Australian Biography

H C "Nugget" Coombs - full interview transcript

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You weren't the only person who worked with Ben Chifley who had a great admiration for his approach to leadership. Can you characterise what it was about the way that he went about his work that drew so much admiration?

Well, I think it was partly that he always worked with people you know they never worked - simply worked for him, or that's ... and also he had - he was a remarkably tolerant man, of course he led the Labor Party at a time when the divisions within the party were staggering. But he always used to talk about why they behaved and why they thought like this or like that, and he was never in terms of ... hostile in criticism, it was an attempt to understand what - all was was always that they were trying to achieve something good but it - but different you know, those differences of emphasis, so that the he and he was ...

He was able to identify what people had in common rather than what divided them.

And was, even when about the things that divided him. See his attitude about religion; you see he never talked about it, he was a practising Catholic, but you would never would know, you know, to talk to him. And when he talked about the DLP, he talked and like somebody who understood where their prejudices were leading them and was sad about it, and sad about the divisions but that kind of thing. His relationships with people were always pleasant. Sometimes he could be quite blunt. He was very blunt with Evatt from time to time because he thought that Evatt was arrogant, and often caused problems with other people and unnecessarily and you know, you know I can remember him saying when Doc asked him what impression he had of Doc's performance at the United Nations, and he said, 'Doc, it was excellent, but they tell me that you were the rudest bugger there'.

So he said what he thought. But not with animosity.

Thought. But it was not with animosity and he, he could do it, he could talk frankly because he felt that he was understood. So that I liked him, he was a - he always read what you wrote, yeah. He always ... he had the gift of picking the guts out of a document and concentrating on the issues on that way. Your work was never dismissed as not what he wanted. And also he welcomed disagreement. I don't mean complete disagreement, but he ran one of the great things that has always stuck in my mind because I've known no other government which did it. They used Cabinet subcommittees quite a lot as an instrument of government during the war. Now when they set up a subcommittee of the Cabinet, the Cabinet, the members of the Cabinet who are on it used to take, at Chifley's request, their Senior Departmental Officers. I always went to the meetings with this Cabinet subcommittees on economic matters. So did several other permanent Heads, and the meetings were conducted in two phases. The first phase was a kind of discussion of the issues that they had before them in which the Public Servants participated almost as freely as the Ministers, but as you got towards the stage where they were approaching decision there was a kind of, almost unnoticed, a withdrawal - not physical withdrawal - where the officials sort of stepped back or ...

You said that Chifley worked with you, not as if you were working for him. What do you mean by that?

Well it - I think it's a thing that's changed really quite a lot, that the relationship between Ministers and their senior officials, certainly in my case at any rate, was always one of discussion. We talked about issues and, well sometimes ideas I put forward were dismissed, I remember one that during the - just after the war, the idea of reforming the calendar was quite a sort of - became one of the sort of popular issues of the day, you know they were going to fix the date of Easter and have thirteen months of the same size or things like that - all sorts of ideas were put forward, and because of that in post-war reconstruction we did a study of these various proposals which were coming from this community groups and so on. And so finally we produced a scheme which was influenced a bit by a proposal that Billy Wentworth put forward and Billy was a very ingenious bloke, he was frequently - his ideas were frequently quite mad but sometimes he - I think he hit real winners, and this wasn't a bad scheme. To me it really made sort of some kind of administrative and economic sense. But so I went to tell Chif about it you see, and he laughed and he said, 'Oh Doc, Doc break it down now, break it down', he said, 'Even the Pope couldn't do that'. Oh anyway, that was the end of that particular discussion. But generally speaking though you know, these ideas - we tossed ideas around we talked about them so - in that way I never felt as if I was just somebody producing things for him. I always felt that, that I was a participant in the - in the in the process and that I think is something which has, in a way, gone from the role ... [INTERRUPTION]

Did you ever have any major disagreement with Chifley?

Ah, well I've - we've talked about the trade agreement you know ...

