Why do some ministries change names so often?

What’s in a name? In the September 2013 round of re-shuffles, I count no less than 17 changes in names of government departments in Australia, either by some name disappearing or some name changing.

This appears to be a regular game in Canberra. When I worked in Canberra in 2003, there was FaCS (Department of Family and Community Services). Since then, there have been FACSIA (Dept Of Families, Community Services & Indigenous Affairs), FAHCSIA (Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs), and DSS (Department of Social Services). Similarly, we now have DE (Department of Education) whereas we used to have DEEWR (Department of Education, Employment and Workforce Relation), which itself preceded DEST (Department of Education, Science and Training).

Please help me out here, you knowledgeable Troppodillians in Canberra. What is going on with all these name changes? Is someone making money off changes in the stationary?

My confusion partly stems of noticing that some departments change what they do, but keep the same name through the decades. The Treasury comes to mind, which seemingly hasn’t changed its name for 100 years, but has seen major changes in what it does. It has now and then housed bits of the tax office, and currently has responsibilities that didn’t even exist when it was first set up (like retirement income arrangement). Why hasn’t the Treasury changed its name to reflect these changes. We might have then had such exotic specimens as the Department of Taxation, Efficiency, Retirement, Revenue, and Other Regulation. Similarly, the Department of Defence seems to have kept its name ever since 1942, whilst it now has responsibilities it could not have had at the start (missiles, counter-terrorism).

So some kind of game seems to be occurring in Canberra that means some general areas witness continuous upheavals in names, and other areas do not. I truly have no idea what the underlying economics and politics of that game is. Do you know the answer?

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18 Responses to Why do some ministries change names so often?

  1. Fred says:

    Department of Defense?

  2. Lindsay says:

    I would suggest:

    1. The ones that change a lot are ones with ‘fuzzy’ boundaries with other departments. Does ‘Science’ belong in Industry or in Education? These have names that sell well politically, so departments/ministers want them displayed: “Look how Important we are”. I mean, who wouldn’t want a ‘Science’ ministry in their extended cabinet?
    2. “Treasury” is in common use in western governments, and has had that usage for long enough to be firmly ingrained into “that finance stuff” in the national conscience. So its financial roles can change, but the grab bucket term applies, because don’t make me think about anything other than my mortgage and electricity prices, ok?
    3. “Defense” doesn’t change anything except ministers it doesn’t like.

    • Moz in Oz says:

      I mean, who wouldn’t want a ‘Science’ ministry in their extended cabinet?

      The government of adults?

      Aside from that I agree that it’s mostly about clarity of purpose, with a little acceptability of purpose. We don’t have an explicit “department of torturing refugees”, it’s called Human Services, Migration And Support or something equally mealy-mouthed. Likewise the “department for screwing the poor” and “department for lowering wages and exporting jobs”.

      Even Keating couldn’t bring himself to give the latter names to the ministers and departments with those responsibilities.

  3. desipis says:

    The Treasury comes to mind, which seemingly hasn’t changed its name for 100 years, but has seen major changes in what it does.

    Wait, you mean Treasury doesn’t have chests full of treasure locked away in a dungeon? I’m disappointed :(

    I’m wondering if this isn’t just a government thing, as I’ve experienced name changes in the private sector (both internal department names, and external business names) that are unrelated to any substantial changes in the organisation that seem to occur every couple of years. I guess it’s partly to do with symbolising a change of direction or leadership, and partly to do with stroking someone’s ego. It might also be an attempt to change the scope of particular departments in order to align with the knowledge and seniority of the particular ministers of the day.

    • Mark Skinner says:

      For example, who on earth would associate the name Bupa with anything?

      That outdoes anything that a bureaucrat in Canberra has ever thought of.

  4. conrad says:

    I agree with Lindsay. The same has happened to things you can study or look into also (albeit a bit more slowly) — everyone wants to sound like they are doing very serious work based on very serious and well accepted principles, and when this isn’t true, you just pretend it is. That’s why politics when to political science, social studies went to social science, and so on (do they use economic science yet?). It’s also why they love to use grab-bag terms like evidence-based policy for these areas (these terms are repeated ad-nauseam in many documents trying to get money from the government. Any NH&MRC grant should apparently mention them at least 38 times per grant. I know this because of evidence-based analysis that was done using evidence-based best-practice).

