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Whitlam and his public service demons

By J R Nethercote - posted Tuesday, 2 October 2012

"But," according to the first of this biography's two volumes, "it was a politically unworldly view, an idealisation from another time that Whitlam never doubted, but should have." When the tale reaches 1974, relations "with the public service hierarchy had . . . deteriorated".

The reader learns that the retirement of Waller, "one of the pivotal figures of the public service", gives Whitlam the opportunity to appoint ambassador to France Alan Renouf, who, decades earlier, was an aide to H. V. Evatt, as his successor. This appointment apparently galvanised what Renouf termed the public service "establishment" (Bunting, Waller, Cooley, Tange et al) against Whitlam.

"To them, Renouf was an inexperienced and inappropriate appointment, despite his work in foreign affairs stretching back nearly 30 years." This appointment is only partially examined. Hocking draws on governor-general Sir Paul Hasluck's notes to say Whitlam had been pressed to bring Tange back to Foreign Affairs; Hasluck also lists another former head of the department, Sir James Plimsoll, as among those preferred. Nowhere does she refer to Renouf's controversial article about Evatt published in The Bulletin within a few weeks of Labor's election. This would perhaps help her to understand what might have caused a measure of apprehension in the lofty heights of administration, even if she couldn't sympathise with it.


By this time, "Whitlam's once-benign view of the innate professionalism of the senior public service was now unsustainable".

He began to think about replacing Bunting at PM&C and Wheeler at Treasury. He determined that Bunting should be succeeded by someone outside the public service "in order to break the unhealthy conservative grip on the public service hierarchy", according to the new appointee, Whitlam's former private secretary, John Menadue, who was at the time general manager at News Ltd.

Menadue's appointment, not that of Renouf, dealt with in the previous two paragraphs, was the "first break in the ossified conservative culture erected by the senior public servants of the Menzies era". This is a curious view because, as is well known, Menadue, once in situ, soon relied extensively on Geoffrey Yeend.

Yeend had been a deputy secretary since 1972, and had worked in the department since 1950; he had been private secretary to Menzies, no less, from 1951 to 1955. Whitlam, according to Hocking, was "initially sceptical about his appointment[?] to Prime Minister and Cabinet [sic] but was persuaded by John Menadue to Yeend's professionalism, public service ethos and trustworthiness". The line of thinking is unquestionably sophisticated.

As for Wheeler, Sir Lenox Hewitt was seen as a possible successor and certainly viewed in that light by Wheeler himself; they had been fellow students studying commerce at the University of Melbourne during the late 1930s.

Hewitt is the only one of these personages from the mandarin age whom Hocking was able to interview, the rest having previously departed this life.


Hocking says Hewitt was seen as "a maverick: a believer in Australian ownership of resources, with a quixotic if conservative commitment to Australian nationalism".

"A former deputy secretary of Treasury and secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet [sic] under Gorton, Hewitt had been passed over by Billy McMahon as head of Treasury in favour of Wheeler in 1971 .. . Ultimately, Whitlam had to acknowledge that to appoint the still aggrieved Hewitt as head of Treasury would be too controversial, too humiliating for Treasury officials and too damaging for his government's already discordant relations with Treasury. Once again, Wheeler remained." The archival record would not support this version of events: for the record, the short list for the Treasury position in 1971 did not include Hewitt.

Apart from the central figures in the dismissal, Wheeler is the largest figure in the book's various Lilliputian fantasies thwarting the Labor government. There is an inadequate account of events leading to Jim Cairns' removal as treasurer, not marked by any notable comprehension of relevant administrative practices applicable in such cases.

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This review of Gough Whitlam: His Time by Jenny Hocking (Miegunyah Press 2012) was first published in the Canberra Times.

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About the Author

J R Nethercote, visiting research fellow, ACU Public Policy Institute, was on the staff of the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by J R Nethercote

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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