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Wurth, Wallace Charles (1896–1960)

by Ross Curnow

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

Wallace Charles Wurth (1896-1960), by unknown photographer

Wallace Charles Wurth (1896-1960), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 08468

Wallace Charles Wurth (1896-1960), public servant and university chancellor, was born on 14 January 1896 at Pipeclay Creek, Mudgee, New South Wales, second of five children of native-born parents William George Wurth, schoolteacher, and his wife Edith, née Webster. His drive, ambition and independence were in evidence even as a child. By the age of 11, 'very much his own man', Wally won a bursary to Sydney Boys' High School and boarded with an aunt at Lewisham.

Successful at the State public service competitive examination in May 1912, Wurth was appointed a junior clerk in the Department of Lands. Quickly deciding that this was a dead-end posting, he transferred to the Department of Attorney-General and Justice. His shorthand speed was 80 words per minute (a skill he had acquired when he decided that he did not want to miss a word of lessons—to the consternation of his teachers). He found his new duties of dealing with ministerial correspondence more congenial.

On 1 February 1916 Wurth enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He served on the Western Front as a stretcher-bearer with the 7th Field Ambulance and was wounded at Bullecourt, France. Later he recalled that war was 'a filthy, terrible business'. The 'sheer horror' of the front left him sympathetic to the problems of ex-servicemen and their families. Promoted sergeant in April 1919, he returned to Sydney where he was demobilized on 10 August. With four months leave on full public service pay, Wurth after two weeks was agitating to return to his position of clerk at the Public Service Board, to which he had been appointed in October 1915. Enforced idleness was to him a yoke, not a reward. On 10 January 1920 he married Phyllis Bertha Cavell at St Philip's Church of England, Sydney.

A protégé of James Williams, later chairman of the board, Wurth noted that a law degree had helped Williams's advancement and in 1920 enrolled as a part-time student in the faculty of law at the University of Sydney (LL.B., 1924). By 1928 he had risen to the position of inspector—not merely as a result of his friendship with Williams, but by ability and hard work. Wurth realized the importance of cultivating powerful patrons, which he did by exercising considerable charm and by completing inquiries and projects promptly and efficiently, not only for his administrative superiors but also for ministers and premiers. At the behest of (Sir) William McKell, then a minister in Jack Lang's government, he headed a small committee to investigate the fraudulent use of food and medical relief funds for the unemployed. McKell later wrote that the excellence of his work 'permanently established him as a public servant of courage and capacity with a very bright future'.

A colleague and friend of Wurth at the board, (Sir) Bertram Stevens, became premier in 1932; he secured Wurth's appointment as industrial registrar and assistant under-secretary of the Department of Labour and Industry that year, then as a member of the Public Service Board in 1936, and finally as chairman of the board in 1939. While many Labor supporters saw these appointments as strengthening the conservative grip on administration, Wurth's legal qualifications and industrial experience fitted him for the task of dealing with both employers and unions.

His return to the board marked its resurgence as the most powerful of the state's central agencies. (Sir) George Mason Allard's 1917 report on the public service became 'Holy Writ' for Wurth; he kept a well-thumbed copy in the top drawer of his desk with the recommendations ticked as they were implemented—a return to the board's traditional basics of efficiency, economy and recruitment. Initially, however, Wurth's dealings with E. J. Payne, the somewhat ponderous chairman, were inauspicious. 'Virtually quarantined' without work, he warned Payne that unless papers appeared on his desk, he would remain at home. Papers duly appeared. With typical zeal he made himself useful to Payne. Following Payne's retirement, Wurth's succession as chairman, on 24 May 1939, was a formality. In 1941 he was appointed C.M.G.

Aided by an almost photographic memory, Wurth maintained a prodigious output. An impersonal martinet, he set impossibly short deadlines for staff. He could not bear to be idle, constantly fidgeted and took work home each evening (and without fail completed it), spending Sunday mornings at the local harbourside park with one eye on his two young sons playing at the water's edge and the other on his files. With rare exceptions his official relationships were marked by formality, yet with individuals and small groups he could be charming. On country trips he became a 'delightful' and sociable companion. Physically Wurth made an unprepossessing ogre—he was short, bespectacled and undistinguished-looking. Yet when he spoke, 'he delivered his words forcefully, rapidly and apparently without premeditation'. The meaning was 'clear and precise', but he was not an impressive public speaker. Nor was he comfortable with the press.

