National

Old men forget: Gareth Evans rewrites public service history

Labor played a star role in the bureaucracy's 'subordination'.

During World War II, British prime minister Winston Churchill concluded conversation on a particular episode by observing that judgment would have to be left to history. He added that he personally would make a considerable contribution to the judgment of history.

Minister for revisionism? ANU chancellor and former Labor minister Gareth Evans.
Minister for revisionism? ANU chancellor and former Labor minister Gareth Evans. Photo: Stefan Postles

With the passage of several years, Churchill contributed to many judgments about the war in six large volumes, with much detailed supporting documentation.

When the Australian National University's chancellor, former Labor parliamentarian and minister Gareth Evans, recently advanced some theories about public service history, he did so much more briefly than had Churchill. Nor did Evans bother to support his views with much of what might be loosely called "evidence". Indeed, this particular effort could be said to give new meaning to revisionism.

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In a speech launching a book of essays titled The Seven Dwarfs and the Age of the Mandarins, Evans postulated that, since 1940, the history of the public service falls into three broad periods. He defines the first, running broadly until the Hawke-Keating period, as "dominance" (of ministers by the public service, apparently).

There is no need to linger too much over this characterisation except to remind readers of some of the prime ministers who were presumably dominated: John Curtin, Ben Chifley, Sir Robert Menzies, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser. Among the cabinet ministers dominated were H. V. Evatt, John Dedman, Arthur Calwell, Arthur Fadden, Percy Spender, John McEwen, Garfield Barwick, Lionel Murphy, Doug Anthony and Ian Sinclair ... The list could go on but the shallowness of the proposition is all too clear.

An example of a more mature assessment of government and administration during those years may be found in the views of one historian, writing about the Menzies government: "My assessment of the Menzies governments is that policy was made collectively by Menzies and his most senior ministers and officials."

Evans marks the Hawke-Keating period, by contrast, as "partnership". The Labor veteran is encouraged that this happy state may be returning: "There are some positive signs," he contended, "that with the ascent of Prime Minister Turnbull – and particularly the appointment of Martin Parkinson as head of PM&C – we may be moving back to something approaching the optimal partnership years of Hawke-Keating. I certainly hope so."

The succeeding era, the chancellor-historian said, has been one of "subordination ... most evident in the Howard and Abbott eras". The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd interval is exonerated as "having a more mixed character".

Evans, a luminary of the Hawke-Keating regime, has clearly had a significant memory lapse concerning disposition of government to the public service in the halcyon partnership years. It was only a "partnership" in the sense that a Victorian marriage was a "partnership" between man and wife. Indeed, Evans well understands this as, elsewhere, he boasts that, in the Hawke-Keating period, "the mandarins were on tap, but not on top". Some partnership!

If government-public service relations in subsequent years can be accurately described as "subordination", it is because both the foundations and the edifice were well and truly established during the "partnership" years of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

Evans was by no means a sideline observer of these developments. He was a leading figure. This is made very clear by a campaign document issued immediately after the 1983 election, which brought Labor back to office. The document, Labor and Quality of Government, was a policy presentation of Labor's new leader, Hawke, and one Gareth Evans, inter alia, chairman of the federal parliamentary taskforce on government administration.

It was only a 'partnership' in the sense that a Victorian marriage was a 'partnership' between man and wife.

The background is the animus towards the higher public service with which Labor emerged from the Whitlam years. John Menadue, appointed by Whitlam to head the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, captured the sentiment thus: "The new [Whitlam] government was inexperienced and too impressed with the reputations of heads of major departments who found change hard. It should have replaced them on Day 1."

After the 1980 election, there was a certain optimism that Labor would be very competitive next time around. In Labor circles, particular plotting centred on which public service heads would roll once back in office.

With the change of government, department heads, especially those with offices in or adjacent to the parliamentary triangle, were something of an endangered species They would have been wise, when venturing outside, to take their curriculum vitae with them!