We actually didn't, we talked about that off camera. So ... but I wonder, if, if you had had a severe [dis]agreement with him - did you ever discuss whether or not in those circumstances you might resign?

Oh well we, we did have quite an extensive discussion about that issue, but it wasn't in relation to a problem I, at the time that I had. It was a provision, it was when they were talking about the Banking Act you know the - there was what the ... their post war, the preparation for the post-war legislation on banking and with the role of the Central Bank as the main - well, one of the government's main advisers on financial and economic policy and - but also with a considerable degree of autonomy. And it's always been felt and I felt that that autonomy was important. And so I said the, you know, with their, we ought to provide in the Act for a way of resolving the issue if such disagreement emerged. That it shouldn't just be left with no-one knowing quite what happened, I said, you know because, and I said that there would be, could conceivably be situations where the Governor of the Bank would feel that a very important principle was threatened by what the Government wanted to do, and that the only thing that was open to him would be to say, 'Well Prime Minister if you're going to do that, I must resign'. And Chifley broke in and said, 'Doc, never never resign'. And I said, 'Are you sure? What about this issue of principle problem?'. He said, 'Well if you have that situation, if you resign, you're finished. They do what they like. If you don't resign you stay in, you lose the battle - you're not finished. There will be other governments there will be other yeah - other ministers.... you're still capable of being effective. But once you resign you are finished.'

Did you take that advice?

Well, I don't know that I ever reached a situation where I felt that there were ... there were issues between the Bank and the Government and particularly the Bank and the Treasury on economic policy which ran, well, almost a continuing theme in our relationship, where the issues were resolved and in a sense ... I certain ... the Bank certainly didn't get what it thought it ought to well - it didn't get the best. But it - they were always resolved by a kind of - some kind of compromise that we gave in one place and we gained something in another. And so that the disagreements that we had, were always in a way questions of degree rather than absolute principle. So I never felt myself faced with the need to resign, although I could envisage the possibility. But I don't remember ever having faced it myself.

This leads us into talking about your whole role as a public servant, some would say as the consummate public servant, as a sort of exemplary public servant in that you were there in rationing during the war, then headed up Post-war Reconstruction with all the complexities of that, and that in the course of your life you served many Prime Ministers, and many different governments of different complexions and yet you always stayed in it with a dedication to what you were doing, which was very clear to everybody around you. Were there any principles that you applied apart from the never resign one, to your whole public service career, that you feel stood you in good stead?

Well I think that the - I do think the circumstances are different that I - I never, I cannot remember any time when I was in the Public Service, when I felt futile. When I felt that I was wasting my time, so that ... and I think that's something which is different. In that time, certainly the people who were in Post-War Reconstruction and and in the Treasury and departments with which we were concerned, I think we all felt that we were a part of the team, that we all had the right to say - not simply oh, you know, what you thought, but to argue and to say to the Ministers, 'Look you're wrong about that'.

But you had a quite a deal of success in arguing effectively didn't you? You ...

(interrupting) Well that's right, that's partly that in, you know, that I look back. But mind you the success is always relative in those things, you know, the - never get what you, you know, to ... and of course further more, I suppose you do acquire some skills in assessing what ... You don't put forward proposals to nationalise an industry to a very conservative government that is committed to private enterprise. I mean, that doesn't come into the, you know, into the area of the discourse. But it doesn't stop you putting forward proposals which would have some of the same effects, and I think that's the way in which I approached it, that you always wanted to work within limits of practicability, not to be beating your head against a wall which - and I think, I can't think of any of the governments that I worked for where I felt that ah - I mean they weren't fascist, they weren't communist, they weren't ... So that I suppose I always felt that there were things which they could be persuaded to do which would be beneficial, and in accordance with things which I valued, and which I thought they might value and to perhaps not the same degree but ... So I think that's, oh, it's one of the things which I feel sad about the public service, is that I do myself believe that many public servants feel that they are in a futile occupation, that they are not creative members of a policy team, that they're there to tell the Minister what they think he wants to hear. Now I think that's a tragedy, and I think it's one of the reasons why the bureaucracy is so cynical, why they ... when they meet together they very rarely meet officials talking about policy, they talk about salaries and working conditions, and you know. Particularly in relation to senior people in the private sector, well, there's much more of that than there used to be. Many public servants worked for less money - not merely willingly but preferred to work for less money because being in the bureaucracy in the public service was something that you wanted to do.