World War II resulted in interruptions for both Wurth and the public service as a whole. The 'ingenuous and generous' Alexander Mair, who succeeded Stevens as premier in July 1939, saw no reason to interfere in Wurth's administration of the service, while McKell, who swept to power in May 1941, did not share Lang's dislike of senior public servants. The future of the board was secure but the transformation of Australian society to a total-war footing saw almost 65 per cent of male public servants between the ages of 18 and 40 serving with the armed forces and another 4 per cent seconded to the Commonwealth Public Service.

Released from the board in July 1941, Wurth served as Federal director of manpower priorities and chairman of the Manpower Priorities Board. At first he investigated and advised but exercised little executive power. By virtue of 'the circumstances of the time and the personality of the board's chairman', a blueprint was drawn up for a directorate of manpower and the machinery to implement its policies. In January 1942 Wurth was designated director-general of manpower. As he wrote in his Control of Manpower in Australia (1944), the edifice rested on five pillars: reserved occupations, protected industries, control of labour engagements, and the direction and registration of labour. Wurth was acutely aware of the need to balance the demands of war mobilization against 'individual susceptibilities', which he saw as the central problem of a democracy at war. The directorate's offices spread throughout the country as it absorbed State public servants; between February 1942 and January 1944 the staff grew from 324 to 2556. With his headquarters in Sydney, Wurth did not relinquish his grip on the public service, working as chairman of the Public Service Board every Saturday.

Commonwealth wartime administration was characterized by powerful institutions headed by powerful individuals, with overlapping spheres of responsibilities. Wurth soon locked horns with his minister, the firebrand Eddie Ward, over a scheme of national registration, stating that he would resign rather than carry out Ward's policy. Their 'cold formality degenerated into smouldering hatred'. Ben Chifley, then treasurer, esteemed Wurth highly and persuaded his cabinet colleagues not to back Ward. Thereafter Wurth used Chifley as his conduit to government. A more formidable opponent in the administrative battle for control of manpower was the controversial Edward Theodore, head of the Allied Works Council which oversaw all civil and military engineering and construction works in Australia. Equally aggressive was the redoubtable Essington Lewis, managing director of the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd, who as director-general of munitions was the 'industrial dictator' of the war effort. All the principals were conscious of their own responsibilities, and robust and acrimonious exchanges occurred before good sense prevailed and compromises were achieved. Wurth's position was strengthened with his appointment as chairman of the War Commitments Committee which had been formed in September 1942 and, in effect, became the War Cabinet's standing committee on manpower allocation and 'the principal protagonist for the indirect war effort', a counterweight to the strength of the defence structure. This 'balancing' of the war effort was due largely to Wurth's efforts—his 'persistence and stubborn refusal to be sidetracked, together with the high quality of the Manpower Directorate's submissions'.

Wurth himself made sacrifices for the war effort. He refused the use of an official car, travelling by bus each day to and from his home at Vaucluse. Already troubled by angina, he obtained a neighbour's permission to take a short cut through his property when climbing the hill to the bus stop. He refused a salary for the director-general's position, and later joked that he was the only bureaucrat who had ever sacked himself when, in September 1944, he handed over the manpower organization to his deputy William Funnell.

Forgoing opportunities to join the Commonwealth Public Service during postwar reconstruction, mainly because in Canberra he would have faced greater competition for control and domination of the bureaucracy, Wurth returned to the New South Wales Public Service Board. He set about refining its examination system, and although entry was still by the Intermediate and Leaving certificates, external accountancy, secretarial, technical and university qualifications could be substituted for the various 'grade' internal examinations. Ostensibly promotions were based on merit, with seniority subordinated to 'special fitness'. Both merit and 'special fitness' developed a Wurthian flavour. Disappointed with the managerial abilities of the 'decent fellows' in the Treasury and the Premier's Department during the war, McKell asked Wurth to scour the public service for the best men available to revitalize these two traditional rivals for control of the State's administrative machinery. Not surprisingly, it was Wurth's protégés who happened to be best fitted for the task, young men whom he had found to be intelligent, conscientious and, above all, loyal to him. After a period of understudy sufficient to avoid criticism, they were promoted to permanent head positions.

