There can be no doubt new Foreign Affairs secretary Kathryn Campbell's experienced and capable: that's not an issue. When, as head of Social Services, she presided over the debacle of robodebt she knew, for example, the system required "refining" (while insisting it would continue).
This is exactly what this government appears to want - can-do people, untroubled by insoluble obstacles. Those who will push through ideologically determined positions, blindly following orders no matter how incapable these are of actually addressing the underlying issues problem. Her promotion to head of the diplomatic service nonetheless encapsulates this government's complete disregard and contempt for expertise and nuance in a remarkably effective way.
The message is simple: follow and don't deviate, even slightly, from whatever happens to be the flavour of today.
Campbell's appointment is simply another small marker of the continuing disintegration of the public service from professionals capable of providing independent advice and its transformation into a collective of functionaries.
This government is certainly demonstrating a remarkable predilection for appointing military personnel to key positions. Campbell is a Major General in the Reserves and did complete a three-month posting as second-in-charge of a camp of fibro huts outside Dubai. However, this hardly counts as a triumphal diplomatic posting. Maybe Scott Morrison possesses some (slightly weird) love of the sharp creases and medals that adorn uniforms or perhaps he seeks to surround himself with a particular type of person. Somebody who simply gets on board and doesn't represent a challenge.
While willing to tolerate small signs of individuality in departments like Treasury (flashy cars and tailored suits) what it wants in the remainder of the service is obedient servitude from functionaries who will simply follow orders and, to use the exact words of an earlier import to Foreign Affairs, "get shit done".
This is revealing itself as a wholesale exercise in culture change.
Although it's just a small example of how a once great department is being driven into the ground, the recent tribulations of the Passports Office offer a glimpse into the processes enabling emasculation. The first step in the import of non-diplomats, such as Campbell, because (although capable of representing Australia abroad) it seems nobody possesses enough capability to run things back here. Gone are diplomats who've experienced the sudden personal crises faced by Australians abroad and capable of achieving results dealing with officials overseas, and in come process workers whose main expertise is in navigating internal bureaucracy practices to gain promotion. Then physically remove operations so it becomes easier to destroy intellectual resistance.
Next demolish institutional knowledge. Scrap effective procedures and introduce a new IT system promising it's the way of the future. When this proves too inadequate, resurrect the old methods and endorse the resulting two-system operations as representing a "new era" in capacity. Double down on disaster.
Keep the transformation going by importing people who know nothing about foreign postings and place them in key positions. Get rid of anyone knowledgeable about the world - they obviously represent a threat - and instead introduce new paths for progression bringing in your allies from previous jobs. Tailor responses appropriately. At the top level, begin with "work retreats" to "build the executive team" and allow them the opportunity to pledge to demonstrate their personal loyalty. Mark those displaying hesitancy. Further down, test the degree of individual commitment to your regime by holding "tutu Tuesdays", where wearing dress-ups and engaging in inappropriate and boorish behaviour becomes a marker of fidelity. Combine this with immature attempts to create a 'homely' environment by, for example, rewarding "workers" with presents like remaindered soap dishes and toilet brushes from a well-known hardware chain.
It's obviously ridiculous to blame the travails of the foreign service on one individual. It's health, however, offers a critical marker of a sickness at the centre of the way this country is engaging with the world. How is it that ministers and senior public servants can wander around speculating about the imminence of war with China without any effective rebuttal coming from our diplomats?
A recent article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs by Darren Lim and Nathan Attrill speculates people increasingly fall into one of four "types" when it comes to dealing with China. "Balancers" focus on power, viewing international conflict as inevitable.
They argue we need to prepare to fight because military might is the only language that can prevent war.
'Reformers' use ideology as a tool to peer inside the structure of the nation state. They come away with concerns that internal pressures are inexorably driving Beijing's leadership towards such conflict.
"Hedgers" recognise the drivers of both external and internal competition within China but, aware of the cataclysm that would result from war, are desperate to find a way of dissolving the emerging conflict. They are looking for a grand bargain that can provide a way out.
Finally, the "Engagers" want the international system to work. They think a third way forward can still be discovered to escape the crisis.
The authors admit few contributors to the debate would see themselves as fitting neatly into any one of these four idealised "types" and admit "no single set of factors is sufficient to answer Australia's China question". Both power and ideology obviously matter, as does the need not to abandon our own principles or entirely give up on engagement.
One critical factor is the extent to which China is itself altering, year by year. The answers of the past won't provide a way ahead in the future and understanding this is critical. The superpower we are dealing with today is not the country of 2008, 2012 or even 2018. China has begun tentatively reaching out to our government and yet, currently, we haven't managed to find a way of progressing such dialogue.
This is, of course, the one critical task of Foreign Affairs.
Let's hope the secretary is up to it.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and regular columnist.