It certainly was true that for a very long while it was seen as the pinnacle of achievement for bright people working in administration, and that's shifted now. And of course we've all seen the portrait of the bureaucrat as portrayed by Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister - did - do you recognise any of those characteristics in your days?

Oh, yes. Yeah, oh yes certainly. I mean in many ways it's a very ... but mind you they most of the Yes Minister things present the public servants as the dominant figure in the Ministerial relationship. I mean Sir Humphrey always won, until the last - it's the changeover. The life of that series I think is very interesting because it was always - in the first part of the, of the series - it was always the public servant Sir Humphrey beguiling or baffling the Minister by not telling him all the things he ought to know or, but towards the end it's the Minister began to have a few victories ah .. and I think. That's my impression, I didn't see them all. But I do think there is a - there is, there is a difference and I've heard public servants complain about this to say, 'What's the good, all I'm allowed to do is to give the Minister reasons for doing what he wants to do'.

And it wasn't like that in your day?

No no. I mean I dare say that it was, the element was there, but certainly in the the best ministers that I worked for and the best officials, I think they would have been appalled at the suggestion that that's what they were doing.

Was your style one of manipulation, or one of direct argument?

Oh, well, I don't know but there's I ... I dare say that ah, there was some degree of manipulation, those - you - well I - you always used arguments which you thought would appeal to this minister, that ... put your character assessment as - used that as an instrument to achieve your agenda I will say. But ah to some degree so, I mean I don't think it's not simply a question of discussion, it's a question of a working relationship between two people with overlapping agendas and, and hopefully overlapping skills.

When you became Head of Post-War Reconstruction, what did you identify as the main task that you really had to get right in that period?

Well it's ah - you see it was a progressive thing, I mean the Department was originally set up to prepare for the transition from war to peace, and a major part of our program therefore was the demobilisation, to get people out of the army and the navy and the airforce, and out of munitions factories, and that said - well, well you get them out, but where do they go? So that the other half of that program almost from the beginning began to be - if we're going to get people out of these things, we have to have jobs, we have to have places where they can earn a living, we have to have houses where they can live, you know, that you have to start to prepare for that - not simply in terms of sacking them or what do they? Ah, they call em, making ...

Retrenchment.

... them, making them redundant or so and that was the - there were. But from that you can see the way in which the responsibility of Post-War Reconstruction spread to become the department which planned the economic programmes for that post-war period. Attempted to anticipate what the difficulties were going to be, and to work out ways in which so that - to anticipate what kind of skills would be required and to set up training programmes for that, see. To enable people in the armed forces to go out prepared for doing the kind of things that they wanted to do or - and fulfilling the jobs that we could, we could reasonably anticipate would exist. So you know, where there was almost no part of government that wasn't involved in Post-War Reconstruction. We had big overlaps for the existing departments and, but was one of the reasons why in the - when it was being established and we were looking for staff, we drew staff from all well so like a lot almost all departments but we also brought in people from universities and you know, other people who had never been in the bureaucracy. And they worked on a lot of these things, but we had to promise all those departments that - give my personal guarantee that the Department of Post-War Reconstruction would be abolished in due course.

Right, and you were also interested during this period in international trade, and trying to get some rational arrangements working internationally in relation to trade. You were involved at that time in the GATT talks, which of course is currently of great interest in Australia, coming around full circle. Could you tell us a little bit about how you involved yourself in those? What happened from them and lessons that might be learned for people involved in current negotiation - negotiations internationally.

