Australian Biography - H C "Nugget" Coombs

Shot Vision Audio In Point
1

Animated Film Australia Logo
Fade to black

00:01:30
2

Australian Biography GFX sequence
fade to black

10:01:38
3

fade from black
Coombs

Interviewer o/s: Why are you called Nugget?

Coombs sync: Well in Western Australia, in the country, Nugget was a kind of generic name for a creature, a person or a dog or a horse, you know, which was short in the legs and stocky build, and bullocks were called Nugget you know if they, and associated with that image of

10:01:47
4

Photo Coombs bare chested with other holding racquets

Coombs v/o: shortness and stockiness, was,

10:02:14
5

Photo Coombs and woman lying on floor and stretching

a certain character things that were supposed to go with being nuggetty. They're

10:02:17
6

Photo Coombs playing Golf

a bit stupid, but they work hard.

10:02:23
7

Photo Coombs
Title fades Dr. HC "Nugget" Coombs
Dissolve to

Music

10:02:26
8

Photo a younger Coombs holding Baby
Title fades up Director of Rationing - 1942
Dissolves to

10:02:31
9

Photo Coombs at Mic
Title fades up DIrector-General of Post War Reconstruction 1943-1949
Dissolve to

10:02:34
10

Photo Coombs at desk
Title Governor, Commonwealth Bank 1949-1960
Dissolve to

10:02:37
11

Photo Coombs between two ladies
Title Chairman, Elizabethan Theatre Trust 1954-1968
Dissolve to

10:02:40
12

Photo Sitting at table with Birthday cake in front
Title Governor, Reserve Bank 1960-1968
Dissolve to

10:02:43
13

Photo Coombs in University Robes
Title Chancellor, Australian National University 1968-1976
Dissolve to

10:02:46
14

Photo Coombs sitting under rocks and Aboriginal drawings
Title Chairman, Council for Aboriginal Affairs 1968-1976
Dissolve to

10:02:49
15

Photo Coombs
Title Chairman, Australian Council for the Arts 1968-1974
Dissolve to

10:02:52
16

Photo Coombs with beard
Title Advisor to 7 Prime Ministers 9141-1975

10:02:56
17

Coombs
Dissolve to

Coombs sync: I think the purpose of all of all institutions in our society, essentially is to fulfill 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 library or 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 -- Ben Chifley's words -- those who are unlucky, those who are ill informed, or in other ways handicapped. That's what, those -- those are the motivations which are appealed 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.

10:02:58
18

Photo Coombs in School picture of Ruby team
Zoom into young Coombs

Coombs v/o: I was born in Kalamunda which was a tiny little village really in the hills out just east of Perth.

10:04:52
19

Coombs

Coombs sync: I was never very interested in school, even

10:05:02
20

Photo Coombs as boy with other

Coombs v/o: right through to secondary school, when I was at Modern School,

10:05:05
21

Photo Cricket team

I was more interested in cricket than, you know, games than I was in, for the first time I became interested

10:05:08
22

Coombs

Coombs sync: in the education that was being provided was when I went to

10:05:17
23

Photo Coombs as a young man

Coombs v/o: teachers' college when we did logic and psychology and philosophy and these things

10:05:20
24

Coombs

Coombs sync: as well as educational theory and so on, so that -- and I got -- and also economics, I got interested in those things because the subject matter was interesting.

10:05:26
25

Photo Coombs in team line up

Coombs v/o: I started as a kind of pupil teacher, the monitor they used to

10:05:37
26

Coombs

Coombs sync: call us and I was given a small group of students to teach myself, with the headmaster coming in from time to time to, you know, keep me on the line -- right lines and so on, but and there were a couple of Aboriginal children -- brother and sister -- in that group,

10:05:42
27

Photo Aboriginal boy in Uniform in play yard

Coombs v/o: and also I became aware of the real, really bad

10:06:03
28

Photo Aboriginal boy milking Goat

racial antagonism that there was towards them

10:06:07
29

Photo Aboriginal Woman walking past Donkeys

in some of the country towns. The people,

10:06:11
30

Coombs

Coombs sync: particularly women in this town who were really very generous kindly people in my relationships with them, still shared this hostility, this antagonism. And I said to one woman, with whom I'd become, you know friendly, not, she was a much older woman than I, I knew her children and so on and I asked her why and I always remember what she said, she looked at me and said, "Well I'll tell you. If you were a woman and you went down the street on shopping night and you saw children whom you knew were your husband's children, how would you feel?"

