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Ch 6 Towards the end of an era

Election of the reformist Whitlam Government in December 1972 heralded major changes to the nature and scope of many federal government functions. While many of the changes were to be modified or reversed by the successor Fraser Government between 1975 and 1983, significant reforms continued to occur.

For the APS, these reforms were both legislative and structural in nature. At the end of the period covered by this chapter, they were to culminate in the abolition of the Public Service Board, its replacement by a small Public Service Commission with substantially scaled-down powers and responsibilities, and wide-ranging redistribution and delegation of the former Board’s powers to APS departments.

Significant Public Service Act amendments 1972–87

Amendments to the Public Service Act began to occur with increasing frequency after 1972.

  • After election of the Whitlam Government, the Public Service Act 1973 honoured a preelection commitment to provide for the basic recreation leave entitlement to increase from three to four weeks.
  • The Public Service Act (No. 3) 1973 repealed the Public Service Act maternity leave provisions, on enactment of the Maternity Leave (Australian Government Employees) Act 1973.
  • The Public Service Act (No. 4) 1973 substituted ‘Australian’ for ‘Commonwealth’ in the title of the Service. It removed also the requirement for an oath or affirmation of allegiance to the Crown. In April 1973, the then Opposition parties indicated that the requirement would be reinstated on its return to office, but that course of action was not pursued during the 1975–83 term of office of the Fraser Government.
  • The Public Service Acts Amendment Act 1975 provided for Remuneration Tribunal determination of pay rates for permanent heads, in place of annual parliamentary appropriation, as had applied from the commencement of the 1902 Public Service Act.
  • The Public Service Amendment (First Division Officers) Act 1976 established new procedures for appointing permanent heads, providing for submission to the Prime Minister of the names of suitable persons by a committee, comprising the Board Chairman and at least two serving permanent heads. The Prime Minister was not obliged to recommend to the Governor-General the appointment of a nominated person but, if not doing so, the alternative appointee was to be appointed for a fixed term of five years, with eligibility for reappointment. On completion of the term, a former officer was entitled to be reappointed to the APS or could elect to retire. Tenure arrangements were required to be notified, both to the appointee and for the public record.

Major changes to APS disciplinary provisions, and the enactment of new officers’ mobility provisions relating to APS staff accepting employment with non-APS Commonwealth agencies were effected by the Public Service Act Amendment Act 1978, which also removed the 10 per cent limitation on recruitment of graduates into the clerical–administrative structure, introduced in 1933. The new disciplinary provisions, deriving from the 1973 report of a Joint Council subcommittee, replaced arrangements established by the original 1922 Act which had undergone few significant amendments from the time of their original enactment. The officers’ mobility provisions replaced arrangements introduced by the Officers’ Rights Declaration Act 1928 (ORDA), the 1922 Act having contained no provisions about the rights of staff moving from the APS to other Commonwealth employment. The ORDA was replaced by insertion of a new Part IV in the Public Service Act, but implementation of the new provisions proved complex and time- consuming and was not accomplished until March 1981, with concurrent repeal of the ORDA.

Although not on the same scale in terms of its detailed content, the next amending Act (the Public Service and Statutory Authorities Amendment Act 1980) included two amendments of particular significance. The first of these gave authority to the Board to cease paying an employee not prepared to work as directed (the ‘no work as directed— no pay’ principle). This particular Fraser Government amendment attracted strong union opposition. Its provisions were not utilised extensively by the Board, but they were repealed soon after the Hawke Government was elected in March 1983, by the ensuing Public Service and Statutory Authorities Amendment Act 1983.

The second significant amendment made by the 1980 Act was the insertion into the principal Act of a new s. 82D, allowing the Board to make determinations relating to terms and conditions of employment (excluding long-service leave, superannuation and maternity leave). The new provision allowed changes to be made more quickly than by amendment of the Act or Public Service Regulations, and determinations came progressively to replace many of those more formal provisions. The determinations themselves were subject to disallowance by the Parliament (a power exercised by the Senate on isolated occasions, usually on ultra vires grounds). Additionally, the Board’s determinations did not limit the jurisdiction of arbitral authorities, whose awards or determinations prevailed over any inconsistent provisions in the Board’s instruments.

Following abolition of the Board in July 1987, exercise of the s. 82D power transferred, for the most part, to the then Department of Industrial Relations (along with other Board pay and conditions matters and public service arbitration responsibilities).

The latter was preceded, however, by two further significant enactments—the first of which occurred under the Fraser Government:

  • The Public Service Acts Amendment Act 1982 provided for repeal of the provisions of the 1922 Act, which had retained a pre-1922 formal structuring of the APS into four Divisions—the Administration, Professional, Clerical and General Divisions in the 1902 Act, and the First, Second, Third and Fourth Divisions in the 1922 Act. Abolition of the divisional structure did not come into effect, however, until commencement of the public service reform legislation on 1 July 1984, at which time also a range of amendments (in the 1982 Act) to promotion and promotions appeal provisions came into effect.
  • The Public Service Amendment Act 1983, which came into operation on 7 October 1983, amended the temporary employment provisions of the principal Act to enable them to be used for purposes of the government’s Community Employment Program, the National Employment Strategy for Aboriginals and the Commonwealth Work Experience Program.

By 1982 Labor, then in Opposition, was foreshadowing, if it achieved government, significant changes to public service policies and legislation subsequently realised, in legislative terms, by the 1984 reform legislation.

After its election in March 1983, the Hawke Government’s policy paper, Reforming the Australian Public Service, was issued in December 1983. By this time, Peter Wilenski (who had been closely linked with Labor’s reform initiatives from the time of the Whitlam Government) had been appointed Chairman of the Public Service Board, succeeding Sir William Cole on 2 November 1983.

