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Godfrey Alfred (Alf) Rattigan (1911–2000)

by Jonathan Pincus

This article was published online in 2024

Godfrey Alfred Rattigan, 1966

Godfrey Alfred Rattigan, 1966

National Archives of Australia, A1200, L55803

Godfrey Alfred (Alf) Rattigan (1911–2000), public servant, was born on 16 November 1911 at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, second of four children of Irish-born Godfrey Clarke Rattigan, electrical engineer, and his New South Wales-born wife Jeannie, née Handford. Entering the Royal Australian Naval College, Jervis Bay, Federal Capital Territory, in 1925, Alf trained at sea as a midshipman from 1929 but was retrenched in the naval reductions of 1930. He was sent on leave without pay, then seconded to the Royal Australian Air Force (July 1931) for aircrew training, before his naval appointment was terminated in January 1932.

By 1934 Rattigan was a wharf examining officer with the Department of Trade and Customs at Fremantle, Western Australia. On 11 May 1940 he married Sydney-born probationary nurse, Winifred Helen (Win) Odgers, at the district registrar’s office at Hurstville, New South Wales. In February 1942 he was appointed as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Australian Navy Volunteer Reserve, and in June 1942 promoted to lieutenant, in which capacity he served as transport officer at the shore establishment HMAS Melville in Darwin. His appointment was terminated in October 1944. He returned to the Department of Trade and Customs, and by 1951 had transferred to Canberra where he rose to become assistant comptroller-general in October 1954. When the department was divided into the Departments of Trade, and of Customs and Excise, in 1956, he was appointed to the former, ultimately becoming deputy secretary, before being appointed as comptroller-general of customs within the Department of Customs and Excise in July 1960.

Rattigan was to have his most profound influence on Australian economic policy through his association with the Tariff Board in its assessment of references from parliament for changes to tariffs and bounties, and later with the Industries Assistance Commission (IAC). From 1952 until 1960, the Federal government favoured direct controls on imports, with the tariff largely remaining in the background. After Sir Leslie Melville resigned as chairman of the Tariff Board in November 1962, the powerful protectionist minister for trade and industry and Country Party leader, (Sir) John McEwen, in a move he would come to regret, selected Rattigan to fill the position, and agreed to cede to him the staffing control that had been denied Melville. Formally appointed in May 1963, Rattigan’s career as a public servant became especially noteworthy once he skilfully and determinedly began working towards the systematic reduction in levels of protection afforded to Australian import-competing industries. In this, he overcame opposition from highly motivated and well-funded interest groups, as well as from the prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies, and other leading ministers and their departments.

Assiduously following procedures and instincts honed over an already long public service career, Rattigan examined the board’s functions, methods, and achievements, concluding that its recommendations were not based on coherent principles, and that it was either neglecting or incompetently fulfilling important statutory duties. He conveyed these findings to the Committee of Economic Inquiry (the ‘Vernon Committee’ 1963–65): its subsequent criticism of Australia’s tariff regime was condemned by the board’s majority, but helped to affirm Rattigan’s individual authority and resolve. Nonetheless, in 1965 he signed off on a major report recommending high rates of protection to the industrial chemicals industry. Meanwhile, his views on protection were firming as he talked to sceptics of the tariff regime, including the pastoralist and board member Richard Boyer, and the board official W. B. (Bill) Carmichael. He was also reading columnists critical of excessive protection, notably Maxwell Newton, and the Liberal parliamentarian Bert Kelly. They and others were conduits for the work of several academic economists, especially Max Corden.

Rattigan now set out to dismantle the tariff system insofar as it caused a costly misallocation of the nation’s scarce productive resources. This had arisen because the board, first, had left unexamined many high tariffs struck in the 1930s, despite its power to initiate inquiries; and, second, as it had recommended long-term rates product by product, a basis that favoured producers over consumers. His efforts would ultimately undermine the political and economic framework in which McEwen firmly believed: tariffs for secondary industry, and subsidies and other assistance for rural industry.

To thwart McEwen’s plans, Rattigan, in a major 1967 speech delivered over ministerial objection as an independent statutory officer, shrewdly echoed Menzies’s earlier statement that ‘the Tariff Board should have in its mind … the national economic objectives, as a whole’ (Menzies 1962, 14). Concurrently, the board’s 1966–67 annual report proposed categorising industries according to whether they enjoyed high, medium, or low levels of protection using a novel index, the ‘effective rate of protection,’ and then reviewing those in the ‘high’ bracket (Aust. Tariff Board 1967, 8–12).

Reappointed in 1968, Rattigan successfully resisted repeated efforts to compromise the board’s independence and skilfully dealt with its dissenting members, while the board’s researchers greatly bolstered its intellectual credentials. He and Carmichael cultivated close relations with sympathetic journalists, and Rattigan continued to deliver effective speeches. In December 1970, McEwen’s attempt to severely constrain the board by imposing new guidelines was foiled when his cabinet submission was leaked to the Australian. McEwen announced his retirement shortly afterwards, and in 1971 the board commenced a decade-long series of tariff reviews.