10:06:14
31

Photo Coombs as a young man with other

Coombs v/o: After that, when I went out teaching, I did my university course part time, by correspondence.

10:07:06
32

Coombs

Coombs sync: I got a first class honours degree from there, and, on the basis of that, won the Hackett Scholarship to do post graduate studies in England. There was nowhere in Australia where you could do post graduate work in economics in those days.

10:07:16
33

Photo building of London School of Economics

Coombs v/o: I went to London School of Economics, and, while

10:07:34
34

Coombs

Coombs sync: London was spared the worst of the impact of the Depression in England,

10:07:39
35

Photo a terrace street

Coombs v/o: I saw a cross section

10:07:44
36

Archival Two Women and baby talking

of London life, kids, and it was not

10:07:47
37

Archival Children on street with train going over bridge in b/g

a very pleasant experience, because the kids suffered very

10:07:51
38

Archival two Children sitting on door step

badly in the Depression. They were

10:07:54
39

Archival Terrace street

short of food, you know they

10:07:57
40

Archival two Children talking by railings

were pasty faced and

10:07:58
41

Archival people walking between two row of Terrace

skinny and miserable

10:08:00
42

Coombs

Coombs sync: looking, so, and that was a distressing kind of experience, and there must have been much, much worse in

10:08:02
43

Archival Woman in shroud walking down alley

Coombs v/o: Wales and Yorkshire

10:08:11
44

Archival Coal mines site

and places where the

10:08:13
45

Archival Coal mines

unemployment had hit the factories and so on, but it was enough anyway to intensify my concern about the economic system

10:08:15
46

Coombs

Coombs sync: and my conviction that it wasn't operating either, certainly not operating fairly, but it was not even operating efficiently. So that it was, intensified my anxiety to understand it.

10:08:26
47

Archival view of Perth
Title Perth 1935

10:08:42
48

Archival street scene Perth

Coombs v/o: When I came back, I went back to teaching,

10:08:44
49

Coombs

Coombs sync: in school in Perth, but by this time the University asked me to do some lecturing

10:08:49
50

Photo Commonwealth Bank building

Coombs v/o: and then I got this, the offer to join the Commonwealth Bank.

10:08:57
51

Coombs

Coombs sync: I was called an Assistant Econ -- The Assistant Economist, there was only one right, there was only one economist and one assistant,

10:09:04
52

Photo Ben Chifley at desk

Coombs v/o: and I worked quite closely with Ben Chifley,

10:09:12
53

Coombs

Coombs sync: and it was his, him and Curtin that appointed me as a, a member of the bank board, which was astonishing thing to do. Here I was a relatively junior officer of the bank, on loan to the Treasury

10:09:18
54

Photo Coombs
Zoom in ECU Coombs

Coombs v/o: and they appointed me to the board of the the bank. Some of the senior people in the bank were quite appalled by this.

10:09:37
55

Coombs

Coombs sync: Here was this, I was about in my late 20s I think, 29 or 30, something like that.

10:09:46
56

Archival Fighter planes in air

10:09:54
57

Archival Bomb falling to ground

10:09:55
58

Archival Bombs falling on river bank

10:09:57
59

Archival Newspapers Bill boards

John Curtin v/o: Before Cabinet today

10:10:02
60

Archival Crowds of people standing in street listening to speaker

Directed the War Cabinet to

10:10:06
61

Archival John Curtin
Title fades up Prime Minister John Curtin, 1942

John Curtin sync: give it the necessary regulations for the complete mobilisation

