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Mair, Robert James (1892–1963)

by Jonathan Craig

Robert Mair, 1957

Robert Mair, 1957

Robert James Mair (1892–1963), public servant, was born on 12 October 1892 in Fitzroy North, Victoria. He was the youngest of four children of John Mair, butcher, and his wife Ellen E. Mair, née Glanford. He commenced his career in the Commonwealth Public Service in 1906 as a telegraph messenger and trained as an accountant at night school. Colleagues in the postal service who joined shortly after federation included the future Commissioner of Taxation Sir Patrick McGovern and the future director-general of Posts and Telegraphs Sir Giles Chipindall. In the Melbourne office of the Postmaster-General’s Department he met Philomene Brickley (d.1986), a co-worker, whom he married on 6 October 1925 in Elwood, Victoria.

After serving in the Postmaster-General’s Department and the electoral branch for 10 years, Mair was transferred to the taxation branch as a clerk in 1916. He transferred into the taxation branch as one of a group of volunteers from other divisions of the public service for the purpose of forming a temporary staff to assist in financing the First World War by collecting a temporary federal income tax. Like many others, he considered that income tax was to be imposed only for the duration of the war and that his transfer would only be temporary. He was to spend the rest of his career in the taxation branch.

Mair became senior assessor in central office, Victoria, in 1927 and was promoted to deputy commissioner in the administrative office at Canberra in 1936. He was promoted to deputy commissioner of Taxation, Queensland (taxes other than income tax) in 1943, but the exigencies of the administration precluded him from remaining in that position when he took it up in 1945. He visited London in 1945 as a member of a departmental delegation. In 1946 he was appointed second commissioner of Taxation after commissioner Lawrence Jackson declined reappointment and McGovern was elevated from second commissioner to commissioner.

In the same year Mair was called to London at 24 hours’ notice as the commissioner’s representative for discussions with officials of the Board of Inland Revenue. Specifically, he was the departmental negotiator who worked with prime minister Ben Chifley in making the post-war single tax agreement with Britain. This agreement was one of the most significant of all accelerators behind the increasing stream of private investment capital from London to the Commonwealth. Mair was reappointed to a second term as second commissioner in 1953 and was appointed O.B.E. in 1956. He served twice as acting commissioner during McGovern's absences.

Mair also had a leading role in the negotiations leading to the pay-as-you-earn tax system which was adopted by the Chifley government. He explained at the time of his retirement in 1957 that 'This shrewd move enabled the Commonwealth to collect five quarters of income tax in one year, under the claim that it was actually remitting three quarters of the year’s taxation to Australian taxpayers.’

Mair succeeded in lifting the reputation of the Commonwealth Public Service. Sir Arthur Fadden said that his career ‘contributed, in no small measure to the preservation and advancement of that fine sense of public duty which has become the established tradition of the Commonwealth Public Service.’ Sir Arthur praised his ‘unvarying consciousness of public service and the human understanding’ which marked his career and noted that he had discharged his duties with ‘outstanding distinction.’ Similarly, McGovern described him as being ‘skilled in all phases of Australian taxation’ and stated that his ‘devotion to duty is exemplary.’

On some occasions, Mair was mistaken around Canberra for Sir Robert Menzies due to his facial features and presence which some considered to be strikingly similar. He was an Associate of the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants (A.C.I.A.) (later the Australian Society of Accountants) and was an active member of the Royal Canberra Golf Club and Canberra (Forrest) Bowling Club. However, in later years he suffered from gout and often required the use of two walking sticks to move around. Survived by his wife and three daughters, Mair died on 23 January 1963. After a memorial service at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Canberra, he was cremated and buried at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium, Sydney.

Bibliography
E. H. Cox, ‘Man Who Helped to Start Tax’, Herald (Canberra), 11 October 1957, p 7 

National Archives of Australia: Department of Treasury, Central Office; Australian Taxation Office, Head Office, A6899, Mair R. J., 1916 – 57, letter to Robert Mair from Arthur Fadden, 19 September 1957

National Archives of Australia: Department of Treasury, Central Office; Australian Taxation Office, Head Office, A6899, Mair R. J., 1916 – 57, letter of recommendation by Patrick McGovern, ‘Honours List – New Year 1954 – Recommendation by the Commissioner of Taxation’

Who’s Who in Australia, Herald and Weekly Times Ltd, 1947

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Citation details

Jonathan Craig, 'Mair, Robert James (1892–1963)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/mair-robert-james-28996/text36268, accessed 18 January 2022.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012