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Sir William Ernest (Bill) Dunk (1897–1984)

by Nicholas Brown

This article was published:

Sir William Ernest (Bill) Dunk (1897-1984), public servant, was born on 11 December 1897 at Morgan, South Australia, fifth of six children of Albert Landseer Dunk, clerk, and his wife Winifred Jane, née Gibbs, whose grandfather, Thomas Young Cotter, had been South Australia’s first colonial surgeon. Bill’s childhood was spent in this small, busy river port until, supported by his elder brothers, he moved from the local two-room school to Kapunda High School. In 1914 he took the Commonwealth Public Service clerical entrance examination and was appointed to the Commonwealth AuditorGeneral’s Office in Adelaide.

As a junior customs clerk, Dunk endured the tedium of bureaucracy. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 26 April 1918 and served in Egypt from November. Back in Australia, he was discharged in May 1919. Marriage to Elma Kathleen Evans, great-granddaughter of George Fife Angas on 20 April 1922 at St Matthew’s Church of England, Kensington, Adelaide, brought fresh ambition. In 1924 he completed a correspondence diploma in accountancy with the Federal Institute of Accountants and in 1928 secured appointment as government auditor for the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. Intended to enhance Dunk’s prospects of promotion, this experience exerted an enduring influence, impressing on him the challenge (as he later put it) of achieving `self-respect all round’ in colonial and Indigenous development.

On his return to Adelaide in 1930, exposure to the strains of economic depression stimulated Dunk’s expanding interests in the role of government. Frustrated by a lack of advancement, in 1934 he was transferred to the London office to audit the Commonwealth Bank. Often assisting that shrewd negotiator, the Australian high commissioner Stanley Melbourne (Viscount) Bruce, Dunk was also unravelling the residual financial legacy of World War I and auditing an extensive registry of public borrowing. When, in 1938, he returned to the bank’s central office in Sydney, his friends included the young economists Leslie Melville and H. C. (`Nugget’) Coombs.

Recruited to the Treasury in 1939, Dunk moved to Melbourne in September to assist the Board of Business Administration in bringing the expertise of senior consultants (initially Essington Lewis, (Sir) Norman Myer and Sir George Pearce to bear on defence expenditure. Given the lack of clear procedures, and the need to adjudicate shifting, competing demands and to wage war `on the cheap’, this work required endurance and versatility. Dunk’s adaptability, which impressed Ben Chifley when he became treasurer in 1941, led to his appointment to the defence division of Treasury, as liaison officer overseeing expenditure in the Department of Defence.

With the entry of the United States of America into World War II, the support of Allied operations in the Pacific added to these responsibilities. In 1942 Dunk was appointed director of reciprocal Lend-Lease finance, managing the cash-free supply of American munitions, equipment, machine tools and fuel in exchange for food, clothing, ammunition and facilities. Overall, Lend-Lease achieved an effective division of labour of which Dunk was proud, but he was also aware of its implications for future balances of economic power. Observing meetings in Ottawa and Washington in 1944, Dunk marvelled at the skill of Baron Keynes in gaining support for British and Commonwealth reconstruction from legalistic and competition-minded Americans. He was soon to engage in similar wrangling with US officials, who required strict accounting for any equipment remaining in Australia at the end of the war.

Dunk insisted that the war economy offered opportunities to pursue aggressive policies of national development, denouncing as `dangerously soporific’ any focus on `juggling budgets’ when ventures in industry, trade and population expansion beckoned. Surprised to be offered the job of secretary of the Department of External Affairs in 1945 by its minister, Bert Evatt, he hoped to advance linked economic and diplomatic initiatives. Instead he felt cast as the `glorified staff manager’ for a rapidly expanding and strained department, attending to personnel questions and marginalised from Evatt’s clique of policy advisers. Tensions with his choleric minister increased, but Dunk twice declined the offer of appointment as chairman of the Commonwealth Public Service Board, only accepting it in March 1947 under personal pressure from Chifley—and immediately questioning his decision when offered a more lucrative executive position in Vacuum Oil Co. Pty Ltd.

