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Sir Frederick Henry (Fred) Wheeler (1914–1994)

by Nicholas Brown and I. R. Hancock

This article was published online in 2023

Sir Frederick Henry Wheeler (1914–1994), public servant, was born on 9 January 1914 at St Kilda, Melbourne, elder son of Albert Henry Wheeler, sales assistant, and his wife Stella Mary, née Samson, both Victorian-born. Educated at Trinity Grammar School (1919–23) and Scotch College, Fred was encouraged by his father to leave school in 1929 to find a job, given the looming threat of depression. He joined the State Savings Bank of Victoria as a clerk in its Hawthorn branch. After completing his senior Leaving exam externally, in 1930 he commenced part-time study at the University of Melbourne (BCom, 1939). Fitting university studies into a working day proved challenging: Wheeler had to repeat his first year courses. Moving to the loans department in the bank’s city office in 1931 helped his studies, and he attracted the attention of lecturers, including (Sir) Douglas Copland, and Lyndhurst Giblin. Although not much engaged by Keynesian theory, he relished its practical applications. Wheeler’s perseverance with his studies shaped his enduring ethic of service and determination.

On 21 October 1939 at Holy Trinity Church, Kew, Victoria, Wheeler married Peggy Hilda Bell, an insurance clerk. Two months later he was among the first graduates summoned to Canberra to assist with the government’s effort in World War II. The Wheeler home there provided a social venue for the many young officials transplanted to the raw capital. As a research officer in the Department of the Treasury, he became integral to the small ‘family’ of advisers who sought policy coherence amid the urgencies of mobilisation. Colleagues characterised him as ‘the cunning cow’ (NLA MS Acc01.273) of fiscal caution, but he earned the confidence of many, including Ben Chifley, the treasurer (1941–49) and later also prime minister (1945–49). As secretary to the Financial and Economic Advisory Committee (1941–47), chaired by Giblin, he coordinated information coming to and recommendations from senior economists as they debated controls, rationing, and taxation. The austere secretary of the department, Stuart McFarlane, relied heavily on Wheeler’s judgement.

Wheeler also consolidated the Treasury’s new General Financial and Economic Policy branch as the core entity for reconciling budgetary management with the government’s economic and social priorities. As one of three officials sent to the Bretton Woods conference in the United States of America in July 1944, he assisted (Sir) Leslie Melville in advocating Australia’s development goals in new international economic forums. He also helped to negotiate the challenge to Australia’s tariff protection policies raised by the terms of Lend-Lease assistance from the United States. In domestic policy, he worked with Richard (Dick) Downing to craft the white paper on full employment (1945), insisting on workability in the government’s commitments and recognition of the role of private enterprise.

While an assistant secretary (1946), Wheeler’s duties included coordinating the interdepartmental Investment and Employment Committee that helped manage postwar economic policy (1947–49), representing the Treasury on the Grants Commission and the Commonwealth Bank Advisory Council, and adapting advice to reflect the shift from wartime restrictions to containing postwar inflationary stress. Promoted to first assistant secretary (1949), he exemplified the Treasury’s transition from an accountancy emphasis to providing expert macro-economic guidance. Disappointed when the Commonwealth statistician (Sir) Roland Wilson was appointed secretary of the department in 1951, Wheeler became open to new opportunities.

Overtures from the International Labour Office in Geneva led to Wheeler’s appointment as the organisation’s financial comptroller in December 1952. Soon after his arrival, he approved drawing on the ILO’s capital funds to cover annual expenditure, an exigency he worked hard to avoid repeating. For the next eight years, he directed the ILO’s budgetary and financial affairs. Africa, Asia and South America became more central to the ILO’s work, including the provision of technical assistance which placed increasing strain on resources. Navigating unpredictable contributions from the expanding ranks of member states, he managed the sometimes conflicting interests of the government, employer, and union groups that directed ILO operations. Oversight of its investment portfolios brought him into contact with eminent international financiers. He emphasised that his role was to offer technical rather than policy guidance, but the distinction was often one of ‘nuance’—among his favoured terms. Wheeler argued for the flexible supervision of diverse programs rather than centralised direction, and drove a review of salary scales to ensure the ILO kept its status within international civil service ranks.

Relatively young among the ILO’s senior staff, moderately tall, slight in build, dark hair swept back, and with an exacting gaze, Wheeler relished his work. His authority grew as the ILO’s budget more than doubled under his watch. By the later 1950s, however, he began seeking advancement to a chief executive post. A brief assignment to the International Atomic Energy Agency and a tentative approach from the British company Vickers Ltd, which was considering expanding its Australian operations, suggested options, but he settled on returning to Australian government service. His former colleagues (Sir) William Dunk, (Sir) John Crawford, and (Sir) John Bunting advocated for him, with Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies proving receptive. The option of succeeding Dunk as chair of the Public Service Board (PSB) provided the most suitable pathway.

