Department of External Affairs (1921–70)

The Department of External Affairs was an Australian government department that existed between December 1921 and November 1970.

Department of External Affairs
Department overview
Formed21 December 1921[1]
Preceding Department
Dissolved6 November 1970[1]
Superseding agency
JurisdictionCommonwealth of Australia
Department executives


When it was first established, the department was linked administratively to the Prime Minister's Department, with the secretary to the Prime Minister's Department also action as the secretary to the Department of External Affairs.[1] The minister of the department until 1932 was the prime minister of the day.[2] The department was first given its own permanent head in 1935, with William Hodgson appointed Secretary (all previous heads had served simultaneously as secretary of the Prime Minister's Department).[2]

Between 1940 and 1946 the department grew from an organisation with less than 20 people and two overseas posts to one with nearly 300 people, and representatives in 14 countries.[3]

In 1961, the department introduced a special $20,000-a-year language-training program for its junior diplomats. The program was still operating in 1967, with the aim to assist diplomats achieve proficiency in the local languages of the countries in which they were serving.[4]

In 1970, under the Gorton Government, the department was abolished and replaced by the new Department of Foreign Affairs. The new department was new in name only and maintained its staff as well as responsibility for the same functions.[5][6] The old External Affairs title was sometimes causing confusion and the name change to Foreign Affairs, initiated by William McMahon, brought Australia into line with common international practice.[7]


Information about the department's functions and/or government funding allocation could be found in the Administrative Arrangements Orders, the annual Portfolio Budget Statements and in the department's annual reports.

The department dealt with the following:[1]

  • Consuls and Consular matters;
  • Foreign Affairs;
  • Foreign Intelligence;
  • Foreign Press;
  • International Conferences;
  • League of Nations (including International Labour Organization and Permanent Court of International Justice); and
  • Treaties.


The department was a Commonwealth Public Service department, staffed by officials who were responsible to the Minister for External Affairs.[1]

The secretaries of the department were John Henry Starling (1933–35), William Hodgson (1935–45), William Dunk (1945–47), John Burton (1947–50), Alan Watt (1950–54), Arthur Tange (1954–65), James Plimsoll (1965–70) and finally Keith Waller (1970).[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f CA 18: Department of External Affairs [II], Central Office, National Archives of Australia, retrieved 9 December 2013
  2. ^ a b "The Department of the Foreign Affairs—A brief history", Year Book Australia, Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1 January 1988, archived from the original on 12 February 2014
  3. ^ Turnbull, Clive (26 June 1946). "Curious Department of External Affairs". The Advertiser. Adelaide, South Australia. p. 8.
  4. ^ "Envoys do learn languages". The Canberra Times. 2 February 1967. p. 20.
  5. ^ Commonwealth of Australia Administrative Arrangements Order (PDF), Canberra: National Archives of Australia, 6 November 1970, archived from the original (PDF) on 12 February 2014
  6. ^ Gorton, John (6 November 1970). "Department of Foreign Affairs" (Press release). Archived from the original on 11 April 2014.
  7. ^ "Dept's new name". The Canberra Times. 7 November 1970. p. 1.

Further readingEdit

  • Beaumont, Joan (2003), Ministers, Mandarins and Diplomats, Melbourne University Press, ISBN 0 522 85047 2