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Secretary's Review

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) had a year of significant achievement and transformation in 2018–19. The Department provided support in the transition to a new Prime Minister, addressed many complex policy issues, managed the caretaker period and, after the May election, supported the Prime Minister in establishing his new Ministry and implementing the new administrative arrangements.

Dr Martin Parkinson AC PSM, Secretary, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

After the Prime Minister’s announcement of the new National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), the Department managed the establishment of the new agency in order for it to stand up on 1 July 2019. PM&C and NIAA will continue to collaborate closely to achieve better policy outcomes for Indigenous Australians and leverage efficiencies in our shared corporate functions.

This year we continued to deliver results for the people of Australia, while embedding our internal Transformation Agenda to become a more contemporary and responsive Australian Public Service (APS) department. All of this could only be achieved with the ongoing commitment and dedication of all PM&C staff, and I would like to thank them for their continuing efforts to improve our ability to support the Government and our fellow Australians.

The following overview highlights the Department’s achievements in advancing the wellbeing of Australians through delivering high-quality support to the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Overview of 2018-19

Meeting the needs of the Australian people

The Department tackled many complex policy reforms in 2018–19 and achieved significant results across a broad range of policy areas. Highlights included the Department’s work assisting farmers and communities seriously affected by both drought and floods, delivering a report on reforming the nation’s vocational education and training sector, and driving the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) process to achieve economic, educational and social policy outcomes.

PM&C contributed to policy reform and greater national policy co-ordination through the management of COAG. Successes this year included negotiating a new National Drought Agreement, which was signed at COAG in December 2018; developing and delivering a statement from COAG summit delegates to inform the Fourth Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010–2022; and improving the quality of regulation, and minimising its burden, through securing COAG's agreement for Regulation Impact Statements for all new policy proposals.

Through the COAG process, PM&C played a key role in supporting the signing of the National Schools Reform Agreement by all state and territory governments. Working closely with the Department of Education and the Treasury, PM&C was essential to ensuring negotiations were focused on more than just funding commitments, prioritising better outcomes for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged students.

In August 2018, PM&C established the Joint Agency Drought Taskforce to drive a national response to the ongoing drought impacting communities across Australia. This taskforce, led by Major General Stephen Day DSC AM, delivered practical support for those affected by clearing away bureaucratic obstacles and getting financial help to people quickly. This work is having a real and positive impact on Australians experiencing hardship.

In January and February 2019, Far North Queensland experienced extreme weather events that had a devastating effect on the health and livelihoods of many Australians. The Australian Government responded quickly and efficiently to meet their needs.

An unprecedented flood in North Queensland impacted on the cattle industry across an area larger than Victoria, with the loss of an estimated 600,000 head of cattle. In response, on 1 March 2019 the Prime Minister announced the establishment of the North Queensland Livestock Industry Recovery Agency (NQLIRA) to manage a whole-of-government response to assist the affected farmers and their communities. Under the leadership of the Hon Shane Stone AC QC, NQLIRA was established as a taskforce within PM&C until it became an Executive Agency, under the Public Service Act 1999, in the portfolio on 1 July 2019.

NQLIRA’s CEO and Advisory Board Chair Shane L Stone AC QC (front right) and Advisory Board members Don Heatley, David Galvin and Greg Campbell meet with residents of Winton to talk about the impact of the monsoon trough and discuss longer-term recovery.

The guiding principle of NQLIRA’s work is that the response must be locally led, locally understood and locally implemented. More than a third of the agency’s time has been spent on community activities and hearing from people who have been affected so that it can understand what support is needed now, as well as how the Government can assist the region’s long-term recovery.

Within weeks of the flood, 11 of the worst affected local government areas were each provided $1 million to immediately assist their communities sustain economic activity. More than $3.3 billion has been paid or committed to assist farmers, small businesses, not-for-profit organisations and local shires. NQLIRA continues to deliver Commonwealth assistance to the affected regions through a long-term recovery plan, which will continue for the next five years.

As public servants, we pride ourselves on making things better for our fellow citizens. The work of both the Joint Agency Drought Taskforce and NQLIRA is having tangible, positive, impacts for farmers and their communities.

The skills Australia needs to drive a stronger economy were the focus of the review into Australia’s vocational education and training sector, supported by a taskforce within PM&C. The review was led by the Hon Steven Joyce, a former New Zealand Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment. Mr Joyce delivered the final report to the Government in March 2019. On 2 April 2019, the Government released its Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow package, which responds to recommendations of the review. Those responses are now being implemented by the relevant departments and agencies, while further actions are under active consideration.

On 11 April 2019, the Governor-General agreed to the Prime Minister’s recommendation that an election be held on Saturday 18 May 2019. The Parliament was prorogued and the House of Representatives dissolved that same day. In accordance with longstanding convention, the Government assumed a ‘caretaker role’. During the caretaker period, PM&C provided advice across government on the application of the ‘caretaker conventions’. Government Division answered 459 inquiries from a range of stakeholders, including ministers’ offices and from, or involving, every department in the APS.

