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The ‘Truth Factory’: Robert Stewart Parker And The Public Service

Last updated on February 13, 2024

John Uhr’s obituary of Robert Parker appeared in the Canberra Times and the ANU Reporter.

Robert Stewart Parker: 1915-2002

Robert Parker, who died on 31 July at the age of 87, was one of Australia’s foremost scholars in the fields of politics and public administration. He was professor and head of the ANU’s political science program in the research school of social sciences from 1962 until his retirement in 1978. He had been reader in public administration at the ANU since 1954, after earlier appointments as a social sciences fellow from 1946-49. He was president of the Australasian Political Studies Association in 1963-64, and one of the very few to hold this position with extensive professional experience on both sides of the Tasman.

Parker was born in Sydney in 1915, graduating from North Sydney Boys’ High in the mid-Depression when he postponed his early hopes for full-time university study in literature and history. He began full-time employment as a state public servant. His work in the NSW bureau of statistics moved him in the direction of economic analysis, with his supervisors encouraging him to complete an economics degree at night over the years 1933-1937, which he obtained with first class honours. During this time at the University of Sydney, Parker characteristically broadened his studies to include philosophy under John Anderson and social science under P H Partridge, later a colleague at the ANU.

As Parker tells the story, he learnt as much from his public service mentors as he did from his academic teachers. His bureau was routinely required to advise the state premier about economic trends, and Parker was taught the importance of telling him ‘what we thought he ought to know, not just what he might want to hear’. In a telling phrase, Parker learned at this early stage to value the public service as ‘a truth factory’. By this term, Parker did not mean that government agencies were in fact all-wise but rather that public service organisations should be fundamentally committed to the pursuit of truth ahead of bureaucratic or political convenience: a conviction perhaps even more valuable now, and one small indication of Parker’s enduring relevance.

Although Parker remembered that his university studies made him something of ‘an acolyte of economics’, it was the influence of the professor of government, F A Bland, which was to make the most enduring impact. Bland’s approach to public administration opened the door to new possibilities as a university academic capable of making a difference to the practices of government. Bland was an enthusiast for public administration, a ‘passionate activist’ who inspired Parker’s initial postgraduate studies with a masters thesis on public service recruitment, later published as Public Service Recruitment in Australia — the first of many studies of public service systems under responsible parliamentary government. A major theme of these many studies over half a century was the problem of cultivating senior administrative leadership against two equally undesirable extremes: on one hand, the rigidities of the traditional career system and on the other, its tempting alternative, government politicisation of public services.

During the Second War, Parker lived in New Zealand, lecturing at Victoria University but also working as a public servant in the Economic Stabilisation Commission. In addition to mainstream academic teaching, he worked with institutes of management and public administration to devise innovative public service training programs. As ever, Parker balanced abstract principle with the case method, as many of his finest essays in his 1993 collection The Administrative Vocation so aptly demonstrate. As post-war reconstruction approached, Parker also worked within government as an economic analyst with fellow political scientist and subsequent ANU professor, Leicester Webb. Parker returned briefly to Canberra around the time of the 50th anniversary of Federation, when he published very influential reviews of the history and achievement of Australian federalism. But academic promotion lured him back to New Zealand from 1949-1954 where he served as head of the school of public administration at Victoria University in Wellington.

At the ANU from 1954 until retirement, Parker devoted himself to a stream of academic studies of politics and public administration. Examples of his commitment to the practical side of government were his membership of the Boyer commission of inquiry into public service recruitment which reported in 1958, and his interest in involvement in the preparations for self-government for Papua New Guinea, particularly the development of a public service and the administrative college responsible for leadership training, on whose interim council Parker served from 1962-69. During this period, Parker published a string of highly influential scholarly articles on the nature of public administration and on the vexed issue of the separation of policy and administration.

Parker was drawn into the 1970s debates over plans by the Whitlam government for a reformed public service. This period marked Parker’s widely-debated reformulations of ‘the Westminster model’, to which he returned in retirement when seeking to clarify the case for ‘the new managerialism’ which he suspected of unfortunate and unacknowledged consequences. Parker was one of Australia’s earliest analysts of ethics in government, and to the end he argued that democratic government required a public service with a common political ethic. The fact that managerialism had become common did not mean it had the required ethics.

With undiminished vigor, Parker continued to contribute to scholarly and indeed political debates over public service issues, frequently appearing before parliamentary committees to provide a welcome dose of realism. One of his final concerns was the decline of public service commissions with the capacity to counterbalance fads of devolution and departmentalism. Looking forward and not backward, he promoted the case for reorganised central agencies with a fresh responsibility for cultivating public service commitment to the evidence-testing values of the ‘truth factory’.

Parker moved across boundaries as theorist and practioner. More reflective than most practioners, he was also more practical than most theorists. Always knowledgeable, he was never opinionated; ever helpful, he avoided personal or professional interference. Colleagues remember him as a gentleman, friendly, gracious and courteous. Eluding every pigeon-hole, his passion for the piano freed him from the clamour of politics, theoretical and practical. Even as a young academic, he threw himself into adult education, offering courses in musical appreciation to the workers educational association. This interest in music survived well into retirement, where at one point he helped produce an anthology of Australian music on disc.

He is survived by his wife Cecily, his children Trina and Quentin, and his step-children Pamela Burton and Meredith Edwards.

John Uhr, ANU.

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