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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Sir Cyrus Lenox (Len) Hewitt (1917–2020)

by J. R. Nethercote

from The Mandarin

Few of the leading figures in the 120-year history of the Australian Public Service (APS) have been as feared, or as controversial, as Sir Lenox Hewitt, who died last week aged 102. Prominent in the anecdotage of the APS, he would be, ironically, a rich source of material for any book about APS humour — of the droll variety.

Educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, and the University of Melbourne (Bachelor of Commerce), he came to Canberra at the outbreak of war as executive officer to Professor Douglas Copland, the Commonwealth Prices Commissioner and, from 1941, Economic Adviser to the Prime Minister. Also accompanying Copland was another future luminary of the APS, Fred (later Sir Frederick) Wheeler, who, shortly afterwards, took a research post in the Treasury.

Both Hewitt and Wheeler had been members of Copland’s honours class at the University of Melbourne, together with other future knights Bruce Williams, subsequently Vice-Chancellor, University of Sydney, and Jack Bunting, Cabinet Secretary, 1959-75, then High Commissioner in London, 1975-77.

It was an illustrious year, and the paths of Copland’s protegees would frequently cross in the next four decades, if not invariably amicably.

Hewitt had joined the staff of BHP, where his father was company secretary, in 1933; like other able young men during Essington Lewis’s regime, he became highly proficient in short-hand, a skill which, combined with a prodigious memory, served him unusually well in his public service career.

After spending the war years with Copland, he left BHP and took an appointment in the APS as an economist in the Department of Post-War Reconstruction, then headed by Dr H. C. Coombs. From 1940 to 1949, and again in 1954, he lectured in economics and cost accountancy at Canberra University College.

When Post-War Reconstruction was abolished very early in 1950 following the 1949 election, he went to London as Official Secretary at Australia House; periodically he acted as Deputy High Commissioner.

It was in London that the seeds of his formidable reputation as a tough administrator were sown; it was a reputation which extended beyond the APS.

At one stage, the management of the London office of another Commonwealth country was subject to a rigorous shake-up which unsettled the staff. To quell their anxieties they were directed to go and see what “the bastard down at Australia House was doing.”

Upon return to Australia he became an assistant secretary and, after a couple of years, first assistant secretary in the Budget and Accounts branch of the Treasury. From 1962 until he left late in 1966, he was Deputy Secretary, Supply and General.

His approach to financial administration was deeply traditional, marked by little inclination to delegate much authority to departments or other agencies; ‘Treasury control’ meant just that.

Arthur Tange, head of the External (now Foreign) Affairs Department, thought that Hewitt seemed to enjoy “playing Russia’s role in the Security Council — the perpetual veto.” Tange, hardly a shrinking violet himself, was unimpressed by Hewitt’s indifference to personnel management

Sir Roland Wilson, head of the Treasury, very occasionally conceded that Hewitt and his staff were perhaps too zealous in meeting their responsibilities.

From the early 1960s Hewitt was often on short-lists for department secretary and comparable appointments; there is evidence these included auditor-general, director-general of works, and secretary, Department of Territories.

On one occasion, Hewitt was appraised for secretary, Department of Defence: “Able and ambitious but inflexible approach; penetrating and hard-working but aggressively self-assertive and personal relations very abrasive over a wide field; has not shown up well as a leader or developer of his team; …”

According to newspaper reports, Hewitt seems to have thought that his advancement was frustrated by Prime Minister Robert Menzies because he (Hewitt) had known his father, James Menzies, when at BHP and that the Prime Minister was unhappy that Hewitt knew about his humble origins. This particular explanation is unlikely in that Menzies’s Jeparit background was widely known.

Wilson’s successor at the Treasury, Sir Richard Randall, encouraged Hewitt’s appointment as chairman of the Universities Commission. Once again, Hewitt made his mark with exacting investigation of university financial management which provoked even generally well composed vice-chancellors to previously unexhibited intemperance.

His poor relations with the head of the Education department, Sir Hugh Ennor, were ameliorated by an increasingly warm relationship with the responsible minister, Senator John Gorton. This bore fruit in little more than a year when Gorton, who became prime minister in January 1968 following the drowning of Harold Holt, had Sir John Bunting removed from the Prime Minister’s Department, but not from his role as Cabinet Secretary, and secured Hewitt as his departmental head.

Menzies was hardly impressed by any of this. He feared at the time that “Master Hewitt [will] constitute himself the chief political adviser to the Prime Minister. . . . If this gloomy forecast is justified, then there will be acute dissatisfaction in the minds of the best men he has under him and, of course, a magnificent passive resistance on the parts of the Heads of other departments.”

