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Sir Robert William (Bill) Cole

Former Chairman of the Public Service Board, Sir William Cole, passed away on Tuesday 8 January in Perth.

Sir William died at the age of 92 years and is survived by his wife Lady Margaret Cole.

A classic, but now rare, public service career, Sir William was a telegraph messenger at 15 years of age and become head of the Department of Finance when he was 50.

During the Second World War, he served in the Royal Australian Air Force. He later graduated with a first class honours degree in commerce from Melbourne University, followed by a stint at the Department of Supply.

In 1952, he moved to Canberra as a research officer in the Department of Treasury.

From 1957 to 1959 he worked in Washington at the International Monetary Fund returning to Treasury in late 1959.

Sir William became Director of the Bureau of Transport Economics from 1970 until 1972.

He returned to Treasury as First Assistant Secretary of the General Finance and Economic Policy Division from 1972 to 1976 until he was appointed Australian Statistician in 1976.

At the end of that year, Sir William became Secretary of the new Department of Finance – created from the split of the Department of Treasury into two departments. This was the beginning of a period of immense change in APS financial management led by the fledging department, carried on later by the late Ian Castles AO and Dr Michael Keating AC.

From 1978 to 1983, Sir William was Chairman of the Public Service Board, extending his involvement in APS management reform. He was appointed Secretary of the Department of Defence in 1983 and retired from this position in 1986.

A gentle man in the old sense with a great intellect and sense of humour, Bill was intensely interested in people and reform.

Among other things, he advised the Minister to commission an external review which led to the Dibb Review in Defence and oversaw the integration of the Department of Defence Support into Defence proper.  

Bill also had a keen eye for talent and was active in their personal development. He promoted Helen Williams to Assistant Secretary in Treasury against the wishes of a prominent Division Head who said it would be done over his dead body. Bill commented later that “the bloke didn’t die!”.  Helen Williams was the first woman to be appointed to the SES in Treasury or Finance, and was later the first woman to be appointed a Secretary of an Australian Government Department.

During retirement, he conducted a review of military superannuation that led to the creation of the Military Superannuation Benefits Scheme.  

On behalf of the Australian Public Service Commission, Mr Peter Woolcott AO, offers deepest sympathy to Lady Cole and the extended Cole family.

Image (left to right): The Public Service Board in session - Mr J. V. Monaghan, Commissioner, Sir William Cole, Chairman, and Mr R. J. Young, Commissioner.

Last reviewed: 
14 January 2019