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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Reid, Sir Alexander James (1889–1968)

by Lenore Layman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Sir Alexander James Reid (1889-1968), public servant, was born on 12 October 1889 at Glasgow, Scotland, one of five children of David Hay Reid, life-insurance agent, and his wife Jane Boag, née Niven. Alex attended a local Glasgow school and reached Albany, Western Australia, with his widowed mother and brother David in the Suevic on 17 April 1909. Employed as a messenger at the Perth Public Hospital, he joined the Department of Public Works as a clerk in 1911. Three years later he transferred to the Friendly Societies section in the Colonial Secretary's Department. At the Congregational Church, Subiaco, on 17 April 1915 he married Florence Sarah Jones.

Having duly qualified, Reid was admitted as an associate (1916) of the Incorporated Institute of Accountants, Victoria. He studied part time at the University of Western Australia (B.A., 1924) and retained contact with the university as a tutor (1926-30) for correspondence courses in economics. In 1924 he was appointed as deputy registrar general. His authority increased when he became assistant under-treasurer in 1931 and culminated in his promotion to under-treasurer in 1938, a position he held until his retirement in 1954. After the Premier's Department became a sub-department of Treasury in 1941, he headed both departments.

Reid was a powerful under-treasurer upon whose advice Labor and Liberal-Country Party governments relied during the years of economic recovery, World War II and postwar development. He played a major role in Commonwealth-State financial relations. Appointed to provide economic analysis and data on public finance, he was a member of the committee that prepared the 'Case of the People of Western Australia' for secession in 1933. That year, with John Curtin, he drew up the State's first submission to the new Commonwealth Grants Commission. He was a careful draftsman of Western Australia's claims and a persuasive advocate before the commission. After his retirement he served on the commission until 1965.

In a small public service Reid's influence reached far beyond the Treasury. He was chairman (1935-49) of the Workers' Homes Board (State Housing Commission from 1946), a member (1938-68) and chairman (1955-56) of the (Royal) Perth Hospital Board, and a founding member (1946-68) and chairman (1954-68) of the State Electricity Commission. In addition, he was a board-member of the Wundowie-based Charcoal Iron & Steel Industry (1943-67) and of Chamberlain Industries Pty Ltd (1954-56), both government initiatives. Following his retirement, he held a number of private directorships. Reid's energy, accessibility, tact, negotiating skills, friendly manner and wide-ranging personal contacts made him a most effective committee-man. His continuing government appointments, however, occasioned some debate as he grew older. In 1963 he was invited to be the inaugural chairman of the Metropolitan Water Board but, when politicians objected because of his age, declined the post.

As an ex-officio member (from 1944) of the senate of the University of Western Australia, Reid was active in university governance; he oversaw increased State government funding to the university and was a member (1957) of the Committee on Australian Universities, chaired by Sir Keith Murray. As pro-chancellor (1948-56) and chancellor (1956-68), he was both a figurehead and a significant force in university affairs. This involvement flowed into the field of arts and culture: he became a director of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1954, joined the board of Perth's National Theatre Company in 1956 and chaired the Festival of Perth committee.

Reid was appointed I.S.O. (1946) and C.M.G. (1952). In 1958 he was knighted. Survived by his wife, and their son and daughter, he died on 30 August 1968 at Bethesda Hospital, Claremont, and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $84,367. The Reid library at the University of Western Australia was named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • Gazette of the University of Western Australia, 18, no 3, Oct 1968
  • West Australian, 1 Jan 1952, 20 Sept 1963, 31 Aug 1968, 22 Mar 1969
  • R. Jamieson, interview with Ralph Doig (transcript, 1984-86, State Library of Western Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Lenore Layman, 'Reid, Sir Alexander James (1889–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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