Newly-sworn in NSW premier Dominic Perrottet has a new right-hand man who was once sentenced to nine years in prison for drug trafficking and is married to federal Labor star Tanya Plibersek.
Michael Coutts-Trotter, 56, was announced on Thursday as the new Secretary of the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet after Gladys Berejiklian’s top pick Jim Betts was unceremoniously passed over.
The former Department of Communities and Justice head has made a remarkable turn-around in his life, going from a prison cell to the state’s top public servant.
He was thrown in jail in 1984 for conspiracy to import heroin from Thailand after becoming hooked on the drug as a teenager. Mr Coutts-Trotter served three years.
Since that time he’s worked his way up the ladder to become one of the country’s most respected public service officers, running five agencies and never shying away from his dark past.
He and the Deputy Labor leader now have three children together after marrying in 2000.
Michael Coutts-Trotter, 56 (pictured with Deputy Leader of the Opposition Tanya Plibersek at the Mid Winter Ball in 2018) was announced on Thursday as the new Secretary of the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet (pictured) unceremoniously passed over Gladys Berejiklian’s top pick Jim Betts
‘I am very pleased Michael has agreed to head the Department of Premier and Cabinet at this critical time, and I am looking forward to working closely with him as we continue to build a better future for NSW,’ Mr Perrottet said.
‘Michael’s dedication to serving the people of NSW is something I have long admired, he will bring tremendous experience, humility and energy to what is a very important and challenging position.’
Under his new role in the state’s most prestigious department he will be tasked with providing specialist policy and procedural advice separate to what a minister’s department would recommend.
Although a lot of Mr Coutts-Trotter’s story is horrific it is ultimately one of redemption and hope.
He was born in the United Kingdom to an Australian mother and English father who had met in the late 1950s. She was a cook and he was a butler.
The family moved to Australia in 1976, but unknown to young Michael his father had cancer and within months of arriving had died.
‘I was just really overwhelmed by his death, as was my mum,’ he said.
Coutts-Trotter’s family moved to Australia in 1976, but unknown to young Michael (pictured) his father had cancer and within months of arriving had died
Tanya Plibersek poses alongside her husband Michael Coutts-Trotter and their children at the Sydney premiere of The LEGO Movie at Event Cinemas on March 23, 2014 in Sydney, Australia
Mr Coutts-Trotter was sent to St Ignatius College, Riverview, to be taught by the Jesuits on a scholarship but could not quite fit in with any group.
‘There were a few things about my life that made me stand out a bit,’ he said. ‘I was just a posh-sounding English kid trying to fit in and I didn’t.’
All teenagers need some sort of friendship group and he found the wrong one.
‘I started to fit in with kids who felt pretty marginalised themselves and those were the kids who were drinking, smoking and stealing things,’ he said.
He would binge drink and began smoking marijuana as soon he could. ‘In the modern language I self-medicated.’
The self-medicating stopped for a while when he fell in love with competitive rowing but that didn’t last either.
‘The moment that finished I was really just off the rails again.’
Mr Coutts-Trotter is pictured with his wife Tanya Plibersek and their children Anna and Joe in Peru
Mr Coutts-Trotter sat for his Higher School Certificate exams a week after taking ‘a lot of hallucinogens’ in what he called ‘self-sabotage’.
He finished school at the end of Year 12 aged just 16 years and 9 months, left home not long after and was soon injecting drugs with new friends.
‘I don’t remember quite when but in inner-city Sydney in the early 1980s heroin was the primary drug of choice and I found it pretty quickly,’ Mr Coutts-Trotter said.
‘It made me feel complete. You hear that a lot but it just suddenly I felt at ease in my skin and I felt at ease in the world.’
While Mr Coutts-Trotter initially found some comfort in heroin it eventually took over his life. He funded his habit by supplying the drug.
‘I was using two-and-a-half, three grams of heroin a day plus a whole lot of other uppers and downers but heroin was my drug of choice,’ he said.