An earlier plan of having personnel officers in all departments could now be implemented and they, too, soon began keeping Wurth informed, encouraged by the prospects of promotion to the board and then to senior departmental positions. Wurth's record in industrial relations was one of union containment, with certain exceptions. The board's powers to control salaries, working conditions and discipline in both the public service and teaching service were modified only by the establishment of the Crown Employees Appeal Board in 1944. The New South Wales Teachers' Federation in particular campaigned strongly for their members to be freed from the yoke of the board and placed under a separate education commission. Although Wurth had deflected most of these and other attacks, he feared that the board could eventually lose its control over the teaching service. In 1954 he thus embraced a suggestion of (Sir) Harold Dickinson, the board's secretary, that its size be increased by the appointment of a teachers' representative, namely Harry Heath who had emerged as the 'moderate' federation president owing 'allegiance neither to Moscow nor to Rome'. Thereafter criticism became less strident.

The longstanding requirement that the board inspect departments to ensure efficiency and economy had since 1919 been delegated to inspectors, but Wurth's determination to lead by example was demonstrated in numerous anecdotes, many of which illustrated reduction of costs, rather than increases in effectiveness. The austerity of the war years (replacing corks in ink bottles between dipping the nib to prevent evaporation and encasing the stubs of pencils in metal holders) was maintained, and 'The Case of Lennie's Carpet' became part of the board's folklore. Leonard Verrills, an inspector, asked for the replacement of decrepit carpet which regularly tripped visitors to his office. Wurth's solution was to remove the carpet and, lest he be accused of victimizing Verrills, the carpets from the offices of all other inspectors. Air travel by public servants was prohibited, except in cases of urgency approved by the board, so that magistrates on country circuits were sometimes forced to wait two or three days for the next train to Sydney. Motorcars, too, were frowned on, although after petrol rationing ended Wurth travelled to and from the office in a car from the pool. This indulgence (not extended to departmental heads) may have resulted partly from his cardiac condition. His own principles were above reproach; he returned Christmas presents or sent a gift of equal value.

Wurth was remarkably successful in imposing these standards on the public service: 'corruption used to upset him more than anything else', especially theft or bribery. Present at every disciplinary hearing of the board, he ruthlessly held to the dictum of exemplary punishment. When a confidant remonstrated with him about his savage downgrading of a conscientious officer discovered by a random audit to have borrowed a trifling amount from petty cash the afternoon before pay day for his fare home, Wurth agreed that it was too harsh, but added that news of the decision would spread rapidly throughout the public service and in future 'no one will even think about borrowing money from petty cash'. In 1953 two Department of Education officers were accused of letting school building contracts to an individual with previous criminal convictions. The press thought that at last it had a cause célèbre. For the next eight months Wurth spent an average of two days per week on this inquiry to find that a number of witnesses had perjured themselves and that the two officials had acted imprudently rather than dishonestly.

Ever the centralist, Wurth extended his influence, if not control, over the State's statutory authorities. He bridled at the lack of uniformity in the 'terms and conditions of employment', and soon after his appointment as chairman was lecturing governments on the 'undesirability of creating independent bodies' outside the Public Service Act and the necessity for the board to be the final authority on personnel matters. Successive governments did exercise restraint; public service departments undertook most of the new or expanded functions of government between 1939 and 1960. A plant and equipment-pooling scheme was introduced in 1941. From 1950 Wurth chaired regular meetings with the heads of major authorities to co-ordinate policies on common issues such as scarce material, consistency in industrial relations and conditions of service, and competition for essential personnel.

By 1960 Wurth had re-established the board in conformity with the principles of the 1896 Act, as re-stated by Allard in 1919. He was the undisputed head of the public service. But he was much more. He achieved his dominance and independence from political interference by ensuring that he made himself indispensable. Six premiers, from both sides of politics, came to depend on him for shrewd counsel and advice. His standing with the Australian Labor Party was enhanced by the high regard in which he was held by Chifley. McKell considered him his chief adviser, even at premiers' conferences and the Loan Council. James McGirr and Joseph Cahill were happy to continue these arrangements. (Sir) Robert Menzies recalled these conferences and meetings with the comment: 'I have always regarded him [Wurth] as the most perfect public servant we have ever had in Australia. He used to listen . . . make notes and not say a word. Yet, I'm sure he would go out after the meeting and tell Joe Cahill exactly what he should do'. Although Cahill and Wurth 'struck sparks' early in their dealings they were soon on the best of terms. Cahill had a direct telephone line connected to the chairman's office; Wurth spent much time sitting in on ministerial conferences. He kept ministers in line by his control over their personal staff appointments and office accommodation. In the ultimate negation of Westminster principles, at one stage he received all cabinet minutes for comment as well as preparing the premier's policy speeches for the elections of 1953, 1956 and 1959, delegating the actual writing to selected subordinates. As the Opposition 'couldn't wait to use him themselves when they got into office', no one objected to this practice. His political influence reached its apogee with Robert Heffron. Their relationship was of long standing; the Wurth and Heffron families had been friends since the 1940s.

