Message from the Governor – Vale Sir Robert William (Bill) Cole, 1926-2019
Bill Cole, a famous West Australian but little known in his home state, passed away on Tuesday this week. He was of a generation of Commonwealth public servants who could be genuinely described as mandarins. A secure, self-confident, patriotic, intelligent class who, while respectful of their political masters, took the view they should be the beneficiaries of frank and fearless advice. They also assumed they needed a vision of the country and its needs to be blended with the political thought of the day.
Bill’s senior appointments included Australian Statistician 1976, Secretary of the Department of Finance 1976-1978, Chairman of the Public Service Board 1978-1983 and Secretary of the Department of Defence 1984-1986. It was in the last position that I came to know him.
When I became Defence Minister in 1984 he was the Secretary. Exactly the right man for a massive, complex department and a headstrong Minister. His view of ministerial relations was to encourage me to deal directly with the civilian and service personnel who were the responsible officials for any particular aspect of policy, purchase or Administration the minister was dealing with. I was conscious at the time that all who dealt with me reported to him and that he was closely in touch with the Department’s affairs and the impact of decisions being taken.
He intervened little but when he did he was decisive. I can still see him looming at my office door on the ground floor of the old Parliament House:
“Minister, you are about to make a serious mistake and I am not leaving here until you are determined not to make it.”
You quickly understood he was a protector not only of his minister but more importantly the country.
He was honest about departmental flaws or difficulties. As we prepared for the first Defence White Paper of the government, we sought a preliminary study of needs and directions. I was shocked when he approached to say it would be too damaging for the Department to produce it. He, with the agreement of the Chief of the Defence Forces, determined that such a process would produce a dangerous level of discord between the armed forces and civilian officials. It would be destructive of the coherence of Defence planning. I would need to appoint a consultant who would be supplied all he needed by the services and civilians – hence the appointment of Dr Paul Dibb.
Bill was a subtle teacher. Departmental leadership of the day was not on time limited contracts, readily terminated. They had permanency. We and the country were well served by them.
He retired in the portfolio. A long retirement until he passed Tuesday. He was as humble as he was effective. His passing though must be noted and a great contribution must attract gratitude. Deepest sympathy to Lady Cole, family and friends.