August 15

Purge: public service heads roll

What has been referred to as a purge of the public service is further evidence of the way our politicians have accumulated powers which would once have been vociferously condemned by the press and all right thinking people.

We were lulled into a false sense of security by the Prime Minister’s delay in not immediately putting his stamp on the public service as his predecessor did. He waited. And as Patrick Walters reports in  The Australian (14/8) he has  just  put his own stamp on the leadership of the public service. He has appointed five new departmental secretaries including new heads of defence, foreign affairs and finance.

…an independent public service …

Constiutional monarchists understand better than most that this move is not only undesirable.  It offends our constitutional arrangements. The point is that the Australian Crown is not just a pretty and traditional ornament. Nor is it a useless appendage which can be snipped off by some delinquent republican surgeon.

It serves vital constitutional purposes, only one of which relates to the public service.The fact may not be much appreciated in the academy, but the Australian Crown is the employer of the public or civil service, and not the ruling political party.

The loyalty of the public servant must therefore be to the non political Crown and not to the politicians. This enforces the obligation of the public servant to act within and according to law, and to provide advice not influenced by and indifferent to political considerations.   

The emergence of a non-partisan public or civil service coincided with the withdrawal of the Crown from political activity and the emergence of the constitutional monarchy as we know it. In advice which was equally applicable to Australia, the great Walter Bagehot argued in 1867, that to assure popular rule, there were only two constitutional models available to Canada: the British or the American constitutional model.  

Not only did he think a non- partisan public service did not prevail in the US, he believed it was impossible.   The contrast between the public services of the Commonwealth Realms and those of the US remains, even if in Australia in recent years there has been some regrettable blurring in the higher echelons.

…”utegate" again…

If the appalling “utegate” affair demonstrated anything, it was that the ideal should remain of an independent public service. A constitutional monarchy is  a fertile field for this because it is designed to allow an easy transfer of political power, the prime minister being untenured and at all times dependent on the confidence of the lower house.

Politicians on all sides once respected the constitutional system, including the necessity in the Westminster system for an independent public Our great wartime Labor Prime Minister John Curtin accepted this. In similar circumstances he declined to use confidential material proffered by a delinquent public servant.

He said : "No matter has given me so much concern, as it affects the public administration and the loyalty of persons in the service of the Crown, and I had to choose what my highest duty to my country was."


As commentator Laurie Oakes said our present opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull in the ”utegate “ affair “did not see past the politics”.

Laurie Oakes observed that Mr. Turnbull  gave no more thought to the principle of "the loyalty of persons in the service of the Crown" than Prime Minister Rudd would have done had the situation been reversed. John Curtin would not have accepted the gift of a utility, nor would businessmen pay small fortune to meet his ministers. Nor did he  plan an early retirement on generous superannuation while becoming  a lobbyist role or taking plum job with some corporation close to his government.    

John Curtin died in office, having led the country through war. He gave his life for the nation.

…a conservative view of John Curtin…  

On that great Prime Minister, the  Hon. Michael Hodgman, Her Majesty’s Shadow Attorney General for the State of Tasmania writes:

 “I am compelled to write to offer my warm congratulations on your excellent article “Utegate: John Curtin would not have done it.”   How right you are.  John Curtin was a very great Australian and, without doubt, the greatest Labor Prime Minister ever. 

“Always acting with complete probity and integrity Curtin’s tragic premature death cost Australia a Leader who may well have served this nation for an even greater period as Prime Minister than his successor the inimitable Sir Robert Menzies.  

“Menzies is correctly remembered as Australia’s greatest Prime Minister ever.  Had Curtin lived Menzies may never have had the opportunity to achieve the greatness which he did and the opportunity to lead Australia for the longest period ever for a Prime Minister and setting a record which will never – I repeat never – be broken.”


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