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Whitlam and his public service demons

By J R Nethercote - posted Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The arrival of a new party in government after 23 years in opposition is highly likely to be a memorable event. Few .-(if any) of the new ministers will have much experience of the duties about to confront them, even by observation. And the administration they inherit will likewise have little familiarity with the process of changeover, nor the approaches, habits and temperaments of the new ministerial superiors.

The advent of the Whitlam Government during the first week of December 1972 was one such cataclysmic occasion, almost certainly the most famous of its kind in the history of Australian government administration. It was the first Commonwealth ministry in which not a single member had previously been a minister; two ministers had been backbenchers supporting the Labor governments of the 1940s.


The new ministry did not arrive unarmed. Indeed, it had a huge array of plans, policies and programs, covering most fields of government and quite a few new ones as well. There were, however, some major gaps in the assiduous preparation for office. Most notably, too little thought had gone into economic policy and related, crucial questions of how the ambitious programs were to be financed. A second major deficiency in the planning was the type of administration the new ministry would need to implement its programs.

The first gap was especially serious. What seemed to be uninterrupted prosperity and economic Growth in the Generation after World War II was drawing to a close in the face of resurgent inflation and growing unemployment.

The complacent idea, derived from British socialist and cabinet minister Anthony Crosland, that new and expanded programs could be funded from an inevitably increasing tax take fuelled by bracket creep was no longer viable. Crosland, himself, in these very years, brought the grim news himself: The party's over," he told an assemblage of local government politicians and administrators in 1975.

That the question of administration needed to be expressly addressed should not have come as a surprise. In the decade-and-a-half before the 1972 victory, it had become evident that governmental transitions in Westminster jurisdictions were anything but smooth.

In Canada, during John Diefenbaker's six-year Progressive Conservative government, the civil service, as it was then known, struggled in the face of suspicions that, having laboured so long at the behest of the Liberal Party, it could not likewise meet the needs of the new ministers. A number of leading officials left and some emerged shortly afterwards as frontbenchers in the depleted ranks of the Liberal Party in the

House of Commons, led by a former department head, Lester B. Pearson. Any expectation that the Pearson government, when it came to office in 1963, might see a return to the close relationships of the wartime and post-war eras soon passed; this trend gathered pace when Pierre Elliott Trudeau assumed the prime ministership in 1968, bringing with him, in quick time, a parliamentary majority.


Meanwhile, in Britain, Harold Wilson's Labour government also considered itself under siege from the civil service, a grievance which found expression in a Fabian Society pamphlet deploring the "cult of the amateur", an undisguised attack on the Generalist traditions of what was cast as a top corps of officialdom steeped not in the modern disciplines of economics and sociology but in the doubtful learning of the classics.

The ambitions of Whitlam's program demanded attention to the means and instruments of implementation. The need was the greater given the fears and reservations that several of the new ministers held about the public service. It is the more remarkable that almost nothing was done, the main exception being some early work on the possible structure of the departmental machinery of government by Peter Wilenski.

who soon became principal private secretary to the prime minister.

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This review of Gough Whitlam: His Time by Jenny Hocking (Miegunyah Press 2012) was first published in the Canberra Times.

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About the Author

J R Nethercote, visiting research fellow, ACU Public Policy Institute, was on the staff of the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration.

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All articles by J R Nethercote

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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