On Martin Bowles, departing Secretary of DIBP

I don’t know Martin Bowles but people I know do and I trust their opinion. To a person, they think he is an excellent public servant. He is moving on as Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to become the Secretary of the Health Department

The one time I met him was on invitation to his office for our entire section of 11 as a gesture of thanks for some recent work. I’d been in the Department for about four years by that stage and that was the first time I’d been in the Executive suite except for dropping off briefs (or chin-wagging). He was generous with both his words and time that day and left a lasting impression of a very decent person and leader.

Some people will say this is not how we should judge the highest leaders in the Australian Public Service. They are right in the sense this is not the most important role Secretaries play. But it is important to recognise these qualities as public servants avoid the public record like the plague. Senior leaders who know how to encourage and communicate with mid- and lower-level staff are those who can rely on the support of the hierarchy, the benefits of which flow through to nearly everything they do.

Watching Bowles in Senate Estimates could be rather frustrating given his penchant to take nearly everything on notice. However perhaps no other Secretary had to deal with such a combustible mix of policy, politics and personalities. He appeared to be an extremely able manager of both policy and operational matters, implementing government policy in the most difficult environment.

The death of Reza Berati on Manus Island is the event which raises a question to this narrative however I believe the over-riding factor of his death stems from policy decisions made by governments, not implementation of this policy by the bureaucracy. However it is fair to say we will never know exactly how to understand this event given the secrecy the government has created.

He was not a big talker, with no record of big public speeches. This stood in contrast to his predecessor. If Andrew Metcalfe was brought back to Immigration to clean up the mess that the department had become, Martin Bowles role was to stabilise the department after a gruelling period of massive organisational change.

When I left the Department in 2012, he seemed to be on the right track.

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