    Alternatively, we now just use the word maths for mathematics, which makes it easier to pronounce. This is presumably because everyone knows hard maths is hard, and thus you don’t need to try and make it look somehow special, even if there is no evidence base to use evidence-based best-practice to solve your problems.

    • desipis says:

      (do they use economic science yet?)

      Economists seem to be under the illusion that economics actually is a science, so they don’t seem to feel a need to put effort into appearing scientific (or even acting scientifically for that matter).

    • Hildy says:

      The Bank of Sweden likes the term ‘economic sciences’, so much that it funds a prize in memory of Alfred Nobel.

  5. zee says:

    Because there are areas of government which there is generally a bipartisan consensus (defence, foreign affairs). And where there isnt consensus, they are central areas of government (like treasury) which bend other areas of govt to their will, rather than vice versa.

    Outside of that, social policy is highly contested and reprioritized or deprioritized. And nothing says that to the bureacracy more after an election than re-basketing the machinery of government (MOG).

    And above and beyond that, ALP and Coalition leaders have quite different approaches and frameworks to how they need to bolster, mollify or placate their front and back benches. And so there is building super-departments and/or carving them up to strengthen or weaken certain ministers as needed to keep caucus supporters happy or rivals at bay.

  6. Mick says:

    You are reading too much into this…. there is a very simple explanation.

    Apart from the big ticket ones you mention Treasury = Money and Defense = Guns, Grunts, Boats and Planes (and assorted secret squirrel stuff) the name of the game is……Just as they figure out what you are doing…change the name and keep everyone guessing! It allows the Ministers to play around and make things sound impressive, it confuses the public servants for a while (makes them easier to attack), it means nobody really knows where exactly to go for the info they need, so nobody can really be questioned too hard or held to account for anything.

    See… it’s a simple political tactic!

  7. Doug says:

    Name changes often reflect changes in the scope of departmental responsibilities – as set out in the Machinery of Government (MOG) statement by each incoming government. Hence the question have you been “mogged”?

    The extent of mogging seems to have increased over the years as governments increasingly use such changes to make statements about their priorities

  8. peter says:

    There’s also a mixture of fashion and conscience about some eg NSW use to have separate Dept of Water Resources and Dept of Lands which morphed in the mid 1990’s into Conservation & Land Management or wait-for-it CALM. I think the glib ‘triple bottom line’ in evidence based policy – cost, social responsibility and sustainability – came in around the same time.

  9. Mike Pepperday says:

    I see a different explanation.

    A new government is elected to make changes and part of that will be to disturb a bureaucracy seen to be too comfortable, or too set in its ways, or simply too reflective of the previous government. Change of department name will be a part of the shake up and will emphasise to the public servants that there is a new broom.

    If, despite the name change, they actually don’t change what they do, that is only to be expected.

  10. Nicholas Gruen says:


    You ask a good question that I’ve pondered a bit myself for some time. I think all the name changes are a real pity as there’s a lot to be said for trying to build good institutions. Making an institution better is something that a public servant can devote his life to – so you’d want some stability to harvest that energy, effort and achievement. Alas the names of a bunch of departments get moved around I think largely to make cheap political points. I mean cheap in the literal sense. To take a topical example, putting ‘science’ into the name of a portfolio costs you nothing, but wins you brownie points with the relevant constituency. Likewise ‘tourism’ etc.

    There remains a kind of tradition and centrality to the Department of PM&C, Defence, Foreign Affairs (though it got trade added though it’s not been moved yet) with the delivery departments not having the same kind of mystique. I have a business proposal which is that all departments have their names written on their respective buildings in the same letters, so that the letters can just be trucked around Canberra and rearranged whenever the need arises.

    Politicians often rename their predecessors initiatives to make them ‘theirs’. This is even true within parties as Anna Bligh is told that “Smart State” is Peter Beattie’s brand and she needs to get some other name. Similar things happen with programs which are rebadged, just as spending decisions are reannounced even if they don’t contain “new money”.

    This is the nonsense to which we’ve descended.

  11. John Street says:

    At one time I was in the Department of Broadband, Arts, Sport, Telecommunications And Regional Development.

  12. ChrisB says:

    And there is the issue of acronymity; which when discussing it with Barry Jones some years ago elicited from him the line”Yes, that’s why we never gave an Institute of Technology to Swan Hill.”

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