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Bland, Sir Henry (Harry) (1909–1997)

by John Farquharson

Sir Henry Bland was one of that small band of administrative princes who dominated the Commonwealth Public Service in the immediate post-war years. Most of them — Roland Wilson, Allen Brown, John Crawford, "Nugget" Coombs, et al — reached their pinnacle of power during the 23-year-long reign of Coalition governments which began with Robert Menzies' election victory and comeback in 1949.

By the time Menzies retired after 16 continuous years in office in February 1966, Sir Henry Bland, already had a formidable array of achievements to his credit. He had become pre-eminent in the labour and industrial relations field, having served as Permanent Head of the Department of Labour and National Service from 1952 to 1967. He was also the main architect of the Commonwealth Employment Service and had led with distinction on many occasions the Australian delegation to the International Labour Organisation.

But it was really with his appointment as Permanent Head of the Defence Department, and the shake-up in Defence that followed, that he came into the mainstream of public prominence. Though he retired early from Defence in 1970, after 40 years in the Public Service, his studies on how the efficiency of both State and Federal bureaucracies could be improved, soon returned him to public focus — his inquiries earning him, fairly or otherwise, the nickname, "Sir Hatchet".

Then he was again caught up in controversy throughout most of his stormy five-month term as Chairman of the ABC (then the Australian Broadcasting Commission) from July to December 1976. Through the succeeding years he led a much quieter life, not so much in the limelight, until his death on November 8, 1997 aged 87 years.

He did, however, take on one more public task after leaving the the ABC. He acted as arbitrator in a dispute between Tasmania and Australian National Railways in 1978.

During his Public Service career he had a reputation as being tough and resilient, a gnarled negotiator and a strong defender of his own administrative ramparts. He certainly showed himself as the right man for impersonal reviews of bureaucratic administration and spending or man-to-man dealings with similarly tough-minded defence chiefs. But as chairman of the ABC, it soon became obvious that he was the wrong man. He did not have the feel or the touch for it, while his methods and thinking were poles apart from the people under him.

From the outset his appointment was bitterly resented by a large section of ABC staff, who regarded him as a "hatchet man" for the Fraser Government. The resentment grew as he sought to bring the "free thinkers", or "permissive elements", into line and to restrict more controversial ABC programs.

Controversy intensified when the Government introduced legislation to disband and restructure the ABC, a move which Sir Henry hoped would result in the removal from the commission of the ABC staff representative, Marius Webb, who had been a thorn in his side ever since he assumed the chairmanship. But faced with revolt of its backbenchers, the Government backed down. This meant that Marius Webb would retain his position as staff commissioner. But this was unacceptable and, as he was also at loggerheads with the Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, over aspects of ABC operations, he decided to call it quits. So he resigned after conferring over his draft statement with Sir Robert Menzies. Sir Henry, or Harry as he was generally known, embodied the work ethic, abhored overcumbersome administration and inefficiency. He was also one never to be over concerned about treading on toes. With such an outlook, it is not surprising that his involvement with the ABC proved frustrating, despite his ability to adapt to both sides of the political fence during his Public Service career.

A clue to Sir Henry's drive in all that he undertook, since he left school at 18, might be found perhaps in his original ambition to be an engineer. However, family finances precluded him being sustained at university long enough to complete an engineering course. So after leaving Sydney High School, he went to the NSW Crown Law office and studied law at university part-time. Born on December 28, 1909, he was the son of Professor F. A. Bland, the first professor of public administration at Sydney University and later Liberal Party MP for the Federal seat of Warringah from 1951 to 1961. The professor was also first chairman of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee.

Sir Henry was successful in his law studies, graduating with honours and being admitted as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of NSW in 1935, just two years after his marriage in 1933 to Rosamund Nickal whom he had met at university.

To find, in whose own phrase, "some outlet from the aridity of the law", Sir Henry stood for the Ryde Council as a "Progressive" and was elected. But he served less than two years. His budding career in local politics was cut short when he accepted an offer from the NSW Public Service Board chairman, Wallace Wurth, to go to London as official secretary to the NSW Agent-General. When the Agent-General returned to Sydney in January 1940, Sir Henry carried on as acting Agent-General until 1941.