Yes well, I devoted quite a long period of my working life in bureaucracy to those issues. The discussions began quite early during the war when negotiations were in process, trying to persuade the Americans to enter the war on the Allied side and, and when they did enter, the - to the, negotiations were continuously going on about the terms on which America would assist. They wanted guarantees of benefits for American industry and American oh, to ... and also a great variety of things of that kind but ... So that there were agreements made which required countries to undertake to remove barriers to the United States trade, to try United States exports and all that kind of thing, and to commit themselves in a sense to substantially free trade kind of situation. To remove not merely, not merely to reduce tariffs but to also - remove - get rid of quotas, to get rid of exchange control or that kind of thing. Now this caused great difficulties, and that - all those things were combined with the proposal that there should be - while the war was still going on - negotiations that were specifically about tariffs; that the countries would during that time, enter into negotiations as a result of which they would reduce tariffs.

So the, oh the - these trade conferences were set up - were divided really into two parts. The first dealt specifically with tariffs and they were bilateral negotiations between one country and their major trading partner. Ah, seeking a reduction of both parties - reduction of the tariffs of both parties in that relationship. So that those negotiations went on you know, altogether in Geneva when we were - hundred and hundreds and hundreds of people there. there was ah, and ...

They lasted nine months too, didn't they?

Nine months yeah - very appropriate gestation period for them - some people thought it was a bit of a miscarriage with it. But still it was a very interesting process, and I think you or it being being interested I think in a pattern of the way in which they were conducted, where the opening way in which those negotiations began, was with an exchange between each of these, the members of each of these pairs of countries who were conducting the bilateral discussions of things, concessions they were prepared to offer, and concessions which they wanted in return. So that the first phase was a swap of two pieces of paper, a list of concessions on the American tariffs in our case that we wanted and a list of concessions on the Australian tariffs that the Americans wanted, and those were swapped, and we went away and you studied the lists, and you looked at what the Americans wanted reduced in our tariffs, and we consulted with the trade people and with the industries concerned and decided well, we could, in return for something decent, we could give oh, a bit on this and a bit on that and not - and similarly on the other side where we were, you know, they were looking at what we were demanding in the way of reduction of wool duties and removal of protective quotas on meat and things like that but - sort of thing they're still doing - but ...

Yes, history does repeat itself a little doesn't it?

Certainly it does indeed. So and but out of that each step in the process usually led to some more concessions being offered, attached to requests for balancing concessions on the other side. Now I was very impressed with the effectiveness of this procedure, that it meant that everybody was forced into a position of having a careful look at how important the demands that you - we were - well I mean, they were making really were, you know ...

Did you use this in other contexts?

Well I've used you know, my own feeling is that it's a technique which is widely applicable in a great many fields, and while I've certainly thought about it, for instance, in relation to Aboriginal affairs and the possibility of a treaty. I tried to persuade the government of the time to put, to offer Aborigines, saying here is a possible treaty. We're prepared to offer a treaty which contains these. Now, you go away and you prepare a treaty, which you are prepared to enter into, and we can go on from there. And I think it would have been an exceedingly valuable exercise, but the government was not prepared to make any kind of starting offer. Always said to the Aborigines, 'You start, you put down what you - you think ought to be in the treaty see, and we'll tell you what we are prepared to give you out of those'.

With the GATT talks at the end of this or getting towards the end of this time in Geneva, did you reach some sort of an agreement?

