Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XLVIII: the executive and the civil service - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER XLVIII: the executive and the civil service - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 2. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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the executive and the civil service
Both in the Commonwealth and in the several States the Executive Government consists of a group of Ministers, seldom exceeding seven, who are normally heads of one or more of the administrative departments, though there may often be found a “Minister without portfolio.” These form the Cabinet. All have seats in one or other house of the Legislature, and are supposed to represent the best political capacity of the party for the time being in the majority. The place of Prime Minister 1 is, according to British usage, taken by the statesman who has been commissioned by the Governor to form the administration.
The personal characters and careers of most ministers are pretty familiar to the whole community but, partly for this very reason, their dignity and social influence are not equal to those of ministers in Europe. It is only when a Prime Minister is a man of exceptional popular gifts or indispensable by his talents and the force of his will that he can dominate the Legislature through the confidence reposed in him by the people. Under the organization of the Labour party, ministers who belong to it are selected by and must obey, often (it is said) reluctantly, the directions of the party caucus, so that it is rather their personal influence in that body than their official position that counts. If this caucus system lasts, it may reduce the importance of oratorical talent, and make shrewdness in council and the capacity for handling men as individuals the qualities most helpful in the struggle for leadership.2
Cabinet Ministers are, as in Britain, practically the only members of the executive who are changed with a change of government. The rest of the regular civil service is permanent, i.e. removable only for misbehaviour or incompetence. In South Australia the person removed by the minister in charge of the department may appeal to an independent non-political Board, usually composed of high officials. For the lower posts there is everywhere a qualifying examination, the fairness of which is not questioned. In South Australia it is conducted by professors of the university. The minister usually appoints those who stand highest in the examination. Where the age of admission is low (in Victoria and Tasmania it is sixteen) tolerably good clerks are secured, but there is no certainty of getting talent of a higher kind. The more important appointments, and those which are more or less temporary, outside the regular service, are filled by the minister, who often selects with more regard to political services than to merit; but apart from these, and taking the State Governments generally, appointments seem to be fairly made, neither nepotism nor political motives seriously affecting them.
In all the States promotion goes practically by seniority, a method deemed necessary to prevent favouritism, but ill calculated to bring ability to the top. In filling the highest posts, especially where technical knowledge comes in, the Minister has a wider discretion. Tasmania, and (I think) other States also, permit a Minister when he can find no one in his department fit for some particular work, to get leave from the Civil Service Commission to bring in an outsider.
The salaries of employees, including those earning wages in constructional work or in Government industrial enterprises, are said to be in excess of those paid by private persons for services of the same kind, and there are persistent efforts to increase their numbers, efforts kept more or less at bay by the Public Service Acts. Government employees are in so far a privileged class, that they can make sure of a hearing and of easy treatment, but the rest of the wage-earners would resent their being generally paid on a higher scale. The pressure exercised, especially at elections, by the railwaymen in Victoria on members of the Legislature had in 1903 become so serious that the then Prime Minister, a man of exceptional force of character, induced the Legislature to pass an Act taking out of the territorial electoral divisions all persons in government employment, and placing them apart in two constituencies, each returning one member. This Act was of course unpopular with the working men, and was, after three years, repealed at the instance of another Ministry.1 The creation of Railway Commissioners has reduced but not altogether removed the evil, for Ministers still retain a power, exercisable in the last resort, which exposes them to parliamentary pressure. Government servants have formed themselves into several powerful Unions, and therethrough bear a part in determining the policy of the Labour party.
There exists in every State a Public Service Commission, which acts under the elaborate provisions of statutes defining the conditions of admission, promotion, salary, and discipline of the State services, matters which in Great Britain have in the main been left to departmental regulation. These Commissions have done good in keeping the civil service pure and outside politics. A similar Commission exists in the Commonwealth also, the laws of which permit greater freedom in promotion for efficiency. This freedom, however, opens a door to political patronage, and means are found for exempting particular appointments from the Civil Service rules. The statutory provision which had, as in the States, prohibited public servants from joining in active political work, was in the Commonwealth repealed, and they were merely forbidden to comment publicly on the conduct of any department or to disclose official information. In the Commonwealth, and also in New South Wales, government employees may appeal to the statutory Arbitration Courts for an increase in their salaries, a concession justified as less harmful than a permission to exert political pressure through Parliament.
Public opinion, alive to the dangers incident to the abuse of civil service patronage for political purposes, has, so far, succeeded in maintaining a fairly good standard. In the higher posts men of marked ability and efficiency are not wanting, but in some, at least, of the States, the supply of such men is insufficient. The Premier of a small State deplored to me the absence of any official corresponding to the permanent Under-Secretary of the chief departments of Government in London, declaring that for the lack of such men more work was thrown on ministers than they could adequately perform. It may be hoped that with the growth of the country and the increasing burdens laid by recent legislation on the administrative departments, posts in them will more frequently attract thoroughly educated men of exceptional capacity such as those who now in Britain win their places by a competitive examination at the age of twenty-two. But it will be necessary either to have more searching entrance examinations or to allow wider discretion to the selecting authority. At present less efficiency in the upper posts is the price paid for more impartiality in patronage.
