Seventy years ago this month Australians voted in a new government, and while changes in government always create uncertainty for the public service this particular election result in 1949 generated more anxiety than usual.
The six years duration of World War II and the four years immediately after it had seen unprecedented changes to the public service as, indeed, to Australian society as a whole. The urgent need to mobilise manpower and resources for the war effort and the subsequent program of post-war reconstruction that was required to get the war weary nation back on its feet had brought the bureaucracy into a new found prominence - no longer just administering but innovating.
The peculiar demands of wartime had pressed economists, planners, engineers and other technocrats into government service, and the decade of crisis resulted in a rapid professionalisation of the service in the quest for new ideas and new ways of thinking.
The Labor prime ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley put great store in tapping into expertise recruited from academia and industry, and the ambitious plans for post-war reconstruction, drawn up under Curtin and implemented under Chifley, factored in an ongoing need for this expertise.
But on December 10, 1949, the Chifley government was defeated at the polls, with the new Liberal-Country Party coalition led by Robert Menzies surging into power in an enlarged parliament with a majority of 27.
The reasons for the change were complex, but at the heart of developments were a botched attempt by Chifley to nationalise the private banks, subsequently ruled unconstitutional by the High Court, and the continuation of wartime rationing. The banks issue had turned the political discussion into a contest between socialism and capitalism, and the touchy subject of wartime controls, still fresh in the public mind, were conflated in the public mind with a socialist tiger, however exaggerated that was. And in the emerging era of the Cold War, this took on a certain resonance.
From the perspective of the public service of the day, the return of Menzies (who had been prime minister once before, 1939-41) and all the talk of dismantling controls and celebrating the virtues of private enterprise, it looked as though the high tide of the 1940s was about to ebb.
At the outbreak of war the Commonwealth Public Service consisted of 47,000 persons; by the last years of the war it had doubled in size and in the post-war period it continued to grow. The exigencies of wartime saw the creation of 17 new departments, involving the Commonwealth increasingly in the fields of banking, employment, primary and secondary industries, shipping and transport, power, irrigation, health and social services. As historian Start Macintyre has noted, to direct these activities a new cadre of senior public servants was required, skilled in policy, administration and the exercise of power.
There were powerful figures in the incoming government who viewed the expanded bureaucracy of the war and post-war years through an ideological lens, seeing it as a tool of the socialists. Further, they were deeply suspicious of those who had served the previous Labor administration, and were also sceptical of the whole idea of post-war reconstruction.
The public service need not have worried. Menzies was his own man, and clearly understood the problems that lay ahead and the qualities of those people he needed to lead Australia into the post-war era. Central to his thinking was an adequately staffed and skilled bureaucracy.
Brown's immediate reply, which quickly established his authority in the situation, was: "Mr Prime Minister I would not be seen dead in the Labor Party."
Yet there were those in his inner circle who argued for a fresh start, for a wholesale blood-letting of those who had worked with Labor and were seen as too close to Labor. A celebrated case in point was that of Allen Brown, whom Chifley had tapped to take over the Prime Minister's Department from the retiring Frank Strahan, just six months before election. He had already begun to build up staff numbers by transfers from Post-War and especially from its Economic Section.
Brown - who became a Canberra legend as one of the so-called "seven dwarfs" of influential mandarins in the post-war era - had headed Post-War Reconstruction, and thus was an object of suspicion in the eyes of some of Menzies' cabinet. At the first cabinet meeting that Brown attended, Menzies, albeit reluctantly, was pressed to ask Brown whether he was a member of the Labor Party. Brown's immediate reply, which quickly established his authority in the situation, was: "Mr Prime Minister I would not be seen dead in the Labor Party."
An obviously relieved Menzies greeted this with a welcome sigh of relief, but Brown continued, "and I would not be seen dead in the Liberal Party, either". Menzies chuckled, secure in the knowledge that he had the right man, in line with his own view that public servants should be strong adherents of an independent model bound, in his words, "to supply honest advice and to carry out honest and fair administration for whatever government or minister it may serve". The doubters were silenced.
He took up the secretaryship of the PM's Department (which he held until 1959) with a commitment to bring the department and the system of government into the 20th century. Brown's subsequent work established a cabinet-office system along the lines of the British model, setting up a method of coordinating, recording, and, where necessary, explaining, cabinet decisions.
Another feature of the faith Menzies showed in Brown and others was the continuity of major nation-building projects begun under Chifley, most notably the Snowy Mountains hydro-electricity scheme for which he had oversight at Post-War Reconstruction.
Almost certainly, his commitment to it was crucial in persuading Menzies and the new Coalition government to support the scheme and see it to completion. Until taking government the Coalition had opposed the scheme and had vowed to scrap it. In the event the completion of the Snowy scheme was seen as one of the great achievements of the Menzies era.
Another prominent figure who had served the wartime Labor goverments and attracted suspicion was the economist, Dr H.C. "Nugget" Coombs appointed by Curtin to the Commonwealth Bank board in October 1941. In 1942, the Treasurer, Ben Chifley, appointed him Director of Rationing, and in 1943 made him Director-General of the Department of Post-War Reconstruction, a new ministry that Chifley held in addition to the Treasury. Coombs played a leading role in the preparation of the White Paper on Full Employment in Australia which, for the first time, committed the government to maintaining full employment from the post-World War II years.
In January 1949, Chifley appointed Coombs as governor of the Commonwealth Bank, the most important post in the regulation of the Australian economy. When the Liberals took office in December of that year, Coombs's demise seemed likely. But, as in the case of Brown, Menzies stared down those urging his removal, and very soon came to trust his judgement.
In 1960, when the Reserve Bank of Australia was created to take over the Commonwealth Bank's central banking functions, Coombs was appointed governor of the Reserve Bank.
As it turned out, the once-derided Department of Post-War Reconstruction proved to be a veritable seedbed for outstanding public servants whose expertise was to reshape the service in the following years. These included such luminaries, apart from Brown and Coombs, as John Crawford, Dr Roland Wilson, John Bunting, Lenox Hewitt, Peter Lawler, Arthur Tange and Geoffrey Yeend. All three heads of the Prime Minister's Department between 1949 and 1971 were former officers of Post-War Reconstruction.
The impact of the "seven dwarfs," whose value was recognised by Menzies, was immense. As Nicholas Brown wrote in a chapter in The Seven Dwarfs and the Age of the Mandarins: Australian Government Administration in the Post-War Reconstruction Era (2015): "In moving from nine years of wartime and reconstruction mainly under Labor into an unprecedented 23 years under the Coalition parties, the dwarfs were associated with a paradigm of public service neutrality and impartiality. For figures who, in several cases especially, were closely associated with Labor's post-war agenda, their acceptance by a new government, with an explicitly contrasting free enterprise ideology, was testimony to another set of qualities. Navigating this transition after 1949 itself made a priority of strict professionalism."
Paul Hasluck, himself a wartime public servant and later a Menzies minister, noted that while many of this cohort owed their first major appointments to the wartime Labor government, it was under Menzies that they were able "to make their own independent contribution to Australian government and to maintain the traditional place of the public service in the government structure".
The transition under Menzies was in stark contrast to that under John Howard back in 1996 when he dumped six departmental heads - one third of the total - immediately on taking his position as prime minister after 13 years of Labor rule.
- Dr Norman Abjorensen formerly taught at the ANU's Crawford School of Public Policy. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the School of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne.