Then-prime minister Tony Abbott was once meeting with the nation's most senior federal public servants when he delivered a message they may not have expected.
Abbott urged department secretaries to be out in public at least once a year talking about longer-term issues for their portfolios. He said the senior bureaucrats had a role to play in anchoring public debate in facts and the broader outlook. The prime minister told them this was part of their role, being apart from day-to-day politics.
It's said that bureaucrats have retreated from public view in the past two decades. Public servants once briefed journalists on policies and programs, but that connection has diminished. Secretaries in recent years have largely kept a low profile and let their ministers speak to media.
As one former senior public servant says, the public in recent times has seen less of bureaucrats compared to 20 years ago - except when something goes wrong. That seems a shame.
The trend reversed in 2020 as public servants surged back into public view.
COVID-19 propelled the change, as public health officials stood next to first ministers at press conferences around the nation, explaining both the science of the pandemic and government responses.
Brendan Murphy, the federal chief medical officer in the early stages of COVID-19 and now Health Department secretary, is the famous example of a bureaucrat with a large media presence. He's basically a household name.
There are signs other senior public servants are in the public eye more, often through the media.
Figures from media monitors iSentia count the mentions of department secretaries in print, online and broadcast media. The numbers show the names of senior bureaucrats are appearing more in the nation's news.
Professor Murphy had by far the largest media profile among federal bureaucrats in 2020, his name appearing in news stories on 17,500 occasions. In 2019, when he was chief medical officer, he received 500 mentions in the news.
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens, tasked with coordinating the public service's response to COVID-19 as its top bureaucrat, had 2000 appearances in news stories last year. That number was 700 the year before.
Treasury secretary Steven Kennedy received 1800 mentions in the news last year as he advised the government on its response to the economic shock, the data show. He had a lower profile in 2019, when his name appeared 400 times in media.
COVID-19 explains a lot of this. These bureaucrats have major roles in the government's handling of the pandemic and the numbers reflect this. The tallies don't necessarily show senior public servants are spending more time speaking to media. In fact, this was probably even less of a priority for most of them in 2020.
Coupled with some other signs, the numbers still say something about the re-emergence of bureaucrats into the public spotlight. Department secretaries frequently spoke about their work during the pandemic, and about issues handled within their portfolio, in podcasts and public events.
Home Affairs Department secretary Mike Pezzullo has long been one of the most visible senior bureaucrats. The iSentia numbers show, among department secretaries, his name appeared most in news stories in 2018 (903 mentions) and 2019 (1969 mentions). Mr Pezzullo leads a department that's in a highly scrutinised portfolio and sometimes involved in contentious policy. This explains some of his profile. He also has a reputation for being outspoken, and has been forthcoming in his views about national security.
He caught attention last week when appearing in a Sky News interview on Tuesday morning. Political journalist Samantha Maiden tweeted about it, discussing how it fit with a trend in the bureaucracy: "In case you haven't noticed Departmental secretaries appearing on TV - Brendan Murphy now does it all time in Health - is quite a shift that seems to have gone unnoticed," she wrote.
"Personally I'm enjoying transparency but it's not normal."
Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo is on Sky. In case you haven’t noticed Departmental secretaries appearing on TV - Brendan Murphy now does it all time in Health - is quite a shift that seems to have gone unnoticed. Personally I’m enjoying transparency but it’s not normal.— Samantha Maiden (@samanthamaiden) February 1, 2021
Tweets in response gave a different view. One said that public servants were "compromised when used to promote the government line". Other Twitter users questioned why Mr Pezzullo was appearing on Sky News.
Mr Pezzullo last year shared his views on the role of the most senior bureaucrats in speaking publicly, saying they should describe how they deliver government programs.
However it was also important for officials not to undermine confidence in their impartiality, he said.
"As long as our speeches and our utterances respect those two iron rules, one, stay out of politics, and two, it's not your job to settle, decide and promulgate policy, then there is actually quite a broad role [in public discussion]," Mr Pezzullo said.
"In this day and age of social media and people doing a lot of their own research and wanting to get information, I think it's actually critically important that senior officials of my level speak more about how we go about administration, delivery of programs and how we go about undertaking our work."
In the Sky News interview, Mr Pezzullo spoke to a political journalist about the public service's response to COVID-19. Later in the interview, he discussed the reduction in boat arrivals since 2014. He kept his responses to matters in his portfolio, and administration.
Sky News might appear an odd forum for a public servant. The news channel is associated with the right wing of politics and airs commentators such as Alan Jones and Peta Credlin. Its evening segments are ominously nicknamed "Sky After Dark" for their conservative, opinion-based content.
There's more to the news outlet than that. Sky News is one of the nation's major broadcasters for national and political news. Looking at Mr Pezzullo's interview a different way, it could be argued that the public benefits from having a senior bureaucrat tell Sky's audience about the public service's role in the COVID-19 response.
I asked the Home Affairs Department about the media appearance.
A spokesperson said Mr Pezzullo rarely spoke to media, and only in response to requests from news outlets. Requests were treated on merit.
In other recent interviews, Mr Pezzullo spoke to ABC Radio National and The Canberra Times following his Queen's birthday honour in June. He was interviewed by ABC journalist Geraldine Doogue on Saturday Extra the following month, when he spoke about national security. He also spoke to Sky News in August last year, when he described how the public service was assisting the government response to COVID-19.
In short, Mr Pezzullo has spoken to a few different audiences in his media interviews during the last year, often explaining how the public service does its work.
When asked whether Mr Pezzullo considers the political bias of a news organisation in deciding whether to engage with it, the Home Affairs spokesperson said no.
Former senior public servants say there's a role for bureaucrats to play in speaking to the public, including through the media, as long as they do not advocate policy.
Public understanding of the federal bureaucracy, and trust in government, isn't served when bureaucrats disappear entirely from view.
Some believe senior public servants should do more to explain how institutions work, how policy decisions are made, and to present the facts. They can add important context to issues in their portfolio, which helps public understanding.
One said it promoted public confidence in the depth of the bureaucracy's expertise when senior bureaucrats spoke publicly.
Another described a key test in considering whether it was appropriate to do a media interview or speaking engagement: is it in the interest of the public or the public service, as distinct from being in the interests of the individual speaking?
The Public Service Act says a department secretary is responsible for helping fulfil the agency minister's accountability obligations to provide factual information.
"So if it fulfills that public or public service interest test and does not stray into politics, then it may be appropriate," the former official said.
"Other things I'd consider is the appropriateness of the forum, the timing and state of play of the issue - is it in the midst of a politically charged debate that could draw the public official into the politics - and how comfortable the official is in conducting interviews.
"I'd note that being a media performer is not generally what public servants sign up for - outside media/communication areas. It is a skill that many secretaries and officials will not be comfortable undertaking and won't necessarily be good at doing.
"Ministers themselves will also have views as to whether they are comfortable with their secretary playing this role."
Public understanding of the federal bureaucracy, and trust in government, isn't served when bureaucrats disappear entirely from view. I might be expected to say this, as a journalist. But there's a reason public servants are speaking so frequently to the public about COVID-19.
Granted bureaucrats have something valuable or interesting to say, and don't undermine confidence in their apolitical role, the public stands to benefit much in hearing more from them.