The Abbott and Turnbull governments and the Australian Public Service

Prime ministers and their ministries

It is the prerogative of the Australian prime minister to appoint the cabinet and the outer ministry, including parliamentary secretaries, and to determine the structure of the departments that support the administration of their government (see Singleton,G. et al, Australian Political Institutions 10e, Pearson Education, pp 194-195).  For example, prime minister Tony Abbott’s last ministry as at 20 September 2015 comprised 19 cabinet ministers, an outer ministry of 11 and 12 parliamentary secretaries.  His successor Malcolm Turnbull’s first ministry, on the other hand, comprised 22 cabinet ministers, an outer ministry of 10 and 12 assistant ministers.  Turnbull changed the title of what had formerly been called ‘parliamentary secretaries’ to ‘assistant ministers’ to reflect their function more accurately (Turnbull, M. ‘Changes to the Ministry’, 20 September 2015,

Prime ministers and the Australian Public Service

Australian prime ministers historically have reorganised the Australian Public Service to reflect the policy interests of their governments.  This is evident from the number of Commonwealth government departments established by different governments detailed in Table 7.1 of Singleton et al, p. 245.  The Abbott and Turnbull governments each established 18 departments but the different distribution of policy responsibilities reflected each government’s own political agenda.

This can be seen from the Administrative Arrangements Order issued by the Governor-General on 18 September 2013 which sets out the Abbott government’s amendment of the Gillard government arrangements (see and the Administrative Arrangements Order issued by the Governor-General on 20 September 2015 amending those arrangements to meet the changed required by the Turnbull government (see: As an example the Department of Agriculture was changed to the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources to reflect the fact that the responsibility for water had been moved from the Environment portfolio to the new department under Minister Barnaby Joyce.  A number of government bodies had also been abolished by the Abbott government.

Impact of government policy on staffing the Australian Public Service

Changes to the number of ongoing (full time) paid staff of the Australian Public Service reflect movements in government policy (see Table 7.2 Singleton et al, p. 246).  In order to achieve budget savings the Abbott government made substantial cuts to the Australian Public Service which resulted in a reduction of numbers from 151,384 in June 2013 to 134,398 in June 2015.  An interesting statistic is the loss of around 3,000 jobs from the Australian Taxation Office (  This is surprising given the government’s policy of identifying and preventing tax avoidance to bolster tax revenues.  It is too soon to identify the impact of the Turnbull government on public service numbers but these can be accessed from the Australian Public Service Commission website at when they become available.

Dr Gwynneth Singleton

28 November 2015