Jane Halton, the bureaucrat at the centre of the ‘children overboard’ affair, reflects on a career of toughness and discretion. By Karen Middleton.

Jane Halton, the last of John Howard’s departmental heads, steps down

Three days after Jane Halton ended more than three decades in the public service on October 14, the senate held its latest round of budget estimates committee hearings.

These regular showdowns are the parliament’s opportunity to grill public servants about the expenditure of public money, right across government.

With 12 years as secretary of the Department of Health and two as Department of Finance secretary, Halton was the longest-serving departmental head – dean of the secretaries’ corps. Upon her departure, the last of the Howard-era secretaries has left the stage.

Halton had become a supremo at estimates committee responses that were unruffled, sometimes withering and gave away the bare minimum. Last week, for the first time in 15 years, she wasn’t there.

“I had to not watch,” Halton told The Saturday Paper. “The thing about estimates is it’s the place where you are forming up on particular issues, it’s the place where it’s going on.”

Knowing she would not be there, Halton scheduled an interview and a series of mind-numbing administrative chores instead. She was “going cold turkey”.

With vivid, red-framed glasses on the bridge of her nose, flame-red lipstick and the same short, practical haircut with an angular side-sweep of fringe that she’s worn for decades, the first woman to run a central Australian government agency executed her estimates appearances with more than a hint of the exasperated tolerating the ignorant.

Her trademark phrase was: “Let me be clear…”

Halton was chuffed that one senator’s congratulatory farewell was that he “never got one past” her. But it was in different senate hearings in 2002 that Jane Halton first rose to public prominence, during the inquiry into “A Certain Maritime Incident” – the events of 2001 that became known as the “children overboard” affair.

At the time, she was a 41-year-old deputy secretary in the prime minister’s department running John Howard’s people-smuggling taskforce.

The “children overboard” events unfolded in a climate of high anxiety soon after the September 11 terrorist attacks and involved federal ministers and a procession of others – military and civilian – wrongly declaring, through an initial miscommunication, that asylum seekers on a sinking boat had thrown their own children into the ocean.

It never happened.

There was a sinking boat and desperate parents, but they clung tight to their children, as parents generally do.

The political furore that erupted became a flashpoint, both for those anxious about Middle Eastern strangers and those furiously accusing John Howard’s government of exploiting security fears and the plight of those fleeing tyranny for political gain.

Halton has not spoken publicly about those events since her bullet-dodging appearances in that inquiry. She remains reticent. But when pressed, she implies that others were dishonest.

Asked if anyone lied, Halton responds crisply: “Well, I know that I did not.”

She declines to expand on her answer, or name names.

“That’s my opinion and of course I have a view about those things. But at the end of the day, I’m not in a position where it’s relevant for me to give an opinion.”

Halton believes the media attention was because of her gender. “I was a woman. Who was I and where had I come from?”

1 . Combative at senate inquiries

It may also have been the manner of her responses to the senate inquiry – curt, deliberately precise and often lacking any extraneous deference to the interrogating senators. “Public servants do not do spin…” she told the inquiry during her second, lengthy appearance in July 2002. “We provided facts.”

As Labor senator John Faulkner demanded she recount a sequence of events others had described slightly differently, she volunteered: “I was considering this morning asking Senator Faulkner if he could recall line for line a discussion a year ago in the party room. I suspect he could not.”

These performances dragged Halton into the spotlight.

The lowest point was one morning at the height of the frenzy, when her mobile phone rang as she was returning from a 20-kilometre run. It was her husband, senior bureaucrat Trevor Sutton.

Don’t come home, he told her. There were journalists and television crews camped outside their house. He didn’t think they needed pictures of her wearing a crop-top and shorts.

She won’t say how she got back into the house but she found a way, unseen.

This public arena was a deeply uncomfortable place for someone who modelled her style on the classic faceless, bipartisan bureaucrat.

“I’ve always been amused by the number of people who ascribed me with motivations and certain characteristics,” she says. “I mean, anyone who has worked for me over a long time will tell you my approach to my job.”

