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Warwick Smith, George Henry (1916–1999)

by John Farquharson

George Warwick Smith who died in Sydney aged 83, was one of Canberra’s more controversial senior public servants, not so much because he sought a high public profile but because of his tendency to be hard-line in enforcing policy.
  
Nevertheless, in an era of some highly talented departmental heads, he was recognized as an energetic, loyal and dedicated public servant whose service to the Commonwealth could only be described as ‘meritorious’. Noted for his toughness, his instinct was to hold his ground rather than to compromise, perhaps because he did not relate readily to people, nor possess the intuitive sensitivity that diplomacy so often demands.

These traits were most evident during his term as Secretary of the Department of Territories from 1964 to 1970, particularly in relation to Papua New Guinea where his and his department’s proclivity to intervene in day-to-day matters instead of leaving them to be handled by experienced officers on the spot, was the source of much irritation and frustration, not only within the Administration, but also the Territory at large. I can attest to this from my own experience as editor of the South Pacific Post (now Post-Courier) in 1965-66, as has PNG’s last Administrator, L. W. (Les) Johnson, in his book Colonial Sunset. Ian Downs, veteran kiap, coffee planter and writer/historian, echoes this in his account, The Australian Trusteeship Papua New Guinea 1945-75.

Admittedly, Warwick Smith had the difficult task of having to advise one of the least prepossessing of Commonwealth ministers of the day, the Country Party’s (now National Party) C. E. (Ceb) Barnes, a strong adherent of political gradualism while seeking to fast-track the Territory’s economic development. The latter was necessary, but too often led to overreaction when the push for progress towards political independence was perceived as a possible threat to PNG’s economic and business stability. Essential benefits ensued from this policy, as it was pursued in both PNG and the Northern Territory, but other deserving developments were often overlooked in the process. In contrast to Hasluck, who was apt to carry too much himself, Barnes probably left too much to his departmental head.

Against this must be set, the galvanising effect that Warwick Smith had at Territories where he greatly lifted the status of the department through the strengthening of its top-level structure with well-chosen, capable people. When he was moved from Territories to head the old Department of the Interior, after it became evident that he and the then PNG Administrator, (Sir) David Hay, could not work as a team, he quickly detected where the policy and structural weaknesses lay and set about correcting them. However, his tenure at Interior, which ended after the advent of the Whitlam Government, was not long enough to see the new directions he had set come to full fruition.

Born in Charters Towers, Queensland, on 3 October 1916, his secondary schooling was at Brisbane Grammar School. He left when only 15, but matriculated and graduated with an arts degree from Queensland University after studying part-time and partly as an external student. Later he gained a Master of Commerce from Melbourne University, through Canberra University College. He began work in the Queensland Education Department in 1932, moving to the Commonwealth Public Service through the then Department of Commerce in 1939 aged 23.  In 1941, he enlisted in the AIF in which he served until 1945.

Back at Commerce in 1946, he became personal assistant to the Permanent Head, with whom he gained a lot of trade conference experience. This led to further international conference and trade-negotiation work before he became an assistant secretary in 1953. When the Trade Department was set up in 1956 Warwick Smith became a first assistant secretary there. After a stint at Australia House, London, where he was special commercial adviser (1958-60), he was promoted to deputy secretary at Trade. It was from there that he moved to Territories upon the retirement of its long-serving Secretary, Cyril Lambert.

His shift to Territories came at a time when Australia was coming under increasing United Nations’ pressure to hasten PNG’s progress towards self-government as well as the tempo of economic development. On the other hand, there was mounting agitation among Papua New Guineans for a greater say in their country’s political affairs. All this was against a backdrop of unrest in the Gazelle Peninsular and Bougainville, with separatist movements and tribal warfare posing threats to government stability. Warwick Smith did his best to come up with the delicate balancing act required to deal with the situation but, by seeking to have all decisions run by his desk, alienated people rather than got them on side.

However, PNG was always close to his heart and he was proud of having had a hand in fostering its development. At a dinner given in his honour after leaving Territories, he said he found helping in PNG’s development an ‘exciting business’ and intimated that his seven years with the department had been the most satisfying of his career to that point.

His transition to Interior went smoothly enough, though he set a different pace to his predecessor, (Sir Richard) Dick Kingsland, who liked to make haste slowly and diplomatically. On coming to office in 1972, Labor decided to break up the Department of Interior and to call upon Warwick Smith’s extensive experience in international trade negotiations by appointing him Special Trade Representative and Ambassador to Multilateral Trade Negotiations in Geneva. For a time, he also worked out of Canberra in this post in which he served from 1973 to 1976. His last appointment was as Secretary of the Department of Construction and Director-general of Works before retiring in 1980.

A contemporary of Warwick Smith’s, who was also a departmental head, has described him as, ‘tough, blunt and honest, with a questing often critical mind who tackled all he did with great energy’. His unhesitating summation was a ‘great public servant’ who was ever ready to extend genuine personal kindness to any colleague in trouble. Moulded in the old school of apolitical officers, there is no doubt he left his mark on the Public Service in Canberra, in Papua New Guinea and the Northern Territory.

While living in Canberra, he served on the board of Canberra Girls’ Grammar School 1962-73 and as chairman 1971-73. He was also elected by convocation to the council of the Australian National University in the late 1960s. Other appointments included being a sometime director of the Papua New Guinea Development Bank, a board member of the Centre for Research on Aboriginal Affairs ( Monash University), deputy chairman of Coal Trading Company Pty Ltd, and chairman of the Phosphate Mining Company of Christmas Island Ltd.

In retirement he set up as a consultant in economic and public affairs, living firstly in Sydney and later in Bowral. A sufferer from emphysema, he moved to a Sydney nursing home after his condition took a turn for the worse earlier this year (1999).

He is survived by his wife, Joan, whom he married in 1945, two daughters (Sandra Hawker, and Karen Rule) and a son, Simon.

George Henry Warwick Smith, born Charters Towers, Queensland, 3 October 1916; died Sydney 27 December 1999.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 31 December 1999
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 January 2000

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Warwick Smith, George Henry (1916–1999)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/warwick-smith-george-henry-1003/text1004, accessed 18 October 2018.

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