Obituary: H. C. Coombs

Click to follow
The Independent Online
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.