It was a sudden swing of the axe that ended Mike Mrdak's long public service career, and left four other bureaucracy chiefs out of a job.
The former Department of Communications and the Arts secretary was a casualty of an abrupt restructure of the federal bureaucracy that he still feels today was the wrong call for his former portfolio.
But he's moving on, and harbours no bitterness.
Speaking more than six months after the machinery of government change, Mr Mrdak said his exit from the public service was disappointing.
"It is what it is. You move on. I've sort of dusted myself off and I'm now looking for some new opportunity, and I can only ever be thankful for the career I had in the public service," he said.
As COVID-19 took hold in Australia throughout March, Mr Mrdak watched from outside the public service as it responded to the emerging national crisis.
He has found it difficult watching the pandemic unfold from the sidelines.
"It's been very strange in a sense that it's the first crisis in my adult working life where I've not been involved from a government perspective in some way," Mr Mrdak said.
Through decades working within infrastructure and transport portfolios, he had seen up close the grounding of Qantas in 2011, and going further back, the collapse of Ansett.
As Virgin Australia went into voluntary administration amid coronavirus restrictions, Mr Mrdak was no longer in the thick of things. He admits to not having really let go of the issues.
"You can't help but take a strong interest in all this and talk to people, wherever you can," he said.
"I think my colleagues have done a terrific job with some pretty tough circumstances."
A career spanning more than three decades came to a halt when the Department of Communications and the Arts, which Mr Mrdak led for two years, was folded into another department.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison reduced 18 departments to 14 in a move he said would "bust bureaucratic congestion". Five department heads lost their jobs.
Mr Mrdak, who also spent eight years at the helm of the Infrastructure Department, had to start a new career outside the public sector.
The sudden break made Mr Mrdak realise how tired he had been. Nevertheless, he didn't relax, spending the first weeks of his post-APS life working with the Business Council on bushfire recovery projects for regional communities.
An opportunity came up at Japanese technology firm NEC. A month ago, he became the non-executive chairman of its Australian operations.
The frank and the fearless
Mr Mrdak began his public service career in 1988 when its state-of-the-art technology took the form of fax machines and electric typewriters, and the bureaucracy itself was more hierarchical.
He had grown up in western NSW town Narromine, where his parents had moved in 1949. Canberra, where he now lives, is a big city to him.
The federal government in the 1980s was yet to shed many of its operational roles and Mr Mrdak's early public service employer, the Department of Transport and Communications, had 12,500 staff.
He was later involved in changes to the government's approach to infrastructure, leading to the national infrastructure investment program, which is $100bn in size.
Mr Mrdak credits the transformation to officials in the Infrastructure portfolio and ministers including John Anderson, Anthony Albanese, Warren Truss and Darren Chester.
In the last decade or more what we've seen is a blurring between the political process and public administration.Mike Mrdak
One of his first jobs in the public service was a project to buy land at Badgerys Creek. He went on to work in programs related to Western Sydney airport for most of his career, and counts them as a highlight.
Mr Mrdak said the change in technology had made the public service's work more analytical since he started.
Another casualty of the public service shake-up, former Human Services Department secretary Renée Leon, spoke out last month observing another change. She said she had noticed an increasing resistance from ministers to public service expertise.
"Government was certainly sick of experts, with all their pesky evidence and so on that was not necessarily in alignment with their more favoured decision making input, which is anecdote," she said.
Speaking on Monday, Mr Mrdak said he was fortunate in that ministers had always sought his advice - and that he had always given it.
"As I said to ministers repeatedly, you don't have to like it, agree with it, but provided that I can assure you the quality of the advice is there, I'm going to insist that you read it. Then what you do with it is your judgment and I'll work with you on that."
Mr Mrdak said the role of the Australian Public Service was to provide advice and "the greatest abrogation of a public servant's responsibility is that they don't provide the advice they believe".
"That is our role and I think that's an important role in our system of government," he said.
"If governments choose not to accept that advice after they've considered it, that's absolutely the right in our democracy.
"But for governments not to want to receive the advice or to seek to influence that advice in my view challenges the nature of our government."
Mr Mrdak said there had been situations when he'd had to make it clear to ministerial advisers what their role was, where departmental officials fit in, and how the relationship had to work.
"Good ministers understand that having a terrific working relationship with their department is absolutely fundamental," he said.
"That's one of the other things I suppose I've seen over my career more recently is, a lot of ministerial advisers don't have backgrounds in public administration any more. And so they're coming out of different backgrounds."
Mr Mrdak said he had also noticed a change in the boundary between politics and public administration.
"Most public administration is not the stuff that should trouble a lot of political parties, it's the stuff that delivers services, does the things the community needs," he said.
"They're not political matters, they're matters of public administration.
"I think the thing I'd say is, in the last decade or more what we've seen is a blurring between the political process and public administration where a lot of people in the political process don't quite understand that being in government is actually mostly about public administration and good administration, not politics.
"Politics is how you deliver the argument for good administration, but it shouldn't form the basis of public administration."
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Mr Mrdak said the trend was more accelerated in some countries than Australia.
"You see the trauma in say the US at the moment, of the conflict between the Trump administration and the US professional bureaucracy, is a consequence of the mismatch of public administration versus the political agenda.
"We haven't got that here in Australia, fortunately, we don't have that. I think most government ministers and both federal and state work well with their departments, but at times there is that point at which the line has to be drawn around the proper functioning role for which ministers are employed is public administration."
The post-COVID world
Mr Mrdak, who describes himself as having been "hands-on" in leading government departments, will stay out of the day-to-day management of NEC Australia.
He accepted the new role partly out of interest in the technology, but said he was mainly attracted to the chance to help solve problems.
"I've devoted my professional life to public policy and I did want to stay engaged in that space, and for me this role and other things that I'll go and do were really about 'can I contribute to public policy at the same time building linkages across with the private sector?'. And both of those things appeal to me in this role," Mr Mrdak said.
"It gave me a chance to apply some skill sets I had and some relationships I had to an area where I could help."
Mr Mrdak will focus on strategy and building the company's partnerships with all levels of government.
In a different way to the public service, his new role could involve him in reshaping Australia's economy after COVID-19.
New technology would be at the core of the way Australians worked, grew the economy and improved public services after the pandemic, he said.
"We will be the high value services and manufacturing economy only if we harness technology and only if we become a leader in both development and application of that technology," he said.
"There's still a presumption that somehow we can go back to the world of pre-February. We can't. That world has changed irrevocably if only because people have discovered alternative ways to do things that are not going to go back."
He said Australia could harness NEC's technology depth, including in artificial intelligence, facial recognition, contactless payments and frictionless travel.
"They're the sorts of areas where I think we can take that technology and apply them to Australian problems, particularly around the shape of our cities," Mr Mrdak said.
"Hopefully my role is to help NEC with strategy around where they can apply their technology into some of the problems the community's going to face in the next few years. Really that's where I see my role."