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Valedictory speech - Dr Peter Shergold

Please note - this is an archived publication.


Lynelle Briggs
Australian Public Service Commissioner

Good afternoon everyone. On behalf of the Australian Public Service Commission, I’m extremely pleased to welcome you all here for a very special event— this afternoon’s Secretaries Valedictory lecture by Dr Peter Shergold, on his retirement today as Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

From time to time the Commission hosts these special lectures by Secretaries. Our aim is to invite selected retiring Secretaries to give us their reflections on their careers and their suggestions on the way forward for the Australian Public Service.

The size of our audience today and the fact that we have public service leaders from Australia and New Zealand, highlights that this is indeed a very special event. The retirement from the public service of a leader who will leave an indelible mark on the nation—a man who, for the last 20 years, has inspired, entertained, and won the respect of all in the public service who have worked with him (and many who have not had that pleasure), as well as Ministers and Prime Ministers at home and abroad.

An ardent advocate of change and a self-described ‘public service tragic’, Peter’s career has been varied, colourful, highly productive, and marked by truly impressive achievements.

So where do we start? ………Crawley perhaps.

Crawley in Sussex England possibly isn’t the most exciting of birth places. Derived from the Anglo-Saxon expression for ‘a crow-infested clearing’, it is now right next to Gatwick airport and its website claims ‘there is loads to do in Crawley provided you only want to get drunk or fit’. It can however rightly claim: ‘Peter Shergold was born here in 1946’.

In 1946, it was described as causing a ‘burst of excitement…like the nuclear device’. Although this burst of excitement was for the birth of the bikini, rather than the birth of Peter Shergold, it was a momentous year that also saw the birth of the Xerox machine, the clothes drier and the United Nations General Assembly.

His grandfather drove buses in Brighton and his father rose through the ranks of the Royal Navy. Although he has said that he always wanted to be an archaeologist, as a student in Hull, Peter had more romantic ambitions—to be a poet. Apparently he thought better of it—though, you never know, we may get a lecture today in verse. You can never be sure with Peter. His creative surprises are certainly part of his charm.

He did however turn to less romantic pursuits and received a First Class Honours in Politics and American Studies from Hull in 1968, and then an M.A. in History at the University of Illinois in 1969.

He migrated to Australia to take up a lectureship at the University of New South Wales in 1972, completing his PhD in Economics from the London School of Economics in 1976 with a thesis entitled The standard of life of manual workers in the first decade of the twentieth century: a comparative study of Birmingham UK and Pittsburgh USA.

Then, in 1985 he was appointed Head of the Department of Economic History at UNSW.

This period of academia was an extremely productive one for Peter. During this time he wrote Working Class Life: The American Standard in Comparative Perspective (1982), edited The Great Immigration Debate (1985), and was a major contributor to Convict Workers (1988). He also authored numerous academic articles on a variety of historical subjects, ranging from loan sharks in Pittsburgh, utopian economists, wages, fertility, American spectator sports, the Australian wine industry, convicts, English migration and many more subjects.

He has also taught at the University of Illinois, Southampton University, the London School of Economics and Pennsylvania State University, and has twice been a Fulbright Scholar.

I first met Dr Peter Shergold in 1987 when he joined the Australian Public Service to establish the Office of Multicultural Affairs in the Prime Minister’s Department under the Hawke Government. He established an office that was to be a ‘bridge-builder’, linking community and government to further the policy of multiculturalism. He then conceived and developed the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia. He became a Deputy Secretary in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in 1990 and was described by Mike Codd, the then Secretary of PM&C, as a ‘significant influence’.

From 1991, Peter went on to head the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), remaining there following the transition to Prime Minister Paul Keating and through the early days of the second Keating government. This, one might say, was the beginning of a calling.

These were highly significant times for ATSIC. It played a key role in the development of the Native Title Act 1993 and, after its passage, in relation to funding for native title claims. Peter had a major role in leading these changes, managing the Commonwealth’s response to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the administration of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Fund, the Indigenous Land Corporation, measures to further the achievement of social justice for Indigenous people and an expanded CDEP scheme.

Peter has described these years at ATSIC as ‘relentlessly difficult’. He recently observed:

…Sometimes when people say it must be tough being head of PM&C, or it must have been tough when you were working in DEWR during the waterfront dispute, I disagree. I always think that if you’ve done three and a half years trying to administer aboriginal affairs, you can take anything – it is a genuinely difficult area. You know that people’s lives depend upon it … It’s a very emotionally fraught area and it is certainly a great school for toughening you up.

At the end of his term, in July 1994, he was appointed Chief Executive Officer of Comcare where he raised the profile of the organisation’s role for occupational health and safety and introduced new initiatives relating to the management of stress claims and rehabilitation.

Dr Peter Shergold became Public Service Commissioner from 1995 to 1998, transforming the Commission into a more client-focused, service-oriented agency. Peter played a leading role in promoting legislative and administrative reform in the Australian Public Service in the early years of the Howard Government.

One of the remarkable achievements of that time was the production of what was fondly termed ‘baby buttercup’. Peter was charged with reforming the 1922 Public Service Act—a cumbersome and, by the 1990s, a weighty Act of over 520 pages that had been amended over 100 times—and to secure the passage of a radically simplified and ‘small’ Act.

