Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Alan John Woods (1930–1990)

by J. R. Nethercote

This article was published:

Alan John Woods (1930-1990), public servant, was born on 30 March 1930 at Woonona, New South Wales, third of five children of New South Wales-born parents Oswald Woods, labourer, and his wife Gladys May, née Reed. Alan won a scholarship to St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill, Sydney. He entered the University of Sydney (B.Ec., 1955), studying part time while working as an executive trainee (1949-54) for Dunlop Rubber Australia Ltd. Later qualifying as an accountant, he was also a non-practising barrister.

In 1955 Woods began working for the Commonwealth Public Service Board, Sydney. On 11 April at St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Kurri Kurri, he married Anne Therese Flynn, a schoolteacher. After a brief stay in the Department of Labour and National Service, in 1957 he took a research officer post in the Department of Territories in Canberra. In 1959-66 he worked in the Treasury.

Woods joined the Department of Trade and Industry in 1966. Under (Sir) John McEwen as minister and Sir Alan Westerman as secretary, the department was at the peak of its influence. Woods became first assistant-secretary of the newly created Department of Secondary Industry, operations division, in 1972 and of Manufacturing Industry, engineering industries division, in 1975. In 1977 he was made deputy-secretary of the Department of Industry and Commerce. He successfully dealt with diverse ministers, including J. F. Cairns, K. E. Enderby and (Sir) Robert Cotton.

Promoted by (Sir) Alan Carmody in 1977 to a deputy-secretary post in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Woods was appointed secretary of the Department of National Development (later National Development and Energy and, from 1983, Resources and Energy) following the Federal election in December 1977. Thereby brought into new fields of energy policy—petroleum, natural and liquefied gas and nuclear matters—he was deputy-chairman (1978-85) of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission. Having previously worked in the restructuring of long established industries, he now was involved with growth and development—during a time of uncertainty and unpredictability stemming from the oil crises.

Woods’s approach to industry policy was affected by his recollections of the suffering caused by the Depression. Cautious about policy based on abstract and quantitative modelling, he was not hostile to tariff reform, which he addressed in relation to shipbuilding, textiles and motor vehicles. His concern centred on the pace and particularly the employment consequences of reform, and on the periodic necessity for compensation. He engaged with industry and with other interested sections of government, and often took part in international negotiations.

Woods enjoyed good relations with his ministers, including senators Peter Walsh, who came with a distrust of public servants, and Gareth Evans, who benefited from Woods’s guidance. He built a strong department, staffed by people with diverse skills and differing views about the shaping of policy. Although in many respects a traditional public servant, and instinctively inclined to work within the framework of government policy, he nevertheless encouraged debate and examination of a range of options; on significant matters he would alert the minister to competing views among advisers.

In 1986 Woods was appointed secretary, Department of Defence. A capable and fearless leader, he worked closely with General Peter Gration, chief of the Defence Force, to encourage co-operation between the uniformed and civilian sides. When replaced in a reshuffle of departmental secretaries in mid-1988, Woods was unsettled by the manner of his removal; he derived some consolation from appointments as chairman of the new Civil Aviation Safety Authority and of the Australian Capital Territory hospitals board, and as a member of the boards of the Australian Industry Development Corporation and of Telecom Australia. He was appointed AO in 1985 and AC in 1989.

Six feet (183 cm) tall and heavily built, Woods had a wicked sense of humour and a blunt turn of phrase. Survived by his wife and their four daughters and two of their three sons, he died of cancer on 13 January 1990 in Canberra and was buried in Gungahlin cemetery. The Alan Woods Building, in central Canberra, is named for him.

Select Bibliography

  • Defence Information Bulletin, summer, 1990, p 1
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, Australian Capital Territory), 15 Feb 1990, p 172
  • Canberra Times, 15 Jan 1990, pp 1, 2
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Jan 1990, p 4
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. R. Nethercote, 'Woods, Alan John (1930–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 May 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


30 March, 1930
Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia


13 January, 1990 (aged 59)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.