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As if for a thousand years… : David Borthwick

Please note - this is an archived publication.

Opening comments

Lynelle Briggs
Australian Public Service Commissioner

Good afternoon everyone. I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people and their ancestors as the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting today.

On behalf of the Australian Public Service Commission, I’m extremely pleased to welcome you all here for this afternoon’s valedictory lecture by David Borthwick, after his retirement as Secretary of the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.

The Commission hosts these special lectures by Secretaries as a mark of respect, so that they can give their reflections on their careers and their suggestions on the way forward for the Australian Public Service.

David Borthwick’s background as the son of a former Liberal Deputy Premier of Victoria and possibly the first environment or conservation Minister in Australia, Bill Borthwick, is steeped in public service and politics.

When you look at David’s recent work you can see clear resonance with his father’s commitment to the environment and conservation. As Conservation Minister in Victoria from 1972 to 1979, David’s father had a major role in establishing and expanding the National Parks Service, creating the Land Conservation Council and declaring twenty additional parks, including four national parks.

But David Borthwick’s roots are also steeped deeply in economics. In 1972 David graduated from Monash University in Melbourne with First Class Honours in Economics and, from there, began his public service career in the Treasury Department in 1973.

This was the era of radicalism and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at Monash, but David was a swat—being studious in the library while all hell broke lose around him and, of course, doing very well at university.

David Borthwick has had a diverse public service career with several tough management roles in a varied range of both central and line agencies.

He was promoted to the SES in Treasury at a very young age, and worked there in various roles from Branch Head to Deputy Secretary during the period from 1979 to 1998. This time included heading the Overseas Finance Branch that looked after the balance of payments and the exchange at the time of floating the dollar in 1983.

It was around that time—after Paul Keating made his famous ‘banana republic’ comment—that Treasury and Finance embarked on significant expenditure cuts. In charge of fiscal policy at this time, David oversaw a process that led to the achievement of significant reductions in expenditure as a percentage of GDP. And, for those of us in line agencies at the time, his very name brought fear to our souls.

He moved on to manage Structural Policy and Economic Divisions in Treasury before taking a posting as Australian Ambassador to the OECD in 1991. He returned to Treasury in 1993 as Division Head, Taxation Policy.

Between 1993–2004 David held a number of Deputy Secretary positions, first in Treasury, then in the Department of Health and Aged Care, and finally in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet where he was responsible for policy advice on economic, industry and environmental issues, as well as the Cabinet Secretariat and Implementation Unit.

It was, I think, the latter two positions that rounded him out—he learnt about stakeholder management, tough negotiation and delivery issues, the depth of skill required to operate in Commonwealth-State systems, and the challenge of management big, diverse operations. No matter whether it was a pharmaceutical or an airline problem, David would be on the issue, pushing the “right” path, and marshalling staff around him to progress implementation. His true talent really shone through, and I don’t know anyone who wasn’t pleased to see David become a Secretary.

After his appointment as Secretary in February 2004, David Borthwick led the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, as it is now known, through major changes in Government approaches to these high profile and globally challenging issues. These would test the mettle and resilience of any leader, and David has demonstrated outstanding skills in managing these demands.

In this role, David made a major contribution to managing water security, including managing the transfer of water functions and water-related programmes into the Department, and developing and commencing implementation of the Rudd Government’s Water for the Future strategy, announced in April 2008.

One of the great challenges has been to ensure the long-term health of the Murray–Darling Basin, attempting to balance the needs of a sustainable and viable agricultural sector with environmental objectives, while negotiating with State and Territory Governments, communities, irrigators, environmentalists and scientists. Under David’s stewardship we saw a new intergovernmental agreement agreed at COAG with the Basin States, a referral of powers to the Commonwealth and the creation of the new Commonwealth Murray–Darling Basin Authority.

Although responding to climate change and developing an emissions trading system now sit outside the environment portfolio, David had major carriage of this work until December 2007. Under his leadership, initial work was done by the Department on the development of an emissions trading system and implementing an overarching national framework to tackle climate change, building partnerships with foreign governments, and working towards cooperative relations with State and Territory Governments and industry.

Under his stewardship on the environment and heritage, the Department implemented major initiatives under the National Heritage Trust and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 which have gained wide acceptance and achieved real results in protecting the environment.

