Labour History

‘Citizens Who Serve’: The Political Rights of Victorian Public Servants, 1856-1916

Labour History (2012), 102, (1), 157–176.


The history of legal restrictions imposed upon Victorian departmental public servants dates from the introduction of responsible government in 1856. This article examines the evolution of Victorian public service regulations by paying particular attention to the historical influence of the master and servant legacy. Viewed through this lens, it becomes apparent that the ‘public servant’ was subject to political coercion and persistent accusations of ineptitude by successive governments down to World War I, being labelled as self-interested and seditious. In response, public servants, with the aid of the public service union, collectively opposed the limited parameters of their political status. By daring to challenge the rationale underpinning political rights regulations, public servants came into direct conflict with the political executive and a unique public service work culture emerged.

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1.It is noted that there is a wide body of contemporary research examining systems of political management at the state and federal levels in Australia. Particular attention has been directed towards the changing application of Westminster principles, and, how public servants are viewed and located within modern governance frameworks. Studies on New Public Management and public service responsiveness have also received significant attention. SeeR.A.W Rhodes,J. Wanna andP. Weller, ‘Reinventing Westminster: How public executives reframe their world’, Policy and Politics, vol.30, no.4, 2008, pp.461-79;J. Halligan, ‘Beyond Westminster: The new machinery of subnational government: Political management in the Australian states’, Public Money & Management, vol.21, no.2, 2001, pp.9-15;P. Fairbrother andJ. O’Brien ‘Introduction: Changing public sector industrial relations in the Australian state’, Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol.59, no.4, December2000, pp.54-59;C. Matheson, ‘Are clerical workers proletarian? A case study of the Australian Public Service’, The British Journal of Sociology, vol.58, no.4, 2007, pp.577-602. Google Scholar

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119.Changes to the political rights of public servants since 1916 have primarily concerned the position of public servants wishing to enter parliament. In 1935 members of the public and railway services became eligible to stand for State Parliament, meaning they no longer had to resign their positions in order to run. In 1956 public servants elected to State Parliament gained the right to reinstatement if they ceased to qualify for a parliamentary pension. In 1977 the right to stand for election to State Parliament was expanded to any person ‘being the holder of any office or place of profit under the Crown or in any manner employed in the public service of Victoria.’ SeeConstitution Act 1975(Victoria), no.9077, ss.3. Google Scholar

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Author details

Halse, Dustin