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The Australian National University

Life Sentences - Seven Dwarfs

Samuel Furphy, 'Canberra's Seven Dwarfs: The stories of seven nation-shaping public servants', ANU Reporter, vol 46, no 4, Summer 2015, p 60

Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey. For most people this is unmistakably a list of Snow White's Seven Dwarfs.

But if you were to ask a certain type of Canberran to supply such a list, you might receive a different response.

For in the history and folklore of Australia's Commonwealth Public Service, the Seven Dwarfs refers to an influential group of senior administrators who rose to prominence (if not to a great physical height) during and after the Second World War.

The precise membership of this exclusive group is often debated but a commonly cited line-up is HC (Nugget) Coombs, Roland Wilson, John Crawford, Allen Brown, Henry Bland, Richard Randall and Frederick Shedden.

Some would substitute Stan Carver for Shedden, including Bland, who cited a 1947 working party chaired by Prime Minister Ben Chifley as the formative context.

If Bland is correct, logic suggests Chifley was Snow White but, as all the dwarfs served well beyond the election of the Coalition Government in 1949, Robert Menzies must also be a candidate.

The Seven Dwarfs carved out their careers during the era of postwar reconstruction and the long postwar economic boom.

It was a period when the activities, reach and power of the Commonwealth Government expanded rapidly, creating an environment in which an intelligent and determined administrative mind might exercise great influence.

Of course, it was a coincidence that several of the most formidable public servants of the period were of small stature; a far more significant common trait was their path to public service leadership.

Unlike earlier generations who had risen steadily through the ranks, the Seven Dwarfs and other similar but taller contemporaries were university graduates who were recruited directly into important administrative roles.

This was made possible by reforms in recruitment procedures in the 1930s but was spurred on by the great need for policy capacity occasioned by the Second World War.

Four of those named above – Crawford, Randall, Shedden, and Carver – have entries in the Australian Dictionary of Biography and the others have been selected for biographies in coming years.

Their influence in shaping modern Australia is undisputed.

Two of the dwarfs are also prominent in the history of ANU. From 1960, Crawford served as Professor of Economics, then Vice-Chancellor, before succeeding Coombs as Chancellor in 1976. Coombs had helped to found the ANU in 1946 and was a Visiting Fellow from 1976 to 1995.

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