10:10:11
62

Archival Crowds

Curtin v/o: and the complete ordering

10:10:17
63

Archival Sign 'Australia needs you '

of all the resources,

10:10:20
64

Archival John Curtin

Curtin sync: human and material, in this Commonwealth for the defence of this Commonwealth. [clapping] That means, clearly and specifically,

10:10:21
65

Archival Soldier

Curtin v/o: that every human

10:10:37
66

Archival Soldier holding weapon

being in this country

10:10:39
67

Archival Soldier

is now, whether

10:10:42
68

Archival Women in Telephone operation rooms

he or she likes it,

10:10:43
69

Archival men digging trenches

at the service of the government to work

10:10:45
70

Archival Curtin

Curtin v/o: in the defence of Australia.

10:10:49
71

Coombs

Coombs sync: When I went to work in Canberra, which I did in, just after the outbreak of war, I was lent by the bank to the Treasury to act as economist to the Treasury. The only economist on the Treasury staff at that time, now they've got hundreds of them. But any rate, so that was, but then of course Sir

10:10:51
72

Photo Coombs at desk

Coombs v/o: Curtin appointed me to run the rationing job which also I'd never done

10:11:15
73

Coombs

Coombs sync: a major piece of administration, never headed any organisation bigger than a class of teenagers, in my life, and here I was put in charge of an organisation which extended over the whole of the country and had to create it.

10:11:20
74

Archival Identity card

Coombs v/o: In the period leading up to the actual start

10:11:39
75

Coombs

Coombs sync: of rationing, there was a period where the clothing and oh, all the shops selling all those kinds of things used to open at nine o'clock and close at five past, because they just, there was just not enough production to satisfy possible demand, and once people realised that things were getting scarce, of course, they grabbed everything they could get. So that there was that period of about six weeks while we worked out a system of rationing, that it, there was absolute chaos.

10:11:43
76

Archival Title shot "Rationing Order Stars Buying Panic"

10:12:22
77

Archival People steping off tram

Newscaster v/o: Since the

10:12:25
78

Archival people entering store room

government announcement that clothing rationing

10:12:26
79

Archival shoppers approaching counter

was contemplated, before that rationing machinery

10:12:28
80

Archival People on busy streets

was ready for use, Australian towns and cities

10:12:31
81

Archival people entering store

witnessed extraordinary scenes of panic buying,

10:12:34
82

Archival Women shopping

reflecting no credit

10:12:36
83

Archival Women at counter

on that section of the public indulging.

10:12:38
84

Archival Woman at counter

Not all of those joining the throngs round department stores can be accused

10:12:40
85

Archival Women and a man in shop

of selfishness and unpatriotic behaviour.

10:12:43
86

Archival Que of people

Many needed clothing urgently and had no option but to join the stampede. But there were

10:12:46
87

Archival Women behind counter covering shelves with material

scores who acted like panicky Latins

10:12:51
88

Archival rack of clothes

It seems that there are people within

10:12:54
89

Archival Woman sitting and knitting

within the Commonwealth who need to think

10:12:55
90

Archival people on streets

a lot less in terms of me and a lot more in terms of we.

10:12:57
91

Coombs

Interviewer o/s: Were there many complaints about the way in which things were rationed?

Coombs sync: Oh, yes. There was a steady of stream of them I suppose, there really -- I think -- we felt at the time that on the whole the community accepted it very well, but that didn't mean that there weren't any complaints.

10:13:03
92

Photo young couples holding hands
pan right Archbishop of Melbourne

Coombs v/o: We had a quite an interesting letter from the Archbishop of Melbourne, saying, complaining that he

10:13:22
93

Photo Archbishop of Melbourne

didn't have enough tea and he had to entertain visiting clergy and things like that, and he

10:13:29
94

Coombs

Coombs sync: wanted a special allowance, but he, as -- good fashion required of Archbishops in those days, he signed himself John or whatever his Christian name was Melbourne, and so the girl who was doing the work on this who was a girl from the, working in the university, [laughs] she was very, very efficient and, you know, blunt, and, she wrote back to him, Dear Mr. Melbourne, you can't have any more tea. [laughs] If you have guests coming you better ask them to bring their own coupons or something of that kind.