Australia’s reputation as a world leader in marine environment conservation was reinforced with agreement to a network of protected areas of the south-east of the continent, such that Australia now has about one third of the world’s marine protected areas. Building on this success, the creation of more marine protected areas is being planned for.

The location of the national parks in the portfolio provided David with an opportunity to do something positive in one of the problem areas in the public service—Indigenous employment. The Commonwealth’s great national parks are now jointly managed with Indigenous Australians. There are also now 25 Indigenous Protected Areas forming part of the national reserve system and some 680 Indigenous Ranger positions have been created. I should say that David has taken every opportunity to raise the plight of Indigenous people with Government and to seek additional funding.

Another observation highlights the perspective that David brought to his management of the environment portfolio—he liked to display his prize trout catches. They were in his office and in some ways formed a statement of his belief that the parks are there for people to enjoy.

Environmental purists may not have agreed with his approach (although trout are a feral species), but it did reflect his commitment to delivering the Government’s environment policies—getting the balance right, between pursuing environmental goals, and the Government and the public’s desire for a careful and considered response to economic and social objectives.

David was instrumental in advancing the legacy of his predecessors in the last 20 years or so of balancing clear environmental objectives with broader economic and social objectives. Part of this change is the more co-operative way the department works with the ‘industry’ departments, particularly Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and the Department of Climate Change. David has been a role model for cooperative, whole-of-government work and integrating that with his work with two Ministers: Peter Garrett and Penny Wong.

Developments in the field of arts and culture are too numerous to list. A wide range of such institutions are now part of the portfolio, but perhaps I should just highlight the remarkable achievement of the new National Portrait Gallery, which opened its doors a few months ago.

David Borthwick has a well deserved reputation amongst his colleagues as a highly committed and professional public servant who has made a very significant contribution to public administration in Australia. He is particularly known for his ability to tell like it is and his ‘frank and fearless’ advice, which is an important characteristic in public service leaders.

I first met David in the 1990s, when he moved to the Health Department from Treasury to become Deputy Secretary. In that role, David displayed all the hallmarks of exceptional public sector leadership—intellectual, professional, people management and ethical leadership, touched with a strong sense of the operating environment and the Government's priorities.

David stands out among his peers in being able to blend thoughtfully and effectively economic and social policy considerations in a tough and high pressure working environment. He took this capability to blend economic, social and later environmental sustainability priorities into the environment area and built on it to become an environment Secretary without peer. One of his great skills is his capability to hone in on the real issue and to focus on getting the right outcomes.

The valuable contributions he has made to public policy, public administration and the Australian community through Treasury; Health and Ageing; Prime Minister and Cabinet; and Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts portfolios have been enormous, and the country is grateful to him.

David was awarded the Public Service Medal in 2002 for outstanding public service, particularly in the development and progression of the Government’s economic policies.

Above all of this, he is a truly decent chap, and one I am very fond of personally and I think my only true mentor. More than that, he’s a fine friend and widely respected across the public service. We all miss him.

Would you please join me in welcoming David Borthwick, until recently Secretary of the Department of the Environment, Heritage, Water and the Arts, for his valedictory lecture.

Valedictory lecture

David Borthwick
Secretary of the Department of the Environment, Heritage, Water and the Arts


In April 1971, two years before I joined the Australian Public Service, the first meeting of Victoria’s Land Conservation Council was held in the old Cabinet Room of Melbourne’s Treasury Building. At that meeting, the Minister for Conservation gave a rousing speech and impressed upon the twelve new councillors their historic responsibility to make recommendations on the use of public lands “as if for a thousand years”. The Minister believed that the best conservation outcomes would be achieved if the councillors took a longer term view1.

The Minister was my father, the late Bill Borthwick. Today, I pinch myself that I’m retiring from the Australian Public Service as Secretary of the Department for the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts when my father, as a member of the Victorian Government, entered the ministry as Minister for Water Supply and went on to serve as Victoria’s first Minister for Conservation. He founded the Victorian Environment Protection Authority and oversaw a vast expansion of the State’s national parks system.

I mention my father today, not because I intend to give you a blow by blow account of my family history or my career in the Australian Public Service, but, because I think his was sage advice when he implored the Land Conservation Council to make decisions “as if for a thousand years”. He firmly believed in taking a longer term, national interest perspective.

Australia needs to be far-sighted in developing public policy, whether it be economic, environmental, social or foreign policy, for the nation to thrive in a rapidly changing and often confronting world. And the Australian Public Service has a critical role in helping governments to take a longer term view.

