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Sir John Keith Waller (1914–1992)

Sir Keith Waller, former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the first career diplomat to head the Australian mission to Washington, died at the weekend, aged 78.

Sir Keith was regarded as a superb administrator and a smooth negotiator.

He was educated at Scotch College and Melbourne University. He joined the department in 1936 and the following year, aged only 23, was Private Secretary to Billy Hughes, a post he retained for three years.

His career took him to Chungking in 1941 as Second Secretary, then after World War II he became Secretary-General to the Australian delegation at the San Francisco conference on the United Nations.

He was First Secretary in Rio de Janeiro, then in Washington; Charge d'affaires in Manila; and then officer in charge of the political intelligence division of the department in Canberra in 1950.

Sir Keith's next posting was to London as External Affairs officer and he was made an Assistant Secretary of the department on his return.

He reached ambassadorial level in a posting to Thailand in 1957 then went to Moscow between 1960 and 1962 after the Petrov affair.

After another home posting he became Ambassador to Washington in 1964 at a time when Australia's relations with the United States were becoming intense.

He remained in the post until 1970 as four governments at home — Menzies, Holt, McEwen and Gorton — prosecuted the Vietnam war and developed much closer trading and other ties. He was knighted in 1968.

It was an exhausting post, but on his return to Canberra the pace continued as he became Secretary of the department. He said at the time he would "be examining urgently the question of reorganisation. In 1962, we had a staff of 1800, including messengers and chauffeurs. Now we have 3400 and the messengers need almost as much administrative attention as the ambassadors."

In the event, there were no radical changes during his tenure and he retired in 1974.

Sir Keith remained in touch with government after his retirement and chaired an inquiry into Radio Australia in 1975.

He was a Canberra resident and member of the Commonwealth Club. He was often described as a diplomat of "the old school", a person of great charm and generally conservative views, who cared deeply for the notion of public service.

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'Waller, Sir John Keith (1914–1992)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 26 May 2024.

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