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The Seven Larger than Life Australian Public Service Dwarfs

Launch by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA FAIIA, Chancellor of The Australian National University,  of  Samuel Furphy (ed), The Seven Dwarfs and the Age of the Mandarins: Australian Government Administration in the Post-War Reconstruction Era (ANU Press, 2015),  Canberra, 17 December 2015

Despite the advice given by the Parliamentary Library in the early 1980s to the then Speaker, Billy Snedden – who wanted to settle an argument that had occupied a well-oiled dinner in his suite – the “Seven Dwarfs” whom we still talk about in Canberra, and who are the subject of this latest admirable exercise in collective biography from the ANU’s National Centre for Biography, were not Doc, Dopey, Sleepy, Sneezy, Happy, Bashful and Grumpy.

Rather they were, of course, that group of height-challenged – but not ability-challenged, and certainly not confidence-challenged – senior public service figures, nearly all economists by training, who rose to great eminence in the Second World War and Post-War Reconstruction years, were at the height of their influence in the late 1940s through to the 1960s, and in some cases continued to play an important part in Australian public life into the 1970s.

There has been argument for years about the precise identity of the seven, at least at the margins, and for a reader coming new to it all this book rather excruciatingly maintains the suspense for its first dozen or so pages (with no help from the table of contents, or any index), until we get finally to Nicholas Brown’s preferred list. I think that is definitive, and that   magnificent seven should be regarded as:

  • Dr HC “Nugget” Coombs, Director-General Post War Reconstruction 1943-49; head of the Commonwealth Bank then Reserve Bank from 1949-62; subsequently chair of the Arts Council, Council for Aboriginal Affairs, and Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration – and Chancellor of the ANU 1968-76.
  • Sir John Crawford, foundation director of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, Secretary of the Department of Commerce and Agriculture 1950-56, then of Trade 1956-60 – then a succession of posts at ANU, culminating in Vice-Chancellor 1968-73, and, in succession to Nugget Coombs, Chancellor 1976-84.
  • Sir Roland Wilson, Secretary of Labor and National Service 1940-46, Commonwealth Statistician  1946-51, Secretary to the Treasury 1951-66, and thereafter chair of both the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas  -- and while neither Chancellor nor Vice-Chancellor of ANU, a 15 year Council member, and a very generous benefactor through the Sir Roland Wilson Foundation which now has capital in excess of $18 million
  • Sir Allen Brown, Coombs’s successor at Post War Reconstruction in 1949, then head of the Prime Minister’s Department 1949-58.
  • Sir Henry Bland, Secretary of Labour and National Service 1952-67, then  Secretary of Department of Defence 1967-70.
  • Sir Richard Randall, Deputy Secretary of Treasury 1957-65, then Wilson’s successor as head 1966-71.
  • Sir Frederick Shedden, Secretary, Department of Defence 1937-56

The only slightly problematic name on this list is the last. Stan Carver, Commonwealth Statistician from 1951 to 1962, has his supporters for that seventh slot, the argument against Shedden being that he became secretary of his department well before the War in 1937, having joined it in 1910 (and indeed is described is described in David Horner’s chapter as “The Fore-runner”). It is also the case his influence had ceased by the mid-1950s, he always operated from Melbourne rather than Canberra, and he wasn’t an economist.  Maybe also it was because that, at 5’7”,  he perhaps didn’t quite qualify physically for dwarf status, certainly not by comparison with the “big three” (so to speak) of Wilson, Coombs and Crawford who between then towered across a range from 5’ to 5’3”. But Shedden wielded great power in the defence group of departments, was a key adviser to the Prime Minister through the war and immediate post-war years and on any view was one of the great mandarins of the time.

Quite a few other mandarins of different vintages and roles are mentioned in the text, including those formidable lawyers Robert Garran and Kenneth Bailey, and some of them get whole chapters to themselves (viz. Fred Wheeler, Paul Hasluck, John  Burton, Arthur Tange and Jim Plimsoll – and even the New Zealander Sir Bernard Ashwin). But the central storyline of the book is the distinctive contribution made by the Seven Dwarfs to the architecture of post-War Australia (including not least, in the case of Coombs, Crawford and Wilson, the birth and early development of our own Australian National University).

One of their most significant common traits was their path to public service leadership. Unlike earlier generations who had risen steadily through the ranks (only Shedden of their number was in this category), the Dwarfs were university graduates recruited directly into important administrative roles. We learn in the book that this was made possible by reforms in recruitment procedures in the 1930s and was spurred on by the great need for policy capacity occasioned by the Second World War.

They were also the product of the period in which they served, and in this respect, two key issues loom large in most if not all of their careers: the first being the formative influence of wartime administration and planning for post-war reconstruction; and the second being the influence of Keynesian economics on their world view. These two themes recur throughout the book, but are particularly developed in two excellent thematic chapters by Stuart Macintyre on “The Post-War Reconstruction Project” and by Alex Millmow on “Australia and the Keynesian Revolution.”

The initial context of post-war reconstruction, followed by the long post-war boom, provided both the challenge and the opportunity for the Seven Dwarfs. They carved out their careers in a period when the activities, reach and power of the Commonwealth Government expanded rapidly, creating an environment in which an intelligent and determined administrative mind might exercise great influence.So two major factors aligned here: the reforms to Australian Public Service recruitment which enabled the best and brightest to be fast-tracked to senior administration; and the great expansion of Commonwealth responsibilities during and after the war. This was the canvas that made it possible for them to be so influential.

