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Secretary's Review

The year in review

I commenced as the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) on 2 September 2019, relishing the opportunities and challenges. The 2019–20 year delivered a succession of adversities, the magnitude of which many of us have never experienced. Following the step-up in work to support communities affected by drought and floods, many Australians then experienced major bushfires that took the lives of 33 people and had a massive impact across several states. Before the bushfires ended, the COVID-19 pandemic started.

These events compelled the Australian Public Service (APS) to adapt swiftly to the rapidly changing circumstances and work to support the Prime Minister and his Government as they responded to the crisis. In the face of the unprecedented national and global crises, we showed ourselves to be committed, resilient and flexible. In its response to these crises, PM&C served the needs of the Government and worked to improve the lives of all Australians.

Photo of Mr Philip Gaetjens, Secretary, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
Mr Philip Gaetjens, Secretary, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

2019–20 was a year in which PM&C affirmed its capacity to work incredibly closely and successfully with Government and across the whole APS.

On 5 December 2019, the Prime Minister announced the largest structural reforms to the APS in 30 years, reducing the number of departments from 18 to 14. These changes formed part of the Government’s December 2019 APS reform agenda, ‘Delivering for Australians’, which included the Government’s response to the 2018–19 Independent Review of the APS.

PM&C then played a key role in the APS response to the devastating bushfires of 2019–2020. The National Bushfire Recovery Agency was established in the portfolio within two days of the Prime Minister’s announcement in early January, and the agency was staffed and operational before the end of that month.

The COVID-19 pandemic demanded similarly rapid action from PM&C to support the National Cabinet, the National Coordination Mechanism and the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission to deliver a coherent response to the evolving crisis. Urgent internal redeployment of staff and resources to establish policy, data, briefing and crisis management teams was a hallmark of this response. PM&C’s work to integrate public and private expertise helped to progress the Government’s focus on minimising and mitigating the impact of the coronavirus on Australian families, businesses and regions.

We supported the Prime Minister in his role as Chair of the National Cabinet, comprising the Prime Minister and state and territory leaders. This new leader-led arrangement to
Commonwealth–State relations delivered a more dynamic and purpose-driven approach to addressing the pandemic and its consequences. The Australian Government and each jurisdiction committed through National Cabinet to protecting the health of Australians and to creating jobs to support the recovery.

Throughout the year PM&C played an important role in advancing Government innovation and delivery of individual, business and national response packages. Programs designed to cushion the economic impact of the events of recent months, such as the JobKeeper payment and small business bushfire recovery grants, were underpinned by the Department’s targeted policy design and coordination. We also worked intensively with public and private sector interests on the progression of major infrastructure projects, including Inland Rail and the Western Sydney International Airport.

Government priorities throughout the year encompassed mental health, regional Australia and the environment, and a step-up in our engagement in the Pacific. PM&C collaborated with and shaped efforts across the APS to support the Prime Minister and Cabinet in delivering a dynamic and purpose-driven approach to these areas of focus.

PM&C’s work with the Department of Health and other agencies focused on mental health and suicide prevention—one of the Prime Minister’s national priorities. This resulted in the appointment of a National Suicide Prevention Adviser and significant funding of mental health support.

PM&C actively contributed to sustainable water policy through the National Water Grid Authority’s $1.5 billion Infrastructure Development Fund. The Department was also central in proposing a deadline for the international export of domestic waste, while building the nation’s recycling capacity.

The Government’s increased engagement with the Pacific involved PM&C’s participation in the rapid refocus of the aid program to address the impact of COVID-19 in the region. PM&C also furthered the Government’s prioritisation of Australia’s alliance with the United States of America (US) by mobilising staff across the Department to support the Prime Minister’s successful US visit in late 2019.

The Secretaries Board I chair established the Chief Operating Officers Committee in February 2020 to work and collaborate on issues relevant to the whole APS-enterprise. Focus quickly pivoted to managing an operational response to the COVID-19 crisis and proved the benefits of an APS-enterprise approach to meeting the Australian public’s urgent and rapidly evolving needs.

In 2019–20, a fast-changing operating environment drove our business continuity planning and technology-led transformation of work practices. The priority in this context was to meet the needs and manage the wellbeing of the Department’s greatest asset—our people.

I thank Dr Martin Parkinson AC PSM for his leadership of this Department and the APS up until 30 August 2019. As the Prime Minister said, his policy acumen across a range of domestic and international policy areas helped Australia to navigate a complex and rapidly changing world.

The year ahead

The experience of 2019–20 emphasised how directly our work impacts the lives of all Australians, especially when responding to disaster events like flood, fire and a virus pandemic.

Driving the APS reform agenda will also occur in the context of recovery. Our goal is to promote an APS-enterprise that will deliver the Government priorities to manage COVID-19 and restore the health of the economy.

The prime focus in 2020–21 will be on pivoting as soon as practicable from a pandemic response to a policy advice and delivery posture that is geared to economic recovery, and that uses all drivers possible to restore jobs and prevent the corrosive impact of long-term unemployment.