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Public Sector Informant : PSI - October
[OCTOBER 2010] 26 THE PUBLIC SECTOR INFORMANT STAY INFORMED . . [HISTORY:J.R.NETHERCOTE] Unearthing the Seven Dwarfs Leadership The bureaucracy's postwar leaders were in many ways the architects of modern Australia The contenders? Top Australian mandarins, from left, Sir Ronald Wilson, One evening during the early 1980s, the spea- ker of the House of Representatives, Sir Billy Snedden, a for- mer treasurer and leader of the Liberal Party, was in an expansive mood following a hearty dinner in the warm comfortable dining room of what is now Old Parliament House. In the course of much remi- niscence and anecdotage, the topic of the Seven Dwarfs came up: the formidable public servants who rose to so much eminence in Australian government during World War II and in the post-war reconstruction era. But who precisely were these dwarfs? Some names came readily to mind. First and foremost there was Sir Roland Wilson, the most eminent of all: Australian statistician; secretary, Labour and National Service, 1940-46; economic adviser to the Treasury; secretary to the Treasury, 1951 to 1966; thereafter chairman of both the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas. And, of course, H. C. ''Nugget'' Coombs, director-general, Postwar- Reconstruction, 1943-49; thence governor of the Commonwealth Bank and, subsequently, of the Reserve Bank of Australia after its establish- ment in 1960; he was later chairman of both the Arts Council (now the Australia Council) and the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. Later still, he headed the Royal Commission on Australian Government Adminis- tration, 1974-76. Always on any list was Sir John Crawford, foundation director of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics; secretary, Department of Commerce and Agriculture (1950-56), thence Trade, 1956-60; followed by a suc- cession of posts at the Australian National University culminating in the vice-chancellorship and, finally, in succession to Coombs, the chan- cellor. Various other names were suggest- ed: Sir Frederick Shedden, long-time head of Defence; the solicitor-general and head of Attorney-General's, Sir Kenneth Bailey, subsequently high commissioner to Canada; the statis- tician, Stan Carver; Coombs's suc- cessor at Postwar-Reconstruction and later head of the Prime Minister's Department, Sir Allen Brown; Sir Henry Bland at Labour in Melbourne, and later secretary of Defence; and Sir Richard Randall, Wilson's suc- cessor at the Treasury. But was there no definitive list? The speaker would find out from the experts. The Parliamentary Library was contacted and it went to work with a will. Not long afterwards, a very senior figure from the library personally provided the speaker with the answer to his question: Doc, Dopey, Sleepy, Sneezy, Happy, Bashful and Grumpy. The speaker was incan- descent! Fortunately, this was the era before performance bonuses. Next day, the lofty figure from the Library defended himself rhetorical- ly: well, what would you have said? Even to this day, the identity of the Seven Dwarfs remains a matter of dinner party conversation. As also is the identity of Snow White. Conventional wisdom usually sees prime minister Ben Chifley as Snow White. But was it Sir Robert Men- zies? Part of the answer is who was the prime minister when former NSW Labor premier, and former member of the House of Representatives, Jack Lang, applied the term in his notori- ous newspaper, The Century. What is not in doubt is why the Seven Dwarfs and their generation was important. They were not simply present when the Australia of the middle years of the 20th century took shape; they were, in many respects, the architects. The size of government and the range of its responsibilities grew. Central to this growth was the increasing ascendancy of the Com- monwealth in the affairs of the federation. Government became more active and more interventionist. Extensive activity within Australia was reflected by comparable activity in numerous conferences abroad, ranging from Bretton Woods where the international monetary system was established, to creation of the United Nations itself, as well as the Food and Agriculture Organisation, and the General Agreement on Tar- iffs and Trade. The policies being promoted were markedly Keynesian in character, especially in advocacy of full employment, and, in the welfare field, strongly influenced by the report of Sir William Beveridge. This was the era of the Common- wealth's first sustained endeavours to equip itself with substantial policy capacity. Hitherto, the Common- wealth, to the extent it recognised a need for strength in policy, relied on ad hoc arrangements usually involv- ing academics to fill the need. Both professors Lyndhurst Giblin and Sir Douglas Copland, for example, had been on hand as the Commonwealth tried to deal with the depression. The need for greater strength had been felt especially by S. M. Bruce, prime minister from 1923 to 1929, but not effectively addressed. An important step forward was taken in 1935 when the Lyons government secured an amendment to the public service legislation authorising direct recruitment of graduates to adminis- trative posts on very restrictive terms. It is doubtful that even this modest move would have eventuated had its principal advocate not been General Sir John Monash. His interest at least neutralised opposition from returned servicemen who then dominated the general administrative ranks of the public service, and the applicable unions. But the strength of union opposition -- indeed, hostility -- to any special appointments was very evi- dent a few years later when Wilson was recruited to the then Bureau of Census and Statistics, and shortly afterwards elevated to the post of statistician. The then External Affairs Depart- ment began recruiting graduates in 1937; early recruits included Keith Waller, subsequently a secretary of the department; and Peter Heydon who, as secretary to the Immigration Department during the 1960s, played an influential role in overturning the ''white Australia'' policy. The Treasury organised its first search for graduates in 1939. Wheeler, who had already come to Canberra with Copland, was the first recruit. Wheeler had previously wor- ked for the State Savings Bank of Victoria while completing a degree in commerce at the University of Mel- bourne. The banks were a plentiful source
PSI - September