8 November 2021

Fascinating public service history unveiled by a search of department basements

| Lottie Twyford
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Woman looking at exhibit at Museum of Australian Democracy

The ‘Australia’s Public Service for the Government of the Day’ exhibition at the Museum of Australian Democracy aims to shed light on how the public service supports government. Photo: Museum of Australian Democracy.

A search of public service department basements led to a team of keen researchers discovering what many people already knew to be true: the work of the Australian Public Service (APS) is how every single person in the country is connected.

The ‘Australia’s Public Service for the Government of the Day’ exhibition is now showing at the Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD) and invites visitors to take a walk down memory lane to learn more about the critical work the APS, and those who wear its lanyards, does to support the government.

Curator Holly Williams says visitors will be immediately transported to a little cabinet of curiosity upon entering the Yeend Suite where the exhibition has been set up. Once upon a time, this was the office of Australia’s most powerful public servant, Sir Geoffrey Yeend, who was the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet between 1978 and 1986.

It’s this time period the exhibition is primarily focused on, says Holly, as it was simply not possible to cover the entire APS history in one exhibition.

However, there are fascinating parallels with the past and present.

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For example, the exhibition includes a copy of the Cabinet notebook used by ‘Note Taker Number One’ – the Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department, Allen Stanley Brown, in 1950.

“Few people would be aware that Cabinet minutes are still taken by hand and no-one else, apart from a public servant, is allowed to record anything,” explains Holly.

Thematically, the exhibition explores the overarching concepts of the health and wealth of the nation, which Holly says is particularly pertinent given the times in which we are living, as well as it being the 100th anniversary of the Department of Health in 2021.

Border controls, quarantine and manufacturing vaccines were as important then as they are now,” she says.

“The exhibition touches on stories of these activities during the past 100 years from the work of Commonwealth Serum Laboratories to the world-first rollout of the HPV [human papillomavirus] vaccine.”

The vial from the Pfizer vaccination administered to Scott Morrison is also on display.

Many of the objects on display at MoAD were actually unearthed from various public service department basements around Canberra, such as a 1952 handbook for Commonwealth Migration Officers from the Department of Home Affairs.

The handbook, explains Holly, clearly shows how the White Australia Policy informed the work of immigration staff.

The exhibition also presents another book that Holly says may be familiar to many longstanding public servants.

Known as ‘the little blue book’, the pamphlet was given to staff when the new Public Service Act came into force in 1999.

Created under the leadership of then-Public Service Commissioner Helen Williams, who was the first woman to head up a Federal Government department, the 1999 Act was the first time APS values such as impartiality and accountability were enshrined in legislation.

“She’s a very diplomatic and humble woman, but I could tell she was immensely proud of this book and how it aspired to turn the APS into a vocation,” says Holly.

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Learning about Helen led Holly to discover why no woman led a department until the 1980s – the so-called ‘marriage bar’, which barred married women from permanent employment in the public service until 1966.

“Many women attempted to keep their marriage secret or would be forced to resign only to be rehired after their resignation on temporary contracts – without a pension,” she says.

So it seems even the most knowledgeable of public servants might be able to learn a thing or two from the exhibition which grants visitors a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the work that touches lives nationwide.

‘Australia’s Public Service for the Government of the Day’ exhibition is now on display at the Museum of Australian Democracy, from 9 am to 5 pm daily. Last entry is at 4 pm.

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In 1978 I was working at Treasury/Finance and my route to the computer room in the basement took me past the loading dock.

One day I saw a whole lot of stuff that was destined for the dump. It was all of the documents and material concerning the changeover to decimal currency in 1966. There was a compendium of press releases about the changeover, records and films of the decimal currency advertising campaign and internal documents concerning the changeover. It all went to the dump.

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