Mr Coutts-Trotter decided to move from small time dealer to drug smuggler when he became involved in a scheme to import half a kilogram of heroin from Thailand.
A joint Commonwealth-NSW police task force was aware of his plans and he was followed from Redfern Mail Exchange to a private hotel on Elizabeth Street near Central train station.
Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek and husband Michael Coutts-Trotter arrive for the Mid Winter Ball at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, June 17, 2015
By the time Mr Coutts-Trotter was sentenced aged 21 he was clean of drugs, working for a PR firm and had re-established relationships with his family. (Pictured about 1985 in drug rehab)
A dozen police officers arrested the 19-year-old carrying about 100g of the drug, part of an intended half-kilogram haul.
[One of the policemen peripherally involved in the operation was Clive Small who would go on to lead the team of detectives who arrested backpacker killer Ivan Milat in 1994].
Upon his arrest Mr Coutts-Trotter, who is 193cm tall, weighed just 50kg.
‘The drug addiction is an explanation but it’s not an excuse,’ Mr Coutts-Trotter said. ‘There was still a choice – choices – that I made along the way that I could have made differently.
‘Quite sincerely, I deserved to go to jail for those choices. I made choices that were not driven solely by my addiction. I could have been a small time supplier rather than seeking to be a larger supplier. That’s a choice.’
Mr Coutts-Trotter admitted to conspiring to import a prohibited drug and was remanded to Long Bay.
After four to six weeks he was bailed to the Salvation Army’s William Booth facility at Surry Hills then accepted into Miracle Haven rehabilitation centre on the Central Coast.
That place ‘was actually well named’ and Mr Coutts-Trotter spent more than a year on their drug rehab program.
After running five agencies, Mr Coutts-Trotter has become one of the country’s most respected public service officers
After four to six weeks on remand Mr Coutts-Trotter was bailed to the Salvation Army’s William Booth facility at Surry Hills then accepted into the Miracle Haven rehab centre (pictured)
‘When I say I was lucky, I mean I was really lucky. I was given bail and the police were prepared to extend bail while I was in rehab and making some changes,’ he said.
After completing that program, Mr Coutts-Trotter went back to William Booth then found work with a public relations firm.
By the time he was sentenced aged 21 he was clean of drugs, working for the same PR company and had re-established relationships with his family.
He had a group of friends who weren’t using drugs and ‘the ability to go to jail and get through it.’ Early in his sentence he took time to ‘learn, look, absorb, watch.’
Nonetheless Mr Coutts-Trotter was locked up for two years and nine months – much of it in maximum security – and never sought protective custody.
‘In the culture of the time you were a dog if you went into protection and there was some pride in the fact that you could make a go of it in the main population,’ he said.
Mr Coutts-Trotter was surrounded by murderers and rapists in maximum security jails when he was locked up
He recalled a stabbed inmate running across a yard at Bathurst clutching his stomach so his intestines didn’t fall out of his body and a kid staggering out of his cell at Parramatta after being gang raped.
Mr Coutts-Trotter, pictured as a 17-year-old in 1982, was injecting two-and-a-half grams of heroin at the height of his drug addiction. He was arrested in 1984 and jailed in 1986
He remembered getting into a scuffle with Michael Murphy, one of the men who raped and murdered nurse Anita Cobby, in an argument over who could use a telephone.
He spoke of how prison could be used to help rehabilitate young men like himself who had made terrible decisions and why there were recidivists so ‘irredeemably dangerous’ they should never be let out.
‘I do think they are legitimate questions and they are obviously particularly legitimate questions if I’m to be the Secretary of Justice,’ he said.
‘And in some ways it’s helpful that people are prepared to ask them because it gives me a chance to account for myself a little bit for the people who work in the system.’
In his email to Justice department staff Mr Coutts-Trotter wrote on his first day on the job: ‘Addiction helped to explain my crime, but it didn’t excuse it. I deserved to go to prison.’
‘And while the police who arrested me wanted me jailed, they only wanted me locked up once, not again and again.’