H. C. Coombs

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Herbert Cole Coombs
H. C. Coombs.jpg
Coombs at the Lapstone Conference in 1948
Secretary of the Department of Post-War Reconstruction
In office
2 February 1943 – 31 December 1948
1st Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia
In office
January 1960 – July 1968
Preceded by none, initial officeholder
Succeeded by JG Phillips
Personal details
Born 24 February 1906
Kalamunda, Western Australia, Australia
Died 29 October 1997(1997-10-29) (aged 91)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Nationality Australia Australian
Alma mater B.A. (Hons), M.A.,
University of Western Australia
Ph.D.,
London School of Economics
Profession Economist

Herbert Cole H.C. "Nugget" Coombs (24 February 1906 – 29 October 1997) was an Australian economist and public servant.

Early years[edit]

Coombs was born in Kalamunda, Western Australia, Australia, one of six children of a country railway station-master and a well-read mother.

Coombs's political and economic views were formed by the Great Depression, which hit Australia in 1929 and caused a complete economic collapse in a country totally dependent on commodity exports for its prosperity. As a student in Perth he was a socialist, but while studying at the London School of Economics he became converted to the economic views of John Maynard Keynes, and he spent the rest of his career pursuing Keynesian solutions to Australia's economic problems. He never sought public office or joined a political party, but sought to exercise political influence from within as an administrator and advisor.

He won a scholarship to Perth Modern School, where Bob Hawke was also educated. After five years there he worked as a pupil-teacher for a year before spending two years at the Teachers' College. He then spent two years teaching at country schools, during which he studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree in the University of Western Australia (UWA), the only university in Australia that did not charge fees at the time. Transferring to a metropolitan school for the final two years, he graduated B.A. with first-class honours in economics and won a Hackett Studentship for overseas study. This was deferred for a year enabling him to graduate M.A., also from UWA, and marry fellow teacher, Mary Alice ('Lallie') Ross at the end of 1931. As a student at UWA, Coombs was elected as the 1930 Sports Council President and subsequently the 1931 President of the Guild of Undergraduates. He then proceeded to the London School of Economics, where he studied under Harold Laski, one of the most influential Marxists of the 20th century. In 1933 he was awarded a Ph.D. for a thesis on central banking.

In 1934 he returned to a teaching position in Perth and combined this with part-time lecturing in economics at UWA.

Public service[edit]

In 1934 Coombs returned to Australia and in 1935 became an economist at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, then a state-owned bank which served as Australia's central bank. In 1939 he shifted to the Department of the Treasury in Canberra as a senior economist. He became known as a Keynesian rebel against the classical economic theory which dominated the Treasury, under the influence of the Melbourne University school of economists led by L.F. Giblin and Douglas Copland.

The Australian Labor Party under John Curtin came to power in 1941, and Coombs found himself in a political environment much more supportive of his views. Curtin appointed him to the Commonwealth Bank board in October 1941. In 1942 the Treasurer, Ben Chifley, appointed him Director of Rationing, and in 1943 made him Director-General of the Department of Post-war Reconstruction, a new ministry which Chifley held in addition to the Treasury. Coombs played a leading role in the preparation of the White Paper on Full Employment in Australia which, for the first time, committed the government to maintaining full employment from the post World War II years.

Chifley, a former train driver, had no training in economics and came to rely heavily on Coombs's advice. Coombs's closeness to Chifley, and the greatly expanded role of government in the economy during World War II, made him one of the most powerful public servants in Australian history. His influence grew even greater when Chifley became Prime Minister in 1945.

In January 1949 Chifley appointed Coombs Governor of the Commonwealth Bank, the most important post in the regulation of the Australian economy. When the Liberal Party came to power in December of that year, however, Coombs's demise seemed likely, but the new Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, kept him on and soon came to trust his judgement. Menzies was a moderate Keynesian and there were few policy differences between the two men, especially since Australia soon embarked on a long postwar boom and there were few tough economic decisions to be made.

In 1960, when the Reserve Bank of Australia was created to take over the Commonwealth Bank's central banking functions, Coombs was appointed Governor of the Reserve Bank. At the time, he paid tribute to Sir Leslie Melville by advising the government and others that the best man for the job had been overlooked.[1][2]

He retired as a public servant in 1968.

