Canberra is winding down towards the long summer break. Parliament wraps up on December 3, and lawmakers head home until the second week of February. The government-funded national broadcaster, the ABC, takes most of its public affairs programs off air. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, after a successful first spell, heads for a brief meeting in London with David Cameron before a couple of weeks in Paris at the United Nations climate change conference. Lesser mortals, including a significant proportion of the public service, head for second homes or rentals two hours away at Bateman’s Bay, aka Canberra-on-sea.
But this year public servants, who account for about 16pc of the capital’s workforce, are wearing a wan smile. While the prospect of a return to a Labor government diminishes with every poll, at least they have got rid of the disliked Tony Abbott. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, treasurer Scott Morrison, and other senior ministers are providing them with plenty of challenging work, and engaging more with departmental heads.
Top jobs are also becoming available. The able secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Vargese, is to become chancellor of the University of Queensland next year, and his successor seems likely to be an internal appointment. Those on the short list include two women – Frances Adamson, foreign affairs adviser to Turnbull and former ambassador to Beijing, who was in the team accompanying the PM to the G-20 meeting in Turkey and on his Asian tour, and Heather Smith, a deputy head of DFAT, who was the tireless lead Sherpa for the G-20 meeting Australia hosted a year ago in Brisbane.
Whoever takes over from Varghese will face a challenge. His doctrine of pursuing bilateral trade agreements in the absence of any solid progress in multilateral WTO arrangements has been a cornerstone of Coalition policy. FTA’s with China, Japan, and India have been negotiated during his watch, with India, Indonesia and the European Union underway. Foreign minister Julie Bishop described him as “a driving force” for the government’s agenda.
Another top Canberra job is also vacant. Following Michael Thawley’s decision to return to the private sector, his role as Secretary of the Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet is open. The new incumbent will be named in December and is widely expected to be former Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson, who was ‘retired’ by Tony Abbott shortly after he became prime minister. Dr Parkinson and Dr Smith are partners, and whether either or both end up in these top jobs, they will remain one of the capital’s most influential power couples.