Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Public service needs greater transparency around secretary appointments

By Scott Prasser - posted Friday, 23 June 2023

The recent announcement that Blair Comley is to become the new federal Health Department secretary and Andrew Metcalfe is to retire from Agriculture, along with seven other secretary changes plus a couple of enforced redundancies following the election of the Albanese government, reminds us of the transitory nature of such roles these days and the lack of open processes in their selection.

There may not have been the night of the "long knives" like under the Howard government that sacked six department secretaries, it is nevertheless reflects wide ranging changes including to key positions like the Department of Prime Minster and public service commissioner.

Indeed, the higher reaches of the APS are no longer the quiet haven they once were where department secretaries were permanent and held office for long periods.


This is not surprising since permanence of the senior public servant ranks was abolished by the Hawke government in the 1980s and all governments since have sought to appoint or sack department heads with increasing enthusiasm.

These changes now occur regularly with new governments or the case of the recent Coalition following new prime ministers.

Under the Coalition there were four different secretaries of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Other portfolios exhibited the same unsettling pattern included Health and Treasury which each had four secretaries. There were exceptions.

Education had just two secretaries and Department of Foreign Affairs only three. New governments are now distrustful of their inherited public servants, and look increasingly to appoint those from outside the APS whom they see as more responsive to their demands.

The resultant high turnover means senior public servants these days come and go with almost with the same rapidity as ministers. This results in a loss of experience, organisational memory, and seeming public service independence and impartiality in providing frank and fearless advice as incumbents might be tempted be too responsive to ministerial demands to maintain their positions.

Moreover, such changes initiated by executive government are open to charges, often unfairly, of "politicisation" and lack of merit by oppositions and perceived by the general public as just jobs for partisans thus undermining trust in government.


The issue is that while Australia has moved from the Westminster system with its notions of an independent permanent public service to a United States Washington model with each new government making new appointments, we have done so without the checks and balances of the US Senate confirmation process as required under its constitution.

The Senate confirmation process involves checking the background and qualifications of a president's nominee who must front a Senate committee to answer questions and resolve concerns.

Although only 2 per cent of presidential nominees are ever rejected, this process makes governments more careful in their selections, ensures the legislature directly oversights executive government decisions and builds a measure of bipartisan consensus for the appointees so they can get on with their job without the sniping.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

This article was first published in the Canberra Times.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

30 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Dr Scott Prasser has worked on senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments. His recent publications include:Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries in Australia (2021); The Whitlam Era with David Clune (2022) and the edited New directions in royal commission and public inquiries: Do we need them?. His forthcoming publication is The Art of Opposition reviewing oppositions across Australia and internationally. .

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Scott Prasser

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Scott Prasser
Article Tools
Comment 30 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy