Obituary: vale Bill Cushing – a true mandarin

By Susan Oliver

Friday September 4, 2020

Bill Cushing

Bill Cushing died during the Melbourne COVID-19 crisis just shy of his 80th birthday. Bill’s career as a senior public servant and his later retirement years epitomised the values that underpin a strong public service.

He was born in Deniliquin, NSW and educated at St Patrick’s College, Ballarat from 1954 to 1957 (dux 1957), and Newman College, University of Melbourne, 1958-1963 where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Commerce with honours in economics and economic history.

He was a brilliant student and was awarded a Commonwealth University Scholarship, 1958-1960 and Newman College Resident Scholarship, 1958-1963, a Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics (CBCS) Cadetship, 1963 and a Commonwealth Public Service Board Postgraduate Scholarship for Overseas Study, 1972.

He continued his studies in computer programming, finite mathematics and operations research and post graduate studies and experience in national economic accounting at Canadian and US national statistics agencies in 1972-1973.

Bill’s career started in 1964 in the Commonwealth Public Service in Canberra in the Bureau of Census and Statistics. In 1973, as assistant statistician, he was responsible for production of Australia’s balance of payment estimates. In 1972, on a Commonwealth Public Service scholarship for overseas graduate studies, he undertook studies and work experience in national economic accounting at Canada and US national statistic agencies.

Bill admired the Canadian federalism model and often referenced this in his critique of the Australian federalism system. Between 1973 and 1975, Bill was assistant secretary in the Department of Urban and Regional Development, one of the new departments set up by the Whitlam government under minister Tom Uren, and with a significant reform agenda.

From 1975-1978, Bill served as assistant secretary in the Department of Environment, Housing and Community Development, and was then appointed to the Commonwealth Treasury Department, first as assistant secretary with an advisory remit that included education, student assistance, science and technology and protection of the environment. In 1982, he was appointed as acting first assistant secretary, with responsibilities covering Defence and Government, advising on resourcing and effectiveness of policies for defence, national security and immigration to name just a few of his areas of responsibility.

In 1983, Bill joined the public service in Victoria bringing with him the disciplines of the Commonwealth Public Sector and the benefits of his own wide ranging and senior level experience, first in the Department of Premiers and then as deputy director general in the reforming Department of Industry, Technology and Resources.

In this role, Bill brought together and nurtured a group of smart and up-and-coming young public sector managers to benefit from his professional approaches and disciplines.

Helen Silver AO was one of those, and Helen writes of those times: “I first met Bill Cushing in 1985, when he appointed me to head a newly created economics branch in the Industry department. I had a long relationship with Bill, who was one of my first significant mentors.

“As an economist with strong commonwealth experience, he brought a new level of intellectual challenge and rigour to the Victorian public service at that time. Bill Cushing was tenacious in advocating the creation of a state balance sheet that would be part of the budget papers. He provided me with many long lectures on this matter while trying to teach me the basics of public finances.

“Later, he achieved his ambition when in the early 1990s the then-Victorian Treasury published the state balance sheet. It was a first for Australia. Bill was highly influential in supporting a range of public officials by providing wise counsel and loyalty. Bill epitomised the values that underpin a strong public service”.

From Bill’s friendship and support given at this time when there was great vitality and a spring in the step of the public sector during John Cain’s ‘breakthrough Labour leadership’ in Victoria, Susan Oliver AM became a work colleague, beneficiary of Bill’s mentoring and advocacy, longtime friend and opera partner valuing Bill’s encyclopaedic knowledge of opera, performers and composers. Susan and Professor Andrea Hull AO organised many soirees and musical evenings and Bill always contributed by ‘putting out the chairs’. This partnership lasted until three years ago, when Bill’s Parkinson’s disease meant he could not enjoy the performances. It was sad to end this ritual. Susan and Bill’s close friendship endured.

Always the man to have on the team when reform was needed, Bill served in the Victorian Ministry of Housing, in 1988-1991 he was the associate deputy secretary in the Department of Premier and Cabinet, and in 1991 joined the Victorian Treasury Department, as executive director of Budget and Economics. His last government appointment was as an expert advisor to Treasury on major economic and financial policy matters, and he was a high-level representative of Treasury on major committees.

Bill made a significant contribution within Treasury & Finance over this time to state government budgeting, and chalked up an impressive list of achievements within Treasury and Finance, which include:

  • Initiation and preparation of guidance on corporate and business planning for all budget sector agencies, detailing of the government’s ‘integrated management cycle’ and the successful integration of departmental business plans with the state budget;
  • Devising an asset use (capital) charging scheme to encourage efficient management by departments of their balance sheets;
  • Introduction and direction of the state’s first comprehensive co-ordinated and prioritised capital works planning process for the budget sector;
  • Direction of financial management improvement projects for modernisation of Victorian state financial management systems — including integration of national economic accounting and business accounting and reporting requirements, and redesign of the Victorian budget papers to focus on outputs; and
  • Devising and preparing of the state’s first-ever ‘whole of government’ economic balance sheet and linked operating statements.

Bill retired early after health issues and enjoyed travelling widely in Australia, and regular meet-ups on Saturday mornings in Lygon Street with a group of friends that included the late Richard Divall AO OBE, and George and Patricia Brouwer, reading and commenting in letters to the newspapers, the company of friends and classical music and opera.

In his retirement, Dr Vince FitzGerald AO commented on the support Bill gave him: “From 2000 for some years I presented a commentary on the Victorian budget at a post-budget breakfast briefing, and each year was given entry to the pre-budget lockup to get a head start on preparing my presentation. I arranged for Bill also to be in the lockup, since he knew the budget papers like the back of his hand. He invariably dug up a few ‘hidden gems’ for me to weave in! After he retired, a number of us with public sector backgrounds, including Bill, would meet regularly for lunch.

“He was always up to date with topical public policy issues as well as being a great lunch companion. We also shared a love for the arts and went to the opera together while he was still well. Vale Bill!”

The tributes for Bill have recognised a man of integrity, intelligence and a commitment to good governance and policy. George Brouwer, who was appointed in 1982 to head Premiers and Cabinet in Victoria by the late John Cain, added these thoughts: “Bill will be remembered for his outstanding qualities as a first-class professional public servant and, on a more personal level, as a man of great humanity.

“In our professional work together, Bill’s intellectual rigour and integrity were invaluable and contributed greatly to good governance in Victoria. He was fearless in putting forward what he believed made for good policy. His fairness in judgment was admired and appreciated by all.

“On a personal level, he was unswerving in his loyalty to his friends and genuinely cared for them. His outstanding intellectual qualities never stood in the way of enjoying the company of others and sharing with them his wide-ranging interests in art, music, theatre, science and literature-interests, which he kept up to the very end of his life.”

Terry Moran AC wrote: “Bill and I knew each other for more than 45 years. He was at the beginning much as he was as the end approached. Outgoing, quick to start a debate and quick to demand that his view be heard and discussed, caring in his approach to friends and devoted to his broad family.

“Economics was always apparent as the turn to system of thought for ideas to apply to the solution of policy problems. He abhorred hypocrisy (and particularly rent seeking) and maintained a concern for the interests of people at the community level.

“The basis for his philosophy of life reflected his experiences of many different sorts of communities, including some in Ireland, from where he traced his descent. That experience and his grasp of economics was apparent in most conversations. Invariably, Bill would have a strong view and was happy to express it to a person in a coffee shop or a senior political figure. There aren’t enough Bills left in the public policy world. He was a believer in frank and fearless advice (it was what he was trained to give but also what he most enjoyed providing).

“Compassionate by inclination, he was always willing to draw on his values and common sense as much as economics to caution ministers, as a good public servant should. We will all miss him and the passion he injected into any conversation or debate. Our lives will be more humdrum with his passing. RIP old friend.”

Garthe Lampe was a special friend to Bill during his later years, and Bill was very appreciative of this. Bill became an avid genealogist, connecting with distant relatives all over the globe, a topic of conversation and in such detail that could leave his many friends and admirers stuck for words. He was immensely and rightly proud of his nieces Melanie and Erin and was much loved and supported by his sister Betsy. Vale Bill, who never ceased to care that government policies were sensible and intelligent. He will be missed.

This obituary was a joint effort, written as a tribute to Bill Cushing by Susan Oliver, Vince Fitzgerald, Terry Moran, George Brouwer, Garthe Lampe and Helen Silver.

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