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John Patrick (Jack) O'Neill (1910–1998)

by Tim Rowse

This article was published online in 2022

John Patrick O’Neill (1910-1998), public servant and statistician, was born on 1 September 1910 at Wynyard, Tasmania, youngest of four surviving children of John Patrick O’Neill, blacksmith, and his wife Isabella Eudora, neé Brewster, both Tasmanian born. Educated at Wynyard State School, then as a boarder at St Virgil’s College, Hobart, Jack excelled in both study and sport. The Tasmanian economist and statistician L. F. Giblin was sufficiently impressed by O’Neill’s school record to arrange his appointment (July 1928) to a clerical position in the local statistician’s branch of the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics.

The Public Service Board of Commissioners awarded O’Neill a free place to study commerce (part time) at the University of Tasmania in 1929. Afflicted with rheumatic fever, he failed to complete his degree and did not work for six years. He was compulsorily retired from the public service in 1933 but resumed work at the bureau in 1937 at the Hobart office, and then in Canberra under (Sir) Roland Wilson. During World War II he was outposted to the meteorology branch, Department of Air, and to the food control unit, Department of Commerce and Agriculture.

On 3 February 1943 at St Thomas’s Catholic Church, Naracoorte, South Australia, O’Neill married Martha Ann Stuart, a teacher. Rejoining the bureau, he confronted the challenges posed by the postwar expansion of its work, necessitated by the new policy of full employment. In 1945 the bureau published the first official set of national accounts. Thereafter, data on manpower, production, stocks, trade, economic indicators, and national accounts informed decisions of the Federal government. From September 1949 he was supervisor of the compiling division.

At the Canberra office O’Neill was known as a stickler for punctuality; bureau legend has him standing at a West Block window noting latecomers. He was made assistant statistician in 1954 and first assistant statistician in 1958. His rise coincided with the formation of a truly national statistical bureau. The Commonwealth, having already negotiated an agreement with the Tasmanian government in 1924, made agreements with other States in 1957 and 1958, providing for an integrated statistical service. He and his colleagues attained an unprecedented overview of Australian society rendered increasingly in statistical terms. The 1966 census was the first in which the bureau claimed exhaustive coverage of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations. However, under section 127 of the Constitution (repealed in 1967) Aboriginal totals characterised as ‘full blood’ were excluded from the national population tables until the 1968 yearbook.

In 1964 O’Neill had been appointed as a deputy Commonwealth statistician under Keith Archer, a fellow Tasmanian. Casting himself as ‘statistician’ and Archer as ‘organiser,’ he judged that together they ‘made a good man’ (1984, 4). The pair led at a time when technological progress threatened to outpace the knowledge of bureau staff. The bureau began to use computers in 1964, but running them required expertise then in short supply. O’Neill supported the bureau’s in-house training program and recruitment of information technology specialists from Britain.

Although O’Neill would later rue having ‘little influence’ (1984, 6) over the bureau, his colleagues credited him with championing several innovations. He pioneered new collections that used probability sampling for the first time in Australia’s official statistics. During the 1960s he supported the introduction of household interviews to gather the much-quoted labour force statistics. He was also the main advocate of seasonally adjusting monthly and quarterly estimates of national income and expenditure, despite opposition from Treasury.

After Archer suffered a stroke in December 1969, O’Neill became acting Commonwealth statistician. In early 1972 he was appointed Australia’s eighth occupant of the post. He continued to focus on methodological reforms, and he elevated the head of methodology so that this officer reported directly to him. Social data were added to economic data collections, responding to international and local expectations that governments were responsible for monitoring social trends relevant to well-being. ‘We don’t just add up figures,’ he remarked. ‘We’re aware of human problems’ (Frizell 1971, 6).

In 1973 the Whitlam government appointed political scientist L. F. Crisp to chair the Committee on Integration of Data Systems. The bureau was at risk of becoming just one of several agencies doing statistical work, and O’Neill was responsible for its submissions. The Crisp report recommended legislation to ensure that the bureau remain the nation’s central statistical authority, largely independent of government. O’Neill guided the development of the Australian Bureau of Statistics Act 1975 before retiring in August the same year. Following a long illness, he died on 11 October 1998 in Canberra and was cremated, survived by his wife and their two daughters.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Australia. Inquiry. Report of the Committee on Integration of Data Systems, April 1974. Canberra: Government Printer, 1975
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics. Informing a Nation: The Evolution of the Australian Bureau of Statistics 1905-2005. ABS Catalogue No. 1382.0. [Canberra]: The Bureau, 2005
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics. ‘Two Great Commonwealth Statisticians.’ Year Book Australia, 2000. ABS Catalogue No. 1301.0. Canberra: The Bureau, 2000
  • Canberra Times. ‘Outstanding Far-Sighted Leader.’ 20 November 1998, 8
  • Frizell, Helen. ‘The Census Man.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 19 June 1971, 6
  • O’Neill, J. P. Interview by Cameron Hazlehurst and Colin Forster, 14 March 1984. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Trewin, Dennis. Email to the author, 9 March 2021
  • Trewin, Dennis. ‘Jack O’Neill.’ ABS News 10, no. 4 (December 1998): 9

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Tim Rowse, 'O'Neill, John Patrick (Jack) (1910–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 19 May 2024.

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