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Duncan Clark McLachlan (1853–1929)

by R. L. Wettenhall

This article was published:

Duncan Clark McLachlan (1853-1929), by unknown photographer, 1900s

Duncan Clark McLachlan (1853-1929), by unknown photographer, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23460721

Duncan Clark McLachlan (1853-1929), public service commissioner, was born on 24 April 1853 in Glasgow, Scotland, son of Donald McLachlan, joiner, and his wife Margaret, née Cowan. His parents migrated about 1857 to Sydney where his father opened a general store at Redfern. Duncan was educated at a school attached to St Paul's Church of England, Redfern, at W. A. Yarrington's private school and under the tutorship of Rev. James McSkimming. He joined the New South Wales Railways as a clerk in 1869. On 13 November 1879 at Darlinghurst he married Emily Matilda (d.1929), daughter of Obediah West, owner of the Barcom Glen estate on which sections of Darlinghurst and Paddington were eventually built.

McLachlan's 'alertness and capacity for rapid administration' enabled him to pass quickly through all grades to become chief clerk in 1886, acting occasionally as secretary to the railway commissioners. When the enterprise was converted to public corporation status in 1888, he became chief clerk and secretary to the tender board in the Department of Public Works which retained the railway construction function. In this position he successfully reorganized the several semi-autonomous branches into one ministerial department. In March 1896 he was appointed under secretary of the Department of Mines and Agriculture. This position broadened his administrative experience, bringing him in contact with the colony's leading producers and with complex technical matters.

He had found time to play cricket and lead the movement for free libraries in Redfern and in Paddington, where he lived after 1890. An alderman of the Paddington Municipal Council, in 1899 he was a founder and first president of the local Masonic Club.

In May 1902 McLachlan was appointed the first Commonwealth public service commissioner. His departure from the New South Wales service was almost a canonizing event. The Public Service Journal declared there had been 'no more popular Under-Secretary … and none who better deserves his popularity'. However, the numerous eulogies were not to last long, and they perhaps contributed to the formation in McLachlan of an almost God-like view of his new mission, for his second career was far less peaceful, and more controversial, than his earlier one.

Of course the task was immense. McLachlan had to mould into a single integrated Federal service the transferred elements from six colonial services, with widely differing employment conditions. This job was well done, the outcome being a model public service for its day. McLachlan began a second seven-year term in 1909, and was appointed I.S.O. (1903) and C.M.G. (1909). He visited England in 1912 to inspect civil service conditions, and stated on return that, comparatively, Australian civil servants were better off. He retired in May 1916.

McLachlan was a man of high ideals, and his annual reports to parliament, carrying, like his correspondence with department heads, a large and beautifully crafted signature, suggest a man taking himself very seriously as 'father of the public service'. In his 1906 report he quoted:

We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths;
In feelings, not in figures on a dial …

'Each official', he had reported in 1904, 'will be expected to show evidence of a strenuous official life, to work diligently and conscientiously, and legitimately earn the salary he receives … The stamp of officer … who arrives unpunctually, does little, gossips much, takes no personal interest in his work, and leaves with scrupulous promptness … is utterly useless'. Later reports urged the development of initiative and the payment of bonuses for outstanding service, and condemned 'moonlighters', loiterers and those who put personal before official benefit.

The Littlejohn reforms of the mid-1890s had given New South Wales the most advanced system of public personnel administration in Australia. McLachlan brought to the Commonwealth a firm belief in the concept of an impartial, neutral public service, and in the accompanying requirement for economical, efficient and incorruptible administration. Subjected to much pressure, seeing himself as trustee of the general public interest, he refused to compromise. Increasingly he came into collision with Labor politicians, the developing staff associations, and other manifestations of the radicalism of the early twentieth-century Commonwealth. He did not endear himself to radicals, and came to be seen not only as paternalistic but also as an opponent of change. His increasing conservatism probably reflected a fear that the substantial gains already made under his early leadership would be jeopardized, rather than any real inclination to defy the radicals.

Fissiparous tendencies worried him: notably public servants' access to the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, the exempting of large areas of defence employment from the public service commissioner's jurisdiction, and the possibility, latent in a long-running royal commission and a business leader's inquiry, that the Postmaster-General's Department might be turned into a public corporation. McLachlan often criticized these tendencies in his annual reports. He returned to the charge after being called back from retirement in September 1918 as royal commissioner to advise the Hughes government on the system of public service personnel management and on the proposed overhaul of the Public Service Act. His wide-ranging, pungent and controversial report, prepared in under four months, was released in 1920, coinciding with legislation before parliament resulting from the so-called 'Economies' royal commission.

