Telegraph boy to brilliant bureaucrat

When the time comes to make the great tabulation of pre-eminent Commonwealth public servants, Sir William Cole, who died on January 9, 2019, can be assured of a position in the front rank.

Sir William Cole in 1952, when he worked in the Treasury. Photo: Archives

Sir William Cole in 1952, when he worked in the Treasury. Photo: Archives

He was born in 1926 and attended Northcote High School in Melbourne with fellow student Don Chipp, who was to become a federal Liberal Party minister and then the leader of the Australian Democrats, an organisation Cole thought lived in a "fantasy world".

When he was 15, he became a telegram messenger in the Postmaster-General's Department. It's possible the bicycle skills he developed in this early employment helped him to become a motorbike racer, including, apparently, at major venues like Bathurst.

During World War II, Cole served in the Royal Australian Air Force and was subsequently admitted to Melbourne University as a non-matriculant under the Commonwealth reconstruction training scheme. He graduated with a first-class honours degree in commerce and joined the Department of Supply.

In 1952, Sir Frederick Wheeler (not at that stage knighted) recruited Cole to the Treasury as a research officer. After a stint in the International Monetary Fund in Washington in the late 1950s, he became a class 11 (now executive level 2) in a branch headed by John Stone, who was to be the Treasury's secretary from 1979 to 1984. Michael Keating, who was to become, among other things, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet's secretary from 1991 to 1996, was a class 8 (now EL1) in the branch.

In 1970, Cole was appointed director of the Bureau of Transport Economics, rejoining the Treasury in 1972 as head of its general finance and economic policy division responsible for both fiscal and monetary policy, including budget coordination. In 1976, Cole became the Australian statistician, a posting cut short when, later that year, he was asked to be the first secretary of the new Department of Finance, an institution the Fraser government created from parts of the Treasury.

Perhaps to the surprise of some, Cole became chairman of the Public Service Board in 1978; it was an appointment widely welcomed by board staff and regretted by those in Finance. In 1984, he was appointed secretary of the Department of Defence, a position from which he retired from the public service in October 1986.

Cole subsequently conducted a review of superannuation arrangements for the military. It resulted in a new scheme in 1991 and Cole became the first chairman of its board of trustees, a position from which he resigned after five or six years.

The bare facts of Cole's CV display, among other things, high degrees of mobility, variety and the esteem of appointing authorities, who repeatedly invited him to take on sorely testing jobs.

Thus, Cole returned to the Treasury in 1972 to deal with a series of controversial budgets under three Whitlam government treasurers: Frank Crean, Jim Cairns (a fellow Northcote High boy) and Bill Hayden. If these were not enough, the Treasury was under the distracting stress of the so-called loans affair while Cole's direct superior, John Stone, remained a person of bombastic self-confidence who had a strong influence on many Treasury staff. A colleague from these days remembers that, at morning teas, Cole would have vigorous but never rancorous debates with Stone and other officers, including Ian Castles and Fred Argy. It's easy to imagine Cole more than holding his own in such quick-witted company.

The scuttlebutt that he left the Treasury for the Bureau of Statistics because of differences with Stone is almost certainly untrue. The two were good friends and it would be entirely out of character for Cole to run from an argument. The bureau job was a promotion and Cole said "Treasury is an exciting place but it's a bastard of a place to work because of the pressure. And it's nice to be running your own organisation."

Cole was an ideal first secretary of Finance. He had a working familiarity with its responsibilities and he and subsequent Finance secretaries, most notably Castles and Mike Keating, turned the department's functions into greater forces for good than they would have been had they remained in the Treasury.

When Cole became chairman of the Public Service Board in 1978, the public service was in the middle of major reductions in staff. There was a wage freeze, the breakdown of so-called wage indexation and roiling industrial conflict made worse by provocative legislation enabling staff to be dismissed for taking industrial action. The period marked the beginnings of large-scale restructuring and redundancies in the public service, particularly in Defence, with controversial new legislation to cope with those circumstances. The crucially important Bowen committee report on public duty and private interests landed on Cole's desk about the same time as he issued the first extensive code of conduct for the public service. There were radical changes in administrative law, including freedom of information and revised methods of review of administrative decisions in place of the prerogative writs, and continuing attempts to implement the recommendations of the Coombs royal commission.

Cole stood up for the public service. When prime minster Malcolm Fraser announced further staff reductions in 1981, Cole said in the board's annual report "that this will require shedding of functions or reduction of activities if the service is to operate efficiently and without excessive strain". And he pushed for easing of staff ceilings and special training to help with the administrative law changes about which he was sceptical. Perhaps drawing on the lessons of his experience, Cole fostered various staff mobility schemes: an interchange program between the public service and the private sector, and executive development and personnel management schemes.

Industrial relations was possibly the least satisfying part of his duties at the board. He was unhappy with certain changes in the early 1970s, which he saw as providing conditions of employment better than those in other comparable areas of employment – pace-setting, as it were – and he was pleased to get the chance to wind bits of this back. While he was ever polite in union negotiations, it's unlikely he got much satisfaction from them. In the middle of a major strike, he said "at times like this I wish I was back in Finance".

