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Sir Geoffrey John (Geoff) Yeend (1927–1994)

by John Farquharson

from Canberra Times

It was former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam who once described Sir Geoffrey Yeend as the "second-best politician in Canberra", while among his bureaucratic colleagues he was regarded as "the original Mr Cool".

Both descriptions reflect the high regard in which he was held in Canberra for his professionalism, his common sense and his calm approach to the pressures of his job.

Certainly, Sir Geoffrey, who died on Thursday night in Sydney aged 67, brought to his eight years as Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, a knowledge of the workings of government, Parliament and Cabinet which was second to none.

And it was this knowledge, garnered over 40 years in the Public Service, which probably led to Mr Whitlam's remark. At the time, Sir Geoffrey laughed it off, saying, "He [Whitlam] wasn't really talking about a politician in the heavy political sense: he was talking about parliamentary tactics." He believed Mr Whitlam was referring to the part he played for several years in the daily briefing sessions for the Prime Minister before Question Time in Parliament. "There was really no-one in his office who had much grounding in parliamentary processes and so I was probably the chief adviser on parliamentary tactics and parliamentary issues."

This stemmed from the fact that a lot of Sir Geoffrey's career was in and around Parliament, as principal private secretary to Sir Robert Menzies from 1952 to 1955 and at one stage as the parliamentary liaison officer.

But it was his ability to work closely with governments of different political persuasions and yet give unbiased and well-reasoned advice, which undoubtedly led to him being selected to head the Prime Minister's department — the post which marked the pinnacle of his long Public Service career.

For all that, it was perhaps inevitable that Geoff Yeend, a second-generation public servant (his father worked in Treasury, then Commerce and Agriculture), should at some stage head the department he had served for most of his working life. He joined the department in 1950 after four years at the Department of Post-war Reconstruction and two years in the 2nd AIF. In the immediate post-war years he earned a Bachelor of Commerce degree through the then Canberra University College, an adjunct of Melbourne University.

He went to Prime Minister as personal assistant to Sir Allen Brown, who had also gone across from Post-War Reconstruction to become its permanent head. From then on his progress was steady without being spectacular. After his stint with Menzies and as parliamentary liaison officer, he went to London where he was assistant secretary at the Australian High Commission (1958-60). In 1961 he was appointed an assistant secretary at Prime Minister, and six years later a first assistant secretary. In 1972 he was appointed one of its deputy secretaries.

His appointment by the Fraser Government to head PM after the sudden death of Sir Alan Carmody, signalled a return to traditional style in departmental administration. Under his guiding hand the department went through a needed period of consolidation after three turbulent years in which it virtually dominated Public Service advice to the Government. His style also contrasted with that of Sir Alan Carmody, who had been much more of a "fireball" in pushing policy formation. Yeend's style was to act more as a quiet persuader in dealings with his Public Service counterparts and colleagues.

With government, his approach was to give the advice which he felt the Prime Minister and Cabinet should have, rather than what they might have wanted to hear. He was always ready with arguments and analysis to back up such advice, but after Cabinet had made up its mind he accepted the decisions and saw that they were carried out.

A colleague, who worked closely with him for a time, called him "the epitome of the ideal public servant" who, through his approach, won the respect of the ministers he had to deal with. Another retailed him as a "very humane and fair man with a strong sense of duty to his family", adding that "family came above the job when the crunch came for him." Others recalled that he imparted those values to the people he worked with and remarked on his "integrity, honesty and frankness in dealing with everybody — whether the most junior person or the Prime Minister of the day."

Another said of him that he always kept close counsel and did not tip his mind to everyone around the office. At the end of his term at PM, he also had serious reservations about where the Public Service was headed. With that in mind he had done his best to ensure that the person who succeeded him would maintain the values of an independent Public Service. The colleague added that, "Geoff Yeend believed public servants should not be the playthings of politicians, but servants of the people." And Sir John Bunting, himself a former secretary of PM, said Sir Geoffrey had "the right approach to Cabinet" and had made a contribution towards streamlining and enhancing Cabinet administration.

He was also active in encouraging a sound relationship between the Executive and Parliament, setting guidelines and establishing a framework within which that should flourish.

His interest in matters concerning Cabinet administration and ministerial responsibility never flagged. In 1993 he wrote several letters to this newspaper on both subjects. While believing in Cabinet secrecy, he was not one for "silence on everything." In public administration, he believed there was a role for "debate and analysis inside and outside the Service."

Sir Geoffrey decided to retire early, on medical advice, in 1986 after a heart attack the previous year. He took up a number of business appointments, including directorships of CC-Amatil, Alcan Australia, Canberra Advance Bank and Australian Capital Television. He was also a director of the Menzies Memorial Trust. But his major appointment was as Chancellor of the Australian National University in 1990, following two years as pro-Chancellor.

Despite his dedicated service, Sir Geoffrey also made time for play. He represented the ACT in hockey and was presented with the International Hockey Federation's medal of honour in 1980 in recognition of 17 years' service to the federation. He was also a keen golfer and fisherman.

He is survived by his wife Laurel, son Timothy and daughter Julie.

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Yeend, Sir Geoffrey John (Geoff) (1927–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

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