Although this work led only to the Public Service Bill of 1997 and not at that time its successful passage to an Act, all the major work had been done—providing a statement of the key APS Values; devolution of most employment powers to agency heads; establishing a specific Code of Conduct for public servants; anti-discrimination provisions; provisions for the internal and external review of workplace grievances; and new protections for whistleblowers. As we know the Bill did not pass, but all of this work led ultimately to the Public Service Act we know and love today, the 1999 Act.

And this, for those of you who don’t recall, is “baby buttercup” (Lynelle shows draft Act), described at the time as ‘one of the great pieces of government employee relations legislation—simple, clear and powerful—and it is a credit to the Public Service Commissioner, Peter Shergold, who has been its driving force’.

In 1998 Peter was appointed Secretary of the Department of Workplace Relations and Small Business which, following the election that same year, was expanded to become the Department of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business. He served in that capacity for almost four years during very challenging times as the Government sought further amendments to its workplace relations legislation, provision for non-union as well as union workplace agreements, the abolition of the CES and the creation of Employment National and the Job Network, and the process of waterfront reform.

In January 2002, he became Secretary of the Department of Education, Science and Training where he took a leading role in developing the Government’s reform strategy for higher education. Although his time there was brief, in one way it was legendary. The story of Peter dressed in tights as Peter Pan in the Department’s Christmas pantomime is well known. It set a high benchmark for Christmas parties that apparently caused some anxiety in PM&C when Peter became Secretary there in January 2003.

Peter’s time in the top job can be divided into the challenges of developing and implementing Government policy and his leadership of the public service. I won’t go into the detail of the Government policy issues Peter has mastered. A brief summary would include climate change, skills and training, the national reform agenda, the water crisis, emissions trading, APEC, Commonwealth–state relations, avian flu pandemic preparations, Indigenous affairs and the Northern Territory intervention, and many many more.

In all this work Peter has invested enormous effort into ensuring whole-of-government approaches. Alan Fels has noted ‘Besides being a man of action, he is a thinker, with an academic background and a strong ability to conceptualise public administration issues which has helped him form a very broad vision of a whole-of-government approach’.

With his strong support for the notion of a single senior executive service, Peter has fostered a new culture of people working across bureaucratic demarcations. He has encouraged a more collegiate approach both within his own department and across the public service. He's engendered a more common culture, rather than different approaches being taken by different departments.

And on the employment of women in senior positions, Peter, as advisor to the Prime Minister, played a vital role in ensuring women of talent and strong leadership reached the highest levels of the public service. He is a champion amongst us.

He has enthusiastically pursued his interest in the management of the APS through chairmanship of the Management Advisory Committee, and, as we well know, spoken extensively and entertainingly on public service issues. As Public Service Commissioner, I am particularly grateful, not only for the way he has championed the public service and the work of all its employees over the years, but also for his personal support to me in this role and his respect and ongoing support for the Commission and its work.

Dr Shergold is Chair of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) Board and is also a member of the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management (CAPAM) Board. He has served on the Executive Council of the Eastern Regional Organisation for Public Administration (EROPA). In November 2005 he was made a Fellow of The Academy of Social Sciences in Australia (ASSA). He was on the Board of Centrelink from 1998–2002. From 2002-2003 he was a Board member of the Australian Research Council and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

Dr Shergold received the Centenary Medal in 2001 for his service as Secretary of DEST.

He was appointed a Member in the Order of Australia (AM) on Australia Day 1996 for public service, with special mention also of his roles in Aboriginal and multicultural affairs.

Dr Shergold was promoted to a Companion in the Order of Australia (AC) on Australia Day 2007 for service to the community as a significant leader of changes and innovation in the public sector, particularly through the development and implementation of a whole-of-government approach to policy development and program delivery—an honour that he regards as his greatest achievement.

Dr Peter Shergold is an exceptional public servant and a credit to the Australian Public Service. He has managed to restore collegiality across a devolved system of agencies. He has run some very hard arguments with governments about things ranging from climate change through education to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policies. He has lived the example that the Public Service Act envisages that APS leaders will provide in terms of the values, the code of conduct, and people, policy and implementation leadership. And, he’s done it all with his very own kind of pizzazz.

On Monday, Dr Shergold will again become Professor Shergold. This time at the Centre for Social Impact at the University of New South Wales, and we wish him the very best of luck.

I’d now like to invite, Dr Peter Shergold to present his Secretaries Valedictory lecture.

Valedictory Lecture

Dr Peter Shergold, Secretary,
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Lynelle has alluded to the attractive features of my birthplace, Crawley New Town. She doesn’t know the half of it. I can direct her to one of the more interesting tourist guides I’ve read entitled Crap Towns. The 50 Worst Places to Live in the UK. Most of my childhood and adolescence was spent there. My dad being in the Royal Navy, many of his postings were around Portsmouth. According to the guide, visitors “sit glassy-eyed … staring out at the grey horizon and wondering, presumably, how to end their lives.” My wife (Carol) and I went to university in Hull, which was actually ranked worst town in Britain. According to one correspondent, “Hull did teach me one valuable lesson. No matter what happens to me in later life, no matter where I live, or how bad things are, I will know that it can never, ever be as bad as living in Hull.”

Perhaps that helps explain why in July 1972 I seized the chance to come to Australia. On no more than the trusted word of my doctoral supervisor (without submitting a job application, let alone attending an interview) I was recruited as a lecturer to the University of New South Wales. Promised $6280 a year and a return economy air ticket, it was too good an opportunity for a poor and pallid student from the London School of Economics to knock back. It seemed to offer, at the least, three years of paid employment, cold beer and sunshine. It became a great deal more.

Fifteen years later, on 2 March 1987, I was offered a position in the Australian Public Service. I had long before decided that Australia was my country, but the attraction of academia had started to wane. I had risen to become the head of the department of economic history just at the point at which the discipline was in precipitous decline. I had written a well-reviewed scholarly treatise which was “highly recommended” to readers by Choice – to little effect, it transpired. After 30 years it has now sold 1,976 copies (for anyone interested, 24 copies remain in a Pittsburgh warehouse). I faced the prospect, yet again, of delivering first-year lectures three times a day to reluctant students. They not unreasonably failed to understand why a major in accountancy, marketing or human resource management required an understanding of the industrial revolution.

In part because of my interest in the role of ethnicity in Australian history, but also to raise my flagging spirits, I had begun to work pro bono as a consultant to non-government organisations, particularly Ethnic Communities’ Councils. When in 1987 the Hawke government decided to establish an Office of Multicultural Affairs in the Prime Minister’s department I was approached and invited to apply. I did not know the job existed and I’m fairly sure that I never did submit my statement of qualifications against the required criteria.

The reasons why I was head-hunted remain to this day obscure. Indeed I suspect that my appointment undermines my oft-espoused support for the importance of the merit principle in the APS. I was offered a position as a First Assistant Secretary. It sounded important. I had no clear ideas what responsibilities were conveyed by such a grand title (and indeed spent my early weeks in a bemused state trying to locate the Second and Third Assistant Secretaries). Nevertheless I was confident that the Australian Public Service would, at the least, offer two years’ reprieve from university management (I speak, of course, oxymoronically).

Once again I hopelessly underestimated the extraordinary turn of fortune that serendipity had thrust upon me. I have now enjoyed a wonderful 20 years – intellectually fulfilling, administratively demanding, full of interest and rich with opportunities to learn. Not always successfully, I have been given the chance to do a job founded on social responsibility and (although I admit this only at my moment of valediction) moral purpose. It is surely no small thing to work in an occupation that takes ‘national interest’ and ‘public good’ as its reference points.

I am honoured to have the chance to reflect on my APS career. Although it has been touched with singular good luck, I have a strong sense that my sentiments are shared in varying degree by thousands of retiring public servants when they stand as guests of honour at their final afternoon tea.

I want to talk in a far more personal way than I do normally. I have on many occasions talked with vigour (and evoked no little controversy) on the quality and character of the Australian Public Service. Today, by contrast, I want to reflect on my own experiences. Yet I hope I can tell my story in a manner that says something truthful about the vocation of public service.

Since 1987 I have worked directly to 3 Prime Ministers and 9 Ministers. In chronological order they have been Bob Hawke, Robert Tickner, Gary Johns, David Kemp, Peter Reith, Tony Abbott, Ian Macfarlane, Mal Brough, Brendan Nelson, Peter McGauran, John Howard and Kevin Rudd. They have ranged across all points of the political spectrum and all quadrants of the Myer-Briggs personality profile. Yet beyond the particularities of their character, competence and ideological persuasion all those I have served have sought to make a difference.

All were generous in the respect they accorded my views. More remarkably, all bore and accepted what Prime Minister Howard described (with kindly if weary forbearance) as my childlike enthusiasm. Verona Burgess, perhaps more accurately, suggested I am prone to excitability. On a good day that quality comes across as passion. On a bad day it’s tiring, even to myself.

I have worked closely with each of these Ministers and sometimes come to know their spouses and family. I have had high regard for them. I have learned to recognise their interests, concerns and individual quirkiness for – as any senior public servant soon discovers – an understanding of such matters is central to the ability to influence. In many cases, I have come to enjoy a level of intimacy in which confidences have been shared beyond the public policy at hand.

Yet not one Minister was my friend. I say this with care, knowing it can be so readily misinterpreted, but in my experience it is of the utmost significance to understanding the role of a senior public servant. Indeed in 20 years I have very rarely called my Minister by first name, even in private. This may seem archaic, even quaint. It reflects my deep-seated judgement that, whatever public servants think of the ability of their Ministers, it is vital that they always recognise the importance of the position that Ministers hold (and the responsibilities they bear). Formality is, for me, a statement of respect for the framework of democratic governance within which Ministers and Secretaries operate.

Equally important, formality bears testimony to my experience that however cordial and close the relationship between a public servant and Minister, and however founded in mutual trust, there will inevitably come moments when it is necessary to provide advice that is uncomfortably frank, to convey (and share with others) information which is unwelcome and even – on legal or administrative grounds – to conclude that one is unable to do what a Minister would prefer. When such circumstances arise, often unexpectedly, it helps that both parties fully understand their respective roles. It is on such occasions that the distinction between public servant and political appointee needs to be clearly comprehended: the former serves a position, the latter a person.