Taking up this position in January 1961, Wheeler recognised his propitious timing. Despite rejuvenation in the 1940s, there were calls for the further reform of the Commonwealth Public Service: a 1959 report chaired by Sir Richard Boyer had for example recommended the appointment of more graduates. Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission decisions, particularly its 1961 judgement on work value for professional engineers, opened the way for a major restructuring of salary levels to better recognise educational qualifications and skills.

Accordingly, Wheeler set in motion reforms using a series of discrete reviews, proceeding through specific departments and classifications, which were aimed at breaking down monolithic processes and complexities that discouraged merit-based promotion. Beginning with the executive second division, his approach envisaged a rationalisation of classifications across all levels, and encompassed issues ranging from conditions of work to the impact of technology in redefining jobs. The Leaving certificate or equivalent became a requirement for entry into the service’s third division, and more modern selection techniques, such as a Commonwealth Selection Test designed by the Australian Council for Educational Research, replaced reliance on examination marks. As ‘a man of detail’ (Grainger 1976), Wheeler drove the difficult negotiations that such reforms entailed. In his role as commissioner of over 167,000 public service employees in 1962, ranging from postal workers to astronomers, he was determined to avoid salary adjustments made for particular categories of employees for recruitment and retention purposes, and in recognition of skills and status, flowing on to other parts of the work force.

Inevitably, there were conflicts with unions over issues such as preserving seniority, and with department heads who resented increased PSB control. Wheeler responded by devoting much time to consultation, albeit in a cool, measured style that some found manipulative. He did not promote the PSB playing a vanguard role for employers outside the public service, but in areas including reviewing recruitment barriers to people with disabilities and, in 1966, ending the bar on the employment of married women, he ensured that it served to ‘stimulate, assist and coordinate’ the rising stature of the Commonwealth Public Service (Wheeler 1967, 12). His tireless work habits, and dogged yet imaginative approach, earned the loyalty of many. He commissioned his staff to undertake research projects that kept him on top of trends while rewarding them with opportunities.

The approach that Wheeler employed, however, began to seem less acceptable as the settled conventions of the Menzies governments gave way to more interventionist prime ministerial successors. Already OBE (1952) and CBE (1962), and knighted in 1967, his procedural style irritated (Sir) John Gorton during his prime ministership (1968–71). Wheeler began to lose the control he had exercised over senior appointments. In 1968 a protracted postal strike reflected increasing union militancy. During 1971, amid budgetary pressures, he faced the first calls for staff ceilings in the public service. In November, Prime Minister (Sir) William McMahon, who was facing his own political challenges from within his government and the electorate, appointed Wheeler as secretary of the Treasury.

While to some this move seemed a homecoming, it was not one Wheeler sought, seeing his work at the PSB as unfinished. The Treasury was also in marked transition. He conceded that his economics had grown rusty, and fast rising officers such as John Stone were now responding to social and industrial pressures by advocating more assertive deflationary, market-based approaches. Those pressures also led to friction between the Treasury and a government seeking new policy agendas, dealing with ruptures in the international monetary system, and, under McMahon especially, looking for someone to blame for missteps.

The reformist ambitions of Gough Whitlam’s Labor government, elected in December 1972, posed a more sustained challenge for Wheeler. While he seemed to adapt well to the new government’s agenda, the Treasury’s insistence that an expansive program of public expenditure be matched by tighter monetary policy and increased taxation soon began to grate. While the government accepted the Treasury’s proposition that the economic priority must be fighting inflation, it regarded the implication of greater unemployment as unacceptable. Wheeler’s preferred role as the technician of economic management also became less assured with the appointment of ministerial advisers who challenged the Treasury’s authority. The Treasury was not consulted on some crucial economic decisions, in particular the 25 per cent across the board tariff cut in 1973. The department’s much publicised recommendation of a ‘short, sharp shock’ (Juddery 1975, 2) to the economy left it vulnerable to scrutiny of the timing and severity of the 1973–74 credit squeeze. By 1974 Whitlam, dealing with conflicts in his cabinet, was fuming that the Treasury offered him no policy options. In early 1975 the department was seen as being ‘subjected to sustained vilification from the government it is supposed to be advising’ (Parmeter 1975, 2).

Enduring the indignity of being ignored, Wheeler kept to a clear message, moderated the more strident tone coming from Stone as his deputy, and remained watchful for an opportunity to regain influence. His discovery in late 1974 that senior ministers were negotiating to borrow $US 4 billion from Middle Eastern lenders through an obscure Pakistani commodity dealer, Tirath Khemlani, galvanised Wheeler’s commitment to due process. Initiating forensic national and international enquiries into the risks of such ‘funny money,’ he was soon drawn into confrontation with the prime minister, whom he advised: ‘I simply wish to inform you of facts your ignorance of which will bring you down’ (Hancock 2015, 201).