Later life[edit]

Coombs continued to work following his retirement. He had already signalled his interest in the arts by becoming the first chairman of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1954 (named in honour of Elizabeth II, not because it promoted Elizabethan theatre). In 1967 he persuaded Prime Minister Harold Holt to legislate to create the Australian Council for the Arts (now the Australia Council) as a body for the public funding of the arts, and in 1968 he became its chairman. He worked closely with Prime Minister John Gorton to secure funding for an Australian film industry. He also became Chancellor of the Australian National University, which he had helped found in 1946.

Coombs's most important post-retirement role was as a supporter of the Australian Aboriginal people. In 1968 he became chairman of the Australian Council for Aboriginal Affairs, set up in the wake of the 1967 referendum which gave the Commonwealth Parliament power to legislate specifically for the Aboriginal people. He was, however, disappointed that the Gorton and McMahon governments took up few of the Council's recommendations. He became a close advisor to the Labor leader Gough Whitlam in the years before Whitlam became Prime Minister in 1972, and largely wrote Labor's policy on Aboriginal affairs, particularly the commitment to Aboriginal land rights. In 1972 he was named Australian of the Year.

From 1972 to 1975 Coombs served as a consultant to Prime Minister Whitlam, but his influence was resented by other ministers and he found the experience of the first Labor government since 1949 disappointing. He disapproved of the events which led up to the Loans Affair of 1975 and the dismissal of Whitlam's government by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr. He advised Whitlam not to resort to unorthodox means of financing government operations when the Senate blocked supply, but Whitlam ignored his advice. Although he regarded the dismissal as scandalous, his estrangement from Whitlam meant that he took little subsequent part in politics. In 1975 he was chairman of a Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, whose report was largely ignored by the incoming Liberal government of Malcolm Fraser.

In 1976 Coombs resigned all his posts and became a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the Australian National University, where he developed a new interest in environmental issues. But Aboriginal affairs remained his greatest passion, and in 1979 he launched the Aboriginal Treaty Committee, calling for a formal treaty between Australia and the Aboriginal people. The idea gained much public support, but neither the Fraser government nor its successor, Bob Hawke's Labor government, took it up. He deplored the breakdown of the postwar Keynesian economic consensus represented by Thatcherism, and in his 1990 book The Return of Scarcity he proposed a Common Wealth Estate to ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth. He died in Sydney in 1997.

During Howard government administration, the "Coombs legacy" in Aboriginal affairs came under increasing criticism. It has been argued that the communal land ownership implicit in Aboriginal land rights was keeping Aboriginal people poor and dependent on welfare by preventing the private ownership of land.[3][4]

Relationship with Judith Wright[edit]

In “In the Garden”, Fiona Capp revealed the captivating story of the 25-year secret love affair between two of Australia’s most well-known and well-loved public figures, “the famous poet-cum-activist” Judith Wright and “the distinguished yet down-to-earth statesman” ‘Nugget’ Coombs.

Recognition[edit]

Coombs was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia in the first awards of the Order on the Queen's Birthday in 1975.[5] However, he resigned from the Order in 1976 upon the introduction of the grade of knighthood to the Order.[6]

On 2 January 2008, it was announced that a suburb in the future Canberra district of Molonglo would be named Coombs.[7]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Alex Millmow
  2. ^ Inaugural Sir Leslie Melville Address; delivered by Ian Macfarlane, Governor of the Reserve Bank, 22 March 2002
  3. ^ Piers Akerman
  4. ^ Piers Akerman "Price of Left Ego"
  5. ^ "Queen's Birthday Honours 1975". Australian Government Gazette (1975 S113). Hosted at the Governor-General's website. 17 June 1975. 
  6. ^ Herbert Coombs, Biographical Memoirs, Australian Academy of Science.
  7. ^ New suburbs honour Wright, Sulman, Coombs, ABC News, 2 January 2008.

Further reading[edit]

Government offices
New title
Department established
Secretary of the Department of Post-War Reconstruction
1943–1948
Succeeded by
Allen Brown
Preceded by
Sir Hugh Armitage
Governor of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia
1949–1960
Position abolished
New title Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia
1960–1968
Succeeded by
JG Phillips