Cole found it difficult to "adjust" from the Public Service Board to Defence. Still, he got on well with the senior military; they respected him for his courtesy and willingness to debate issues with restraint and on their merits. Several long-serving senior civilian staff believe Cole was the best Defence secretary in the last 30 years of the 20th century.

He was pleased to have the Department of Defence Support (essentially the old Department of Supply, in which he had been a junior officer about 1950) merged into the Department of Defence. That made sense in machinery-of-government terms and it opened the door for microeconomic changes, the significance of which can be signified by noting that, in the subsequent 20 years, the Defence civilian workforce was reduced by about 30,000 to the great benefit of the organisation, taxpayers and the economy.

Cole was, however, frustrated about Defence's inability to progress a broad review of defence policy initiated by the Hawke government and its first defence minister, Gordon Scholes. "Defence could not get it started," Cole complained. According to PM&C, when Kim Beazley succeeded Scholes, Cole advised the new minister to get in an outsider to help break the deadlock. A former defence official, Paul Dibb, was engaged and his report resulted in a Defence white paper in 1987 outlining major changes in strategic defence policy, the essence of which remains to this day.

Paul Dibb (left), Sir William Cole and then defence minister Kim Beazley at the release of the Dibb report in 1986. Photo: Archives

Paul Dibb (left), Sir William Cole and then defence minister Kim Beazley at the release of the Dibb report in 1986. Photo: Archives

Cole's view of the public service was clear and consistent. When asked to give a talk on "the changing role of the public service", he changed the topic to "the role of the public service in a changing environment", pointing out that the unchanging role of the public service is "to assist governments in thinking through and implementing their plans and policies". "It's easy in the public service," he added, "to be preoccupied with contemporary challenges and to imagine these are new and different. But that says more about the way memory discounts the past than anything else – the latest problem ... is always the worst." That phenomenon endures, unfortunately.

Cole probably had a more conservative opinion of the proper ambit of government activity. For example, he said: "I do not think it can be seriously argued that public trading enterprises are not handicapped by being government-owned", including, he added in a typical barb, as a consequence of "short-sighted Department of Finance scrutiny".

Cole had a sophisticated appreciation of the central role of cabinet and its ministers. He put great effort into getting cabinet submissions right and to ensuring that "coordination comments" in these documents were crafted with due seriousness.

On policy advice, he said: "Often it is a matter of judgment as to how forcefully and tenaciously public servants should express their own views. Certainly there are circumstances when officials must put their views pungently and with determination. However, they should know when to stop and where the dividing line is between pressing an argument and nagging."

Cole was impatient with those who sought to draw a line between policy and administration, saying: "The minister must often become involved in the detailed administration of his department ... That is proper because the success or failure of many programs will depend on the way they are administered."

He believed in firm central control of staff numbers, pointing out that "the public service is not a business ... for the head of a Commonwealth department, extra staff ... are, in economic terms 'free goods' – the money doesn't come out of their pockets and they don't have to provide a profit and loss account". Goodness knows what he'd make of the present system, whereby departmental heads routinely mock staff controls by employing contractors to perform public service jobs thereby opening the gates to untold corruption and nepotism in personnel management.

Finally, Cole had open and enlightened views of how public servants should behave. In 1979, he emphasised that "where personal behaviour does not interfere with the proper performance of official duties, and where it does not reflect on the integrity and standing of the service, it is of no interest to the employing authority". At the time, that was a quite modern sentiment, and it still is.

Former colleagues comment on Cole's tremendous command of detail and his capacity as an incisive and decisive analyst who never allowed himself to get flustered or bogged down. One said that his "back of the envelope calculations generally proved to be uncannily accurate". And he was a fine writer who eschewed the obfuscating confusions of jargon and cliche.

He was polite, almost self-effacing, and he had a developed sense of wry humour that often expressed itself in witty annotations on documents. He was fond of telling amusing stories against himself. As he was about to park his car outside the Department of Finance in a place reserved for him, a young lad in a delivery van swerved in front of Cole's car and took up the spot. Cole jumped out and asked the lad to move his van. The lad said "Get stuffed, grandpa" and raced into the building to deliver his parcels. Cole parked his car hard against the back of the van which was hedged in at its front by concrete curbing and a wooden sign signifying the place was reserved. Cole rushed to his office and watched from his window to see what the lad would do. When he returned, the lad revved up his van, jumped it over the curbing, knocked the reserved parking sign flying and sped over the adjacent lawn and back onto the road. Cole reckoned he tried unsuccessfully to find the lad because he thought he'd make an excellent division head in Finance.

He may have been more successful in helping to edge others into senior positions. As chairman of the Public Service Board in 1978, it would have been legally necessary to provide advice to the prime minister on the appointment of Stone as Treasury secretary early in 1979. He also influenced the careers of many other secretaries, some of whom may not have realised it.

It's been said Cole was one of a now long-gone breed, a mandarin of the old school, whatever that might mean. He would almost certainly have respectfully brushed such well-intentioned, semi-compliments aside. Of course, Commonwealth officials cannot now begin their careers as telegram messengers, as there are no telegrams to deliver. But to consign Cole to an extinct species cancels the value of his example. To be clear: there's no reason people can't follow a career similar to Sir William's, and he should securely remain an inspiration for those who aspire to do so.

Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant. pdg@home.netspeed.com.au