Diplomat, economist, public servant, writer
Even before his arrest, trial and acquittal on spy charges in the 1970s, most New Zealanders had heard of Dr W.B. Sutch. He was – as his defence counsel claimed when arguing for name suppression – a prominent citizen, known for his work as an economist, writer, public servant and diplomat.
William Ball Sutch was born in England on 27 June 1907 and arrived in New Zealand agef eight months. After completing an MA and BCom at Victoria University College he was granted a fellowship to the Department of Economics at Columbia University in New York. After completing his PhD with a thesis on ‘Price fixing in New Zealand’ at Columbia in 1932, he used the balance of his grant money to travel through the United States, Europe, India and Afghanistan.
When Sutch returned to New Zealand in late 1932, the country was in the depths of the Depression. He was unemployed for a time but in early 1933 began relief teaching in Whanganui and Palmerston North. Later that year he was recruited to the ‘Brains Trust’, a group of talented economists and civil servants who advised the Minister of Finance, Gordon Coates. When Walter Nash took over as Minister after the 1935 election, Sutch began accompanying him as private secretary on trade negotiation visits to England, Germany and Russia.
Sutch continued to work for the Minister of Finance until 1941, when he moved to the Ministry of Supply. In June 1942 he entered the army, serving in New Zealand as a gunner and later a gunnery instructor. It was during this period that Sutch’s books Poverty and progress in New Zealand (1941) and The quest for security in New Zealand (1942) were published. Both were versions of a social history commissioned but rejected as a centennial publication in 1940. When he was discharged from the army in 1943 he returned to work for the government.
After the war Sutch took up posts with the United Nations, first in the Pacific and later in Europe. He returned to New Zealand in 1951 and worked at the Department of Industries and Commerce, rising to Permanent Secretary in 1958. After his retirement in 1965 he became a Director of the Reserve Bank and an economic consultant. In 1973 he was appointed Chair of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand. He returned to this position immediately after his acquittal but his health had worsened, and he died on 28 September 1975, almost a year to the day after his arrest.
Tributes flowed after Sutch’s death. Prime Minister Bill Rowling’s comment that Sutch’s career was ‘often controversial but more often [made] a real contribution to the development of New Zealand society’ was perhaps more muted praise than the long-serving public servant would have received a year earlier. But other commentators did not hold back, hailing Sutch as ‘a champion of New Zealand’ and a ‘man of vision’.
Despite his eventual acquittal and the tributes paid on his death, public memory of Sutch remains overshadowed by his arrest and trial. But his contribution to New Zealand has not been forgotten. Brian Easton contributed a brief biography of Sutch to the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. He also devoted two separate chapters to him in The Nationbuilders, a book of ‘essays on individuals and companies in the years from 1931 to 1984 who contributed in major ways to building a New Zealand nation’. General histories of New Zealand record his work as an economist, writer, public servant and diplomat.