Abbott PS purge on the cards
Don Russell, secretary of the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. Photo: David Rowe
TONY ABBOTT will have the opportunity to emulate his hero John Howard and purge the senior ranks of the public service if he wins government in seven months' time.
Those in the top jobs today may well recall March 1996 when Howard put his stamp on the service by sacking six department heads and choosing his own replacements.
In its five years in office, Labor has remoulded the service to its liking, with Kevin Rudd, in his time, showing a preference for people with state public service experience and little interest in gender equity.
It remains to be seen whether Abbott will shake up the service. Only one department head, Don Russell, secretary of the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, stands out as a man the Coalition might want to target. Although he has a public service pedigree, having started as a cadet in Treasury and having worked his way up through that organisation, he is best known as Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating's senior adviser. Dr Russell was appointed secretary of industry in June 2011 and, on the standard five-year term, could be expected to be in the job until mid-2016.
But no secretary would want to hang around working for a minister who did not want him. And if a minister wants to get rid of his or her department head - five-year term or not - there is a precedent in the removal of Paul Barratt as secretary of the Defence Department in 1999.
That said, having a reputation for being of the opposite political colour to the new government does not necessarily mean the end of a department head's career. In the interests of stability and to help shepherd Keating through his early years as treasurer, Labor kept John Stone as head of the Treasury when it came to office in 1983.
The one position new prime ministers examine most closely is that of head of their own department. That role is occupied by Ian Watt, a career public servant through and through, having served as a department head for 12 years under both Labor and Coalition administrations. Dr Watt was first appointed by the Howard government to head the Department of Communications, then went on to become the longest serving Finance Department chief, before going to Defence under Labor and finally being promoted to head the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C). Unless he himself wanted to cut short his term, it is difficult to see why Abbott would not have him.
Although the Rudd and Gillard governments have appointed many new people, those now in the top jobs do not have the tint of Labor, in the way Gough Whitlam's bureaucracy did. Rudd, a former state public servant himself, saw value in picking state bureaucrats for senior federal positions, the most prominent of these being Terry Moran, who came from the Victorian public service to head PM&C from 2008 to 2011. Moran might have been seen as a political appointment but his replacement, Watt, cannot.
Another state bureaucrat to make the leap to the federal scene is Roger Wilkins, former NSW cabinet director-general who is now secretary of the Attorney-General's Department. His term is due to end in September and given the election is set for September 14, the proper course would seem to be to leave the decision on his re-appointment, or replacement, to the incoming government.
Surprisingly, to those who see Labor as the progressive party promoting equal opportunity, the number of women at the top of the bureaucracy has dropped during its term in office.
In October 2004 John Howard boosted women's presence with the appointment of three portfolio department heads and a woman to lead the Australian Public Service Commission. This bold action - probably driven by the then head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold - resulted in a total of five female heads of departments, out of 18, plus the female Public Service Commissioner.
Compare that with today. Out of the 19 portfolio department heads, only four are women. The Public Service Commissioner is also a man - Stephen Sedgwick, who was appointed by the Rudd government in December 2009 to replace Lynelle Briggs.
Gillard has appointed two women portfolio heads - Glenys Beauchamp at Regional Development, Local Government and the Arts and Kathryn Campbell at Human Services. Two women survive from the Howard era, Lisa Paul and Jane Halton.
Andrew Metcalfe is another survivor, albeit heading a different department.
Back in 2006, when I examined the overall make-up of the senior echelons of the service, it was clear that anyone with ambitions to make it to the top should get a degree in economics. It was not just that the heads of Treasury, Finance and the Industry Department had such a qualification, so too did those of Heritage and the Environment, Human Services and Veterans Affairs. On top of that some other department heads had diplomas in economics and the then head of PM&C, Dr Shergold, was an economic historian.
Nothing much has changed today. PM&C is headed by an economist, as is Treasury. Glenys Beauchamp at Regional Development has an economics degree, while Paul Grimes at Sustainability and the Environment has the full kit, B.Ec. (Flinders) M.Ec. (ANU) and a PhD Economics (ANU). Kathryn Campbell at Human Services has bachelor of applied science (applied mathematics) and a master of information science but can surely talk the jargon, with a master of business administration and the completion of an advanced management program at Harvard Business School as well.
Drew Clarke is another rare science graduate to make it to the top, having first gained a bachelor of applied science (surveying) and then a master of science.
For those with arts degrees, there is still hope. Defence Department head Dennis Richardson has one and so does Finn Pratt at Families, and Housing and Mike Mrdak at Infrastructure and Transport, but he wisely also gained a graduate diploma in economics.