The Labor policy paper reflected its previously stated intentions, and took account of previous major reports on Commonwealth administration—in particular, the reports of the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration (1976), the (Reid) Review of Commonwealth Administration (1983) and the 202nd report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts (1982) on the selection and development of senior managers. The resultant Public Service Reform Act 1984 addressed common themes in the three reports on perceived needs for a more open, efficient and responsive public service management. It included the following key provisions:

  • Appointments, transfers or unattaching of Secretaries of departments (formerly designated Permanent Heads in the Act) would be by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, who was required to have received a report from the Chairman of the Public Service Board
  • Amendment of the then s. 25(2) of the Act to make it clear that a Secretary’s responsibilities for the general working of a department were exercised ‘under the …. Minister’, in accordance with the Minister’s powers under the Constitution— the relevant terminology has been retained in subs. 57(1) of the 1999 Public Service Act
  • Establishment of the SES in place of the former Second Division, with a more explicit statement of its policy and management functions (now further articulated in subs.35(2) of the 1999 Act), along with elaboration for the first time of key staffing provisions
  • inclusion of a clear statement of the elements of the merit principle as a basis for developing and administering personnel policies, along with proscription of patronage, favouritism or any unjustified discrimination
  • insertion of equal employment opportunity and industrial democracy obligations for departments, and explicit identification of ‘designated groups’ of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, migrants, and persons physically or mentally disabled, with provision for other classes of persons to be declared as a designated group under the regulations
  • conditions allowing for permanent part-time employment
  • insertion of an Australian citizenship requirement for appointment to the APS in most circumstances, in place of the former British subject requirement
  • redefinition of ‘efficiency’ in relation to promotion, with relative efficiency becoming the sole criterion for promotion and appeals, without regard to any considerations of seniority, as provided for originally in the 1922 Act
  • provision for selection of staff by Joint Selection Committees, including staff union representation, with any resultant unanimous committee recommendation not being open to appeal
  • devolution to Secretaries of the Board’s powers to create, classify and abolish public service offices, subject to use only of Board-approved classifications, and with only the Board being able to declare a classification to be an SES classification.

The legislative reform package included also two other closely associated enactments:

  • The Merit Protection (Australian Government Employees) Act 1984 established a new Merit Protection and Review Agency (MPRA), with functions incorporating and extending beyond those of the Grievance and Appeals Bureau, established in 1979 in the Board’s Office with administrative responsibility for APS promotion, disciplinary and redeployment/retirement appeals and for the handling of grievances under the Public Service Regulations.
  • The Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 (the MOPS Act) provided authority for Ministers, other members of parliament and parliamentary office holders to employ their own staff, with authority also for Ministers to engage consultants. To this point, staff in these categories had been engaged under Public Service Act temporary employment provisions, with decisions about their engagement being taken formally by the then Special Minister of State. Concurrently, the Governor-General Act 1974 was amended to allow for similar employment arrangements for staff of the Governor-General.

As noted previously, the MOPS Act provisions also superseded the earlier officer secondment provisions for service in the parliamentary area, as operating under s. 48A of the 1922 Public Service Act.

In December 1985, a further major reform of the Public Service Act occurred through enactment of the Public Service and Statutory Authorities Amendment Act 1985, which introduced new temporary employment provisions, involving four new categories of employees (continuing, short-term, fixed-term and overseas employees). In retrospect, these changes (important in their own right at the time) could probably be seen now as a significant move in the direction of the employment categories adopted ultimately in s.22 of the 1999 Public Service Act, along with abolition of the permanent officer concept.

The 1985 Act conferred on Secretaries also the power to engage staff under special employment schemes, such as the Australian Youth Traineeship Scheme. Separately, it amended the Commonwealth Employees (Redeployment and Retirement) Act 1979 by including inefficiency and loss of essential qualifications as grounds upon which redeployment and retirement action could be taken.

The final year of the Board’s existence was marked by further major reforms to APS personnel management, through passage of the Public Service (Streamlining) Act 1986.

The legislation, introduced in the House of Representatives on 23 October 1986 and receiving Assent on 18 December 1986, came into force in three stages in 1987 on the following basis:

  • 15 January 1987—amendments designed to simplify administrative processes and to devolve various powers from the Board to Secretaries (including broad delegation powers for both the Board and Secretaries and changes to appointment, promotion and disciplinary powers)
  • 14 June 1987—substantial amendments to provisions governing promotion, including removal of appeal rights for officers above the then clerical–administrative Class 8 level (and equivalent levels in other employment categories)
  • 20 July 1987—repeal of the CE(RR) Act and insertion into the Public Service Act of a new simplified framework of redeployment and retirement conditions for SES and non-SES officers; revised redeployment and retirement provisions for Secretaries, along broadly similar lines, had been put in place previously by the 1984 Reform Act and were subject to minor amendments only by the streamlining legislation.

By the time the redeployment and retirement streamlining amendments came into effect, the Board’s abolition had already been announced. Formal abolition of the Board, and establishment of the successor office of Public Service Commissioner were effected by the Administrative Arrangements Act 1987, which received Assent on 18 September 1987.

That Act provided also for the establishment of the Australian Public Service Management Advisory Board. The specified functions of the new part-time Board were to advise the Government on significant issues relating to the management of the APS and to be a forum for consideration of major management activities affecting the APS as a whole.

Other significant legislation 1972–87

While the Public Service Act itself had been subject to major amendment through the 1972–87 period, enactment of a range of other legislation was to have significant APS impact.

  • The Maternity Leave (Australian Government Employees) Act 1973 introduced maternity leave entitlements across Australian Government employment, along with provision for one week’s paternity leave. Earlier Public Service Act maternity leave provisions were repealed at the same time. The Act was amended by the Fraser Government in 1978, with the object of reducing possibilities for exploitation of the provisions and overall costs. Some additional flexibilities were introduced but the paternity leave provisions were repealed and a qualifying period of 12 months was introduced before paid maternity leave was available.
  • In the same year, the Remuneration Tribunal Act 1973 was enacted, providing for establishment of a tribunal to review salaries of various groups, including judges, First Division officers, full-time and part-time statutory officials and members of parliament.
  • With the exception of the 10 000 staff reduction in 1951 (discussed above), the size of the APS had been increasing steadily through the 1950s and 1960s. It had then grown significantly under the Whitlam Government, but was reduced dramatically from July 1975, when passage of the Postal Services Act 1975 and the Telecommunications Act 1975 resulted in transfer of over 121 000 Public Service Act staff of the PostmasterGeneral’s Department to employment under those Acts in the newly created Postal and Telecommunications Commissions (Australia Post and the then Telecom).

Administrative law enhancements

Administrative law reform, pursued actively both by the Whitlam and Fraser Governments, resulted in four major enactments between 1975 and 1982.