When Menzies next found himself in London he discovered that, without any warning, the car and driver usually available to him had been withdrawn. In due course, in a meeting with Prime Minister Gorton, he sought clarification of his position “in writing for … guidance in my own office. Whether I will get this or not is now on the knees of the gods — i.e. Mr Hewitt.”

It was not only the retired Prime Minister who experienced difficulties with the new secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department. Hewitt initially installed himself in the Prime Minister’s suite in Parliament House and endeavoured to establish himself as the sole channel of communication with the prime minister.

Gorton’s private secretary, the 22-year old Ainslie Gotto, herself a controversial appointee, with Gorton’s support, successfully resisted this typical manifestation of the Hewitt style.  After a fashion it was an early instance of difficulty between a ministerial private office and a department.

Hewitt retreated to East Block, where the department was then located, and where he had the support of a number of staff whom he had recruited from the Treasury; Neil ‘Tiger’ Townsend, the deputy secretary, was among them. The department’s historians described them as “acolytes,” and make the flattering  claim that “Hewitt and his recruits established a more assertive place for [the department] in policy generation and advice that came to be accepted over the following decade.”

At the time, the department’s interests and interventions in policy matters were largely, in fact, limited to the case in hand.

The historians observe that Hewitt’s style was “direct and aggressive.” According to a later secretary of the department, Michael Codd:

“[Hewitt] wanted every tiniest detail on anything that was going on… If he wanted some advice on something, you wouldn’t just send him a note. He would want the file. He’d go back through it himself and it would disappear, for weeks sometimes, for the longest periods anyway, while he was pondering it. We were sort of sitting there without the files…”

Not surprisingly, the department became something of a bottleneck, a feature of those years usually overlooked by chroniclers with privileged access.

(Hewitt’s preoccupation with files was profound. On one occasion, an ambassador, calling on Hewitt before going on posting, observed piles of files wherever he looked in the office. He enquired if Hewitt was about to move office. “No,” replied Hewitt. “I keep all the important files here. If anyone wants one, they have to tell me why!”)

Hewitt’s interventions had a markedly combative edge perceptibly distinct from the studied courtesy which was more usually the form. Commenting on Treasury’s views on the proposed Australian Industry Development Corporation, Hewitt opined:

“It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the attitude of the Treasury in this whole matter has been one of dog in the manger determined to preserve the monopoly on borrowing abroad — perhaps because of a fear that the competitive institution might be a success.”

Even if an observer were to agree with the policy approaches which Hewitt promoted, such as in handling Commonwealth-state relations, his manner of advocacy lacked statecraft and was rarely discrete. It appeared that it was not only important that he intervene but that he be seen to intervene.

So it was that when Gorton lost the leadership of the parliamentary Liberal Party, and thus the prime ministership, Hewitt, knighted only 10 weeks earlier, lost his post at the centre of government: as he put it to the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, it was the “first public execution” of a permanent (departmental) head.

But, whereas Bunting’s removal from Prime Minister’s had taken two months, Hewitt’s took little more than two days.

Bunting returned to Prime Minister’s, now called Prime Minister and Cabinet; Hewitt was appointed to a new department, Environment, Aborigines and the Arts (initially Vice-President of the Executive Council).

Hewitt was down but by no means out. The portfolio of the new department embraced a number of outrider agencies including the Council for Aboriginal Affairs and the Council for the Arts.

The department only had a short life — it was abolished in December 1972. It was long enough, however, to show that Hewitt had not lost his inclination to supervise agencies within his jurisdiction intensely, even when they were headed by someone as distinguished as the former Governor of the Reserve Bank, Dr Coombs (Hewitt’s department head when in Post-War Reconstruction), and notwithstanding his own resentments of departmental interventions when he himself headed an outrider (the Universities Commission).

Hewitt’s minister, the diarist Peter Howson, recorded as early as May 1971 that “there’s a bit of a row going on between [Coombs] and Len Hewitt.” Howson noted en passant that “Bunting has also been helpful, and I hope to solve the immediate problem without antagonising either of these powerful people [Coombs and Hewitt].”

A month later the Prime Minister, McMahon, telephoned “about the problems of Coombs and Hewitt; he’s given me some guidelines and asked me to sort this out as far as I can on my own initiative.”

One notable controversy concerned a flight to Australia by Concorde, the new supersonic aeroplane. Apparently Sir Donald Anderson, Director-General of Civil Aviation, had failed to consult Hewitt when making arrangements as he had promised to do: Howson wrote, “I asked Don if he would try to make his peace with Len Hewitt.”

