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Unearthing the Seven Dwarfs and the Age of the Mandarins

by J. R. Nethercote

One evening during the early 1980s the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Sir Billy Snedden, a former Treasurer and leader of the Liberal Party, was in an expansive mood following a hearty dinner in the warm comfortable dining room of what is now called Old Parliament House.

In the course of much reminiscence and anecdotage the topic of the Seven Dwarfs came up – the formidable public service figures who rose to so much eminence in Australian government during the Second World War and in the post-war reconstruction era. But who precisely were these dwarfs?

Some names came readily to mind. First and foremost there was Sir Roland Wilson, the most eminent of all – Australian statistician; secretary, Labour and National Service, 1940-46; economic adviser to the Treasury; from 1951 to  1966, Secretary to the Treasury; thereafter chair of both the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas.

And Nugget Coombs, Director-General, Postwar-Reconstruction, 1943-49; thence governor of the Commonwealth Bank and, subsequently, of the Reserve Bank of Australia following its establishment in 1960; he was later chair of both the Arts Council (now the Australia Council) and the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. Later still he headed the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, 1974-76.

Always on any list was Sir John Crawford, foundation director of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics; secretary, Department of Commerce and Agriculture (1950-56), thence Trade, 1956-60; followed by a succession of posts at the Australian National University culminating in the vice-chancellorship and, finally, in succession to Coombs, the Chancellor.

Various other names were suggested – Sir Frederick Shedden, long-time head of Defence; the solicitor-general and head of Attorney-General’s, Sir Kenneth Bailey, subsequently high commissioner to Canada; the statistician, Stan Carver; Coombs’s successor at Postwar-Reconstruction, later head of Prime Minister’s Department, Sir Allen Brown; Sir Henry Bland at Labour in Melbourne, later secretary, Department of Defence; and Sir Richard Randall, Wilson’s successor at the Treasury.

But was there no definitive list?

The Speaker would find out from the experts. The Parliamentary Library was contacted and it went to work with a will.

Not long afterwards a very senior figure from the Library personally provided the Speaker with the answer to his question: Doc, Dopey, Sleepy, Sneezy, Happy, Bashful and Grumpy.

The Speaker was incandescent! – fortunately this was the era before performance bonuses.

Next day the lofty figure from the Library defended himself rhetorically – well, what would you have said?

Even to this day, the identity of the seven dwarfs remains a matter of dinner party conversation. As also is the identity of Snow White.

Conventional wisdom usually sees Ben Chifley as Snow White. But was it Menzies? Part of the answer is who was the prime minister when former New South Wales Labor premier, and former member of the House of Representatives, Jack Lang, applied the term in his notorious newspaper, The Century.

What is not in doubt is why the seven dwarfs and their generation was important?
They were not simply present when the Australia of the middle years of the twentieth century took shape; they were, in many respects, the architects.

The size of government and the range of its responsibilities grew. Central to this growth was the increasing ascendancy of the Commonwealth in the affairs of the federation. Government became more active and more interventionist. Extensive activity within Australia was reflected by comparable activity in numerous conferences abroad, ranging from Bretton Woods where the international monetary system was established, to creation of the United Nations Organization itself, as well as the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

The policies being promoted were markedly Keynesian in character, especially in advocacy of full employment, and, in the welfare field, strongly influenced by the report by Sir William Beveridge.

This was the era of the first sustained endeavours by the Commonwealth to equip itself with substantial policy capacity. Hitherto, the Commonwealth, to the extent it recognized a need for strength in policy, relied on ad hoc arrangements usually involving academics to fill the need. Both Lyndhurst Giblin and Douglas Copland, for example, had been on hand as the Commonwealth tried to deal with the depression.

The need for greater strength had been felt especially by S. M. Bruce, prime minister from 1923 until 1929, but not effectively addressed. An important step forward was taken in 1935 when the Lyons Government secured an amendment to the public service legislation authorizing direct recruitment of graduates to administrative posts on very restrictive terms.

