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Currie, Sir Neil Smith (1926–1999)

by John Farquharson

Sir Neil Currie’s name will always be inseparably linked with building relations with Japan but, in a career spanning more than 40 years, he also made a significant contribution to the development of Australian trade and industry through both the government and private sectors.

Sir Neil, who died at Bateman’s Bay, NSW, on July 30 aged 72, began his long and distinguished  Commonwealth Public Service career when he joined the old Department of External Affairs as a diplomatic cadet in 1948. His first posting was to Japan as third secretary in Australia’s Tokyo embassy (1950-53), before being sent to Geneva as second-secretary and consul.

In Geneva he was caught up in UN affairs and the intensive multi-lateral trade negotiations that were going on there through the 1950s. His work there brought him to the attention of Sir John Crawford, then secretary of the Department of Trade, and led to him being recruited to join Trade as an economic integration officer.

It was from that point that his career really took off, as it opened up the avenue through which he was to make probably his greatest contribution. After crossing over to Trade he worked in international relations, particularly on the British moves to join the Common Market which were causing considerable concern in Australia. A brief stint in the imports division - before the formation of the Special Advisory Authority - gave him some experience in industry protection.

From 1962 to 1964, he worked on international relations again, rising to first assistant secretary. This involved him in the negotiations for the Australian-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, the Kennedy Round, GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and yearly reviews of the Japanese Trade Agreement. In 1965 he went behind the Iron Curtain with Sir Alan Westerman (Sir John Crawford’s successor at Trade) and helped to negotiate the Russian and Bulgarian trade treaties.

The bridge across to the Trade Department’s Office of Secondary Industry, which he headed from 1968 to 1971, with the rank of deputy secretary, was provided in 1967 when he toured the US for seven months on an Eisenhower Fellowship studying inter-firm comparisons and government assistance to small businesses. He returned as first assistant secretary of secondary industry policy and piloted in Australia schemes similar to those he had studied in the US.

His elevation to permanent head status came in 1971 when he was appointed Secretary of the Department of Supply. Subsequently he served as Secretary, Department of Manufacturing Industry (1974-75) and Secretary, Department of Industry and Commerce (1975-1982). He was also a member of the Jackson Committee which made recommendations to help steer manufacturing industry through the difficult 1970s. 

Then came what was for Sir Neil a crowning experience in a double sense - a four-year appointment as Australian ambassador to Japan, from 1982 to 1986, followed a few days later by the announcement of a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list. He was already the holder of a CBE from 1978.

Sir Neil and his wife, Geraldine, had come full circle in their service and personal lives. They were married in Tokyo in 1951 during Sir Neil’s first posting there. Their wedding reception was held in the Australian embassy grounds amidst a large and beautiful Japanese garden. Sir Neil’s lifelong fascination with Japan, also shared by his wife, was first stirred by one of his professors when he was studying for his BA degree at the University of Western Australia, where his father, Sir George Currie, was vice-chancellor. A further step came with the end of World War II before he could complete training as a pilot with the RAAF. Awaiting demobilisation, he took a language course and elected to study Japanese.

His Tokyo posting enabled him to extend his knowledge of the language while adding to his understanding of the country and its people. His imagination was gripped by the massive reconstruction that Japan faced in those immediate post-war years, particularly in coping with the transition from a conservative, largely authoritarian state to a modern democracy. He believed Australia could play a role in helping Japan re-establish itself with the world community through fostering a commercial relationship and later cultural ties.

And, of course, Japanese relationships were an underlying thread throughout his work in the trade, industry and economic spheres. In those years there were also frequent trips to Japan to deal with trade matters. The link continued after his retirement through his chairmanship of the Australia-Japan Foundation from 1989 to 1993 and as an executive member of the Australia-Japan Business Co-operation Committee (1997-93). Until shortly before his death he was putting the finishing touches to a novel with an East-meets-West theme set in postwar Japan. Eventually the family hope to see it published.

Having seen business operating from the government side, after returning from Japan in 1986, he was keen to take up a role in private business. He joined the board of Westpac Banking Corporation in 1987 becoming deputy chairman (1991-92). He also served terms as chairman of Howard Smith Ltd, Coal and Allied Industries Ltd and the Australian Dairy Corporation.

Regarded as having a good analytical mind, close colleagues say he made his judgments and formed his opinions after careful consideration. The advice he gave to successive governments from Menzies through to Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser was marked by his innate integrity and commonsense.

In the early 1990s he retired with his wife to Lilli Pilli on the NSW South Coast. A good mixer with a vein of humour, he was also an above-average all-round sportsman. In his later years he concentrated on tennis and golf, but as a young man he was a highly regarded Australian Rules footballer with the ACT’s old Turner Football Club. He was selected for the ACTFL team which played in Western Australia in the late 1940s. While doing his language course at Pt Cook, he either tried out, or did some training runs, with Carlton. He certainly remained a Carlton supporter throughout his life and became a keen follower of the Canberra Raiders. A handy cricketer, he played in the ACT competition for Canberra University College. Sir Neil is survived by his wife and four children: Deborah, Keith, Bruce and Janet.

Neil Smith Currie, born Mackay, Qld, August 20 1926; died Bateman’s Bay, NSW, July 30 1999.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 13 August 1999, 13 August 1999
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 August 1999, 16 August 1999
  • Age (Melbourne), 17 August 1999, 17 August 1999

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Currie, Sir Neil Smith (1926–1999)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/currie-sir-neil-smith-280/text281, accessed 15 November 2018.

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