Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Reginald Halligan (1894–1968)

by Roger C. Thompson

This article was published:

James Reginald Halligan (1894-1968), public servant, was born on 8 November 1894 in East Melbourne, third child of John Joseph Halligan, a printer from Ireland, and his Victorian-born wife Elizabeth Jane, née Rourke. Educated at Christian Brothers' College, East Melbourne, Reg entered the Commonwealth Public Service on 25 October 1911 as a clerk in the Department of External Affairs. In 1916 he transferred to the Department of Home and Territories. For six months in 1922-23 he was relieving accountant at Rabaul, in the mandated Territory of New Guinea, and in 1925 revisited that country to investigate the public service there. In 1927 he gained a diploma of commerce from the University of Melbourne.

In that year Halligan moved to Canberra where, in 1931, he was attached to the new territories branch in the Prime Minister's Department. Promoted senior clerk, in 1933 he became head of his branch and accompanied ministers on numerous visits to the territories. At St Patrick's Catholic Church, Braddon, on 21 November 1936 he married Marjorie Millicent Grosvenor; she had been confidential typist to the prime minister and cabinet, and had been appointed M.B.E. (1934). In 1937 Halligan was acting-administrator of Norfolk Island. He was elevated to assistant-secretary in the Department of External Territories in 1942 and was its secretary from 1944 to 1951.

Known as 'happy Halligan' for his ready smile, he was a short, dapper man, with brown hair, 'sparkling' brown eyes and a quiet nature. He was a keen golfer, a 'social' tennis player and loyal to his friends; he was, as well, a staunch Catholic. Inclined to stubbornness, he had definite opinions, an excellent memory and agility at mental arithmetic. Partly because he was a 'workaholic', he enjoyed good relations with his ministers: Sir George Pearce had praised him in 1937 for 'his fine work and enthusiasm'.

For all that, Halligan was an unimaginative bureaucrat who showed no evidence that he read the growing literature on colonial administration. In 1940 his branch was condemned by (Sir) Frederic Eggleston as having 'nobody . . . who is fitted by training and education to run a department with the complicated problems with which this one has to deal' or with 'knowledge of the problems of native administration'. To (Sir) Paul Hasluck, Halligan was 'a devoted, likable and thoroughly good man, helpful, warm-hearted and kindly', but he also saw him as 'a dutiful man for pushing files around . . . so long as the top paper on a file had some suitable minute on it, initialled and dated, he felt that the immediate needs of administration had been achieved'. When Hasluck became minister for territories in 1951, Halligan was passed over as departmental secretary because 'he would not help me to break new ground'.

From 1951 until his retirement on 7 November 1959 he was Hasluck's special adviser. Senior Australian member (1948-59) of the South Pacific Commission, and British and Christmas Island phosphate commissioner for Australia (1952-62), Halligan was appointed O.B.E. in 1960. He died on 21 November 1968 at Canberra Hospital and was buried in Canberra cemetery; his wife and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Hasluck, A Time for Building (Melb, 1976)
  • Eggleston papers (National Library of Australia)
  • A518, G800/1/1 and CP136/1, bundle 1/12 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Roger C. Thompson, 'Halligan, James Reginald (1894–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 November, 1894
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


21 November, 1968 (aged 74)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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