Jack Kent Hunn, the eldest of three children, was born on 24 August 1906 in Masterton to Annie Peterson and her husband, Frederic John Hunn, a carriage painter by trade, who was managing a coach-building factory. Leaving Wairarapa High School in 1923, Jack joined the Public Trust Office in Wellington in 1924, and embarked on a part-time law degree, completing his LLB 12 years later. At the Public Trust he mainly administered estates. He transferred to Auckland in 1927 where, on 24 December 1932, he married Dorothy Alice Maude Murray, with whom he had two sons. While in Auckland he represented the university in rowing. He also set up the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Institute of Public Administration.
In 1940 he went, on promotion, to Wellington. Three years later the wily F. W. Millar, secretary of the New Zealand Public Service Association, persuaded him to become active in the association. Millar probably hoped that Hunn would counterbalance the radical group, led by J. P. Lewin, which was committed to making the too-compliant association into an effective union. Hunn, though he successfully opposed Lewin’s proposal to affiliate with the New Zealand Federation of Labour, worked energetically with the group on issues such as superannuation and the consultative committee on salaries.
Elected national president in 1945, Hunn found himself in direct and sometimes strained negotiation with the Labour prime minister, Peter Fraser, and, particularly, the minister of finance, Walter Nash. In spite of these tensions his subsequent relations with them, as with National prime ministers Sid Holland and Keith Holyoake, were cordial. But he believed that some other National Party ministers never forgot his PSA background. Although he fully supported the idea of a vigorously interventionist state working through a strong public service, Hunn never identified with any political party.
Hunn’s four stressful years on the PSA executive broadened his vision and enhanced his skills, but combined with senior responsibilities in the Public Trust, they imposed a severe strain on his health. On his appointment as an inspector in the Public Service Commission in 1946 he resigned from his presidency. In offering congratulations the PSA noted the advantage of having in these positions someone who had led it with such distinction. Less graciously, the Public Trust asked why he wanted to become ‘a glorified staff clerk’.
He joined the PSC at a time of change, accelerated when six months later Fraser announced the formation of a three-man commission, with the innovative and unpredictable R. M. Campbell as chairman. Hunn, first as inspector, responsible for 16 departments, later as assistant commissioner, expanded his knowledge of the service. His conviction that efficiency flowed from organisation and merit selection led him naturally into the area where his strengths lay, organisation and the improvement of methods, contributing greatly to the PSC’s evolution from being predominantly a personnel agency to one also concerned with organisation, review and training.
Hunn produced a wide variety of reports, including one, adopted 11 years later, which contributed to the formation of a national library. He relished overseas assignments, even the frustrating membership of a committee on the salary and conditions of United Nations staff, and his more enjoyable review of organisation and staffing at the South East Asian Treaty Organisation secretariat general in Bangkok.
With Campbell’s departure in 1953, Hunn, L. A. Atkinson and Frederick Baker in 1954 became commissioners under G. T. Bolt, and in 1958 Hunn became deputy chairman under Atkinson. The PSC had adopted the practice of appointing a commissioner as temporary head of a department where a review seemed appropriate. Hunn went in this capacity to the Departments of Justice, Internal Affairs and, in January 1960, Maori Affairs.
The prime minister and minister of Maori affairs, Walter Nash, concerned at the fragmentation of Maori land interests, asked Hunn to do an accounting of Maori assets. Hunn interpreted this as including human resources and commissioned studies on population, land settlement, housing, education, employment, health, land titles, legal differentiation and crime. He brought these together in a remarkably comprehensive and disturbing report on the current state of Maori, which he presented to Nash in August. Nash, preoccupied with winning the coming election – which he lost – did not read it. His successor as minister of Maori affairs, J. R. Hanan, an able politician with whom Hunn established excellent relations, published the report with his general endorsement.
