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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Coates, Sir Ernest William (1916–1994)

by John Coates

This article was published online in 2020

Sir Ernest Coates, University of Melbourne, Protocol And Functions Office, 1979

Sir Ernest Coates, University of Melbourne, Protocol And Functions Office, 1979

University of Melbourne Archives, 202266

Sir Ernest William Coates (1916–1994), public servant, was born on 30 November 1916 at Ballarat, Victoria, third of four surviving children of locally born parents Thomas Atlee Coates, grocer, and his wife Emma Jane, née Jones. His cousin was (Sir) Albert Coates who would become a distinguished surgeon. Ernest attended Humffray Street State School and worked as a grocer’s boy, helping to keep the family business going after his father died in 1925. Proceeding to Ballarat High School (1928–33), he was a diligent student who did not record outstanding academic or sporting results. Nevertheless, towards the end of his career he reflected that his time at secondary school was the most influential period in his life.

In December 1933 Coates sat the clerical division examination to qualify for appointment to the Victorian Public Service. On 31 May the following year he started work in the accounts branch of the Department of Treasurer as junior fifth-class clerk, one of the two employees in an early intake after the worst of the Depression. Within a year he enrolled through a public service scholarship at the University of Melbourne (BCom, 1942). The part-time study required attendance five nights a week for lectures and practical work. He also found time to play hockey and cricket for the university. On 4 September 1943 he married Phylis Eva Morris, a social worker, at the Church of Christ, Brighton.

During World War II Coates moved from accounting and bookkeeping to involvement in uniform tax work, and it was then he began to be seen by his peers as a man on his way up. He worked under (Sir) Arthur Smithers, the director of finance, from the end of the Depression, through wartime austerity, and into postwar recovery. Coates, then in his early thirties, gained experience at Commonwealth and State finance conferences. In 1948 he was appointed economics research officer, and later economic adviser to the State government. Employing an efficient and courteous, yet forceful, style, he oversaw government spending on schools, water storages, electrification, hospitals, transport, housing, and the Melbourne Olympic Games. In 1952 he began improving the budget process ‘so governments would know where they were going, not just where they had been’ (Coates Papers). Public borrowings increased and revenue was carefully garnered.

Coates not only had financial acumen but also recognised the indispensability of the ‘oil can in public administration, knowing where and when to apply a little lubrication to make things work’ (Coates Papers). In 1959 he succeeded Smithers as director of finance. He was well known to the premier and treasurer, (Sir) Henry Bolte, whom he had accompanied overseas in 1956 on a campaign to attract foreign investment. Throughout Bolte’s seventeen-year premiership, Coates became recognised as his right-hand man. Coates maintained a careful scrutiny of Victoria’s finances, monitoring borrowings by the State and local governments and many statutory bodies. He was a member of the National Art Gallery and Cultural Centre building committee. Early in the gallery’s construction, there was a shortfall between the budget of $11.8 million and an estimated cost of $27.5 million. He successfully trimmed the cost to $24.3 million, enough to persuade the government to approve the higher outlay.

From the 1960s Coates held many additional positions, including as a commissioner of the State Savings Bank of Victoria (1960–77), and as a member of the National Debt Commission (1963–77), the Australian Universities Commission (1968–77), and the Commonwealth Administrative Appeals Tribunal (1977–86). He also served as a trustee of Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, vice president of the Melbourne Cricket Club, and president of the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand. After the death of his wife in 1971, on 11 July 1974 at the parish church of St Bartholomew the Great, London, he married Patricia Ann Fisher, a secretary. He kept up his interest in golf, cricket, and music and was a regular worshipper at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne. Awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by his alma mater in 1979, he had been appointed CMG in 1970 and knighted in 1973.

Sir Ernest retired in 1977. His advice had been sought and accepted by local government and statutory bodies, often on the basis of ‘checking with Ernie’ (his workplace name since the 1930s). He had a clear and traditional view of the civil servant under the Westminster system; his touchstone was the ability to ‘distinguish the honest from the dishonest, the true from the false’ (Ballarat Courier 1975, 2). A job well done outranked personal ambition. He also recognised the formative influence of his mother and brother Tom, headmaster of Wesley College (1957–71).

In 1987 Coates joined the appeal committee for the restoration of the organ at St Paul’s Cathedral. Its work took four years and he was enlisted to approach important benefactors. He personally contributed $100,000 for its refurbishment and upkeep, and donated a new Contra Posaune 32-foot pedal stop in memory of his second wife (d. 1986). Survived by three daughters and a son of his marriage to Phylis, he died on 10 February 1994 at Kew. His ashes were interred in Springvale cemetery and a memorial service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne). ‘New Director of State Finance.’ 9 September 1959, 1
  • Age (Melbourne). ‘Top Treasury Job Changes Hands.’ 28 September 1977, 10
  • Ballarat Courier. ‘Wisdom Needed to Save World.’ 12 June 1975, 2
  • Ballarat High School. Arch. Ballarat, Vic.: The school, 1933
  • Coates Papers. Private collection
  • Fairfax, Vicki. A Place across the River: They Aspired to Create the Victorian Arts Centre. South Yarra, Vic.: Macmillan, 2002
  • Hamer, Sir Rupert. ‘Head of Treasury a Model Adviser.’ Australian, 17 February 1994, 13
  • Speagle, Henry. Editor’s Odyssey. A Reminiscence of Civil Service: 1945 to 1985. South Yarra, Vic.: Haddington Press, 2005
  • St Paul’s Cathedral Archives. 20/2/1, Bequests and Benefactors: Coates bequest file
  • St Paul’s Cathedral Archives. 6/2, Memorials—Correspondence: Organ Appeal, 1988/1990 plaque
  • St Paul’s Cathedral Archives. 10/8/2/1, Restoration of the Organ 1988/1990: Minutes of meetings.

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Coates, 'Coates, Sir Ernest William (1916–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/coates-sir-ernest-william-29614/text36497, published online 2020, accessed online 21 October 2020.

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