Many ministers were in his debt; one stated publicly that he 'knows everything . . . the minute one of us gets into a bit of trouble he's the first man we go to'. Nevertheless, Wurth did not always get his way. Senior appointments sometimes involved compromises: Clive Evatt, the left-wing minister who held various portfolios between 1941 and 1956, was constantly at odds with Wurth over public service and personal staff appointments, sharing Lang's dislike of the board and calling for its abolition.

Wurth's intimacy with premiers and ministers enabled him to achieve a long-cherished goal: after the war he set about founding a technical university. His manpower experiences had highlighted the shortage of scientists and engineers and the importance of the technical professions to Australia. He had little time for the humanities, preferring practical subjects such as medicine, engineering, the sciences and, to a lesser extent, industrial psychology. The proposed institute of technology was approved by cabinet in July 1946. Wurth visited Britain to seek staff, but found little enthusiasm. On his return he used his position to secure administrative staff and the former Kensington racecourse as a suitable site for the New South Wales University of Technology (University of New South Wales from 1958). One quarter of its board were senior public servants—the president and director respectively were Wurth and Arthur Denning, director of technical education, while Joseph Bourke, from the Public Service Board, occupied the powerful post of bursar. The image of 'Wurth's circus' was that of a government department. Inevitably there were clashes between the academic staff and the administration. In 1955 Wurth assumed the title of chancellor.

One indulgence he did allow himself was a whisky at 5.30 p.m. with the secretary of the board before leaving half an hour later with his files, but this small relaxation was not sufficient to compensate for his cardiac problems. His first heart attack occurred in October 1956, after which he visited Europe for three months with his elder son to recuperate. 'Recuperation' took the form of investigating the New South Wales government offices in London. On his return to the board Wurth ignored medical advice to limit his workload, despite a second attack in 1957. The prospect of retirement in January 1961 held no allure. No sportsman, he had, by 1960, become president of the board of trustees of the Australian Museum and of Nielsen-Vaucluse Park, a member of the Soldiers' Children Education Board, and a patron of a number of sporting bodies.

Nursing a 'lingering distrust' of Catholics, Wurth engineered the appointment (announced in August 1960) of John Goodsell, president of the Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board and a nominal Methodist, as his successor—although most of the cabinet ministers were Catholics. He died of myocardial infarction on 16 September 1960 at St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife and their two sons survived him.

As a person Wurth was enigmatic. An anti-intellectual, he established a major Australian university; an allegedly Liberal voter, he helped substantially in the electoral success of Labor governments by ensuring a virtually corruption-free public service and by providing wise counsel. A passionate defender of a public service free from political patronage, he ruled in a ruthless and pragmatic manner. He made decisions quickly, 'without agonizing'. He bequeathed little theory of administration, declaring that his philosophy was simple: 'Get things done!' His published writings were few and conveyed his no-nonsense approach to administration. The University of New South Wales remains Wurth's most enduring legacy. An equivalent achievement (although not yet fully acknowledged) was creating and managing the Directorate of Manpower during World War II. Although the Public Service Board no longer exists, for over two decades he worked to restore its position as the linchpin of New South Wales public administration. From it he achieved a degree of political influence rarely equalled by any public servant in Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People 1939-1941 (Canb, 1952)
  • S. J. Butlin, War Economy 1939-1942 (Canb, 1955)
  • S. J. Butlin and C. B. Shedvin, War Economy 1942-1945 (Canb, 1977)
  • P. O'Farrell, University of New South Wales, a Portrait (Syd, 1999)
  • Public Administration (Sydney), 8, no 4, Dec 1949, p 149, 20, no 1, Mar 1961
  • Observer (Sydney), 22 Aug 1959
  • Bulletin, 4 May 1960
  • B. N. Moore, Administrative Style: Its Effect on the Functioning of an Organisation (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 1985)
  • Public Service Board (New South Wales), Annual Report, 1920-60, and records, 13/12303-13/12330 (State Records New South Wales)
  • honours, A463, item 1959/6659 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ross Curnow, 'Wurth, Wallace Charles (1896–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wurth-wallace-charles-12080/text21673, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 October 2014.

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

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