I have been extraordinarily fortunate always to serve Prime Ministers, Ministers – and, indeed, their personal staff - whose work ethic, capacity and political commitment I respected. That has allowed me the opportunity to contribute to some of the great issues of public policy.

As head of the Office of Multicultural Affairs from 1987 to 1990 I was able to prepare a National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia. Launched in a spirit of bipartisanship by Prime Minister Hawke and NSW Premier Greiner, the Agenda offered a careful statement of the rights and responsibilities of Australians of diverse origins set within a distinctively Australian institutional framework. Unfortunately this balance was not always sufficiently understood or espoused by those who saw multiculturalism – a noun I always eschewed – as the ideological vanguard for cultural relativism.

As CEO of ATSIC between 1991 and 1994 I grappled with the wickedly difficult political response to the Mabo High Court decision and how to negotiate and legislate recognition of native title. I held meetings of indigenous leaders to garner their views: one, discerning my English accent, responded that it would have been nice if I’d asked 200 years earlier.

As Public Service Commissioner from 1995 to 1998, I worked, with successive governments, to modernise the legislative framework of public service management. Those efforts bore fruit, after I had moved on, in a new Public Service Act. Enacted with Opposition support, it placed a greater emphasis on the distinctive values and ethical conduct that underpin public service. To a significant extent the Act stripped away the prescriptive controls that had accreted over three-quarters of a century. It provided legislative support for the devolution of management authority to the agency level.

Asked to move to DEWR to bed down the new workplace relations legislation, I arrived just in time to administer the government’s approach to the 1998 waterfront dispute. It was a testing time. In something of an understatement I noted in the department’s Annual Report that it “was a matter of disappointment to me that on occasions the vigour of political debate was personalised into an attack on the integrity of public servants doing their job”. Then, as on many other occasions, I came to recognise how an environment of fierce political contest brings a particularly challenging (dare I say exciting) character to public sector management. Public service partisanship lies, very often, in the eye of the beholder.

In 2002 in DEST I had the opportunity to regalvanise the process of reform of higher education. The policies that emerged recognised the imperative to provide universities with greater public funding, enhanced their capability to bolster their own financial resources and actively promoted greater diversity of teaching and research.

Finally, during my five years at PM&C, I have been able to engage myself in issues as varied as welfare-to-work reform, counter-terrorism, indigenous disadvantage, vocational education and (most recently) the role of emissions trading in managing the risks associated with climate change.

It would be a dull public servant who would not be stimulated by such a cornucopia. For me, however, it is not only the development of public policy that has afforded satisfaction. I have spent two-thirds of my APS career in line and operational agencies delivering programs in areas as diverse as indigenous services, workers’ compensation, small business, workplace relations, education, employment and training.

It is this line agency experience, I suspect, that helps to explain why I have arrived so firmly at the conclusion that the implementation of government policy is just as important to good public administration as its formulation. A public service should be held to account for the extent to which it can deliver the changing policy directions of governments on time, on budget and to their expectations. That is why, in 2005, I established a Cabinet Implementation Unit within the Prime Minister’s department.

That is why, too, I have enjoyed talking as often as possible to the Australian public servants who work in hundreds of State and regional offices and call centres across the country. The challenges they face in directly delivering government policy - both entitlements and obligations - are significant.

I think few Australians appreciate the extent to which public servants in quite junior positions wield extraordinary power over the lives of individuals. They deliver welfare payments and health benefits, identify labour market opportunities, issue passports, scrutinise tax returns and decide on migration visas. They administer grants and award contracts. Every day they make decisions that affect the hopes of citizens. They deserve not only better training but greater influence. The more I have been willing to listen to their experiences, the better has been my capacity to design the policies and establish the administrative guidelines of the services that are implemented on behalf of government.

Over two decades I have learned the scale and diversity of the nation served by the APS. I have always believed it necessary to see at first hand the administrative operation of the programmes oversighted by my departments. I have spent happy hours talking both with those organisations who deliver them and those individuals who (sometimes reluctantly) participate in them. Over the years I’ve visited Job Network members, Work-for-the-Dole schemes, small business incubators, group training companies, science laboratories, parents and citizens groups, rehabilitation providers and a myriad diversity of community organisations.

I have also visited scores of remote Aboriginal towns and outstations from Wiluna to Bamaga, from Hopevale to Ernabella, from Yirrkala to Tikjikala. Often I despair at the abject failure of well-intentioned policies to make a substantive difference to the appalling conditions in which too many indigenous Australians live. Yet not infrequently I am uplifted by the transformative power of individual community leaders able to achieve small victories in the face of overwhelming odds.

The hierarchy of officialdom can often fail to recognise the experience and commonsense of the field officer. Yet there are characteristics of public service that transcend differences of situational authority. The Secretary of PM&C and the customer liaison officer in Centrelink share this: that neither can say, I alone was responsible for the development or delivery of a particular government policy. In this profound sense the public servant really is a bureaucrat, integrated into a vertically and horizontally structured organisation that has been designed to plan, administer, implement and evaluate the millions of daily transactions that make Australian governments manifest to their citizens.