Some few branches of administration have been committed to semi-judicial, semi-administrative Boards. In the Commonwealth the most important of these is the Inter-State Commission, already referred to, and suggested by the United States Inter-State Commerce Commission. Such non-political authorities have the advantage of being free to employ methods unhampered by routine regulations, and of exercising a better discrimination in selecting specially qualified subordinates.
In the Judicial system the example of England has been followed, and with the like salutary results, both in the States and in the Commonwealth. Judges are appointed by the Crown (i.e. by the responsible ministry) and for life, being removable only on an address by both Houses of the Legislature. The High Court of Australia, consisting of seven judges, has the right of determining constitutional questions, subject to an appeal to the British Privy Council when leave has been given by the Court. The judicial Bench, everywhere filled by men of ability and learning, selected, as in Britain, from the Bar, enjoys the confidence of the people, and no serious proposal has ever been made to fill it (as in most of the American States) by popular election, though it has been attempted in Parliament to obtain from ministers an announcement of the persons whom they meant to appoint. Partisans sometimes complain of decisions given when these lay down principles they dislike, or narrow the operation of measures they specially value. But no foreign critic or domestic grumbler has, so far as I know, impeached either the personal integrity of the judiciary or their conscientious desire to expound the law according to its true meaning and intent. This is the more satisfactory because many of the judges have, as in England, played a leading part in politics. That such men should put off their politics when they put on their robes is one of those features of the British system which have, at home and abroad, worked better than could have been predicted. No friend of Australia could wish anything better for her than that the power of appointing to the Bench, and particularly to the High Court which interprets the Constitution, shall continue to be exercised in that honest and patriotic spirit which searches for men of the highest character and most unbiassed mind, unregardful of their personal opinions upon any current questions that have a political aspect.
There is, however, one cloud in the sky. Questions affecting labour and wages which approach the confines of politics have been coming to the front in recent years. Acts have been passed by the Commonwealth Parliament, by or at the instance of a political party, the validity of which, contested on the ground that the Constitution had not given Parliament the power to deal with the subject, has become a party issue, just as questions of Constitutional interpretation regarding slavery became political issues in the United States before the War of Secession. Moreover, an important Commonwealth statute (to be referred to later), establishing compulsory arbitration in labour disputes, entrusted to a judge of the High Court the determination of disputes regarding wages and other conditions of labour, a function that is really rather administrative than judicial. Though no charges of unfairness have been made upon members of the High Court for their action in any of these issues, whether practical or purely legal, it may be difficult for Ministers who have to weigh the merits of persons considered for appointment to the Bench, to keep out of their thoughts the attitude such persons would be likely to take, as judges, upon the aforesaid delicate and highly controversial matters.1 It would be a misfortune for Australia, as well as a blow to the authority of the Constitution, if it came to be supposed that judges were appointed with a view to their action in judicial controversies. The strength of long tradition has, except at a few moments, kept English judges, though appointed by party Ministers, within the strait and narrow path, and a similar tradition now fortifies the Supreme Court of the United States. But Australia has hardly yet had time to form traditions, so her position is less assured.
Of Local Governments in Australia one may say what Pericles said of the Athenian women, that the highest praise is given by saying nothing about them, because silence means that local authorities have been discharging their daily duties quietly and well. The system is in all the States generally similar to that of England, save that some functions there left to the local authority are here undertaken by the State. In one respect it is in practice better, because both the municipal councils and those which administer the shires are elected without the intrusion of political partisanship. Election is on a rate-paying franchise.2 The Mayor, chosen by the Council,3 is only its chairman, not, as in most American cities, the holder of wide executive powers. Australian municipalities show few of the evils from which the larger cities of the United States and two or three of the larger cities of Canada have suffered. In one city only has administration been marked by scandals. There is doubtless in others a little occasional jobbery, but on the whole things are as honestly managed as in the towns of England and Scotland. The provision of gas, electricity, and water is usually made by the cities, which in some cases derive revenue also from markets and cattle saleyards. Their financial condition is described as satisfactory, for though some have incurred large debts, the expenditure is represented by valuable property, and there are sinking funds for reducing city indebtedness. All municipal work is unpaid, but in large cities a sum is granted to the Mayor for defraying the expense of public hospitality; and this extends (in Victoria) to the presidents of Shire Councils. The maintenance of public order, together with asylums, prisons, and the expenses of justice, are left to the State, which, there being no poor law, votes money for charities and subsidizes some benevolent institutions. Old-age pensions are now a Commonwealth matter. Roads are made sometimes by the State, but generally by the shires and municipalities, with the aid, however, of a State subsidy. Much money has been expended upon tramways, which, except a few in private hands, belong to the States, as do nearly all the railroads.
