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Sir Edward John (John) Bunting (1918–1995)

from Canberra Times

In the 16 years that he served as a permanent head at the very centre of the Canberra administrative structure, Sir John Bunting worked with 101 Commonwealth ministers. That Sir John, later Australian high commissioner to Britain between 1975 and 1977, took the trouble to tally their number last year was revealing of his concept of his role in government.

As Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and during the Gorton "exile", a short-lived bifurcation of the department which saw him as head of the Department of the Cabinet Office, Bunting worked with six prime ministers from Sir Robert Menzies to Gough Whitlam. But he did not see himself merely as the prime minister's man. He saw himself also as serving the Cabinet as a whole, the servant, and of course chief interpreter, of the whole collectivity of executive government.

The complete Westminster-style public servant, he was neutral in his politics but completely loyal to the government of the day, ready to adjust to slating political values. His clear favourite prime minister was Robert Menzies, for whom his memoir revealed some secret idolatry, but he had also the complete confidence and trust of Gough Whitlam, who once said his "loyalty, integrity, diligence and dedication have made him a leader and example among all public servants".

He was equally revered by his peers.

A quiet man of studied reserve where the business of government was concerned, yet with a quizzical sense of humour, he was no remote mandarin. A few days before he left Australia in February 1975, to take up his post in London as Australia's first "non-political" high commissioner there, the Secretary to the Treasury, Sir Frederick Wheeler, described him at a dinner given by the First Divisions as "one of these rare men who can walk with prime ministers and yet retain the common touch".

Sir John belonged, quite unmistakably, to a era in Australian public administration. Born in Ballarat in August 1918, he attended Trinity Grammar in Melbourne where his headmaster suggested a public-service career to him. After an honours degree in arts at Melbourne University he was one of four graduates taken into the service in 1940.

One of the "new breed" of public servants then being recruited from disparate sources to manage the war effort in Canberra, he came initially to the Department of Trade and Customs in Canberra. A footballer at university, he captained the Manuka team in Canberra (and was best and fairest player) before being sent off to the Division of Transport Procurement in Sydney.

In 1947 he went to the Department of Post-war Reconstruction, but not for long in any real capacity. For the then Secretary to the Treasury was about to leave for Washington, London and Ottawa to talk about trade. Bunting's university friend (and the effective No 2 of Treasury), Fred Wheeler, suggested him as a useful companion.

Back in Australia, he found himself a member of the Sydney-based dollar import committee, with the present Sir Frank Meere and Sir Philip Jones. He enjoyed his two years there, despite (or because of) having to run his own messages, turn the handle of his duplicators and generally put up with conditions a Class 5 clerk these days would rebel at.

Bunting was transferred to Prime Minister's as an assistant Secretary for several years, then returned to London as official Secretary at Australia House. On his return he rose to deputy Secretary at Prime Minister's and, when Sir Allen Brown stood down, became Secretary in 1959.

As many now recollect it the '60s were a period of calm and smooth progress in the Public Service, undisturbed by the sorts of tremors and infighting that have more recently become commonplace. In fact it probably was not: that it appeared to be was, to a considerable degree, Sir John's achievement.

To the extent that the bureaucracy is managed from within itself, its direction inevitably falls (given the realities of bureaucratic power) to a triumvirate of three: the heads of the Public Service Board, the Treasury and the Prime Minister's Department.

During the first half of the '60s, the board was headed by Bunting's old friend Wheeler, and the Treasury by Sir Roland Wilson. The two men were not close, and Sir John, he was knighted in 1964, served as their mediator and arbiter.

His manner, and his commitment to his role as Secretary of the Cabinet as well as the head of Prime Minister's, and thus to the concept of himself as the servant of a collegiate entity, encouraged the notion that Bunting was not a strong man.

Colleagues, however, recall him on several occasions resisting intense pressure from other departments to amend his draft minutes from Cabinet decisions in ways that would suit their interests.

In 1968 Sir John became the victim in a classic case of bureaucratic politics. About an hour before the event he was informed by the new prime minister, John Gorton, that an Executive Council meeting was to be convened which would abolish his department, relegating himself to the unattached list and replacing him with Sir Lenox Hewitt.

In the event, and reportedly after intense pressure from other senior public servants, a compromise was achieved. Only a few weeks before Harold Holt had been drowned, Sir John had advised him to reorganise the Prime Minister's Department.

This proposal was taken one step further, Bunting taking over the new Department of the Cabinet Office. Notwithstanding his escape from the humiliation of sacking, the experience hurt him deeply. Three years later, however, he was back in charge of a reunified department, when William McMahon succeeded Gorton as prime minister. One of his immediate concerns, not shared by all his friends, was to ensure that Hewitt was given the administration of a sufficiently senior department of his own. One of the legends that attached itself to Sir John was that of the "cabal" of senior public servants who, based on the billiards room at the Commonwealth Club and at the Royal Canberra Golf Club, was said to run the government. Sir John observed that he never played snooker: he doubted, last year, that he had been in the billiards room more than twice in the previous two years, and then only to organise at short notice a perfectly official meeting of officials.

On the other hand, he did appreciate the drinks served at the Commonwealth Club, and teed off regularly at 7 o'clock every Saturday morning at Royal Canberra with his friend, Sir Richard Randall, former Secretary to the Treasury. There was enough in the circumstances, and in his coordinative style of running Prime Minster's, to lend apparent credence to the story.

By the early 1970s, that style had perhaps outlived its time. The Public Service had become progressively more complex, the conflicts less readily drive the service towards new ends, rather than to evolve with it, added new strains.

In the event, Sir John was able to depart from Canberra without ill-will on either side, to be replaced by a permanent head anxious to turn Prime Minister's into a more assertive centre of power than it had been. Experience has shown, however, that the activist model of the Prime Minister's Department depends very much on the style of the prime minister: both Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser built up the departments; under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, the role of the department has been less assertive.

In 1988, Sir John published R. G. Menzies: a Portrait, giving an unusual insider's style of Australia's longest serving prime minister at work, a strong and very personal tribute to the personality and the professionalism of a person he thought misunderstood. It also contained some of his own ideas about government.

Rejecting the legend, for example, that Menzies was "dominating" or overbearing and authoritarian in Cabinet, he argued instead that he was simply pre-eminent there. But ministerial government had, Bunting thought, turned too much into Cabinet government.

"In the Menzies days ... the ministerial basis of government was specifically and superbly recognised. Menzies saw to it. It was to him the natural thing," Bunting wrote. "The ministers came first and all else branched from there. The Cabinet role was secondary. It was in reserve, to help as needed. But that is now all changed.

"The Cabinet has, in the years since, grown to be a new and insistent element in government. It is now overgrown. And the balance has swung against ministers. The Cabinet much more takes first place and the ministers stand to receive instructions, to obey rules and to get permissions." Cabinets, he thought, should do less, and ministers more.

"The more ministerial government can be restored, the better, and best of all it might be brought again to its full classic proportions of the Menzies time".

But that was at the height of Hawke. Under Keating, the role of Cabinet has slipped back, if not quite into the role that Sir John would argue. If he had any thoughts about the change, however, he kept them to himself.

Sir John is survived by his widow, Peggy, whom he married in 1942, and three sons.

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Citation details

'Bunting, Sir Edward John (John) (1918–1995)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 June 2024.

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