10:13:34
95

Photo Coombs

Interviewer v/o: When you became head of Post -War Reconstruction, what did you identify

10:14:15
96

Coombs

Interviewer o/s: as the main task that you really had to get right in that period?

Coombs sync: Well it, 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 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,

10:14:20
97

Archival Building site

Coombs v/o: we have to have jobs, we have to have places

10:15:03
98

Archival Men in suits outside building site

where they can earn a living.

10:15:06
99

Archival Wheel barrow being pushed by man

We have to have houses where they can live, you know all that.

10:15:08
100

Archival Building site

You had to start to prepare for that,

10:15:10
101

Coombs

Coombs sync: 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 programs for that post-war period.

10:15:13
102

Archival Coombs in a line of of dignitaries at opening of commonwealth Bank

Newscaster v/o: In Hobart, Tasmania, the Governor of the Commonwealth Bank, Doctor H. C. Coombs, waves the magic wand and the great doors of the

10:15:28
103

Archival Crowds on street

brand new bank slide open to admit the first depositors.

10:15:35
104

Archival Crowds entering new bank

Things must be pretty good in Tasmania by the look at that crowd

10:15:38
105

Archival top of building
tilt down to street level

anxious to pay in. The building, called the finest in the Apple Isle, cost one million pounds and obviously that's one million that's been well spent.

10:15:41
106

Photo Board members Commonwealth bank
zoom in CU Coombs

Interviewer v/o: In 1949, Chifley lost office and Menzies came in as Prime Minister. How did that affect your relationship

10:15:49
107

Coombs

Interviewer o/s: as Governor of the Commonwealth Bank with the Prime Minister?

Coombs sync: Well it certainly made it different, because my relationship with Menzies was worse than ever, the same as my relationship with Chifley had been because, certainly not for quite a long time any rate, I had been a friend as well as an adviser too, as far as Ben Chifley was concerned and that gave it a special kind of quality. Menzies however, rejected advice which he was getting from, particularly from country party branches and so on, that I should be dismissed.

10:16:00
108

Photo Coombs and Menzies

Coombs v/o: And he was the first real professional

10:16:41
109

Coombs

Coombs sync: politician I'd ever worked with. He -- politics to him was a career, he wanted to be Prime Minister. And that was really what it was about. He didn't come in with a program. He hadn't no ambitions.

10:16:45
110

Photo Coombs and Menzies

Coombs v/o: He was lazy, he didn't want to run the whole business. He left, provided the ministers didn't get into

10:17:02
111

Coombs

Coombs sync: any trouble or were reasonably competent, he was happy to leave them alone, but he was ruthless at getting rid of them if he thought they were unduly ambitious. Or if they didn't do a reasonable job.

10:17:10
112

Photo Holt

Coombs v/o: Holt, I liked him. He was a very

10:17:25
113

Coombs

Coombs sync: kindly, rather gentle sort of person and eminently decent. I don't think he was a great man, but he was reasonably intelligent, and so he was quite a good Treasurer to work with.

10:17:29
114

Photo Holt in diving suite

Coombs v/o: Holt died, he was, you know had, he was drowned or whatever

10:17:48
115

Coombs

Coombs sync: and so there I found myself working for Gorton.

10:17:53
116

Photo Gorton

Coombs v/o: And actually he too was one of the Prime Ministers who

10:17:58
117

Coombs

Coombs sync: I think is very underrated. Very. It's very interesting, if you go back and can think about the things that he did and the views that he expressed when he was Prime Minister, he did in a way anticipate quite a lot of the Whitlam attitudes. You know, his attitude towards aborigines, his attitude on international affairs. He was the first conservative Prime Minister who had any sense of autonomy or -- as against the British or the Americans, you know.