Election of the Whitlam Government brought Hewitt back into the main game. He was appointed head of the new department of Minerals and Energy under Rex Connor, the Minister. Graham Freudenberg later wrote,

“…both were strong nationalists, both loners, both impatient of windy orthodoxies of ‘established channels,’ both saw themselves as tough-minded negotiators, both authoritarian, both more easily able to inspire fear than affection, yet both had great charm in private; both were supremely confident in the ability of their applied intelligence to master any problem.”

The general business of the department gave Hewitt plenty of scope for his undoubted talents in business negotiations, and for his strong regulatory (control) dispositions.

Administratively, yet again, he found himself having to deal with a growing number of outriders, including the East-Australia Pipeline Corporation, the Snowy Mountains Council, the Pipeline Authority, the Petroleum and Minerals Authority, the Australian Industry Development Corporation and the Australian Atomic Energy Commission.

His method of control this time was to arrange his own appointment to the boards of these bodies, often as either chairman or acting chairman. It was a display of administrative pluralism which rivalled the ecclesiastical pluralism of Cardinal Wolsey.

A highlight of this phase of his career was what has gone down in Australian history as the Loans affair, Rex Connor’s attempt to finance numerous energy projects with funds raised in the Middle East through then unorthodox channels.

The Treasury was not a party to the early stages of the initiative; when it received a report from an officer in the Middle East, one senior official annotated the cable: “Words don’t seem adequate!”

Hewitt’s behaviour at a crucial stage in decision-making puzzled other participants, amazed that so experienced a Treasury veteran appeared oblivious to the Financial Agreement within which loan raising by Australian governments were organised and co-ordinated. (Hewitt regarded co-ordination as a hunter’s licence to interfere in other people’s business.)

So astonished was the Attorney-General’s representative at early meetings on the proposed loan that he declined to participate further until expressly authorised to do so by the department secretary.

Critical meetings took place at the Prime Minister’s Lodge in December 1974 immediately before the Prime Minister and a large ministerial and official entourage headed for Europe.

These meetings brought major protagonists into play, the most formidable being Hewitt’s former class-mate at Melbourne University, Sir Frederick Wheeler. (In the late 1950s, when Wheeler returned to Canberra after eight years at the International Labour Office, Hewitt was among those most trenchantly opposed to his return to the APS as chairman of the Public Service Board.)

Wheeler, highly sceptical of the whole Loans initiative, confronted Connor, along the way refusing to agree to Treasury involvement. The authorising Executive Council minute was signed by Dr Jim Cairns as deputy prime minister, not in his capacity as Treasurer.

Hewitt slipped into the background and, perhaps with relief, joined the Prime Minister on the flight to Europe. The Loans affair followed the travellers. At a meeting in the Netherlands Hewitt excused himself to take a call from Canberra. On return, the Prime Minister asked what it was about. Hewitt replied: “Prime Minister, the forces of darkness are at work.”

Back in Canberra, the Government, if not Connor, largely withdrew, but the matter became increasingly public, eventually so strongly that a special sitting of the Parliament was convened, and subsequently various officials including Hewitt were summoned to the bar of the Senate for questioning.

Much drama was afoot, not least concerning Wheeler’s future. The Government sought his removal from the Treasury; so keen was it to secure his departure that he was publicly offered the governorship of the Reserve Bank by the Prime Minister, which Wheeler declined but not before the Prime Minister had warned that such  offers don’t remain open forever.

The very short list for the prospective Treasury succession was widely believed to be headed by Hewitt. If so, this proved a fatal flaw in the manoeuvre.

In the event, Wheeler remained at the Treasury until age retirement in 1979. It was Hewitt who left, becoming executive chairman of Qantas (replacing an earlier adversary, Sir Donald Anderson, who had died).

At Qantas, his essential modus operandi was again bureaucratic. In an increasingly difficult environment, Hewitt sought regulatory responses — enforcement of those regulations already there, and new ones otherwise — and eschewed any ideas about survival through an approach shaped by liberalisation of international air travel and increasing opportunities for competition in civil aviation.

He also continued his practice of administrative pluralism, his appointments embracing Jetabout, Qantas Wentworth Holdings, and Mary Kathleen Uranium.

The Qantas appointment was for five years. When it came up for renewal, Hewitt was offered a one-year extension, which he declined. He shortly became a director of Ansett Transport Industries, by then under the control of Rupert Murdoch and Sir Peter Abeles.

