An unsung hero of the Public Service, W.B. (Bill) Carmichael, died in Canberra on 9 July at the age of 93.
On Bill's retirement from the APS in 1988 he had served the public with distinction at the Tariff Board and Industries Assistance Commission (IAC) for some three decades, the last three years as its chairman. In that time he not only played a key role in that institution's evolution, he helped instigate a reform process that led to the transformation of Australia's economy.
Bill Carmichael was born in 1928. He grew up in Red Cliffs on the Murray River, where his father had been allocated land on returning from the Great War. Bill distinguished himself at school and went on to study arts/politics at Melbourne University. In those days, he was able to acquire a deep appreciation for our democratic system and understanding of its determinants, which stayed with him all his life.
Bill Carmichael's first jobs in the public service in the 1950s were at the Public Service Board and the Department of Trade. From the former he gained useful insights into how a bureaucracy operated, while the latter helped form his views about the influence of private interests on public policy. These practical learnings were to be much drawn on during his subsequent career at 'the Commission'.
By the time Bill joined the Tariff Board it was essentially operating as the maidservant of protectionism, under the watchful eyes of Trade Minister 'Black Jack' McEwen and his redoubtable department head Alan Westerman. Bill spent his early years calculating 'margins of cost disadvantage' for local industries as the basis for 'made to measure' tariffs. Naturally, this was not a task he saw much value in. And in 1963 he may have left the Board were it not for a newly appointed Chairman called Alf Rattigan.
Rattigan was appointed by McEwen in the belief that, given his background in Customs, he would not rock the protectionist boat. However that was not to be, largely due to Rattigan's choice of young Carmichael as his 'executive officer'. As he put it in his memoirs, "Bill Carmichael had an outstanding ability to see the critical issues and a sound, but imaginative approach to resolving problems".
The problems that these two men faced boiled down to (i) a lack of real independence for the Board, which was being treated less like an statutory body and more like an adjunct of the trade department, and (ii) an ad hoc and reactive approach to its work, which involved little useful economic analysis and lacked meaningful legislative guidance.
Building on the path-breaking protection measurement work of a young academic economist called Max Corden and the 1965 Vernon Committee's undervalued report on how to raise Australia's growth potential, Carmichael and Rattigan together shaped a new way forward for the Tariff Board and for protection policy generally. The Board's Annual Report for 1966-67 proposed a work program based on the proposition that high and divergent 'effective' protection rates across industries were costly to society and needed to be reduced over time, beginning with the most highly protected (and therefore least competitive) ones.
To say that this caused shockwaves across government and industry would be an understatement.
In the ensuing 'David and Goliath' battles with McEwen and his department, Rattigan was on the front line explaining publicly what was needed and why. Behind the scenes, where he most liked to be, Bill Carmichael was actively developing strategies, writing key speeches, dealing with difficult bureaucrats and engaging with journalists.
Commenting on the ultimate success of those struggles, Bill has said:
"The Tariff Board had to establish its role as an independent source of public advice ... it could not have prevailed without strong support from the media."
Rattigan gave set-piece speeches that were eagerly reported, but engagement with the press was largely left to Carmichael, who built effective relationships over the years with such key economic journalists as Alan Wood and Max Walsh at the Financial Review, Ken Davidson at The Australian and Warwick Bracken at The Canberra Times. Walsh described Bill as "a crucial link man to the Financial Review and a more political fellow than Ratts".
It was in the creation of the Industries Assistance Commission that Bill Carmichael's contribution reached its pinnacle. He not only shaped Sir John Crawford's blueprint, he helped craft the legislation that gave effect to it and even wrote Whitlam's 'second reading speech'. All the while he was busy foiling attempts within the bureaucracy to scuttle the project.
Once the IAC became a reality, Bill took a leading role in ensuring that it had the firepower to produce quality reports. He knew that, with so much at stake, its processes had to be above reproach and its analysis first rate. He oversaw increased recruitment of economics graduates, including from overseas, and engaged academic specialists in a range of consultancy roles. This included path-breaking economy-wide economic modeling in collaboration with Monash University.
IN OTHER NEWS:
After Rattigan retired from the IAC in 1976, Bill spent eight years as 'head of office'. He often felt embattled under its new Chairman and an unsupportive government. As he once admitted in a rare on-the-record interview, he could be a 'crusty old bugger' who played the game hard when he needed to. This did not inspire universal goodwill. On one occasion he was offered a plum overseas post just to get him out of the way. Whoever came up with that tactic did not know Bill! In the event, his fortitude paid off and, in 1985, he was appointed Chairman of the organisation to which he had given most of his working life. In the relatively short time he spent in that top job, he steered the IAC into the wider terrain of regulatory and other impediments to a productive economy, including in services and work practices. Importantly, just before he retired in 1988 he secured the IAC's transfer out of the Industry portfolio into the more compatible Treasury portfolio, enabling its further evolution as the Industry Commission and Productivity Commission.
Bill never lost his passion for transparency in public policy or for the institution he helped create. Indeed, nearly 20 years after leaving the IAC he founded the Trans Tasman Transparency Group to promote further those ideals. Bill Carmichael's determination to stay out of the limelight has meant less public recognition than he deserves. However, many people in Canberra and elsewhere know the extent of his achievements, and many more have benefitted from them. I am sure they would want to join me in saying, "Thanks for everything, Bill".
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