Labor and Quality of Government sent a clear signal: "A minister should have as his or her departmental head a person in whom he or she has confidence to implement the policies and priorities of the government." Major change to the then method of appointing department heads, at the time called permanent heads, was foreshadowed; it had been introduced in 1976 and specifically restricted the ministerial role.

As it happened, immediately after the 1983 election, only three heads of department were replaced. In no case had their department been abolished.

As redundancies were unknown in those days, other assignments had to be found. (The Labor government attended to this gap in the evolving system before it left office – see below.)

One of the displaced department heads, Mike Codd, became chairman of a statutory agency; another, Sir Peter Lawler, received diplomatic appointments to Dublin and to the Holy See. The third, Alan Neaves, the secretary of the Attorney-General's Department, where Evans was then minister, was appointed to the Federal Court.

A government policy paper published late in 1983 proposed a new personnel regime for top people in the Australian Public Service. The powers of the prime minister were greatly enhanced, tempered only by requirements that action in some matters be based on a report from the chair of the Public Service Board.

These new arrangements embraced appointments, transfers (including to the most senior level of the senior executive service) and retirement "with appropriate separation benefits". A major aim was "ensuring that ministers, through cabinet, have the ultimate responsibility for determining who will head departments".

One crucial, albeit symbolic, change left no one in any doubt about the basic rationale. It added to the historic statement dealing with the role of department heads some decisive words; namely, that they worked "under the minister". That is, department heads would be on tap, not on top, to use the chancellor's words!

Hailed by advocates of reform, the addition was deplored by the sceptical. In later years, there was plenty of movement in the departmental head group, especially after the departmental consolidations that followed the 1987 double-dissolution election. There were also a number of departures in contentious circumstances quite at odds with the perceived partnership milieu of the time.

Blanche d'Alpuget, in an account of Codd's appointment as secretary at PM&C in 1986, provides an instructive insight into the workings of the partnership during the Hawke prime ministership. After a period as chairman of the Industries Assistance Commission, to which he was appointed after he was removed as head of the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations, Codd became secretary of the Department of Community Services upon its creation.

As d'Alpuget tells the story: "By rumour, he [Codd] was a blue-nosed Tory. But in late 1985 Hawke dispatched Peter Barron [a member of the prime minister's staff who had previously worked for NSW premier Neville Wran] to look Codd over as a possible replacement for Sir Geoffrey Yeend, who was due to retire.

"When Barron returned after half-an-hour's chat with a favourable report, there was shock in Hawke's office. John Bowan exclaimed: 'I thought he was the devil incarnate!' By 1987, the prime minister's staff recognised Codd for what he was: a highly intelligent, honourable, hard-working public servant with a good political nose."

When Paul Keating became prime minister at the end of 1991, Codd was replaced by Michael Keating as head of PM&C. Codd was appointed to the boards of Qantas and Telstra.

Early in 1994, the Labor government addressed some loose ends in the statutory arrangements for the departmental secretary cadre. The public service legislation was amended to authorise contract engagement and a diminution of tenure in exchange for a pay rise.

The bills digest prepared by the Parliamentary Library noted: "If there are public interest considerations inherent in protecting tenure of certain positions and offices in the public service, to ensure the provision of impartial and frank advice, then it is arguable that it should not be for the holder of the office to bargain them away in exchange for a pay rise."

The new system was applied on a take it or leave it basis; the pressure was enormous and all but a few department heads acquiesced. All very Victorian!

The evidence shows conclusively that the subordination regime that has alarmed the ANU chancellor is unequivocally the work of the Hawke-Keating governments. To Labor veteran Evans, it was this era that was the "golden period". Yet, as we know from Shakespeare, "all that glisters is not gold".

J. R. Nethercote is an adjunct professor at the Australian Catholic University's Canberra campus. He was joint author of an essay in The Seven Dwarfs and the Age of the Mandarins. john.nethercote@acu.edu.au

The Seven Dwarfs and the Age of the Mandarins: Australian Government Administration in the PostWar Reconstruction Era, edited by Samuel Furphy. ANU Press, July 2015. Print: $28; online: free.