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Former top public servant gets the vote as Macquarie chancellor

Image: Commonwealth of Australia [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Former climate change and treasury leader moves to academia

Martin Parkinson, an economist and one of country’s most influential federal public servants for almost 30 years, has been appointed chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney.

His appointment was announced by the university on 30 October, just two months after Parkinson retired as secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in August. He was elected to the position by a unanimous vote at a university council meeting on 24 October.

Parkinson will replace Michael Egan, a former New South Wales state treasurer, who is stepping down after 11 years in the role.

“It is a tremendous honour to become the chancellor of any university, but to follow on the heels of such a remarkable individual as the outgoing chancellor, Michael Egan, and at such an innovative and creative institution as Macquarie, is doubly humbling,” Parkinson said in a university statement.

Macquarie vice-chancellor Bruce Dowton said that Parkinson’s experience as “one of Australia’s most seasoned national leaders makes his appointment to this very important role an exceptional one”. 

“Most importantly, he understands the transformative power that a university education can provide to young Australians and international students alike,” he said.

In his valedictory speech in August to politicians and senior public servants in Canberra, Parkinson said his family’s low-income status “meant that people like me shouldn’t aspire to a university education”.

“My parents wanted better for their kids than they had it. My grandmother particularly guided me towards the education that she was denied due to a mix of her class, gender and income,” he said.

“It’s not hard to see where my work ethic, desire to prove myself, concern for the unheard, and priority on getting things done – sometimes to the neglect of due process – comes from.”

Parkinson was Treasury secretary from 2011 to 2014, and head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet from 2015 until his retirement in 2019. He was also appointed as inaugural secretary of the Department of Climate Change in 2010 and was a senior policy advisor with the Hawke and Keating governments. 

“I don’t think I really comprehended the challenges of leadership until faced with setting up the Department of Climate Change,” he said in his valedictory speech.

“Not only were there organisational challenges in setting up a department from scratch, but I was serving ministers responsible for the most divisive issue in the country.”