Yet more variety at Prime Minister and Cabinet
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Yet more variety at Prime Minister and Cabinet

Michael Thawley's appointment as secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet underlines some conspicuous features of the top post in the Australian public service: variety and unpredictability.

Thawley returns to the public service after nearly a decade in an investment firm. But he has been living in Washington, DC, since 2000. He went there first as Australian ambassador, seeing out the final year of Bill Clinton's presidency and the first term of George W Bush's.

New boss: Michael Thawley is the secretary of the PM&C.

New boss: Michael Thawley is the secretary of the PM&C.Credit:Nic Walker

He is the first alumnus of the diplomatic side of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to head PMC. Two predecessors had done conspicuous service on the trade side – Sir Alan Carmody (1976-78), and, more recently, Max Moore-Wilton (1996-2002).

He is also the first appointment to the post of someone without chief executive experience since Sir Geoffrey Yeend succeeded Carmody in 1978, although heading the embassy in Washington is a close approximation. Indeed, the only other secretary of PMC in its modern conception, dating from 1949, not to have had prior chief executive experience is also the only other person apart from Yeend to be appointed from within – Sir John Bunting.

Most heads of PMC have, however, worked previously in the department at deputy secretary or division head level. Sir Lenox Hewitt, secretary during John Gorton's prime ministership (1968-71), had been official secretary at Australia House when it came under the wing of the Prime Minister's Department.

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Previous secretaries new to the department have been Allen Brown (1949-58), John Menadue (1975-76), Carmody, Moore-Wilton, and Terry Moran, who had formerly been head of the Premier and Cabinet Department in Victoria. (Among major Westminster governments, Australia is alone in periodically looking outside the public service for a head of the prime minister's agency.)

Menadue, Gough Whitlam's choice, had the advantage of having been Whitlam's private secretary when he was deputy leader of the Opposition. Thawley is another graduate of the private office, in his case the prime minister's, as also was Yeend. Moran was private secretary to Minister for Health Dr Doug Everingham in the Whitlam years.

Unlike most recent predecessors, Thawley was educated at a private school, in his case Geelong Grammar. Since 1974, most but not quite all heads of PMC - at least those who disclose this information - have been educated either at Catholic or government schools.

Thawley is nominally the first graduate of ANU to head the department. However, although Carmody and Yeend had degrees from Melbourne University, they actually studied for some of the time at the then Canberra University College before it was absorbed into the ANU.

He has an honours degree in history, whereas most predecessors had qualifications in economics or commerce. The main exceptions to the economics orientation are Brown (law) and Moran (arts).

Several predecessors have had an international component to their resume, mainly in London, Paris, Geneva or desirable locations in the United States. Thawley is the first to have had an assignment in Asia (Tokyo), while at one time his DFAT responsibilities embraced Papua-New Guinea and New Zealand.

He is also in a small group with business experience. Menadue had been general manager of News Limited for seven years before his appointment. Moore-Wilton had been at the Australian Stock Exchange immediately before his in 1996 and had also headed several government corporations, mainly in agriculture and transport.

Thawley, the oldest appointee to the post, fits a recent pattern of selecting people in their late 50s or early to mid-60s. The age of heads of PMC has been steadily creeping up since Brown's appointment in 1949. Brown, Bunting and Menadue were in their late 30s, while Hewitt was 50, Carmody 56, Yeend 51, Codd mid-40s, Keating and Moore-Wilton early 50s, and Shergold mid-50s.

His immediate predecessors, Moran and Watt, were in their early 60s and Thawley is 64.

Thawley's absence from the APS should not be a barrier to rapid assimilation. The Capital Group, where he has spent nearly a decade, bears quite a resemblance to the modern public service. It believes in rigorous research (aka evidence-based policy), core values (very familiar), "deliberate diversity of styles and perspectives", and is "committed to maintaining an Earth-friendly work environment, reducing our dependence on non-recyclable and non-reusable material".

The Group also believes that multiple layers of oversight contribute to rigorous risk controls.

Thawley's appointment follows selection of another veteran of the Howard years, Matt Stafford, as Secretary to Cabinet earlier this year. A public relations and communications specialist, Stafford has recently been China chief executive for New York-based communications company Burson-Marsteller.

When the Howard government won office, Michael L'Estrange was appointed Cabinet Secretary, replacing the Secretary, PMC, who had performed the role since 1949. Notwithstanding the L'Estrange innovation, the departmental officers headed by the Secretary kept their places in the Cabinet room.

In the Rudd-Gillard years, the role was filled by ministers. Now it appears to have reverted to ministerial staff.

As it happens, Canada has also acquired a new Secretary to the Cabinet - and Clerk of the Privy Council (PCO). The new Cabinet Secretary in Ottawa is Janice Charette, the second woman to be appointed. She has been advanced from within the PCO, where she was recently Associate Secretary to the Cabinet.

Her degree is in commerce. She has spent time in the private sector, as Chief of Staff to the Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in the dark days of the late 1990s, and in the Prime Minister's Office. She was previously deputy minister (secretary), Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

Her disciplinary background, career trajectory and experience reflect patterns in the past few decades in Ottawa. It was not always so. In early days, as the role of Cabinet Secretary was evolving, appointees usually had an education in history or classics, a number were Rhodes scholars, and some had occasionally spent time in the United States. Today education in economics or business is likely but there have been variations – not only law but also science and sociology.

There has likewise been movement in Whitehall. When Sir Jeremy Heywood was appointed Secretary to the Cabinet in 2011, he kept the prize roles of adviser to the prime minister on top appointments and machinery of government.

But the title Head of the Home Civil Service went to Sir Bob Kerslake, permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government. A newcomer to the civil service, he had spent most of his working life in local government.

Kerslake relinquished the title recently and it reverted to Heywood.

The Cameron government has created a new post of Chief Executive of the Civil Service, which suggests some ambivalence about the success of the Kerslake model.

The media release said: "The new chief executive will have executive control over the key functions that make government as a whole work more efficiently and improve Whitehall's ability to deliver.

"These include getting a better deal for taxpayers from commercial decisions, the digital transformation of public services, ensuring we have the best people with the right skills in the civil service, and managing projects better."

The appointment, following external competition, has gone to John Manzoni, a former energy industry executive, including at BP. He has recently been head of the Major Projects Authority. One report said he had already been clear in his view that the civil service was too focussed on policy-making, rather than leadership on big projects.

His appointment, not surprisingly, has been the subject of considerable criticism, deriving from his performance in the energy industry and continuing business interests.

This story has some distance to run.

J. R. Nethercote, Adjunct Professor, Canberra Campus, Australian Catholic University