Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir Neil Smith Currie (1926–1999)

by Chad Mitcham

This article was published online in 2023

Neil Smith Currie (1926–1999), diplomat and public servant, was born on 20 August 1926 at Mackay, Queensland, younger son of Scottish-born parents (Sir) George Alexander Currie, company manager and later agricultural scientist and educationist, and his wife Margaret, née Smith, who had been the first female lecturer in geology and zoology at the University of Aberdeen. In 1929 the family moved to Canberra, where George joined the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Neil attended Ainslie Public and Canberra High schools. After his father accepted a professorship at the University of Western Australia (UWA) in 1939 and relocated the family to Perth, he continued his studies at Wesley College (1939–43). He displayed abilities in both academe and sport, representing the school in athletics, Australian Rules football, cricket, and hockey. A school prefect, he also enrolled as a cadet in the Air Training Corps of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Reserve to prepare for service in World War II.

During 1944 Currie began studies in economics, history, and languages at UWA. Continuing to excel in sport, he represented the university in hockey, rowing, and Australian Rules football. RAAF recruit interviewers noted that he was ‘tall,’ with a ‘good physique,’ ‘pleasing manner,’ and ‘keen [and] enthusiastic’ personality, and described him as ‘a splendid type’ with ‘qualities of leadership’ (NAA A9301). He enlisted as an air crewman on 2 February 1945, beginning pilot training and reaching the rank of leading aircraftman.

While awaiting demobilisation, Currie studied Japanese at the RAAF School of Languages, Point Cook, Victoria. He was discharged on 5 October 1945, and returned to UWA (BA, 1948) under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. After graduating, he moved to Canberra to begin a diplomatic cadetship in the Australian Department of External Affairs (DEA). In his spare time he represented Canberra University College in cricket and played for the Turner Football Club, achieving selection for the Canberra side that travelled to Perth in 1949. He also became engaged to Geraldine Evelyn ‘Geb’ Dexter, the sister of a fellow DEA cadet, Barrie Dexter. Following her graduation from Melbourne Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, she had been assistant librarian at the National Herbarium, Melbourne, before becoming secretary to Samuel Wadham in the department of agriculture at the University of Melbourne.

Completing his cadetship, in 1950 Currie was appointed third secretary of the DEA’s third division unattached. In September he was posted to the Australian diplomatic mission in Tokyo. On 19 May 1951 he and Geraldine were married in the grounds of the mission. He soon developed a deep appreciation of Japan—its beauty, culture, crowded cities, and orderliness. In September 1953 he represented Australia at the International Labour Organization’s Asian Regional Conference, held in Tokyo.

The Curries returned to Canberra in December 1953, and Neil worked in the DEA’s United Nations section, while also resuming playing Australian Rules football. In late 1954 he attended sessions of the UN General Assembly in New York and, after being promoted in 1955, was a member-state observer at the UN Economic and Social Council’s twenty-first session in 1956. Later that year he was posted as second secretary and consul, Australian mission to the European office of the UN and consulate-general at Geneva. There he enhanced his reputation as an impressive public speaker with a high degree of proficiency in French. In January 1957 he was Australia’s representative at the intersessional committee of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), before attending the twelfth session of that accord as a joint secretary of the Australian delegation. By February 1959 he was acting permanent representative at the European office of the UN, and at the GATT’s fourteenth session in May that year was joint secretary of the Australian delegation, which was led by the secretary of trade, Sir John Crawford. Currie’s work at Geneva attracted attention and he was appointed first secretary/consul, but shortly thereafter was recruited by Crawford, who continued to build within the Department of Trade (DOT) what Sir John McEwen, the minister, would later describe as ‘an extraordinary team of Public Servants’ (McEwen 2013).

After returning to Canberra about June 1959, Currie transferred to the DOT, becoming an economic integration officer within its international trade relations branch. He gained experience of industry protection while working briefly in the imports division. In March 1962, with the Commonwealth government concerned about British efforts to join the European Economic Community, he was promoted to director of the Europe and North American division. By October 1964 he had risen to first assistant secretary, second division, in the new Department of Trade and Industry. He led the Australian delegation to GATT trade negotiations in 1966 before touring the United States of America in 1967 as an Eisenhower exchange fellow, studying American administration, management instruction methods, and government assistance to small business. In October 1968 he became a deputy secretary of the department when he was appointed head of the office of secondary industry.

Appointed secretary of the Department of Supply in 1971, Currie guided the integration of many of its staff and functions into the Department of Secondary Industry when that department was established late the following year. He was appointed OBE in 1972. When the DSI merged with the Department of Supply to create the Department of Manufacturing Industry in June 1974, he became its secretary. In that role he led a delegation to Tokyo to discuss with Japanese officials and domestic industry representatives the Commonwealth government’s new policy encouraging greater Australian content in foreign cars assembled in Australia. He was also a member of the committee created by the Australian Labor Party government of Gough Whitlam, and chaired by (Sir) Gordon Jackson, to advise on manufacturing industry policies.

When the Department of Industry and Commerce was established in December 1975, Currie was appointed secretary. He frequently visited Japan for matters pertaining to bilateral trade. In 1977 he was one of only two members of the Jackson committee who did not sign a statement criticising the Commonwealth government’s white paper calling for minimum government support for the manufacturing industry. That year he joined a study group, chaired by Crawford, that examined long-term structural adjustment in Australian industry. Between 1975 and 1982 he was a director of the Australian Industry Development Corporation and, in April 1978, he was appointed to his department’s travel and tourist industry advisory council, which provided a discussion forum to assist the expansion of that sector. In 1978 he was promoted to CBE.

