Dfat head Kathryn Campbell set to be replaced as Albanese reshapes public service | Australian politics

The head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is expected to be replaced by Australia’s ambassador to Japan as Anthony Albanese moves to reshape the upper ranks of the public service.

Kathryn Campbell, who presided over the “robodebt” fiasco, was widely tipped to be moved on after the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, said the department needed to boost its capability at a time of great “challenge” in world affairs.

The ambassador to Japan, Jan Adams, is expected to be appointed to lead the department, ABC first reported on Monday.

In an interview with the Guardian’s Australian politics podcast in March, Wong hinted she was interested in a change when asked whether she was comfortable having a head of Dfat who was not a career diplomat.

Wong said Dfat needed to “shape and operationalize Australia’s engagement in the world and, given that, you would hope it is led by people who have the capability, capacity, and knowledge to do so”.

Wong added that it was a “pretty difficult time in the world,” and the times required “politicians and our diplomatic service to step up because it is a greater challenge and task than we’ve faced previously”.

There has long been speculation about Campbell’s future under the Albanese government, given that it has promised a royal commission into robodebt – a debt recovery scheme that was the subject of a $1.8bn settlement between the commonwealth and victims.

Kathryn Campbell

While there is no suggestion that the forthcoming royal commission will focus on Campbell, she may be a potential witness in light of her previous roles leading the Department of Human Services and then the Department of Social Services.

Campbell appeared before Senate hearings to explain and defend the scheme’s implementation.

Campbell said she believed the scheme was legal when it was implemented in 2015.

“It was my view when we introduced this that it was legal,” Campbell told a Senate inquiry hearing in July 2020.

When pressed, Campbell added: “Clearly, I was wrong, as were previous organizations and governments for some years.”

In July 2020, the mothers of two young men who took their own lives after receiving Centrelink debts challenged Campbell over her remarks that she did not “accept that people have died” over the Coalition’s income compliance – or robodebt – program.

“We have apologized for the hurt and harm, but none of us can imagine what goes on in individuals’ lives,” Campbell said.

There had been speculation within the upper echelons of the public service that the secretary of defense, Greg Moriarty, could be drafted by the new government to run Dfat.

But Adams, who began her posting as ambassador to Japan in 2020, is now tipped to have secured the role.

Adams has previously worked closely with Wong. In 2008, Wong, then the climate change minister in the Rudd government, named Adams as Australia’s ambassador for climate change.

Adams served as ambassador to China from 2016 to 2019, an experience that may be useful when the government is pursuing dialogue with Beijing, even as it says it remains committed to the same foreign relations and defense policies.

Adams also has experience in trade policy. She was the chief negotiator on Australia’s free trade agreements with China, South Korea, and Japan, finalized during the Abbott government.

Albanese has moved to reshape the public service since winning the election last month, appointing former University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis to lead the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C).

Davis, mooted as a potential PM&C head during the Rudd era, replaced Scott Morrison’s appointee, Phil Gaetjens, a longtime Liberal staffer and Treasury official.

Kathy Klugman, a Dfat deputy secretary in charge of the international division of PM&C when Julia Gillard was prime minister, has joined Albanese’s office as the prime minister’s international adviser.

Bella E. McMahon
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