  • The Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975 (AAT Act) provided for the establishment of a tribunal with powers to review certain administrative decisions. The Tribunal commenced operation on 1 July 1976.
  • The Ombudsman Act 1976 established the office of Ombudsman, with the primary function of investigating and reporting on complaints of defective administration, with Professor JE Richardson being appointed as the first Commonwealth Ombudsman on 17 March 1977.
  • The Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977 (AD(JR) Act), assented to on 16 June 1977, enabled an aggrieved person to apply to the Federal Court for an order of review, when the lawfulness of a decision was in question, and provided an entitlement, subject to certain conditions and exemptions, to a statement of the reasons for a decision.
  • Freedom of information legislation, a key policy objective of the Whitlam Government, evolved only slowly to its ultimate enactment in the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act). The legislation came into effect on 1 December 1982 and extended to the Australian community, subject to various exemptions, the right of access to official information at the Commonwealth level. Subsequent significant amendments to the FOI Act in 1983 included provision of an increased role for the Ombudsman in representing persons before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and narrowing the scope for agencies to be able to claim exemption from disclosure of internal working documents and documents containing information given in confidence, unless it could be demonstrated that disclosure would be against the public interest.

Human rights and employment diversity

In the period under review, passage of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Act 1986 introduced provisions with application to and beyond the APS.

Employment decisions taken within the Service must still comply with the requirements of those Acts.

The reforms generated a range of concerns, both for the Board and agencies, as noted in successive Board annual reports. It is beyond the intended scope of this history to survey in detail the nature of those concerns and the manner in which they were addressed. In substance, however, the Board’s own reaction to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, Ombudsman, AD(JR) and FOI legislation can be summarised as follows:

  • it supported the reforms in principle
  • it had initial concerns about their practical application, their potential resource implications and the possible consequences for APS efficiency of implementing them
  • in the early years of operation of the AD(JR) Act, it saw the process of judicial review having damaging consequences for efficient APS management, particularly in the promotion appeals process but
  • in the light of developments which served to ameliorate earlier significant problems, including various judgements of the Federal Court and more effective management of FOI casework, it was able to endorse the reforms in relation to their then perceived impact on APS efficiency and interaction with APS employment law.


The legislative framework for superannuation for APS staff had been established by the Superannuation Act 1922, the fundamental characteristics of which had remained largely unchanged for more than 50 years. However, the Superannuation Act 1976, which came into operation on 1 July 1976, introduced a new basis for employees’ contributions and a new benefits structure, based on an employee obtaining full pension entitlement on retirement at age 65, with a scale of reduced entitlements for persons taking early retirement after attaining 55 years of age. It removed the previous option for a higher rate of contribution by an employee, to provide for retirement on full pension at age 60 years.

It also removed all previous distinctions between men and women as to eligibility, benefits and levels of contributions and provided for:

  • preservation of accrued benefits where an employee left the scheme after five years
  • extension of cover to approved classes of part-time employees
  • retention of spouse pension entitlements of a former employee on remarriage.

Industrial relations

In 1977, the APS (along with other Commonwealth employing authorities) became subject to controversial industrial relations legislation in the form of the Commonwealth Employees (Employment Provisions) Act 1977 (the CE(EP) Act), which enabled suspension, dismissal or stand-down of government employees involved in industrial action. The Government argued public interest grounds for the legislation, to be invoked in circumstances where industrial action was disrupting provision of services to the Australian community, with the stand-down provision (without pay) available in relation to government employees who could not be usefully employed, as a result of industrial action by fellow government employees or by workers in private industry, or employees who were engaged on functions, the performance of which was being seriously disrupted.

The legislation attracted strong union opposition, including complaint to the International Labour Organisation. The Board itself was obviously not enamoured of the legislation as reflected by the following carefully worded comment:

While it would not be proper for the Board to express any view on the substance of the legislation, it does feel that existing machinery for the settlement of industrial disputes in the public sector has proved adequate. It would hope that circumstances will not arise when serious consideration will need to be given to the proclamation of legislation (PSB AR 1978, p. 4).

The CE(EP) Act provisions were not immediately utilised, but were then invoked on four occasions in 1981–82 (PSB AR 1982, p. 46–7). Three of the four disputes arose in relation to pay claims, and resulted variously in the suspension without pay of some 1650 members of the Transport Workers Union and some 2240 members of the ACT Teachers’ Federation. The fourth dispute, involving the Administrative and Clerical Officers’ Association, concerned staffing levels in the then Department of Social Security, and resulted in the suspension of more than 500 staff of the department.

The CE(EP) legislation attracted not only union opposition but became also the subject of a large number of applications for orders of review under the AD(JR) Act. The then Opposition consistently argued against use of the legislation and moved to repeal it after the Hawke Government came to power in March 1983. Repeal was effected ultimately in November 1983, by the Commonwealth Employees (Employment Provisions) Repeal Act 1983.

On another industrial front, some ongoing Board concerns about involvement of the Public Service Arbitrator in APS staffing matters led to amendment in June 1978 of the Public Service Arbitration Act 1920, to preclude from the Arbitrator’s jurisdiction procedures for selection of persons for appointment, reappointment, employment or promotion.

Redeployment and retirement

The Commonwealth Employees (Redeployment and Retirement) Act 1979 (the CE(RR) Act), while not attracting the intensity of opposition of the CE(EP) legislation, was nonetheless the cause of Government–union dispute, in terms of the manner of its intended operation and the authority which it gave to employing Commonwealth departments and authorities in various redeployment and retirement situations including, particularly, its compulsory retirement and retrenchment provisions. While assent to the legislation was given in June 1979, it did not come into operation until February 1981.

The purpose of the CE(RR) Act was to provide a generally more acceptable framework in Commonwealth employment for redeployment and compulsory retirement, including lowering of the minimum retirement age to 55 years. Previous Public Service Act retirement and excess staff provisions, which had proved to be less than fully effective in the evolving employment environment, were repealed.

The new provisions were applicable to both permanent and temporary staff, but not probationary appointees. Heads of agencies were required to ensure that staff were used efficiently and economically, to identify employees unable to be used efficiently and to declare such employees eligible for redeployment. Act coverage was provided in relation to staff physically or mentally incapable of performing their duties, as well as excess staff. The situation of a staff member losing essential qualifications for the performance of his or her duties was intended to be subject to coverage by regulations. Appeals against redeployment and retirement decisions could be made to a Commonwealth Employees Redeployment and Retirement Appeal Tribunal, comprising an independent chairperson and employer and employee representatives, with power to confirm or revoke the relevant decision.

The CE(RR) Act commenced in February 1981 following the making of regulations relating to appeal processes. In April of that year, the Act was amended to remove CE(RR) Act matters from the jurisdiction of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and the Public Service Arbitrator. This followed the Parliament’s disallowance, of the Arbitrator’s Determination 503 of 1980, the terms of which were seen by the government to limit and alter some of the intentions of Parliament as expressed in the CE(RR) Act. The change was reversed, however, following the Labor Government’s accession to power in March 1983.

