Essington Lewis

This is from a fascinating article by Geoffrey Blainey in the Weekend Oz: As the Pacific theatre opened, the nation was ill-prepared. In the article he discusses Essington Lewis. This is what Blainey wrote about Lewis:

The leader of Australia’s industrial war-effort was Essington Lewis, an engineer and chief executive of BHP, whose extensive steelworks and allied factories were centred on Newcastle and Port Kembla.

Visiting Japan for a fortnight in 1934 and closely inspecting many workplaces that were out of bounds to journalists, Lewis was surprised to discover that Japan “was armed to the teeth”. In an emergency it could build 100 aircraft a day at a time when Australia had less than 50 active fighting planes.

Back in Melbourne he formed a syndicate called the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, which in 1939 built the first Australian military aircraft, a simple, lightly armed trainer-plane called the Wirraway. Later came fighter bomber aircraft that really held their own. It was remarkable that we mass-produced planes before we mass-produced cars, the first being the now-nostalgic Holden.

In 1940, Robert Menzies as prime minister had placed Lewis in charge of the nation’s industrial war-effort, and eventually a huge workforce of men and women were producing war equipment of a variety that surprised the few foreign industrialists who visited wartime Australia. Lewis, pre-modern in his business ethos, achieved this huge task without seeking payment from the government.

For five years Lewis wielded more power than the high medical officials whose diagnosis of the coronavirus pandemic we now hear each day. He shunned publicity but was known by sight to the hundreds of thousands of workers in munitions and aircraft factories and shipyards, for he inspected each site regularly and minutely.

And do let me emphasise this:

For five years Lewis wielded more power than the high medical officials whose diagnosis of the coronavirus pandemic we now hear each day.

Let me paraphrase what I take Blainey to have meant, and even if he didn’t it is what I understood.

For five years Lewis, who had spent many years at the highest levels in the private sector, wielded more power effectively and with positive purpose than the narrowly-educated and operationally useless medical officials who like the vast majority of the public sector have never spent a moment in a business environment, whose mistaken and highly damaging diagnosis of the coronavirus pandemic we now have to conform with each day much to our cost.

There is a lesson there, if only we could work out what it is.

1 thought on “Essington Lewis

  1. Pingback: Essington Lewis - The Rabbit Hole

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