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Sir Allen Stanley Brown (1911–1999)

by John Farquharson

His entry in Who's Who is a meagre 11 lines, containing the barest of essential details, and published material about him is virtually non-existent, but to people who worked with him or had any close association, Allen Stanley Brown was one of Australia's ablest and most percipient public servants.

And that is saying a lot when his contemporaries were those "giants" of Australia's post-war Public Service - Sir Roland Wilson at Treasury, H. C. "Nugget" Coombs as Governor of the Reserve Bank, John Crawford at Trade, Alan Watt at External (now Foreign) Affairs, Frederick Shedden at Defence, Fred Wheeler, Dick Randall, and Harry Bland.

Though his exact contemporaries were formidable, Brown was an extremely competent and equal member of the group. And in the estimate of his successor at PM's, Sir John Bunting, Brown could have taken over any of the departments and run them well.

Brown and many of his opposite numbers were short in stature, and those in that category were known collectively as Canberra's "seven dwarfs". All exercised enormous influence on policy formulation through the Menzies-Holt era of the 1950s and 1960s.

Quite a few, including Allen Brown, owed their first major appointments to the wartime Labor Government under Curtin and later Chifley. However, it was under Menzies that they were able in the words of the late Sir Paul Hasluck, "to make their own independent contribution to Australian government and to maintain the traditional place of the Public Service in the government structure."

Probably the contribution they were able to make was enhanced because they, like Menzies, were strong adherents of an independent Public Service bound, in Menzies' words, "to supply honest advice and to carry out honest and fair administration for whatever government or minister it may serve."

The major contribution which Allen Brown made to government administration was to establish for Australia a Cabinet-office system along the lines of the British model. This involved setting up a method of coordinating, recording, and, where necessary, explaining, Cabinet decisions, and indeed provide all Cabinet and Cabinet secretarial services.

Brown was originally handed this task by Chifley who, after the war, carried the dual portfolios of Treasurer as well as Prime Minister and found the two jobs a heavy burden. In the main Chifley relied on Treasury officers for advice on policy matters.

However, when it became clear that he should relinquish the Treasuryship, he put in hand the refurbishing of the then relatively small Prime Minister's Department. To undertake this Chifley appointed Allen Brown, then Director-General of the Department of Post-War Reconstruction, as Secretary of the PM's Department in succession to Frank Strahan, who was retiring. Brown moved over to PM's in June 1949.

But he was only six months in the job when a Federal election was called which resulted in the defeat of Labor and the return of a Liberal-Country Party coalition government under Menzies. The new Prime Minister gave the green light for Brown to continue his work on the new Cabinet secretariat and the two established a close working relationship.

The fact that Brown got off to a good start with Menzies was in some measure due to the perspicacity of a long-serving PM's Department officer, Frank McKenna, who could reasonably have expected to follow Strahan as departmental head. But Chifley, looking for new methods and younger men, brought in Allen Brown. McKenna, ever wise in the ways of government, accepted the situation graciously and gave Brown his wholehearted support. When Menzies was due to arrive in Canberra to take over the reins as PM, McKenna said to Brown, "You will be meeting the PM at the airport?" Brown replied that he had not planned to do so, adding, "he [Menzies] will call me when he is ready."

But at McKenna's strong urging, Brown reconsidered and went to the airport to meet Menzies as he came off his plane. Menzies appreciated the gesture and so Brown, thanks to McKenna, made his mark with the new PM from the outset.

This did not mean that from there on Brown was climbing onside with Menzies in any political sense. In fact, the tenor of their personal and working relationship was set at the first Cabinet meeting that Brown attended. Some Cabinet members had raised suspicions that Brown was Labor-inclined. Menzies pooh-poohed this on the basis that while public servants might have political views they did not bring them into the job.

Nevertheless Menzies went ahead and asked Brown, somewhat apologetically, whether he was a member of the Labor Party. Brown's reply, which at once established his authority in the situation, was, "Mr Prime Minister I would not be seen dead in the Labor Party."

Menzies greeted this with a welcome sigh of relief, but Brown continued, "and I would not be seen dead in the Liberal Party, either."

Menzies chuckled, obviously appreciating this raw Australianism which Brown carried with him. This exchange marked out from the outset where Brown was coming from in his relationship with the Prime Minister.

Thus Brown, who was a naturally taciturn man with a laconic style of communication was able to make the most of his two-minute encounters with Menzies which became available when ad hoc decisions of importance arose. So Brown matched Menzies style with a style of his own — one of equal probity but with a challenging insight into the fundamental issues of Australian directions.

Within little more than a year Brown had the Cabinet office up and running after having sent two of his officers — Peter Lawler (later Sir Peter) and Ken Herde (who was to come to public attention as secretary of the Petrov Royal Commission) to gain experience of the working of the British Cabinet Secretariat.

After their return several officers of the British Secretariat visited Canberra to work with them for a time in the PM's Department. Brown made the Cabinet Office a separate and discrete part of the PM's Department.

But within a few years it was providing its services also to the Premiers' Conference and to occasional conferences with ministers from Britain and other countries.