The Commonwealth Employees (Redeployment and Retirement) Amendment Act 1983 restored the pre-1981 jurisdiction of the Commission, the Arbitrator and other relevant arbitral bodies to make awards and determinations in relations to the redeployment and termination of employment of Commonwealth staff covered by the Act.

The arbitration framework was subject to further significant change when, in June 1984, the jurisdiction of the Public Service Arbitrator was transferred to the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission itself, on proclamation of the Conciliation and Arbitration Amendment Act (No. 2) 1983, which also repealed the Public Service Arbitration Act 1920, thus providing the Commission with arbitral jurisdiction in relation to Commonwealth employees generally. At that time, the former determinations of the Arbitrator were converted to awards of the Commission.

Commonwealth functions

In April 1981, announcement of the outcome of the ministerial-level Review of Commonwealth Functions led to passage of the Commonwealth Functions (Statutes Review) Act 1981, which gave effect to a range of machinery of government changes, including abolition of the Canberra Commercial Development Authority, the Australia Post Courier Service, the Legislative Drafting Institute and the Prices Justification Tribunal. It provided also for the creation of the Petroleum Products Pricing Authority, and for sale of the Housing Loans Insurance Corporation and the Wool Testing Authority.

Provision was made for transferring the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Employees Compensation Tribunal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Wage restraint

In December 1982, the Salaries and Wages Pause Act 1982 came into effect, removing for a period of 12 months the powers of all Commonwealth employment remuneration-fixing authorities, both to increase remuneration by way of salary, wages or allowances or to reduce working hours. Soon after, the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, in the 1982 National Wage Case, announced a community-wide wages pause, to extend to June 1983.

No further significant ‘other’ legislation is mentioned in Board reports to the time of its abolition.

Other changes and developments 1972–87

The major legislative changes which occurred during this period owed their origins largely to reform proposals advanced as a result of a series of earlier reviews, initiated by both Labor and Coalition governments.

Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration

The origins of the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration (the Coombs Commission) are to be found in the reform agenda of the Whitlam Government. Earlier intimations of a wide-ranging inquiry into government administration were given more substance in the Prime Minister’s policy speech for the May 1974 general election and, in June 1974, he announced the appointment of a Royal Commission, under the chairmanship of Dr HC Coombs, to inquire into and report on the APS, statutory corporations and other Australian Government authorities. Membership, terms of reference for the Commission and further background information is detailed in Appendix 4.

The Board had long supported the need for a comprehensive inquiry into APS administration and related government activities, and proceeded immediately to direct major resources to the preparation of documentation for the Commission. Two formal submissions to the Commission were backed up by a wide range of other material.

Basically factual information on the APS and its existing employment and management framework was presented in eight background information volumes, supported by 18 PSB memoranda on specific topics. Background documents were prepared also on key issues of current concern (such as acceptance by public servants of business appointments on retirement or resignation) along with a range of other documentation and statistics.

Preparation of the documentation was undertaken or coordinated by the Board’s Assistant Secretary, on a full-time basis, and an Assistant Commissioner was assigned, also full-time, to be liaison officer to the Royal Commission, attending all of the Commission’s public hearings, and obtaining and summarising for the Board all of the public submissions to the Commission, from government agencies, outside bodies and individuals (numbering some 700 by June 1975). The Board members appeared before the Commission in November 1974 to present oral evidence. Copies of all of the documentation and submissions are held by the APS Commission Library.

The Coombs Commission’s report, containing 337 recommendations, was presented to the then government in July 1976, along with four volumes of appendices of background material. The November 1975 change of government was viewed by some as having created a less favourable environment for the Commission to market its more innovative and wide-ranging reform proposals—a view expressed forcefully some 10 years later by then Board Chairman Peter Wilenski and the former Special Adviser to the Commission.

Writing on the Australian experience of administrative reform Wilenski represented the outcome as ‘a textbook case of the non-implementation of administrative reform’ (Wilenski 1986, p. 267). He maintained that the then Fraser Government was much less sympathetic to administrative reform than its predecessor and had ignored the Commission’s own recommended procedure for objective examination and implementation of its proposals. Instead:

… the report was referred for advice on implementation to a part-time committee which included the representatives of those government departments which had most to lose by any whole-hearted implementation. Few resources were committed to the tasks and…the views of the implementing committee were transmitted privately to ministers and were not subject to public scrutiny. It comes as no surprise that, although the Commission’s recommendations were far from radical, few that did not endorse official submissions were implemented (Wilenski 1986, p. 267).

As the Wilenski observations indicate, the government chose to vest responsibility for consideration of the Commission’s recommendations in the Machinery of Government Committee of Cabinet, served by an officials’ committee of permanent heads, in turn serviced by a small unit in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, drawn from the same agencies as on the permanent heads committee (PM&C, the Board, Treasury, Administrative Services and, later, Finance).

Notwithstanding the Wilenski views, it is probably fair to say that many of the Commission’s recommendations contributed to bringing about significant changes to APS administration over an extended period, although often with limited attribution to Coombs Commission origins. Thus, while consistent in many cases with views and proposals of the Board and other agencies at the time, significant Commission recommendations which have since been implemented include:

  • abolition of the divisional structure
  • statutory expression of the merit principle
  • enhancement of EEO arrangements and enactment of anti-discrimination legislation
  • elimination of permanent officer/temporary employee distinctions
  • special employment arrangements for Ministerial staff
  • a separately defined senior executive category
  • all Australian Government employment to come within the industrial jurisdiction of the (then) Conciliation and Arbitration Commission
  • statutory expression of rights and obligations for APS employees
  • simplification of review processes.
  • a redesigned Public Service Act, reflecting the significant changes recommended by the Commission and incorporating a new central personnel authority charter.

Perhaps the major Coombs Commission recommendation not accepted was for the establishment of a ‘Unified Service’, involving a presumption in favour of Commonwealth statutory bodies being staffed under the Public Service Act, consistent with (while not directly mirroring) longstanding views of the Board. Of limited impact also were the proposals in Chapter 10 of the report for dealing with special problems of administration in the area of economic policy development, as well as issues of policy and administration relating variously to science, health and social welfare, foreign policy and Aboriginal affairs. Elements of the Commission’s proposals have been accorded recognition over the years, but otherwise ran into difficulties in confronting issues of government policy and entrenched interests and power bases.

Vernon Commission on the Post Office

From the early years of Federation, an uneasy relationship had developed between the central personnel authority (the Public Service Commissioner and, subsequently, the Public Service Board) and the largest individual agency in the federal public service—the then PostmasterGeneral’s Department.

