Story: Campbell, Richard Mitchelson

Page 1 - Biography

Campbell, Richard Mitchelson

1897–1974

Public servant, economist, diplomat

This biography was written by Alan Henderson and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Richard Mitchelson Campbell was born on 28 August 1897 at Maunu, Whangarei, to Norman Allan Campbell, a farmer at Maungatapere, and his wife, Ann Wright Lang, both children of Highland Scots settlers who arrived at Waipu in 1854. Dick Campbell attended Whangarei High School and in March 1914 was accepted as a cadet in the Department of Education in Wellington. He enlisted for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in February 1918, only to be discharged the following month as mobilisation was scaled back.

Campbell devoted most of his evenings to study. By 1919 he had passed the matriculation examination, and was accumulating subjects in the Public Service senior examination and the solicitors’ and accountants’ professional examinations. Despite continuing his full-time work he graduated LLB at Victoria University College in 1923, BA in 1925, and MA in economics with first-class honours in 1926. Campbell served terms as president of the Students’ Association and chairman of the Debating Society, and was a leading organiser of the left-leaning Free Discussions Club. Soon after his arrival in Wellington he had been won over from his rural suspicion of the ‘Red Feds’ by the oratory of Harry Holland and Peter Fraser, and as a student he became a friend of bookseller and New Zealand Labour Party secretary Walter Nash.

Student politics brought Campbell into contact with Professor Ernest Marsden, who in 1922 was appointed assistant director of education. Noticing Campbell’s untapped talents, Marsden drew them to the attention of Public Service Commissioner Paul Verschaffelt, who nominated him for a position in the office of the Reform Party prime minister, J. G. Coates. This was the turning point in Campbell’s life.

He took up his new appointment in June 1926 and found the environment stimulating and congenial. In July 1927 Victoria University College awarded him the Jacob Joseph Scholarship in economics and he enrolled at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In June 1929 his thesis on imperial preference earned him his PhD. In September 1928 he visited Scotland and the Isle of Skye, to renew links with a branch of his father’s family. There he met Mary Campbell; seven years later, on 12 December 1935, they were married in Edinburgh. They were to have two daughters and a son.

In September 1929 Campbell took up a Commonwealth Fund fellowship. Based at Cornell University and the Brookings Institution, he travelled widely through the United States to study technical assistance to farmers. Returning to Wellington in June 1931, Campbell served briefly on the secretariat of the abortive all-party Special Economic Committee. In September he resumed his position as private secretary when Coates became deputy to the prime minister of the coalition government, the United Party’s George Forbes.

It fell primarily to Coates to wrestle with the economic and social problems created by the depression and Campbell was his key, trusted advisor. His expert understanding of imperial trade was called upon when he accompanied Coates to the June 1932 Imperial Conference in Ottawa, where the dominions achieved an exemption from Britain’s recently introduced tariffs. Campbell also assisted Coates to address the problem of falling prices for New Zealand’s primary produce. The solution – devaluation, strongly opposed by the Treasury, banks and importers – was implemented in January 1933, along with statutory reductions in internal interest rates and rents.

Coates was appointed minister of finance and he relied on Campbell for innovative advice he could not get from the economically orthodox secretary to the Treasury, A. D. Park. In July 1933 Coates sent Campbell to London with Forbes to balance the influence of Treasury officials and resist British attempts to reduce dominion access to the home market. A second economist, W. B. Sutch, was added to Coates’s staff in 1933. The group of Campbell, Sutch and (from December 1934) Horace Belshaw was known as the ‘brains trust’, and was regarded with suspicion by those alarmed at Coates’s interventionist response to the depression.

Campbell left for London in February 1935. As economic advisor at the New Zealand High Commission he managed negotiations over access to the British market for New Zealand meat. During April and May of 1937 he accompanied Nash, now Labour’s minister of finance, on trade missions to Germany, Poland, Denmark and, controversially, the Soviet Union. Campbell was also on hand to assist in July 1939 when Nash succeeded in refinancing New Zealand’s debt with the London banks. In 1940 he was appointed official secretary, deputy to the high commissioner. Later he represented New Zealand at a number of the conferences that established the United Nations, on the United Nations Interim Commission on Food and Agriculture, and at the preliminary International Monetary Fund discussions in London.

Campbell’s service at the High Commission was marred by the animosity of the long-serving high commissioner, William Jordan. By mid 1945 Campbell was complaining of Jordan’s ‘hatred and frenzied abuse of me’. The volatile Jordan despised officials, and seemingly resented Campbell’s burgeoning reputation and confidential contacts with Peter Fraser and Nash. Campbell’s unhappy situation was finally resolved when Fraser appointed him the first chairman of the Public Service Commission in Wellington, inaugurated on 1 November 1946.

Inexperienced for this new role, Campbell relied heavily on Commissioner George Bolt in matters of personnel administration. The presence on the commission of a nominee of the New Zealand Public Service Association (PSA), Bert O’Keefe, was an unsuccessful experiment, and on sensitive personnel and industrial relations issues Campbell and Bolt acted as a ‘Commission of two’. Campbell proved to be a formidable opponent of the PSA during its most militant period, under Jack Lewin’s presidency. On Campbell’s recommendation and over the objections of the PSA, the association’s right to nominate a member of the commission was repealed in 1951. Some of Campbell’s initiatives aimed at reducing the protection of public servants from outside competition for appointments were, however, too contentious for successive governments to pursue.

As chairman of the Public Service Commission Campbell was too close to ministers to exercise personnel management with the complete independence required by the Public Service Act. When a staff member of the Prime Minister’s Department, George Fraser, wrote in a private capacity a criticism of American foreign policy, Campbell transferred him to the Department of Agriculture because of the embarrassment caused to Peter Fraser. In December 1948 Campbell dismissed Cecil Holmes, a National Film Unit film-maker, ostensibly for insubordination, after a satchel removed from his car revealed his Communist Party membership and his role in plans to defy a Public Service Commission ban on stop-work meetings. Campbell seems to have anticipated the wishes of the government in dismissing Holmes, a decision later overturned in court. Nevertheless, appointments, including senior appointments, were made independently.

Under Campbell the commission reduced the centralisation of personnel decision-making by authorising departments to exercise a wide range of powers. The public service manual was inaugurated and office inspections, to ensure procedural compliance, were emphasised. The commission also pursued what it called a ‘continuing drive to prune overgrown organisations … to cut out “red tape” ’. But Campbell was unable to convince ministers of the need for any substantial reform of the machinery of government.

After he resigned as chairman of the commission on 31 March 1953, Campbell returned to the role of official secretary at the High Commission in London. The respect in which he was held by British officials served New Zealand’s interests well. Once more engrossed in the struggle to sustain access to the British market for New Zealand’s primary produce, his other preoccupation was the planning of New Zealand House, the controversial modernist building in Haymarket, eventually opened in 1963. On his retirement as acting high commissioner in 1958, Campbell settled at Eastbourne, Sussex, now considering himself ‘more English than Antipodean’. He died on 17 November 1974 while on a visit to Edinburgh. He was survived by his wife and children.

Dick Campbell possessed a quick intelligence, a prodigious memory, energy and decisiveness, and had the facility to strike up immediate and lasting friendships with people of varied backgrounds. Despite an early association with the Labour Party, he was essentially apolitical and won the trust of politicians across the spectrum. He was also renowned for his creative and unorthodox sense of humour. Once, when visiting 10 Downing Street in the 1930s, Campbell wrote to a friend on some purloined letterhead writing-paper: ‘As you will see I have arrived at last. True, I am here only temporarily. But then who isn’t?’