PM axes five officials, four departments

 

Four federal government departments will be scrapped and five department heads axed next year as outgoing officials slam Prime Minister Scott Morrison for failing to consult with them before the shock pre-Christmas announcement.

Mr Morrison has dismissed concerns his announcement today that the Communications and the Arts, Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business, Agriculture, and Industry Innovation and Science would be merged into existing departments in the new year, would create anxiety among public servants over the Christmas break.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is slashing the number of government departments from 18 to 14. Picture: Kym Smith
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is slashing the number of government departments from 18 to 14. Picture: Kym Smith

"This has not been done as a savings measure, this has been done a structural issue to better align and bring together function within the public service so they can all do their jobs effectively and help more Australian.

"There is nothing in these changes that is a directive to secretaires about making any changes in those (employee number) areas.

Mr Morrison said the changes, which reduce the number of departments from 18 to 14, were about "getting better services on the ground" for Australians.

"It's about making sure that I keep my promises to the Australian people … and I'll be able to better do that with the structures and the changes I've made," he said.

But in an email to his staff just minutes before the cuts were revealed, now outgoing secretary of the Department of Communications and the Arts Mike Mrdak said he was only told of the government's decision to abolish his role late on Wednesday afternoon.

Outgoing secretary of the department of communications Mike Mrdak says February 1 will mark the end of his 32-year career.
Outgoing secretary of the department of communications Mike Mrdak says February 1 will mark the end of his 32-year career.

"We were not permitted any opportunity to provide advice on the Machinery of Government changes, nor were our views ever sought on any proposal to abolish the Department or to changes to our structure and operations," he said.

Mr Mrdak told staff he would work with them over the next month to help with the transition.

"I know that all of us will make this work - it is what the Australian Public Service (APS) always unfailing does best for the nation."

Mr Mrdak said February 1, 2020 would mark the end of his 32-year career in the public service.

"This has been the most wonderful opportunity I could ever have imagined in my career," he said.

"I will miss this department, all of you and the APS terribly."

News Corp understands all of the outgoing secretaries have written to their staff to offer support to their department during the upcoming changes.

In addition to Mr Mrdak, Renee Leon, Kerri Hartland, Daryl Quinlivan and Heather Smith will lose their secretary positions.

Mr Morrison will bring in Andrew Metclafe to head up the new Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment from next year, after previously serving as secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and then working in the private sector.

Mr Morrison said there were no changes to the ministry insisting he is "very pleased" about the performance of his ministers.

"The new structure will drive greater collaboration on important policy challenges," he said.

"For example, better integrating the Government's education and skills agenda and ensuring Australians living in regional areas can access the infrastructure and services they need."

Labor deputy leader Richard Marles has urged the PM to tread carefully.

"Obviously the public service has a very significant role to play and there needs to be stability within the public service," Mr Marles told Sky News.

"I think it's really important - particularly at this time, given all the challenges that we're facing - that the government is managing the public service in a way which maintains stability and ultimately maintains morale."

Earlier this year, Mr Morrison said the Australian Public Service needed to "evolve" and in some cases "conventional wisdom needs to be challenged".

He also called for "congestion-busting" to encourage new ideas on how to improve services.

 

LAMBIE FLAGS SUPPORT FOR UNION-BUSTING LAWS

Senate crossbencher Jacqui Lambie is open to supporting the government's reheated union-busting legislation if the proposed laws are reviewed after two years.

Senator Lambie has also rekindled a threat to back the so-called "ensuring integrity" bill if Victorian construction union boss John Setka does not resign.

The independent senator has demanded the two-year review in return for her support for the legislation, which makes it easier to deregister unions and ban their officials.

Crossbench Senator Jacqui Lambie says she’s open to voting with the government on their union-busting bill. Picture: Kym Smith
Crossbench Senator Jacqui Lambie says she’s open to voting with the government on their union-busting bill. Picture: Kym Smith

"If the government thinks my previously unworkable amendments are now workable, well, I think that's great," she told Nine newspapers.

"I'm always happy to work constructively with the government and I note that the CFMEU haven't cleaned up their act - John Setka is still there."

The ensuring integrity bill was reintroduced to the lower house on Wednesday, less than a week after being voted down in the Senate.

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Labor has promised to continue fighting against the proposed laws over the long summer break, before the legislation returns to the Senate next year.

"We'll continue to make sure that working Australians have the right to organise to improve their pay and conditions," Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek said.

"It is disappointing in the extreme that the government is not listening to the parliament on this bill."

