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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bunting, Sir Edward John (John) (1918–1995)

by J. R. Nethercote

This article was published online in 2020

Sir Edward John Bunting (1918–1995), public servant and diplomat, was born on 13 August 1918 at Ballarat, Victoria, eldest child of Victorian-born parents Grenville Brymore Bunting, storekeeper, and his wife Ellen Victoria, née Withers. Ellen’s forebears had emigrated from Northern Ireland and settled at Longwood in the early 1850s. The family returned there shortly after John’s birth, later moving to a smallholding near Benalla. As a child John, often known as Jack, attended government schools in the district, worked in the family store, and played cricket, tennis, and Australian Rules football in local competitions. A competent pupil, he won a scholarship to Trinity Grammar School, Kew, in 1934. Two years later he was captain of the school, dux (in humanities), winner of the Rhodes prize, and captain of cricket, football, athletics, and tennis.

From 1937 Bunting lived at Trinity College, University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1940; DipPubAdmin, 1941), where he mainly studied economics; he later studied public administration part time while living and working in Canberra. Though he regretted not studying law, economics brought him into contact with Professor (Sir) Douglas Copland, who became a mentor. While cricket was his favourite sport, he won a half-Blue for playing in the premiership-winning University Blacks, in the amateur A section of the Victorian Football Association in 1939.

The prospect of a career in government had earlier attracted Bunting, and he followed this path, notwithstanding at least one offer from business. One of twelve graduates selected for the Commonwealth Public Service in 1940, he joined the Department of Trade and Customs and moved to Canberra. With the onset of war, he joined the Melbourne University Rifles and briefly went into uniform before assignment to Sydney, where he worked in the division of import procurement; its role in rationing newsprint gave him an early insight into controversial aspects of administration. He also came under the influence of (Sir) Alan Carmody and (Sir) Frank Meere, two staunch upholders of the prevailing regime of tariff protection. On 4 April 1942 he married Pauline Peggy MacGruer at the Holy Trinity Church of England, Kew, Victoria.

Promotion into the Department of Post-War Reconstruction in 1947 brought Bunting back to Canberra; in succeeding years he was deeply involved in the interdepartmental committee on dollar import licensing. Returning to Canberra also enabled him to renew his sporting career. He had played for and captained Manuka Football Club in 1941 and he resumed his captaincy in 1947. In the late 1940s he considered seeking a post in an international organisation, but eventually decided to remain in Australia and was thus among staff transferred to the Prime Minister’s Department following abolition of the Department of Post-War Reconstruction early in 1950. As assistant secretary (cabinet), he was a key figure in initiatives by the secretary, (Sir) Allen Brown, to enhance administrative support for the prime minister and the cabinet.

In 1953 Bunting went to London as official secretary in the Australian High Commissioner’s Office, a role that was equivalent to chief operating officer. Beyond his administrative duties he forged close relations with Buckingham Palace and Whitehall, which stood him in good stead for the remainder of his career. He returned to Canberra as deputy secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department in 1955. In January 1959, with Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies’s firm support, he assumed headship of the department in the face of Sir John Crawford’s unconcealed ambitions for the post.

Under Menzies, the cabinet system operated smoothly. However, as only one official was permitted to attend cabinet meetings, the growth of government business placed an increasing burden on Bunting—a burden that would later be partly relieved during Harold Holt’s prime ministership when a second note-taker was admitted. The broader policy scene sometimes proved a source of difficulty. In 1960 the Prime Minister’s Department was central to advice behind the so-called ‘credit squeeze,’ the effects of which—notably a marked increase in unemployment and financial problems for small- and medium-sized business—almost brought defeat of the Menzies government at the 1961 Federal election. In foreign policy and defence matters, particularly concerning the fate of Dutch New Guinea and, later, the creation of Malaysia, and in the face of Indonesia’s policy of confrontation, the Prime Minister’s Department privately followed a more cautious line than either External Affairs or Defence. On the question of Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War in 1965, Bunting’s questions about ‘whether’ and ‘why’ carried less weight than Defence’s interests in ‘when’ and ‘where.’

