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William Alexander McLaren (1898–1973)

by Ian Carnell

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William Alexander McLaren (1898-1973), public servant, was born on 8 May 1898 in Sydney, elder son of Australian-born parents William McLaren, carpenter, and his wife Esther May, née Manning. Educated at Woollahra Public and Sydney Technical High schools, in 1917 Bill passed the Leaving certificate examination and was dux of his school.  He studied (1917-18) science at the University of Sydney until he was struck down by pneumonic influenza. While there he served briefly (September 1918-January 1919) in the Australian Imperial Force, but did not leave Australia.  In 1920 he joined the New South Wales Public Service. He worked with the Department of Audit (1920-24) and the State Superannuation Board before becoming (1936) an inspector with the Treasury. At St Peter's Anglican Church, Watsons Bay, on 14 September 1935 he married Doris Elsie Josephine Brooks (d.1951), a 31-year-old dancing teacher; they were to have two children.

When it launched a War Service Land Settlement scheme in 1945, the Federal government was determined to avoid problems encountered by the State schemes after World War I. It aimed to settle fewer men, but to settle them 'properly'. McLaren was appointed director. His division examined State-initiated proposals, and funded training courses, living allowances and credit arrangements. Although some States (New South Wales in particular) chafed at Commonwealth intervention, the undertaking was largely successful.

In 1949 the scheme came under the control of the Department of the Interior, of which McLaren was appointed secretary. His department had many diverse functions, including administering the Australian Capital Territory and managing public service transfers from Melbourne to Canberra. (Sir) William Dunk, chairman of the Commonwealth Public Service Board, was so frustrated by slow progress with the transfers that he damned the Department of the Interior for showing 'neither activity nor imagination'. None the less, the blunt McLaren did drive his staff hard. Some found him an easy man with whom to have an argument, and his deputy H. A. Barrenger was often obliged to act as peacemaker. McLaren had little time for the National Capital Planning and Development Committee or for the A.C.T. Advisory Council: 'You get sick and tired of waiting for decisions from these committees'. He was equally forthright in defending his department against adverse reports by the auditor-general. Under McLaren, householders lost benefits such as free water and hedge-clipping. In 1954 he was appointed C.B.E.

McLaren was unenthusiastic about Walter Burley Griffin's plan for the national capital; in his eyes an art gallery and an opera house would be 'white elephants' in Canberra. In 1953 the Department of the Interior made a hasty attempt to restrict Griffin's 'West Lake' to a 'ribbon of water': the proposal was abandoned in the face of parliamentary criticism. A strong and independent National Capital Development Commission was established in 1958. Rankled by this initiative, McLaren responded to the N.C.D.C.'s early requests for assistance with such comments as 'Pig's arse' and 'Find your own bloody office', but a satisfactory working relationship gradually developed.

At the Church of St John the Baptist, Canberra, on 23 April 1952 McLaren had married Phyllis Maude Coles, a 39-year-old manageress. He was an active member of the Royal Canberra Golf and Canberra Bowling clubs. Soon after his retirement in 1963, he moved to Moruya, New South Wales. Survived by his wife, and by the son and daughter of his first marriage, he died on 30 September 1973 at Moruya and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Department of Post-war Reconstruction, The Farmer was a Fighting Man (Canb, 1949)
  • W. Dunk, They Also Serve (Canb, 1974)
  • J. Gibbney, Canberra 1913-1953 (Canb, 1988)
  • E. Sparke, Canberra 1954-1980 (Canb, 1988)
  • J. Overall, Canberra (Canb, 1995)
  • Canberra Times, 19 Mar 1963, 1 Oct 1973
  • J. J. Dedman papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Ian Carnell, 'McLaren, William Alexander (1898–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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