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OBITUARY:Sir John Bunting

John Nethercote
Wednesday 07 June 1995 23:02 BST

John Bunting, Secretary to the Australian Cabinet from 1959 to 1975 and Australian High Commissioner in London from 1975 to 1977, was the epitome of a civil servant in the Westminster mould. He was discreet, anonymous and, above all, scrupulously impartial in relation to party politics. Sir Robert Menzies, whom he served throughout his long post- war prime ministership (1949-66), described him as "the prince of public servants".

Yet it was his removal from the post of civil service head of the Prime Minister's Department in 1968 by the newly chosen Liberal prime minister John Gorton (succeeding the recently drowned Harold Holt) which heralded a marked shift in relations between minister and officials away from the close, though not always harmonious, alliance forged during the Second World War and fostered by succeeding Labour and Liberal-Country Party governments.

Though Bunting kept the prize post of Cabinet Secretary, his treatment by Gorton permanently soured the new prime minister's relations with the civil service, not because of the deed but because of what was seen as, in the words of a commentator at the time, the "brutal and needlessly humiliating manner" in which it was done.

When William McMahon displaced Gorton as Prime Minister in 1971, in a party-room vote, Bunting was recalled to head what has since been known as the Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet (PM&C).

Bunting's period at the helm of PM&C saw the demise of the 23-year-old Liberal-Country Party coalition government and the first two frantic years of the three-year Labour government under Gough Whitlam which succeeded it.

His return to London as High Commissioner was the culmination of a long and increasingly intimate association with the United Kingdom. Until the early 1970s Australia's relations with the UK had been a direct responsibility of the prime minister and his department: in the 1950s Bunting had served a term as Official Secretary in Australia House. The high commissionership ended prematurely with serious heart illness. He returned to Australia early in 1977 and retired shortly afterwards.

The son of a storekeeper, Bunting was born and grew up in rural districts of Victoria. He completed matriculation at Trinity College under Frank Shann, a notable headmaster who had, in a previous generation, taught Menzies himself.

He read economics at the University of Melbourne, taking honours in a class which included Sir Bruce Williams, later Professor of Economics at Victoria University, Manchester. His academic prowess was matched by comparable talent on the sporting field where he excelled in cricket, Australian Rules football, tennis and, in later life, golf.

His first decade in the public service was spent in the departments of Trade & Customs and Post-War Reconstruction. But in 1950, with the latter's abolition, he went to the Prime Minister's Department and found his metier in serving and developing the Cabinet system on a professional, civil service, departmental basis. His cabinet minutes, elegant and lucid, remain unsurpassed.

In retirement he chaired the Official Establishments Trust, which oversees the residences of the Governor-General and the Prime Minister, and was National Co-Ordinator of the Sir Robert Menzies Memorial Trust.

The self-effacing habits of an official lifetime hardly died but in Bunting's case they fortunately relaxed sufficiently for him to compose R.G. Menzies - a Portrait (1988). It is a volume of enormous value, not because it tells the full story of the great prime minister within its pages, but because Bunting confined himself to those matters about which virtually only he could write with undisputed conviction and authority.

The heart of the book is a searching essay about the recent evolution of cabinet and ministerial government in Australia. "In the Menzies days," he wrote, "the ministerial basis of government was specifically and superbly recognised . . . The ministers came first and all else branched from there. The Cabinet was secondary . . . It had no life of its own."

Then, in an increasingly famous passage, he contended: "The Cabinet has, in the years since, grown to be a new and insistent element in government. It is now overgrown. The Cabinet much more takes first place and the ministers stand to receive instructions, to obey rules and to get permissions." "Cabinet," he concluded, "should do less and ministers more."

Bunting took a strong interest in foreign and defence policies. Consideration of Australia's joining the war in Vietnam in the mid-1960s found him firmly if quietly seeking to have questions of "whether" and "why" addressed before those of "when" and "where".

His long-standing friend Sir Frederick Wheeler, Secretary to the Treasury 1971-79, said of Bunting that, whilst he walked with prime ministers, he always had the common touch. His humanity and humour served him well in preparing Menzies for a memorandum on a disagreeable topic - he annotated it: "Burn before reading".

John Nethercote

Edward John Bunting, civil servant: born Ballarat, Victoria 13 August 1918; Assistant Secretary, Prime Minister's Department, Canberra 1949- 53, Deputy Secretary 1955-58; Secretary, Australian Cabinet 1959-75; CBE 1960, KBE 1977; Kt 1964; High Commissioner for Australia, London 1975- 77; AC 1982; married 1942 Peggy MacGruer (three sons); died 2 May 1995.

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