When the PM wants advice...

By Jonathan Pearlman

Michael L’Estrange has had a distinguished career as a diplomat and adviser to both sides of politics, most recently as a member of the government’s expert panel on asylum seekers.
Image of Michael L

Image courtesy of the Australian National University

Several decades ago, on a day that was to be marked by one of the more contentious episodes in the nation’s history, Michael L’Estrange packed his worldly belongings into a beat-up red Holden Gemini and began the journey from Sydney to Canberra.

At the very moment that he rounded Lake George and prepared for the ascent towards the capital – he says he can still pick out the spot now, 31 years later – he listened in as Trevor Chappell stepped forward to deliver an underarm delivery and snatch an unsportsmanlike victory for the Australian cricket team.

L’Estrange, then 28, a graduate of the University of Sydney (BA ’75) and Oxford, and a cricketer for both, was on his way to take up a position in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. It was Sunday 1 February, 1981 and he was about to start the job – his first significant career one – the following morning. The Gemini made it up the hill and got him to Canberra. He never turned back. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he recalls. “Malcolm Fraser was still prime minister. I went into the international division – foreign policy – and stayed there ever since, really.”

Was the underarm delivery an omen? “I don’t know what it was,” he says.

L’Estrange, now 60, was to forge a distinguished career as an adviser and a diplomat and reached the highest ranks of the nation’s public service. He distanced himself from politics but devoted himself to public policy and readily accepted what he calls “the rules of the game”.

“If at the end of the day your advice is not accepted, you accept it and move on,” he says. “If you keep fighting, then you become more of an activist. I have always been comfortable taking your wins and losses and then getting on with it.”

After further studies at Georgetown University and the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States as part of a Harkness Fellowship, L’Estrange went on to work as a policy adviser for Andrew Peacock, Alexander Downer and John Hewson. He then served as Cabinet Secretary for John Howard, who also appointed him High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. After finishing as Secretary in 2009, he left the public service and was appointed to his current position as the first Director of the National Security College at the Australian National University.

"I have always been comfortable taking your wins and losses and then getting on with it."

Despite his loose association with the Liberal Party, L’Estrange has worked for both sides of politics and was kept on as Secretary of DFAT after Kevin Rudd won the 2007 election. “Obviously it was within their remit to do what they want,” he says. “It is part of the deal … Whatever perceptions of my alignment may have been, I was hopeful of staying on because I did not want there to be a perception that I was only there to serve with one side of government.”

L’Estrange says he did not consciously avoid a more public profile and enjoyed his time as High Commissioner, when he was the “the face and voice of Australia”. “It is not as though I am a shrinking violet but it is just that if you are in a job like secretary of cabinet or secretary of a department, your job is not to be on the front page of the paper,” he says. “I took a traditional view of the role of a secretary. I think you have got a minister who does the presentational work.”

Earlier this year, however, L’Estrange was thrown into the debate over one of the country’s most divisive issues when he was appointed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard to a three-member expert panel on asylum seekers. “I didn’t seek it,” he says. “Certainly in my mind was that when a prime minister asks you to do something like that, you have to have a pretty damn good reason not to do it ... I didn’t.”

So, L’Estrange, along with Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston (Ret’d) and refugee advocate Paris Aristotle, spent six weeks grappling with various policy options. Their recommendations – including a return to offshore processing – were accepted by the government, though the sensitivity around the issue shows no sign of abating.

“We have been wrestling with this issue as a country for 10 years, or longer,” he says. “I knew people had very strong views. I knew a lot of them were very emotionally held. But in the circumstances the parliament found itself in – which was essentially that it had reached an impasse – it would have been pretty irresponsible to say it was someone else’s issue. “We met a lot of people, we did a lot of soul-searching and we did a lot of writing and redrafting … The term of reference was how do we, as a country, stop people making dangerous voyages by boats. I think I did as good a job as I could have done.”

Encouraging scepticism

L’Estrange, the middle of seven children, says he was “never attracted to politics” but was always fascinated by it. He was steered towards the public service by both his upbringing – his father was a local GP, his grandfather had been mayor of Mascot in the 1930s – and his years at Sydney’s St Aloysius’ College. “My father was not in politics but as a GP he talked to everybody,” he says. “Around the table, policy was always talked about at home. We all grew up debating and talking about issues. I was always interested in doing something in public policy – not politics.”

His schooling, meanwhile, taught him “to scrap and survive”. “I enjoyed going to St Aloysius. It taught me that there were purposes beyond yourself,” he says.

At university, he says, his interest in policy grew but he studiously avoided politics. “One of the good things about Sydney University in those days – and probably now – was that it encouraged a certain scepticism, and my scepticism extended to political organisations as well,” he says. “I was pretty sceptical of university politics. I involved myself much more in sport – in rugby and cricket – and I was in the Sydney University Regiment for two years. I was involved in that side of student life rather than student societies or politics.”

"Being a Libran I could always see the greyness, and coming from a university background I could always see the other side of an argument. I never thought anything was that clear.”

L’Estrange says his natural political inclinations are to the right but he had little exposure to politics before Canberra. For several years in the early 1970s, a next-door neighbour to his family’s house in Wollstonecraft was his future long-time boss, John Howard, the local member of parliament, yet he does not recall whether they ever met. “I can’t remember ever meeting him but my father knew him and liked him,” he says.

“I have never been a member of a political party but my instinct on a lot of issues would have been towards the right of the spectrum. I would hope the informed right – I just philosophically took that view of the world. But being a Libran I could always see the greyness, and coming from a university background I could always see the other side of an argument. I never thought anything was that clear.”

L’Estrange does not find it unusual that he ended up staying in Canberra. He met his wife, Jane, who was born in England, while skiing in Switzerland in the early 1980s (she was running a chalet), and they have five sons, aged 18 to 26. All five, he notes, have studied or will study at the University of Sydney, though he is less certain that any will end up in the public service.

He says his current role at the ANU, which involves teaching public servants, fits well with his interest and experience in academia and the public service. Looking back, he says, his career seems to have followed a consistent trajectory, though it was never planned and has spawned only the odd regret. “I kept that Holden Gemini right into the ’90s,” he says. “I was very, very reluctant to let it go.”