Immediately after the 1972 Federal election, Rattigan persuaded the new prime minister, Gough Whitlam, to shift the board to Whitlam’s own portfolio, rather than be subject to a potentially unsympathetic minister in Jim Cairns. In July 1973 the government, acting on the advice of an informal and secret committee that Rattigan chaired, cut all but revenue tariffs (those designed to raise income for the government) by 25 per cent, a blunt initiative not based on any ‘facts, figures or detailed examination of potentially vulnerable industries’ (Reid 1976, 111). Although there was to be some backtracking, significant tariff reform had begun.

Under Whitlam, a self-proclaimed ‘strong Rattigan man’ (Kelly 2016, 2), the board became the IAC from January 1974, with Rattigan as chairman and a remit encompassing all forms of assistance and all sectors of industry. The commission was disparaged by lobbyists as the ‘Industrial Annihilation Commission’ (Canberra Times 1977), and was vehemently attacked by industry, unions, and some States for its first major report, which recommended lower protection on motor vehicles and parts. Despite the commission’s argument that the cumulative loss of jobs would be smaller than one year’s labour market turnover, the government instead increased rates of protection. To forestall another ambush of the kind the car industry had conducted, Rattigan required that in future the IAC’s draft reports be made public, so that claims by interested parties would be exposed to scrutiny. The increasingly assertive Liberal Party ‘dries,’ including the former prime minister (Sir) William McMahon, supported the IAC. The Committee to Advise on Policies for the Development of Manufacturing Industry, chaired by (Sir) Gordon Jackson and established in July 1974 with Rattigan as a member, proposed the very antithesis of the IAC’s approach: creating manufacturing industry councils comprising representatives of unions and manufacturers, and with the Department of Manufacturing Industry to advise government on assistance to industry as issues arose. Despite suffering from illness, Rattigan provided Whitlam with a dissenting report on 9 November 1975. Even though the incoming prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, and his deputy, Doug Anthony, supported Jackson, the committee’s recommendations were not pursued.

The IAC’s charter increased the importance of developing quantitative models capable of estimating the economic and employment consequences of policy changes economy-wide, as well as for regions, sectors, and individual industries. Rattigan had lobbied hard for the creation of an integrated set of economic data to complement an updated national input-output table and, in conjunction with several departments and academics, in 1974 initiated the Impact project to produce a nested set of quantitative mathematical models of the economy. At first, the Treasury was uncooperative, and the project was almost cancelled. A global authority, the economist Alan Powell, was seconded from Monash University to lead the work, and the commission came to enjoy an international reputation for its economic modelling, well capable of countering that of the Associated Chambers of Manufactures of Australia, which had commissioned an inferior model.

After retiring on health grounds in mid-1976, Rattigan declined offers of prestigious, lucrative positions. Instead, he took an honorary post at the Australian National University and wrote Industry Assistance: The Inside Story (1986). He was appointed OBE in 1960, CBE in 1964, and awarded an AO in 1992. A slim man, he was determined yet courteous, somewhat reserved, softly spoken, and with a quiet sense of humour. Carmichael recalled him as a humble man, who was wont to tell endless stories to his children and grandchildren, and who declined a knighthood in 1971 because Win could not imagine being called Lady Rattigan and he did not wish to be addressed as ‘Sir Alf.’ He died of prostate cancer on 29 February 2000 in Canberra, survived by Win and their children Wendy, Richard, and Neroli. A daughter, Katherine Jeanne, predeceased him.

Research edited by Peter Woodley

Select Bibliography

  • Australia. Tariff Board. Annual Report. Canberra: Commonwealth Government Printer, 1967
  • Canberra Times. ‘AFCO Wants IAC Inquiry Public.’ 5 September 1977, 1
  • Carmichael, Bill. ‘Humble Reformer Refused Knighthood.’ Australian, 10 March 2000, 18
  • Farquharson, John. ‘Godfrey Alfred Rattigan—Tariff Reformer with a Pivotal Role.’ Canberra Times, 3 March 2000, 13
  • Glezer, Leon. Tariff Politics: Australian Policy-making 1960-1980. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1982
  • Menzies, The Rt Hon. Sir Robert. ‘The Inaugural John Storey memorial Lecture, 1962.’ Australian Institute of Management, Melbourne, 8 December 1962
  • Kelly, Paul. ‘Economic Reform: A Lost Cause or Merely in Eclipse.’ Alf Rattigan Lecture, Australia and New Zealand School of Government, Canberra, 7 December 2016
  • Powell, Alan. ‘Probity Before Pragmatism: Alf Rattigan, 1911–2000,’ Economic Record 76, no. 234 (September 2000): 301–4
  • Rattigan, G. A. ‘The Tariff Board and Today: An Address Given at the 63rd Annual Conference of the Associated Chambers of Commerce in Perth on 24th May 1967.’ Canberra, 1967
  • Reid, Alan. The Whitlam Venture. Melbourne: Hill of Content Publishing Company, 1976
  • Robinson, Peter. ‘For Rattigan It Was Tariffs without Tears.’ Australian Financial Review, 6 March 2000, 19

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Citation details

Jonathan Pincus, 'Rattigan, Godfrey Alfred (Alf) (1911–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2024, accessed online 29 May 2024.

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