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Sir Roland Wilson (1904–1996)

by John Farquharson

Sir Roland Wilson, Australian News and Information Bureau, 1965

Sir Roland Wilson, Australian News and Information Bureau, 1965

National Archives of Australia, A1200, L51130

Roland Wilson, for many years Secretary of the Commonwealth Treasury, died in Canberra on October 25. He was 92.

In a remarkable career, he became Commonwealth Statistician when he was 32, Secretary of the Department of Labour and National Service at 36 and Secretary of the Treasury at 47. Those early and rapid advancements indicated, correctly, a versatility beyond his great capacity as an economist.

When his service as Secretary of the Treasury finished in 1966, Wilson had established a reputation as the most powerful public servant in Australia.

His critics, who were many, thought he had created a monolithic Treasury without sufficient control by successive governments. Wilson was the first economist to head Treasury, and a formidable economist he was, having completed a D.Phil at Oxford in his early 20s and a PhD at the University of Chicago in his mid-20s.

Certainly, in extending and consolidating Treasury influence, he increased his own authority. In the process, he acquired a mystique as economic adviser to the political administration of the moment.

Wilson soon perceived an elementary truth — vociferous politicians come and go, sometimes with great speed, but the Sphinx-like bureaucracy stays put. When Billy McMahon, as Treasurer, cast aspersions on Treasury at a dinner, Wilson was reported to have replied with these words: "Bloody well do what we tell you and you'll be fine."

Wilson's 15-year reign at Treasury, from Korea to the escalation of the Vietnam War, coincided with what was arguably Australia's greatest period of economic growth and prosperity, although these years were not without their stresses. Wilson presided over the 1961 credit squeeze, which was seen by some, like the response in nearly all downturns, as too much too late. Treasury reduced yearly average growth from a runaway 7.3 per cent to just over 1 per cent, and the Labor leader Arthur Calwell came within one seat of winning government.

Even after his days at the Treasury ended, Wilson held positions of great authority. He was chairman of Qantas from 1966 to 1972 and chairman of the Commonwealth Banking Corporation from 1973 until he retired from its board in 1975.

Well aware that Treasury officials are hardly the most endearing figures, he became accustomed to uncomplimentary descriptions of himself — one was "the frozen-faced tsar of the Treasury".

He had other ideas. "I am a simple sort of fellow, really," he once said.

Of course, he was never that. He had real skill in a number of crafts. His hobbies included cabinetmaking, metal working, engineering, inventing and electricity. He once made an electric car which worked impressively.

A sympathetic commentator described him, in 1947, as "a small (160 cm or 5ft 3in), long-jawed, blue-eyed man with an easy manner and a strong streak of satirical, almost cynical humour".

Roland Wilson was born in Ulverstone, Tasmania, on April 7, 1904. His father was a builder and contractor. The boy won a scholarship at Devonport High School to take an economics course at the University of Tasmania.

He had intended to return to Ulverstone but one of his tutors persuaded him to try for a Rhodes Scholarship. He did so, successfully.

The scholarship took him in 1925 to Oxford University. Already a bachelor of commerce from the University of Tasmania, he won at Oxford a prize in colonial history and secured, with distinction, a diploma in economics and political science.

He became a doctor of philosophy after writing a thesis on the import of capital.

A Commonwealth Fund Fellowship took him to Chicago University, where he gained another doctorate of philosophy for research into capital movements and their economic consequences.

He married American-born Miss Valeska Thompson in the United States in 1930.

Dr Wilson, as he then was, next lectured in economics and directed tutorial classes at the University of Tasmania. In 1932, he became economist in the Commonwealth Statistician's branch in Hobart.

Within three years he was economic adviser to the Treasury in Canberra and, two years later, Commonwealth Statistician. During World War II, he was seconded to establish the new Department of Labour and National Service, and became its first administrative head.

Sir Roland — he was knighted in 1955 — attended so many international conferences on economic and trade problems that he lost count of them.

After the war he resumed work as Commonwealth Statistician, as well as an economic adviser to the Treasury. Representations by the Chifley Labor Government led to his appointment as an alternate executive director of the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Washington.

The Government also made him an additional representative of the Treasury on the Commonwealth Bank Advisory Council.

The Menzies Government made him Secretary to the Treasury in 1951.

Wilson thus worked with a succession of federal governments and with treasurers with markedly different political and economic ideas. The Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley described him as one of the most gifted officials in the Commonwealth service.

Lady Wilson was killed in 1971 in a car accident in Mexico. Wilson is survived by his second wife, Joyce, whom he married in 1975. There were no children from either marriage.

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Wilson, Sir Roland (1904–1996)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Sir Roland Wilson, Australian News and Information Bureau, 1965

Sir Roland Wilson, Australian News and Information Bureau, 1965

National Archives of Australia, A1200, L51130

Life Summary [details]


7 April, 1904
Ulverstone, Tasmania, Australia


25 October, 1996 (aged 92)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death


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