Australian Biography

H C "Nugget" Coombs - full interview transcript

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You were instrumental in setting up the ANU - how did that come about?

Ah, well as I think I said when we were talking about the function of bureaucrats oh, was I think that Administrators are people who, if they're lucky, make other people's dreams come true. And I think the ANU is very much, my role in that very much was in helping to enable the dreams of a National University [to] come true, to be realised. Only it was a dream that was shared to varying degrees by oh, quite a lot of people, and in a way what was achieved by Post-War Reconstruction and me was we brought a series of disparate ideas together, in a way which together they created the basis for a university of a particular kind. I suppose the real beginnings in my mind was associated with Howard Florey who came out to Australia during the war at Curtin's request to advise the government in relation to medical policies - medical problems relating to the Armed Forces in, particularly in New Guinea, and in relation to the whole of the Pacific war. And he worked here - he worked - he went up there and he made, wrote very interesting reports, and it was not long after the development of penicillin [with] which he was associated, and the use of penicillin became widely practised because of his involvement. But Curtin said to him, he would - talking to Curtin and he talked about the penicillin discoveries and so on, and the way in which research, academic kind of research had been the basis of that, it came out of fundamental research work which was being conducted at Cambridge, okay, Oxford sorry - or Cambridge and Oxford but so Curtin said him, 'Is there any reason why we couldn't do that kind of research in Australia?'. And then as an afterthought, since he was a bit of an advocate of Canberra, and he says 'And in particular is there any reason why we couldn't do that kind of work in Canberra?' and Florey took the question seriously and said, 'Look I'd like to think about that' and he came back in due course after he'd thought a lot about it and he said 'No, there's no reason why that kind of work couldn't be done. It would have to be limited because the facilities in Australia are inadequate for a lot of that kind of work, but there are plenty of fundamental issues in relation to science in relation to medicine, in relation to health which could be done wherever you want to do it. It might be easier to do it in a capital city like Melbourne or Perth, but it would make a fine foundation for a function for Canberra.' So that was the first thing. Now at the same time there were ideas being tossed around in other places. In Post-War Reconstruction itself, we were very interested in the way in which the social sciences - economics and other studies of the way society functions had provided us with answers to problems in the war, that we ran the war as an exercise in Keynesian economics. Other things were being done in the same way, things like the work that I mentioned in relation to disablement, and that you didn't have to accept you know to - accidents and so on as the end of useful life, that there were things that could be done. So there were studies done with which the Post-War Reconstruction was actively associated about what might be done about these things, and they all came back to the, 'Here is an area where we have to understand things better, we have to have more research if we want our society to be properly run we have to understand it, we have to know how we can - what we can use to change it and so on.' We - I no other contribution came in relation to Mount Stromloh which was the Observatory. They know - we had a quite an interesting astronomer there, he was a South African by origin, but he was very interested in the fact that astronomers in Australia viewing the universe got a view of the Milky Way - our galaxy, which you can't get from the Northern Hemisphere, and the fact that we have an astronomy department here had certain, quite a few telescopes and so on, and ideas about [how] these things could be done, was important because here was something Australia could do better than anywhere else in the world because of their physical location, that ... from here you could see the galaxy working, so to speak, or you couldn't from the other side of the Earth.

So that we had ideas about the need for research in medicine, ideas about research in the social sciences so that they could be applied to the conduct of our collective affairs. There was an opportunity from Australia to get a view of the universe and to come to understand it which was unique. So these things were going around and Post-war Reconstruction was in a way involved marginally into each of those. But they were initially all being looked at separately, but it came out of work that Post-War Reconstruction was doing that you could have those things being looked at separately but they could be grouped and combined into an institution which provided opportunities for those things. This ... and it was involved also with the whole question, the whole reorganisation of education of shifting our standards, so that education didn't stop at school, that there were ways which opened the doors and also there was this idea that we had - Australians had demonstrated during the war, and in Europe - we had distinguished scholars in the classics, we had distinguished scholars in physics, we had distinguished scholars in medicine, we had distin[guished scholars] working overseas, working overseas. They had left Australia because opportunity wasn't here for them, and the idea was in this new world of the post-war reconstructed world they would come back. Not because just out of homesickness, but because it would be possible. We had done these things during the war, we could do it in peace, and they would want to come back to take a part in it. And it was then the talk about Oliphant coming, Florey coming, Hancock coming, all of this the idea that not merely could these things be done, but it could be one way in which we could end this brain drain - the loss of our best people to other places, and to offer a chance for them to come back to share, we thought, in the - creation of the new, the new Jerusalem that ...

The idea of the clever country is not new.

No no no certainly not no. Yeah.

Now you've expressed to us a few fairly pessimistic ideas about the future. You worried about overpopulation and you're concerned about our failure to recognise some of our obligations and about the environment and the trend in economics. Is your outlook universally overall so gloomy?

