Whitlam and his public service demons

Mobbed: Gough and Margaret Whitlam celebrate with supporters after the election victory on December 2, 1972.
Mobbed: Gough and Margaret Whitlam celebrate with supporters after the election victory on December 2, 1972.

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 postwar 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.

Professor Jane Hocking's latest biographical volume, Gough Whitlam: His Time, about the Labor prime minister from 1972 to 1975, is not much interested in the public service; its main interest is the events of Remembrance Day 1975 and the trail leading to it. The prime minister's notable Garran oration in 1973 goes unnoticed and unlisted in the bibliography. There is the obligatory eulogy to H. C. Coombs but, while his taskforce on the continuing expenditure programs of the previous government gets a nod, there is no mention of the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, which he chaired, nor the report, with four research volumes, that it produced.

The flavour of the work's approach to the public service is disclosed without much delay. Early in the book, the reader is informed: ''For the new government with its own priorities and its own bureaucratic requirements, the difficulty lay with neither the establishment of new departments nor the closure of existing ones … but with the existing departmental secretaries.''

On the day after the December 2 election, Whitlam made ''the first of several critical unilateral decisions … in asking [Sir John] Bunting [Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet], Clarrie Harders [Attorney-General's] and [Sir Keith] Waller [Foreign Affairs] to remain in their positions''. The troubled author laments that Whitlam ''had discussed it neither with his party nor his staff, many of whom were privately appalled''.

Shortly afterwards, the Treasury secretary, Sir Frederick Wheeler, was informed he was to be retained - ''a clean sweep for the old guard'' (most people would also, at least, include Defence's Sir Arthur Tange in this category).

Though usually conspicuously keen to remind the reader of links between Whitlam and the Labor governments of the 1940s, Hocking makes no reference to Wheeler's closeness to former Labor prime minister Ben Chifley. According to Chifley's biographer, L. F. Crisp - well placed to know, as a former director-general of Postwar-Reconstruction - Wheeler ''rose rapidly to a very special place in Chifley's confidence … There were few meetings of cabinet economic committees where Wheeler was not to be found at Chifley's elbow.''

But, by 1972, he had become ''the legendary tough survivor''! ''John Mant, Tom Uren's adviser and later to be Whitlam's private secretary was particularly keen that all four heads be replaced: 'it had been so long in the Menzies mould … it was really important that you get the person running the department that you want running the department'.''

Whitlam protested that he did not distrust public servants because his father had been one and ''a particularly impartial one''. ''But,'' according to the first of this biography's two volumes, ''it was a politically unworldly view, an idealisation from another time that Whitlam never doubted, but should have.''

When the tale reaches 1974, relations ''with the public service hierarchy had … deteriorated''. The reader learns that the retirement of Waller, ''one of the pivotal figures of the public service'', gives Whitlam the opportunity to appoint ambassador to France Alan Renouf, who, decades earlier, was an aide to H. V. Evatt, as his successor. This appointment apparently galvanised what Renouf termed the public service ''establishment'' (Bunting, Waller, Cooley, Tange et al) against Whitlam. ''To them, Renouf was an inexperienced and inappropriate appointment, despite his work in foreign affairs stretching back nearly 30 years.''

This appointment is only partially examined. Hocking draws on governor-general Sir Paul Hasluck's notes to say Whitlam had been pressed to bring Tange back to Foreign Affairs; Hasluck also lists another former head of the department, Sir James Plimsoll, as among those preferred. Nowhere does she refer to Renouf's controversial article about Evatt published in The Bulletin within a few weeks of Labor's election. This would perhaps help her to understand what might have caused a measure of apprehension in the lofty heights of administration, even if she couldn't sympathise with it.

By this time, ''Whitlam's once-benign view of the innate professionalism of the senior public service was now unsustainable''. He began to think about replacing Bunting at PM&C and Wheeler at Treasury. He determined that Bunting should be succeeded by someone outside the public service ''in order to break the unhealthy conservative grip on the public service hierarchy'', according to the new appointee, Whitlam's former private secretary, John Menadue, who was at the time general manager at News Ltd.

