Download PDF version (1015 KB)

Chapter 7: A tightening of belts: 1972-1984

The 1970s saw a hardening in general attitudes towards the Public Service, part of a wider unravelling of New Zealand’s post war consensus. Following Labour’s victory in 1972, it was immediately evident, too, there would be tensions in the Kirk administration’s relationship with the service.

Speaking of the Public Service, incoming Prime Minister Norman Kirk said ‘the virus of empire building lies dormant in every vein...’ 25 He criticised departmental spokespeople commenting on behalf of the government as part of a new trend towards public relations. He was tired of reading of the views of people ‘paid to serve being expressed as if they were elected to govern.’ 26

Like the incoming Labour government of 1935, the Kirk administration was suspicious of a service it saw as unreceptive to Labour ideas. Inside Labour’s ranks was a generation of younger parliamentarians intent on reforming the State, especially what they saw as its costly and seemingly unaccountable trading organisations.

One was former accountant and businessman Roger Douglas. As housing Minister, Douglas led a cabinet management audit group carrying out efficiency checks on departments, assisted by a high-powered team led by a former private sector CEO. 27 Labour MP Mike Moore, too, articulated disenchantment with the bureaucracy. He asked what would happen if ‘departments were graded in terms of efficiency from one to 20’. 28

The SSC, too, came under attack from within the ranks of the bureaucracy. Government Statistician Jack Lewin, a critic from the 1940s when he was PSA chair, accused the commission of ‘not coping’ with its expanded role. He pointed to a high turnover of commissioners and deputies since 1962. 29

Lewin aimed his most damning criticism at the ‘College of Cardinals’ panel for appointing permanent heads. He compared it to ‘a pin-up poll’. 30 Political scientist Judith Aitken (Women’s Affairs chief executive from 1988) had earlier called the system ‘appointments for the boys by the boys’. 31

When it came time to replace Lythgoe in 1974, Labour went outside the Public Service, as it had with Dick Campbell in 1946. Former Otago University vice-chancellor and distinguished scientist Robin Williams took over.

The mid-1970s are remembered for spiralling inflation, oil shocks and growing unemployment. The end of the post war boom also fuelled resentment towards ‘the army’ of public servants, their secure jobs and ‘perks’. In 1975, the NZ Listener said that jibing at the Public Service was ‘a national pastime’, noting numbers in the wider State Services comprised close to a quarter of the national work force. 32  The incoming Muldoon administration of 1975 imposed a freeze on new staff, a measure Williams termed a ‘sinking lid’. National MP Norman Jones, however, described the Public Service as a ‘sacred cow’ that needed to be slaughtered. 33 The NZ Herald said that public servants in 1975 enjoyed ‘superannuation schemes, very cheap housing finance, cut rates on purchases ranging from liquor to cars and ample holiday and sick leave.’ 34

Working conditions continued to improve. In 1975, flexible working hours, known as glide time, were introduced across departments. As Roger Hall’s massively successful play, Glide Time, made its debut a year later, glide time became a byword for lax and inefficient departmental work practices.

The play’s satirical portrayal of life in a fictitious Department of Administrative Affairs would inflame, even entrench, prejudice against public servants, particularly after Glide Time (and its successors) was made into a TV series in the 1980s.

If still something of a novelty, computers were streamlining departmental paperwork (and threatening typing pools) by the late 1970s. Computing services, centralised and controlled, were established at this time as the Computer Services Division within SSC. (By the mid 1980s, the CSD was a standalone agency; then it was corporatised, privatised and sold off.)

By the early 1980s, the Public Service acknowledged a Māori resurgence that had quickened after the 1975 Land March and passage of law setting up the Waitangi Tribunal, giving the Treaty explicit legal recognition. In 1982, SSC hosted a meeting at Waahi marae in Huntly, to explore ways to recruit more Māori and Pasifika staff. A Māori development unit was later established in SSC.

Williams worked to improve the prospects of female staff, encouraging them into occupational classes that was once exclusively male and removing discrimination from job advertisements. In 1977, laws were passed extending maternity leave and protecting the jobs of those taking it.

But the first woman commissioner, Margaret Bazley, was not appointed until 1984.

In 1981, William’s deputy Mervyn Probine, a former Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) scientist and administrator, replaced him. The gentlemanly Probine had joined SSC in 1979. As the 1981 election loomed, a rugby tour by the South African team divided the country. Probine cautioned staff against leaking confidential information that might embarrass the Muldoon administration.

Passage in 1982 of an Official Information Act would serve to open government departments up to public scrutiny. The message given to staff was that ‘information is only withheld if there is a good reason for doing so’. 35

When Labour won the 1984 election, Probine remained as Chairman State Services Commission. But the radical reform of the State sector that was about to unfold, as part of Labour’s far-reaching reshaping of the State, would be left to a successor.

25:  NZ Listener, 23 August 1975.

26:  Dominion, 3 April 1973.

27:  Auckland Star, 21 December 1974.

28:  NZ Herald, 23 February 1974.

29:  Press, 25 February 1972.

30:  Ibid.

31:  Evening Post, 11 October 1980.

32:  NZ Listener, 23 August 1975.

33:  Auckland Star, 4 July 1976.

34:  NZ Herald, 2 December 1976.

35:  Henderson, p 337.

Last modified: