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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Yeend, Sir Geoffrey John (Geoff) (1927–1994)

by J. R. Nethercote

This article was published online in 2020

Sir Geoffrey John Yeend (1927–1994), public servant and company director, was born on 1 May 1927 in Melbourne, second son and youngest child of Victorian-born parents Herbert John Yeend, Commonwealth public servant, and his wife Ellen Muriel, née Inglis. In November the family moved to Canberra following the opening of the Federal parliament. The city would be Geoff’s home for the remainder of his life; indeed, he mostly lived and worked in, or within walking distance of, the parliamentary triangle. Educated at Telopea Park Primary and Canberra High schools, he played cricket and hockey, participated in debating, and was active in the Canberra Baptist Church, Kingston.

Yeend’s Leaving certificate results in 1944 were sufficient for him to be recruited by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and, soon after, the Commonwealth Public Service. In 1945 he joined the Department of Post-War Reconstruction as a clerk, albeit briefly, before enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 22 June. He served in regional centres within Australia, and in New Britain at Rabaul (March-June 1946), and was discharged at his own request on 20 November 1946. Back at the Department of Post-War Reconstruction, he was appointed an assistant research officer reporting to the department’s specialist economist, Trevor Swan. From the late 1940s he studied part time at Canberra University College, which offered University of Melbourne degrees (BCom, 1953).

In 1950 Yeend joined the Prime Minister’s Department as research assistant to the secretary (Sir) Allen Brown, previously director-general of post-war reconstruction, and began to develop his great expertise in parliamentary, ministerial, and cabinet business. At Brown’s urging Yeend became private secretary to Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies early in 1952, his main duties being to handle paperwork and liaise with the department. Yeend’s father had considerable reservations about the appointment; he felt that to work as a private secretary for a prime minister could be seen as getting too close to politics, and thus might be detrimental to a public service career. In September 1953 Michael Bialoguski, an Australian Security Intelligence Organization informant, sought an interview with the prime minister concerning his payments. Yeend handled the matter directly with ASIO, as ‘this was the sort of thing the Prime Minister left entirely in the hands of responsible officers’ (quoted in Manne 2004, 31). Shortly afterwards Bialoguski’s services were terminated. This brief and entirely formal encounter gave rise to suspicions, largely in Australian Labor Party circles, that there was some sort of conspiracy behind the defection the following year of the Soviet intelligence officer Vladimir Petrov and his wife Evdokia. Menzies maintained that he only became aware of the possibility of a defection in early 1954; however, Labor believed that he knew about it the previous year as a consequence of Bialoguski’s activities. It was not until Yeend had worked for several months at close quarters with Gough Whitlam as prime minister that these concerns were eventually laid to rest.

On 20 December 1952, at St John the Baptist Church, Reid, Yeend had married a fellow public servant, Laurel Dawn Mahoney. (Dame) Pattie Menzies attended the wedding. Yeend resumed regular departmental duties at the beginning of 1955, adding education and social security to his continuing responsibilities for parliamentary matters. This led to a posting in 1957 to Australia House, London, as assistant secretary in the High Commissioner’s Office, where he handled education matters. Returning to Canberra in 1961 he was appointed assistant secretary, establishment branch, later general branch, in the Prime Minister’s Department. During this period he attended the second Commonwealth Education Conference, held at New Delhi in 1962, and the 1965 and 1966 Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ conferences, at which he was involved in the establishment of the Commonwealth Secretariat. In 1969 he became the department’s first assistant secretary in charge of its parliamentary and government division.

Accompanied by his wife, Yeend spent six months in the United States of America as an Eisenhower fellow in 1971, an experience he regarded as a high point in his career. He was promoted to deputy secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet the following year and, in 1974, took over supervision of the cabinet secretariat. From 1974 to 1978, under the secretary John Menadue and then (Sir) Alan Carmody, Yeend had a wide-ranging brief over the machinery of government, including preparation of the Cabinet Handbook, which was based on a comparable Whitehall document. In 1977, following some ill-tempered negotiations involving Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and the Public Service Board, he was promoted to a unique position of under-secretary; he became secretary in 1978 following Carmody’s sudden death.

After a decade of mild turbulence, the department assumed a more active role under Yeend’s guidance, overseeing policy development and appraisal in addition to traditional operations of the cabinet. Its role in the managed float of the Australian dollar in the late 1970s and early 1980s is an important instance of this enlarged mandate. In 1982 Yeend carried ultimate administrative responsibility for the success of the first meeting in Australia of the Commonwealth heads of government in 1981. Two years later he oversaw the change of government from Fraser to Robert Hawke, arguably the smoothest since Menzies took office in 1949. During the years of the Hawke government he participated constructively, if cautiously, in restructuring the public service and, later, was active in the preparation and passage of the Australia Act 1986 in both the Australian and British parliaments. This legislation eliminated the possibility that Britain could legislate with effect in Australia, and for any appeal from an Australian to a British court.

Appointed CBE in 1976 and knighted in 1979, Sir Geoffrey was appointed AC in 1986. Ill health prompted his early retirement from the public service that year. Even so, his skills were nationally in demand in the business world. He held directorships in Coca-Cola Amatil Ltd, Mercantile Mutual Life Insurance Co. Ltd, Canberra Advance Bank Ltd, Australian Capital Television Pty Ltd, and the Sir Robert Menzies Memorial Trust, and was an adviser to Qantas Empire Airways Ltd. He was appointed chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU) in 1990. As well as taking a close interest in the university’s relations with the Commonwealth government, he participated widely in university activities, enriching studies of Australian government and politics with lectures and seminars. He was reappointed to a second two-year term in 1992. That year the government of Japan awarded him the prestigious Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star.

A keen sportsman, Yeend played several sports but hockey was his greatest interest. He attended the Olympic Games in Melbourne (1956), Rome (1960), and Tokyo (1964) as an official, and was a councillor (1956–66), vice-president (1967–76), and member of honour (1979) of the International Hockey Federation. With the progress of years he continued to play golf and, at a coastal retreat at Tuross Head, New South Wales, found recreation with a fishing rod and a good book. He took particular pleasure in his association with the Woden Valley Youth Choir, of which he was patron. Among other community activities, he was Australian Capital Territory president and national vice-president of the Australian Multiple Sclerosis Society, and served on the board of the National Gallery of Australia.

Six feet (183 cm) tall with hazel eyes and brown hair, Yeend was invariably ‘calm and unflappable’ (Weller, Scott, and Stevens 2011, 93). A highly competent administrator, he was measured, discreet, shrewd, and politically astute. Whitlam described him as the ‘second best politician in Canberra’ (Farquharson 1994, 6). Survived by his wife and their daughter and son, he died of a cardiac arrest on 6 October 1994 at Camperdown, Sydney, and was cremated. The ANU established an honours scholarship scheme in his memory in 1996.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Codd, Michael. ‘Spur for Higher Quality of Government.’ Canberra Bulletin of Public Administration 77 (December 1994): 16–18
  • Farquharson, John. ‘Public Service’s Quiet Persuader.’ Canberra Times, 8 October 1994, 6
  • Manne, Robert. The Petrov Affair. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2004
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, NX207452
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Weller, P., J. Scott, and B. Stevens. From Postbox to Powerhouse: A Centenary History of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, 1911–2010. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2011

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. R. Nethercote, 'Yeend, Sir Geoffrey John (Geoff) (1927–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/yeend-sir-geoffrey-john-geoff-1069/text36741, published online 2020, accessed online 24 November 2020.

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

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