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Shann, Sir Keith Charles Owen ('Mick') (1917–1988)

by Peter Edwards

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir Keith Charles Owen ('Mick') Shann (1917-1988), public servant and diplomat, was born on 22 November 1917 at Kew, Melbourne, third of four children of Tasmanian-born parents Frank Shann, headmaster of Trinity Grammar School (1917-43), and his wife Eileen Caplen, née Hall.  Edward Shann was his uncle.  Keith attended Trinity Grammar as a boarder from the age of 10 and later described his life as the headmaster’s son as 'hell'.  He received more strokes of the cane than his peers for misdemeanours such as smoking.  His mother died in 1929 and his relationship with his stepmother was distant.  Dux (humanities) of his school, he won sporting awards in athletics, mostly as a middle-distance runner, and in tennis, and gained a scholarship to Trinity College, University of Melbourne (BA, 1950), where he majored in economics.  His red hair earned him the nickname 'Ginger Mick' and for the rest of his life, even after his hair had turned silver, he liked to be known as 'Mick' Shann.

Joining the Commonwealth Public Service in 1939, Shann worked in the Bureau of Census and Statistics and the Department of Labour and National Service.  On 7 October 1944 at Holy Trinity Church of England, Kew, he married Betty Evans.  He moved to the Department of External Affairs, Canberra, in 1946.  For the next ten years he was a specialist in United Nations affairs, serving first as a member and then as head of the department’s UN division and, in 1949-52, as first secretary, then counsellor, in the Australian mission to the UN in New York.  As acting-head of mission in 1951, he welcomed Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies to New York with the news—Menzies had been incommunicado while travelling across the Atlantic—that his government had committed troops to the UN-sanctioned coalition fighting the Korean War.  In 1955 he was an official Australian observer at the Afro-Asian conference in Bandung, Indonesia.  In the 1950s and 1960s his reporting, which was politically astute and often flavoured with a characteristic Australian wit, won the admiration of Menzies and other readers.

In 1955 Shann became head of the American and Pacific branch of External Affairs and then Australian minister, upgraded to ambassador in 1956, to the Philippines.  Recalled to UN duties in 1957, he was a member of the five-nation special committee, formed to investigate the Soviet incursion into Hungary following the 1956 uprising.  He was the principal author of the committee’s 150,000-word report that was widely praised for its forthrightness and clarity.  At the time the New York Times featured him as its 'man in the news', describing him as 'casual in manner, forthright in a quiet-spoken way' and with 'a skill for winning confidences'.

The high point of Shann’s career was as ambassador to Indonesia (1962-66).  In 1963 President Sukarno adopted a policy of 'confrontation'—a blend of low-level military operations, unpredictable diplomacy and colourful rhetoric—to oppose the formation of the Federation of Malaysia.  Australia, like Britain, supported Malaysia’s establishment, but sought to minimise damage to Australia’s long-term relationship with Indonesia.  Shann’s task was to persuade Sukarno to accept its creation while convincing him that Australia was not merely echoing the views of 'neo-colonialist' Britain.  His distinctively Australian style and the frank, often humorous, rapport that he established with Sukarno, even while Australian troops were engaging Indonesian forces on their own territory, contributed to one of Australia’s greatest diplomatic successes.  When Malaysia came into being, Indonesian mobs sacked the British embassy but left the Australian mission unscathed.

On his return to Canberra as first assistant secretary of the department in 1966, Shann felt under-appreciated but in 1970 he was promoted to deputy-secretary.  The personal style of the secretary, Sir Keith Waller, was markedly different from Shann’s but together they raised External Affairs’ reputation and morale.  The department changed its name to Foreign Affairs and gained a new authority in several areas.  Shann also contributed to significant administrative reforms that improved its effectiveness.  In 1972 Waller and Shann skilfully managed the transition from the conservative coalition to the first Australian Labor Party government in twenty-three years.  Shann was widely seen as the likely successor to Waller in 1973, but Prime Minister Gough Whitlam appointed Alan Renouf and posted Shann instead as ambassador to Japan (1974-77).  He was a vigorous and successful ambassador, albeit with a colourful life out of the office, and he seemed likely to succeed Alan Renouf as secretary.  His handling of a diplomatic report, however, angered Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and he was again passed over.

Apparently as a consolation, Shann was designated as high commissioner in London, a coveted diplomatic post but not one that he had sought or desired.  Before he took up the post, Fraser selected him to be chairman of the Public Service Board.  Many Canberra observers were shocked that Shann, twice passed over for a position for which he seemed highly qualified, was appointed to one for which he had fewer claims.  His strong views on the independence and standing of the public service created tensions at a time when its numbers and status were severely constrained, and he found many of the chairman’s duties uncongenial.  In 1978 he resigned, seventeen months into his five-year term, and retired from the public service.

Shann’s diplomatic skills were never in question but opinions were sharply divided on his personal qualities.  While some greatly admired his style, wit and skill as a raconteur, others thought him vain and ambitious.  He was appointed CBE in 1964 and knighted in 1980.  In retirement he was a director of Mount Isa Mines Holdings Ltd (1978-88) and of Burns Philp Trustee Co. (Canberra) Ltd (1982-88).  He was awarded the Japanese grand cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure in 1988 for his services as a director (1978-83) of the Australia-Japan Foundation.  Survived by his wife and their two sons and daughter, Sir Keith died on 4 August 1988 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Juddery, At the Centre (1974)
  • Australian Foreign Affairs Record, vol 59, no 8, 1988, p 330
  • New York Times, 21 June 1957, p 11
  • National Times, week ending 9 December 1978, p 33
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 August 1988, p 6
  • K. Henderson, interview with K. Shann (ts, 1985, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Peter Edwards, 'Shann, Sir Keith Charles Owen ('Mick') (1917–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shann-sir-keith-charles-owen-mick-15516/text26728, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 19 July 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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