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Watt, George Percival Norman (1890–1983)

by J. R. Nethercote

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

George Percival Norman Watt (1890-1983), public servant and company director, was born on 2 June 1890 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, fourth child of Scottish-born Edward James Watt, printer, and his wife Sophia, née Ball, born in Victoria. Educated at Auburn State School and Wesley College, Norman joined the Victorian Public Service in 1905, serving as a clerk in the Department of Railways and the Treasury. He transferred to the Commonwealth Public Service in 1908. Specialising in finance and accounts, he worked in naval administration in the Department of Defence. On 21 November 1916 at the Auburn Baptist Church he married Nellie Victoria May Hough (d.1963). Next year he qualified as an accountant.

In 1923 Watt became civil secretary, Department of Defence, Garden Island, Sydney. Appointed a public service inspector in 1928, he was the inspector for Victoria from 1936. Following the outbreak of World War II, he was transferred on a temporary basis to the Commonwealth Treasury as head of the defence division in Melbourne. Deputy-secretary to the Treasury in 1946, he became the secretary in 1948, succeeding S. G. McFarlane.

Watt’s strength lay in traditional Treasury work—the control and scrutiny of expenditure—rather than in the emerging field of macro-economic management that derived from the doctrines of J. M. (Baron) Keynes. He won a measure of respect, however, from the Treasury’s university-trained economists (recruited from 1939) and took an avuncular interest in their various sporting and recreational activities. Beyond the Treasury Watt was not seen as a major force in the graduate-based public service that had emerged after the war.

Watt enjoyed a friendly relationship with J. B. Chifley, fostered partly by their common interest in detective stories. He also developed a warm and enduring relationship with the head of the Treasury’s general finance and economic policy branch, (Sir) Frederick Wheeler. Although largely leaving macro-economic policy business to Wheeler, Watt shared an extensive experience of government administration and management with him in frequent late-afternoon conversations.

After the war Watt turned his skills to the then growing field of government: public enterprise. This was the source of some early suspicion from the Menzies’ government upon its election in 1949. Director (1947-62) of Qantas Empire Airways Ltd, Watt took a leading role in the Commonwealth takeover of Qantas. A member of the Australian National Airlines Commission (operating as Trans-Australia Airlines) from 1947 (chairman 1950-57), he had helped establish ANA, but his contribution was essentially administrative at a time when a more active business style was thought to be required.

Retiring in 1951 to live in Melbourne, Watt was a director (1959-64) of Volkswagen (Australasia) Pty Ltd, Marlow (Julius) Holdings Ltd (1962-70), Kilndried Timber Industries Ltd and Tasmanian Board Mills Ltd (1963-67) and a chairman of the insurance company, Glanvill Holland Pty Ltd. He was appointed CBE in 1951 and CMG in 1957. His regular lunches at the Athenaeum Club became a focus for retired senior officers of the public service. Survived by his daughter and son, he died on 21 July 1983 at Canterbury and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Mar 1951, p 4
  • A5954, item 640073 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

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Citation details

J. R. Nethercote, 'Watt, George Percival Norman (1890–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/watt-george-percival-norman-15845/text27044, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 17 September 2019.

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

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