His other activities included board memberships of Santos, Aberfoyle, Endeavour Resources, Austmark International, British Midland Airways (Aust) and the NSW State Rail Authority. For three years he was a member of the NSW Judicial Commission.

Hewitt married Alison Hope Tillyard, daughter of Robin Tillyard, chief of the CSIRO Division of Economic Entomology in the chapel of Scotch College, Melbourne, on 11 February 1942. They had four children: three daughters and a son.

Lady Hewitt had a distinguished academic career lecturing in English Literature.

One daughter, Patricia Hewitt, has spent most of her life in England, very active in Labour politics and eventually a Cabinet minister in the Blair Government.

Hewitt had a remarkable career. Able and shrewd, it was characterised by an unusual deference to major figures — Copland, Wilson, Gorton, Connor, Murdoch and Abeles; some of his communications with Wilson manifest a transparent obsequiousness quite unusual at the highest levels of a government department.

He expected, even demanded, similar deference from his own subordinates. His relations with other officers could be fierce and a major contrast to the collegiality, albeit a competitive collegiality, frequently present in the senior   levels of a Westminster public service.

Litigious, his hostilities never seemed to soften. Speakers in the proceedings at the celebration in May 2017 of the hundredth anniversary of his birth were not at all inhibited about point-scoring at the expense of Hewitt’s contemporaries, including, of course, his great nemesis, Wheeler, who had died nearly a quarter century earlier.

Unlike many of these contemporaries, he was not clubbable. Though a member of several clubs (Melbourne, Union (Sydney) and Brooks’ (London), like a number of Treasury officers, he never joined the Commonwealth Club in Canberra; indeed, he was often conspicuously contemptuous of those of his peers who were seen to congregate there for lunch during the week and on Saturday evenings for snooker.

In addition to his public service work, he was for much of his life an active investor, reportedly in equities as well as (Canberra) real estate. In funding his investments, his preferred dealings with banks were with the managing director.

His last will and testament should certainly make unusually fascinating reading.

Although among the most notable of his generation in the public service, he did not leave much of a footprint or legacy. Steeped in the control and regulatory practices of the early twentieth century, he never showed much interest in efficiency endeavours (not untypical, historically, of Westminster treasuries) nor staff development (despite his extra-curricula lecturing). His approach to public policy was rooted in the protectionist, economic nationalism of his youth, and which he probably absorbed at his father’s knee.

In 1975, with Lady Hewitt sitting behind him in an otherwise largely empty public seating area, he gave lengthy evidence to the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, chaired by Dr Coombs. Hewitt enumerated, in breath-taking detail, all the burdens it was his lot to carry as a senior administrator. But he had chosen the wrong audience and Coombs, recalling Hewitt’s own practices at Environment, Aborigines and the Arts, was unmoved.

Midway through the afternoon of Hewitt’s second hearing, Coombs wearily asked the unrelenting witness whether he considered Treasury contributed sufficiently to quality administrative performance. More in sorrow than in anger, Hewitt lamented that there were times when he thought Treasury’s effort allowed scope for improvement and that he had, indeed, unsuccessfully raised the question from time to time.

His submissions to the Commission were extensive. Largely composed of photocopied documentation, with key passages underlined in red biro to ensure the Royal Commission could not mistake them, they were all submitted after the hearing began, leaving commissioners little time to absorb or even read them, nor to probe them in any depth. Transcripts of his evidence were meticulously checked and errata pages duly issued!

Most officials, however senior, however eminent, rarely have any expectation greater than to serve the nation capably, in good faith and with integrity. To do more, to make a difference, requires propitious circumstances, suitable opportunity and benign political times. Some longevity in office is highly desirable if not quite essential.

Fate did not smile sufficiently on Sir Lenox Hewitt to bring him the highest esteem for services in government. In his decade and a half in the upper reaches of the Treasury he could have laid foundations for revitalising management of public expenditure, benefitting from the developments in Whitehall (the PESC system) and other jurisdictions (generally known as program budgeting). His preoccupation with control made such accomplishment unlikely.

In the nine years between leaving the Treasury and going to Qantas he had four assignments as chief executive. In each, his predilection for control, even domination, was the leitmotif of his performance. His limited imagination in policy matters beyond an astonishing command of detail and procedure meant that such impact as he had was modest.

His post-public service career suggests a more congenial experience; perhaps he was better suited to life in the corporate world.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Sir Cyrus Lenox (Len) Hewitt

Additional Resources

Citation details

J. R. Nethercote, 'Hewitt, Sir Cyrus Lenox (Len) (1917–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

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