HC 'Nugget' Coombs with former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1981.

One of the Seven Dwarfs – HC 'Nugget' Coombs – with former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1981.

Life sentences: Canberra's Seven Dwarfs

The Australian Dictionary of Biography's DR SAMUEL FURPHY explores the stories of seven nation-shaping public servants.

Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey. For most people this is unmistakably a list of Snow White's Seven Dwarfs. 

But if you were to ask a certain type of Canberran to supply such a list, you might receive a different response. 

For in the history and folklore of Australia's Commonwealth Public Service, the Seven Dwarfs refers to an influential group of senior administrators who rose to prominence (if not to a great physical height) during and after the Second World War. 

The precise membership of this exclusive group is often debated but a commonly cited line-up is HC (Nugget) Coombs, Roland Wilson, John Crawford, Allen Brown, Henry Bland, Richard Randall and Frederick Shedden.

Some would substitute Stan Carver for Shedden, including Bland, who cited a 1947 working party chaired by Prime Minister Ben Chifley as the formative context. 

If Bland is correct, logic suggests Chifley was Snow White but, as all the dwarfs served well beyond the election of the Coalition Government in 1949, Robert Menzies must also be a candidate.