Canberra loses its scourge of public service 'yes men'
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Canberra loses its scourge of public service 'yes men'

Former Foreign Affairs Department boss Peter Henderson, who warned 20 years ago of the rise of the public service "yes men", has died in Canberra aged 87.

Michael Ball, an influential Chairman of the National Capital Authority in the 2000s, also died on the weekend

Heather and Peter Henderson stand with her parents, Dame Pattie and Sir Robert Menzies, in a London garden in the late 1960s, soon after Sir Robert's retirement as Prime Minister.

Heather and Peter Henderson stand with her parents, Dame Pattie and Sir Robert Menzies, in a London garden in the late 1960s, soon after Sir Robert's retirement as Prime Minister.

Mr Henderson, who was married to Sir Robert Menzies' daughter Heather, had an eventful career which included being sacked by Bill Hayden as departmental secretary and successfully suing another Labor figure who used parliamentary privilege to launch an attack on the former DFAT secretary's integrity.

He led the then Department of Foreign Affairs from 1979 until 1984.

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The career diplomat, who led the then Department of Foreign Affairs from 1979 until 1984, was born into a Goulburn grazing family and served in a variety of foreign postings including Washington, Jakarta, Geneva, London and was head of mission in Manila in the days of husband-and-wife dictatorship duo Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. He disliked imperial honours and radically changed staffing arrangements at Australia House in London to stop British-based staff looking at Australian-Eyes-Only material, and resisted pressure to make blatantly political appointments to plum diplomatic roles.

In his memoir, Privilege and Pleasure, Mr Henderson recounts how he baulked at one such attempt by then Labour Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Hayden.

"Neither Street, nor Peacock, nor Hayden until this time, ever made an appointment as unacceptable on professional grounds as this one," Mr Henderson said later.

When Hayden sacked Mr Henderson from his secretary's role in May 1984 in what is remembered as a spiteful effort, the minister insisted that it had nothing to do with Mr Henderson's connection to the Menzies family.

Mr Henderson never believed him.

After his "involuntary retirement," from the public service in 1985 Mr Henderson kept up an informed commentary on the state of the Commonwealth administration.

In 1987, he offered a prescient warning of "an increasing tendency towards the politicisation of senior ranks in the Commonwealth Public Service".

"If preferment is increasingly given to sycophants and yes men, and if people are increasingly pushed aside or discarded because they are known or suspected not to subscribe to the views of their political masters, the professionalism and quality of the public service as a whole can only suffer."

Mr and Mrs Henderson had four daughters, 11 grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Mr Ball, a real-life Madison Avenue "mad man", who later devoted his life to public service, served as the National Capital Authority's chairman from 2006 until 2008 when he quit in protest to the newly elected Rudd government slashing the authority's staff and funding.

Mr Ball described the cuts as barbaric and lamented the loss of "Camelot", his name for an organisation with what he described as talented staff, money and vision for the national capital.

The former ad-man won widespread respect for his passion and advocacy for Canberra.

He died in Melbourne at the weekend, aged 80, after a long illness.

Noel Towell is State Political Editor for The Age

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