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Alexander DownerSpeech

Speech by the Hon Alexander Downer, MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs,
at the memorial service for the late Sir Arthur Tange
Parliament House, Canberra, 24 May 2001.


Arthur Tange was a great Australian.

We have the opportunity today at this service to express our gratitude for his life and work, and to demonstrate our sympathy and support for his widow Marjorie, son Chris, daughter Jenny, and all the members of the Tange family, at this sad time.

Arthur Tange was, quite simply, one of the greatest public servants Australia has ever produced.

Few can match his record of some twenty years as Secretary of a Department, first at what was then External Affairs from 1954 to 1965 and later at Defence from 1970 to 1979.

He was a strong, tough and efficient leader who adhered to the highest standards of the Public Service. 

He served the democratically elected Governments of the day, and the Ministers of the portfolios in which he worked, loyally, respectfully and professionally over a great many years. 

Sir Arthur believed passionately in the parliamentary system of responsible government and in maintaining a right and proper relationship with his Minister. 

He embodied the concept of giving “frank and fearless advice” to Ministers, and this was the key reason why he was held in such respect. 

His commitment to the impartiality of the Public Service was profound, and remains as an inspiration to those who have followed him.

Indeed, Arthur Tange leaves a rich legacy to us all. 

He was someone who was ambitious for Australia, and who, in a long life of public service, found many opportunities to advance the interests of his nation.

Sir Arthur was one of that outstanding group of public servants who initially made their names in the Department of Postwar Reconstruction, where he gained early experience of international negotiations - attending, for example, the Bretton Woods conference which established the IMF and the World Bank.

In the External Affairs portfolio, he made outstanding contributions in key policy areas such as the establishment of the Colombo Plan, and handling Indonesia’s confrontation with Malaysia. 

As Secretary, he was responsible for managing the policy complexities of the interaction in Australia’s immediate region between the Cold War and the processes of decolonisation.

As Secretary, Arthur Tange also worked hard to ensure that his Department carried weight in the processes of government in Canberra. 

He built up its expertise, particularly on Southeast Asian affairs.  Indeed, on one occasion Tange was heard to wonder aloud whether the Department was going so far as to become a “Department of Asian Affairs” - he knew the importance of Australia having an “Asia first” but not “Asia only” foreign policy.

One side of Sir Arthur was the stern and demanding leader who kept his distance. 

His office as Secretary was the only one in the Department that had carpet, which gave a very literal ring to officers’ dread of being “carpeted” or, as they used to say, “summoned to the carpet”. 

But these qualities were tempered by his reputation for fairness:  Arthur Tange did not play favourites. 

He judged people by their efficiency and effectiveness, and introduced a system of assessment reports to help ensure that promotions in the Department would be made on merit. 

In all this, he deliberately constructed the means for getting the best out of the people in his Department.

I want at this point to pay a special tribute to Lady Tange. 

She and her husband belonged to an age when diplomats were mostly men. 

Australia owes a great deal to that generation of women who, in loyally supporting the work of their diplomat husbands in a myriad of ways, gave selflessly of themselves in their nation’s service. 

Lady Tange remains one of their finest representatives.  I know how very devoted Sir Arthur was to his wife and how very highly he thought of her. 

She had a wonderful capacity to bring out the best in his personality, to moderate and mellow the hard edges, and in her company he was transformed.

Indeed, there was much more to Arthur Tange than his image. 

He had a wide-ranging interest in music and literature. 

He could be very protective of his subordinates, and was prepared to stand up to Ministers if he was convinced of the justice of their cause.

As High Commissioner in India from 1965 to 1970, he devoted special care and attention to the design of the diplomatic compound and the laying out of the gardens, getting the new Chancery built on time and properly. 

Sir Arthur, on arriving in New Delhi as High Commissioner (1965 – 1970) set about to inspect the compound.

He found things not to his liking and despatched a Memo to Canberra with a wish list of things he considered needed doing.

A Memo came back pointing out that a good number of the changes the High Commissioner had requested were not in line with directives issued by the former Secretary (Sir Arthur, 1954 – 1965).

He sent back another Memo to Canberra along the lines “The former Secretary was wrong: please action.”

I knew Arthur Tange primarily through his friendship with my parents.

For my father Arthur Tange was a model public servant.

But I kept in touch with Sir Arthur right up until his death seeking his counsel and wisdom.

I last saw him when he came to lunch with me on 7 March. He reminded me then of his stalwart independence by explaining how he had advised Menzies against Australia’s policy on the Suez crisis.

The words that we often hear used to describe Sir Arthur Tange – frank, fearless, strong, tough, efficient, fair, humane, ambitious for Australia – help us to capture the measure of the man and his legacy. 

He will be remembered as embodying the finest traditions of Australia’s Public Service, and for his immense contributions to our nation. 

Today we gather to acknowledge his achievements, and the debt every Australian owes him.

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