Rural local government has, owing to the sparseness of population in the interior, never attained the importance it has long held in Switzerland and in the northern United States, nor has it done much to cultivate the political aptitudes of the people and vivify their interest in good administration.
Throughout Australia the police is efficient, a fact the more creditable because there exist large mountainous and thinly peopled areas not far from the great cities which would afford a convenient refuge to malefactors, as they did in the old days of the bush-rangers. Lynch law is unknown. The people, as in England and in Canada, take their stand on the side of the law, and the administration of the law justifies their confidence.
Education,1 which in early days it had been left to the denominations to provide, is now entirely taken over by the States, though there remain a good many private Roman Catholic elementary schools and a number of private secondary schools, unsectarian and sectarian. The conditions of a country where the population was widely scattered, and in the rural areas very sparse, compelled State action, and the want of local interest and local resources ended by completely centralizing it. The localities resisted every attempt to make them bear part of the charge of erecting and maintaining schools, while ministries and politicians found in the allocation of grants from the State treasury means for strengthening their position in doubtful constituencies. The State, as bearing the cost, exerts all the control; the teachers are deemed to be a part of the civil service. In recent years State Governments have shown an increasing zeal for the extension and improvement of education, Labour ministries certainly no less than others, and the sums expended on public instruction have continued to grow, till in 1912–13 they had reached the sum of £4,101,860 (or 17s. 8d. per head) for all the States as against £3,000,000 (13s. 10d.) per head in 1908–9. School buildings are still often defective, but the salaries of teachers and the quality of teaching have been rising steadily. In elementary schools no fees are charged; attendance (though imperfectly enforced) is legally compulsory; and in districts where schools are few and far between, public provision is often made for the conveyance of the pupils. No religious instruction beyond the reading of the Bible is provided, but the clergy of the denominations are permitted to give it in the schools, at stated times, to the children of their respective flocks, if the parents desire it for them. The Roman Catholic Church complains that its members are required to contribute as tax-payers to the support of schools it disapproves, and demands support for those it maintains at its own cost, which are, however, in New South Wales where the Catholics are most numerous, attended by only 40 per cent of the Roman Catholic children.
The provision of secondary education, if still imperfect, is improving in quantity and quality. Schools of all grades are being brought into closer relations with the universities, and in some States the number of teachers who hold degrees is increasing. There are excellent agricultural colleges, but technical instruction in other branches is still deficient.
Whether education is suffering, or is likely to suffer, from being not only centralized but standardized and reduced to an undesirable uniformity, is a question on which Australian opinion is divided, though no one alleges that it has, as in many American cities, and in France also, “got into politics.” The teachers seem to be left free, and they come nearer than in England to being a united profession, in which merit can rise from humbler to higher posts.
Each State aids its university by a considerable public grant, but exercises no more authority than is implied by its being represented on every governing body.
Though State subventions are a proper recognition of the importance, especially in a new country where men's minds are chiefly occupied with business and amusement, of institutions dedicated not only to instruction but also to learning and science and research in all the fields of human activity, and though among the professors there are many men of conspicuous ability and distinction in their several spheres of work, the Universities have hitherto counted for less in the progress and the development of Australian life than the Universities have in that of America; and they have not, owing to their limited resources, had the chance of doing so much as the latter to raise the standard of knowledge and thought in the country. This, assuredly not the fault of their teaching staffs, seems due to a deficient appreciation among the people at large of the services seats of learning may render. It is to be hoped that men of wealth will, as has been done on a grand scale in the United States, add freely to the endowments, still small in proportion to their requirements, which the Universities have already received from donors who saw their value as factors in national progress. Nowhere in the world is there more need for the work which Universities can do for an advancing people.
In the States usually called “Premier.”
A very careful and experienced observer wrote to me in 1920 as follows: “There has been a good standard of personal integrity in public men and this has generally been maintained, but in recent years there have been some grave scandals leading to the retirement of Ministers or members from public life, and in some cases these suspicions have been so strong that the whole matter has not been thrashed out and that others were implicated. In some States the establishment of a practice whereby Members of Parliament are regularly employed by persons having dealings with Government exercises a pernicious influence on the tone and standards of public life.” This is said to happen especially where land transactions are concerned. I gather that the level of purity has declined somewhat during the last decade or two.
It was observed that, although the employees themselves might be confined to the two constituencies, their sisters and cousins and aunts, as well as their wives and daughters, could continue to vote in all the others.
A high authority told me that this consideration was believed to have influenced some judicial appointments during the last decade, and that judges of the inferior courts are sometimes selected with too little regard to their attainments.
Sometimes (e.g. in Hobart) the ratepayer has a number of votes proportioned to his valuation.
The proposal that the Mayor should be elected by the citizens has not so far received much support.
A lucid and interesting account of education in Australia, from which I have derived help, may be found in chaper xii. of the Federal Handbook, prepared in 1913 for the British Association which then visited Australia