I would like to use this occasion to address some of the issues that I think are important for public policy and for Australia’s national interest for the future.

But firstly, and to provide some context for these thoughts, I would like to reflect on some of the forces shaping Australia and the Australian Public Service over my 36 years in the service.

Looking back

The Australian Public Service I joined in 1973 as a Treasury graduate was markedly different than that of today. Indeed, the nation was very different.

In 1973, the Rolling Stones, Suzi Quatro, The Carpenters and Roberta Flack were topping the singles charts and people were tuning their TVs in to Number 96.

The number of people in Australia was less than 14 million and the population was much more concentrated in the south-eastern States2. Australians didn’t travel very frequently; the distance the average Australian travelled by air was more than four-fold lower than it is today3. Although telecommunications was a significant industry by the 1970s, many rural Australians were still without adequate phone lines. And it would be more than two decades before internet addresses became available to the general public4 (and more than three decades before I fully figured out how to use mine). Australians were physically and technologically much less connected.

The foundations of the Australian economy were also very different. Manufacturing was a much bigger component of the national economy, as was agriculture5. Since the 1970s, we have witnessed a boom in the services industry, particularly in the property, business, finance and insurance industries, and an increase in the relative contribution of mining to GDP6.

In the early 1970s, the Australian economy was wrapped in the cotton wool of tariffs, industry subsidies, tax concessions and ill-directed regulation. The effective rate of industry assistance for manufacturing was more than five-fold what it is today, and approximately double for agriculture7. To say that we had properly functioning labour and capital markets would be delusional. Government administration comprised more than 5 percent of GDP, the highest contribution since federation, with the notable exceptions of the depression and possibly World War II8.

The Australian economy was a closed book. We thought of ourselves as a substantial trading nation but we weren’t. The total value of goods and services imports, expressed as a percentage of GDP, was less than a third of today’s value, and the total export value was just over half what it is today9.

Australians weren’t just less connected with each other; they were less connected with the world.

As a result of Australia’s inward-looking approach, its rigid product and labour markets and undeveloped financial markets, the economy was in bad shape. Australia’s GDP per capita, which had historically been well above the OECD average, was sliding towards a below average report card.

The Australian Public Service I joined in 1973 was in the throws of a debate between free trade and protectionism, or, as I saw it, a debate between economic common sense and the ‘dark side’. The national battle of philosophies – of how to run the place – was reflected within the Australian Public Service. There was considerable ill will between departments, particularly Treasury, Trade and Industry officials, and personal, often heated, exchanges between departmental Secretaries.

The Australian Public Service I joined – indeed Australia – was at a cross roads. Collegiality was minimal. Departmental officials believed that what was in their sector’s interest was in the national interest. They fought hard to boost sectoral interests. Treasury wasn’t immune either; although it was good at pointing out the failings of other departments, it too was guilty of over zealous regulation in its own patch.

But on this battleground, some powerful ideas emerged. Alf Rattigan was Chairman of the Tariff Board when I joined the service. He had been appointed back in the mid 1960s by the then Deputy Prime Minister, Sir John McEwen, because of his perceived protectionist leanings.

Sadly for Sir John, his appointed gamekeeper turned out to be a poacher. While Rattigan was initially cautious, he soon became a champion for economic reform. This period was a defining moment for Australia. The removal of the protectionist straight jacket in all its guises was led by Rattigan. Australia began to focus on issues of economic or resource efficiency, on stimulating productivity and lifting the nation’s long term growth potential.

Rattigan had a profound influence on the nation; he laid the foundations for Australia’s future prosperity. He also had a profound influence on my career. I moved from the Treasury to the newly formed Industries Assistance Commission (the successor of the Tariff Board) in 1974. That period of the mid-1970s had a major impact on my approach to working in the Australian Public Service.

Rattigan shaped my views on the importance of pursuing the long term national interest, rather than sectoral interests, and the importance of examining economy-wide implications of public policy choices. He impressed upon me the value of robust analysis, openness and public inquiry. Most importantly, he made me realise that public servants could exert a major influence on the course of the nation’s fortunes.

And so, all fired up from my early years in Treasury and the Industries Assistance Commission, I embarked eagerly on a public service career that has lasted 36 years.

So, what are the biggest changes I have witnessed over the past 36 years?

