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Tuesday, 29 October 1996
Page: 4695


Senator SHORT(7.20 p.m.) —I am very gratified that the Senate today unanimously adopted a motion that I moved in respect of one of the greatest Australian public servants in our history, the late Sir Roland Wilson who died last Friday at the age of 92. That motion read:

The Senate—

(a)   notes, with sadness, the death on 24 October 1996 of Sir Roland Wilson KBE, Kt, CBE, Bachelor of Commerce, Doctor of Philosophy (Oxford), Doctor of Philosophy (Chicago), Hon LLD (Tas), Hon FASSA;

(b)   acknowledges with deep gratitude Sir Roland's magnificent contribution to Australia in peace and war in a wide range of capacities throughout a distinguished career of unsurpassed public service, including as Commonwealth Statistician, in the establishment of the Commonwealth Department of Labour and National Service, and as Secretary to the Commonwealth Treasury, Chairman of Qantas and Chairman of the Commonwealth Banking Corporation; and

(c)   expresses its sympathy to his wife, Joyce, at Sir Roland's passing.

The motion contains several of the bare facts of Sir Roland's career. There are many more. In particular, he was the first Tasmanian from a government school to be a Rhodes scholar. He was in his day one of Australia's foremost economists with great strength in economic statistics. He was the first economist to head the federal Treasury. He was a man of many parts. He was skilled in engineering and in cabinet making. In both these fields he had some notable achievements.

I am indebted to John Farquharson's excellent obituary in the Canberra Times last Sunday which said that during the war years Sir Roland would fossick in Canberra's rubbish dump to salvage material from which he built an electric motor car to defeat petrol rationing. In his youth he had success as a pole vaulter because `he had designed and built his own lightweight Oregon vaulting stick which was much lighter than the orthodox variety and was tailored to his five-foot height and nine-stone weight'. That is not entirely correct. Sir Roland was more than five foot tall, though perhaps not a lot more. He was small in physical stature but he was a giant in intellect and in the respect that he commanded.

As the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) said in his statement of tribute last week:

Sir Roland Wilson was an important member of a unique group of public servants who helped to transform Australia into a modern industrial economy after the Second World War.

The group was unique. Although there were more than seven, those who were perhaps best known were the so-called `seven dwarfs'—Roland Wilson, Dick Randall, Allen Brown, Harry Bland, `Nugget' Coombes, John Crawford and Frederick Shedden. Between them they wielded enormous influence on the direction of postwar Australia right through to the 1960s and, in some instances, into the early 1970s.

It was my privilege to have known Sir Roland Wilson. He was the Secretary to the Treasury when I joined that department in September 1963. I had the opportunity to work closely in his presence in the following three years before his retirement from the Treasury in 1966. I acted as his personal assistant on more than one occasion. I had almost daily contact with him whilst I was private secretary to the then Treasurer, Harold Holt, from late 1964 to early 1966. In these capacities we travelled to numerous international conferences around the world and, of course, saw each other, particularly in the domestic scene here in Canberra.

Never on any one occasion was Roland Wilson other than the complete professional public servant. His relationship with the governments he served was correct at all times. He gave advice objectively and fearlessly. His stewardship of the Treasury was impeccable. It was almost certainly during his period as secretary that the Treasury enjoyed its greatest pre-eminence. The benefits to Australia were great.

Roland Wilson had a sharp tongue and a sharp pen. I can attest to the accuracy of John Farquharson's statement in his obituary where he said:

Colleagues of the day have told of the submission from a senior (and long-winded) Treasury official that went to him—

that is, to Wilson—

with a conclusion, "It is recommended the grant be authorised." Wilson altered it, in his precise handwriting,—

and it was very precise—

to read "be not authorised," and added, "Recommendation approved as amended." To another paper ending, "The complexities make it difficult to frame a recommendation" he added just two words, "Try harder".

I saw some of the most powerful and influential figures in the land stand in awe of Roland Wilson—and, in many instances, fear—but in all cases with respect. At the same time, Sir Roland Wilson had a razor sharp wit to match his razor sharp intellect. I often felt that he was a shy man. Once you got behind the steely glance and the sharp tongue, a heart of gold was often clear to see.

The world has changed a great deal since the days of Sir Roland's illustrious career. So has the Public Service. We may not see the likes of Roland Wilson again. Most Australians would probably not remember or even have heard of Sir Roland Wilson because of the great age to which he lived. It is very important, however, that we not lose sight of the values that he epitomised—character, intellect, honesty, integrity, objective and fearless advice to government and, through all of that, dedicated service to the Australian people.