Obituary: H. C. Coombs

Herbert Cole Coombs, economist and public servant: born Kalamunda, Western Australia 24 February 1906; married 1931 Mary Ross (three sons, one daughter); died Sydney 29 October 1997.

H. C. Coombs was probably the most outstanding civil servant Australia has produced, but he will be remembered for being more than a civil servant. His influence touched almost every aspect of Australian life since the Second World War: the economy, banking, education, the arts and, most profoundly, the advancement of Aborigines.

Coombs served seven prime ministers, from John Curtin during the Second World War to Gough Whitlam in the 1970s. Bob Hawke, who became prime minister during Coombs's retirement in the 1980s, said of him: "He was one of the most important Australians this century. I don't think there was any white Australian who gave a more continuing, practical commitment to the Aboriginal people."

One of the most prominent public figures over four decades, he was always referred to formally as Dr H.C. Coombs, but few Australians could say what those initials stood for. He was more widely known as "Nugget" Coombs because of his short stature and determined gait (he was 5ft 3in tall). Coombs was a singular bridge between the old, predominantly Anglo-Celtic Australia and the multicultural post-war society that has opened its eyes, prompted partly by his efforts, to the plight of its indigenous people.

His father's itinerant job as a station master took him as a child around the vast state of Western Australia, where he was born near Perth, the capital, in 1906. Later, as a young teacher in outback schools, Coombs saw the problems of Aborigines at first hand and turned their correction into a lifelong crusade. The Depression of the Thirties provided the other abiding influence in his life: economics. After he won a scholarship to the London School of Economics and completed his doctorate there in 1933, he became a disciple of John Maynard Keynes, whose book General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) Coombs described as "the most seminal intellectual event" of his time.

Coombs had plenty of scope to apply the Keynesian underpinnings of big government when he returned to Australia. The wartime Labor government made him head of post-war reconstruction, a role in which he helped to shape the policies of mass immigration and public spending on tertiary education and infrastructure that were features of the economic prosperity of the Fifties.

At the age of 42, he was appointed Governor of the Commonwealth Bank, then the central bank, and became the first governor of its successor, the Reserve Bank, 12 years later. In the intervening years, he helped to set up the Australian National University, now an elite research institution, and to inaugurate some of the publicly funded arts bodies that have transformed Australia's cultural scene over the past 30 years. He also became the founding chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. Coombs is rightly regarded as a father of modern Australia.

Although some conservatives regarded him as a socialist, Coombs's great professional achievement was to retain the respect of the prime ministers from both sides of politics who called on his advice and skills. Equally, the Aborigines respected him, as they did few whites of his rank, for his willingness to sit down in the dust with them, as he did on his many visits to outback communities, and spend hours listening to their points of view.

Aboriginal affairs became Coombs's overriding passion after he retired formally from public life. He was one of the first to describe publicly as "genocide" the impact on Aborigines of white occupation of Australia from 1788. In speeches before a stroke left him in poor health two years ago, he continued to slam the "betrayal" of the Aborigines and the "sell- out" of the intelligentsia who, he said, had become "instruments of the corporate society".

"Nugget" Coombs was one of the few whites to be adopted as a tribal family member by the Yolgnu people of Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory. They called him Dhumbul Bapa, or "Short Father". The Aborigines have asked to honour Coombs in a traditional way at the state funeral which the Australian government has offered his family.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
glastonbury
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
filmReview: Gyllenhaal, in one of his finest performances, is funny, engaging and sinister all at once
Life and Style
Taste the difference: Nell Frizzell tucks into a fry-up in Jesse's cafe in east London
food + drinkHow a bike accident left one woman living in a distorted world in which spices smell of old socks and muesli tastes like pork fat
Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington has been given a huge pay rise to extend his contract as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
filmThis Halloween, we ask what makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?
News
peopleFarage challenges 'liberally biased' comedians to 'call him a narcissist'
Arts and Entertainment
Liam and Zayn of One Direction play with a chimpanzee on the set of their new video for 'Steal My Girl'
music
Arts and Entertainment
Young Fathers are the surprise winners of this year's Mercury Music Prize
music
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior IP Opportunity at Major Firm

vary Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - AN OPENING AT A VERY HIGH Q...

Nursery Manager

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Nursery Manager Long term Ran...

Sales Consultant – Permanent – West Sussex – £24-£25k plus commission and other benefits

£24000 - £25000 Per Annum plus company car and commission: Clearwater People S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"