But what was it about their character and approach to government that made them in practice so influential?  In his overview chapter, Nicholas Brown notes that all the Dwarfs shared “a certain brusque efficiency and impatience”, which demeanour he suggests they deliberately “cultivated as an expression of the responsibility they carried”.  And crucial, in turn, to that sense of responsibility was what Brown describes as “their determination that the work of government take place in a domain clearly demarcated from the flux of mere opinion or politics” (p16).

It is significant in this respect how successfully all the Dwarfs negotiated the transition in 1949 from the Chifley Labor Government to the Menzies Coalition Government. Peter Lawler’s chapter on Sir Allen Brown, who was appointed head of the Prime Minister’s department six months before the election of Menzies, captures this wonderfully in his anecdote about the exchange between Menzies and Brown after the election, which occurred in the context of widespread Liberal Party concerns about ALP influence in the Department of Post-War Reconstruction. Menzies asked Brown if he was member of the Labor Party, to which Brown responded: “I wouldn’t be seen dead in the Labor Party.” As Menzies expressed relief, Brown added, ‘And I wouldn’t be seen dead in the Liberal Party either.” (p188)

It is a measure of Menzies’s stature, which unhappily was not reflected in the behaviour of some of his successors on their accessions – notably John Howard and Tony Abbott – that this answer of Brown’s appealed enormously to him, and that Brown remained his highly influential departmental head through to 1958. It is not unreasonable in this context to designate not only Ben Chifley, who was Prime Minister when the group was first defined as such, but Robert Menzies, as the Seven Dwarfs’ Snow White.

The idea of a frank and fearless public service, professional and non-partisan, seriously influential in the policy-making, not just policy-implementation, process but set apart from the fray of politics, is one that has, unhappily lost a lot of traction in recent years  -- partly as a consequence of “permanent heads” becoming contracted “secretaries”, but more immediately as a result of successive Prime Ministers, from John Howard on, being far too quick to attribute partisan motives to departmental heads and wanting as result to have in key roles men and women with whom they felt some political comfort.

We have also seen in recent decades – much more so than was the case in the time of the Dwarfs – significantly shorter tenures in key public service positions, not just as a result of occasional overt politicization, but a disposition to think that substantive policy expertise is less important than general administrative capacity, which is readily transferable from department to department.

The contemporary significance of all this has been excellently described by Laura Tingle, in her recent Quarterly Essay entitled, Political Amnesia: How We Forgot to Govern. She argues that, in the last three decades, the way in which politicians, policy makers, and the media interact has changed radically; that they now rarely look to past experience in their deliberations on future choices; and that this in large part explains the instability of our political system. In contrast, she holds up the example of the Seven Dwarfs, as representing an earlier period of more effective government; and in doing so she draws extensively from the book we are launching tonight, arguing that:

In their time, the Seven Dwarfs were able to mobilise the forces of government and facilitate a massive expansion of Australia’s population and industrial base. No one is suggesting that is the right response now, but a capacity to respond to the circumstances of the day is always necessary.

I very much agree with her broad conclusion, that “the best periods of reform were collaborative creations: there was real but productive tension between politicians and policy-makers”. But I would argue that the golden period in this respect was not so much that of the Dwarfs but that of the Hawke-Keating Governments, when there was an incredibly productive partnership between all the key ministers and their department heads – who were neither hired nor fired for their partisanship, and who played, with other senior officials, very central roles in the policymaking process.

In this regard, we were certainly respecting the Seven Dwarfs tradition of a frank and fearless, professional and non-partisan public service. But with one, I think, important difference. During the Hawke-Keating years the mandarins were on tap, but not on top; during the age of the Seven Dwarfs, by contrast, the mandarins were very often ruling the roost. Many references through this book make that clear, referring to their “unimpeachable authority” (p.29) and them “dominating many of the ministers” (p.13); to federal ministers taking “a less active part in the administration of their departments than their state counterparts (p.38); to there being “almost no direction from above” (p.44);  and, in Ian Hancock’s words, to there being then a  “a public service where powerful men – whatever their height – were used to getting their way and staying where they were, while insisting that they were there only to serve”. (p.206)

If one were to paint a very broad picture,   I would argue that since the 1940s there have been three broad ways of characterizing, at different times, the public service/governmentrelationship: dominance most evident in the Dwarfs era), partnership (most evident in the Hawke-Keating era) and  subordination  (most evident in the Howard and Abbott eras), with the in-between years having a more mixed character. There are some positive signs that with the ascent of Prime Minister Turnbull – and particularly the appointment of Martin Parkinson as head of PMC – we may be moving back to something approaching the optimal partnership years of Hawke-Keating: I certainly hope so.

In understanding not only a seminal period of Australian history, but also contemporary governance, we have much to learn from the analysis of the Seven Dwarfs and their age in this book. Congratulations to the National Centre of Biography for convening the conference that gave it birth; to Samuel Furphy as editor and those who helped him in the not very easy task of turning a rather disparate, and by no means comprehensive, set of conference papers into something resembling a coherent narrative and analytical theme; and to all those at ANU Press who worked to produce this very handsome addition to the ANU.Lives series in biography.

I have much pleasure in declaring The Seven Dwarfs and the Age of the Mandarins  duly launched.