Firstly, I think the Australian Public Service has matured greatly. Today, there is a much stronger focus on developing public policy that is genuinely in the national interest and, consequently, there is a much stronger focus on working together. Departments cooperate a lot more, and there is a greater sense of collegiality among the upper echelons of the service.

It is just as well that the Australian Public Service has matured – or, perhaps it’s not surprising – given that the issues governments are grappling with today are significantly more complex than they were in 1973. This is the second major change I have witnessed: an increase in the complexity of government business. Government business is more complex because Australia is more entrenched in the global economy and more exposed to the world in general. (The trade figures I referred to earlier are prime evidence of this, as are the massive financial flows in and out of Australia.)

In this world, governments must be on the front foot because competitive pressures are intense. And they must be ready to respond to global events, because, as we are currently reminded, the nation’s fortunes can be buffeted by the rises and falls in other major economies.

Let me digress here and say a few words about the current international economic crisis. Economists are not very good at picking turning points, or the magnitude of events. They are, however, better at pointing out underlying pressures; at identifying the fundamentals.

The growing major financial (and real) imbalances between the United States and China, to mention the most prominent example, have been apparent since the late 1990s. It was the main topic of debate in financial market meetings I attended during the later part of the 1990s. These imbalances are truly massive: China’s current account surplus peaked at around 11 per cent of GDP in 2007; the United States’ current account deficit peaked at around 6.5 per cent of GDP.

The vast flow of funds into the United States (that is the counterpart of their current account deficit) is reflective of persistent macro- and micro-economic policy failures in both countries.

The United States was not so much putting capital inflows into investments which could service the debt over time but into current public and private consumption, including housing. In essence, the capital inflows fuelled the boom that subsequently precipitated the collapse as the United States Federal Reserve belatedly sought to dampen domestic demand by tightening monetary policy.

The world is now wearing the consequences of speculative bubbles, originating in the United States property market, inadequate financial market regulatory frameworks, and the collective loss of confidence affecting asset values, precipitating further contagion effects. Understandably, investors and consumers are confused. A return to more normal conditions is a long way off.

Australia has inevitably has been swept up in such events. We can’t avoid the consequences of poor policy in other countries. But we can be prepared for them.

Although we are being severely buffeted, we are in much better shape than most other countries because during the 1990s we reinforced the independence of the Reserve Bank, adopted longer term monetary policy (aimed at keeping inflation in the 2 to 3 per cent range) and fiscal rules of thumb (achieving balance over the course of the economic cycle).

Particularly importantly, in the 1990s we fundamentally changed the way we prudentially regulate the financial sector, forming the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority covering essentially the entire sector. In this regard, Australia was well ahead of many other nations. Australia’s prescience – or sound public policy – championed by the Treasury has stood Australia in good stead.

How stark is the contrast to the financial regulatory shambles now exposed in so-called international financial centres. Just look at the ad-hoc and ill-conceived financial regulatory structure in the United States; look at the way administrations have run (sic) fiscal settings, particularly over the last ten years. How disastrous is it that the United States is now confronted with a budget deficit of around 12 per cent of GDP.

In short, good public policy – getting the underlying framework right – really does matter and in that regard, while we will undoubtedly have lessons to learn ourselves, we have been on the front foot and the Australian Public Service has been at the forefront of formulating good policy.

Beyond the immediate economic issues, governments must be able to adapt quickly, because new ideas and technologies are developed and transmitted so readily. And they must be prepared and able to work with other nations because many problems – economic, social, and environmental – are truly global in nature.

Let me be clear. I am strongly of the view that Australia’s greater engagement with the world, through trade and financial flows and our advances in communications, and the increased mobility of people and ideas is a very good thing. However, as I have underscored by example of Australia’s far-sighted fiscal and monetary policy management and financial market regulation, it does have consequences for the way Australia positions itself for those challenges. Let me elaborate further.

Challenges for government

Pursuing longer term reforms

I started my address by emphasising the need to take a longer term national rather than a sectoral perspective: “as if for a thousand years”.

One major challenge for government is pursuing a reform agenda in the face of extreme pressure from vocal single interest groups. Often the costs are upfront and obvious whereas the benefits, although much greater, are diffuse and long term.