NEW TWIST IN SECRET MEDEVAC REPEAL DEAL

The Coalition government reportedly raised the prospect of resettling hundreds of asylum seekers detained offshore in New Zealand during talks with Jacqui Lambie to get her vote to repeal the medevac bill.

The Tasmanian independent senator was given the assurance by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a private letter, revealed on Thursday in Nine newspapers citing unnamed sources.

The written assurance from Mr Morrison to Senator Lambie could pave the way for a New Zealand resettlement, although the NZ government has said while its offer to resettle 150 refugees remains on the table it has had no talks with Australia so far.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and PM Scott Morrison holding a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture Kym Smith
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and PM Scott Morrison holding a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture Kym Smith

The repealed medical evacuations laws, which initially passed against the government's wishes, had allowed people in offshore detention to be transferred on the recommendation of two independent doctors.

After the laws were repealed yesterday, Mr Morrison hit back at accusations he had done a secret deal with Senator Lambie to secure her crucial vote.

"The only undertaking we've given is to implement our policies - that is it," Mr Morrison said yesterday.

The PM said a number of asylum seekers had been sent to the US for resettlement and 250 were in the provisional approval stage.

When asked would other resettlement options like New Zealand be considering one the US option is exhausted, Mr Morrison responded: "The government is always looking at ways to resettle those who are on Nauru."

Mr Morrison's letter was sent to Senator Lambie after days of negotiations, laying out the need for an agreement with New Zealand to resettle the refugees, Nine newspapers said.

During the negotiations, Senator Lambie was provided classified information about Operation Sovereign Borders, it's legacy caseload and current policies, The Courier-Mail reported.

New Zealand has long been touted as a destination for refugees currently languishing in limbo in Australia's offshore detention regime. A deal for New Zealand to take 150 refugees was brokered by former prime ministers Julia Gillard and John Key in 2013, but has never been used.

Senator Jacqui Lambie broke down as she told the Senate why she couldn’t discuss the agreement she had reached with the government. Picture: Kym Smith
Senator Jacqui Lambie broke down as she told the Senate why she couldn’t discuss the agreement she had reached with the government. Picture: Kym Smith

New Zealand Immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway yesterday said one in Australia had picked up the phone regarding the deal.

"I haven't had any conversations with the Australian Government," he said.

"The offer remains on the table … and we're happy to help if they want to take the offer up. We'll wait and see."

Asked whether Australia should do so, Lees-Galloway said it was "a decision for them".

Senator Lambie held back tears as she told the Senate on Wednesday why she could not discuss the deal publicly due to "national security concerns".

"I am being 100 per cent honest to you. My hand is on my heart and I can stand here and say that I would be putting at risk Australia's national security and national interest if I said anything else about this," Senator Lambie said.

Long-term detainee Behrouz Boochani surfaced in New Zealand last month, declaring himself a free man after taking up a one-month visit visa to speak at a writers festival.

He is expected to seek asylum in New Zealand rather than return to Papua New Guinea.

There are more than 400 refugees currently held in offshore detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

FREED TALIBAN PRISONER GETS STANDING OVATION

Timothy Weeks has met with the prime minister after spending more than three years as a Taliban hostage.

Mr Weeks sat down with Scott Morrison at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Foreign Minister Marise Payne were also at the meeting.

Timothy Weeks was held hostage by the Taliban for three years. Picture: Lukas Coch
Timothy Weeks was held hostage by the Taliban for three years. Picture: Lukas Coch

 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and fellow MPs applauded Mr Weeks. Picture: Lukas Coch
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and fellow MPs applauded Mr Weeks. Picture: Lukas Coch

He later received a standing ovation while attending question time.

"Mr Weeks' story is one of the incredible resilience of an Australian," the prime minister told parliament.

"This is the nature of Australians. We are an incredibly resilient people." Mr Morrison said the academic's detention in Afghanistan was one of the most incredible ordeals an Australian could go through.

 

A photo of Mr Weeks during his captivity.
A photo of Mr Weeks during his captivity.

 

Mr Weeks returned to Australia late last week. Picture: Jeremy Piper
Mr Weeks returned to Australia late last week. Picture: Jeremy Piper

Mr Weeks returned to Australia late last week after being released as part of a prisoner exchange deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government, negotiated by American officials.

He and an American colleague had been detained since 2016 after being abducted at gunpoint outside the American University in Kabul, where they worked as teachers.

The prisoner swap deal saw the release of three high-ranking Taliban prisoners. Mr Weeks is from the regional NSW town of Wagga Wagga.


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