Story: Millar, Frank Winfird

Page 1 - Millar, Frank Winfird

Millar, Frank Winfird

1885–1944

Public servant, union official

This biography was written by Herbert Roth and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Frank Winfird Millar was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 20 September 1885, the son of Mary Elizabeth Geddes and her husband, Walter Oliphant Millar, a Scottish-born accountant. Shortly after his 16th birthday Millar passed the junior civil service examination and was offered a cadetship in the Department of Education in Wellington; five years later he passed the senior civil service examination. On 28 September 1910, in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Wellington, he married Agnes Eleanor Marshall.

In 1912 the Reform government placed the entire public service under the control of a non-political public service commissioner. There was then in existence a New Zealand Civil Service Association, dominated by senior public servants and concerned mainly with political issues. Millar felt that an organisation more relevant to ordinary public servants was needed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the end of political patronage. With two fellow clerks in the Department of Education, he began a campaign for change. He personally enrolled some 600 new members, which almost doubled the CSA's membership in Wellington. In May 1913 Millar was appointed secretary of the Wellington branch, and a few months later he was elected part-time general secretary. Liabilities far exceeded assets, but more than 2,000 members had been enrolled and there was great optimism. The CSA was replaced in 1913 by a new organisation, the New Zealand Public Service Association, with new rules and new officers. In January 1914 there appeared the first issue of the Public Service Journal, with Millar as editor.

Throughout the war years, while continuing to work in the Education Department, Millar acted as PSA general secretary; but as membership grew beyond 5,000 the burden became too much. In January 1919, moreover, Agnes Millar died, leaving her husband with two young daughters. Millar had been promoted to assistant officer in charge of special schools and was offered the post of chief clerk in the Prisons Department, but when the PSA finally decided to appoint a full-time secretary he was the obvious choice. In September 1919 he began work for the association, moving to a newly opened office in Lambton Quay in October. On 17 February 1920 he married Winifred Annie Maginnity at Wellington's Basilica. They were to have two sons.

Millar's contract provided that he was not subject to fixed office hours and he retained the right to undertake 'any other business or work on his own account' as long as it did not interfere with his commitments to the PSA. He was not paid for his work as editor of the monthly Public Service Journal, but he received a commission on advertisements he secured.

Millar's energy was prodigious. He frequently travelled the country, visiting journal advertisers and enrolling new members. Short, balding, yet always fastidious about his appearance, when told by a friend that members had complained that he smoked cigars and wore spats while most public servants couldn't afford either, Millar replied with a grin: 'You tell them that Frank Millar smoked cigars and wore spats long before he could afford them too.'

Known as 'The Great Salesman', Millar acquired an unsurpassed knowledge of the procedures of the public service, which he used in his frequent appearances in support of officers before the Public Service Board of Appeal. He early realised the need for co-operation among public service organisations, but he shied away from contact with private sector unions and from any political entanglements. Millar's watchwords were caution and moderation, and he maintained good contacts with ministers and public service commissioners.

Frank Millar represented the views of the core public service, men (there were few women among them) concerned about their promotion, classification, appeal rights, leave and superannuation, who valued his efforts on their behalf. In 1935, however, a Labour government came to power. This and the outbreak of war four years later began to change the composition of the public service and of the PSA. Thousands of temporary employees joined: women, tradesmen in the Public Works Department and the Government Printing Office, mental-health workers and others. The PSA's membership grew from 7,000 in 1935 to 20,000 in 1943.

The new forces wanted a genuine trade union rather than a polite staff organisation. They organised, and in 1943 achieved a major breakthrough with the election of Bert O'Keefe as president, defeating the old guard's nominee. The end came soon afterwards, at a stormy executive meeting in Wellington on 17 August 1944. As Millar spoke against the new policies, O'Keefe rose from his seat. It was customary for speakers to stop when the president was on his feet, but Millar continued. O'Keefe told him to stop speaking, Millar persisted, then suddenly suffered a brain haemorrhage and collapsed. He died on 4 September 1944 without regaining consciousness. He was survived by Winifred Millar, two daughters and two sons.

Frank Millar had several interests outside the PSA, making good use of contacts gained as a member of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce, the Wellington Racing Club, and the Evans Bay Yacht and Motor Boat Club. In 1920 he began publishing the New Zealand Theatre and Motion Picture Magazine, and he belonged to the film industry's Thirty-Three Club. But it is his work in organising public servants and representing their professional interests for which he is best remembered.