Lessons from Gerry Gleeson

Reading The Wran Era. The horrendous foreword by Mark Arbib recent NSW ALP secretary sets record for cliches per line and  explains much about the fall of the last NSW Labor government. The most interesting chapter so far are the recollections of Gerry Gleeson the head of the Premier’s Department 1977-88. Gleeson reinvented the Department from one whose focus was on protocol, ceremony and hospitality towards a focus on policy. Part of this was redefining the role of the Department:

providing we were working legally and with integrity, our job was to do everything possible to assist the government of the day. officers had to be led to understand that this was their professional responsibility and they were not party political  in doing so.

Can public servants simply define their role in this way? Gleeson himself was a staunch Catholic,a former teacher  and former member of the ALP who had resigned on appointment to a position with the Public Service Board. His political sympathies were strong but they had not prevented him working successfully for Coalition governments. His comments suggests that the Yes Minister stereotype perhaps most applicability to state governments. Gleeson’s role in supporting Wran makes him a far more important figure in the post-Whitlam reinvention of the ALP than nearly all Labor MPs. We could find later parallels Ross Garnaut and Michael Keating were never members of the ALP but have been far more significant than many long-serving ALP ministers. if we were to write the history of Labor over the last forty years they would be much more important than Robert Ray, Lionel Bowen or Nick Blokus. Perhaps political parties are in the long-run best served by people who are not their members. Rodney Cavalier in his chapter makes point that almost none of the members of the Ministerial Advisory Unit which effectively challenged Treasury’s monopoly on economic policy sought political careers. Broader issues for Australian history writing is that institutions and public servants are neglected. The Australian War Memorial dominates official thinking about the past. New Zealand was a better model.


One thought on “Lessons from Gerry Gleeson

  1. Don says:

    Makes me wonder –
    can we constitutionally appoint cabinet minsters from outside parliament?
    From memory it’s simply convention (and MPs’ self interest!!) that keeps it the way it is.
    If people like Garnaut could be appointed to Cabinet I think all-in-all we’d gain in terms of quality of governance

    …though got to temper this with how things are in the US – can’t say that it’s a shining example of good outcomes resulting from this kind of system. But still.

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