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Edmund Hudson (Ned) McGrath (1920–2000)

by Bruce Juddery

During much of his life, his parallel careers (usually two or three political, industrial and administrative) demanded some fine judgments.

In 1947, for instance, the Commonwealth Public Service Clerical Association, later to become the Administrative and Clerical Officers' Association, was in urgent need of an acting general secretary when the long-term incumbent quit to join the Public Service Board. There were few aspirants until Ned McGrath who has died aged 80 just two years a law graduate but already active in the NSW branch of the union, put in an application.

It was judged outstanding; he seemed to have a foot on the ladder of a long-term career as a union official. Then he withdrew it. At the time, he said departmental changes he was in the Taxation Office made it impossible to go to Melbourne on a short-term appointment with no guarantee of permanence.

Later he would admit this was a fiction. In fact he had heard that the post of chief prosecutor for tax in Sydney was coming up. He went for and got it; at 27 he was the youngest ever in the job.

The years 1951-52 were busy for him. A gifted orator, not to say demagogue, McGrath and his Taxation Office colleagues, augmented by the postwar transfer to Canberra of State taxation powers, took over the NSW branch and became branch president.

In September 1951 he addressed a huge crowd outside the Sydney Town Hall, attacking the Menzies Government's policies.

The alleged instruction to public servants to report on the activities of their subordinates was, he declared "an open cheque ... to the pimp, to the snooper, to the crawler, to the bosses' men ...'' This was strong stuff at the height of the Cold War.

Early in the following year he was at war with the Public Service Board over his denunciation, in White Collar, the branch journal he had founded, of practices in the Tax Office.

He was heavily involved supporting Laurie Short's war against communist influence in the Federated Ironworkers' Association; it was that struggle, probably, that prompted the regular visits to his home by police officers.

He also stood for Labor Party preselection for the western Sydney seat of Werriwa. He would later blackly joke that it was a good thing Gough Whitlam won the ballot; he, McGrath, would have been such a good prime minister he would surely have been assassinated.

In fact, associates at the time thought he "ran dead'' in the latter stages of the preselection (and that the loss had saved his relationship with his wife, Betty).

In 1969, McGrath chanced his arm. For six years he had been assistant secretary in charge of war service homes and he applied for the job of housing commissioner in the ACT. He was ignored but appealed. In a precedent for a Second Division (now Senior Executive Service) post, he won and moved to Canberra.

His idiosyncratic administration there, and in latter posts in what became the Department of the Capital Territory, became legendary.

Born in Paddington and brought up during the Depression, Edmund Hudson McGrath had seen his telegraphist father suffer through unemployment.

Young Ned joined the Labor Party at 16, determined to make a difference.

He did a brief stint in the army but returned to the Tax Office because of illness. He resumed legal studies and graduated in 1945.

In the Taxation Office he ran the Tax Agents' Registration Board in 1954 and the pay-as-you-earn system during 1955-58.

McGrath was briefly active in local politics, served on Fairfield council for two years, one of them as deputy mayor, and was mayor in 1954.

Forthright, argumentative, a larrikin, much given to settling business over a beer, and to studying the form guide (and acting on it), McGrath was in some senses a bureaucrat of the old school.

His union career was stormy. As both NSW president and later general president of the clerical officers' union, he waged war for years with the eventual inheritor of the general secretary's position, George Smith.

Idiosyncratic though his methods might have been, he believed public servants took the lead in policy from their ministers, however much they disagreed with them.

His wife died before him; he is survived by their three children.

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Citation details

Bruce Juddery, 'McGrath, Edmund Hudson (Ned) (1920–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


1 September, 1920
Paddington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


10 December, 2000 (aged 80)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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