Department of Finance head Jane Halton has resigned from the public service, stepping down after becoming just the second-ever female departmental head.
She officially leaves on October 14, after around two years heading up the central agency and nearly two decades in the top ranks of the public service.
Deputy secretary Rosemary Huxtable will act as secretary from October 15 until a new appointment is made.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirmed Halton will step down, but the word “retirement” was conspicuously absent from his press release.
Halton is the longest-serving of the current group of Australian Public Service secretaries, and the PM noted she holds a few other bureaucratic records too:
“She has had a long and distinguished career at the highest levels of the Australian Public Service, being the longest serving Secretary of the Department of Health and the first woman appointed to head a Commonwealth Central Agency.
“Ms Halton has made an enormous contribution in public life both nationally and internationally and has been a leader for women in the public sector.
“I thank her for her service and have no doubt that she will continue to contribute to the nation. I wish her all the very best for the future.”
Since moving into the top office at Finance, Halton has been in the thick of internal reform with the implementation of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act. She has been a steady hand leading the reform agenda as APS agencies begin working from annual corporate plans, and she advocates a move away from thick hardcopy annual reports towards more modern, accessible online performance reporting.
Halton leaves behind an agenda in the Finance portfolio to re-centralise shared services for the whole APS, reduce internal red tape, and end the “tyranny of the small person” in government where it leads to the detriment of the whole.
Her minister Mathias Cormann has thanked Halton for her 33 years of service to the APS with almost 15 of those spent at the highest level:
“Throughout her career Jane has diligently served governments of both political persuasions with great distinction – for a large part of her career in very central and high profile public service roles.
“My own interactions with Jane have straddled both periods of opposition and government.
“At all times I have very much appreciated Jane’s professionalism, competence and good humour. Though it is fair to say that Senate Estimates is more fun with Jane sitting next to you rather than on the other side of the table.
“Personally and on behalf of the government I would like to thank Jane very much for her wise and insightful counsel and support over the last two and half years.
“I wish Jane and her family all the very best for their future as they enter this exciting new phase in their life.”
Halton’s first APS job was with the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and she returned to the ABS after dabbling in the world of academic research because there was not enough “adrenalin” in it, according to a detailed profile published 10 years ago. Moving swiftly through the ranks early in her career, she gained broad experience and held senior roles in Finance and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet before becoming head of Health at 42.
As the second-ever female departmental head — appointed 15 years after Helen Williams became the first — Halton is seen as a trailblazer for women in the workforce. She believes women should help each other to continue tipping the gender balance in the most senior levels, but believes there are now few systemic barriers to stop women from winning influential positions.
“If you want it, you can do it. You’ve got to work — it’s not going to be handed to you on a plate — but if you want to get there, you can,” Halton told The Mandarin 2014 — her first media interview in the central role.
At last year’s Australia and New Zealand School of Government conference, she spoke about the role that departmental heads play and the white-knuckle moments when ministers demand rapid advice on emerging issues. Scramble some information, walk in there with ten more facts than the minister and you’ll survive, she advises.
The well-known bureaucrat reportedly joked that having served as a federal secretary longer than her father Charles Halton, it was time to go, when she told Finance staff of her decision today.
Like most senior public servants, she has picked up quite a few awards and honours along the way, including an honourary doctorate from the University of New South Wales and many others dutifully detailed in her official bio.
In 2001, Halton won a Centenary Medal for achievements as Health boss and the next year, she received a Public Service Medal for “outstanding public service in the development of the government’s social reform agenda”. She is also on the honour roll as an Officer of the Order of Australia:
“For distinguished service to public administration, particularly to the health and aged care sectors, through the development and implementation of public policy, and to professional national and international organisations.”
It’s unknown if Halton will remain in Canberra. Her husband, Trevor Sutton, is a deputy Australian statistician at the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on The Mandarin, follow the Mandarin for more reactions to this news.