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Herbert Cole ‘Nugget' Coombs is a golden example of an Economics graduate.
Nugget, who gained a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from The University of Western Australia, not only became the first Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, but also led a full life as a rural teacher, student, economist, Aboriginal rights activist, Chancellor of the Australian National University, Governor of the Commonwealth Bank and adviser to prime ministers from Ben Chifley through to Gough Whitlam.
After studying at UWA and, with the assistance of a Hackett Scholarship, completing a PhD at the London School of Economics, Nugget returned to Australia, where he became an economist at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. In 1939 he moved to the Department of the Treasury in Canberra as a senior economist, and in October 1941 Prime Minister John Curtin appointed him to the board of the Commonwealth Bank.
‘I was called an Assistant Econ - The Assistant Economist, there was only one... there was only one economist and one assistant, and I worked quite closely with Ben Chifley [then Treasurer], and it was... him and Curtin that appointed me as... a member of the bank board, which was [an] astonishing thing to do. Here I was a relatively junior officer of the bank, on loan to the Treasury and they appointed me to the board of the bank. Some of the senior people in the bank were quite appalled by this,' recalled Nugget in an interview with Film Australia in 1992.
Yet Nugget obviously impressed in this role. The next year, during the height of World War II, Nugget was appointed Director of Rationing, and in 1943 became Director-General of the Department of Post-war Reconstruction.
‘Sir Curtin appointed me to run the rationing job which also [sic] I'd never done a major piece of administration, never headed any organisation bigger than a class of teenagers, in my life, and here I was put in charge of an organisation which extended over the whole of the country and had to create it,' said Nugget.
‘The idea of... working on how you sought to manage the war so that the impact of it on people was minimi[sed], adverse effect was minimised. That sort of gave me a kind of intellectual escape from the dilemma of how a pacifist could work in [war time], and this became a very alive issue. It's when I was put in charge of rationing, because for the first time what I was doing was protecting the civilian population's share of the resources...The conduct of the war, particularly in Australia, more so than anywhere else, was, it seemed to me at the time and has always seemed to me so ever since, was an exercise in Keynesian economics.
‘We had a quite an interesting letter from the Archbishop of Melbourne, saying, complaining that he didn't have enough tea and he had to entertain visiting clergy and things like that, and he wanted a special allowance, but he, as - good fashion required of Archbishops in those days, he signed himself John or whatever his Christian name was Melbourne, and so the girl who was doing the work on this who was a girl from the, working in the university, she was very, very efficient and, you know, blunt, and, she wrote back to him, "Dear Mr. Melbourne, you can't have any more tea. If you have guests coming you better ask them to bring their own coupons or something of that kind."'
After World War II, Nugget continued to advise John Curtin and then Ben Chifley, retaining his role when the Liberal Party, under Robert Menzies, came to power in 1949. The same year, Nugget was appointed Governor of the board of the Commonwealth Bank. Then, in 1960, Nugget became the inaugural Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia.
Later, Nugget also served under Harold Holt, John McEwan, John Gorton, William McMahon, and Gough Whitlam. In 1968, Nugget became Chairman of the Australian Council for the Arts (now the Australia Council) and Australian Council for Aboriginal Affairs, in which capacity he campaigned for Aboriginal land rights and the establishment of a treaty.
Throughout his life, Nugget - perhaps because he witnessed the effects of the Depression in London - remained a supporter of Keynesian economics. ‘Now I think the economic system is society's institution for the conduct of giving people access to a library or to enable them to feed themselves and their children, to clothe themselves and to find the material basis for a civilised, dignified human existence. That in my view is what the economic system is for. It is not for the purpose of enabling individuals to become wealthy, nor is it for the purpose of persuading people that happiness comes from possessions and from access to this or that service,' he said.
Herbert ‘Nugget' Coombs was born in 1906 in Kalamunda, and studied at The University of Western Australia between 1927 and 1933. He died in 1997 in Sydney, at the age of 91.
A full interview with Nugget (video and transcript) can be found at www.australianbiography.gov.au/subjects/coombs. A detailed obituary can be found at http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/coombs-herbert-cole-nugget-246.
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