Well it is, it's pretty pessimistic. I feel into ... that the optimism which came out of that belief in knowledge and understanding, which marked that establishment of the university and so on, that in a sense we've lost faith in knowledge. At least it's not like it was and so I am pessimistic and also I believe that the magnitude of these problems are like the well the failure to have a civilised economic system and the failure to bring in, find some way of controlling the growth of population, these are so overwhelming in their magnitude, that it's hard not to be pessimistic. But I'm just - I don't think it's an absolute pessimism. Oh, let me tell you story about a discussion I had just quite recently with Philip Adams. Philip was a member of the old Council for the Arts, and then the Australia Council while I was Chairman of those, and he was a man whose company I always enjoyed and we had ... we were associated with some useful things I think. Particularly, he was very much involved in the development of the Film and Television School and the establishment of the film industry here, and was one of the persons who supported the original Experimental Film Fund and things which we thought sowed a lot of seeds. And he - we - I hadn't seen him for quite a while, and he rang me up a few weeks, oh, a few months ago now I suppose, and said we must meet and I haven't seen him for a long time, so I said, 'Oh, well look next time I'm in Sydney, I'll let you know, and we might have a meal together'. So I was going down and I rang him up and said I'd be down on such and such a date, and he said, 'Right I'll pick you up at eight o'clock and we'll go and have breakfast together'. So we did this and he took me off to some expensive hotel and we sat and talked you know very much in that vein about all the things we'd tried to do and how really none of them had really been completely successful that we - oh the film thing had got off the ground and then it had flagged and oh, the economic system was lousy and - all this the kind of ah swapping our miseries together you know and so - however finally we got up to go and Philip said, 'Well Nugget', he said, 'It's all true you know, we all - we failed again and again and again', he says 'But wasn't it fun?'. I think that's the reason why we're still going. Hmm.

Have you ever been tempted to join private enterprise? To join in the business world over which you presided really as Central Banker for so long.

No I haven't. The issue when I resigned from the Bank, the idea was - one of the options that the Government raised was the possibility of my doing something in management of some government aspect of business affairs, but - it wasn't a - and also I did have one approach from a commercial financial enterprise, and as a result of that, my answer in a way, which got around, that I was not available for that kind of work. And that was partly, in a sense, a kind of attitude towards working for the Government or working for a regulatory agency or something, that I don't think it is proper to move from a position in which you have knowledge arising from responsibility in relation to private industry and to accept a position within the private sector, in a way which exposes you to a risk that you are taking advantage, you are using knowledge and experience which you gained in the service of the community, for the benefit of commercial enterprise so - you know yeah so it was a decision that I would not move that way.

But were you attracted to the business world? Did you like businessmen? Did your intuitive ...

Well, I suppose in a sense, as I've said from time to time, running the Commonwealth Bank at that time, when the government of the day was anxious that the Commonwealth Bank would be an active competitor with the private banks. Indeed some of the private banks went so far as to say that the Commonwealth Bank was the government substitute for nationalisation, that we were trying to drive them out of business by competing them out of existence see. But - okay, but I accepted the role as a competitor for the Bank, and I cultivated my ... develop approaches to policy in relation to the Bank, so that it would be a successful competitor, and I believe it was. It doubled it's share of the banking business over the first ten years of operation. It - no I - No I was quite proud of that. I'm not hostile to the idea of private enterprise, but it's not what I think it's about and I - you know if that was my job I did it as well as I could see, but it wouldn't - it wasn't a job which I would have chosen.

Do you think the business sector has served Australia well? Do you think we've got good results out of our business?

No ah, well perhaps it depends on what your values are you see. Now I think the purpose of all institutions in our society essentially is to fulfil a function in the service of that society. Now I think the economic system is society's institution for the conduct of giving people access to a livelihood to enable them to feed themselves and their children, to clothe themselves and to find the material basis for a civilised, dignified human existence. That in my view is what the economic system is for. It is not for the purpose of enabling individuals to become wealthy, nor is it for the purpose of persuading people that happiness comes from possessions and from access to this or that service. On the contrary, I think those things are, from a fundamental point of view of civilised human life, those things are largely irrelevant. Some of the happiest people, some of the morally best people in the world - societies in the world, are ones which value poverty, which value doing without, particularly those which value using whatever you may have, and to assist - pinching Ben Chifley's word - those who are unlucky, those who are ill-informed or in other ways handicapped, that's what those are - those are the motivations which appeal to me and they were the kind of things where to the extent I had a choice, motivated the way I wanted myself and the institutions for which I was responsible to go.

Do you think it's possible to imagine a commercial sector that had these kinds of values instead of being motivated entirely by greed?

Yes I do. I think in a way it's the ... It's one of the reasons why I regretted the passing of Keynesian economics, that either there are various approaches to economic systems and the various economic theories which go with those objectives, and Keynesian economics was a system of understanding an economic system based upon the belief that the purposes of the economic system were to provide that kind of service to the community, see? And Keynesian economics was a way of managing the economic aspects of our society so that it tended to produce those kind of purposes. But that's why I don't like economic rationalism. It is not a way in which people are enabled to live better, to be, you know, happier, to be more civilised. It's a way of enabling production to be maximised for wealth to be maximised, for property to be maximised. Well, I'm not interested in an economic system which, where - or in an economic theory which is geared solely to those kind of purposes. It's possible to have a[n] adaptation of a capitalist economic system which is subject to disciplines, which is subject to some degree of responsibility to the society and I think we had the beginnings of it here in Australia, and in England. But we could have done it very well here. But we can't do it on the basis of economic rationalism.

If you had to describe what it is that you've been trying to do during your life in the work and your contribution to things, how could you sum it up? Is there any way that you could sum up what you've been trying to do?

No, as I said, but (INTERRUPTION) Ahh well as I think I'd like to tie this back to the. what we've been talking about the role of the Administrator, the role of the bureaucrat or whatever no, where I said that I think a good Administrator makes ...

Yes.

... other people's dreams practicable and then - and in a way that's - it could be expressing the same idea another way, that I did - I have a kind of vision of a society which is based upon mutual support for one another and for humane and affectionate relationship between people and I like to see things that are changing or things that are happening as moving in that direction, see. I too share that kind of vision of a[n] unaggressive, friendly group of people living - not necessarily always happily or always generously but with a society which looks on that kind of a relationship as the norm, as the objective. And it's partly because I feel that we're falling far short of that, that in my conversation with Philip I felt disappointed about things but, of course, if what he says is - still a fundamental thing that it's been fun to try.

[end of interview]