it really shows. Just hours after the record-breaking spanking his revised pay deal copped in a ballot of the ATO workforce last week, the former copper stuck a 3 per cent pay rise into the Christmas stockings of his 200-odd senior executives. With no strings attached and not to be opened until January 28.

Take that, 20,000 Australian Taxation Office public servants at APS1 to EL2 grades!

One of the Taxation Commissioner's key lieutenants took pains to point out that everybody could have trousered 3 per cent had they simply ticked the box that said YES and that's true. But he failed to mention the extra 4½​ working days each year they would have signed up for, or any other losses of conditions and entitlements that so worried the 85 per cent of no-voters.

The people have spoken.

Will Jordan's fellow mandarins rush to copy his approach to workplace relations? We doubt it. Oh, maybe John Lloyd.

Belconnen or bust

Dozens of businesses and thousands of public servants spent much of the year awaiting news of where the new Immigration and Border Protection headquarters would be located.

Up to 5500 of Immigration's ACT-based bureaucrats would be consolidated in one place, but where would it be?

Belconnen traders feared they would lose 4000 public servants from their town centre.

But the department's self-imposed deadline to be negotiating with preferred tenderers by March came and went.

Would secretary Mike Pezzullo and his workforce move to Civic? Woden? The offices near Canberra Airport?

Private companies, who had spent thousands of dollars preparing tenders, constantly checked their phones. Like lovelorn teenagers they discovered no one from the public service would be calling. As in, not calling anybody.

By the May federal budget Finance Minister Mathias Cormann​ announced his department would control any future move and that future decisions would consider "local impacts".

By October the tender was dead. The age of office relocations driven by agency heads was over. Unless they're called Jane Halton.

Which brings us to ...

Project Tetris

Minister Cormann, a boy from the 1980s, struck a blow for Generation X and fiscal responsibility when he launched Tetris project (yes, named after that old Soviet-made video game).

Apart from hitting a chord with Canberra's nerds by name alone, the project aimed to fill or get rid of 30,000 square metres of empty office space paid for by taxpayers.

On the list of agencies with the most offices where you could play a game of tennis and not hit anyone would be the Tax Office, which has 6500 vacant work stations across Australia.


To the standing ovation of many rank-and-file bureaucrats the Liberal spear carrier Eric Abetz, who had been hammering the public service for two years, exited the stage in September when the prime minister reshuffled his ministry.

Of those who affected the public service, he had the highest profile of those who did not leave on their own terms.

His departure meant the government's hardline enterprise-bargaining policy could be rewritten.

Department of Parliamentary Services secretary Carol Mills departed in tears and – as if DPS needed any other dents in its hail-ravaged morale – left behind a workplace she said nobody could run if circumstances stayed the same.

Then comes the grey area of the smiling push-shove-I'm-happy-to-leave-anyway resignation. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Michael Thawley "announced" his resignation not long after Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister and at the same time as media reports of his probable replacement (which came true).

Others clearly made their own decision to leave.

Foreign Affairs and Trade's Peter Varghese​ and Education and Training's Lisa Paul announced they would depart in 2016.

Spy watchdog Vivienne Thom, inspector-general of Intelligence and Security, finished her term. Defence Materiel Organisation chief executive Warren King resigned in March.


Ex-Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson's resurrection was announced by Turnbull in December

Parkinson will sit at the Prime Minister's right hand as PM&C secretary starting 2016 sharing an armrest with Drew Clarke, who started the year as Communications secretary and became Mr Turnbull's chief of staff.

One of Clarke's most important decisions of the year was helping to choose the man who would lead the bureaucracy's digital transformation – Paul Shetler.

Shetler, chief executive of the Digital Transformation Office, wants to make the public's dealings with departments and agencies much easier. So far he said the bureaucracy had been failing.

​Michaelia Cash became the Prime Minister's assistant on public service matters. New cabinet secretary Arthur Sinodinos​ will deal with department and agency heads as he becomes the communication conduit to make sure cabinet runs smoothly.

Quote of the year

"You are a shithouse chair and clearly have no ability to stick to an agenda."

So wrote one anonymous senior public servant to Senator Bill Heffernan after he or she waited in a committee room in Parliament watching the tortuous estimates process in February.

"Three hours went by as we all sat around twiddling our thumbs and watched you and your dipshit colleagues trying to score political points off each other."

Being a lifelong connoisseur of dual-syllable swear words (he dropped the words "bullshit" and "bloody" while discussing paid parking in the Parliamentary Triangle), the Senator read the letter aloud at another estimates hearing later in the year.