Inside the Speagle tent

Henry Speagle ‘regrettably missed a first in classics’ and began his career as a teacher, first at St Peter’s College, Adelaide, and then at Christ Church Grammar at Claremont in Western Australia. In 1952 Dr James Darling, headmaster of Geelong Grammar, befriended him and effectively counselled him against a teaching career. He became a Commonwealth public servant, selected as ‘a generalist’ at a time when the service happily valued such people.

Speagle worked in the Repatriation Commission, the Department of the Navy and then the Australian Bureau of Statistics, where he edited the Victorian Year Book for 25 years. Editor’s Odyssey was written at the suggestion of former premier Sir Rupert Hamer. Geoffrey Blainey, a contemporary of Speagle’s at Melbourne University in the 1940s, wrote the foreword.
The Year Book was Speagle’s greatest claim to fame. As editor he emphasised quality, innovation and reliability. From all accounts he did a good job. After the publication of the 1973 edition, the Australian Library Journal observed that the Victorian effort was ‘hard to beat’, which, the author notes, ‘gave us all considerable cheer and heart’. The role of editor provided the launching pad for the ‘reminiscence of civil service’ in which the author eulogises a number of his personal heroes, who happen to be conservative politicians, public servants, even state governors like Dallas Brooks and Rowan ‘Jumbo’ Delacombe.

The author has a great admiration for the conservative establishment and one senses that he would be pleased to be recognised as part of it. The trappings are important. This is the first book I have read that begins with a glossary of ‘honours and awards referred to in this book (listed in order of precedence)’. There is hardly a pen portrait of a politician or senior public servant that does not conclude with a sentence such as, ‘He was awarded the AO after a previous OBE.’

Invited to a lunch at Government House, the author notes, ‘Never before have I felt more self-conscious: I was one of the few persons around the table who lacked a knighthood.’ On another occasion, presented to Princess Alexandra, he ‘succumbed to an attack of tongue-tied silence, which I am told is not unknown among devoted Royalists’.

There is, I think, no point in singling out particular individuals numbered among the author’s heroes. Most of them are public servants who served with distinction and integrity, and happily all ended up with an award of some kind or another. All of them were in the tent of the Victorian Establishment.

In this pen portrait gallery of iconic figures perhaps the two most prized are the state governors Dallas Brooks and Rowan Delacombe. The author quotes with approval some of the banalities of Dallas Brooks and provides some unremarkable extracts of letters from Delacombe after his retirement to the County of Wiltshire.

It is a pity that Speagle does not give more reflective opinions on the nature of public service in his time and its relevance today. It’s hard to understand what he thinks about the substantive issues of a civil service career, apart from some clues unintentionally dropped with a clunk along the way.

There are chapters which extol the virtues of the British connection and the constitutional monarchy as ‘a thread of gold’. And he does spell out the great tradition of public service, perhaps best described in the words of Dick Hamer as belonging to people ‘whose experience and training truly entitled them to give excellent advice’ and whose ‘whole ethic lay in giving such advice in a forthright, unbiased manner’.

This author belonged to an era when, both at the Commonwealth and state levels, the idea of ‘frank and fearless advice’ was regarded as a pillar of sound democratic governments. Mostly this ethic seems to have fallen into decline under the administration of governments of both political persuasions.

These reminiscences are nicely written, and whatever their foibles, provide a glimpse of a period of history from which much could be learnt by those willing to learn. And the author rightly ended up with an AO.  

Editor’s Odyssey: A Reminiscence of Civil Service 1945–1985, Henry Speagle. Haddington Press, 2005. ISBN 0 975 16803 7, RRP $33

John Button was a minister and senator in the Hawke and Keating governments.



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