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Sir David John Muir (1916–1986)

by Bronwyn Stevens

This article was published:

Sir David John Muir (1916-1986), public servant, was born on 20 June 1916 in Brisbane, son of Brisbane-born parents John Arthur Muir, boilermaker, and his wife Grace Elizabeth, née McIntyre. David was educated at Kangaroo Point State and State Commercial High schools; at high school he learned shorthand and typing. He joined the Lands Department in the Queensland Public Service in 1932, during the Depression.

After transferring to the Premier and Chief Secretary’s Department as a records and correspondence clerk, Muir was appointed secretary to Premier Forgan Smith in 1939. When Forgan Smith left the government in 1942, to become chairman of the Central Sugar Cane Prices Board, Muir went with him as investigations officer and secretary to the chairman. In 1942-43 Muir also acted as secretary to royal commissions into the sugar and cotton industries. On 6 June 1942 at St Mary’s Church of England, Kangaroo Point, he married Joan Haworth, a typist. He served (1940-43) on the Anglican Diocesan Council, Brisbane.

In 1945 Muir returned to the Premier’s Department as official secretary to the acting premier, later premier, Ned Hanlon. In 1948, after a time as assistant-secretary, Muir was appointed under-secretary of the Premier and Chief Secretary’s Department. Aged 32, the youngest person to lead the department, he was an associate of the Institute of Accountants and a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries. He was clerk of the Executive Council concurrently. The department suffered from lingering postwar shortages and an increase in violent industrial disputes amplified the pressure on the under-secretary.

Appointed Queensland agent-general in London in 1951, Muir arrived in time to work on the conclusion of the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement. His earlier career had equipped him well to undertake this work, which was crucial to Queensland’s economic future. He also represented Australia (1951-63, chairman 1958) on the International Sugar Council.

Muir brought enthusiasm, administrative skills and close contact with the premier and his department to the position of agent-general. His reports indicate that he reorganised the office, delegating more administrative work to the official secretary, and thus allowing the agent-general to concentrate on policy and representational work. He also focused on increasing the ways Queensland was promoted, both through the displays at Queensland House and by reaching out to a wide range of businesses including banks, shipping companies and airlines. His duties initially included purchasing goods on behalf of Queensland departments, re-establishing Queensland exports to Britain despite continuing postwar shipping shortages, and encouraging British migration to Queensland. Later the emphasis shifted to fostering tourism and seeking investment in Queensland resources and industries. Muir was also involved in organising Queensland representation at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and in preparing for her 1954 visit to the State. Keen to publicise Queensland, he travelled extensively throughout Britain and occasionally in Europe. Muir was appointed CMG in 1959 and knighted in 1961. For four months in 1964 he served as president of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries in England.

Muir returned to Queensland as director of the new Department of (Commercial and) Industrial Development and chairman of the Queensland Industries Assistance Board, positions he held from 1964 to 1977. He actively pursued investment in Queensland’s minerals and secondary industry, presenting many talks to potential investors. To attract investment specifically in manufacturing, industrial estates were developed with cheap land for sale or rental and a variety of incentives was provided to encourage the establishment of new industries.

In 1977 Muir was appointed chairman of the Queensland Public Service Board. This position carried with it substantial authority over the public service, the largest workforce in the State. After looking carefully at the operations of the board, he instituted a review of the structure and work practices, aimed at improving efficiency and the services offered to divisional clients. He brought his personal philosophy on employment to the reorganisation. A believer in promotion on merit, he sought to foster training at all levels. He supported exchanges with other departments, other governments and the private sector. While he thought some matters should remain centralised under board control, he did encourage increased delegation of authority to departmental secretaries. He emphasised the importance of communication and held regular meetings with divisional heads, departmental secretaries and relevant union leaders. These were themes in his 1980 lecture, Reflections on the Administrative Machinery of Government.

Muir was appointed parliamentary commissioner for administrative investigations (ombudsman) in 1979, the second person to hold the post. This office was independent of ministerial direction; Muir reported directly to parliament. He had moved from heading public agencies to investigating their decisions; he saw his role as protecting ‘the interests of the ordinary citizen in the field of public administration’.

Slight, dark haired and of average height, Muir appeared in earlier photographs to be an eager young man; in later life he became white haired and distinguished looking. Interested in gardening and golf, he was a member of Royal Queensland Golf Club. His enthusiasm for the visual arts and film was central to the way he promoted Queensland while agent-general but perhaps his greatest passion was for the arts, particularly theatre and opera. Foundation chairman of the Queensland Theatre Company in 1969-77, he was president of the Brisbane Light Opera Company and a patron of the Caloundra Chorale and of the Little Theatre Group.

Muir combined his experience in public administration with his love of the arts when he was appointed the first chairman of the Queensland Cultural Centre Trust in 1976, after being involved with the earliest development of the project. The trust’s duties included facilitating activities in the arts, science, culture and performing arts throughout Queensland and the development of the Performing Arts Centre and the buildings that would comprise the South Bank cultural precinct. In 1986 Muir was the first recipient of the Queensland arts medal.

Sir David died of cancer on 23 March 1986 at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, and was cremated. His wife and their daughter and son survived him. At a memorial concert Verdi’s Requiem was sung to commemorate his contribution to the arts in Queensland. In Muir’s fifty-four years of work, his understanding of the role of a public servant, his often innovative approach, his international experience and his willingness to embrace change contributed to the transformation of the Queensland public service and economy.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Scott et al, The Engine Room of Government (2001)
  • Royal Historical Society of Queensland Journal, vol 8, no 2, 1966-67, p 246
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 1 June 1942, p 6, 27 July 1945, p 5, 10 June 1977, p 8, 24 Mar 1986, p 3
  • F. Fisher, taped interview with D. Muir (1983, University of Queensland).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bronwyn Stevens, 'Muir, Sir David John (1916–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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