Interview with Michael Coutts-Trotter

Director General, NSW Department of Family and Community Services

"I'm not feeling particularly luminous," remarks Michael Coutts-Trotter and grins. But the fact is, whether he likes it or not, he is. It's partly that he is taller than most, exudes energy and interest and has the Celtic colouring of his Irish ancestry, especially the thick black eyelashes and piercing, twinkling eyes. And it's partly that Coutts-Trotter is a poster boy, in more ways than one, for the public service - a term that usually conjures up images of the dreary "faceless bureaucrats" of Orwell-land.

He is Director-General of the NSW Government's Department of Finance and Services, appointed by then incoming Premier, Barry O'Farrell. The Liberal leader ignored criticism from within his own ranks and in the media to promote the sometimes controversial mandarin because, as he put it to the Sydney Morning Herald, "I and my colleagues will always look for people who have merit, for people who can do the job, and people who can deliver the services to the people of this state."

It was one of the defining moments in Coutts-Trotter's career because nobody would have been surprised - he least of all - if the new Coalition government had cut him adrift from his then pinnacle position in the Department of Education and Training and TAFE. His Labor links should have been a hopeless impediment: initially Press Secretary to NSW Treasurer Michael Egan, then a steadily rising trajectory over 18 years and through the ranks of public service management via the Department of Commerce, the Curriculum Corporation and TAFE. And, of course, he's married to former Women's Officer for UTS's Students Association and current Federal Labor cabinet minister and MP for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek.

Says Coutts-Trotter of his career, "I've made bad choices and had bad luck, but that's been followed by good choices and good luck." He also comments that, "In many ways, leadership is nothing more than taking responsibility and living with the consequences."

Nevertheless, if sections of the media and some others had their way, the defining moment of Coutts-Trotter's life would be one that occurred close to 30 years ago. Then, he was 19 when convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison for "conspiracy to import narcotics".

Coutts-Trotter is patient and open about his still contentious past, although he must be weary of the albatross that seems forever to hover at his shoulder. Yet when asked if he knows why he became a teenage heroin addict (a classic route into dealing) it's instantly apparent that the real defining moment occurred much, much earlier.

"We emigrated to Australia when I was eleven," he says as he gazes out across a miniaturised Sydney landscape from the windows of his 22nd floor office. "The reason was that my father had cancer but I didn't know at the time. And I didn't know he was dying until he did."

Minutes earlier we had been talking about the immigrant experience - how, whether they consciously know it or not, perhaps all immigrants are in some ways caught between "there" and "here" and a subliminal wondering about what might have been.

"The question is there," he agreed, "The road not taken, the life not led. I think a lot of immigrants feel that way." For the young boy, from Poole in Dorset, there was an even greater burden of bewilderment and unanswered questions. "As well as the shock and sadness of my father's death there was also the thing of being in a new and strange country, with all that means for a kid - school, belonging, and so on - and yes, it was a difficult time."

Even more difficult was the later prison sentence that was the direct result of the boy's misery - he serves three years of the nine and overcame his addiction through a Salvation Army rehab program. "I wouldn't recommend it," he says of that youthful experience. But I think it makes you far less judgmental." Among other things, Coutts-Trotter is a master of understatement.

On his mother's side he comes from "an enormous, sprawling Catholic family - 60 cousins," but the boy was lonely nonetheless and his early ideas of a career suggest that: "I thought I'd like to be an archeologist or a marine biologist," he says. "But I went through a long period of not knowing what I wanted to do."

Eventually he got into the UTS Communications degree thinking he'd like to become a journalist. "I quickly worked out that I didn't want to be a journalist - I wanted to be a participant, not an observer. I went into PR but I always felt I had my face pressed up against the glass, not doing but presenting the actions of others. So I got a pretty good quick sense of what it would be like, and what I didn't want."

But, he recalls, "It was very good training for what I've done since, because it demanded a huge amount of group work. It was a diverse cohort and you learn from that too. Learning to work as part of a group was really important."

In close to two decades in the public service that training has stood him in good stead and he's also learned to appreciate the value of the Westminster system, he says.

"A politically non-aligned public service is what we have, unlike the Washington system, and I believe it works best for governments and the public we serve. The politicisation of the public service is not a good thing."

So what about entering politics himself? He laughs and shakes his head, "No! One in the family is enough and the one who is in is the real talent." He and Plibersek share a passion for public education, however, and he says, "It's complicated and challenging and public schooling is profoundly important. People meet as strangers and have to rub along together and become our society."

Being Sydney-based while his wife travels to Canberra has also contributed to his own training as a parent. "It was a real awakening to work in education; a big part of what I could bring was as a husband, parent and participant in the school community."

More than that, he's had his eyes opened to office politics and plain old sexism. "I sometimes leave the office an hour or so before colleagues to pick up the kids and I get kudos for that, whereas a woman wouldn't - probably just the opposite. But if I do that, and I do, it changes things for others."

Coutts-Trotter is also aware of the danger of office slavery. "No one's got a good 12 hour day in them," he says. "Good judgment is impossible when you do these long, long hours. You might be there, but they're not good hours."

At home, with two young children, he and Plibersek live a quiet life. "I run and swim for pleasure and sanity," he says. "We have a lovely home and we entertain friends. I read a lot, mostly non-fiction. I should read more fiction - It can be transforming in a way that's unlike history and biography. Fiction can jar you into seeing the whole machinery in a different way. It fuels creativity."

And he obviously brings that to work and the work he's chosen to do. "Work is demanding of your time so you hope it'll be fulfilling. If you're going to expend yourself doing it, you want it to be purposeful."

Words: Diana Simmonds