Wheeler’s actions at the height of the ‘loans affair’ might have shown ‘a bureaucratic virtuoso at work’ (Longstreet and Toohey 1982, 8), but they did nothing to improve his relations with the government. The replacement of Jim Cairns as treasurer by Bill Hayden in June 1975 offered a more receptive channel for the Treasury’s insistence on fighting inflation first, but the department remained isolated. In 1975 Wheeler played a critical role in stopping the creation of a department of economic planning, but when the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, appointed in 1974, reported in 1977 it portrayed the Treasury as exemplifying the insularity and inflexibility of the Canberra bureaucracy. From December 1975 the election of the Fraser government raised new tensions, with Wheeler opposing its November 1976 devaluation of the Australian dollar. Against Wheeler’s strong objection, the Treasury was divided into two departments, separating the functions of financial management and economic policy advice, but also ensuring more diversity in advice to ministers.

In January 1979 Wheeler retired from the Treasury, and was succeeded as secretary by Stone. His years at the Treasury had been draining, including at the most personal level. His wife had died in the midst of the crisis surrounding the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975, and even in her last illness he had sat by her bed with his briefcase open. He spoke of the self-denial demanded of the civil servant, and admitted to his devotion to ‘what I in my cold-blooded way call the bureaucratic facts’ (NLA MS 8096). Valuing the excitement of proximity to public affairs and the company of the independent of mind, he saw the Whitlam years as demonstrating the problems of an ‘ebullient community … in which groups claim the right to push and act on the basis of self-interest, often using whatever power is to hand’ (Wheeler 1980, 179).

For all appearances a man of habit, order, and discipline, Wheeler adopted an interrogative demeanour that never revealed what he really thought. His elusive personal magnetism was intensified in discrete exchanges, loyalty games, alcohol, and the control of those beneath him. In 1993 his second daughter formally accused him through the Australian Capital Territory Legal Aid Office of sexually abusing her from the age of about five into adulthood, and causing her enduring distress. He always denied her allegations. Elevated to AC in 1979, he took on directorships with Amatil Ltd (1979–84) and Alliance Holdings (1979–86), served on the Commonwealth government Defence Review Committee (1981–82), and maintained a long association with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (president 1991–94). He also kept a close watch on the proliferation of think tanks and lobby groups, and on the careers of former subordinates. Although asked for advice, he largely disapproved of the public service reforms initiated by the Hawke government. Wheeler died in Canberra on 5 August 1994, survived by his two daughters and one son. His successor in the Treasury remarked that he was ‘never an outstanding economist per se,’ but was nonetheless ‘a great bureaucrat’ (Stone 1994, 17), reflecting the lasting importance of his having cast the Public Service Board as an agent of reform.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Farquharson, John. ‘Formidable Public Servant from the Old School.’ Canberra Times, 7 August 1994, 4
  • Grainger, Keith. Interview by Mel Pratt, 8 March 1976. National Library of Australia
  • Hancock, Ian. ‘Sir Frederick Wheeler: Public Servant.’ In The Seven Dwarfs and the Age of the Mandarins: Australian Government Administration in the Post-War Reconstruction Era, edited by Samuel Furphy, 191–207. Canberra: ANU Press, 2015
  • Juddery, Bruce. ‘Assaults on the Fortress Increase.’ Canberra Times, 1 May 1975, 2
  • Longstreet, James, and Brian Toohey. ‘The Loans Affair Tapes.’ National Times (Sydney), 14 November 1982, 8–12
  • National Archives of Australia. A750, 1971/729, Wheeler, Sir Frederick, Personal Archives
  • National Library of Australia. MS Acc01.273, Papers of Gerald Firth
  • National Library of Australia. MS 8096, Papers of Sir Frederick Wheeler
  • Parmeter, Ian. ‘The Besieged Are Told Not to Waver.’ Canberra Times, 30 April 1975, 2
  • Stone, John. ‘The Passing of a Bureaucrat.’ Australian Financial Review (Sydney), 18 August 1994, 17
  • Thomas, Tony. ‘The Man at Treasury’s Top Job.’ Age (Melbourne), 30 May 1975, 10
  • Tilley, Paul. Changing Fortunes: A History of the Australian Treasury. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2019
  • Wheeler, Frederick. ‘The Professional Career Public Service: Some Reflections of a Practitioner.’ Public Administration 39, no. 2 (June 1980): 162–79
  • Wheeler, Frederick. ‘Some Observations on the Commonwealth Public Service Board as a Coordinating Authority.’ Public Administration 26, no. 1 (March 1967): 7–27
  • Whitwell, Greg. The Treasury Line. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1986

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Citation details

Nicholas Brown and I. R. Hancock, 'Wheeler, Sir Frederick Henry (Fred) (1914–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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