Specific interest groups that stand to lose have become increasingly savvy at harnessing the power and reach of the media and the susceptibility of our politicians to push their particular cause. And, more than ever, governments are reactive to the intense pressure of the 24-hour news cycle. Sadly, responding to the shrill voices of sectoral interests too often gets in the way of long term policy development in the national interest.

It is confronting this reality that I have found to be the most challenging and sometimes frustrating aspect of being a public policy adviser. The biggest tension between politicians and their public servant advisers resolves around this issue. The irony is, while we are much more enlightened now than we were in the 1970s regarding the importance of pursuing the national interest, it is always, sadly, a close run thing.

Some might say: is there harm in making a few concessions, here and there, to sectoral interests? However, the accumulation of bad decisions or indecision will catch up with nations and is ultimately reflected in standard of living. Of course, governments have to strike a balance. But exactly where that balance is struck needs to reflect the outcome of a fully informed assessment of where the national interest truly lies.

How can governments better ensure that the pursuit of longer term reforms is not hijacked by the opportunistic demands of special pleaders?

First, we need to undertake rigorous analysis of different policy choices drawing on economic, scientific and social considerations. That should include, wherever possible, cost: benefit analysis. Of course, not everything can be accurately weighed in dollar terms but, in all instances, there needs to be a careful weighing of pros and cons so that quantitative and qualitative judgements can be made. We also need to remain realistic about what we can and cannot do: a nation can’t afford to fund every policy initiative which has a favourable cost: benefit ratio.

Secondly, we need to open up the debate over long term policy choices. We need to better equip the public to understand the complexity of issues and the pros and cons of different options. Rattigan was a great believer in having transparent public policy processes. There needs to be more public releases of research papers, discussion papers and inquiries addressing policy issues of national importance.

In this regard, some have criticised the plethora of reviews and inquiries currently being undertaken by the Commonwealth. While the proof of these reviews will be in the outcomes, this is a development that I welcome. It sure beats inaction or half baked decisions that are taken on the run, often pandering to the squeakiest wheel.

Thirdly, the proper working of the Cabinet system of government is imperative. I am concerned that we have slowly edged towards a de facto presidential style of government, without sufficient checks and balances.

During my time in the Australian Public Service, some of the most important decisions were made by the Prime Minister, sometimes with a small group of senior Ministers. Cabinet was little more than a formality, a rubber stamp. Indeed, the Australian system is, in some respects, becoming more presidential in character but without the checks and balances that are on the President of the United States.

Governments usually start with good intentions but fall into bad habits. Ideas need to be debated and tested in a properly informed Cabinet forum. I am not arguing that every idea needs to go to Cabinet (in fact I think too many inconsequential items reach the Cabinet agenda), but it is critical that Cabinet properly considers the issues of national importance.

Commonwealth – State relations

Another major challenge for the national Government, which is a product of Australia’s higher exposure to the world and the increased mobility of people and ideas, is a change in Commonwealth – State relations.

Over time, our views on what issues should be handled at the national level have broadened and more and more responsibility has been acquired by the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has gathered greater control via legislative means (High Court decisions, assertion of existing Constitutional powers and, occasionally, referral of State powers) and, perhaps most significantly, via financial instruments, such as specific purpose payments.

I believe that this trend is unlikely to be reversed and the Commonwealth Government will acquire more responsibility over time. Now, this won’t always be the Commonwealth’s choosing, as the national Government will continue to be drawn into issues of State responsibility by the community, who view the Commonwealth as a de facto ‘court of appeal’.

Is this trend towards more centralised government a bad thing? Some would argue that it represents a departure from subsidiarity principle: that is, the Commonwealth is taking on responsibility for programmes and services it is not best placed to deliver.

I don’t believe this is the case: in the current age, physical proximity doesn’t necessarily make a government better equipped to administer a programme. The Commonwealth Government is absolutely capable of developing strategies for managing complex projects at a local level, and delivering services across Australia which cater to the different needs of different communities.

Nevertheless, the acquisition of new responsibilities does bring with it new challenges. It puts the onus on the Commonwealth Government and the Australian Public Service to do more of the longer term, strategic analysis across a broader range of issues. This includes clarifying the boundaries in key areas of split Commonwealth-State responsibility, such a health, education and transport, to ensure the effective delivery of services.

The centralisation we are seeing on a national scale is also happening at an international scale. As I discussed previously, Australia is more entrenched in the global economy and will, increasingly, be shaped by global forces and events. We are most likely to thrive if we have strong economy and a healthy society. This only reinforces the need for the Commonwealth Government to be far-sighted in its approach to issues.

