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Binns, Kenneth Johnstone (1912–1987)

by R. J. K. Chapman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Kenneth Johnstone Binns (1912-1987), public servant, was born on 3 June 1912 at Rockdale, Sydney, eldest of three children of Kenneth Binns, a Scottish-born librarian, and his wife Amy Jane, née Higgins, who was born in Sydney. He lived in Melbourne from an early age and was educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and the University of Melbourne (BA, 1933; B.Com., 1936; MA, 1936). Employed in 1934 by the Bank of New South Wales in Sydney as an economic assistant, he continued his studies by correspondence. Returning to Melbourne in 1936, he worked for the Commonwealth Grants Commission for two years and then as a stockbroker with Ian Potter & Co. until 1941. On 30 March 1940 at the Presbyterian Church, East St Kilda, he married Nancy Helen MacKenzie.

In 1942 the Tasmanian treasurer Edmund Dwyer-Gray recruited Binns as an investigation and statistical officer and he moved to Hobart. Binns produced two reports: Social Credit in Alberta (1947) and Federal Financial Relations in Canada and Australia (1948), and was appointed deputy under-treasurer in 1948. Winning a Commonwealth Fund fellowship in 1950, he attended classes in economics at Harvard University, United States of America, and studied federal financial relationships in Canada. Back in Hobart, he often clashed with the under-treasurer H. D. Robinson in the advice he gave to the Labor premier (Sir) Robert Cosgrove. At a politically difficult time the Cosgrove government was making many ad hoc decisions with which Binns did not agree. None the less, Cosgrove appointed him under-treasurer and State commissioner for taxes in 1952, positions he was to hold for twenty-four years.

An expert in intergovernmental financial relations, Binns successfully formulated Tasmania’s cases for Commonwealth assistance. In 1943 Dwyer-Gray had argued, in a pamphlet widely thought to have been written by Binns, that Federal financial relations were misdirected in favour of the Commonwealth. Binns opposed the use of special purpose grants, on the grounds that they restricted the freedom of States to spend their funds on their priority areas, and argued for an increase in the amount distributed under the tax reimbursement formula. It was a theme raised in every annual financial statement while he was under-treasurer.

Binns was committed to the development of State resources through government funding. In the 1960s, serving under the Labor premier Eric Reece, he and (Sir) Allan Knight, commissioner of the Hydro-Electric Commission (1947-77), were responsible for obtaining additional loan funds for the continued hydro-industrialisation of the State. Knight played down claims that `an old boys’ network’ consisting of Binns, himself, and later J. G. Symons, director of mines (1956-80), had a decisive influence over government policy. He asserted that they `were simply putting into place the policies of the government of the day’. Involved in a range of other government-related duties directly concerned with State development, Binns served on the Australian Aluminium Production Commission (1955-60) and the board of Comalco Aluminium (Bell Bay) Ltd (1960-80). In 1960 he accompanied a Tasmanian investment mission to Britain, Europe and the USA. That year he was appointed CMG. Recognition of his expertise led to his appointment by the International Monetary Fund to the fiscal review commission in Nigeria (1964), and as an adviser to the Indonesian minister of finance (1968).

When southern Tasmania was ravaged by bushfires in February 1967 Binns, Knight and the commissioner of police formed a committee, responsible to the premier, to cope with the disaster. In 1972 he negotiated extra taxation revenue for the State from the operation of Hobart’s Wrest Point casino and a new tobacco tax. In 1975 he helped to plan for reconstruction of the Tasman Bridge after its collapse in January that year, and to arrange the sale of the State’s railway system to the Commonwealth government. Always at pains to make clear that he was subject to the decisions of `his political masters’, he met with the premier before each day’s work began. He would proffer his advice, prefacing any disagreements with the phrase, `with respect; with great respect’. If his view was not accepted he would request written instructions from the cabinet.

Membership of government bodies, such as the boards of the State Library of Tasmania (1943-78) and Tasmanian Government Insurance Office (1971-82), and the Retirement Benefits Fund Investment Trust (1976-83), was a source of much satisfaction for Binns; he thought his involvement contributed to the good standing of the Treasury, in which he took great pride. Despite these other activities, he maintained detailed control over agency funding and personally undertook a daily audit of payment vouchers for departments. He arranged for many of his senior Treasury officials to be appointed to boards, especially of State corporations. Some subsequently became heads of government departments and thus extended the influence of the Treasury across the whole public service.

The commitment to what Binns perceived as a public service ethic—providing fearless advice and maintaining political neutrality—led him, on his retirement in 1976, to criticise his fellow public servants. He questioned whether they were devoted to the best interests of the State, or were preoccupied with their own terms and conditions, and said, `I leave depressed’. The Tasmanian Public Service Association launched a strong defence of its members, suggesting to him that if he had anything else to say he should `say it soon so that we can digest it, dismiss it and get down to the serious business of forgetting all about you’. It was an unfortunate ending to a public service career dedicated to benefiting Tasmanians.

In 1976-80 Binns served on the State Grants Commission. He was a member of the Tasmanian and Athenaeum clubs. Apart from his work he enjoyed a weekly game of tennis, reading and, later, the occasional fishing trip from his holiday home on the east coast. He died on 1 November 1987 in South Hobart and was cremated. His wife survived him; there were no children.

Select Bibliography

  • W. A. Townsley, Tasmania: From Colony to Statehood 1803-1945 (1991)
  • W. A. Townsley, Tasmania: Microcosm of the Federation or Vassal State 1945-1983 (1994)
  • Examiner (Launceston), 31 Jan 1976, p 1, 6 Nov 1987, p 4
  • Mercury (Hobart), 10 Feb 1976, p 5, 8 June 1976, p 9
  • Tasmanian Public Service Association, Service, Feb 1976, p 1
  • Binns papers (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • private information.

Citation details

R. J. K. Chapman, 'Binns, Kenneth Johnstone (1912–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/binns-kenneth-johnstone-12212/text21897, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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