Public servants, there since federation – new exhibition

By Chris Johnson

May 27, 2021

The key the Queen used to open Parliament House in 1988 (Brenton McGeachie Photography)

Australia’s ‘first public servant’ Sir Robert Garran once made this very telling – and quite amusing – observation about his working life as a civil servant in the earliest days of federation.

“For the first few days I was both head and tail of my department, being my own clerk and messenger. My first duty on 1st January was to write out in longhand the first number of the Commonwealth Gazette and send myself down to the Government Printer with it.

“The next big job was to arrange the elections for the first Federal Parliament.”

Sir Robert was an Australian lawyer who became the first employee of the federal government and served as secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department (1901-32). Following 1916, he also held the position of Solicitor-General of Australia.

His amusing recounting of his first assignments now adorn a wall in a tiny alcove inside the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, Canberra.

His words greet visitors upon entry to a new exhibition designed completely to build awareness of just how important the public sector is to Australia’s democracy.


APS Exhibition Curator Holly Williams_img Paul Chapman 2
APS Exhibition Curator Holly Williams. (Image: Paul Chapman)

The new permanent exhibition, aptly named Australia’s Public Service for the Government of the Day, was opened on Thursday by the assistant minister for the public service Ben Morton, along with Australian Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott.

“There has never before been a space for public visitors to learn about what the APS does in our democratic system to support the Australian community,” Morton said.

“Visitors may be surprised about how the APS has supported successive governments to deliver some of our greatest milestones as a nation.”

But it is the exhibition’s curator Holly Williams who oozes the most enthusiasm for this important project.

She says ‘elevating and celebrating’ the public service is what the new feature is all about.

“We want the general public to have a deeper sense that the public service is really integral to the functioning of our democracy,” Williams told The Mandarin.

“We say that it’s as important as the judiciary, head of state, and the parliament.

“We really wanted to signal straight up that without a good, functioning, healthy, independent public service, the basis of our system falls down a little.”

The beautifully presented displays tell quite a story of Australia’s journey as a nation and how public servants got things done.

From building and protecting the health and wealth of the nation, to emphasising cooperation between departments, inspiring initiatives, and some good frank advice to government.

Scott Morrison’s COVID-19 vaccination vial from February this year is even on display for all to see.

The interaction between the public service and the federal cabinet is also highlighted, with old cabinet briefings and advice papers to be viewed.

“Who knew that 21st century, 2021, notes are still taken by hand in the cabinet meeting?” Williams said.

“We’re pulling back the curtain a little on that role between public service and cabinet.”

This new exhibition, located in the Yeend suite of Old Parliament House, named after former prime minister and cabinet secretary Sir Geoffrey Yeend (1978-86), is a modest but absorbing encounter with the work of the public service.

And it is only stage one. Work will begin next year on expanding the exhibition to show more of the sector’s community engagement.

“In some ways we are leaning into people’s preconceived ideas about what the public service might be,” Williams said.

“Is it just lots of documents and reports? Is it bureaucracy and red tape? We’re saying that actually it’s much more than that.

“This exhibition puts in a lot of effort to show the public sector values and that it’s not faceless people behind these great nation-building events and episodes in our history and also currently.

“And they’re wonderful qualities to aspire to as a core part of our nation.”


New APS exhibition and careers centre to attract recruits, Morton says

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