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Martin Parkinson has last laugh over Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin

Martin Parkinson is expected to be announced as the new head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, replacing Michael Thawley. Roger Phillips/QUT

The yet-to-be-announced appointment of former treasury secretary Martin Parkinson to head the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is a tale of justice restored, with a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Parkinson fell victim as soon as Tony Abbott became prime minister because he had once headed the climate change department; Abbott’s chief-of-staff Peta Credlin was his critic. Bizarrely, the government kept him on in his treasury role for more than a year after his dismissal.

Now Abbott is out and Parkinson will be back, and in an even more powerful position. Turnbull is giving him the pinnacle public service job, and by doing so is saying several things. He is recognising Parkinson’s superior talents as a public servant. He is effectively deploring how he was treated. As well, Turnbull implicitly is sending a wider message about valuing bureaucratic advice, although it will take a while to see how that turns out.

As it happens, Parkinson’s views on current problems in the system have just been published in Australian Financial Review journalist Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay, titled Political Amnesia: How We Forgot How to Govern.

Parkinson told Tingle:

The blurring of boundaries between the public servant and the political adviser, and the relentless focus on message over substance, results in a diminution of the ‘space’ in which the independent adviser can operate.

He believes there has been:

… a decline in the quality of advice and an erosion of capability, to the detriment of good government.

Parkinson’s way should be smoothed by the fact Turnbull is keeping on Drew Clarke as his permanent chief-of-staff. Clarke, head of the Communications Department, stepped in as chief-of-staff on a temporary basis after his boss became prime minister.

History suggests that having a bureaucrat in the chief-of-staff position in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is usually helpful. Think Graham Evans, Sandy Hollway and Dennis Richardson under Bob Hawke. Arthur Sinodinos, who served John Howard well, had a Treasury background, although he had worked for Howard in opposition.

While Parkinson’s appointment is encouraging, the public service will never claw back the position it once held in the advisory process. Tingle canvasses factors that have changed it, among them contracts for department heads, which build in insecurity and moving around, and cutbacks. She writes:

The periodic mass axing of public service heads upon the arrival of incoming conservative governments has created a caution in the culture. The bureaucracy has been cowed both by the prospect of being sacked and by a reward system which punishes taking risks.

Governments of either hue have come to be suspicious of the public service, demanding more so-called responsiveness from bureaucrats. The days of the high-status “mandarins” are gone. The advice market is more crowded, not just with the plethora of political staff but as lobby groups and think tanks have proliferated.

The advisory world has transformed forever, but there can still be some rebalancing if the government of the day has the will for it.

Parkinson takes the place of Michael Thawley, who had a distinguished diplomatic career and served as John Howard’s international adviser. He was brought back by Abbott from the private sector to head the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, suffering more than a few frustrations given the way the PMO operated under Credlin. His departure back to the private sector is not surprising. Sooner or later, prime ministers install their own person as their departmental head.

John Fraser, who had also left the bureaucracy for a lucrative career in the private sector, was another high-profile returnee under Abbott. He is head of Treasury, with the inevitable speculation now about his future. But there is no sign of his moving. Sources say he and Treasurer Scott Morrison are getting on well. Assuming Fraser is there for next year’s budget, the dynamic between him and Parkinson will be interesting.

Change is also on the way in Foreign Affairs, where secretary Peter Varghese will leave mid-next year to take the job of chancellor of the University of Queensland.

A front-runner for his job is Frances Adamson. She was the first woman to be Australian ambassador to Beijing, and would be the first to head the Foreign Affairs department. Adamson is in Turnbull’s office as international adviser and accompanied him on his recent trip. Her current position and the timing of Varghese’s leaving would suit a transition to secretary.

There will be consequential changes to come. Parkinson’s wife, Heather Smith, is a deputy secretary in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. She would move, but suggestions that she would become the head of the Communications Department are being dismissed.

While the Parkinson affair has set up in lights a contrast between the Abbott and Turnbull regimes, the point shouldn’t be pushed too far. Although nothing like as tribal as Abbott turned out to be, Turnbull too has an in-crowd and an out-crowd – something already discernible that will probably become more obvious over time.

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