The economist Herbert Cole Coombs (born 1906) was appointed to a series of public positions which allowed him more influence on the shape of post-war Australia than all except a few prime ministers. Widely respected by all sections of the Australian community, he was committed to government participation in economic reform and social betterment programs.
Herbert Cole Coombs, the oldest surviving child of a family of six, was born on February 24, 1906. He was known as "Nugget" all his life, after the gold mined in his native Western Australia, because of his small size but great and universal worth.
After a small town education he won scholarships to teachers college and university and then to London as a research student. London, in the grip of the depression years, had a life-long effect on him. He observed the effects on people of the squalor and social injustice caused by economic conditions. His study of banking in British dominion countries examined how the central banks were dealing with the problems of the depression and brought into sharp relief the relationship between government inaction and society's ills. Coombs shared with John Maynard Keynes, who was then developing his "General Theory" at Cambridge, a passionate zeal which saw people's welfare as being the object of social and economic organization. If Coombs could ever have been labeled a socialist it was during this period.
After Coombs returned to Australia with his young family and doctorate in 1934 he was appointed as an economist first in the Commonwealth (government controlled) Bank, and then in the treasury in Canberra to work on financial and economic policy. Here, in the intimate political and bureaucratic circles of the national capital, Coombs's star shone brightly. He began to strike up personal relationships, nearly all of warmth and respect, with those who would be active in Australian government over the next two and more generations. He was especially close to both J. J. Curtin and J. B. Chifley, successive Labor prime ministers. He became director general of the Department of Postwar Reconstruction and had a chance, together with leading politicians, to develop a strategy for the whole of Australian society. Postwar reconstruction, he said looking back, "was a very innovative thing … the whole business of government, because it was a government department which was concerned not simply to administer the status quo, but to change the status quo."
Coombs's commitment to a program of reform and social betterment initiated through positive government action showed in the 1945 White Paper on full employment, an influential policy paper of originality and of international note, and in the beginnings of Commonwealth participation in education, out of which grew university scholarships and a national university. He was active also on the international economic scene. In 1943, for example, he participated in the first Australian bilateral discussions with the U.S. Treasury about the international financial organizations which later became the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
But he was not a "dismal" economist. In the midst of traditional Australian insularity, Coombs was remarkably internationalist in outlook, and his interests ranged widely beyond his official duties. Two significant strands of his thinking—social intervention of governments and development of the young—thus came together in the plan to establish a special kind of university which would make Canberra not only Australia's political but also its intellectual capital. Australians at that time were ignorant about the countries of Asia and those bordering the Pacific and had no organization whose aim was to study Australia's relations with these countries. The Research School of Pacific Studies was intended to fill this gap. And, as it was recognized that governments would require economic and social knowledge to enable policies planned for the postwar period to be made effective, the Research School of Social Science was created. In much the same way the idea for the Research School of Physical Sciences arose because of the importance attached to the field of physical science, especially with the development of atomic power.
When Coombs returned to the Commonwealth Bank as governor in 1949, at the age of 42, the work of implementing post-war reconstruction was well under way. Coombs knew how important it was that significant social institutions be under the leadership of those who understood the needs of the time. Yet the next 20 years or so brought him no smooth transitions. The Labor government which he had so outstandingly served fell at the elections in 1949 and was replaced by a government under Sir Robert Gordon Menzies which was suspicious of the "socialist planner" Coombs. The new government did eventually come to see his worth, however. He was re-appointed governor in 1956 and again in 1960 (to what then became the Reserve Bank).
The Humane Man
"Neither withdrawal nor revolution are for me," he wrote. "There remains, therefore, only reform—the creation of new institutions, the recasting of those already existing, the revitalization of the moral and social imperatives which lend them vigour." His achievements in those years were considerable. His presence continued to be felt internationally as well as at home. Within Australia he became one of the best-known living Australians and probably the country's best-known public servant. His name was synonymous with the world of high finance and high politics, yet his public image as a humane and humorous man of great tolerance was accurate. The signature of "the doctor" on every Australian banknote was for years the sign to average Australians that all in the financial world was well. He worked officially with every Australian prime minister from Curtin to Whitlam and became personally close to them all, excepting Gorton but including the long-serving and initially hostile Menzies. He was the senior and almost the only adviser to span the long gap from one Labor government in 1949 to the next in 1972.
He used his position as bank governor to make efforts in artistic and Aboriginal policy which touched many Australians. He became the first chairman of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1954, for example, and held that position until 1968. In that year he retired from the Reserve Bank to become chairman of the Australian Council for Aboriginal Affairs and of the Australian Council for the Arts. In the same year he also became chancellor of the Australian National University.
On Aboriginal issues, the outstanding tolerance, sense of fair play, and cultural humility that he brought to his work was always rounded out by a shrewd understanding of economic realities and an advocacy of policies that made financial sense both for Aborigines and for other Australians. He traveled regularly to outback Australia to spend time among unknown Aborigines in their camps and stations. He espoused a Makarita, or treaty, between Aboriginal and white Australians. In 1986 he published Towards a National Aboriginal Congress, which truly brought the plights and concerns of the Aborigines to the entire world. In 1989 he co-wrote with three other authors, Helen McCann, Helen Ross, and Nancy M. Williams Land of Promises: Aborigines and Development in the East Kimberley, which reported on economic and social changes arising from resource development. As of May, 1989, Coombs was Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University. He was an Honorary Fellow of the London School of Economics and current Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at ANU.
"We must rely on governments for reform," he wrote. "Since governments reflect fairly accurately the prejudices, hopes and intellectual preconceptions of the community generally, the broad requirements of policy suggested by theory must be thrashed around and mulled over in communication and controversy between academics, scientists, politicians and the community generally until they become, as did the objectives of full employment, part of the ethos of the community." Coombs's life was one of a brilliant intellectual, doyen of public servants, a powerful government banker, an avid supporter of Australia's arts, a mentor of prime ministers, and one of the rare white people who earned the respect and trust of Aborigines. A generous though modest tiller of the country's intellectual soil, he remained one of the most celebrated Australians whose impact on that society will be recognized still more fully in the decades to come.
Further Reading on Herbert Cole Coombs
Little has been written to cover Coombs's time and place and his own books, though reporting only fragments of his life, are best, including: Other People's Money (ANU Press, 1971), Kulinma: Listening to Aboriginal Australians (ANU Press, 1978), and Trial Balance (1981, Sun 1983).