Defence job is a bureaucratic prize in uncertain times

Dennis Richardson has served more than 48 years in the public service and seen a dozen prime ministers. Lukas Coch/AAP

One of the most challenging jobs in the federal public service has opened with the retirement next month of the highly regarded secretary of the defence department, Dennis Richardson.

Possible replacements being canvassed include the secretary of human services, Kathryn Campbell, and the secretary of immigration and border protection, Mike Pezzullo.

Mentioned also are the associate secretary in defence, Brendan Sargeant, and the secretary of the health department, Martin Bowles, who is a former secretary of immigration and a former deputy secretary of defence.

An outside chance is Peter Jennings, who heads the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think-tank. Jennings also previously worked as a deputy secretary in defence, but is being discounted because he hasn’t run a large organisation.

Well-placed sources believe Defence Minister Marise Payne would prefer a woman to be appointed, but Payne’s office denies she has any gender preference, saying she just wants the best person for the job.

In any case, the decision is up to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Campbell’s name has been canvassed for months, but she is now carrying the baggage of the Centrelink debt recovery disaster. Long-time public service watcher Jack Waterford last month wrote in the Canberra Times that Campbell “has drawn most of the fire onto herself and away from her minister and her department over the Centrelink robo-debt debacle she has supervised and contributed to”.

Campbell is a brigadier in the army reserve and last year took leave to serve as second-in-command of Australia’s forces in the Middle East. She told The Australian at the time: “Some public servants might say I’m a bit too directive because I’m in the army. Military people might say I’m a bit too consultative because I’m in the public service. I think I’m somewhere in the middle.”

Pezzullo, seen as a bureaucratic empire-builder, previously had extensive experience in the Department of Defence and was the main author of the Rudd government’s 2009 Defence White Paper. That paper created some tension with China, because of its concern at that country’s military modernisation. In earlier years Pezzullo worked for Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans and for opposition leader Kim Beazley.

Sargeant, who will be acting secretary until a successor for Richardson is chosen, has held a number of senior defence and intelligence posts and has also worked in senior jobs at Centrelink.

The defence secretary and the chief of the Australian Defence Force jointly manage the huge-spending defence organisation under a diarchy, with both answerable to the defence minister.

With the Trump presidency, the growing assertiveness of China, and North Korea’s aggressive stance presenting greater strategic uncertainty than the region has seen for many years, the defence job is more critical and complex than ever.

Currently defence has two cabinet ministers – Payne, and Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne. The latter’s ambition to be defence minister has been little disguised, and the department’s new top public servant will have to be adroit at minister-management.

Richardson, who will be 70 next month, has served more than 48 years in the public service and seen a dozen prime ministers. For one of them, Bob Hawke, he worked for a time as chief-of-staff and principal advisor.

Before his appointment as defence secretary in 2012 he was secretary of the foreign affairs department, after being Australia’s ambassador in Washington. During an illustrious career in which he has been much valued by both sides of politics, he also headed the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

Tributes have flowed from the Coalition and Labor. Turnbull praised his “commitment to public service, his strategic insight, his candour and integrity”. Payne said: “Since I have become minister, I have never been left in any doubt about Dennis’ views.” Pyne said: “Dennis’ frankness and fearlessness in counsel is legendary.”

A statement from the several ALP spokespeople in the defence area said: “The Labor team will miss Dennis’ candour and engaging advocacy for ensuring Australia’s national interests were always put first.”

Peta Credlin, Tony Abbott’s former chief-of-staff, said Richardson was like an “exocet missile” in getting to the nub of an issue.

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