Australia's Mandarins: The Frank and the Fearless?
Allen & Unwin, $29.95 pb, 263 pp
On May 24 this year, a memorial service was held in the Great Hall of Parliament House. The great and the good were there in force. They were marking the death of Sir Arthur Tange, widely regarded as the last of the great public service mandarins who flourished from the 1940s to the 1970s. Although the usual partisan conflicts were temporarily suspended, an element of controversy intruded. In his eulogy, Malcolm Fraser lamented that changes to the public service meant that ministers today and tomorrow would not have the benefit of the frank, fearless, non-partisan ad-vice of the kind that he had received from Tange. The next eulogist, Alexander Downer, felt compelled to give an unscripted response, asserting that he and his ministerial colleagues did indeed receive advice of comparable quality and independence from their departmental secretaries. The third eulogist wisely stayed clear of the debate, although his views would have been highly relevant, for Dr Allan Hawke occupies the last position held by Tange, that of Secretary of the Department of Defence.
The issue that unexpectedly raised its head is the subject of this book. The ‘mandarins’ are those who used to have the title of ‘permanent heads’ of the departments of the Australian federal government, but whose status has been steadily whittled away since the 1970s. They are now ‘departmental secretaries’, and both Labor and coalition governments have taken considerable pains to ensure that, in both word and fact, they are seen to be subordinate to the ministers they serve. It is no accident that much of this process of downgrading the mandarins has coincided with the popularity of the television series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. The image of Sir Humphrey Appleby and his colleagues constantly circumventing Jim Hacker and his fellow ministers, lies close to the heart of many of the changes to the Australian Public Service in the 1980s and 1990s.