Having come up `through the ranks’ of the public service, Dunk was highly qualified for the chairmanship. Most recently, at External Affairs he had become concerned that the privileges of training accorded to diplomatic cadets should be extended to officers in other departments similarly charged with expanding the charters of government (but not all, presumably, to be invited to the Sunday teas Elma hosted for new cadets). Equally, having shared an austere flat in Canberra with Coombs, or camped in Evatt’s house while the minister was travelling, Dunk also insisted that the quality of government would only improve with the conditions under which its `servants’ lived and worked in the `bush capital’. He soon advised Chifley that the national bureaucracy was `run down and out of date’, showing the strains not only of war, but of the Depression and even World War I before that. `Civilisation is management’ was a brash aphorism, but it expressed Dunk’s priorities for the board: recruitment to address generational and skill imbalances; advanced training methods; salaries to attract and hold the `sound, plain-speaking intelligent man’; improvement of allowances and amenities; and, overall, efficiency and economy.

Dunk promoted modern methods such as the use of film in training and `geometric’ office design. Beyond these ideals, he was soon dealing with harder political and industrial constraints. Scrutiny of the size of the public service intensified after the change of government in 1949 and in response to the inflationary pressures of the early 1950s. With no consultation, in 1951 Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies announced the retrenchment of ten thousand Commonwealth employees `as an example’, just as departmental heads complained of understaffing and as under-represented groups, such as women, gained employment, often in temporary positions. These pressures also emerged in marginal wage claims, leading to bitter disputes and, in 1956, crippling stoppages. While Dunk sought to be open, consultative and devolutionist in style, he was uncomfortable with strong unionism and faced departmental resistance to change. Confidentially, he feared `institutional protection’ was replacing `individual responsibility’; publicly, he held firm to a lean diet of `standards’, striking the gruff pose of balancing conflicting interests.

These demands aside, Dunk remained committed to introducing competitive entry and promotion opportunities, enabling the best candidates to advance to senior administrative positions. By 1959 the report of the Boyer committee of inquiry into public service recruitment consolidated arguments that Dunk had made through each of his three terms of appointment—although still encountering suspicions of creating an elite. Reservations had also met Dunk’s advice to Menzies in 1955 on departmental amalgamations, following his dictum on `the maximum use of firm unbroken lines’ in policy. The creation of an `embracive’ Department of Trade in 1956 was, however, a source of satisfaction, as was the increasing recognition of Canberra as the appropriately planned and developed centre of national government.

A conscientious chairman, Dunk admitted to sometimes feeling `tensed-up’ but prided himself in never using leave entitlements and took comfort from the prestige of the job. Stocky, brisk in manner and clipped in speech, he lacked the prominence of other senior public servants but exerted considerable influence through personal networks. In 1948 he advised, with Coombs, on the restructuring of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to address security concerns; into the 1950s he regretted the polarisation of Cold War politics, feared nuclear annihilation, and urged Sir Percy Spender to strengthen the ANZUS alliance through pre-positioning American weaponry in Australia. He lobbied hard for ambitious mining and pastoral development in the Northern Territory, declaring it `crazy’ that Aboriginal reserves should interfere with mineral exploration. Conversely, he pestered (Sir) Paul Hasluck, as minister for territories, to transfer `the main elements of government to the natives’ of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea as soon as possible. He noted the decline of Labor policy into `soft social service philosophy’ but worried that Liberal governments lacked the imagination for ambitious public works programs.

In 1959 Dunk announced his intention to retire and began grooming the steely (Sir) Frederick Wheeler as his successor. When he left the board at the end of 1960 its status was enhanced, and the public service in general transformed, relative to 1947. Appointed CBE in 1953, knighted in 1957, and flattered to be nominated to the Melbourne Club by Richard Gavin (Baron) Casey and William Robinson, Dunk declared `Australia is my hobby’. Having retired to Toorak, Melbourne, he became chairman of Sitmar Line (Australia) Pty Ltd and of General Television Corporation Pty Ltd, and Australian representative (1962-70) on the British and Christmas Island Phosphate Commissions. Always self-conscious about his `grim visage’, he remained active, playing bowls, savouring cigars, and publishing characteristically laconic memoirs, They Also Serve (1974). Survived by his wife and their daughter and son, he died on 12 January 1984 at Prahran, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Nation (Sydney), 20 June 1959, p 9, 4 July 1959, p 14
  • series B2455, item Dunk W E (National Archives of Australia)
  • M. Pratt, interview with W. Dunk (transcript, 1971, National Library of Australia)
  • Dunk papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Thematic Essay

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Nicholas Brown, 'Dunk, Sir William Ernest (Bill) (1897–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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