Management of the Post Office had attracted criticisms from first Public Service Commissioner McLachlan. Frequent parliamentary and public criticism of alleged defects in administration, along with continuing staff dissatisfaction, led to the government establishing, in 1908, the Royal Commission on Postal Services. That Commission’s report had included criticisms both of the department and the Commissioner, and had proposed establishment of a Board of Management for the department—a recommendation opposed by McLachlan. In the event, no radical changes were made to the management of the Department or its place as an agency within the public service. The First World War intervened and, from 1923, the department became subject to the range of powers conferred on the new Public Service Board.

As the size of the department increased (quite dramatically in the years after World War II), so did representations for its removal from the Board’s jurisdiction. Realistic prospects for success of the latter, however, were not to emerge until the Whitlam Government’s establishment in 1973 of the Commission of Inquiry into the Australian Post Office, under the chairmanship of Sir James Vernon. Not surprisingly, the Board was opposed to suggestions that the Post Office should operate outside the APS, in line with its longstanding objection to a proliferation of separate statutory agencies. The argument was lost, however, with independent postal and telecommunications commissions being established from 1 July 1975 under the Postal Services Act 1975 and the Telecommunications Act 1975, respectively, in accordance with Vernon Commission recommendations.

As noted previously, establishment of the new commissions constituted the largest, single change in APS members in the history of the Service, with some 121 000 staff moving to employment under the new administrations.


Developments in ADP during the 1950s and 1960s had encouraged the Board to proceed with its ambitious MANDATA project—a Service-wide computer-based personnel and establishment records system, intended to supersede the lower-level automated Continuous Record of Personnel, introduction of which had occurred in 1960–61, and the further development of which had been outlined in 1966 (PSB AR 1966, p. 54–5).

A description of the MANDATA project itself, as then conceived, was provided by the Board in 1973 (PSB AR 1973, p. 31–2). Funding for the project (equipment and associated software) was approved by the Whitlam Government in 1973–74.

The first small-scale MANDATA system came into operation in June 1977 and, in the following two years, a major part of it was implemented progressively in 19 organisations employing more than 75 per cent of total APS staff. By that time, the first major scrutinies of the project had been initiated, with the Auditor-General’s Office undertaking a review of the Board’s MANDATA Office and the Public Accounts Committee (JCPA) conducting a major review of the project.

The complexity of the MANDATA project and inevitable difficulties with its implementation resulted in longer than expected lead times and high costs. In response to criticisms expressed in the JCPA and Auditor-General review reports, the Board decided to:

  • scale down medium-term objectives to supporting and refining existing subsystems, extending their coverage and improving systems reliability
  • postpone indefinitely intended automatic calculation of salary entitlements and a proposed link to the Finance pay system and the Australian Government Retirement Benefits Office (AGRBO) system
  • delay introduction of new users until acceptable performance levels were established for each subsystem.

With the introduction of these modifications the Board acknowledged that the project had failed to meet its original objectives and was not cost-effective, while believing that the latter criterion could be satisfied in the scaled-down version (PSB AR 1981, p. 6).

However, as discussed further below, in 1981 the Ministerial Review of Commonwealth Functions (RCF) decided that the project should be terminated and that user services should not be provided beyond 30 September 1981. The decision resulted in 148 associated staff becoming subject to redeployment action.

Arguably, along with the developments noted in the following paragraph, the RCF decision could be seen as a major blow to the Board’s reputation and the powers which it exercised and, probably, a significant step in the direction of the Board’s ultimate abolition some six years later.

By 1981, the Board was exercising a lesser, though still significant, role in the total Service-wide ADP scene, the development of which was outlined in Chapter 5.

Departmental heads had now been given primary responsibility for ADP acquisition proposals and for the implementation and management of ADP systems. The Board no longer undertook technical review of proposals but provided comment on the ADP strategic plans of departments. In the context of its continuing coordination responsibilities, the Board invested significant resources in the production of ADP guideline material covering, in 1981, internal controls for computer-based systems, security and risk management in the ADP environment and cost-effectiveness analysis of ADP systems.

Reviews affecting the APS 1976–83

Between 1975 and the advent of the Hawke Government in 1983, the Fraser Government commissioned three major reviews impacting directly on APS administration.

Administrative Review Committee

The Administrative Review Committee (ARC), chaired by Sir Henry Bland, was appointed in December 1975 to examine and report to the Prime Minister on the programs, services and other activities of departments and agencies associated with departments. In essentials, the ARC (which included Board Commissioner John Taylor) was charged with achieving economies in the use of resources and identifying means of improving Commonwealth–state administrative relationships.

Its terms of reference, which included a requirement to examine programs, services and other Commonwealth activities

…(a) that might be curtailed or terminated without significant effect on administration;

(b) whose benefits do not appear commensurate with their administrative costs;

(c) where changes in administrative arrangements might produce resource economies (PSB AR 1976, p. 80).

were widely interpreted as being directed, in large measure, to a radical pruning of many of the reforms and new programs introduced during the preceding three years by the Whitlam Government.

The ARC reports were not published, and there is limited information available from official public reports, therefore, as to their ultimate scope and detailed content. The Board records an announcement by the Prime Minister that a number of the ARC’s recommendations had been ‘taken into account’ in economic policy decisions which had been announced by the Treasurer on 20 May 1976, and that there would be further announcement of changes arising from the Government’s examination of the ARC reports (PSB AR 1976, p. 81). An Administrative Arrangements Order, gazetted on 5 October 1976, was subsequently referred to by the Board as having given ‘formal effect to the Government’s decisions on a number of proposals from the Administrative Review Committee and other sources’ (PSB AR 1977, p. 43).

Limited reporting by the Board of specific ARC outcomes, despite Board membership of the committee, possibly reflects some strained relationships between the two parties at the time, perhaps relating also to earlier, not infrequent differences between the Board and Sir Henry Bland, a long-time, influential departmental secretary. Regardless of those considerations, however, the ARC was seen as having significant power and potential influence during its period of operation, although its real, longer-term impact is much more difficult to evaluate.

Review of Commonwealth functions

In pursuance of a stated continuing aim of the Government from 1975 to maintain strict control over the size of the public sector and of the public service, the Prime Minister announced on 6 November 1980 a ‘Review of the Functions of Government and of Public Service Staffing Levels’ (RCF), to be carried out by a committee of senior Ministers. The Board’s Office contributed to the secretariat of senior officials which supported the committee.

