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Kenneth Howard (Ken) Herde (1918–2004)

by John Farquharson

To a young ex-serviceman and former bank officer who arrived in Canberra in early 1949 to join the Department of Post-War Reconstruction, the galaxy of opportunities offering in the Public Service in those days was a ‘bit like looking into Aladdin’s Wondrous Cave’.

It certainly proved so for Ken Herde who went on to become a senior officer in the Prime Minister’s Department, was pivotal to the impetus given to Canberra’s retarded growth in the late 1950s and later was responsible for the establishment of the country’s first solely Australian mint.

Ken Herde, who has died in St Leonards, Victoria, aged 86, first came into national prominence when, in April 1954, he was appointed secretary of the Royal Commission on Espionage, set up as a result of the Petrov Affair. He arranged the commission’s first drama-packed hearing in a specially set up court in the Albert Hall, Canberra. After six months, when all the evidence had been taken and the commission’s report well on the way, he returned to his departmental duties.

But it wasn’t long before Herde found himself handed an array of other tasks outside his mainstream responsibilities. These ranged from being a ‘roving trouble-shooter’ to ensure that arrangements went as planned for the Queen’s first tour of Australia in 1954 to investigating the possibility of Kirribilli House being developed as a VIP residence for visiting overseas dignitaries and a place for Prime Ministers to stay when in Sydney. After handing a favourable report and cost estimate to the then Vice-President of the Executive Council, Sir Eric Harrison, Herde was appointed to oversee the restoration of the shockingly dilapidated property and get it operating. A switch of direction was required for his next chore – secretary to an independent inquiry into Parliamentary salaries and allowances.

These unexpected jobs probably came Herde’s way because he had a creative, entrepreneurial and organisational flair that broke the bounds of the public-service mindset. It probably also accounted for the fact that after leaving the Public Service in 1965 to join the Comalco aluminium company, where he became general manager of overseas operations, he was able to slip relatively smoothly into his new role.

Such glittering prospects did not seem even remotely possible to the young Herde, growing up through the grim years of the Great Depression in Quorn, South Australia, where he was born on September 22, 1918. Scholastically bright and good at sport, he matriculated at 16, but stayed on at Quorn High School an extra year to do some honours Leaving Certificate subjects. Before the year was out, however, he left to take up a job offer as junior clerk in the audit office of Commonwealth Railways in Port Augusta. While there, he obtained accountancy qualifications before joining the Commonwealth Bank.

On getting a transfer to Sydney, he studied part-time for an economics degree at Sydney University, but had not completed the course when war broke out. He was already in the University Regiment (a militia unit), where he remained until drafted into an infantry battalion and later an artillery regiment. Most of his war was spent serving with that regiment, in which he was commissioned, in various parts of Australia, including Darwin. He was discharged with the rank of captain in 1945.

After the war he went back to the bank and completed his economics degree before winning appointment as a senior research officer with the Department of Post-War Reconstruction, then headed by Allen Brown (later Sir Allen). That was early 1949. Before the year was out, Menzies became Prime Minister, after ousting the Chifley Labor Government at the polls. When Brown was appointed to head the Prime Minister’s Department, which he then restructured, Ken Herde was invited to transfer together with others such as Jack Bunting (later Sir John), Len Hewitt (later Sir Lenox) and Peter Lawler (later Sir Peter), all of whom became departmental heads in due course.

Herde’s initial appointment was as economist, but it wasn’t long before he became secretary of Cabinet committees and then senior adviser to the Prime Minister on Defence and Foreign Affairs. In 1951, he was sent to London to work in the British Cabinet Secretariat with a view to bringing back ideas that could be applied to a similar section in the PM’s Department. The recommendations Herde and Lawler brought back were incorporated in the setting up of a Cabinet Office, as a ‘separate and discreet’ part of the PM’s Department. Another flow on from that London assignment saw the 1954 Commonwealth Finance Ministers’ Conference being held in Australia. This eventuated from Herde proposing to the then British Chancellor of the Exchequer, R .A. (‘Rab’) Butler, that perhaps the conference could be held in other Commonwealth countries, rather than always being convened in London. The upshot was that Herde was given the job of organising the conference, for which he took over most of Sydney’s Hotel Australia for two or three weeks.

Another venture outside his normal duties came in 1956 when he began to take an interest in the functioning of Canberra as a national capital. To him there seemed to be ‘no purpose or good direction in the way its future was being planned’. As he often dropped into the Lodge to see the Prime Minister on departmental business, he raised his concerns about Canberra. Sir Robert encouraged Herde, indicating that he shared similar views. Herde prepared a paper giving shape to his ideas for a powerful commission to supervise the building for a fully-fledged administrative capital. He gave the paper to the PM, after leaving a copy for Sir Allen Brown. Cabinet endorsed the paper presented to it by Menzies and instructed the then Minister for the Interior, Allen (later Sir Allen) Fairhall to prepare appropriate legislation. After some prevarication on Fairhall’s part, this was done along the lines suggested by Herde. His proposed name for the new Authority – National Capital Development Commission - was also adopted. Canberra’s development owes a great deal to him and undoubtedly would have been the poorer but for his inspired concept.

The final major achievement of Herde’s public-service career was the Australian mint. At the request of Sir Roland Wilson, then Secretary of the Treasury, he was appointed to supervise construction of the mint, recruit staff and bring it up to peak production by early 1965 to ensure adequate coinage would be available for the introduction of decimal currency in 1966. Herde was to be the mint’s first director-general, but the fields of private enterprise beckoned. On the day his appointment was to be approved by Cabinet he resigned from the Public Service to join Comalco.

He had 10 years with the aluminium producer before retiring to establish and run, in partnership with his wife, Anne, a cattle-fattening property near Beaufort, Victoria. He relinquished the Beaufort property after his wife’s death in 1994. His last years, dogged by ill-health (he suffered from emphysema) and a degree of immobility, were spent quietly in retirement just outside Melbourne. Ken Herde was an exceptional public servant who would almost certainly have become a departmental head had he not switched to the private sector. It could be said that the confines of the service could not contain him. Whatever task he was given, within government or business, he completed successfully, always bringing into play creative ideas, coupled with vigour of execution.

His three children, daughters Pamela and Philippa, and son Christopher and their families survive him.

Kenneth Howard Herde, born Quorn, South Australia, September 22, 1918; died St Leonards, Victoria, October 5, 2004.

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Herde, Kenneth Howard (Ken) (1918–2004)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 June 2024.

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