Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Atlee Arthur Hunt (1864–1935)

by Helen M. Davies

This article was published:

Atlee Arthur Hunt (1864-1935), lawyer and public servant, was born on 7 November 1864 at Baroonda station on the Fitzroy River, Queensland, son of Arthur Hunt, grazier and later a footwear manufacturer, from Middlesex, England, and his Adelaide-born wife Hannah, née Watson. He was educated at Balmain Public School and Sydney Grammar School. In 1879 he entered the New South Wales Lands Department as a junior clerk. He visited England in 1887, returned to Australia to study law, tutoring part time at Sydney Grammar School, and on 21 March 1892 was admitted to the New South Wales Bar. On 4 September 1897 he married Lilian Hunt, a second cousin.

In 1896, as junior counsel to A. Bruce Smith, he defended the colonial government in the two-year McSharry railway arbitration case. When the New South Wales Federal Association was formed in 1898 Hunt became secretary and in 1899 general secretary of the Federal League of Australasia. With (Sir) Robert Garran Hunt was part of that coterie which surrounded (Sir) Edmund Barton and planned the Federation campaign. When Barton became prime minister in 1901 Hunt accompanied him as his private secretary, managed his electoral campaign, and was sometimes taken for the prime minister himself because of his impeccable clothes. The diaries he kept during 1902 and 1904 contain sharp observations of the political figures with whom he mingled.

In May 1901 Barton appointed Hunt secretary and permanent head of the Department of External Affairs (to which, until 1909, the Prime Minister's Office was also attached). When the Commonwealth took responsibility for British New Guinea, Hunt, frustrated by lack of information and distance, undertook an official visit. His report of 1905, published as a parliamentary paper, argued for the immediate passage of the Papua bill (frustrated since 1903); it was passed in 1906. Hunt proposed that priority be given to agriculture and the establishment of a career public service for the territory. Complaints of administrative inefficiency led, through his intervention, to the royal commission of 1906 whose findings resulted in the dismissal of the administration. The commission approved Hunt's recommendations on the compulsory acquisition of native land and on the encouragement of native industry that paved the way for individuals and companies to settle and develop the territory.

Australian influence in the South-West Pacific also grew notably under Hunt. He awarded Burns Philp & Co. the mail services contract, influenced by their ownership of land in the New Hebrides at a time when he intended to promote the resettlement of soldiers returning from the South African War. Hunt also fought successfully for favourable conditions for British planters. When he attended the 1907 Imperial Conference with Deakin Hunt corresponded informally with the Colonial Office over the New Hebrides question, but the Anglo-French Condominium proclaimed at Vila in 1907 was decided without reference to the Commonwealth government.

Hunt had a major influence in the drafting of the immigration restriction bill and was responsible for the discretionary passport system for students, merchants and travellers from India or Japan. The Pacific Islands Labourers' Act (1902), whose provisions he also influenced, paved the way for the repatriation of islanders after 1906 though Hunt, heeding the appeals of a Pacific Islanders' Association founded in 1906, moved to allow certain exemptions. To deal with the problem of large numbers of Chinese stowaways Hunt set up an ever-widening circle of vigilant informants and in 1908 recommended stiff fines on shipowners, adopted in an amendment to the Immigration Restriction Act.

The establishment of the Australian High Commission in London in 1910 brought Australia's dealings with the Imperial government within the ambit of Hunt's department. In 1910 he was appointed C.M.G. and in 1911 again attended an Imperial Conference. He was henceforth suspected, however, for his conspicuous political associations by Labor prime ministers who dissociated themselves from the Department of External Affairs. When Andrew Fisher established an autonomous Prime Minister's Department in 1913 and appointed Malcolm Shepherd, a former subordinate of Hunt, permanent head, Hunt's department lost some of its prestige and status. In 1914 Hunt produced a report on Norfolk Island and in 1915 visited the Northern Territory whose proclamation in 1913 had added another significant responsibility to his department. On the rearrangement of departments in November 1916 Hunt became secretary and permanent head of the Department of Home and Territories. In 1918 he was appointed to a Federal committee to consider post-war problems connected with enemy aliens. He was a member of the royal commission appointed in 1919 which travelled to New Guinea and reported on the administration of the ex-German mandated territories.

In February 1921 Hunt was appointed the first public service arbitrator provided for by the Arbitration Public Service Act of 1920. Initially he made himself unpopular by stringent rulings on pay increases, on the grounds that the country could not sustain the costs. From 1923 when the Bruce-Page ministry set up the Public Service Board under the chairmanship of Sir Brudenell White relations between the board and the arbitrator were increasingly strained by Hunt's independent decisions. The board openly criticized Hunt and recommended abolition of his position. Hunt's tenure was renewed when his term expired in March 1928, but a special amending Act for retirement at 65 reduced his occupancy to November 1929. It was suspected that the government might not even appoint a successor and the future of arbitration became a major issue in the October 1929 election, lost by the Bruce-Page government. The Scullin government confirmed Hunt's appointment temporarily and he retired on 31 May 1930.

Dapper, courteous and kind, Hunt left a reputation for initiative, political acumen and common sense. The Federal Public Service Journal gratefully testified that 'His judgments are a sheer delight to read'. Always judicial, he concerned himself with establishing guiding principles of permanent value. Hunt was chairman of the Charities Board of Victoria several times after 1925 and honorary treasurer of the Royal Humane Society of Australasia. He died on 19 September 1935 at Perth, and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery with Anglican rites. His wife, two sons and a daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Punch (Melbourne), 24 Jan 1907, 2 July 1908
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Sept 1935
  • H. M. Davies, The Administrative Career of Atlee Hunt, 1901-1910 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1969), and for bibliography.

Citation details

Helen M. Davies, 'Hunt, Atlee Arthur (1864–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 November, 1864
Fitzroy River, Queensland, Australia


19 September, 1935 (aged 70)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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