Ralph Doig CMG CVO
Ralph Herbert Doig was born in 1909 in Middle Swan and completed secondary education at Guilford Grammar. In 1926 he joined the premier’s department as a junior clerk – without the vaguest idea of what the Public Service was all about. By 1929 he was private secretary to the premier, Phillip Collier and studied part-time, completing a BA and Dip Com. Ralph went on to serve a further six premiers – James Mitchell, Philip Collier, John Willcock, Frank Wise, Ross McLarty, Albert (Bert) Hawke and David Brand. In 1942 he was appointed Under Secretary to the Premier’s Department and Clerk of the Executive Council. In 1965 he became Public Service Commissioner, then Chair of the Public Service Board in 1971 before retiring in 1974.
Ralph attended premiers’ conferences and loan council meetings at least twice a year every year from 1932 to 1964. He described the Premiers’ Conference in August 1942 to discuss possible constitutional amendments to deal with post-war problems as “the greatest galaxy of political talent that’s ever been assembled in Australia … the Prime Minister, two or three former Prime Ministers, state premiers and the leader of the opposition of every state in Australia.” However, nothing came of it.
enormously varied. In between writing letters and speeches, supporting cabinet and Executive Council (which “were always pleasant occasions, and when the business was over there’d be a little chat afterwards”), crises occupied much of his time. These ranged from dealing with coal shortages and supervising evacuations of women and children north of Hedland in WWII, to persuading the Karrakatta Cemetery Board to operate on a Sunday for John Curtin’s funeral, to country tours with Sir James Mitchell and royal visits. One country trip with Frank Wise included arriving at the wrong station “to the total surprise of the people at Errabiddy who weren’t expecting us … we were made welcome and given a meal and put up for the night.”
In the early years answers to all parliamentary questions went through to the premier for initialling but later they were sent to ministers to answer. Support for cabinet also evolved.
Monday afternoon cabinet meetings were standard and, like his predecessor Louis Shapcott, Ralph remained in his office in case he was needed; he was hardly ever called. He introduced a system of duplicates for cabinet decisions early in his career and, Ralph Doig, as Under Secretary of the Premier’s department from 1945 to 1965. Ralph Doig’s Reflections are part of a series of personal stories from retired Western Australian public servants. This overview of his life has been produced from the transcript of interviews with him by Ronda Jamieson during 1984, 1985 and 1986 for the Battye Library Oral History Unit. Battye Library Catalogue Number: OH2144 Department of the Premier and Cabinet Website http://www.dpc.wa.gov.au Telephone (08) 9222 9888 Website http://www.wa.ipaa.org.au Telephone (08) 9221 1177 at the request of John Tonkin, considered a policy secretariat but it did not eventuate. Cabinet would simply get the files and work their way through them. However, “many times, many times indeed” other items would be discussed.
The premier’s department also administered a small cabinet fund to which ministers contributed a proportion of their salary to pay honorary ministers and other minor expenses such as refreshments.
Ralph had the complete confidence of seven premiers regardless of party and lamented the later politicisation of the public service. As private secretary, he went everywhere with Mitchell in the 1933 election acting as unofficial press correspondent. Later, as head of the Premier’s Department’s he set up the Cabinet room to procure results as soon as possible “because the premier had to decide as early as he could whether he felt that the government was going to win or lose. We, as public servants of course, could take an entirely dispassionate view of what was going on … whereas the ministers were very vitally personally concerned.”
From the beginning, the media was a constant presence. The records officer would peruse the newspaper every day and mark with a blue pencil anything that might be of interest to the government. Problems with the press started to escalate after WWII when press leaks were more common.
Prior to his appointment as public service commissioner Ralph had been concerned about the prestige of the public service. He wanted to change the public image that it comprised “people who sat down and drank tea and wasted time and were impolite to members of the public.” His achievements were considerable. They included the introduction of a graduate recruitment program, time off for people to go to university part time, effectively replacing seniority with merit as the basis for promotion and continually addressing outside organisations ‘preaching the gospel’.
In 1967 conditions for women were also improved when legislation for the permanent employment of married women was introduced and phased in over five years.
Ralph acknowledged that the public service was criticised for too much red tape but argued that “it is inevitable that there must be more of what is known as red tape in the public service than what there is in outside employment. Any mistakes that are made are brandished before the public, and brandished in Parliament. So it makes people more mistake conscious.” Nonetheless, claims about lack of initiative and creativity are grossly exaggerated, he said.
After he retired, the R.H. Doig Executive Development Centre was established at the old Claremont Teachers College. According to former premier Frank Wise, “His record is unsurpassed, certainly in Australia, maybe in all the British Commonwealth.”
Ralph Doig, as Under Secretary of the Premier’s department from 1945 to 1965.
Page last updated 25 September 2012