It is doubtful that even this modest move would have eventuated had its principal advocate not been General Sir John Monash. His interest at least neutralized opposition from returned servicemen who then dominated the general administrative ranks of the public service, and the applicable unions.

But the strength of union opposition, indeed, hostility, to any special appointments was very evident a few years later when Sir Roland Wilson was recruited to the then Bureau of Census and Statistics (now the ABS), and shortly afterwards elevated to the post of Statistician.

The then Department of External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs and Trade) commenced recruitment of graduates in 1937; early recruits included Keith Waller, subsequently a secretary of the department; and Peter Heydon who, as secretary to the Department of Immigration during the 1960s, played an influential role in overturning the White Australia policy.

The Treasury organized its first search for graduates in 1939. Frederick Wheeler, who had already come to Canberra with Copland, was the first recruit. Wheeler had previously worked for the State Savings Bank of Victoria whilst completing a degree in Commerce at the University of Melbourne.

The banks were a major source of quality personnel for the Commonwealth. Coombs came from the Commonwealth Bank, to which he returned as a board member in 1943 and as governor in 1949.

The Bank of New South Wales, now Westpac, was especially significant. Alfred Davidson, the general manager, had systematically developed the Bank’s capacities in economics since the 1930s. Under the guidance of Edward Shann, successively professor of economics at Western Australia, then Adelaide, an Economics Department was built up. Among its alumni who eventually found their way into government were Arthur Tange, who also attended the Bretton Woods meetings; James Plimsoll; Jack Crawford; Walter Ives; and Ron Mendelsohn.

Other famous names came directly to government from university. John Burton, secretary at External Affairs from 1947 to 1950, secured the first public service post-graduate scholarship for doctoral research at the London School of Economics. Professor L. F. Crisp joined the Department of Labour on return from Oxford where he had been studying on a Rhodes scholarship. He later shifted to Postwar-Reconstruction and was director-general when the department was abolished in 1950.

Economists predominated. In those days, economics had a breadth which it has largely lost in later more specialist times. More interestingly, many of these graduates had studied Keynes’s General Theory first hand, directly from proof copies of the book sent to economics professors around the Empire. But other disciplines were not unrepresented. There were some lawyers and even some graduates in Arts.

From the beginning there were differences of opinion among this new elite, in the first instance over the relative roles of tax and loans in financing the war effort. With the passage of time, and as the focus increasingly moved from fighting the war to preparing for peace, argument grew around the relative merits of government activity and intervention versus market-based methods.

There were likewise contests between those for whom the primary purpose was growth and those with an eye to distribution.

These battles continued for several decades and their ghosts are still present today. In institutional terms they centred around the Treasury, apostle of growth and skeptical of intervention; and the Department of Trade, especially keen on government activism, particularly in its guise from 1963 as the Department of Trade and Industry.

Other countries took a similar path to Australia, with certain national variations.
In Whitehall, the influx of new people occasioned by the war included many women; not very long afterwards the Attlee Government removed the prohibition on permanent employment of women.

At the administrative level women hardly figure in the Australian story. One who did was Wilmot Debenham, wife of Jock Phillips, Coombs’s successor as Governor of the Reserve Bank. Coombs wrote that Debenham “was in many ways the mainstay of the team which devised the clothes rationing ‘scale’” for the Rationing Commission.

All the dwarfs, whether the long list or the shorter more definitive list, became departmental or agency heads, and many of their generation rose to the top of the public service in succeeding decades.

Their careers were unusual. Many of them only dealt with people at the top, ministers or department heads. Because of the circumstances of the war and postwar-reconstruction they had a much broader canvass on which to work than did later generations of officialdom.

It was a fascinating period of government and in society. The dwarfs and their peers give the period character, colour, personality and vitality which the story might otherwise lack.

Citation details

J. R. Nethercote, 'Unearthing the Seven Dwarfs and the Age of the Mandarins', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, originally published 5 October 2012, accessed 21 May 2024.

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