Sir William Cole, 16 September 1926 – 8 January 2019
Sir William Cole was one of a now long-gone breed of public servant, who came from a humble background, started small and worked his way up.
Kim Beazley, the current governor of Western Australia, and formerly minister for defence when Sir William was the department’s secretary, said Sir William, who died on January 8, aged 92, was “of a generation of Commonwealth public servants who could be genuinely described as mandarins.
"A secure, self-confident, patriotic, intelligent class who, while respectful of their political masters, took the view they should be the beneficiaries of frank and fearless advice. They also assumed they needed a vision of the country and its needs to be blended with the political thought of the day.”
He was also a devoted family man, by all accounts a quiet, private person with a deep sense of justice, and the intuitive ability to relate to people from all walks of life.
Although one of Australia’s most senior public servants for much of his career, and knighted in the early 1980s, Sir William was not to the manor born.
The son of a toyshop owner and a home-maker, he described his family and upbringing as “lower middle-class”. Born Robert William Cole in Melbourne in 1926, he was always known as Bill, and maintained through his entire life that his school years were a wash-out.
But his employment began fortuitously as a 15-year-old telegraph boy in the Commonwealth public service. Called up at 18, he served in the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II, and later completed a commerce degree at Melbourne University.
He moved to the capital in 1952 to join Treasury, and had a stint in Washington DC with the International Monetary Fund in the late 1950s. On his return, he was made assistant secretary at Treasury in 1967, then director of the Commonwealth Bureau of Transport Economics in 1970 and First Assistant Secretary in Treasury in 1972.
His relatively brief appointment as Australian Statistician in May 1976 was closely followed in December of the same year by an appointment as the First Secretary of the newly-created Department of Finance.
Current Australian Statistician David W. Kalisch said that during his time at the helm, Sir William managed “significant issues” with the 1976 census including a major privacy debate and challenges to its legal authority.
“Bill also established the key principles for the design of the subsequent 1981 Census, including responses to privacy concerns,” he said.
He is also remembered within the Department of Finance as its inaugural secretary, and a “strong and far-sighted leader who built the fledgling department and established its role as a central agency of government”.
Current secretary Rosemary Huxtable described him as “a strong reformer who constantly looked to improve how government supports its citizens and builds our nation”.
Further senior roles followed - as Chairman of the Public Service Board in 1978 and Secretary of the Department of Defence in 1983 - along with a knighthood in 1981 in recognition of his public service. It was a good innings in a career that began at the age of 15.
During his time in Defence, he advised the minister to commission an external review which led to the Dibb Review and oversaw the integration of the Department of Defence Support into Defence proper.
During his retirement, he conducted a review of military superannuation that led to the creation of the Military Superannuation Benefits Scheme.
Mr Beazley was minister from 1984, when Sir William was the department secretary. He remembers him as being “exactly the right man for a massive, complex department and a headstrong minister".
"His view of ministerial relations was to encourage me to deal directly with the civilian and service personnel who were the responsible officials for any particular aspect of policy, purchase or administration the minister was dealing with," Mr Beazley said.
"I was conscious at the time that all who dealt with me reported to him and that he was closely in touch with the Department’s affairs and the impact of decisions being taken.
"He intervened little, but when he did he was decisive. I can still see him looming at my office door on the ground floor of the old Parliament House: 'Minister, you are about to make a serious mistake and I am not leaving here until you are determined not to make it.'
"You quickly understood he was a protector not only of his minister but more importantly the country.”
Australian Public Service commissioner Peter Woolcott noted that Sir William also had an eye for talent in the sector, and was active in their personal development.
“He promoted Helen Williams to Assistant Secretary in Treasury against the wishes of a prominent Division Head who said it would be done over his dead body,” Mr Woolcott said.
“Bill commented later that 'the bloke didn’t die!'. Helen Williams was the first woman to be appointed to the SES in Treasury or Finance, and was later the first woman to be appointed a secretary of an Australian government department.”
Sir William met his wife, Lady Margaret, in the 1950s at the Canberra guest house in which he was staying and she was working. It was during a long stint in hospital after a motorbike accident that the two were engaged. They married in 1956 and had two children, Kathy and Robert.
Robert Cole said his father was always actively interested in his children’s lives, and lately revelled in his role as grandfather, spending hours “reading stories, teaching them on the computer and talking about the world”.
Despite his illustrious career, Sir William enjoyed a quiet retirement in Perth. In his memoirs, penned in his later years, he concluded: “I follow the stock market very closely and I am a wine buff. I mess around on the computer, not only following the stock market but also what is happening in the world, not that there is anything I can do about that.”
Sir William Cole is survived by his wife, Lady Margaret, his children Kathy and Robert, and four grandchildren.