From anecdotal evidence and the comments of colleagues, it is clear that Brown had highly developed administrative ability, plus a lively, analytical mind and a finely tuned insight which he brought fully to bear during his 10 years as head of the Prime Minister's Department.

But his working life was not solely in the Public Service. He did not seek entry to it, but had a career in law before being recruited to the Public Service through the Defence Department. He was one of a number of young barristers and solicitors recruited by Sir Frederick Shedden. For Brown, having graduated from Melbourne University as a Master of Arts and Master of Laws practised as a country solicitor in the Western District of Victoria before he was picked up by Shedden.

He went up to university after schooling at Caulfield Grammar and Wesley College. His first major appointment after entering the Public Service was as assistant director of rationing during World War II before going over to the Department of Post-War Reconstruction.

There, he became Director-General after a stint as Deputy Director-General, or as one former colleague put it, "vicar-general to 'Nugget' Coombs until the latter moved on to take up the governorship of the Reserve Bank.

Besides keeping the show on the rails under Coombs, who has acknowledged Brown as a "very strong administrator", his great contribution at Post-War Reconstruction was his part in the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

This was very much Brown's project. His commitment to it is believed to have had a part in swaying Menzies and the new Coalition Government to put their weight behind the scheme and see it to completion. [Until taking Government the Coalition had opposed the scheme and had vowed to scrap it. In the event the Snowy scheme and the development of Canberra as a the national capital were among the crowning achievements of the Menzies regime].

He took up the Secretaryship of the PM's Department with a commitment to bring the department and the system of government into the 20th century. When he retired in 1959 after a brief 10 years at PM's the administrative foundations for that had been laid. Some of his successors — notably Sir John Bunting and Sir Geoffrey Yeend — fine-tuned the system, but Brown had put the fundamentals in place. The Prime Minister's Department has had a long history of being the fulcrum for new developments in federal affairs. Out of it came Foreign Affairs, Immigration and later Aboriginal Affairs and Education. It was always used as a pilot centre for any administrative requirements and it continued to do this under Brown, who brought many new insights. Sir John Bunting recalls Menzies saying of Brown that, "He can see further through a brick wall than anyone else I know". And Sir John added "He saw the end result of things as well as being able to conceptualise and fathom why things were what they were. He could get to the causes of a problem — not only the obvious ones, but the hidden ones."

Another former colleague recalled Brown once taking part in a discussion on note writing and how they could be made concise and to the point. Brown told the group, "I think my most effective notes are the ones I've written at the Cabinet table when I have taken a piece of paper and simply written 'NO' and handed it to the Prime Minister."

But nearly everyone who knew Allen Brown expressed the view that at the heart of his considerable administrative achievements was his understanding of the role of the Public Service in the system of Government.

As Sir Peter Lawler once observed, "for Allen Brown the Service was one which should not only be honest and efficient, but also be the community's assurance of continuity in administration. He saw the public servant as having a duty to eschew showing allegiance to any particular political party but to stand to serve to the best of his, or her, ability whatever political party is in power. He/she should serve responsibly and loyally, but should be clear where matters fall within his/her responsibility and where they fall within the Minister's."

Brown further held, according to Sir Peter Lawler, that, "Matters should be presented to the Minister as they are, with a recommended course of action, but should not be pressed beyond that point where the Minister, understanding the consequences, takes a different view."

In Brown's period the emphasis at PM's was on quality and small numbers. The department's principal task was concerned with filling gaps in what was being presented to the Prime Minister in his role as chairman of Cabinet as well as helping to settle outside of Cabinet such differences of view that arose.

According to colleagues, Brown was easy to work with. Not chatty; he kept his distance while yet being friendly. Though a man of strong feelings, he was not vindictive. He brought an imaginative touch to government administration and encouraged young recruits, such as Bill Heseltine (now Sir William) and Allan Griffith.

When he had made the contribution he thought he could at PM's, Brown decided it was time to move on. So he went as Deputy Australian High Commissioner to London, serving from 1959 to a 1965.

He then spent the next five years as Ambassador to Japan during a significant, and sometimes difficult period, in Australian relations with Japan. On returning to Australia in 1970, he took on a semi- retirement post as Australian Commissioner of the British and Christmas Island Phosphate Commission.

He went into full retirement in 1976,in Maroochydore, before moving to the Melbourne suburb Toorak and later Kew.

Though he played some cricket in his younger days, Sir Allen's real sporting talent lay on the tennis court. He was a very good tennis player, invariably at A grade level, and maintained his enthusiasm for the sport throughout his life. His wife, Hilda, whom he married in 1936, died in 1997. She had also been a keen sportswoman, excelling on the hockey field. His achievement was in being an intelligent and practical backroom adviser to the Prime Minister and through him to the Government.

To that task he brought not only his analytical and strong intellectual powers, but his down-to-earth commonsense and exceptional administrative skills. As Sir John Bunting has said, "without him Menzies would have been much less effective than he was. But then Allen Brown would have done the same for Chifley." And that undoubtedly was the key to his effectiveness as a public servant.

He leaves a son, Roger, and daughters Helen and Joan.

Original publication

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Brown, Sir Allen Stanley (1911–1999)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 May 2024.

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