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Public servants victims of long Coalition memories

Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson will leave his post after the next budget. AAP/ Saeed Khan

In its shake up of the public service heads, the Abbott government has not repeated John Howard’s day of the long knives. Rather it’s taken a short scalpel in a surgical operation.

Three secretaries have been flicked and the Treasury head, Martin Parkinson will be moved off mid next year. All these decisions are political.

Parkinson’s future under a Coalition government has been a matter of endless speculation, running into years.

The Coalition thought Treasury had been politicised by Labor. Parkinson got some marks for distancing himself from the ALP’s attempt in the campaign to use Treasury costings in trying to discredit the opposition’s savings numbers. But not enough.

Parkinson is well known for being assertive in his dealings, but Hockey did seem willing to have a trial marriage.

One of the strikes against Parkinson was that he headed the then Climate Change department and was at the centre of Labor’s work on a carbon price. This was particularly in the mind of some in the Abbott office.

The new government couldn’t conveniently turf Parkinson out immediately. It’s a difficult time economically; there is a budget to put together.

In his statement Tony Abbott said that the government would be discussing a “further appointment” with Parkinson next year, which is presumably an overseas post.

It is not surprising that Don Russell, who has headed the industry department, is gone. Russell was Paul Keating’s right hand man, and returned from his position as ambassador to the United States to help Keating before the 1996 election.

The story of Andrew Metcalfe, who is out of Agriculture, goes back quite a way. Metcalfe formerly headed Immigration. In 2011 he gave a background briefing to journalists (later attributed to him) in which he suggested that Abbott’s policy of turning back boats, while effective under Howard, would not work now, because the asylum seekers would scuttle the boats and Indonesia would not agree to the policy.

The two cardinal sins in Coalition eyes are believing in a carbon price and not believing in turning around boats.

Blair Comley, who went to Resources after Labor scrapped the Climate Change department, had a major hand in Labor’s carbon policy and was a stronger defender of it. Enough said.

For the rest, the switches are unexceptional, and the new heads are from within the bureaucracy.

Lisa Paul had been secretary of a department embracing education and workplace relations – these have been split and she will head Education.

Paul Grimes moves from Environment to Agriculture; Glenys Beauchamp from Regional Australia (which disappears) to Industry.

There are two new heads. Gordon de Brouwer becomes secretary of the Environment department and Renee Leon will head the Employment department. Both have been senior in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (de Brouwer an associate secretary); sources say de Brouwer has a strong advocate in business leader Maurice Newman.

Newman chairs Abbott’s Business Advisory Group and this week wrote in the Financial Review of climate change “myths”.

“The new Coalition government is faced with enormous structural issues that have been camouflaged by effective propaganda and supported by well-organised elements in the public service, the media, the universities, trade unions and the climate establishment,” Newman wrote.

“With a huge vested interest in the status quo, they will be vocal opponents of change. The CSIRO, for example, has 27 scientists dedicated to climate change. It and the Weather Bureau have become global warming advocates. They continue to propagate the myth of anthropological climate change and are likely to be background critics of the Coalition’s Direct Action policies.”

The CSIRO comes under the Industry department. The scientists working in the climate area might be getting a little nervous.

Postscript: The government’s new administrative orders can be found here.

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