As IPAA Victoria gears up to celebrate our 90th birthday with the Governor, the Hon Linda Dessau AC, Nick Bastow draws some heartening parallels between our present and our illustrious past.
Even the briefest glance at the world 90 years ago confirms that IPAA Victoria was formed at an extraordinary time. Around the world, 1929 is remembered as the year of the calamitous US stock-market crash that ushered in the ‘Great Depression’. The fact that all economic upheavals since then are still compared to that period is testament to the scale of destruction it wreaked on individuals, communities, nations, and the international order.
As a consequence of the global economic crisis, 1929 wrought widespread political turmoil in Australia. Controversial government policies on the coal industry and industrial relations, together with spending cuts and tax increases (including a particularly unpopular tax on cinemas) led to an election where a sitting Prime Minister lost his own seat – a feat that wouldn’t be repeated until 2007.
Just to show that Victoria wasn’t going to be outdone in the political turmoil stakes, the 1929 state election saw losing Premier William McPherson refusing to resign and staying on until a vote of no confidence a month after the election. McPherson had been a popular philanthropist, whose donations helped build the Emily McPherson College at RMIT and the Jessie McPherson Wing of the Queen Victoria Hospital. Although McPherson was a fiscal conservative whose opposition to police pensions caused the infamous police strike of 1923, the issue that brought him undone in 1929 was an open-ended state government subsidy commitment to country meat freezing works.
It is in the midst of all that turmoil that we find a small group of public servants coming together in Kelvin Hall in Exhibition Street to form IPAA Victoria on Thursday 20th June 1929. According to the newspaper report of the meeting, the three aims of the new Institute were to study the problems of public administration, to raise the dignity of the public service by demonstrating its importance, and to establish a university diploma for a course of study in public administration.
That first meeting is now almost beyond living memory, but even 90 years later there are some features about the thinking behind IPAA Victoria’s formation that still strike a resonant chord.
First – the agenda set by that first meeting shows that our founders weren’t afraid of talking about big ideas and big thinking. The founders proposed a series of meetings over the next four months after their first meeting that included addresses from:
L F Giblin, who later became a founding member of the Commonwealth Grants Commission, a director of the Commonwealth Bank and, together with Nugget Coombs, a member of the ‘brains trust’ that formulated Australia’s post-World War Two economic reconstruction policy;
James Copland, who later became the Commonwealth Prices Commissioner, the founding Vice Chancellor of ANU, and the first Chair of the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia;
F W Eggleston, who was a former Victorian Government Attorney-General, Victoria’s Solicitor General, and the Minister of Railways, and who would later also become Australia’s first Ambassador to China.
The nucleus of people at the formation of IPAA Victoria were therefore people whose work was already influential at the state, national and international levels.
The second observation is that they were all ‘true believers’. They saw better public administration as being an essential part of Australia’s – and Victoria’s – growth and development. The role of the public sector as a direct provider of public services might have changed since 1929, but that core belief in the link between better public administration and better outcomes for communities clearly remains the same.
The broader sense of ‘public service’ also continues to be strong in our sector. In criticising Orders of Australia being given to former politicians, former Prime Minister Paul Keating argued that “the reward for public life is public progress” – and that should be acknowledgement enough. It could be argued that the founders of IPAA Victoria likewise thought that the reward for public service life was public progress, which is a sense of a commitment to service that continues to be strong today.
The third observation is that while their aim of ‘raising the dignity’ of the public service might sound a little archaic to modern ears, when it is considered in terms of the reputation of the public service, it is an aspiration that has a very modern ring to it. Our sector’s reputation shapes public trust and public confidence in what we do, and in the advice that we provide to government.
It is worth reiterating that a range of surveys have shown that trust in the public service as an institution is still much higher than trust in government and politicians, and that professions that are exclusively or majority public sector professions – such as nurses, teachers, police and judges – are seen by the community as being among the most trusted professions in Australia.
As community engagement and co-production become increasingly common themes in the work of public administration, our public reputation will increasingly determine whether this work succeeds or fails. This is why ‘trust and respect’ remains one of the four strategic priorities in IPAA Victoria’s current strategic plan, and why we have developed our new Integrity and Ethical Leadership Program that is designed to help public sector employees at all stages of their careers to bolster and embed a robust integrity culture in their organisations.
These three observations should not prevent us from also looking critically at our own history.
Like the sector at the time, the group that shaped the early history of IPAA Victoria lacked diversity. There were a range of explicit institutional barriers to the employment and advancement of women in the public service. It wasn’t until 1979 that a woman became President of IPAA Victoria. She was Margery Ramsay, and at that time she was Victoria’s first female State Librarian. Margery was unequivocal about the best means of redressing gender inequality.
And there were few if any Aboriginal public servants. It wasn’t until 2008 under Fran Thorn’s presidency that IPAA Victoria started its Indigenous Initiatives designed to help improve the career development of Aboriginal public servants in Victoria. This work remains ongoing and reflects our belief in creating a sector that better reflects the diversity of the community it serves.
The decade that followed IPAA Victoria’s formation in 1929 included catastrophic global political and economic upheaval. In 2019, as we ponder the complex policy and political environment we now work in, we should draw some confidence from the continuing relevance of many of the ideas and underpinning beliefs that drove the establishment of IPAA Victoria 90 years ago.
IPAA Victoria’s 90th birthday will also be celebrated during Public Sector Week on Thursday 22 August at the Sofitel Melbourne on Collins ( see https://www.vic.ipaa.org.au/psw2019-events).
You’re invited to send in a written or video message of congratulations for our 90th anniversary celebration, that we’ll be sharing during and after Public Sector Week. Send your messages here.