He returned to Australia as adviser on civil defence to the NSW and later the Commonwealth Governments. Having transferred to the Commonwealth Public Service, from 1942 until 1946 he was principal adviser to the Director-General of Manpower. Then he moved across to the Department of Labour and National Service as assistant director of employment, marked as a "comer," he moved up the ladder in the ensuing six years, being appointed Head of the department in 1952. He presided at Labour and National Service, where he showed himself to be an adroit industrial tactician, until 1967. It was during those 15 years (in 1965) that his services were recognised with the award of a knighthood.

Of his time at Labour and National Service, one former subordinate once said he was "a hard man to work with because he knew only one standard — the highest." There is no doubt, he developed talents for infighting and, as one former colleague once remarked, "He's able and he wants to dominate." It would seem that he succeeded in this most of the time. He had a particularly close rapport with Harold Holt, who was his first minister at Labour and National Service.

He did not get on so well with William (Billy) McMahon when he took over the portfolio. This was probably because of McMahon's tendency to intervene unilaterally in union disputes. Not only did this offend his Permanent Head's sense of proprietory, it also cut across his own operations.

But it was during his three years at Defence that Sir Henry really impressed his personality on Canberra. He took on the Russell Hill service departments and, by and large, won. His major undertaking at Defence was the re-organisation of Australia's joint service machinery to achieve maximum co-ordination and rationalisation. This essential preliminary work undoubtedly paved the way for the subsequent amalgamation on the defence community in the one department.

His main difficulties at Defence were with the then new Prime Minister, John Gorton, and his departmental head, Lenox Hewitt. Sir Henry and his Minister, Allen Fairhall, found themselves arguing for forward defence against the "fortress Australia" concept which for a time was espoused by Gorton. Gorton also wanted to cancel Australia's contract to buy the F111 bomber; Fairhall, Bland and the joint chiefs did not. They succeeded in prevailing against the PM.

But when he retired early in 1970, citing "personal and domestic" reasons, he left behind quite a few loose ends. As he tended to channel decisions over his own desk, many of the new arrangements had not yet been institutionalised. There was also some feeling in the services that the new "Defence Committee" which was set up, turned out to be comprised mainly of public servants who had been nominated by Sir Henry himself. His successor, Sir Arthur Tange, spent much of his first year unravelling the tangles Sir Henry had left behind.

However, Sir Henry's "retirement" was short-lived. After a relaxing four months break, he threw himself into an inquiry into the Victorian land transport system which was completed in 1971. From 1972 to 1973 he chaired the Commonwealth Committee on Administrative Discretions. Then he spent two years inquiring into the Victorian Public Service. In addition he took on a number of company directorships. If that wasn't enough to keep him busy in retirement, the ever indefatigable Sir Henry plunged into heading the Administrative Review Committee to cut the fat from the Commonwealth Public Service and set it on course to meet the demands of the '70s and '80s.

Work largely dominated Sir Henry's life, though he did occasionally take time off for a round or so of golf, and much more so when he moved from Melbourne, where he had been a near neighbour of Sir Robert Menzies, to Bowral, NSW. He also continued to build up the considerable stamp collection which he inherited from his father. Throughout his retirement he made a point of keep fit. As one former colleague and friend, said of him in his 85th year "he may not by able to run a hundred yards, but he's in good condition."

Always assertive and apt to shake up things wherever he went, his administrative ability was undeniable. For all that, no-one ever claimed for him any particular talents as an innovator. But had a facility for achieving efficiency and he believed in weeding out poor performers in the Public Service.

Though he spent a good deal of his working life in Canberra, he was never a champion of the city. He was critical of what he called Canberra's incestuous, believing that it hedged off public servants from reality. His criticism also extended to politicians who, he once said, seem to "think that the only way to get anything done is to make a great song and dance publicly, using lots of rhetoric. They seem to have forgotten that an awful lot can be achieved by having quiet lunches with people, going for walks in gardens and not telling the world what one is doing until the time is right."

Undoubtedly the administrative guru of his time, he sought to bring firm control and balance to all that he did.

He is survived by his wife, Rosamund, and two daughters, Janet and Lesley.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 13 November 1997
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 November 1997
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 November 1997

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Bland, Sir Henry (Harry) (1909–1997)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bland-sir-henry-harry-1549/text1611, accessed 21 September 2014.

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