General practitioners and nurses can know the patients they have healed or comforted. Teachers can watch the progress of the students who have learned from them. Architects can see their legacy in the buildings they have designed. Even now, more than twenty years on, I – if no one else – can read the scholarly articles that I wrote as an academic and see my name attached to their arguments. It is a form of posterity.

Not so for the public servant, and for two good reasons. First public policy is, by the nature of political dynamics, almost always transitory. Policies, or at least the specific programmes and particular initiatives that give them shape, come and go.

I struggled hard between 1991 and 1994 to wield the organisational dysfunctionalities of ATSIC into an effective vehicle for indigenous self-determination. A few years later I contributed to ATSIC’s abolition and the creation of new organisational and political approaches to the public administration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs.

That difficult experience in many ways typifies the challenges faced by professional public servants serving successive governments with equal commitment. It is the hard uncompromising edge of non-partisanship. It is the point at which frank and fearless advice, given in confidence, appropriately concedes to the will of elected government. Public service is not a job for everyone. It requires a toughness and fortitude that, without good leadership, can descend into employee cynicism about the cyclical nature of change.

Second, it is unusual indeed that a political leader (still less a public servant) can say with honest assurance that “this policy is mine”. Whether born after a long intellectual gestation, or conceived hurriedly in response to unexpected crisis, political initiative rarely has a single parent. The intersection of public debate, political discourse and media commentary – and the increasing range of individual and institutional advocates able to exert influence – mean that policy formulation is nearly always an iterative process marked by collective deliberation and political compromise.

At most, looking back, I can boast that I was given opportunity to suggest new approaches, to comment on the ideas of others and to exert some influence on the shape of the final outcome – and, of course, nearly always in a manner that was hidden from public gaze. The power I had was the power to persuade. A public servant does not leave monuments behind.

Yet public service has its own rewards. I have been part of the discussion on matters that have the power to transform; I have participated at moments of intense political debate; I have had the power to wield together groups of bright young women and men and charge them with bringing strategic coherence to an ill-formed but exciting new idea. These may seem the aspects of public service life that are unexceptional but they are, in a sense, the lifeblood of senior public service. Perhaps it is for that reason we forget that they are nevertheless special. Meetings and briefs are the means by which public servants put their fingerprints on the evolution of a nation.

Admittedly, I have had occasions available to few others. I have sat in on meetings of Prime Ministers and Presidents, seeking to quiet my fears that it is only a matter of time before I am exposed as an impostor. I have enjoyed breakfast at No. 10, lunch at Chequers, a barbecue at the Western White House and a State dinner at the White House - and can report that on each occasion the company was more memorable than the food. I have never taken such opportunities for granted nor pretended that they are the due of a senior public servant.

I have appreciated my good fortune. Carol, my wife, jibes that I am the one always smiling at the camera when the photos are taken. Perhaps. Certainly while I have focused on the content of leadership discussions I have always taken time to examine the surroundings, read the body language and absorb the atmosphere. Details are important. I have wanted to remember clearly such occasions for the time, now arrived, when I would no longer be invited to attend.

I am keen to avoid sentimentality in my farewell remarks. Yet there have been moments of such emotional potency in my public service career that they will forever remain vivid: being with the Prime Minister at the beginning of a New York Yankees baseball game when the coaches and players stepped out of their dugouts to salute the Australian national anthem; flying by helicopter across the breath-taking grandeur of the Himalayas after the devastation of earthquake and seeing at first hand our young reservists ministering to the needs of desperate survivors; being present at a working lunch between Prime Ministers Howard and Blair when a harried official had to interrupt with news of an attempted terrorist attack on the London Underground; going out to Government House on an idyllic Canberra morning to discuss, with Peter Hollingworth and his unwell wife, how sadly his term would end – these are the times imbued with such poignancy that they bring richness to the experience of public service.

Even the most mundane incident, remembered in the light of what followed, can be seared on the memory. I can recall vividly Carol and I being walked around the block by our dog on Boxing Day in 2004 when I received a call on my mobile telephone. It was to alert me that there had been an earthquake off Indonesia and that early reports were coming in of a tsunami. “I’m not sure,” I said to Carol, “but I think we might have to change our plan to go on holiday tomorrow”.

We did and I am forever grateful. Instead of two weeks on the South Coast I had the chance to work with an extraordinary team of Defence personnel, police and public servants from a dozen agencies, wielded together by a moment of unanticipated crisis. To have seen the speed and the efficiency with which aid was planned and delivered; to have played a part in the conception and development of an unprecedentedly bold reconstruction package and, within days, to have flown with the Prime Minister to Jakarta to announce it was an opportunity given to few. It bore testimony not only to government vision but – as the Prime Minister noted at the time in a national address - to the capacity, commitment and camaraderie of Australian public servants able to give it effect.

The APS is not a career that is suited to everyone. It offers the opportunity to work from the inside but always in a manner that is responsive to the directions set by government. Within that framework one has the chance – indeed, the obligation – to present policy advice that is strongly argued and unvarnished, to set forward a range of alternatives, to establish and interpret the facts as objectively as possible and to ensure that the consequences of actions are foreseen. But professional public servants can only exercise influence.

