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Keith Spann (1922–1990)

by Ross Laurie

This article was published:

Keith Spann (1922-1990), public servant, was born on 8 November 1922 at Nambour, Queensland, son of Queensland-born parents, George Ferdinand Albert Spann, fruit-grower, and his wife Janet, née McGilchrist.  Conscious of the precarious nature of fruit-growing, especially during the Depression, Keith’s parents sent him to the state high school at Gympie, where he boarded with a retired couple.  There he learned the value of money, having to manage on a strict weekly budget.  The poverty and insecurity of his childhood and adolescence had a strong influence on his career choice and at 16 he joined the Queensland Public Service as a clerk in the Public Curator Office in Brisbane.

From 1940 Spann worked in the Auditor-General’s Department as an audit inspector.  In May 1942 he enlisted as an aircraftman in the Royal Australian Air Force.  He served in various postings in Australia and was discharged with the rank of temporary sergeant in June 1946.  On 6 May 1946 at St Saviour’s Church of England, Gladstone, he married Marjorie Joan Golding, daughter of William Golding.  Completing his accountancy qualifications by correspondence, he became an associate of the Australian Society of Accountants and a member (later fellow) of the Royal Institute of Public Administration, Queensland regional group.  He regularly travelled throughout Queensland dealing with all branches of the public service; his experiences laid the groundwork for the steady advancement of his career.  In 1961 he was appointed cabinet secretary, a post which brought him into frequent contact with the premier, (Sir) Francis Nicklin.

In 1964 Spann became assistant under-secretary of the premier’s department; in 1970 he was promoted to under-secretary and in 1978 to secretary.  As head of department he developed a close working relationship with (Sir) Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, the premier from 1968, effectively cementing the department’s status as the most influential in the public service.  He provided the backing and advice needed to pursue the premier’s agenda for Queensland, focusing on States’ rights and centralised control.  Under his leadership the department provided support for the premier’s skirmishes with both the Whitlam and Fraser Federal governments, over issues ranging from the powers of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the machinations leading to the dismissal of the Whitlam government, to Queensland’s retention of an independent censorship board.  Like Bjelke-Petersen, he was an advocate of building a strong trading relationship between Queensland and Japan.

In 1977 Spann was appointed CVO (for his services as director of the 1977 royal visit to Queensland) and in 1980 CB.  At the time of his retirement in 1982 he was described as 'a quiet, silver-haired man who projects the considered demeanour of a judge'.  His leisure interests were fishing and golf.  Another pastime was gemmology, which he had learned from the retired miner with whom he boarded when at high school.  He died of cancer on 15 January 1990 at his Bridgeman Downs home and was cremated.  His wife and their three sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Scott et al, The Engine Room of Government (2001)
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 26 February 1970, p 5
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 14 June 1980, p 2
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 17 January 1990, p 12
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 5 November 1982, p 8
  • A9301, item 426176 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Ross Laurie, 'Spann, Keith (1922–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 15 April 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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