A gentleman in an unforgiving world
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A gentleman in an unforgiving world

BILL Pritchett was one of many distinguished and able public servants who was monstered by the legendary Arthur Tange - head of the Defence Department - over the years.

It was nothing personal. Sir Arthur, who was always perfectly pleasant to me, ate public servants for breakfast, kicked and clawed chiefs of the general staff for morning tea, eviscerated admirals and chewed and spat out prime ministers - and, besides, he had headhunted Pritchett, one of our best strategic thinkers, from External Affairs to Defence. Asking Tange to be nice was usually a waste of time.

Bill Pritchett was a mild-mannered but distinguished public servant.

Bill Pritchett was a mild-mannered but distinguished public servant.

Pritchett found it difficult to take. But he was fairly mild-mannered and did not know what to do. Every morning, as he was shaving before going to work, he would rehearse a speech he meant to give one day.

''Sir Arthur [pull blade down chin], I am your deputy secretary and you should not speak to me like that [pull blade down throat]. Especially not in front of other staff [scrape other side].''

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He did it for ages but could never summon up the courage to say it. Then, one day, Tange began one of his Tiger impersonations and Bill blurted it out. He didn't know what had come over him. It just came out - and he shrunk in anticipation of Tange's response.

Tange looked at him and said ''OK'', and never monstered him again. Bill Pritchett was to succeed Tange as head of the Defence Department in 1979 and spent five years as secretary before retiring in 1984.

He told me this story against himself - along with some other fabulous stories about Sir Arthur, including about the mixed blessings of occupying the job known in the department as being Tange's ''hisser''. The hisser - usually a bright graduate entrant - would accompany Tange to meetings, where Sir Arthur would engage in his usual routines of tearing strips off others, roaring that he wanted streets not suburbs and so on.

At some stage, just when it seemed his tirade was coming to an end, the hisser, who had been largely note-taking, would suddenly begin hissing at Sir Arthur and trying to get his attention. Sir Arthur would ignore him - or, in one case, her - for a while, then stop, looking annoyed, and snatch a piece of paper from the hisser.

He would take it, glance at it, then snarl, scrunch the paper into a ball in his hands, look despairing and angrily at the hisser, then begin again on the hapless initial object of his rage. Folk were fairly used to seeing the hisser humiliated in this way.

But, Pritchett said, Tange would always be fairly thick with his hisser, whose function would be to remember everything that Tange had on his bill of indictment, just in case Sir Arthur, in prosecuting one part of his case, left out some other alleged misdemeanour. A typical note - never sighted by the victim - would say something like: ''Don't forget to mention the submarine fiasco.'' Tange might affect dismissal of such communications, but would in fact change tack to bring this extra offence into consideration.

Bill Pritchett died last week, after having been frail for some time. A formal obituary written by a colleague will appear in this journal soon. But his death provides an occasion to comment not only on his extraordinary talents but the capacities of some of our best public servants, including some of those who have been secretary of the Department of Defence. It is no reflection on Dennis Richardson, one of the best of the breed, to remark that it is getting harder to attract, and to keep, people of his calibre, and that in recent times the job tenure seems to be getting shorter and shorter, usually because of the whims of ministers.

Defence had Sir Fred Shedden for 19 years, including World War II and Korea, and Sir Edwin Hicks for 12, including most of Vietnam. Each had great influence but at times stormy relationships with ministers and colleagues - in both cases, particularly with Sir Arthur Tange at Foreign Affairs.

Then there was Sir Henry Bland who, like a number of his successors, including Bill Cole, Alan Woods, Tony Ayers, Alan Hawke, Ric Smith, Ian Watt and Richardson, has left footprints all over the public service. Tange served for nine years, in the process reorganising the department by abolishing separate sub-departments of Air, Navy, Army and Supply, and extensively developed the department's intellectual capacity, not least with the importation of Pritchett, an able diplomat who had served around Asia. Tange was scornful of the intellectual and strategic capacity of the military establishment.

In modern terms, one might say that he thought they tended to operate in silos and to see everything not in terms of overall needs, or priorities, or a broad view, but in terms of the service from which they came. He thought, as well, that the professional training they had received - even as senior officers in international war campaigns - did not sufficiently allow them to think widely, see issues in terms of rationing resources, managing priorities and budgets, and planning for the long-term.

Tange built up civilian capacity to plan and think in this area, recruiting not only cool, critical and sceptical intellectuals and experts such as Pritchett, but also managers and others who could think critically and laterally, even questioning military axioms, sacred cows and long-held assumptions. What was worse was that they were generally more nimble and agile in argument, could win them on intellectual merit, and had no great respect for rank or length of service.

In those days, senior officers could say in hushed tones that the greatest single threat to national security consisted of civilians in their own department. I always thought it particularly comical that two often nominated examples - Alan Wrigley and John Moten - ended up as head of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation, where, likewise, they considerably sharpened the quality of arguments, evidence and debate.

Pritchett was followed by Sir William Cole, who retired on age grounds after two years. His successor, Alan Woods, lasted only two years before becoming an accidental collateral casualty in a silly Hawke office plot to find a secretary's job for his office manager, but he was a formidable manager, still revered in the department as well as the wider service. At the time his position was made untenable, I wrote that it was not so much that he was pushed but that he jumped, once he noticed how comfortable they had made the pillows to soften his landing.

To everyone's astonishment, not least his own, Woods was replaced by his best mate, Tony Ayers, a former social worker cum-prison officer - and pacifist - who had headed Aboriginal Affairs and Social Security, and who was already a manager and talent spotter of formidable reputation.

His going saw the beginning of a long period of instability in which an array of able officials found it more and more difficult to fit in with the personalities and quirks of a succession of quirky ministers.

At times it would be declared that the department lacked good management and people with reputations as managers were appointed, to be found wanting because they were thought to be missing on close matters of strategy and higher defence policy. Sometimes policy specialists were put in, only to have their talents largely wasted because they were dealing with the sheer bloody awfulness of juggling enormous budgets and projects, ministers inclined to panic and, increasingly, deployments.

In nearly all cases, those juggling the secretaryships - including ministers and advisers - were more at fault than the secretaries who ultimately could not fit their specifications.

Thus Paul Barratt, with extensive business experience, was sacrificed to protect his minister, after only 18 months. Alan Hawke, trained as an all-rounder for the job, also had to wear the blame for political errors, and lasted only three years. His successor, Ric Smith, lasted a bit more than four, but his intellectual talent was largely squandered as he was forced to concentrate on administration.

Likewise with Nick Warner, a brain but not an instinctive manager (he is now head of the Secret Intelligence Service).

Ian Watt, head of Finance, was promoted to Defence but served only two years before being further promoted to Prime Minister and Cabinet. He was replaced - for a year at least - by former Major-General Duncan Lewis, whose unhappy time there probably confirmed a prejudice against military service as a qualification for future appointments.

Dennis Richardson, then head of Foreign Affairs, was, at 65, seven years older on appointment to Defence than any of his predecessors, but now that age retirement has been discovered to be discriminatory will probably remain forever. He will almost certainly be the last to have personal memories of either Arthur Tange or Bill Pritchett.

Jack Waterford is the former Editor-at-large at The Canberra Times and writes a regular column