POWER, POLITICS & PARLIAMENT ESSAYS IN HONOUR OF JOHN R. NETHERCOTE

Edited by Henry Ergas and Jonathan Pincus

Connor Court Publishing Pty Ltd 2023

ISBN:9781922815163

RRP: (HB) $59.95

Reviewed by Michael Baume

“Anonymous in Life, Anonymous in Death: Memoirs and biographies of administrators” was the title when John R Nethercote, the Australian bureaucracy’s renowned historian, wrote a paper several years ago for the ANU’s Australian Political Lives series. In it he lamented that “the proud badge of their profession, anonymity”, has, with few exceptions, meant that Australia’s great public servant mandarins , “formidable presences during all prime ministerships from Curtin to Fraser” and who “ played an integral part in Australia’s history”, were almost unknown and unheralded – except for some with a flair for publicity that Sir Paul Hasluck once described as “a talent for being conspicuously inconspicuous”. Very few left memoirs or biographies to provide the much-needed insider administrator’s dimension to the history of Australia’s twentieth century development during their (now seriously dimmed) golden age.

 

Nethercote then named the most pronounced gaps on the administrative memoirs and biography shelf to be Sir Robert Garran and Sir Roland Wilson. “Garran was unquestionably the major figure in administration in the first three decades of the Commonwealth,” he wrote, while Wilson he saw as instrumental in the development, at a critical time, of major institutions of Australian government, but particularly the Treasury, which dominated, as did he, the administrative landscape. Pointing to the many significant players who had taken their memories (and secrets) to their graves, Nethercote suggested that, in the absence of their own words, a good way to study Australia’s post-war economic/political history would be to commission a volume of essays on, among others, Lyndhurst Giblin, Douglas Copland, Ian Macfarlane, Roland Wilson, Stephen Bailey, H.C. Coombs, John Crawford, Francis Bland, Alan Westerman, Richard Randall, Alf Rattigan, Roy Wheeler and John Stone. He opined, “Such an approach would furnish a more rounded picture of the rhythms of the time as well as the contest of ideas.”

While so many of these top Canberra mandarins remain, in Nethercote’s words, “anonymous in death”, unremarked by memoirs or biographies, the same cannot be said of their historian Nethercote, who died last year. He has been honoured with a book Power, Politics and Parliament comprising 22 essays, including one of his own (a recycling of an address he gave to The Sydney Institute back in 2016 that is worth revisiting) that will ensure he has appropriate recognition among scholars of Australian administrative and political history. As the editors, Henry Ergas and Professor Jonathan Pincus, write in the book’s preface: “Nethers” was never a regular academic, but his publishing, editing and writing “embraced a range of disciplines and research: government and public administration, international relations, political history and biography, federalism, constitutional, public and administrative law”, that made him worthy of such recognition.

However, only a small part of the 435-page book is a biography of this congenial, well-regarded, significant contributor to public understanding of the arcane (and boring?) world of public administration. The great bulk of it, as conceived some years ago (with Nethercote involved in its preparation until his death shortly before its completion), covers a wide range of significant issues of public administration from leaders in their fields.

For example, Emeritus Professor Meredith Edwards’ contribution echoes the concerns that the 1990s’ deliberate changes in public service tenure, departmental structures and reward systems meant that the balance of power between ministers (and their staff) with the public service had changed from the old “ministers come and go, but we remain” approach to the political executive – with “permanent heads” becoming not so permanent after all. Edwards writes, “Today, there are more ministerial advisors than ever before – but not necessarily with the same level of policy expertise as in the past.” Nethercote shared some of these concerns, particularly that “tenure is uncertain and can be brief” and that relegating the secretary of the Treasury to below that of the Prime Minister and Cabinet “is a bad move. The Treasury remains the fount of business as it has been historically. Moreover, capable heads of Treasury are much harder to come by than capable heads of PM&C”.

Another perceptive essay by former Productivity Commission chairman Gary Banks deals with the “capture” of statutory bodies, despite their being designed to provide formal protection against ministerial direction and other sources of influence. “A key form of capture by an agency’s own staff and the culture that can develop within an organisation,” Banks writes, adding that: “Bottom-up culture and associated group-think can prove very difficult for an agency’s leadership to overcome. This is commonly observed about the Australian Broadcasting Corporation whose board appointments by Coalition governments that were clearly intended to help bring about change have seemingly had little impact.” He cites the ABC’s consistently one-dimensional coverage of such issues as “asylum seekers” and “global warming” as illustrative of the impact of social or environmental activists whose interests and beliefs are more closely aligned with the agency’s staff than with the wider community.

