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Sir David Osborne Hay (1916–2009)

by John Farquharson

Sir David Hay, who had a reputation for ‘always playing it cool’, had a long and distinguished career as a diplomat, soldier and public servant.

The one cloud that cast a shadow over the otherwise serene career path of the urbane proconsul, who has died in Melbourne, aged 92, was a troubled stint as Administrator of Papua New Guinea from 1967 to 1970.

The problem that confronted Hay in taking over from Sir Donald Cleland, who had been Administrator for 13 years, was not of his own making. He was well qualified and fitted to handle the tough task he had taken on – to steer the territory towards self-determination at a time when Australia was under intense international pressure to accelerate the dismantling of one of the world’s last colonial regimes.

However, the high hopes and confidence with which he had assumed office foundered on the obduracy of George Warwick Smith, then Secretary of the Department of External Territories, who insisted that all decisions relating to PNG should be run across his desk. His imperious mode of operation, with a proclivity to intervene even in minor day-to-day matters, unchecked by his Minister, C. E. (Ceb) Barnes, had the effect of diminishing not only the role of the Administrator, but also of other experienced field officers.

A man of quiet inner-strength, Hay was not one to tolerate just being a Canberra departmental front-man. Having his submissions for greater haste in the devolution of decision-making to local hands go largely unheeded further aggravated his position. The situation led Hay, while on leave in early 1970, to visit Canberra and speak to the Prime Minister, John Gorton. The upshot was that Warwick Smith was moved from Territories to become Secretary of the old Department of the Interior and Hay took over as Secretary of Territories.

This retained Hay’s involvement in PNG affairs and gave continuity to the moves towards self-government, which he had been endeavouring to set in train. Moreover, a close and cordial working relationship, based on due respect for each other’s position, had already been established between Hay and the new Administrator, Les Johnson, his former deputy, who had a profound knowledge and understanding of the PNG situation.

Hay’s background fitted him well for his role in PNG and at Territories. A fourth-generation Australian, he was born on November 29, 1916, at Corowa, where his parents had a grazing property. He went as a boarder to Geelong Grammar School where he became school captain and joint Dux with Rupert Hamer, who later became Premier of Victoria. A noted sportsman, he played in the 1st Xl while still in junior school and went on to establish the school record with 288 not out against Xavier College (his second double century against the school), as well as winning colours for football and athletics.

After leaving school, he went on to Brasenose College, Oxford, to read classics, ancient history and philosophy. After graduating with second-class honours, he returned to Australia to join the Public Service under the pre-war graduate scheme only to find himself blocked by a rule that restricted entry to graduates from Australian universities.

Undeterred, he enrolled at Melbourne University and again graduated with second-class honours. His first post after being appointed to the Public Service in 1939 was in the Treasury and he had only just transferred to External Affairs when war broke out. Starting as a private in the 2/6 Infantry Battalion, he rose to the rank of major and was awarded the MBE in 1943 and the DSO in 1945.

His Army service took him to the Middle East, Greece and New Guinea where he fought in the Milne Bay, Wau-Salamaua and Aitape-Maprik campaigns. As a company commander in the latter campaign he was severely wounded. His PNG war service perpetuated his name on Territory maps when a jungle airstrip he built with a native workforce near Maprik was called Hay field. He maintained his interest in soldiering after the war, being Lieut.-Colonel commanding the 3 Infantry Battalion, CMF, 1948-49. He also wrote a history of 2/6 Battalion, Nothing Over Us. Published by the Australian War Memorial in 1984, it was well reviewed as one of the better unit war histories.

On rejoining External Affairs, he was posted as official secretary to the High Commission in Ottawa, did a year at the Imperial Defence College in Britain, was Ambassador in Bangkok as SEATO came into being, then spent several years in charge of departmental administration in Canberra. In 1961 he went back to Canada as High Commissioner and in 1964-65 was Ambassador to the UN, where he had also served earlier as Australia’s representative on the Trusteeship Council. His UN experienced proved invaluable, both in PNG and at Territories.

When the Whitlam Government phased out the Department of External Territories at the end of 1973, Hay, well versed in matters of government and with an understanding of service life, was appointed the first military ombudsman. He brought his characteristic instinct of service to that groundbreaking role until being appointed Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1976. He remained there until he retired in 1979 on health grounds.

Sir David had the unruffled and unflappable manner usually associated with the top-drawer British diplomat, solidly underpinned by the quiet competence and dedication, which he brought to all he undertook. He played everything cool, but always made a point of knowing what was involved in whatever job he took on, what its problems were and how they might best be handled. That was his underlying strength as an effective public servant. These qualities were recognised when he was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1963, later capped with a knighthood in 1979.

In retirement, apart from writing his history of 2/6 Battalion, Sir David bought back Boomanoomana homestead and the 320-acre block on which it stands, on the Murray River, near Mulwala, NSW. The property had been the home of his great-grandfather, William Hay, a pioneer of the Riverina pastoral industry. It had been out of the Hay family for 60 years when acquired by Sir David, who restored the old house, garden and outbuildings, as well as the land. He also wrote a biography of William Hay, a member of the NSW House of Assembly from 1872 to 1883. It was published under the title Life and Times of William Hay of Boomanoomana, 1816-1908.

An active member of Legacy, he was president of the Canberra branch in 1959. He was chairman of the Canberra Grammar School Council and was for a time an executive member of the ACT branch of the Royal Institute of Public Administration. Throughout his life, he was a strong practising Anglican.

His wife, Alison, whom he married in 1944, predeceased him in 2002. Two sons, Andrew and David, survive him, as do daughter-in-law, Marianne, and grandchildren.

Sir David Osborne Hay, born November 29, 1916, Corowa, Victoria; died Melbourne May 18, 2009.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Hay, Sir David Osborne (1916–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 June 2024.

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