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‘Utopian’ view: In a speech to the Institute of Public Administration, Mike Mrdak lamented the lack of long-term planning and evidence-based decision-making among senior staffers in the prime minister’s office and other key departments.

PRIME minister Malcolm Turnbull has appointed Steven Kennedy as the new secretary of the federal department of infrastructure and regional development (DIRD) as part of a shake-up of the top ranks of the Australian public service, replacing Mike Mrdak who has held the significant transport-related position for the past eight years.

The automotive industry was quick to pay tribute to Mr Mrdak, who is one of Australia’s most senior public servants with almost 30 years’ experience – mostly in transport and infrastructure – and will now become secretary of the department of communications and the arts when the new five-year appointments become effective on September 18.

The move comes just a fortnight after Mr Mrdak hit the headlines with a speech delivered to the Institute of Public Administration Australia in which he criticised the highly centralised nature of the policy-making process in Canberra and the increasingly short-term focus of governments, arguing the case for longer-term planning and evidence-based decision-making.

This included specific reference to reform agendas being “killed early” when handed over to the prime minister’s office, department of prime minister and cabinet, or premiers’ departments.

Dr Kennedy is currently a deputy secretary in the department of prime minister and cabinet responsible for innovation and transformation.

According to the department, Dr Kennedy has led work on the cities agenda, regulatory reform, public data and digital innovation, while his previous appointments include service as deputy secretary in several other departments including industry, innovation and science, environment, and climate change and energy efficiency – all areas that make him well credentialed to take on the new assignment.

He was also head of secretariat of the Garnaut climate change review in 2011.

The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI), which is the peak body representing car manufacturers and importers, highlighted Mr Mrdak’s “enormous contribution” to Australia’s transport sector over many years.

Steven Kennedy

This includes providing policy advice at the highest level on major infrastructure projects, transport security, and vehicle and road safety standards.

“Australia today has a stronger transport sector and infrastructure befitting Australia’s unique geography as a direct result of Mike’s stewardship,” the FCAI said in a statement.

“During his tenure, Mike has overseen many changes to Australia’s transport fleet, including the recent decisions on the Motor Vehicle Standards Act to the benefit of consumers around the country.

“The new motor vehicle industry looks forward to working with Dr Kennedy and his department on future challenges facing the industry.”

Mr Mrdak started his public service career as a graduate in 1988 with the then department of transport and communications.

Over the years, he has held a number of senior positions across the portfolio, and with the department of prime minister and cabinet, including Commonwealth coordinator-general responsible for implementing key economic stimulus infrastructure investments during the global financial crisis.

He has served as a commissioner on the National Transport Commission since 2014 and in last year’s Queen’s Birthday honours was appointed an officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for distinguished service to public administration through executive roles in the infrastructure, transport and logistics sector, and through the development of policy reform initiatives.

In a statement, federal infrastructure and transport minister Darren Chester described Mr Mrdak as “an outstanding secretary for my department for more than eight years”.

“Under Mike’s professional leadership, the department of infrastructure and regional development has helped this government deliver infrastructure projects and programs throughout Australia, which have made a difference in people’s lives,” he said.

“A feature of his time in office has been the major improvements to the national land transport network and he was instrumental in developing the government’s future infrastructure investment plans for projects such as the Melbourne-to-Brisbane inland rail and western Sydney airport.

“He has a passion for regional issues and I’m confident his experience with major infrastructure projects will serve him well as the new secretary for the department of communications and the arts.

“I look forward to working with Dr Steven Kennedy, who also has an outstanding record in the public service, as we continue to deliver the government’s record $75 billion infrastructure investment”.

By Terry Martin