Issues for the Australian Public Service

I would now like to talk more specifically about issues for the Australian Public Service. The Australian Public Service clearly has a critical role in helping governments to rise to challenges I have described. So, what are the ingredients for a healthy Australian Public Service that can assist governments to pursue longer term reforms across an increasingly broader range of responsibilities?

The first ingredient: finding the space for longer term thinking

The quality of the Australian Public Service is the foundation of good government. It must have the capacity – the skilled workforce and the resources – to undertake the strategic thinking which underpins longer term reforms. Institutions such as the Productivity Commission, which have a long term orientation and some degree of independence from government, are vitally important. But they are not enough. The capacity for longer term thinking needs to exist across the service, in each agency with policy responsibilities.

I think it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Australian Public Service to find room to do this. It has sometimes been said that the Australian Public Service is strong on policy but weaker on programme implementation. Certainly officers with policy skills have tended to move up the ranks more rapidly.

My concern is that the Australian Public Service is being tasked to do so much that the balance is tipping the other way. The immediate pressures of programme and service delivery take priority over long term policy development.

This is one of the great difficulties of being an agency head: we want to provide a longer term perspective to government but our agencies are so flat out, so stretched, that we have scant capacity to invest in serious thinking.

My concern is that the less we engage in thinking about longer term policy issues, the less capable we become of engaging in it when it’s required. I would hate to see the Australian Public Service become de-skilled to the point that it cannot participate, in a meaningful way, in setting out the nation’s long term agenda. Rattigan would have been dismayed.

The second ingredient: being business-like

I think the Australian Public Service needs to be more business like in the way it develops, implements and evaluates policies and programmes. All too often, we find ourselves landed with the daunting task of implementing a new initiative which has only been developed to the extent required to prepare the one page new policy proposal for the Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet.

We need to spend more time researching and assessing different policy options before picking a course of action. On this point, I refer back to my previous comments about the need for rigorous analysis to weigh up the merits of different policy choices, of taking the longer term national perspective.

The Australian Public Service also needs to put more effort into rigorously reviewing and evaluating the success of different policies and programmes. We don’t do this nearly enough. We need to know which initiatives haven’t worked, or haven’t worked perfectly. That way, when governments need to make savings, they can target programmes with a less favourable cost: benefit ratio. I don’t think governments are serious enough about evaluating programmes and closing them down when required; all too often, necessary savings are achieved by shaving funds at the margins across the board.

This presents a great dilemma for Secretaries. Secretaries are responsible under the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 for the financial oversight of their department. Yet under our system they don’t really have the freedom to run their own shop. Ministers continually ask departments to do more but are rarely willing to cut things off. It’s no wonder that departments are struggling to find the resources to invest in longer term strategy development. It’s debilitating. One way around this may be to ‘activity cost’ everything we do, just like the leading edge of the private sector. In this world, if Ministers want their departments to undertake a new activity then they should have to identify, at the same time, what they are not going to do.

As things currently stand, the gradual accretion of new functions that have not been funded is debilitating to the capacity to focus on longer term issues, yet it is part and parcel of today’s Australian Public Service.

The third ingredient: being accountable

The Australian Public Service is by far Australia’s biggest business and it is arguably more complex than the businesses run by our private sector counterparts. But unlike our private sector counterparts, the Australian Public Service is not subject to market disciplines; it is a monopoly provider of services. The public has little choice but to deal with us.

Consequently, it is incumbent on the Australian Public Service to apply high ethical and administrative standards, and to be accountable in general.

It is critical that we maintain ‘accountability’ institutions such as the Australian National Audit Office, the Ombudsman, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and our accountability to Parliament. Uncomfortable though it may be at times, we need to allow ourselves to be questioned and probed about the quality of service we are delivering on behalf of the Australian people, remembering that it is politicians who are ultimately accountable.

We need to be as open as possible about the way we do things, and we need to actively promote a pro-information disclosure environment (to the extent that it does not compromise the free exchange of ideas between the public service and Ministers). Releasing more information into the public domain helps builds trust in government and government processes and, most importantly, it encourages a more open debate on longer term policy issues.

Concluding remarks

The Australian Public Service is a great asset to this nation and I have every confidence that it will rise to the challenges I have described. The quality of the service it provides and the standard of conduct is world class. So too is the capability and commitment of its people.