Hunn, aware of his own limited contact with Maori, emphasised that the ideas in the report had been formulated as proposals for further discussion, not as precise recommendations. His suggestion that the review be repeated every five years further emphasised an evolutionary approach. The report received wide coverage and approval in the media, and from many Maori. Hunn argued that integration (rather than segregation or assimilation) was the current and only practical policy, accepted urbanisation as inevitable if unemployment was to be tackled, and favoured providing many services to Maori through other specialist departments, with Maori Affairs having ultimately a policy, promotional and monitoring role. The report was a product of its time, and contained little reference to the Treaty of Waitangi.
During his brief term Hunn made strenuous efforts by extensive travel and meetings to raise public awareness and to improve his contact with Maori, who came to respect his ability and commitment. The Maori Education Foundation (1961) and the New Zealand Maori Council (1963) were established, major advances were made in housing, and an emphasis was given to trade training. Most importantly, Hunn brought serious Maori problems to public attention.
In June 1963 Hunn, while on overseas leave, was asked to take the newly created post of secretary for defence. The government had decided to amalgamate the three small civilian departments that serviced the armed forces to create a single ministry; its secretary was to be the government’s adviser on all defence issues other than operational matters. Hunn reluctantly accepted, and before returning made extensive contact with defence authorities overseas. Discussions in Canada and with Lord Mountbatten, admiral of the fleet and chief of defence staff, in London, led him to favour the integration of the services themselves. Back in New Zealand the expected tension with the services occurred, but the civilian integration was completed and a Defence Act establishing the new regime was passed in 1964. When he raised the issue of integrating the services, opposition increased and Hunn felt there was a serious attempt to exclude him from areas properly his concern. This was a significant factor in his later decision to retire nine months early.
In 1964 New Zealand came under American pressure to contribute to the Vietnam War. There was concern about the deteriorating situation in Vietnam and the possible extension of communist influence to the south, but the main argument advanced by the Department of External Affairs was for a token contribution as part of its wider policy of securing America’s commitment to our defence against possible future threats. Hunn opposed military involvement, arguing that the threat to New Zealand was overstated, that it was wrong to support a corrupt and oppressive regime in what he saw as a civil war, and that a token effort would not secure America’s future support. His proposal to send only civilian aid failed, but New Zealand’s military aid was a non-combatant engineering unit. In 1965 pressure increased, Hunn argued for a non-combatant role, but that year an artillery unit was sent.
Some of Hunn’s arguments related to external affairs rather than defence, but he did not accept that in policy formation departmental boundaries should also be intellectual ones. By taking his isolated stance on Vietnam, Hunn deprived himself of political support in his organisational battles; but Vietnam involved principles, and he chose to fight on both fronts. His resignation, in November 1965, was widely regretted.
In retirement Hunn robustly propounded his views, notably on defence, in articles and in his autobiography. Moving to Waikanae, he became chairman of the Waikanae council and active in the Anglican church. He undertook numerous reviews and inquiries, the most important and satisfying of which was his chairmanship of the Fire Service Council, and later the Fire Services Commission (1973–77), where he moulded 277 fire brigades into a single national service. For this he was made a Knight Bachelor in 1976, having already been appointed a CMG in 1964. His wife, Dorothy, died in 1983, and on 1 June 1985 at Waikanae he married Mabel Henley Duncan (née Blamires). He died on 14 June 1997 at Kenepuru Hospital, Porirua, survived by Mabel and two sons from his first marriage, one of whom, Donald, was a senior public servant.
Jack Hunn had a reputation as a tough administrator. His outstanding characteristics were his moral courage and his zeal for reform. An avid reader with a wide-ranging mind, he held his opinions strongly but not dogmatically. His capacity to assemble and speedily analyse facts made him impatient when unduly protracted debate delayed action. In such cases he could become a reluctant listener. But impatience was necessary in a career which, after 22 years of excellent but largely anonymous service in the Public Trust, expanded into almost 15 important years in the PSC, and brief, sometimes stormy periods in Maori Affairs, Defence and the Fire Service. To all he made a distinguished contribution and commanded wide respect, even from some who strongly opposed him.