Establishment and outcomes of the RCF were reported in some detail by the Board (PSB AR 1981, p. various). This included reference to a statement by the Prime Minister that the various RCF decisions, announced on 30 April 1981, were expected to have a major impact on the size of the Commonwealth bureaucracy. This would involve a reduction of between 10 000 and 11 000 staff, with a further projected reduction of 2 per cent of Commonwealth employees in the ensuing two years, leading to a total reduction of some 16 000 to 17 000 staff—some of the reductions, however, being dependent on agreement being reached with state governments in relation to functions proposed to be reallocated. In some cases, RCF decisions also involved reallocation of functions to the private sector. Approximately 50 per cent of the proposed reductions involved staff employed under the Public Service Act, amounting to a reduction of some 5.5 per cent of APS staffing over the two-year period. Implementation of RCF decisions (and the prior preparation of material sought by the committee) necessitated major input of Board resources, as well as impacting directly on the Board’s own functions. Termination of the Board’s MANDATA project has been mentioned previously, but other significant committee decisions (and effects of decisions) mentioned in the Board’s 1981 report included:

  • further tightening of APS staff ceilings
  • large-scale redeployment and redundancy situations with consequent limitations, in the initial stages, of outside recruitment to the APS
  • imposition of more restrictive study assistance provisions for APS staff
  • a range of significant machinery of government changes, including abolition of the Prices Justification Tribunal, the Housing Loans Insurance Corporation and, on the local ACT scene, the then Canberra Commercial Development Authority—but establishing also a new Petroleum Products Pricing Authority.

On the positive side for the Board, expansion was approved of its Interchange Program for improvement of communication and understanding between the public and private sectors, involving staff exchange arrangements with obligatory minimum levels of participation by APS departments and agencies.

Continuing implementation of RCF decisions was noted in the Board’s 1982 report, but full realisation of the committee’s two-year program was to be overtaken by events, as represented by the election of the Hawke Labor government in March 1983. In particular, the incoming government decided not to proceed with a number of RCF decisions, likely to have resulted in further staff redundancies. Nonetheless, the RCF had been responsible for more overtly significant changes to Commonwealth administration than had its ARC predecessor.

Review of Commonwealth administration

With RCF implementation action still proceeding, a series of widely publicised inquiries and reports during 1982–83 (notably, royal commissions on the activities of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers’ Union and into the Australian Meat Industry, and the Joint Committee of Public Accounts Inquiry into Payments under the Commonwealth Medical Benefits Schedule) led to the Fraser Government initiating a further examination of the federal bureaucracy. In September 1982 it announced establishment of the Review of Commonwealth Administration (RCA), being a broad-ranging examination of the APS.

The RCA was under the chairmanship of Mr JB Reid, a prominent company director and, previously, a member of the Bland ARC. Also appointed to the RCA was another company director (Sir Ronald Elliot) and Professor John Rose, Professor of Commerce and Business Administration at the University of Melbourne and, at that time, serving as a consultant in the Prime Minister’s private office. The Review secretariat was headed by Mr HB MacDonald, then a Deputy Secretary in the Department of Administrative Services, but formerly Secretary of the Public Service Board. A serving member of the Board’s staff was seconded to assist the review team.

The RCA had wide terms of reference, requiring it to examine, report and make recommendations in relation to ‘the requirements for an efficient and effective public service in Australia’. The review was required to take account also of service needs in respect of high standards [of conduct], good morale, professional managerial skills and capacity, provision of ‘constructive and imaginative’ policy advice and accountability within a non-political career public service framework.

The RCA report was presented to the Government on Australia Day 1983. It contained 32 recommendations, in varying specifics, touching on:

  • machinery of government matters
  • Ministerial responsibility and accountability
  • administrative review activities
  • the role of central agencies—in particular, the Board and the Department of Administrative Services
  • financial management
  • management structures, practices and systems
  • staffing the senior managerial ranks of the APS
  • measures for achieving better Commonwealth administration.

The Board subsequently made reference to a number of RCA findings and recommendations (for example, in relation to official conduct, the Board’s management review role, and the selection and development of senior managers) (PSB AR 1983, p. various). The RCA views and proposals were subsequently acknowledged at the time of the 1984 Public Service Reform Act. However, any prospect for wide-ranging implementation of the review’s recommendations rapidly disappeared, with the Fraser Government losing office at the March 1983 election, some six weeks after the RCA report was presented.

Labor government reforms 1983–87

Election of the Whitlam Government in 1972 occasioned major reshaping of the federal bureaucracy and the initiation of a wide range of new government programs and administrative law reforms. However, despite some significant changes to APS conditions (e.g. introduction of four weeks annual leave and maternity–paternity leave provisions), no major changes were made to the basic APS employment framework in the Public Service Act.

The reform program of the Fraser Government after 1975, while pursuing administrative law enhancements, had directed little attention to the basic employment framework and legislation. The prime focus of both the ARC and RCF exercises had been on cutting back and streamlining government programs, achieving greater efficiency and economy in their delivery, and reducing Commonwealth staff numbers and expenditure. Arguably, while the RCA had a similar charter, it also directed more attention to APS staffing practices and the personnel management framework, but was denied the opportunity for detailed consideration of its proposals.

The newly elected Labor Government now moved to pursue its own reform program for the APS.

The Public Service Reform Act

The new government’s objectives were articulated in the White Paper, Reforming the Australian Public Service (December 1983), and were subsequently given legislative expression in the terms of the Public Service Reform Act 1984. The key elements of that enactment have been summarised previously in their legislative context, and are not repeated here. They involved, however, some major changes to the employment framework established by the 1922 Act, including:

  • bringing to finality abolition of the divisional structure
  • establishing the Senior Executive Service
  • specifying the elements of the merit principle and proscribing patronage, favouritism and unjustified discrimination
  • inserting EEO and industrial democracy provisions and identifying ‘designated groups’
  • legislating conditions for permanent part-time employment
  • redefining ‘efficiency’ in relation to promotion and removing any reference to a seniority criterion
  • providing for selection of staff for non-appellable promotions through Joint Selection Committee processes.

The overall APS employment framework was further varied significantly through the concurrent enactment of the Merit Protection (Australian Government Employees) Act 1984 and establishment of the Merit Protection and Review Agency to take over from the Board administrative responsibility for APS promotion, disciplinary and redeployment– retirement appeals and for the handling of staff grievances, in accordance with Public Service Regulations provisions.

The Public Service Streamlining Act

Within two years, the government was intent on achieving further APS reforms. In its final, published report the Board noted, in its opening paragraph, that work had been initiated on the preparation of new measures to streamline APS working practices and procedures, as part of a package of government measures to address a national economic crisis, stemming from a drastic deterioration of Australia’s international trading position—the Economic Statement by then Treasurer Keating in May 1986 having suggested that Australia was thereby in danger of becoming a ‘banana republic’ (PSB AR 1986, p. 1).