That is: “scrupulous in terms of serving the government of the day”.

“Everyone who’s watched me do senate estimates over the years will tell you I’ve been just as vigorous for one side as I have for the other.”

Halton says the job of a public servant is to enable a government to do “the best job that it can”. She says this requires effectively checking your own conscience at the door – or resigning if you can’t. “You advise the government of the day, including when you don’t agree with them,” she says. “But we never do that in public.”

She says the bureaucrat’s task is to “point out the strengths, weaknesses, difficulties, challenges, opportunities” in policy proposals, in conjunction with the minister.

“Your job is to suggest options sometimes but your job is not to apply your personal views, your moral philosophy – whatever it might be. Now, the line is very clear. You can’t do anything illegal. If a minister wants to do something that’s outside the law, you don’t do it. And you point out to them that they can’t do it.”

This requires adaptation, deciphering how each new minister communicates and learns. She offers a metaphor: “You would speak Greek with one government, understanding their priorities, understanding their language, understanding how it was they took decisions. And then with a change of government, you would speak Italian.”

2 . “Children overboard”

In the wake of the “children overboard” affair, Halton’s critics condemned her as a Howard government patsy. The accusation reached its crescendo when the prime minister appointed her as health secretary before the senate inquiry began. She was also awarded the Public Service Medal. Critics said it was a payoff for services rendered.

She points to her previous record, including on drug and welfare law reform.

“If I was there for some single incident you could more than well argue that I didn’t have any other skills and I wouldn’t have lasted,” she says. “Plenty of people have come and gone in the time I’ve been secretary.”

Retired health official Mary Murnane, a former colleague and mentor, says the comments stung Halton. “She is strong but she was hurt,” Murnane says. “She’s not unaffected by what people thought.”

Murnane says Halton was “being highly ambitious and highly competitive”.

She made it her business “to be aware of people and looking out for them when they were going through hard times”.

During these interviews for The Saturday Paper, Halton’s voice falters only once: when she is speaking of her staff.

“I have always backed my people in, really hard,” she says. “Because at the end of the day, as a secretary, you can’t do a thing without your people and you have to develop them and you have to help bring on their capacity, their skills, give them experiences that mean they can go on to lead themselves in due course.”

Murnane says Halton was always mindful of the impact of public service life on families, especially women, sensitive to the timing of meetings and other events.

“But she was never a whinger,” Murnane says. “She wasn’t a tambourine-swinging evangelist.”

In a farewell speech to the Institute of Public Administration Australia, Halton decided it was time to say something direct about women and the public service culture. She noted the habit of what she called “manterrupting” in meetings and appealed to senior male colleagues to be more aware of it. She said when women came up with a good idea, they should not have an interrupting male colleague talk over the top and then steal the credit.

Another observation about the public service overall is less direct – though its import perfectly clear.

“The danger … going forward is people will become risk averse because they are so worried that ‘one unfortunate incident’ – to quote Lemony Snicket – will be the end of their career,” she says. 

By implication, her own career proves that’s not the case.

Among her achievements, Jane Halton nominates her early work in a team designing the home and community care scheme, something she says “makes a difference to hundreds of thousands of old people every day now”, along with the recognition of and financial support for carers and other reforms to aged care.

She jokes she wanted the system to be good for when she had to use it. She now engages with it from the users’ side via her mother, who is in full-time high care.

Halton also worked to redesign the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to make medicines more accessible, generating  savings of $17 billion for the government. And there was the anti-smoking campaign she and minister Nicola Roxon engineered that introduced controversial plain packaging and saw smoking rates plummet.

Halton is particularly passionate about her work on Indigenous health, too. She says the nation is on track to meet targets set through the Council of Australian Governments on reduced infant mortality in Indigenous communities.

Mary Murnane says: “There was no area of health endeavour that Jane was not across.” She points to the international work through the World Health Organisation, something Halton will continue in her private capacity via the Seattle-based board of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, working on readiness for pandemics.

3 . Health contributions

WHO director-general Dr Margaret Chan sent a farewell message this month.