PM&C’s advice ensured that actions by the Government or the APS would neither bind a possible incoming government nor limit its freedom of action. Our guidance also safeguarded the continued apolitical nature of the APS.

The caretaker period ended when the outcome of the election was clear, on Sunday 19 May 2019.

Driving change to keep Australians safe

In March 2019, Australians were shocked by the terrorist attacks in Christchurch and the sharing of video and images of the attack online. PM&C supported the Prime Minister to initiate concrete action, both domestically and internationally, to stop social media platforms being used by terrorists and extremists. PM&C co-chaired, with the Department of Communications and the Arts, a taskforce to combat terrorist and violent extremist material online working with online platforms and internet service providers to recommend specific actions by industry and the Government. A PM&C team also displayed an exceptional level of coordination and collaboration, working across government and with different countries, on the Leaders’ Statement on Preventing Exploitation of the Internet for Terrorism and Violent Extremism Conducive to Terrorism at the Tokyo G20 meeting in June 2019.

In October 2018, PM&C collaborated with the South Australian Government and the Department of Social Services to deliver the second COAG National Summit on Reducing Violence Against Women and their Children. This summit informed the development of the Fourth Action Plan under the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010–2022.

This year, the National Office for Child Safety moved from the Department of Social Services to PM&C. This change was in line with recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, to reflect the importance of the work. The National Office for Child Safety leads the development and implementation of a number of initiatives recommended by the Royal Commission. It also builds upon existing initiatives such as the National Redress Scheme and the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009–2020.

Australia has faced rapidly evolving international security challenges in recent years. PM&C has driven, coordinated and/or contributed strongly to whole-of-government consideration of how best to deal with these, in support of the Prime Minister and the National Security Committee of Cabinet. We have led or helped shape important work to encourage the continued strong United States regional Indo-Pacific engagement, so essential for the region’s prosperity and security; promote growth, build resilience and support sovereignty through the Pacific Step-Up; strengthen partnerships in North and Southeast Asia; and review aspects of Middle East policy.

To ensure Australia and its defence force are equipped to meet future security challenges, we have worked closely with the Department of Defence, central agencies and across government to ensure delivery of the Defence Integrated Investment Program and associated sovereign industrial capabilities. We have assisted whole-of-government efforts to progress the Naval Shipbuilding Plan, a complex national endeavour to create a long-term sustainable naval shipbuilding and sustainment industrial base to serve our strategic and national interests into the future.

With the Department of Home Affairs and the Australian Cyber Security Centre, PM&C helped develop more effective government measures to counter and deter foreign interference and cyber threats. We worked closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Home Affairs on the complex security, diplomatic and humanitarian challenges posed by foreign terrorist fighters and their families. As a member of the Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce, we also supported the Australian Electoral Commissioner deliver a safe and fair election.

Building relationships

PM&C supports the Prime Minister in his leader-level engagements to advance Australia’s interests internationally, including through global and regional cooperation. We support the Prime Minister to shape Australia’s international presence at key international summits, coordinate engagement with world leaders, and organise meetings with dignitaries visiting Australia. In 2018–19 this included hosting visits to Australia by the Presidents of India and Poland, and the Prime Minister of Japan; and supporting Australia’s efforts at the G20 meeting in Osaka, Japan; APEC in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea; and the East Asia Summit in Singapore.

We also played a major role in solidifying regional relationships by hosting a number of visits from regional Heads of Government, including the Prime Minister of Vanuatu; and supporting visits by the Prime Minister to New Zealand, Fiji, Singapore, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. I also jointly hosted, with my counterpart from Papua New Guinea, the inaugural meeting of the Heads of Pacific Prime Ministers’ Departments in Brisbane, building on the strong engagement between Pacific leaders by strengthening the relationships between their senior officials.

The Prime Minister moved to prioritise Australia’s relationships with Pacific Island nations by announcing a new package of security, economic, diplomatic and people-to-people initiatives― the Pacific Step-Up. The Step-Up will take our engagement with the region to a new level.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a visit to the National Archives and Library in Port Vila, Vanuatu, 16 January 2019 (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts).

Adapting to meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

A key priority for PM&C during 2018–19 was to work closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to accelerate economic and educational opportunities, improve health and wellbeing, and make communities safer.

We continued to work towards true co-design models in policy design and program delivery to be more flexible and responsive to local and regional needs.

In 2018–19, we supported consultation processes on Native Title reforms, so that Traditional Owners can unlock greater social and economic opportunities on their lands.

We introduced changes to the Community Development Program designed to reduce penalties and increase local decision-making to better support jobseekers in remote and regional parts of Australia.

We made advancements in the Indigenous justice area with the rollout of custody notification services into more jurisdictions and greater through-care services to help reduce the over-representation of Indigenous people in custody.

