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Bury, Leslie Harry Ernest (1913–1986)

by Donald Boadle

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

Leslie Harry Ernest Bury (1913-1986), banker, public servant and politician, was born on 25 February 1913 at Willesden, London, son of Ernest Bury, Anglican clergyman, and his wife Doris Elma, née Walgrave. Scholarships and financial assistance from an uncle enabled Leslie to attend Herne Bay College, Kent, and to matriculate at Queens’ College, Cambridge (BA, 1934; MA, 1949). He rowed in Queens’ third VIII, joined the Cambridge University Conservative Association, and obtained second-class honours in part I of the economics tripos and part II of the law tripos.

Recruited to the economic department of the Bank of New South Wales, Bury arrived in Sydney on 14 December 1935 and `spent quite a number of months trailing round’ with the royal commission on monetary and banking systems. He made useful contacts. Courteous and unhurried, he was `very single-minded about things he wanted’. Close to his three sisters, he treated women with bantering gallantry and enjoyed dancing, although his lanky 6 ft 4 ins (193 cm) frame made him a challenging partner. On 23 August 1940 at St Mark’s Church of England, Darling Point, he married Anne Helen Sise, daughter of Cecil Weigall.

Mobilised in the Citizen Military Forces on 22 January 1942, Bury transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 23 August. He served with the Heavy Artillery, North Head, and with the 12th Radar Detachment before being posted to Alf Conlon’s Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs in January 1945. In January-February Sergeant Bury was detached to the Department of External Affairs, Canberra. He was discharged from the army as a warrant officer, class one, on 4 September and appointed second secretary in the economic relations division of the department on 10 May 1946. Accustomed to the `ordered procedures of banking’, he was dismayed by diplomatic administration, but acquired enduring respect for his colleagues’ professionalism after working with them abroad in trade negotiations. He joined the Treasury in 1949, and moved to Washington in 1951 as Australian alternate executive director (executive director from 1953) of the International Monetary Fund and of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Bury had little experience of domestic policy-making and was decidedly ambivalent about politicians. Yet he spoke of politics as `the prime profession’ and returned to Sydney to seek Liberal Party preselection for the blue-ribbon House of Representatives seat of Went-worth, vacated through the resignation of Sir Eric Harrison. At the by-election on 8 December 1956, three `independent Liberals’ opposed him. Denying claims that (Sir) Robert Menzies had foisted him on the electorate, Bury scraped in on preferences, with 41 per cent of the primary vote.

In parliament, his trenchant criticism of economic management led journalists to link him with A. J. Forbes, H. B. Turner and W. C. Wentworth, and to dub these outspoken Liberal back-benchers the `Oxbridge group’. Bury was closest to Forbes; both were less wilful, and steadier in judgment, than Turner or Wentworth. A fervent free trader, Bury regarded Adam Smith as `the greatest economist’, and attacked Australian Keynesians for failing to address the inflationary effects of their `hyper-employment’ policy, which disadvantaged professionals and the salaried middle class. On 22 December 1961 he was appointed minister for air and minister assisting the treasurer. His warm regard for the treasurer Harold Holt scarcely compensated for the drudgery of acting as his `punch boy’.

On 25 July 1962 Bury made headlines by contending that the economic consequences of British entry to the European Economic Community had been `greatly exaggerated’. The Sydney Morning Herald opined that he was the tool of Holt and Treasury; Bury insisted that the views were his own. Menzies demanded his resignation from the ministry on 27 July after the leader of the Country Party and minister for trade, (Sir) John McEwen, claimed that the speech had weakened Australia’s negotiating position and jeopardised its rural industries. Reported to be `shocked and upset’, Bury used his `new-found freedom’ to reiterate that the underlying issue was political: European integration was fundamental to Australian survival in a `dangerous world’. He returned to the ministry on 18 December 1963 with the new housing portfolio. Promising no `big, lurching changes’, he introduced mortgage insurance and bonuses for first-home buyers.

When Holt succeeded Menzies on 26 January 1966, Bury was promoted to cabinet as minister for labour and national service. His removal of the `marriage bar’, which precluded the appointment of married women as permanent officers in the Commonwealth Public Service, was widely applauded, as was his resolute handling of industrial disputes. But growing public opposition to the Vietnam conflict dogged his administration of selective national service and tested his political skills. He was rebuffed by cabinet colleagues when he proposed an alternative form of civilian service, and he and the minister for the army (Sir) Phillip Lynch found themselves targeted by protesters, who occupied Bury’s offices, and picketed his home, chanting `lynch Bury, bury Lynch’.

An unsuccessful challenger for the Liberal Party leadership following Holt’s disappearance in December 1967, Bury supported the new prime minister, (Sir) John Gorton, and on 12 November 1969 was appointed to succeed (Sir) William McMahon as treasurer. Unlike Holt and McMahon, Bury worked at the Treasury, rather than from his ministerial offices at Parliament House. In cabinet he proved no match for McEwen and Gorton as they pushed McEwen’s Australian Industry Development Corporation proposal through against Treasury advice. Suffering from coronary atherosclerosis and hypertension, Bury looked `very worn out’, and appeared `to waffle’ and to lack concentration.

On 22 March 1971, twelve days after his swearing-in as Gorton’s successor, McMahon shifted Bury to the foreign affairs portfolio. Bury was slow to engage with his new duties and continued to champion publicly a broad-based consumption tax. McMahon sacked him on 1 August, spreading rumours that the foreign minister was resigning because of serious illness. Bury himself announced, however, `In good old words I have been sacked’, prompting the Australian to brand the prime minister `a nasty little twirp’. Bury declined to recriminate, commenting: `Political life is full of hazards, even for Prime Ministers’. After losing preselection for his Wentworth seat, he retired from parliament at the 1974 election. He was appointed CMG in 1979.

A member of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (president of the Canberra branch in 1949-51) and of the Sydney group of the Round Table, Bury was also a fellow of the Australian Society of Accountants and an associate of the Bankers’ Institute of Australasia. At various times he was a director of Duncan’s Holdings Ltd, Legal & General Assurance Society Ltd, Lend Lease Corporation Ltd, Barclays Australia Ltd and Parkes Management Ltd. He belonged to the Union and Royal Sydney Golf clubs, and listed carpentry as his recreation. Survived by his wife and their four sons, he died on 7 September 1986 at his Vaucluse home and was cremated.

Bury’s languid manner was redolent of prewar Cambridge; like his charm and conviviality, it deflected attention from his sharp intelligence. He was a decisive, tough-minded departmental administrator. Although he was ill served by the increasingly important medium of television, on which he could appear laconic, wary and lacking in human warmth, colleagues recalled his candour, integrity and humanity.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Howson, The Howson Diaries (1984)
  • P. Edwards, A Nation at War (1997)
  • I. Hancock, John Gorton (2002)
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 19 Mar 1957, p 25, 15 Mar 1960, p 238, 14 Aug 1962, p 281, 16 Sept 1986, p 701
  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate), 16 Sept 1986, p 438
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 July 1962, pp 1 and 2, 28 July 1962, pp 1 and 2, 2 Aug 1971, p 1
  • Bulletin, 14 Mar 1964, p 13
  • Australian, 19 May 1967, p 7, 2 Aug 1971, p 8
  • M. Pratt, interview with L. H. E. Bury (transcript, 1975, National Library of Australia)
  • series SP1115 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Donald Boadle, 'Bury, Leslie Harry Ernest (1913–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bury-leslie-harry-ernest-12270/text22027, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 15 November 2018.

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

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