Well, we had an interesting experience over that. We reached an agreement with the - at least the negotiators, reached a position in our discussions with the Americans whereby we thought that their - what they were prepared to offer and what they insisted upon getting, out of our offer - represented a fairly important improvement in Australian-American trade relationships, from an Australian point of view. So we sent off a telegram to the Australian Government giving the details of where we'd got to, and saying we think this is a pretty good deal, and we seek Cabinet's approval for telling the Americans that we're prepared to recommend this to the government. And so I, we, got a message back that cabinet was considering it and a decision was going to be reached on such and such a day, and that the Prime Minister would like me to be somewhere where he could talk to me on the telephone. And we couldn't talk from Geneva to Canberra at that time, but we could - you could talk from Paris, from the Embassy in Paris. And so I flew to Paris, in time for an appointment, a telephone appointment for seven o'clock in [the] evening. It was my first visit to Paris, and I thought this is going to be rather good because I was quite confident that the government would be pleased with this proposition that we'd put to them and, and that I'd get a nice and quick answer at seven o'clock in the evening and I might be able to go out on the town, celebrate you see so - however I got there and the telephone call didn't come and didn't come and didn't come, until the evening which I'd contemplated in riotous living was practically over, and when Chifley did come through he told me that the cabinet had decided against approving this and I don't quite know I suppose, I just said nothing for a moment. And he said, 'Are you disappointed?'. 'Oh', I said, 'Yes I am'. And he said, 'Well, particularly why?' And I said, 'Well I thought, we thought, that is the delegation thought, this was a pretty good deal'. I mentioned some of the what I thought were very substantial benefits and he said, 'Well Doc, we think it's a pretty good deal too, but we think you can do better'. And so that sort of set me back a bit and so I ... you know, we chatted a bit about it and I tried out a few ideas and oh, I went back to Geneva and the Americans were waiting for me because ours was one of the most advanced of the bilateral negotiations, and a whole lot of others were sort of hanging on this and when I told them that the government hadn't agreed, hadn't approved it, they were very - just about as disappointed as we were.

So ah, they said 'Oh well, perhaps we ought to have another talk, perhaps we ought to go through our lists together again.' So we sat down together with them, going through the offers.

And did you do better as Chifley had told you to do?

Yes. We did quite a lot better. That was very interesting you see, because ... an illustration - we were quite confident that what we had produced was acceptable. And I think it would have been quite a good agreement but it also was true that their judgement that we could negotiate a better deal was also true. Ah, so we went in and but the interesting thing as I was telling you was that really, by that time, both the American negotiators and our negotiators were really working together because we both wanted a successful outcome. We wanted an agreement, and in due course I can remember a bit of what manipulation that you asked about, you see. One of the things that I said to the Americans, 'Well look, I'll go back home, I'll go back to Australia, I'll fly back - both ways to sit and talk to the Ministers about this, if we can get a few - we can get a few baits and I - I'll go back and persuade them'. So we did this, I flew out, and believe me the flight from Geneva to, ah, to Australia in those old Lancastrian Bombers was not fun, believe me.

How long did it take?

Ah, about two days, flying all the way without, without any ... no breaks, just straight. Only refuelling at about three or four spots, and with the engine roaring in your ears, you know; all the, all the time smell of petrol in the - from the emergency petrol tanks and so on - it was pretty grim anyhow. But I did this, and I spent ... Oh, I got straight to Canberra - didn't even go home and so - flying over Sydney straight to Canberra and we sat with the people in the the Cabinet and finally we, you know, got at anyrate close enough to an agreement for me to go back and say, 'Well look, if you give us this we can go ...'

Right. So those were really successful those talks?

Well I think they were successful, but on the other hand, that was only half the deal, because, well, parallel with those tariff nego[tiations], bilateral negotiations, countries like Australia, like India, you know, like all the developing countries, or Saudi Arabia, all the ... China and Japan and Russia and all those, they were, many of them were interested in, not so much in tariffs, but as in things that they - where they needed to protect their industries for development purposes. New industries that were just starting, things which, where they had ambitions to do things, but where they had to get started, and that the ... So the question of a lot of these things, didn't come into the actual tariff negotiations. They set up the whole conference to develop a charter, a charter for international trade. All the possible difficulties that countries encounter when they enter into international trade. How would those difficulties be resolved?

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