The consequent reforms were enacted through passage of the Public Service (Streamlining) Act 1986, which received Assent on 18 December 1986, with the key changes coming into force in three stages between January and July 1987.

As has been noted earlier, reform of APS legislation tends to be a very protracted process. Development of the streamlining changes was a notable exception. Immediately following the Treasurer’s May 1986 Statement, work commenced in the Board’s Office to identify potential areas for streamlining APS personnel management. Actual target areas were then agreed, leading to intensive activity in June 1986 to refine the issues and proposals and to develop a series of related memoranda for Cabinet, during July and August of that year.

It was recognised that some of the proposals, developed without union consultation (and minimal departmental participation, other than through the Cabinet processes), were likely to attract union opposition. Despite union awareness of the general process being followed, that consultation (with the ACTU and key public sector affiliates) did not occur until 10 September 1986. It was undertaken essentially on the basis that the reforms, which had then been approved by government, were not negotiable in relation to their general thrust and key content.

The resultant streamlining legislation was introduced, with minimal change, on 23 October 1986 and ultimately achieved unamended passage through both Houses on 4 December 1986.

The government viewed the measure as one which built on the significant changes effected by the 1984 Reform Act, with further wide-ranging changes to the 1922 Act. Changes of major significance included:

  • repeal of the CE(RR) Act and enactment of new Public Service Act redeployment and retirement provisions for excess officers, and for officers subject to action on grounds of inefficiency, invalidity and loss of essential qualifications
  • abolition of appeals against promotions above the then clerical–administrative Class 8 level (and equivalent classifications for other categories), reduction from 21 to 14 days of the period for lodging appeals against other promotions, and authority for management-initiated Joint Selection Committees, not requiring union agreement
  • simplification of disciplinary provisions, including abolition of appeals against major disciplinary penalties and increasing maximum fines from $40 to $500
  • relaxation of Australian citizenship requirements for appointment to APS
  • strengthening of prohibitions on patronage, favouritism and discrimination
  • provisions for compulsory transfer of staff following transfer of functions between Commonwealth agencies, removing necessity for specific legislation in each situation
  • devolution of a wide range of personnel management powers from the Board to Secretaries
  • removal of the requirement to give statements of reasons under s. 13 of the AD(JR) Act in relation to selection and promotions appeal decisions.

The Board issued extensive guidance material and instructions on the streamlining changes, including a series of Streamlining Personnel Management booklets. In the case of the redeployment and retirement provisions, however, their full implementation relied on the handing down of a new redundancy award by the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. The Board did not survive to see this come to fruition. The award, and the relevant legislative provisions, did not come into effect until 20 July 1987—six days after announcement of the Board’s abolition.

Demise of the Public Service Board

Abolition of the Board was announced by the Prime Minister on 14 July 1987, three days after the re-election of the Hawke Government at the double dissolution election in that month. An Administrative Arrangements Order issued on the same date announced significant changes to the structure of the federal Ministry and to government departments, including the successor arrangements to the Board.

The abolition action stemmed directly from the government’s acceptance of recommendations in a report from the Efficiency Scrutiny Unit (ESU) on Proposed successor arrangements to the Public Service Board.

The Scrutiny Unit itself had been established in September 1986, as one element of the Prime Minister’s announcement of APS streamlining intentions. Headed by David Block, then a strategic adviser to Coopers and Lybrand, the ESU was charged with undertaking an extensive program of scrutinising a range of public sector operations, the first such scrutinies occurring between January and March 1987. Following the Treasurer’s May 1987 Economic Statement, a scrutiny of the whole of the Board’s Office was set in train, following earlier, more limited scrutinies of the Board’s management services function, and its involvement in Service-wide base-grade clerical recruitment processes.

In recommending the abolition of the Board, the ESU proposed that the successor arrangements involve:

  • devolution to departments of all operational aspects of personnel matters, and management improvement programs
  • transfer of public service arbitration, pay and conditions matters to the then Department of Industrial Relations
  • transfer of classification issues to the then Department of Finance
  • establishment of a Public Service Commission, with independent statutory responsibilities for policy aspects of recruitment, promotion, mobility, discipline and retirement, and with ongoing responsibilities for overall management of SES staffing, but with no ongoing office operations at state level, the former regional offices of the Board being abolished
  • retention of the Merit Protection and Review Agency
  • provision for a part-time Australian Public Service Management Advisory Board to advise the Government on significant issues relating to the management of the APS, and to be a forum for consideration of major activities affecting the Service as a whole.

The recommendations were adopted and implemented in their terms at time of abolition, with the operational aspects of base-grade recruitment for trainees, clerical and graduate appointments being taken over subsequently by the Department of Employment, Education and Training on 29 September 1987.

A listing of Board functions, transferred to other agencies by September 1987, appears at Appendix 4 of the ‘additional report’, covering the last months of the Board’s operations to September 1987 and appended to the first report of the Public Service Commissioner in November 1988.

Dismantling of the Board’s operations and dispersal of the Board members and most of the staff began immediately on announcement of abolition—the Board members leading by example on the day of abolition, by resigning and accepting new departmental appointments as Secretary (Chairman Wilenski) and Associate Secretary (Commissioners Beale and Harris). Formal abolition of the Board did not occur until implementation of the legislative aspects of the ESU recommendations by the Administrative Arrangements Act 1987, which received Assent on 18 September 1987.

The Public Service Commissioner designate, John Enfield, then a serving departmental Secretary, was appointed as Acting Chairman of the Board on 14 July 1987, pending substantive appointment as Commissioner on enactment of the enabling legislation.

Preparation of the Board’s annual report for 1986–87 was largely finalised by the time of the Board’s abolition, but it was never published. Subsequently, the first annual report of the Public Service Commissioner (1987–88) included a short report covering the then residual Board activities from 1 July to 17 September 1987.

The prepared draft material for the Board’s 1986–87 annual report is held in consolidated form in the APS Commission Library and should be viewed as a valuable, historical reference source. It has been utilised in the preparation of this outline history.

Public Service Board Chairmen

A survey of significant changes and developments between 1972 and 1987 would be incomplete without reference to the influence of four Chairmen of the Public Service Board during that period.

The continually changing political and administrative environment over this 15-year time span required each of the appointees to address a range of significant issues bearing on APS management and legislation.

While no attempt has been made to provide a detailed account of the individual contributions of the respective Chairmen, the following paragraphs provide some relevant biographical detail.