The warm relations Bunting had enjoyed with Menzies did not continue in his years with Menzies’s successors, Holt, (Sir) John Gorton, and (Sir) William McMahon. Holt relied much more heavily on departmental advice but was less discreet in his use of it. He drowned soon after barely weathering the so-called ‘VIP affair,’ which involved the excessive and sometimes personal use of Royal Australian Air Force planes for ministerial travel. Holding Bunting and other departmental officers responsible for the government’s troubles in that matter, Holt’s successor, Gorton, had Bunting reassigned to head a new Department of the Cabinet Office, with limited functions. After Gorton’s resignation in 1971, and McMahon’s succession to the prime ministership, the two entities were reunited as the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Bunting was appointed permanent head of the new body.

During this period the increasingly interventionist role of the department in policy matters, combined with the expansion of cabinet committee business, greater parliamentary scrutiny of administration, and growth of current affairs media, changed the conduct of government in ways that were, in many respects, at odds with Bunting’s views about central agency responsibilities and the role of public servants. The transition from a Coalition to a Labor government in 1972 was a testing time for the public service generally and Bunting personally, as he endeavoured to keep track of the activities of the new ministry. While he admired Gough Whitlam as prime minister, he welcomed the opportunity to go to London as high commissioner early in 1975. In this role Bunting utilised his many British and Commonwealth connections in London, but, an innately shy person, he was less happy with its public representational aspects. Ill health limited his time in London to just two years. On returning to Canberra he was, for a short time, a consultant at the newly established Office of National Assessments, after which he retired from the public service on 13 August 1977. He had been appointed OBE in 1952, CBE in 1960, knight bachelor in 1964, and KBE in 1976 (conferred by Queen Elizabeth II). He was appointed AC in 1982.

Sir John saw the public service as an impartial merit-based career opportunity in which public servants (enablers rather than controllers) provided advice frankly, fearlessly, but confidentially, to ministers. His concern was to foster collegiality in ensuring effective working of the machinery of government. His own forte was in preparing cabinet recommendations and it was very rare for a minute carrying his signature to be changed. An executor of Menzies’s will, he was appointed national coordinator of the Sir Robert Menzies Memorial Trust in 1978. From 1983 to 1992 he chaired the Official Establishments Trust, advising on the operation, conservation, and long-term development of the Commonwealth’s four official residences. He wrote a memoir of Sir Robert Menzies, which provided a uniquely informed portrait of Australia’s longest-serving prime minister. Menzies considered him the ‘prince of civil servants’ (NAA M321). Survived by his wife and their three sons, he died on 2 May 1995 at Camperdown, Sydney, and was cremated. In 2002 the Australian National University and the Australian government established the Sir John Bunting chair of public administration within the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Bailey, Peter. ‘Sir John Bunting, AC, KBE.’ Canberra Bulletin of Public Administration 78 (August 1995): 29–31
  • Bunting, John, Sir. R. G. Menzies: A Portrait. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1988
  • Bunting, John. Interview by Ian Hamilton, 1983. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Frame, Tom. The Life and Death of Harold Holt. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2005
  • Hancock, Ian. John Gorton: He Did It His Way. Sydney: Hodder Headline Australia, 2002
  • Hancock, Ian. The VIP Affair 1966–67. [Canberra]: Australasian Study of Parliament Group, 2004
  • Mullens, Patrick. Tiberius with a Telephone: The Life and Stories of William McMahon. Brunswick, Vic.: Scribe Publications, 2018
  • National Archives of Australia. M321, 1
  • Nethercote, John. ‘Prince of Public Servants Shaped Cabinet System.’ Australian, 4 May 1995, 12
  • Martin, A. W. Robert Menzies. A Life. Vol. 1, 1894–1943. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1993
  • Martin, A. W. Robert Menzies. A Life. Vol. 2, 1944–1978. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1999

Additional Resources

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Citation details

J. R. Nethercote, 'Bunting, Sir Edward John (John) (1918–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bunting-sir-edward-john-john-29805/text36895, published online 2020, accessed online 22 October 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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