Earlier, I spoke of the profound influence that one public servant, Alf Rattigan, had on turning around the fortunes of the nation. He is a fine example, but he is only one of many Australian Public Service ‘heroes’ who have made a difference, and who I have been privileged to witness at work over the past 36 years.

The Australian Public Service and the nation have fundamentally changed over the past 40 years; so too will they fundamentally change over the next 40. Reforms such as the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, which today seem momentous, may well be viewed as minor adjustments 40 years hence.

In 40 years time, we may reflect with nostalgia on the time when public servants congregated for work in the parliamentary triangle: where my generation saw the advent of the personal computer, the next generation may well witness the demise of the ‘office and desk’ and the creation of a more fluid, flexible and dispersed workforce.

I can’t predict how the Australian Public Service will change, short of predicting that the Commonwealth Government will be doing more, but experience tells me it will change. I’ll leave it to a future Secretary to reflect on these changes in his or her valedictory address, 40 years from now.

Being in the Australian Public Service has been a rewarding experience. Many of my public sector values were instilled by my father and role models like Rattigan.

While I will undoubtedly miss working in the Australian Public Service and the camaraderie that it has, the last couple of months away from it have confirmed that now was the right time to leave.

My family – Wynne, Timothy and Ned – have been great supporters. For much of my career I was so preoccupied or absorbed by work that I was effectively absent from home even when I was there.

To my friends and close colleagues, thank you also. I have used Rattigan as an exemplar but many of you share his attributes.

Thank you to Lynelle and Terry for giving me this opportunity to talk to you.

Thank you.


1 Clode, D As if for a thousand years: a History of Victoria’s Land Conservation and Environment Conservation Councils Melbourne: Victorian Environmental Assessment Council, 2006.

2 Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008) Australian Historical Population Statistics (cat. no. 3105.0.65.001), viewed 30 November 2008.

3 A comparison of domestic air travel in Australia between 1972/3 and 2003/4. Average distance travelled in 1972/73 was calculated by dividing the total distance (kilometres) of passenger travel by air in 1972/73 by the Australian population in 1973. Average distance travelled in 2003/04 was calculated by dividing the total distance (kilometres) of passenger travel by air in 2003/04 by the Australian population in 2004. Source of air travel data: Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, 2008, Australian Transport Statistics Year Book 2007, BITRE, Canberra ACT. Source of population data: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008) Australian Historical Population Statistics (cat. no. 3105.0.65.001), viewed 30 November 2008.

4 Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2001) A History of Communications in Australia (Feature Article) in Year Book Australia 2001.

5 Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2005) 100 years of change in Australian industry (Feature Article) in Year Book Australia 2005.

6 Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2005) 100 years of change in Australian industry (Feature Article) in Year Book Australia 2005.

7 Source: Productivity Commission

8 Contribution of the ‘government administration and defence’ industry to GDP was over 5% during the period 1972/3 to 1983/4. Between 1989/90 and 2000/01it stayed in the narrow band of 4.1–4.5%. Government contribution peaked at 5.8% in 1930/01 around the start of the Depression (data is not available for World War II years, but it is expected that the contribution was higher still). Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2005) 100 years of change in Australian industry (Feature Article) in Year Book Australia 2005. The definition of ‘government administration and defence’ is based on the Australia and New Zealand Standard Industrial Classification (ANZSIC), 1993 version, and broadly equates to departmental spending for the general government sector.

9 Total value of goods and services imports was calculated by expressing ‘Chain Volume Measures: Goods and Services Debits’ as a percentage of GDP for financial years ending June 1973 and 2008. Total value of goods and services exports was calculated by expressing ‘Chain Volume Measures: Goods and Services Credits’ as a percentage of GDP for financial years ending June 1973 and 2008. Source of CVM: Goods and Services Credits/Debits data: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008) Balance of Payments and International Investment Position, Australia (cat. no. 5302.0), viewed on 30 November 2008. Source of GDP data: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008) Australian Economic Indicators (cat. no. 1350.0), viewed on 30 November 2008.

Concluding remarks

Terry Moran
Secretary, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet

David has been a stalwart of the Australian Public Service and a fine exemplar of public service. The assembly here this evening is itself testament to the esteem in which he is held by so many who have worked with him across his career.

His hallmark could be described as dedication to the task – getting across the details and becoming a genuine expert. It seems this has been his approach to life outside of work – especially sport.

