Friday 19 Jul 2019 | 18:45 | SYDNEY
Friday 19 Jul 2019 | 18:45 | SYDNEY

Richardson: Atop the DFAT mountain


Graeme Dobell

20 May 2010 10:02

Dennis Richardson has several advantages in his new job as head of Foreign Affairs, beyond being tough, smart and experienced. In the way he presents it, this is his last big Canberra gig:

As far as I'm concerned the job I'm doing now will be my last job in government. I was appointed last year for a five year term and so at the end of that five year term I will get on my bike and do other things.

After that, it's off to the wine club and out to the footy to roar for the Canberra Raiders. It is the comment of a top bureaucrat comfortable with the knowledge that he doesn't have to worry about the next promotion.

Dennis Richardson has been around a long time – foreign policy adviser to Bob Hawke, head of ASIO for nine years, and back from nearly four years as our man in Washington. He has seen Prime Ministers come and go, governments rise and fall. Kempsey's nuggety son wasn't in awe of his political masters when he was building a glittering career. And there won't be any hesitation about telling hard truths now that he is on top of his last big mountain.

A small indication of the freedom Richardson feels was his interview with Monica Attard. Going 25 minutes with La Monica is not a game for the faint-hearted or the dim-witted. Some of the interest in the bout is that it took place at all. Apart from Ken Henry, not many public servants open their mouths in public under Kevin Rudd.

To see how this has played out at DFAT, go to the Department's sparkling new website. Click on the file of speeches made by the Foreign Affairs heavies. If you believe the list, nobody inside DFAT has made a speech since 2007, before Labor came to power.

DFAT has spent much of the Rudd regime nodding silently. The Foreign Minister had the same problem early on. But Stephen Smith has grown into the job and Dennis Richardson was bought back from Washington to see if he could restore some heft to DFAT. The secretary wants more money and people to deal with what he calls the 'great hangover' caused by the contraction of the Department:

To put this in perspective between 1996 and 2008 the Australian Public Service grew in general by between 25 and 30 per cent. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade shrank by 11 per cent. By 2008 there were 100 fewer people overseas working for the Australian Government in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade than what there had been 15 years before.

It's one way to frame the DFAT ache: the tough times started when John Howard took office in 1996. A bash at Howard and reminding Rudd about his pledge of more resources amounts to a useful bureaucratic play.

The realism of the Richardson approach is that he knows where DFAT fits in the power structure. He comes at this project as a Canberra player, not a DFAT mandarin: 'I've always seen myself as a career public servant. I don't see myself as a career diplomat. I've spent about half my time in the public service working beyond the department itself.'

Whole-of-government was the mantra under Howard and Downer. It is the same mantra today, with a special bow to the Prime Minister's Department. And, just quietly, PM&C is getting the sort of boom in its body count that DFAT can only lust after.

The Richardson conversation had a couple of nods to the workings of the Rudd universe: the creation of the national security adviser and the guiding vision of Rudd's 2008 national security statement. It also had one of those asides that remind you the power game is always about courtiers as well as princes.

To be appointed ambassador to Washington you need to be extremely competent and experienced, but luck and the political stars also have to align. In the Richardson telling, he got to Washington because John Howard's chief of staff eventually decided (or was persuaded) not to take the job:

If you go back to 2005 Arthur Sinodinos was lined up for the job. And I think a couple of other people might have been approached before me. They eventually got to the end of the line. I was the only one left. So they asked me.

It might sound haphazard, but it's a reasonable description of the funny old way things can work in turning the wheels of government.

Photo courtesy of DFAT.