10:18:02
118

Photo McMahon

Coombs v/o: McMahon was, much more limited man. He was never strong enough,

10:18:37
119

Coombs

Coombs sync: he was never sufficiently in charge of his Cabinet to be able to do things himself. He, you know, when I went, agreed to work with him, it was on a probably improper understanding that he would change things for aborigines. And he made some quite good statements, promising these things. I can remember a conference with state ministers and so on, it was held in Cairns, where he made a very good statement, which was in a sense the, to accept differences, to abandon assimilation objective. But on the day following that Cairns statement, the Minister for the Interior, made statements that in the Northern Territory it was not going to be like that at all. No, he was a weak man.

interviewer o/s: What was he like to deal with personally?

Coombs sync: Well, except for the fact that he had a very unpleasant habit of ringing me up at all hours of the night to ask me what I thought about something or other that, he was alright.

10:18:43
120

Archival Whitlam at podium

Whitlam sync: We will legislate to give Aborigines land rights.

10:20:00
121

Archival Crowd cheering

10:20:04
122

Archival Whitlam

Whitlam sync: Not just because their case is beyond argument, but because all of us as Australians are diminished while the Aborigines are denied their rightful place in this nation.

10:20:06
123

Archival Crowd cheering

Interviewer v/o: What were your feelings when

10:20:18
124

Coombs

Interviewer o/s: Whitlam came to power?

Coombs sync: Well I think that, ah, like many people I felt that if this could be a beginning of something that was really exceptional, it was an exceptional opportunity.

10:20:22
125

Photo Whitlam

Coombs v/o: And I really did feel that for the,

10:20:35
126

Coombs

Coombs sync: first time since Ben Chifley we, we could, we would be having a Prime Minister who had a vision of Australia as a place in which you could be proud to live.

10:20:40
127

Archival Coombs being interviewed

Archive Interviewer o/s: Has Mr. Whitlam agreed to your conditions?

Coombs sync: That's a question which you should put to Mr. Whitlam, but the position has not yet arisen. What I have said is that if Mr. Whitlam as Prime Minister invites me to become an adviser to him, I will give that request serious consideration.

10:20:53
128

Coombs

Interviewer o/s: Through the course of your life, you served many Prime Ministers as public servant, banker, adviser. That gave you quite a lot of power didn't it?

Coombs sync: Well I don't -- I don't mind the word influence, but I don't, I have never thought of the work that I did as an exercise of power. Perhaps it, perhaps that, I was wrong, I might have been wrong about that but I don't think so. I think I had influence, I think I'm a competent persuader andI like persuading.

10:21:15
129

Photo Coombs standing behind table
dissolve to

Interviewer v/o: What did you see as your greatest achievement during the period that you were in charge of the Council

10:22:02
130

Photo Coombs with two ladies standing in front of an Art work

for the Arts. I mean what do you think it was that really made the difference?

10:22:06
131

Coombs

Coombs sync: Once somebody asked me what I thought was the function of a bureaucrat, you know, in relation to the arts and I said, well, bureaucrats, good bureaucrat makes other people's dreams come true.

10:22:11
132

Photo Aboriginal
pan right CU Coombs

Coombs v/o: And I think that's, so far as I have an achievement in relation to the arts, it was that. Not that there was

10:22:25
133

Photo group of people
pan left Coombs

anything of the things that were done for which I was responsible, but there were --

10:22:32
134

Coombs

Coombs sync: the organisation and the way it worked was a way in which other people's dreams of, became a reality.

10:22:39
135

Photo Coombs

Interviewer v/o: Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future

10:22:48
136

Coombs

Interviewer o/s: generally?

