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Public Service

The Public Service is the administrative arm of government.

It consists of the government departments and other organisations and the public servants who work in them. A public servant is an employee of the government.

There are State and Commonwealth, or Federal, Public Services. Whilst the Public Service includes police officers, fire officers, government school teachers, and members of the army, navy and air-force, technically the term as used in the study of politics refers to those employees covered by the Public Service Act at either Commonwealth or State level. Around half of all people employed by federal and state governments are covered in this way.

In Canberra, the Public Service is generally thought of as the government departments under the control of federal government ministers.

The Public Service is also known as the civil service, although this term is more commonly used in Britain. The departments, statutory authorities and organisations that public servants work for are collectively known as the public sector. It is sometimes disparagingly referred to as the bureaucracy.

Public Service Roles

  • To administer the apparatus of government. The Westminster system is based on the idea the ministries come and go, but the public service is a constant. The administration of government is carried out at the direction of the government of the day and in accordance with legislation passed by Parliament.
  • To provide policy advice to the government of the day. Government departments consist of many experts in a diverse number of subjects. This advice is supposed to be given fearlessly and impartially.

Public Service Numbers

In 1984, 31.4% of the workforce were public sector employees. Two-thirds of all public servants were at the State or Local government levels.

Public Sector Employees As A Percentage of the Workforce
Level Number % of Workforce
   Australian Public Service 148 600
   statutory authorities 248 700
   defence forces 71 200
Subtotal 468 500
   State 988 700
   Northern Territory 13 900
   Local government 130 200
Public service total 1 601 300


Source: “Public Policy in Australia”, Davis et al, 1990, p46.

In 1985-6, there were 177,124 Commonwealth Public Servants. Of these, only 27% were based in Canberra.

Distribution of Full-Time Commonwealth Public Servants
Location No. %
ACT 48 035
NSW 40 255
Vic 36 866
Qld 17 791
SA 13 318
WA 10,552
Tas 3 657
NT 2 499
Overseas 4 151
Total 177 124


Source: Public Service Board Annual Report 1985/6, reproduced in “Public Policy in Australia”, Davis et al, 1990, p45.

The political significance of the public service occurs at the senior levels. The public service is organised into various divisions:

Commonwealth Public Service Employees by Division
Division 1991 1995
Department Secretary 17 20
Senior Executive Service 1 723 1 765
Senior Officer 11 743 13 195
Administrative Service Officer 92 406 84 833
Other 39 708 29 571


Source: “Australian Political Facts”, McAllister et al, 1997, p447.

The influence of the public service is most significant at the Departmental Secretary and Senior Executive Service levels. Otherwise known as a Department Head (formerly Permanent Head), the Secretary of each department is appointed by the government of the day. One of the first announcements made by the Howard government after the 2001 election was the list of departmental secretaries.

The Secretary of each department is the link between the department and the minister. Not only does the Secretary act as the intermediary between the minister and the department, the Secretary is also able to influence a minister through control of the advice and information that flows to the minister.

Click here to download a PDF document showing the organisational structure of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

One of the most important public servants in Canberra is the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. This article looks at Mr. Max Moore-Wilton from the Howard government’s early years.

Traditionally, the public service was granted security of tenure, or permanent employment, but this has been replaced at the most senior levels by contract employment.

Security of tenure has been regarded as the means of ensuring that the public service is both loyal to the government of the day and willing to give advice without fear or favour.

This is what the Prime Minister’s website says about the public service:

Policy advice and the implementation and administration of core Federal Government programs are undertaken by the Australian Public Service, six State and two Territory Public Services. All are career services and, generally, staff are recruited on a permanent basis.

A Minister of State is accountable to Parliament for each department’s functions and activities. Under the Minister is the head of a department, usually referred to as the Secretary.

In the Federal and State Governments, there are three broad categories of government institution: those serving directly the respective Parliaments; Departments of State for whose operations, in all respects, individual Ministers are responsible to their Parliament; and others including statutory agencies, corporations, tribunals and commissions.

– extracted from “The Australian Government”.

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