“There just aren’t enough words to describe your enormous and unparalleled contribution to WHO, to global health and to public service,” she wrote.

Halton has firm views about what she calls “the art of discretion” necessarily practised by the mandarins of the public service. At this historical reference, she has a wisecrack at the ready.

“I always say I’m not a mandarin,” she fires, deadpan. “I’m a cumquat. Tarter and smaller.”

It’s a description journalists David Marr and Marian Wilkinson also used in their scathing analysis of the children overboard affair, Dark Victory. They called Halton “tart, forceful, hardworking and combative”.

4 . Lessons from her father

On the subject of discretion, Halton is old-school. If not born a bureaucrat, she was certainly raised to be a successful one. Her late British-born father, Charles Christopher “C.  C.” Halton, also served the Australian government. He was poached from the Canadian public service by then prime minister Gough Whitlam in 1973.

The eldest of three with two brothers, Halton was close to her father and learnt a great deal from him about the craft.

Armed with a psychology degree and after toying with the idea of academia, Halton jnr joined the public service. She kept her father’s advice well in mind, especially about personal discretion.

“A lot of people over the years have, I think, assumed what my views are,” Halton says. “I have never discussed my views. In fact, I don’t even discuss them with my family.”

The parent of two sons, Halton resolved early to avoid the risk of them innocently repeating idle home chat.

“Younger children don’t understand the notion of discretion. So a sidebar conversation in a domestic circumstance that then gets repeated in a playground is not something you ever want. That is one thing I did learn from my father: You just don’t talk about it.”

In a robust discussion in which she disagreed with the view of her then secretary in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Max Moore-Wilton, Halton says he called her “a chip off the old block”.

Speaking to The Saturday Paper this week, Moore-Wilton said: “She is the very distinguished daughter of a very distinguished father.”

Of the furore surrounding the people-smuggling taskforce, Moore-Wilton said simply: “The government’s policy was successfully implemented.”

The senate inquiry criticised Halton’s taskforce for having poor record-keeping practice, something she puts down to resourcing and time pressures.

“I think even she would admit that there were things slightly different that she would do,” Moore-Wilton says. “But you move on.”

5 . Howard’s tribute

Within her portfolio responsibilities and behind closed doors, Halton’s willingness to speak plainly to the ministers she served is a characteristic several highlighted in farewell tributes to her, compiled in a book her staff presented the day she left. The observations were warm: “Opinionated”, “tenacious”, “good-humoured”.

John Howard, the prime minister who first elevated her, called her a “vigorous, motivated and highly articulate public servant”.

“She was always direct and forthright,” Howard wrote. “She worked extremely hard and was tenacious in presenting her point of view. My experience was that she always delivered ‘frank and fearless advice’.”

Among other well-wishers were former prime minister and Coalition health minister Tony Abbott, current finance minister Mathias Cormann, and former Labor health ministers Nicola Roxon and Tanya Plibersek.

Halton’s style has mellowed as she moderated the sharp tone of someone with much more to prove. Her friends and close associates note the private Halton is quite different, the compassionate, generous side much more visible than the fierce, clinical persona of her professional world.

She laughs when asked if she will still need to carry around two versions of herself in this next phase of her life.

“It’s not my identity,” she says of the public service. “I think that’s an important thing to understand. It has been my profession.”

Halton insists she has no unfinished business, including not reaching the public service pinnacle – as the first female head of the Prime Minister’s Department. She says that job requires a confluence of circumstances that see many qualified people miss out. “For me, it’s not a question of unfinished business because – you know what – there’s always something else to do.”

As she departs for a more flexible working life involving professional and pro-bono commitments – starting with joining the board of ANZ Bank just one week after she finished up – she muses on a future public service in which people move in and out more routinely.

Halton believes the great challenge will be to keep giving independent advice.

“A lot of people coming in from outside don’t always understand exactly what that means in practice,” she says. “How do you tell a minister something which they may find a little unwelcome? That is the thing you actually get paid to do. You do not get paid for the good stuff. You get paid for the hard stuff.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2016 as "The last Howard head steps down".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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