However, frank, robust and compelling their advice, it must always be the government they serve which makes the political decisions. It is for elected Ministers, individually and collectively, to establish their view of the public interest and to be held responsible for it at the ballot box. Public servants who come to believe, intellectually or ethically, that they have a view of the national interest superior to that of the elected government need to leave and enjoy the freedom of pursuing policy goals from the outside. Being on the inside has its constraints as well as its opportunities.

In some ways the value of professional public service is fully appreciated only at the moments of transition when Prime Ministers, or governments, change. Last November Australians took pride in the manner in which John Howard conceded defeat and Kevin Rudd accepted victory. Most were pleased that John and Janette Howard, on their final day in the Lodge, showed Kevin Rudd and Therese Rein around. There was a dignity in the handover of power which symbolised the resilience of Australian democratic process.

Equally impressive was the extraordinary seamlessness of change. Throughout the pre-election caretaker period teams of public servants, in every Commonwealth agency prepared briefs to serve an incoming government of either persuasion. (It’s an experience I’ve been through seven times). The plans were in place. Late on the evening of 24 November Prime Minister announced that he had lost power. At 9.00am on the morning of 25 November I flew to Brisbane with Barbara Belcher to brief the Prime Minister elect.

The essence of public service is often unseen by the public. Let me continue my account of last year’s election. On 28 November Prime Minister Howard came to farewell the department who had served him for almost 12 years and received an outstanding ovation. On 18 December Prime Minister Rudd came to speak to his department about his expectations of them. He received similarly enthusiastic applause. It was clear that those who worked in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, no matter what political views they held in private, fully understood that they served the Prime Minister of Australia. I was proud to lead them.

The warmth of my farewell comments may suggest a naïve optimism about the state of the APS. I hope not. It is true that I am buoyed by the ability of the public service to continue to recruit the best and brightest from our universities and by the fact that the Commonwealth’s public sector agencies remain employers of choice for large number of graduates. I am cheered, too, by the large proportion of respondents to the annual State of the Service report who report satisfaction in their employment: last year 84% agreed that they felt motivated by their job, 79% were proud to work in the APS and 81% would recommend the APS to others. Clearly I am not alone in the regard I have for public service.

Of course there are challenges. I worry that the devolution of APS, which has undoubtedly improved the management of agencies, may have gone a little too far. It is not just the economic inefficiencies or systems dysfunctionalities that concern me. I fear that the values that underpin public service, and the cooperation necessary to ensure the best interest of the whole of government, may be undermined by the reassertion of bureaucratic territorially. In my experience the whole of the APS is much greater than the sum of its parts.

I regret that there have been administrative failures on my watch as notional head of the APS. The Palmer and Comrie enquiries into the unlawful detention of Australian residents, and the findings of the Cole Royal Commission into the behaviour (in particular) of the Australian Wheat Board in breaching UN sanctions, exposed significant organisational weaknesses – inadequate channels of communication, structural demarcations, insufficient quality control and poor reporting systems. Yet the willingness of agencies to acknowledge their failings and, more importantly, to set in place mechanisms to address them in a strategic way, suggest a public service with the capacity to continually address performance. The APS can and will continue to make itself over.

I have not found these challenges easy. Indeed, although it may not be apparent from my gregarious nature, I have found leadership of the APS a lonely job. There have been few days when I have not found something to worry about and, when they have occurred, someone else can generally be relied upon to have found it for me. In the nature of the job many of the matters that I have struggled with are not ones that can be widely discussed. Not infrequently I have found it necessary to rely on my own counsel. How hard and persistently should I continue to debate policy? How soon should I concede that I have lost the argument? These are the dilemmas that lurk beneath the cliché of ‘frank and fearless advice’.

What has made my job easier – and conversely, what makes my final hour in the APS so wrenching – is the collegiality and goodwill I have received from so many public servants in so many agencies in so many circumstances. My career has been smoothed – on occasions protected – by having Deputies and Executive Assistants who have looked out for my interests. They are, in my view, the two positions upon which a leader utterly depends.

I have always felt supported, too, by the senior executives of the APS, and in particular by the Secretaries and Agency Heads with whom I share collective leadership. I rarely say it, and I fear don’t always exhibit it, but it is their advice, goodwill and loyalty which has sustained me when things have got tough. I am delighted to have this public opportunity to recognise them. The APS is in very good hands.

So, indeed, am I. Carol has been with me throughout my public service career. Not once, during the last twenty years, has she ever complained about the hours I have worked or the countless days I have been absent. She has shared my view that the job I do is worthwhile and my interest in the machinations of political process. I am glad she is here today. Amy, my daughter, is not. She is in Las Vegas. It must have been a difficult choice for her. For many years she thought that I had the dullest job imaginable. The turning point was when I returned from an overseas trip with a photo of me and the Governator of California. For once public service had street credibility.

The decision to leave the APS has not been easy. I was honoured that Mr Rudd asked me to stay on and strongly tempted to agree. This is not a political statement but an acknowledgment that a change agenda always offers extraordinary opportunities and fresh challenges to a public servant. But, for the first time in my life (at the age of 60) I thought it sensible to plan my career. I decided that whatever the outcome of the election I would step down at the end of my contract.