Increasingly parliament was establishing statutory authorities outside the public service to undertake urgent tasks of government. McLachlan reported that 'the exercise of influence both direct and indirect is bound to be attempted in regard to appointments, fixing of salaries, and tenure of office, which will be most prejudicial to the interests of the Commonwealth'. He also wanted final arbitral powers vested in the public service commissioner to halt the 'weakening of constituted authority, the reduction of efficiency, and the general disorganization of departmental management' which he believed had followed the gaining of access to the Arbitration Court in 1911.

In 1920 legislation transferred arbitral powers from the general court to a special public service arbitrator, not back to the commissioner as McLachlan had wanted. Further legislation in 1922 followed his recommendation that Commonwealth public servants should have their own superannuation scheme. A major revision of the Public Service Act, also in 1922, converted the office of commissioner into a three-member Public Service Board, as had been suggested by the 'Economies' commission but opposed by McLachlan. However, his views were influential in the staffing sections of the Act, for example in organizing the service into four divisions, in appointment and promotions procedures, and in granting the right of appeal against departmental decisions on punishments and promotions.

What McLachlan facilitated after 1902, and whose full integrity he sought to restore in his 1920 report, was a strong executive government able to marshal the administrative resources of the state in the service of the public good, as defined by parliament, and made possible through a co-ordinated sub-system of personnel management. In his repeated criticism of the inroads being made into the integrated system by use of statutory authorities, public corporations and other 'exempted' agencies, he defined the parameters of a debate since carried on in many parts of the world, between advocates of integrated, homogeneous departmental systems and advocates of heterogeneous systems providing room for flexible and autonomous agencies to carry out a wide variety of public functions.

After his retirement McLachlan returned to Sydney from Melbourne to embark on, in the opinion of the Bulletin, 'the toughest job in his life' when he joined the board of the Civil Service Co-operative Society of New South Wales. 'Then all the troubles in the world seemed to fall upon him'. He was elected a director in 1923 and subsequently chairman of directors of the co-operative society, which among other things operated a large store in Pitt Street, Sydney. McLachlan had visited England and the Continent with the manager of the stores in 1922, to inspect the operation of similar commercial houses. The business decline of the later 1920s frustrated an expansionist decision by the directors in 1925 to purchase more city property in the expectation of benefits from the opening of the harbour bridge and the city underground railway. McLachlan resigned because of ill health in 1928.

In retirement he played golf and was president of the Warringah Bowling Club. On 20 April 1929 the Sydney Morning Herald published his article on the 'Old Sydney water mill', an early enterprise of his wife's family. He died on 18 October 1929 at his Mosman home and was buried in St Jude's Church of England cemetery, Randwick. His three sons and three daughters survived him. The new building for the Public Service Board in Canberra was named after him in 1980 when the board acknowledged that McLachlan had been responsible 'for the consolidation of advanced personnel practices based firmly on the career service concept and the structuring of the federal Public Service into departments'. No other single individual had made such a mark on the shape and practices of the Commonwealth service in its formative period.

McLachlan's brother Hugh (1856?-1909) also joined the New South Wales Railway service: the Bulletin described him in 1929 'as probably the most brilliant secretary the Railway Department ever had'.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Commission on Public Service Administration, Report (Melb, 1920)
  • G. E. Caiden, Career Service (Melb, 1965)
  • Public Service Board, The Public Service Board 1923-73 (Canb, 1973), and Annual Report, 1980
  • R. L. Wettenhall, Architects of Departmental Systems (Canb, 1984)
  • B. Juddery, White Collar Power (Syd, 1980)
  • Public Service Journal (New South Wales), 10 Apr 1902
  • Transmitter (Sydney), 17 May 1902
  • Public Service Commissioner, Annual Report, 1904-16
  • Public Administration (Sydney), 22, no 2, June 1963
  • Town and Country Journal, 21 Mar 1896
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Oct 1929
  • Bulletin, 23 Oct 1929
  • Canberra Times, 30 Nov 1980.

Citation details

R. L. Wettenhall, 'McLachlan, Duncan Clark (1853–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Duncan Clark McLachlan (1853-1929), by unknown photographer, 1900s

Duncan Clark McLachlan (1853-1929), by unknown photographer, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23460721

Life Summary [details]


24 April, 1853
Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


18 October, 1929 (aged 76)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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