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Sir Arthur Harold Tange (1914–2001)

by Robert Garran

from Australian

Foreign affairs and defence writer Arthur Tange, the "last of the great mandarins", died in Canberra yesterday. He was 86.

Sir Arthur played a dominant role in foreign and defence policy for a generation.

He was secretary of the Department of External Affairs from 1954 to 1965 and the Department of Defence from 1970 to 1979.

"Arthur, all round, was by far the best public servant I've ever worked with," former prime minister Malcolm Fraser said yesterday.

"Sometimes he had the appearance of being rough or autocratic, but the integrity of his mind, the clarity of his thought, was unmatched."

Prime Minister John Howard said Sir Arthur was "a man of independent thought and strong commitment to Australia" who would "long be remembered as one of Australia's finest public servants".

He was considered a formidable administrator who converted the Department of External Affairs "from a rather disorganised place into a real institution", a former colleague said.

Later, he fought for and achieved the consolidation of five defence departments — defence, navy, army, air force and supply — into a single department.

Sir Arthur provided the initial inspiration for the Colombo Plan, a groundbreaking Australian-led aid program for South and South-East Asia.

He stressed the importance of keeping good relations with Jakarta, even when Australian and Indonesian troops were facing each other in Malaysia in 1963.

"He was a hard-headed realist in international affairs," his biographer, Peter Edwards, said. "He understood the United States and Indonesia are always Australia's two most important bilateral relationships.

"He drew from the Western New Guinea dispute the lesson that we could not assume the Americans would always support us in any conflict with Indonesia."

Australia had wanted the territory to remain under Dutch control, but against Canberra's advice the US had accepted Indonesia's claim on the Dutch colony.

Mr Fraser was defence minister in 1970 when Harry Bland retired as departmental secretary. Mr Fraser asked him for a list of possible successors. "He gave me a list of six or eight people, but it didn't have Arthur's name on it. I told him none of them would be any good because they wouldn't argue with me," Mr Fraser said.

Bland brought back a list with one name: Arthur Tange, then serving as high commissioner to India.

Professor Edwards said Mr Fraser and Sir Arthur had some strong arguments early in their partnership, until Mr Fraser suggested Sir Arthur come over and have a chat, "preferably at an hour when they could each have a whiskey in their hand".

"From that point on, they got on extremely well," he said.

Sir Arthur was described yesterday as "the last of the great mandarins" by Paul Dibb, professor of strategic and defence studies at the Australian National University. "He served 22 ministers and acting ministers in foreign affairs and defence and provided fearless advice ... " he said.

Sir Arthur died after battling leukemia. He is survived by his wife Marjorie, children Christopher and Jennifer, and four grandchildren.

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Citation details

Robert Garran, 'Tange, Sir Arthur Harold (1914–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 May 2024.

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