Following Sir Frederick Wheeler’s appointment as Treasury Secretary, the office of Chairman was filled by AS (later Sir Alan) Cooley from 1 November 1971, his term of office continuing until 28 March 1977. The new Chairman, previously Secretary of the Department of Supply, with a background both in management and engineering, was soon to be confronted with major changes to the federal bureaucracy, following election of the Whitlam Government in December 1972. Much of the remainder of his term of office was then to be concerned with handling the Board’s involvement with the Coombs Commission. Sir Alan directed particular attention to achieving efficient APS management, and was instrumental in establishing the first office of Director of Equal Employment Opportunity in the Board’s Office.

Sir Alan’s successor was KCO (later, Sir Keith) Shann, a distinguished diplomat with some 40 years public service. He became Chairman at a time when the government was moving to impose tighter controls on APS staffing and finances, with consequent increased pressure on the Board to effect improvements in public service efficiency. The Board’s management review program was to expand significantly in this period.

Sir Keith served as Chairman until 31 October 1978, and was succeeded by RW (later, Sir William) Cole. Previously Commonwealth Statistician and then Finance Department Secretary, the new Chairman’s period in office encompassed major APS reviews, with the 1981–82 Review of Commonwealth Functions and the 1982–83 Review of Commonwealth Administration. In the same period, the APS was experiencing the full impact of the extensive administrative law reforms occurring from the late 1970s, culminating in this period with the 1982 Freedom of Information Act.

New reform agenda emerged with the election of the Hawke Government in March 1983. At the expiration of his five-year appointment, Sir William became Secretary of the Defence Department. His successor as Board Chairman was Peter Wilenski, appointed to the office with effect from 2 November 1983.

As has been noted previously, Peter Wilenski had served as adviser to the Coombs Commission, and had an intense interest in public service reforms. Considered by many to be one of Australia’s most significant and innovative public servants, he played a major role in implementation of the changes effected by the 1984 Reform Act. In particular, he contributed significantly to the high profile then accorded by the government and the Board to equal employment opportunity and application of the merit principle. He remained as Chairman until the Board’s abolition in July 1987.

Speculation on the abolition of the Board

Objective and detailed evaluation of the Board’s contribution to the management of the APS is yet to occur, and would seem to offer a fruitful field of research for some future historian or practitioner in the field of Australian public administration.

This section of the outline history concludes with some personal speculative observations on the reason for the Board’s demise.

Before so proceeding, it needs to be emphasised that this paper has not addressed in detail, or at all, some major or significant activities of the Board over its 64-year history. Notable examples include its extensive involvements in:

  • pay fixation and conditions of employment
  • arbitration
  • industrial relations
  • establishment management and staff ceilings
  • Service-wide training and staff development
  • Service-wide recruitment, including selection testing
  • overseas staffing conditions
  • machinery of government changes
  • studies assistance
  • staff appraisal.

The above listing is far from exhaustive, but a full exposition might also provide a better indication of some of the circumstances contributing to the Board’s apparently sudden and abrupt disappearance as a powerful, central agency in the federal bureaucracy.

A clue is perhaps to be found also in reflecting on a statement by the Board of its own underlying philosophy:

… unlike permanent heads of departments, the Board is publicly identifiable with, and publicly responsible for, its own decisions and is able to defend its policies and practices without offending the principle of ministerial responsibility (PSB AR 1977, p. 99).

Such eminently laudable and defensible propositions from the point of view of a central personnel authority, however, were not always palatable to other parties. They sometimes felt aggrieved by such independent public expression of policy positions, about which they held contrary views, and therefore viewed the Board’s statements as infringing unduly on their own perceived prerogatives. At various times, and in relation to various issues, the dissident voices were to be heard from both Ministers and the higher executive levels of the Service. A perceived excess of zeal in focusing on inadequacies of departmental management and industrial relations, along with the Board’s drive to eliminate inequities and discrimination in employment practices, were a decided irritant for some executives and not a recipe for creating undying friendship or support when the Board itself came under attack. Perceptions also of arrogance and a lack of evenhandedness in dealings with different agencies were prone to create deep and longstanding resentments, however well justified.

It can be argued that the very wide span of the Board’s activities itself contributed to its ultimate demise. The Board was at the forefront in bringing about APS reforms, particularly over its last 20 years of operation. In the process, however, it both became too large itself, and yet still unable to sustain an effective, ongoing involvement in all the areas involved. This problem became accentuated when the Board became subject to significant resource constraints and loss of major functions, such as its longstanding control over departmental establishments and organisation structure, and the termination of the MANDATA project.

Other factors worked against the Board’s continuance, reflecting some broader considerations (including some of those referred to above):

  • The trend, Australia-wide in the 1980s, to move away from strong, central personnel management agencies and to devolve increasingly their powers to departments and agencies made it almost inevitable that the Board would become subject to the same treatment.
  • Other Commonwealth central agencies (notably, the then departments of Finance and Industrial Relations) increasingly looked to taking over Board functions and incorporating them in related functional areas of their own.
  • Evolution of independent, Commonwealth-wide administrative law and human rights agencies (the Ombudsman, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission) progressively eroded areas in which the Board had previously exercised significant responsibilities, virtually alone in some cases, for many years.
  • The central appeal tribunal and grievance resolution roles of the Board were taken over by the Merit Protection and Review Agency.
  • The Board’s powers as an independent wage-fixing authority, regularly reasserted in response to external criticisms of its policies and decisions, were a particular source of irritation for governments from time to time or, alternately, for unions, albeit for significantly different reasons. In later years, however, the Board’s powers were increasingly constrained by decisions of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, notably in National Wage Cases.
  • In the arbitration area, the Board not infrequently stood between proposed ‘quick fix’ solutions, worked out between departments and unions—the Board having legitimate concerns in relation to service-wide implications of undesirable precedents.

A postscript observation

In December 1980, for the first time for many years, the Board’s staff were co-located in a new central office building, in National Circuit, Barton—the McLachlan Offices, honouring the name of the first Commonwealth Public Service Commissioner. The Board was to enjoy the benefit of its new offices for a little less than seven years. Following the Board’s abolition in July 1987, and perhaps symbolic of its demise, the new Public Service Commission, much reduced in size in comparison with the Board’s Office, was quickly deprived of its accommodation. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet became the new occupant. With a fine regard for history, and to ensure removal of any tangible identification with its former role, McLachlan Offices was simultaneously accorded the more imaginative and picturesque title of 3–5 National Circuit.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018