Banks admits the Productivity Commission, a body conceived as a counter force to vested interests, has not been immune to “cultural reinforcement” as free-market economists were attracted to it as an opportunity to advance trade liberalisation and other market-oriented reforms  to the extent that the PC’s advocacy of market forces in the pursuit of economic efficiency and growth began to be seen as antipathy to government intervention per se. Banks’ previous concerns about a consequential  “existential threat”  to its future had been softened by some changed emphasis, but will surely have now been revived by Labor Treasurer Jim Chalmers plan to “shake-up” the Commission following his  comment on the recent release of its 1,000-page 2023 Productivity Report with 71 recommendations, many of which Chalmers says “are inconsistent with the Albanese government’s values and priorities and there is no use pretending otherwise”.

Among the book’s lighter elements is Patrick Mullins’ essay on writing the biography of former Prime Minister William McMahon. “That little bastard” and “Littler Willie”, were Menzies’ pejoratives and Arthur Fadden called him “Billy the flea”. McEwen vetoed McMahon’s nomination by the Liberal Party room to replace the drowned Harold Holt as Prime Minister, with Paul Hasluck saying: “The longer one is associated with him, the deeper the contempt for him grows. Disloyal, devious, dishonest, untrustworthy, petty, cowardly. A contemptible little creature.”

In one of the few biographies of a renowned public service mandarin, Sir Arthur Tange, author Peter Edwards writes: “It was no coincidence that the best and most enduring policy decisions, such as the ANZUS Treaty and the Colombo Plan emerged when the minister and the department, especially the permanent head, were working well together while the most damaging decisions such as the Suez crisis of 1956 and the commitment of combat forces to Vietnam arose when the department was sidelined or overruled”. That is a lesson unlikely to be heeded.

That portion of the book dealing with Nethercote himself is a kindly valedictory to the public servant Paul Keating derisively called “the Clerk’s clerk”. Glyn Davis’ essay sees the book as conveying “something of the breadth of the man” – the biographer and observer of politics, the engagement with policy process, the understanding of parliament, government and the public service, the sustained reflections on the evolution of the administrative state.” He writes: “Nethers made a career of striking out against what he considered the intellectual fashion of the time which are often political agendas that in turn hijack language and obscure the topic at hand.”

Nethers was more a reporter of events rather than a participant. Yet he significantly contributed (often by way of fact-checking others’ books – like John Howard’s book on Menzies) by readily making available his encyclopaedic knowledge to conservative causes. Although he described his own views as “inclined towards liberty, constitutional government, economic freedom and personal responsibility”, and opposed the concentration of power, he rarely put his head above the parapet in their public defence, never actively entering the political battle by joining the Liberal Party despite his going to work for the Menzies Research Centre on his retirement in his early 50s from the public service and his editing a collection of essays organised by the Liberal Party to mark the centenary of federation and another to mark the 50th anniversary in 2016 of Menzies’ retirement.

In Paul Kelly’s impressive essay contribution, “In Search of Sir Robert Menzies”, he writes: “Integral to John’s life was following and participating in the evolving historiography surrounding Menzies….At a time when most of his generation found Menzies to be largely uninteresting or of little relevance, Nethercote reached the opposite conclusion defying cultural fashion [just as his bright red jacket and bow tie defied conventional male attire] to see the Menzies story as a significant door to wisdom and insights.” Menzies became Nethercote’s “most enduring and productive preoccupation”.

“Steeped in the ethos of public administration, the institutions of parliamentary government, the value of proportion and practicality in statecraft, a passion for cricket as a pastime and, above all, in political leadership as a project in artistry”, Kelly writes, Nethercote “felt in harmony with Menzies and was broadly sympathetic with much of what Menzies stood for”.

He quotes Nethercote saying: “Menzies’ great insight is the need for reassurance. Even as he presides over enormous developments in population and society, his contribution is to stress continuity. If anything, he underplays a good deal of progress in Australian society and is wary of excessive expectations; he is circumspect in claiming credit for his government; only that he has created conditions for the people to improve their own lot.” Kelly writes that Menzies’ method was so successful it fooled a number of historians into thinking nothing much happened under Menzies when, in fact, the nation was transformed and the condition of its people enhanced to an astonishing degree.

Nethercote told Kelly that he never regarded Menzies as a Messiah but as a more principled politician than most, and as worthy of praise. “Yet his final assessment was anchored in realism,” writes Kelly: “He sees Menzies as pre-eminent. He was also a delegator with many of his era’s policy hallmarks tied to a particular minister: McEwen and the Commerce Treaty with Japan; Barwick and trade practices and matrimonial causes, Hasluck and Papua New Guinea; Spender and the Colombo Plan along with the ANZUS Treaty.”

Kelly concludes: “As the 21st century revealed the sorry saga of Australian prime ministers struggling to survive beyond one election (Menzies managed seven) Nethercote’s notion that lessons were to be drawn from his unparalleled statecraft was irrefutable.”

Despite JR Nethercote establishing a reputation as a multi-faceted and learned researcher, editor and writer in his field of public administration, which this book reflects, it will be for his involvement in the restoration of the status of Menzies that he will be seen to have made a lasting impression.

Former Liberal Party Senator for NSW and contributor to The Spectator Australia