Menadue's appointment, not that of Renouf dealt with in the previous two paragraphs, was the ''first break in the ossified conservative culture erected by the senior public servants of the Menzies era''. This is a curious view because, as is well known, Menadue, once in situ, soon relied extensively on Geoffrey Yeend. Yeend had been a deputy secretary since 1972, and had worked in the department since 1950; he had been private secretary to Menzies, no less, from 1951 to 1955. Whitlam, according to Hocking, was ''initially sceptical about his appointment[?] to Prime Minister and Cabinet [sic] but was persuaded by John Menadue to Yeend's professionalism, public service ethos and trustworthiness''. The line of thinking is unquestionably sophisticated.

As for Wheeler, Sir Lenox Hewitt was seen as a possible successor and certainly viewed in that light by Wheeler himself; they had been fellow students studying commerce at the University of Melbourne during the late 1930s. Hewitt is the only one of these personages from the mandarin age whom Hocking was able to interview, the rest having previously departed this life.

Hocking says Hewitt was seen as ''a maverick: a believer in Australian ownership of resources, with a quixotic if conservative commitment to Australian nationalism''. ''A former deputy secretary of Treasury and secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet [sic] under Gorton, Hewitt had been passed over by Billy McMahon as head of Treasury in favour of Wheeler in 1971 … Ultimately, Whitlam had to acknowledge that to appoint the still aggrieved Hewitt as head of Treasury would be too controversial, too humiliating for Treasury officials and too damaging for his government's already discordant relations with Treasury. Once again, Wheeler remained.''

The archival record would not support this version of events: for the record, the short list for the Treasury position in 1971 did not include Hewitt.

Apart from the central figures in the dismissal, Wheeler is the largest figure in the book's various lilliputian fantasies thwarting the Labor government. There is an inadequate account of events leading to Jim Cairns's removal as treasurer, not marked by any notable comprehension of relevant administrative practices applicable in such cases.

The great confrontation between Whitlam and Wheeler over the Connor loans proposals goes unrecorded. A clash of Wagnerian proportions, Wheeler, when told by the prime minister that he was on the skids, responded: ''Prime minister, I simply seek to inform you of facts your ignorance of which will bring you down.'' Not the sort of thing you can put in a family biography of this kind.

On the other side, the appointments of Wilenski and Jim Spigelman as departmental secretaries, and the associated uproar, likewise warrant no mention. Even significant changes such as introduction of ministerial staff, and accompanying controversies, are dealt with cursorily, while the account of the introduction of four-weeks' recreation leave leaves most of the tale, notably the attempt to reintroduce union preference, untold. Paid maternity leave similarly seems to slip through the net.

At the time, the eminent political scientist, the Australian National University's R. S. Parker, complained that it was ''not too surprising that political journalists … present permanent heads to the public as mandarins, often, it seems to me, out of … imperfect understanding of the real work of government and the abilities and knowledge of senior public servants. I sometimes wonder if journalists magnify the outstanding permanent heads into sinister giants from the same kind of juvenile fright as backsliding pupils feel about a stern headmaster.''

It would seem that this particular mantle has now passed to academics.

This is a very conventional biography generously financed by the Australian Research Council. Readers of the recent fourth volume of Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson will notice many opportunities presented by Whitlam's time as prime minister, which a truly innovative and insightful biographer would have exploited with considerable dramatic and illuminating effect. As matters now stand, Graham Freudenberg's portrait remains unchallenged as the top study of Whitlam in terms of narrative, interpretation and analysis; Jim Walter's The Leader is a clearly valuable supplement.

But for the revelations about Sir Anthony Mason's part in the deeds of Remembrance Day, this biography would have been accounted a very ordinary book indeed. And even they, as his subsequent rebuttal suggests, are incomplete.

J. R. Nethercote is an adjunct professor with the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. He was on the staff of the Public Service Board, 1970-87, and worked for the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, 1974-76.

Gough Whitlam: His Time, Jenny Hocking (Miegunyah Press, 2012). RRP: hardcover $49.99

This story Whitlam and his public service demons first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.