We have seen greater investment in Indigenous businesses through the Indigenous Entrepreneurs Fund and the Indigenous Procurement Policy, which is being extended to include a new 3 per cent value target over the next decade.

We began refocusing our work to ensure it prioritises outcomes and supports positive social and economic opportunities throughout the country. It will ensure we are ready, better able and strategically positioned to support Indigenous Australians.

In February, the Closing the Gap Report was tabled in Parliament. This report revealed that early childhood education and Year 12 attainment targets are on track, and that important progress has been made in health and education, but it also highlighted that more needs to be done. This final report marks a transition to the next phase of Closing the Gap. In December 2018, the COAG Joint Council on Closing the Gap marked a historic step by committing to a formal partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to finalise the Closing the Gap Refresh and provide a forum for ongoing engagement throughout implementation of the new agenda.

On 1 July 2019, the Indigenous Affairs Group of the Department became an Executive Agency—the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA)—within the PM&C portfolio. The Agency builds on the progress that has been made over the last six years. It keeps the Agency in the heart of Government, but provides more autonomy and, most importantly, more authority to ensure there is a coordinated approach across the Commonwealth to pursue the Government’s agenda for Indigenous Australians. PM&C continues to work seamlessly with NIAA to support a successful transition and to ensure policy and service delivery advice to the Prime Minister continues to be informed by the interests and priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Dr Martin Parkinson AC PSM speaking at a PM&C all staff address.

Adapting to change

PM&C has been at the forefront of change by supporting the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service, preparing and briefing the incoming Government after the federal election, and continuing to transform the way we work as a department.

In 2018–19, PM&C supported David Thodey and the APS Review Panel to undertake the most extensive review of the APS in more than 40 years. I strongly support the central theme of the panel’s report, Independent review of the APS: Priorities for change, that all of us in the APS should go to work every day with the idea that we work for all Australians.

The panel will deliver its final report early in 2019–20 but its work has already made clear that the APS will need to operate differently to deliver government priorities and serve Australians now and in coming decades. We will need to boost our capability and take a new approach to the way we engage outside of the public service with individuals, business and the community more broadly. This will require hard work but it will ensure the APS remains an inspiring place to work that delivers for the Government and for the people of Australia.

PM&C also worked constructively during the year to continue to implement machinery of government changes with respect to the Department of Home Affairs and the standing up of the Office of National Intelligence, including embedding consultation and coordination arrangements to ensure all relevant equities were taken into account in providing robust advice to government.

Transformation Agenda

PM&C’s Transformation Agenda is about ensuring we keep pace with the changing world so that we can continue to deliver high-quality outcomes for the Government and the Australian public.

We are now more technologically adept, particularly after the introduction of digital-first briefing processes for the Prime Minister and portfolio ministers. Staff have also reported that PM&C’s flexible working arrangement ‘Working Your Way’ improves their digital confidence compared to a traditional office environment.

We are also becoming a more curious, knowledge-based organisation. With the establishment of the NIAA, the APS will work to make better use of the NIAA Regional Network’s knowledge of the communities they serve and how programs really work on the ground. This year we have continued an extensive program of guest speakers and workplace seminars which have introduced staff to some great Australian and international thinkers beyond their traditional area of focus.

The next 12 months and beyond

As announced by the Prime Minister on 25 July 2019, I will be finishing as Secretary of the Department on 30 August 2019. It has been an enormous honour to lead PM&C over the last four years, and I have no doubt the Department will be in excellent hands with my successor Phil Gaetjens.

Phil will continue to take the Department forward, working closely with the Government as it begins a new term of government. To support the Government, PM&C has established a Priorities and Delivery Unit to work collaboratively across the APS and with key industry stakeholders to support delivery of the Government’s top priorities.

PM&C will lead and role-model the priorities of change and findings from the Independent Review of the APS and continue to build upon our transformation to a modern, collaborative and responsive organisation that drives excellence across the public service.

PM&C is a very different department to the one I joined in early 2016. I am proud of the work we have done as a department to significantly increase our diversity and inclusion, tackle domestic and family violence―including through White Ribbon workplace accreditation and introducing family violence leave provisions―and lead reconciliation efforts with Indigenous Australians through our Stretch Reconciliation Action Plan. The Department’s Transformation Agenda will continue to ensure PM&C has the skills and capability to best serve the Prime Minister, Cabinet and the Government more broadly now and in the years ahead.

None of this could have been achieved without the commitment of our staff and the support of my Executive team. I would like to record my appreciation for their efforts, encourage them to continue the journey, and look forward to PM&C achieving even greater success under Phil’s leadership. Farewell and very best wishes to our ministerial team, led by the Prime Minister, the Hon. Scott Morrison MP, and to all of my PM&C department and portfolio colleagues.​

Dr Martin Parkinson PSM
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet