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Sir Alan Thomas Carmody (1920–1978)

by Robert Hyslop

This article was published:

Sir Alan Thomas Carmody (1920-1978), public servant, was born on 8 September 1920 at Malvern, Melbourne, son of Thomas James Carmody, telephone mechanic, and his wife Elsie Annie, née Ramsay, both Victorian born. A member of the ground staff of No.3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, in World War I, Thomas had been awarded the Meritorious Service Medal and Bar for bravery. Alan was educated at St Patrick's College, Goulburn, New South Wales, and joined the Commonwealth Public Service on 18 March 1937 as a clerk in the central office of the Department of Trade and Customs, Canberra. He studied at Canberra University College and played Rugby Union football. In 1940 he enlisted in the Citizen Air Force of the Royal Australian Air Force; commissioned in February 1943, he specialized as a radar officer. On 25 October 1944 in St Patrick's Catholic Church, Adelaide, he married Elizabeth Mary Brennan.

Demobilized in 1945, Carmody resumed his public service career and graduated (B.A., 1946; B.Com., 1947; M.Com., 1950) from the University of Melbourne. In May 1948 he became a research officer with the Tariff Board in that city. While serving in London in 1950-52, he completed postgraduate study at the University of Leeds (M.Com., 1952). Having returned to the Department of Trade and Customs, Canberra, he rejoined the Tariff Board in Melbourne as chief executive officer in 1958. Four years later he was a deputy-secretary in the Canberra office of the Department of Trade and was earning a reputation as a protectionist. In 1964 he was appointed O.B.E. On 12 May 1966 he became comptroller-general of customs and head of the Department of Customs and Excise (later Department of Police and Customs).

Embarking on a programme of management innovation and departmental reform, Carmody overhauled and simplified procedures for customs clearance of passengers and goods entering Australia. He initiated new, uniform censorship provisions to remove many of the anomalies that existed in Commonwealth and State practices, and improved arrangements for combating the illegal import of narcotics. His department was one of the first to make extensive use of computers. He was elevated in 1971 to C.B.E. In 1975 he advocated the establishment of an agency to be known as the Australia Police, headed by himself. This body was to be formed by amalgamating the Australian Capital Territory, Northern Territory and Commonwealth police forces with sections of Carmody's existing department. Modelled on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the force was envisaged as having powers to deal with large-scale smuggling and white-collar crime, and was expected to centralize customs, security, narcotics surveillance and Federal police work. When Malcolm Fraser's government came to office late that year, the project was abandoned and Carmody was made secretary of the Department of Business and Consumer Affairs.

His appointment to head the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in September 1976 surprised many people, among them Carmody. The Sydney Morning Herald claimed that the prime minister and his departmental head would make 'an odd pair. Where Mr Fraser is reserved, stilted and severe, Mr Carmody is exuberant, relaxed and jolly'. Carmody retained his buoyant and extroverted nature, despite his onerous duties and persistent angina. He worked energetically to maintain the department's high standards and to extend its capacity to provide independent advice to the prime minister across the full range of Federal government responsibilities. Lacking a background in parliamentary and cabinet practice, he concentrated on other departmental roles, particularly matters involving economics, security and the police. For recreation, he developed a grazing property near Canberra, an activity which sometimes obtruded upon his departmental responsibilities. He was knighted in 1978.

Carmody was essentially a Customs man: it took half of his total career and ten of his twelve years as departmental secretary. He had the ability to accommodate the differing personalities and styles of successive ministers. In a typical encomium, a former minister described him as 'one of the bureaucracy's ablest and most highly respected practitioners'. Carmody saw himself as a man who could get things done. His 'can do' approach invited the criticism that he occasionally acted before he had given a problem sufficient thought. About 5 ft 7 ins (170 cm) tall and eleven stone (70 kg) in weight, he was impatient of polish, disliked having to 'dress up' and was far 'too busy to publish anything'. A practising Catholic, he was conservative on social issues. Sir Alan died suddenly of coronary vascular disease on 12 April 1978 in his Red Hill home and was buried in Canberra cemetery; his wife, two daughters and three sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Management Newsletter, 30 Jan 1968
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Mar 1975, 17, 24 Sept 1976, 13 Apr 1978
  • Canberra Times, 17 Sept 1976, 13 Apr 1978
  • Financial Review, 20 Sept 1976, 13 Apr 1978
  • National Times, 20-25 Sept 1976, 3-8 Apr 1978
  • Nation Review, 28 July-3 Aug 1977
  • Age (Melbourne), 13 Apr 1978
  • Australian, 13 Apr 1978
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Robert Hyslop, 'Carmody, Sir Alan Thomas (1920–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 27 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 September, 1920
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


12 April, 1978 (aged 57)
Red Hill, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.