In his email to colleagues announcing his retirement, David said he was looking forward to doing a whole lot more fishing, skiing and cycling.

I’m reliably informed that David takes up any sport or hobby with a passion – and, so I’m told, no capacity whatsoever for knowing when to stop talking about the topic.

He took up cycling several years ago and in typical fashion avidly researched the sport, purchased a very expensive bike; subscribed to all the magazines and websites; trained at the gym and rode every weekend.

When he realised there were yet more expensive bikes with lots of high-end gadgetry, he purchased one of those as well when his first bike was less than a year old. There was no gadget he wouldn't buy if it made him go faster.

He developed, so I’m told, a very unhealthy passion for parading around coffee shops in his lycra gear. But despite his proficiency and investment of money, knowledge and time he was never able to convince the coffee shop set he was the real deal because he refused to shave his legs - real bike riders always shave their legs to speed recovery from scrapes, grazes and accidents and to facilitate massaging of tired legs.

It took several years for the reason for this seemingly amateurish lapse to emerge - his wife had refused point blank to allow him to shave.

As any good economist would, David had weighed up the benefits and costs of shaving and decided the ridicule of his mates was easily borne while sleeping alone was a little more costly.

This vignette sums up a few things about David - an admirable focus on family; an ability to weigh the costs and benefits of particular courses of action; a commitment to evidence-based decision making; an acute understanding of consequences; his economist’s need for rigour; and, to my mind, very good judgement.

These qualities have been apparent in David’s many leadership roles in the public service – as Deputy Secretary in Treasury, the Department of Health and Aged Care and in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and, for the last five years, as Secretary of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and the Arts.

Starting as a young Treasury graduate recruit, he was part of that generation of economists in Government who championed over 30 years or so the reforms Australia had to have. In that time, Treasury has been one of the dominant Australian institutions; in recent years, better than many of its overseas counterparts.

I want to make just a few comments about the great professionalism and great judgement David has shown in his leadership of the Environment Department. I’ll skip over the fact that he is the only head of an environment department to have previously been busted on one of his fishing trips for having two dogs in a national park.

I have been reflecting on the fact that David’s father was one of Australia’s early Conservation Ministers - and thinking about the immense changes that have occurred in a policy sense in this area in the thirty years since. Growing up in Victoria, I can recall his dad both for his contribution to conservation and occasional mention of him as a future Premier. Much has changed since then.

David has had to deal with the increased complexity and prominence of so many of these issues during his stewardship of this portfolio.

To reiterate just a couple that Lynelle referred to –

Climate change – with its complex interconnections between science, economics, international negotiations and politics

Conservation - including of whales - of which one could similarly say there has been a web of complex interconnections between science – or at least the professed use of it - economics, international negotiations and politics

Murray-Darling Basin – with its complex interactions between science, economics, inter-state negotiations - some might say at least as vexed as any international negotiations - and just a smattering of politics; compounded by a lack of rain. David and I dealt with each other from opposite sides of the table. I enjoyed dealing with him for his sure sense of salvation through reliance on markets.

These issues that David has had to deal with are indicative of the plethora of policy problems that face us as public servants in the twenty-first century. David has had to balance the competing demands of passionate stakeholders, while these issues were - and remain - the subject of intense media scrutiny.

Being a mad keen trout fisherman, David knows a thing or two about passionate stakeholders, and so do his staff - apoplectic apparently doesn’t begin to describe his reaction when one of his staff suggested listing trout as a threatening species.

In so many of these areas, David’s training and long experience as an economist has been of immense value – as we strive to think of innovative ways to address issues of sustainability, including using market-based solutions to find a more equitable way of allocating scarce resources. Even if some of his Environment colleagues felt they had some work to do to soften that hard economic edge into a practical way of doing things.

It has been a remarkable time to lead such a portfolio. Yet even through such turbulent times, David has been steadfast in undertaking his role with integrity, professional rigour and a calm wisdom.

He has been an outstanding servant for the people of Australia. As a leader he has been admired and even loved. His professional life is in many ways the exemplar of a senior civil service leader.

So I thank him for his collegiality as a fellow Secretary and for his immense career contribution to public policy and public service. On your behalf, may I thank him for his address today and wish him all the best for the future, as he embarks on the next stage of his life and work.

Last reviewed: 
12 June 2018