Coombs: Well, I think I feel fundamentally pessimistic, because I think, that, we are not dealing with the fundamental problems of our society. I suppose in the most absolute form, the difficulties are expressed if you look at the population issue. You see, the population is increasing, continuing to increase at a fantastic rate, and it is just going to be impossible for the population as forecast to be fed, clothed, everything. Certainly not -- it's impossible, even if we transformed the way in which our society is run so that we too accepted a lower rate of consumption of resources so that the rest of the world could come closer to the kind of lifestyle that we live. Even if all those things were done, I see Malthus, 180 or 200 years ago, or whatever it was, said that unless we learn to control the growth of population, it will be imposed on us by famine, pestilence and war. Now, we have a famine in very many countries. There's food, they can't afford it. They are starving except for some internationally organised charity, you see. Pestilence, well AIDS is a pretty good form of pestilence, and we have wars all over the world. But even so, despite those things the population continues to rise, and I just don't see any way in which catastrophe can be avoided. When I was -- well one time when I was particularly interested in this population thing, I went to a friend of mine who was a biologist and I said is there any other species on the earth which has this population explosion, where they have an exponentially rising population. "Oh" he said, "yes there are quite a lot of them, particularly insect, but there are others too" and I said "Well what happens, they can't go on rising forever." He said "No," he said "it goes, you know it goes slowly rising and then it becomes exponential and it goes up like that". And I said well what happens when it gets up to the top of the graph?" He said "Well, it collapses." It doesn't flatten out, it doesn't drift down, it collapses. Sometimes it collapses into extinction, but most frequently it collapses and they almost disappear, but in due course there are a few left and the rise starts again. Now, I don't see any reason to believe that human beings are going to be any different. I think our population will go on and explode, but there will be a point where it will collapse. But for some reason, perhaps the ones that Malthus identified, but there are probably plenty of others.

Interviewer o/s: But you can't be entirely without hope for the future, because you keep on working hard at the causes that you care about.

Coombs sync: Well, you know I don't, I, it's -- work is a habit. What would I do if I stopped doing these things, see. I'm here, but you see, expectation of, I've learnt to live with the conviction that a lot of your efforts are going to be unsuccessful. And I've come to believe that that's not a good reason for not trying. So it's, it is partly habit, it's -- as my wife said you know that I can't leave things alone, if I think they should be different, lots of people think the world should be different, but she said

10:22:53
137

Photo Coombs and wife
Dissolve to

Coombs v/o: about me that I'm just conceited enough to think that I can do something about it.

10:27:30
138

Photo Hands of Coombs

Interviewer v/o: Looking back over your life, what has been your biggest disappointment?

10:27:36
139

Coombs

Coombs sync: Well I should say certainly my biggest disappointment is that I -- well, we just have not been prepared to accept the right of Aborigines to be different, to be part of our society and welcome in it. But to preserve differences, cultural and other which

10:27:41
140

Photo Coombs and a Aboriginal man sitting at base of tree

Coombs v/o: are important to them. I remember

10:28:09
141

Coombs

Coombs sync: Whitlam saying that until we accept aboriginal rights, and act on that, he says "We are all demeaned" and I feel that that's a truth, that the thing which demeans Australia and Australians more than anything, is their failure to act on that issue.

10:28:14
142

Photo Coombs greeting Prince Philip

Interviewer v/o: What would you say is your greatest achievement, what is something that you feel really proud of?

10:28:58
143

Coombs

Coombs sync: Well -- oh somebody else asked me this some time ago, and, I said well, I have four children, they all have or all are doing interesting jobs, they, none of them seriously take drugs other than alcohol, and they all still talk to me. They don't approve of me, but they still talk to me. Now I think in a personal sense, that's not a bad achievement.

10:29:05
144

Credits
Interviewer ROBIN HUGHES
Research GRAHAM SHIRLEY
FRANK HEIMANS
Camera PAUL REE
Sound Recording TIM PARRATT
Sound Mixing GEORGE HART
Production Manager KIM ANNING

Production Accountant MEGAN GILMOUR
Production Co-ordinator JOANNE HOLLIMAN
Post Production Supervisor BRIAN HICKS

Producer/Director
Writer/Editor FRANK HEIMANS
Executive Producer RON SAUNDERS

Film Australia would like to thank
Dr. H.C. COOMBS
ETTIE OAKMAN
JOHN FAIRFAX LTD
LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS
COMMONWEALTH BANK OF AUSTRALIA
FILMWORLD RESEARCH
ABC-TV ARCHIVES
AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY
NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA
MIKE SPENCER, FILM AUSTRALIA
THE POST OFFICE, LONDON

Film Australia [Logo]

00:29:44
Copyright & Legal