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Chapter 5: Struggles for equality: 1949-1963

By 1950, overwhelming male dominance of the Public Service had weakened, following the wartime appointment of thousands of women staff. Female cadets were finally permitted to join the permanent staff in 1947, and the old rule that women resign immediately upon marriage was dropped.

In 1953, as the country settled into a decade of prosperity and ballooning State activity, deputy commissioner George Bolt replaced Campbell. A less union-friendly Holland administration quietly ended PSA representation at the PSC, which fell back to two members. The State sector union, however, remained influential and vocal, championing the issue of equal pay for women public servants in particular.

A replacement body emerged to hammer out pay and conditions across the wider State sector, including railways and the post office. Chaired by Bolt and located inside the PSC, the State Services Co-ordinating Committee (SSCC) remained officially independent, but the immediate impacts of its work on the public purse meant in practice that Ministers stayed intimately involved.

One of the Holland administration’s priorities was infrastructure. By 1955, 20,661 temporary and casual staff, many of them forestry and railway workers, supplemented a permanent staff of 32,294. Women now represented more than 28 percent of the core Public Service.

But women clerical workers, for example, were still denied the same promotional opportunities as their male counterparts – and paid far less. The stage was set for a struggle that represented an early marker of the changing social, political and economic landscape of the post war era.

Recruiting and retaining permanent male staff proved difficult, especially within the less prestigious clerical divisions of the Public Service. A 1954 PSC report called for discrimination against ‘…women and girls, who presumably are less interested in a career out of the home…’. 17

The PSC report emerged as the PSA launched its campaign for equal pay for men and women performing the same duties. Bolt and his SSCC were fiercely resistant, posing the question why a government would want to pay more for labour than it needed to. Bolt told the union: ‘We …would be greatly concerned if the Government agreed to purchase articles for six shillings when such articles could be purchased for five shillings.’ 18

Born in the year of Queen Victoria’s death, Bolt represented the orthodoxy that women were of less value as employees. In 1958, he stood down. The PSA gained public and political support for its campaign and, in 1960, the Labour administration of Prime Minister Walter Nash changed the law, allowing equal pay to be progressively introduced into the service.

In 1961, the newly elected National administration of Prime Minister Keith Holyoake set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the State Services. With the PSC turning 50, it was seen as a good opportunity to take stock. Over half a century, the size of the permanent workforce had increased from 4918 to 39,611, and the functions of government had expanded considerably. The population of New Zealand had also increased threefold.

Chaired by Justice Thaddeus McCarthy, the subsequent royal commission went in search of ‘efficiency, economy and improved service...’ 19 Assisted by top businessmen and unionists, McCarthy reported in February 1962. His 5,524 page final report contained 131 recommendations, notably establishment of a State Services Commission (SSC). The State Services Act 1962 created a new body that would essentially become a government inspectorate on departmental efficiency.

The Holyoake administration rejected McCarthy’s call for SSC reporting lines directly to the Prime Minister and for a sole commissioner (rather than the eventual four). It also knocked back his suggestion that the SSC gain oversight of trading departments. The commission’s role would be to advise on administration, staffing, auditing, industrial relations and pay-fixing across the core Public Service.

In another significant departure from McCarthy’s ideas, the Act set up a new system for appointing departmental heads. The permanent heads themselves would now elect a ‘higher appointments board’ that would pick members of the club. It was quickly dubbed the ‘College of Cardinals’ after the powerful and secretive Vatican body that appoints the Pope.

This structure, with its powers to give lifetime tenure to permanent heads such as the Commissioner of Works (often called New Zealand’s most powerful man because of the boundless resources at his fingertips), would become contentious.

17:  Henderson, p 229.

18:  Henderson, p 265.

19:  The state services in New Zealand: Report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry, Wellington, 1962, p 1.

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