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Chapter 3: Roller-Coaster Years: 1920-1935

In 1920, William Morris, 67, replaced Donald Robertson as commissioner. Like his predecessor, Morris had previously headed the Post and Telegraph Department. Critics, however, insisted that his age and relative anonymity showed the long-running administration of Prime Minister William Massey no longer took the office of the commissioner seriously. 11

Economic turbulence at the time intensified calls for austerity. In 1921, as government finances headed into the red for the first time in 35 years, Morris chaired an officials’ ‘economy’ committee. It urged greater accounting transparency, departmental mergers, and some application of a ‘user pays’ principle.

More attention, however, was given to the Public Service’s mushrooming salary and wage bill. A total of 572 staff, from a workforce of 7511, lost their jobs. 12 Those remaining faced three separate salary cuts over two years, the first alone lightening pay packets by up to 10 percent.

In 1923 Morris cut short his seven-year term and retired. In came a much younger man, Paul Verschaffelt, 36, who had joined the Public Service in 1904 as a clerical cadet. At a time when sectarian issues loomed large, especially in government service, Verschaffelt’s Roman Catholicism made his appointment controversial. His reputation for fair-handedness and the active endorsement of the Public Service Association (PSA) ensured his survival.

Verschaffelt oversaw a regrading of centrally-set pay scales in 1924, leading to noisy but largely unsuccessful attempts by unions to restore salary cuts. As unemployment rose from 1926, politicians again looked to the public payroll to absorb some of the jobless. The administration of Prime Minister Joseph Coates was accused of turning the public works and railways departments into a ‘dumping ground for the unemployed’. 13 By 1928, 1400 temporary staff supplemented the permanent workforce of 7707.

In the aftermath of the 1929 financial collapse (aka the Wall Street ‘Crash’), Verschaffelt made the prophetic remark that Public Service salary rises would only be justified ‘in the event of some violent fluctuation in the cost of living caused by a pronounced alteration in wage standards’. 14 The ensuing economic slump caused across-the-board wage cuts of 10 percent in 1931, an increase in weekly hours of work from 40 to 44, and compulsory retirement for public servants aged over 60.

In 1932, a National Expenditure Committee, of which Verschaffelt was a member, recommended further pay cuts and harsh economies, including departmental amalgamations. Despite the cutbacks he continued to enjoy good relations with union leaders. Staff recruitment fell to a trickle, with just two cadets appointed in 1931; none in 1932.

Verschaffelt remained in the job until 1935, establishing a still unchallenged record as the longest-serving commissioner. His legendary reputation as a workhorse and ‘technical expert’ saw him dragooned in 1934 into assisting PM Gordon Coates’s ‘brains trust’ on fiscal and economic policy. Other notable members included economists Dick Campbell and William Sutch.

Behind the scenes, however, the larger-than-life Verschaffelt was battling alcoholism, admitting himself for treatment in 1934. He resigned months before Labour’s election victory a year later. In 1946 Verschaffelt would be banned from Parliament House and its grounds following an incident where he howled opposition to incoming civil service legislation from the public gallery. It was a sad end to a stellar career.

11:  Bert Roth, Remedy for present evils: a history of the New Zealand Public Service from 1890, Wellington,1987, p 63.

12:  Staffing data to 1988 is derived from Quest for Efficiency, unless otherwise stated.

13:  Michael and Judith Bassett, Roderick Deane: his life and times, Auckland 2006, p 145.

14:  Alan Henderson, The quest for efficiency: the origins of the State Services Commission, Wellington, 1990, p 119.

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