Five years seems to me the right time to do a job like this – indeed it represents the longest period I have been in any public service position. In the public sector, just as in the private, organisational invigoration is often stimulated by leadership renewal. Equally relevant for me, personal fulfilment often comes from taking on new ventures. That is why, while you have all been toiling to meet the new government’s ambitious timetable, I decided to learn downhill skiing. I hope I will be better at my new job.

It may seem odd, given previous comments on my earlier academic life, that I’ve decided to return to university. In truth, the chance to establish a Centre for Social Impact was irresistible. Whilst I love the making of public policy, and I believe that the APS contributes mightily to that effort in extraordinarily beneficial ways, I am increasingly persuaded that it is far too important to be left to governments and public services.

Over the years I have come to the view that it is the voluntary efforts of hundreds of thousands of individuals, and the support and advocacy of not-for-profit organisations, that gives Australian democracy its vibrancy. To an increasing extent community-based (and often faith-based) organisations not only lobby governments for change but contract with governments (and public services) to deliver their program and services. In a variety of ways they are forging new partnerships with the private sector to make concrete the corporate commitments they make on social responsibility. The “third sector” builds the social capital that makes us a nation.

This does not represent a sudden revelation in my life. Just before I became a public servant I undertook an enquiry for the Department of Immigration. It wanted to understand better the settlement needs of immigrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds. It was, dare I say, an exercise in social inclusion. I wrote the report with my friend and colleague, Loucas Nicolaou, now in FACSIA. Prompted by our consultations, we entitled our submission, Why Don’t They Ask Us? We’re Not Dumb.

On many occasions over the last 20 years I have reflected on the simple truth reflected in that title. Now I hope I can build the Centre to generate social entrepreneurship, to improve the managerial efficiency and political effectiveness of established not-for-profit organisations and to improve understanding of the role that they play.

And so, as I bid you a fond farewell, there is a sting in the end of my tale. You have not seen the last of me. We will continue, in our different roles, to share an abiding commitment to public policy and a desire to promote the public interest. Our paths will continue to cross.

And I, at least, am glad for that.

Response to Valedictory Lecture

Dr Ian Watt
Secretary, Department of Finance and Deregulation

Thank you, Lynelle, and good afternoon to everyone.

I am delighted to be responding for Peter’s Valedictory Address, not the least because – as I am sure all of you are aware – he is such an enthusiastic and “excitable” character that it has always been difficult to “have the last word” with him on any subject.

On this occasion, I do have that opportunity. It is a pity that I have had to wait until his final day as a public servant to get it. And, Lynelle, it is also a pity that we couldn’t have started a little earlier so that I could have done it before the official 4:51 ‘end-of-his-career’! Perhaps that doesn’t matter so much in the 24/7 world that we now inhabit!

I enjoyed Peter’s address, partly because Peter spoke – as he often does – with a passion that few of us can match, but on subjects that we all care about – good public policy and good public administration. Indeed, in the last 20 years, Peter has put both public and private passion into the public service in a way few others have. One thing we should take away from today is that a little public passion on these, and other seemingly boring but important subjects, is a good, rather than a bad, thing.

In preparing today’s remarks, I have drawn on several sources to help get a better understanding of Peter Shergold, the person and the public servant. Like Lynelle, I started with his birthplace, Crawley. I “Googled” it and found 34,400 entries. None cited Peter as one of Crawley’s favourite sons. Indeed, none of them cited Peter at all! Perhaps after today that will change.

The most visited of the Crawley websites included those of the Crawley Borough Council, the Crawley Hotels – which had some of the worst customer reviews I had ever read – the Crawley Car Hire Companies and the local newspaper, the Crawley Observer. I read the 6 February edition of the Observer, and that is something I don’t plan to repeat. I enjoyed reading the stock list for Crawley’s Tibetan clothing and jewellery shop considerably more.

To get a better sense of Peter’s possible experience as a young man in Crawley, I even tried to access a site called “Dating in Crawley, UK”. Perhaps fortunately, the Finance Department IT system informed me it was a “restricted site” and I could pursue my searches no further.

What did strike me, and what would probably strike any of us looking at a group of websites that provided information about a smallish town – was the plain ordinariness of Peter’s birth place. Probably little more or little less than the ordinariness of many of our own places of birth, but ordinariness nevertheless. Perhaps that ordinariness, and a strong desire to get away from it, gave Peter the drive to achieve the things that he has, and become the extraordinary character that he is.

I next turned to Peter’s résumé or curriculum vitae for inspiration. As we all know, Peter is a former and future academic and, as such, no one should be surprised that his résumé extends to a lengthy 18 pages. It contains a number of gems! For example, did any of us know before today that Peter has, among other things:

  • published the definitive article on “Loan Sharks” in Philadelphia in the early twentieth century – an article, I decided, that gave him a sound basis for starting work in the Australian public service; or that
  • he published an article on “problems in the Australian wine industry” in 1978, something that I am sure contributed to his fondness for a glass or two of good wine; or that
  • he published not one, but two, articles in the June 1982 edition of the Australian Paediatric Journal on the height of British male convict children transported to Australia between 1824 and 1840 – I confess that this is something that I have found difficult to fit into his subsequent career development!

