Our Humble Servants?

1 March 2017
Our Humble Servants? - Featured image

Australia’s bloated bureaucracy stems back to colonial days and just keeps getting bigger, writes William Coleman.

‘Public Servant’—in the sense of ‘government employee’—is an Australianism that originated in the earliest days of European settlement. As a term for government employee in general, it was well established by the 1840s. By 1885, its specific reference to government administrators had received a formal imprimatur from Victoria’s Public Service Act of that year; an example that was soon followed by acts of the same title in NSW and SA, that replaced their earlier Civil Service Acts. A ‘civil servant’ is, of course, the term long-used in the UK for government administrator. In British English, the term ‘public servant’ remains reserved for a person, outside or inside government, who is recognised to have sacrificed their private advantage as a part of their endeavours to advance the common good. In Australia, this honorific is conferred upon all government officials.


That Australia calls its officialdom ‘public servants’ is surely emblematic of how bright bureaucracy glows in Australian life. Bureaucracy, it has been well said, is Australia’s great ‘talent,’ and, as political scientist Alan Davies has noted: ‘The gift is exercised on a massive scale.’

But in Australia the ubiquity and lustre of bureaucracy is taken for granted. Career public servants claim a public profile and prestige that elsewhere only central bankers could hope to achieve. The average salaries of public servants are higher than in all but one of 26 OECD countries. (Remarkably, the head of NSW Treasury receives a bigger salary than the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York). And in Australia public servants have unusual power. The land is thick with ‘independent statutory authorities’. As sociologist Sol Encel has described, each of these states-within-a-state have a ruler presiding over one of the ‘more or less self-contained administrative satrapies’ constituting much of the Australian state.


How has this state of affairscome to pass? Australia’s propensityfor bureaucracy might be traced to the fact that Australia began as acolony. As Stanley Stein, a historianof Latin America, noted:

The most enduring feature of any colonial regime, one of the first to appear and the last to leave, is the administrator, the colonial bureaucrat, high, middle and low.

The highest stratum of management of colonial Australia was itself a bureaucracy, the Colonial Office, which—in its key years—was presided over by James Stephen, a ‘strict legalist’ with a ‘passion for system and uniformity’. Beneath it acted the governors, who, too, were public servants, in as much as they were accountable to the Colonial Secretary. The governors were eventually reduced to a ceremonial ornament, but Canberra soon replaced Westminster with its own host of intendants toiling to achieve ‘system and uniformity’ across the continent.

The strength of the bureaucratic sphere in Australia may also reflect weakness in other spheres. The inevitable paucity of social structure left bureaucracy’s claims of professionality and impersonality only weakly pressed against by other forces. Specifically, bureaucracy was probably relied upon to make up for the absence in Australia of the socially self-assured elite that in other countries has supplied a governing class (the Camerons and Blairs) on account of the public’s willingness to extend a trust to the likes of these; a trust they will not extend to the likes of themselves. Indeed, as historian Professor Duncan Waterson noted:

Australians prefer to be governed by bureaucratic regulation and monopolies rather than by their elected representatives. These, although facsimiles of themselves, they frequently distrust and despise.

Granted, the same argument could be applied to many New World societies, including the anti-bureaucratic United States. So perhaps a more important weakness in Australia lay in its market sphere: in its frailty, it yielded much of the field to bureaucracy.

But the strength of bureaucracy surely most reflects the strength in Australia of the sphere of ‘prediction and control’—or science—that is so agreeable to the quantifying and rationalising impulses of bureaucracy. If modern Australia’s foundation in 1788 might be deemed a crazy ricochet of the Battle of Yorktown, it may be equally judged an unexpected precipitate of the Age of Reason. It was an international effort to compute the distance of the earth from the sun that dispatched Captain Cook to the south Pacific in 1770. In the subsequent settlement of Sydney, a completely misapprehended natural resources base drove its governors to resort hopefully to science: fittingly the first farmstead in Australia was named Experiment Farm. An ample supply of underemployed Scottish scientists made good the need for investigation and measurement.


It is, then, unsurprising that one of the most significant manifestations of the pre-eminence of bureaucracy in Australia has been the creation of massive research monoliths. Few national statistical agencies of any democracy have so extensively monopolised the collection of statistics as the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Australia’s CSIRO has, with respect to its size and general reach, no counterpart in the developed world. And the Productivity Commission—the economic and social counterpart of the CSIRO—has (beyond New Zealand) no equivalent elsewhere.

A more general consequence of the ascendancy of bureaucracy in Australia has been, in the past, the high quality of its public administration. Thus, in 1942 Nelson T. Johnson, the newly appointed US ambassador to Australia, reported finding a panicked, demoralised and seemingly leaderless country. The one favourable thing he could report to Franklin D. Roosevelt was that ‘it would be difficult to find a higher type of public servant anywhere in the world’.

But other consequences of bureaucratisation are more doleful. The higher reaches of the Australian public service have been just too good. Too much talent has been drawn there to waste itself as an Assistant Deputy Secretary. And, inevitably, the pride of place that bureaucracy is conceded has inflamed the authoritarian tenor of Australian society. Thus, the ABS in its recent census was content to bandy the threat of fines of $180 per day for any person who did not complete it. (In New Zealand, by contrast, the maximum fine for non-completion of their most recent census was $500, and the media reports that no fine higher than $200 was imposed.)


Perhaps still more seriously, the prestige of bureaucracy has accommodated the evasion of questions of value in Australian politics. It has suited political actors to pretend to reduce every issue to a spuriously objective bureaucratic assessment, including the inevitable ‘expert inquiry’. Ideals are slighted, and, in their neglect, perish.

Bureaucracy, too, needs ideals. Although bureaucracy’s apparatus in Australia expands remorselessly, its spirit decays, as it fails to maintain its own ‘Presbyterian’ value system of the ‘high minded and tough minded’. The rational legal logic of bureaucracy is sapped by an ethos of pop charismatic leadership, importunately grafted from ‘the market.’

Expertise and experience are discounted, and bureaucracy becomes another managerial playground of the lavishly paid but dubiously competent Australian corporate class. Indeed, according to Justice Hollingworth, the ‘worst instance of insider trading’ seen in this country occurred inside the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Australia’s doubtful ‘talent’ has unquestionably curdled.

A version of this article appeared on the Oxford University Press Blog.

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