Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Strahan, Frank (1886–1976)

by Graeme Powell

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

Frank Strahan (1886-1976), public servant, was born on 2 July 1886 at Fryerstown, Victoria, son of Richard Strahan, a schoolteacher from Ireland, and his second wife Sarah Jane, née Hardwick, who was born in Victoria. In 1894 the family moved to Bendigo. Frank was educated at a number of country schools. Entering the Commonwealth Public Service, he was appointed a clerk in the Treasury on 1 March 1906 and began to attend night-classes at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1911; LL.B., 1915). At St Paul's Anglican Church, Bendigo, on 30 March 1914 he married Ella Mary Moore, a schoolteacher; they were childless.

In March 1913 Strahan had transferred to the Prime Minister's Department, which he later described as 'a letter-writing' office. As a senior clerk, he was involved in drafting correspondence and proclamations, and in decoding cables. In April 1921 he was promoted to assistant-secretary. Over the next fourteen years he was responsible for a wide range of activities, including parliamentary matters, correspondence with State governments, administrative arrangements and publicity. While a member of the Australian delegation to the Imperial Conference in London in 1923, he was treated by Prime Minister S. M. (Viscount) Bruce as a well-paid messenger. Strahan's narrow conception of the role of a senior public servant was formed during the years that he worked for Bruce. In 1928 he was appointed C.B.E. Next year he served as secretary of a committee which organized the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition, led by Sir Douglas Mawson. The Strahan Glacier in MacRobertson Land was named after him. In 1930 the government made him a director of Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd. He was Australian secretary for the Duke of Gloucester's tour in 1934 and that year was appointed C.V.O.

A small external affairs branch had been added to Strahan's responsibilities in 1930. Because he showed little interest in the creation of an Australian diplomatic service and was comparatively unfamiliar with foreign affairs, his relations with the branch's officers were strained. When Strahan was appointed secretary of the Prime Minister's Department in November 1935, a separate Department of External Affairs was established. Although he retained responsibility for Territories and for the High Commission in London, he headed a weakened department. Its standing slumped further with the approach of World War II and the ascendancy of the Department of Defence. Sir Paul Hasluck later described the secretary of that department, (Sir) Frederick Shedden, as 'efficient, active and far-seeing', a contrast to Strahan whom he regarded as 'an easy-going old-style public servant'. Shedden began attending meetings of the War Cabinet in 1939, but it was only in July 1941 that, on the initiative of (Sir) Robert Menzies, Strahan became secretary of the full cabinet. He was, none the less, the first Commonwealth public servant to attend its meetings and the result was an immediate improvement in the organization of cabinet business.

Strahan described himself as 'just a clerk' who simply carried out the prime minister's directions. He was on good terms with the four prime ministers whom he served as secretary, but his influence on policy-making was limited. Although he attended the 1937 Imperial Conference with Joseph Lyons, he did not accompany Menzies, John Curtin or J. B. Chifley on their overseas trips between 1941 and 1949. With the abolition of the War Cabinet, the work of the cabinet secretariat increased rapidly. Strahan and his deputies were hard-pressed. They resisted proposals that the department should extend its control to the large number of cabinet committees, and rejected suggestions that it should adopt a co-ordinating and advisory role similar to that of the Cabinet Office in Britain.

In August 1949 Strahan retired. He had lived in Canberra for more than twenty years, but shown little interest in local affairs. In 1950 he and his wife returned to Melbourne and settled at Box Hill. He continued to be a director of A.W.A. until 1962. After his wife died in 1965, Strahan lived alone, tending his garden, and occasionally meeting and reminiscing with former public-service colleagues. He died on 4 May 1976 at Camberwell and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Price, The Winning of Australian Antarctica (Syd, 1962)
  • P. Hasluck, Diplomatic Witness (Melb, 1980)
  • P. G. Edwards, Prime Ministers and Diplomats (Melb, 1983)
  • Public Administration (Sydney), 26, 1967, p 32
  • J. S. Cumpston, interview with Frank Strahan (transcript, 1967, National Library of Australia)
  • John Farquharson, interview with Hazel Craig (transcript, 1997, National Library of Australia)
  • L. F. Crisp papers, box 39 (National Library of Australia)
  • A461, item U1/1/1 (National Archives of Australia)
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

Graeme Powell, 'Strahan, Frank (1886–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/strahan-frank-11787/text21085, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 16 April 2014.

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

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