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Sir Wilfred Alan Westerman (1913–2001)

by John Farquharson

Sir Alan Westerman, who has died aged 88, was not one of Canberra’s ‘seven dwarfs’, that raft of highly talented departmental heads, all of short stature, who dominated the Commonwealth Public Service during the Menzies-McEwen era, but he ranked in status with them.

In fact, Westerman, at age 47, found himself having to fill the very big shoes of one of the more notable “dwarfs”, Sir John Crawford, when in 1960 he left the Department of Trade to pursue a career in academia at the Australian National University.

Over the years, Crawford, with his creative flair and administrative skills, had built a formidable partnership with his minister, Sir John (Black Jack) McEwen. His departure from Trade, which he had helped to build up to become a top policy-making department alongside Treasury, left a big void, not only within the department but also for McEwen, who missed Crawford’s measured counsel.

Westerman could never be a complete replacement for Crawford. But having called up Westerman from the Tariff Board, which he had been heading since 1958, it soon became evident to McEwen and others that he was probably as talented as Crawford, albeit in a completely different style as well as stature; he was a big-framed six footer. Moreover, Westerman had benefited from Crawford’s tutelage at Trade, which he had joined in 1946 as an assistant trade commissioner in New York. As one of the first trade commissioners operating there after World War II, he had, among other things, handled much of Australia’s wool disposal.

On his return to Australia in 1950, he was responsible trade policy and promotion as a first assistant secretary in the Department of Commerce and Agriculture (forerunner of Trade). His position entailed close collaboration with the wool industry, on the strength of which in 1955 he was in the running to become director of the International Wool Secretariat in London, but missed out due to opposition from graziers. Though it cost him one of the highest salary packages on offer at that time, he was to go on to a greater and more influential role.

Westerman came from a Gippsland (Vic.) farming family, but was born in New Zealand on 25 March 1913. He used to describe himself as a ‘New Zealander by accident’ as his birth occurred while his parents were on a short trip there. He went to school in Sydney at Knox Grammar before going on to the universities of Tasmania and later Melbourne. He started work as a schoolteacher and then picked up a scholarship to Columbia University, New York, where he earned a Doctorate of Education and lectured on rural sociology. It was at Columbia that he was spotted by Australia’s Trade Commissioner in New York, James Garside. Before formally joining the Public Service he worked in the Trade Commissioner’s office in a temporary capacity.

Back in Australia at the department, Westerman’s rise continued as a strong working partnership developed with Crawford. It was a partnership in which each complemented the other - the careful, painstakingly balanced Crawford and the more adventurous, wheeler-dealer approach of Westerman.

Though they often clashed on issues, they got on well personally and they produced the goods. When the Trade Department negotiated the Australian-Japanese Trade Agreement,  Crawford provided the guidance and inspiration, while Westerman did most of the negotiating. He also had a key role in talks aimed at getting the best possible deal for Australian exports after Britain’s move to join the European Community.

His trade interests had to be laid aside temporarily in 1958 when the Tariff Board became swamped with applications after the lifting of import  restrictions. With manufacturers becoming restive over delays as the board struggled to cope, Westerman went in as a trouble-shooter. Criticised at the time for his ruthlessness in setting about his task, nevertheless he soon had the board’s operations streamlined and working effectively. So when Crawford decided he’d had enough and moved to academia, Westerman was the obvious choice to take charge at Trade.

Throughout his Public Service career Westerman invariably stood out from the ruck, with a tendency to be careless about conventions. Nevertheless, he was effective, building a department that during the sixties was noted for its adventurism and interventionism. In all he undertook thoroughness was his hallmark. This was probably a factor in the reputation he earned for driving his staff and expecting them to work the long hours that he did himself.

Generally, regarded as ‘progressive’, Westerman, along with Crawford, lifted McEwen’s limited Country-Party horizon into the realisation that there were big and vital sections of the Australian economy that were not represented by a paddock of wheat, a pen of fat lambs, beef cattle or wool-growing merinos. Westerman, however, was hard-line on tariffs. He was staunchly convinced of the part preferences had played in Australia’s development. This led him to be unyielding in his opposition to their progressive abolition, even when it was becoming apparent that a more flexible approach could be appropriate. There have been suggestions that Westerman’s tariff stance stemmed from his ardent nationalism. Whatever the validity of this claim his nationalism paid dividends in other directions.

Westerman was pre-eminently a promoter of exports and their diversification. He argued consistently that Australians had to get out and sell to earn the benefits of economies of scale, keep themselves up to the mark and so achieve an industrial base that was efficient and economic. What helped Westerman get his message across was that he could talk to businessmen in their own language, and with understanding of their difficulties and problems. Despite his undoubted intellectual capacity and academic background, he had none of the detachment so often a characteristic of academics.

When the Gorton Government appointed Sir Alan to be executive chairman of the Australian Industry Development Corporation towards the end of 1970 it was in some ways a natural extension of his work as head of Trade, from which he took his final departure early in 1971. Among other things, the AIDC also offered a natural medium for his nationalism while enabling him to continue his efforts to boost industrial efficiency. And, against all expectations, his AIDC role did not come to an abrupt end when Labor won government in 1972. In fact, the AIDC became one of the new government’s chief instruments in promoting its industrial and nationalist policies. Sir Alan remained at AIDC until 1983, though he stepped aside as full-time executive chairman in 1977. He continued as chairman and part-time director. His lesser role at AIDC enabled him to take up some outside business directorships. He joined the boards of Ampol Petroleum Ltd and Philips Industries Holdings Ltd, and became chairman of the Stevedoring Industry Consultative Council.

Through his years in the Public Service Westerman, who was awarded a knighthood in 1963, was an individualist. He was also an interventionist and a hustler. This did not always go down well in the bureaucratic arena where he was apt to be unfettered the niceties of inter-departmental diplomacy in getting the result he wanted. Outcomes were his overriding concern and he undoubtedly ended up with more pluses than minuses.

In his younger days, Sir Alan played a strong game of tennis, although work demands meant he could not get on the court as much as he would have liked. In later years he enjoyed a game of snooker and a quiet drink with friends at the Commonwealth Club. He was also an accomplished handyman.

Sir Alan is survived by his wife, Margaret, whom he married in 1969 after the death of his first wife a few years earlier.

Sir (Wilfred) Alan Westerman, born New Zealand, 25 March 1913; died 20 May 2001.

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Westerman, Sir Wilfred Alan (1913–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 May 2024.

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