It is easy to poke gentle fun at anyone’s academic publications, and it is something that academics are good at, as Peter will well remember. What did strike me, however, about Peter’s CV was the consistency with which he has produced credible academic publications on a variety of subjects over the last 20 years – despite having, what he always claimed to his colleagues was, a very busy ‘day’ job. That he achieved that rate of publication is almost beyond belief – either that or he was fibbing about the demands of his day job. Jokes aside, I put the achievement down to Peter’s intellectual ability and, particularly, to his intellectual tenacity. And tenacious is a word which I do associate with Peter’s public service career!

For me, the most fruitful source of information about Peter has been his career itself and his reflection of it in today’s address. Did any of us previously realise, for example, that Peter spent a third of his two‑decade career as a public service CEO as the head of agencies that were subsequently abolished? An extraordinary achievement, Sir Humphrey! I, for one, intend to keep a weather eye on PM&C over the next few months! And I sincerely hope that Terry Moran makes a speedy transition to Canberra!

Indeed, what Peter’s address highlights, almost unconsciously, is the attributes that have made him a first-class public servant.

  • First, the shear breadth of his experience in the APS, even before he became head of PM&C. From waterfront reform to higher education reform, from native title to the Northern Territory emergency response, from welfare to work to reform of the public service, Peter was involved in many of the big issues that Government faced over the last two decades. But there is even more than that. His address shows his enthusiasm for getting to the public servant at the coalface, to the welfare recipient, to the indigenous person with a problem. Indeed, on listening to his address, I was left wondering if there had been any member of the APS in the last twenty years that Peter Shergold hadn’t spoken to.
  • The second attribute was the extent of his experience – two‑thirds of his career – in line and operational agencies –which contributed to his focus on both the formulation and implementation of public policy. He has been a leader in that respect, and was the right person to guide the Howard Government in that direction – at a time when they were starting to realise that a perceived failure to execute well was a serious political problem. The Rudd Government’s emphasis on implementation is a close match for Peter’s.
  • The third attribute was his role as a determined moderniser and advocate of change. Never for him the comfortable status quo. He was a relentless change agent, be it in the APSC, in DEWR or in DEST – and I remember times when I was in PM&C that he was regarded by some as a decided pest as a result.
  • The fourth attribute is his willingness not just to see and acknowledge both points of view, both sides of an argument, but to actively seek them out in ways all too few public servants do. Peter’s quest for the other side of the story, and his fairness in assessing it, has always been a strength. Perhaps that is the academic in him. It certainly comes through in his comments today about his next career.
  • And finally, his passion for good public policy, good public administration and public service more generally. That shines through his address today, and in that he is second to none in the APS.

I would like to close my reflections with two personal memories of Peter that, in one sense, ‘bookend’ his decade as a Portfolio Secretary:

  • The first was not long after he had exchanged the placid cloisters of the APSC for the fraught world of workplace relations, and found himself in the thick of the waterfront dispute. For several weekends in a row, Peter and his senior IR team prepared a brief for the small group of Ministers who were managing the then Government’s involvement in the dispute. When it was finalised on Sunday afternoon, he would drive from DEWR to PM&C and drop a copy off to me on his way home. PM&C would, in turn, prepare a short cover note for Max Moore‑Wilton and the PM and deliver the note and paper to the PM’s office. In those days, the foyer of PM&C wasn’t guarded on the weekend, so I would stand outside the entrance for a few moments for him to turn up. Peter, on arrival, invariably bounded out of the car, full of enthusiasm – he seemed like a cocky young boxer, bounding out of his corner for the first round of his first real fight! He had landed in a real mess, but he seemed to be (mostly) enjoying it and was so very determined to give the best advice to help Government get to the right outcome.
  • The second was in early to mid-2006 when the Cole Commission into the Australian Wheat Board was at its height. During that period, I seemed to bump into Peter about once a week in the Ministerial Wing Car Park. We would chat for a few minutes, as colleagues do. Perhaps not surprisingly, he no longer reminded me of a young boxer. I was now talking to a seasoned professional. The feet were a little slower, his guard had slipped a bit, some of the bruises showed – a few of them showed a lot – but he was still the consummate professional public servant, still determined to provide the best possible advice to help the Government find the right outcome for whatever problem bedevilled it.

What had changed him over those eight or nine years? Age, obviously, but much more than just that. Peter had been subject to what Helmut Schmidt, once Chancellor of West Germany, described as “the wear and tear of power”. And that is something that affects public servants just as much as it affects politicians.

I, for one, am pleased to see that – since Christmas – some of the effects of that wear and tear have slipped away.

In short, I believe that in Peter Shergold the Australian Public Service has had an extraordinary character who has helped achieved great things for the Australian public; who has inspired us with his passion, his enthusiasm and even his excitability; who has been a relentless advocate for change; who has shown tenacity, foresight and courage in his advice and service to governments; and has been honest and fair in his dealings with all. That strikes me as a pretty good record for any public servant.

Peter spoke today of “20 wonderful years” in public service. I couldn’t but agree that that is what he has had.

We will miss him.

Thank you very much.

Last reviewed: 
12 June 2018