Currie played an important role in talks leading to the Australia-New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement of March 1983. A member of the Australian delegation attending the New Zealand Australia Free Trade Agreement talks at Wellington in April 1979, he supported Department of Trade and Resources secretary Jim Scully’s position that ‘a customs union [was] the first step’ if the two countries’ economic relationship was ‘to expand’ (Border 1979, 8). He was subsequently included in a delegation, led by Scully, that visited Wellington in November for talks on closer trans-Tasman economic ties, and he and Scully would continue to promote the view that ‘Australia’s and New Zealand’s futures are indivisible’ (Andre 2003, 262).

Meanwhile, in June and July 1979, Currie accompanied the minister for industry and commerce, (Sir) Phillip Lynch, to Europe and the United States for talks, visiting the European Economic Community, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the French government, before continuing to Washington, New York, and San Francisco. These discussions focused on structural adjustment in the context of the conclusion of the GATT’s Tokyo round multilateral trade negotiations and the implementation of the resultant agreements. Prior to their arrival, the United States ambassador to Australia, Philip Alston junior, had reminded his colleagues of Currie’s Eisenhower exchange fellowship of twelve years earlier, saying that he was ‘a good friend of the United States’ and ‘probably the most authoritative [Australian] “Public Servant” spokesman on these issues’ (Alston 1979).

With the reorganisation of Commonwealth government departments by the Liberal-Country parties’ coalition government of Malcolm Fraser in May 1982, Currie became acting comptroller-general of customs, while his department acquired the building industry, housing, and customs and excise functions of the Department of Business and Consumer Affairs. Yet he did not want to handle the administrative elements of that department and perceived a ‘conflict in having the industry policy department administering things like customs with its by-laws, dumping procedures and so on’ (Rees 1982, 24). He therefore asked Fraser for another appointment.

In June 1982—just days before he was knighted—Currie was appointed Australian ambassador to Japan. Challenging any illusion that a special Australian-Japanese relationship would endure automatically, the Japanese government sought to reduce the country’s dependence on Australian raw materials, including iron ore and coal. Yet, while recognising that Australia’s ‘dependence’ on Japanese trade made it ‘very vulnerable,’ he continued to emphasise the ‘enormous untapped markets in Japan’ in foodstuffs, clothing, and mineral and food processing, as well as the ‘enormous growth potential’ (Fraser and Warry 1986, 10) for Japanese tourism to Australia. In March 1985 he opened the Australian pavilion at the International Exhibition, Tsukuba, Japan (or ‘Expo ’85’). Retiring in 1986, he was appointed to the board of directors of the Australia-Japan Foundation (AJF) (chairman 1989–93). The following year he became a director of the Westpac Banking Corporation (deputy chairman 1991–92).

A robust figure, Currie was a natural athlete. He is remembered as a proud Australian and an upright and loyal public servant, husband, and family man, who carried responsibilities well, exhibiting patience and timing in decision-making. A private person who did not seek centre stage, he adopted the Japanese practice of working on Saturday morning, which became his time for deep reflection and the only time he was completely unreachable. Sir Neil is perhaps best recalled as someone whose ‘name will always be inseparably linked with building relations with Japan’ and for his ‘significant contribution to the development of Australian trade and industry through both the government and private sectors’ (Farquharson 1999, 7). On retirement the Curries built a Japanese-style residence at Lilli Pilli on the New South Wales south coast, and he continued to be an enthusiastic golfer. He died on 30 July 1999 at Batemans Bay, survived by his wife and their two daughters and two sons; he was cremated. In 2000 the AJF established the Sir Neil Currie award program to commemorate his life and to promote the study of Australia in Japan.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Alston, Philip. Telegram to US Department of State, Brussels, 11 April 1979. WikiLeaks. Accessed 13 April 2023. https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/1979CANBER05155_e.html. Copy held on ADB file
  • Andre, Pamela, Stephen Payton, and John Mills, eds. The Negotiation of the Australia New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement 1983. [Canberra and Wellington]: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2003
  • Border to Parkinson, 12 April 1979. In The Negotiation of the Australia New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement 1983, edited by Pamela Andre, Stephen Payton, and John Mills, 8. [Canberra and Wellington]: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2003
  • Farquharson, John. ‘Sir Neil Smith Currie, CBE: Ambassador to Japan.’ Age (Melbourne), 17 August 1999, Today 7
  • Fraser, Andrew, and Catherine Warry. ‘Trade with Japan Could Grow, But with Change.’ Canberra Times, 14 August 1986, 10
  • McEwen, John. John McEwen: His Story. Canberra: The Nationals, 2013. Accessed 13 April 2023. https://www.page.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/John_McEwen_His_Story_-_John_McEwen.pdf. Copy held on ADB file
  • National Archives of Australia. A9301, 455211
  • National Library of Australia. MS 9547, Papers of Neil Currie, 1967–1993
  • Rees, Jacqueline. ‘Old Mandarins Fall from the Public Service Tree.’ Bulletin, 1 June 1982, 22–25

Additional Resources

Citation details

Chad Mitcham, 'Currie, Sir Neil Smith (1926–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/currie-sir-neil-smith-280/text25703, published online 2023, accessed online 26 May 2024.

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Life Summary [details]

Birth

20 August, 1926
Mackay, Queensland, Australia

Death

30 July, 1999 (aged 72)
Batemans Bay, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (bowel)

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