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Godfrey Alfred (Alf) Rattigan (1911–2000)

by John Farquharson

Godfrey Alfred Rattigan, 1966

Godfrey Alfred Rattigan, 1966

National Archives of Australia, A1200, L55803

Alf Rattigan, who died in Canberra aged 88, after a battle with prostate cancer, will always be remembered for having created a revolution in tariff-making policy that is still reverberating through Australia’s economy.

Over the objections of a large segment of Australian industry, coupled with ministerial hostility, Rattigan, as chairman of the Tariff Board and later the Industries Assistance Commission, fought for the overdue reform of Australia’s costly system of industry protection. He did this by setting out to fulfill the terms of his own Act by seeking to ensure protection policy-making in Australia was open and transparent and genuinely concerned with making industry ‘economic and efficient’.

With their strong commitment to protection, the Ministers he served, Sir John McEwen and Doug Anthony, both leaders of the Country Party (now National), sought to dissuade him from his course. They ‘worked on’ Rattigan behind closed doors, but refrained from taking the matter to Parliament and change the Act which put him, as head of an independent statutory authority, above ministerial interference, though responsible to Parliament.

Rattigan’s fight, however, was not for free trade. His concern was that tariff protection for industry should not jeopardise Australia’s growth and trading opportunities. He was undeviating in pursuing this aim despite the private and occasionally public attacks on him and the Tariff Board by McEwen and his successor Doug Anthony. His tactic was to absorb criticism and wait until addressing some appropriate public forum before responding point-by-point in devastating fashion, though without necessarily naming his critics. As a friend once observed, ‘Alf Rattigan looks like the archetypal public servant. You wouldn’t think he had an ounce of initiative in him. But beneath that bland exterior is a great political brain. And a bloody good economic brain, too’.

Though the relationship between Rattigan and McEwen undoubtedly deteriorated as Rattigan became more self-assured at the Tariff Board and both felt the stress and strain engendered by their difficulties, they never lost an underlying personal respect for each other.

In 1963, when Sir Leslie Melville resigned as chairman of the Tariff Board after clashing with then Trade Minister McEwen and his departmental head, Sir Alan Westerman, over policy and staffing issues, the Government cast around for a successor. Appraising the higher echelons of the Public Service for someone likely to give a comfortable passage to the protectionist-oriented tariff policies that he favoured, McEwen lighted upon Alf Rattigan, then comptroller-general of Customs. Rattigan was well-versed in the Government’s views on trade matters and was known as a hard worker, noted for the meticulous attention he paid to detail. What McEwen had not realised was that he had taken on a consummate public-service politician, who was not out for personal gain but had a genuine concern for the public interest.

Born in Kalgoorlie, on the Western Australian gold fields on 16 November 1911, Rattigan had learnt his way around by hard knocks, and the necessity dictated by the Great Depression, rather than by formal education. Though tough-minded and determined when the occasion demanded it, he was essentially a mild-mannered man with a quiet sense of humour. As an example of the latter characteristic the then economics writer of the Age newspaper, Tony Thomas, in 1976 recounted a story about a magpie that for several years roamed about the office of Rattigan’s secretary. A visitor entering Rattigan’s office exclaimed, ‘There’s a magpie on the typewriter!’ Rattigan: ‘I know - but it isn’t much good at shorthand’.

His humour probably owed a good deal to his father, a somewhat fey Irishman who worked as an electrician to the Kalgoorlie fire stations. But it was his mother, an ambitious woman, who set his feet on his career path by getting 12-year-old Alf to sit for a naval college entrance exam. He was the only successful Western Australian, and at age 13 entered the Royal Australian Naval College at Jervis Bay in 1925. Six years later, the bright promise of a naval career was shattered when Rattigan became a victim of cost-saving measures taken with the onset of the Depression. The Government halved its navy strength and, he found himself a former midshipman looking for work.

One of the few jobs offering was in the accounts section of the Commonwealth Taxation Department. In those days many of the taxation clerks were attracted to the Customs Department because of the open-air life on wharves and in warehouses. When Alf went into the Fremantle customs building to inquire about the prospects, he was sat down in the landing inspector’s office, heard the inspector’s life story, and was then told, ‘You’re just the fellow we need’. He became assistant comptroller-general at Customs in 1954-55.

But it was after transferring to Trade, that his career took off. There he worked his way up from first assistant secretary to become deputy secretary in 1959. For most of his time at Trade he ran the import-licensing system (1956-60). He returned to Customs in 1960 as comptroller-general and remained there until appointed to head the Tariff Board in 1963.

Soon after taking over, he signed a report giving what amounted to gold-plated protection to a number of chemical companies. This was a disappointment to a fractious group of board members who were urging a move away from the prevailing high-protection regime. The result was that Rattigan, who admitted he did not know much about tariffs when he moved into the job, drew up a list of analytical points which he used to test how tariffs were being applied. He went on to perceive the extent to which the tariff was being used for political purposes and how this was distorting the basic structure of the economy. With Rattigan at the head of the Tariff Board, the move towards tariff rationalisation quickened.

He ran into resistance, both inside and outside the bureaucracy, as well as from elements of the Government. However, he persisted and was able to bring changes, not so much through confrontation but through carefully developed arguments that were difficult to break down. With the opposition aroused by these developments, it was thought that Rattigan was unlikely to get a second term at the Tariff Board. But, sensing that it could face an outcry over undue interference with a statutory authority if Rattigan was dumped, the Government re-appointed him in 1968 for another five years.  

When the Whitlam Government replaced the Tariff Board with the Industries Assistance Commission in 1973, Alf Rattigan stayed on as chairman until 1976 when ill health forced his retirement. In retirement, he undertook, as a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University, a historical study of the activities of the Tariff Board and the IAC. The result was Industry Assistance: The Inside Story, published by Melbourne University Press in 1986. It is strong stuff, traversing one of the most significant epics in bureaucratic conflict in Canberra. Reputably, however, the book, as published, is not as strong as Rattigan’s first-draft manuscript which had to be toned down to meet the vagaries of Australia’s defamation laws. Another book, Trade Liberalisation: A Domestic Challenge for Industrial Nations, which he co-authored with former Traiff Board and Industries Assistance Commission chief-of-staff, Bill Carmichael, followed 10 years later (1996).

Ever provocative in his thinking, during the course of an address to the Centre for Independent Studies conference at Macquarie University in 1978, Rattigan advocated the establishment of an ‘independent centre for public advice’ to identify and examine policy issues before they surfaced as political crises. He proposed that such an institution could provide a detached and impartial counterbalance to the exclusivity and secrecy of the bureaucracy. He foresaw this as a means of enabling the community to understand better the implications of governments’ existing and proposed policies, not only in the field of industrial development, but across the broad spectrum of related economic and social issues. 

What he put forward was not always taken up, as in this case, but his thinking always commanded attention and respect. At the helm of the Tariff Board, there is no doubt that he played a pivotal role in the evolution of Australia’s postwar economic policies.

He is survived by his wife, Winifred (nee Odgers), whom he married in 1940, two daughters and a son.

Godfrey Alfred Rattigan, born Kalgoorlie, WA, 16 November 1911; died Canberra, 29 February 2000.

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Rattigan, Godfrey Alfred (Alf) (1911–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 June 2024.

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