Herbert Leslie Bockett was born on 29 June 1905 in Opotiki to Charles Frederick Bockett and his wife, Lilian Mary Bridger, who farmed in the area. Bert and his twin brother, Arthur, were educated at Dilworth Ulster Institute and Seddon Memorial Technical College in Auckland. Both became accountants and joined the public service. Bert began in February 1921 as a cadet in the Land and Deeds Department, Wellington, but resigned in 1923 in order to live at home with his family in Opotiki and work as a law clerk. When his family moved to Auckland, he joined the Auckland district office of the Department of Labour in February 1924, again as a cadet. He studied part time, first for his matriculation, passing in 1925, and then for his accountancy professional examinations, which he passed in 1928 with excellent marks.
His potential was soon recognised and he was appointed clerk in charge of the Wellington office in 1925 and transferred to head office as a clerk in 1926. He was then loaned to the newly formed Transport Department in 1930, where he worked under the commissioner of transport, J. S. Hunter, and was highly regarded by him. Under Hunter’s patronage over the next 15 years Bockett was to move into increasingly influential positions. He joined the Unemployment Board as its accountant from 1932 to 1935, where he was considered very capable. Bockett married Constance Olive Ramsay at Wellington on 23 March 1932; they were to have two daughters.
In 1935 he returned to the Department of Labour as its accountant at head office. Here he became involved in the preparations for New Zealand’s social security scheme under the new Labour government. He was a member of the interdepartmental committee that reported on the general shape of the scheme in 1936–37, and which moderated Labour’s fiscally ambitious plans. One of his duties was to escort G. H. Ince, chief insurance officer of the British Ministry of Labour (who was in New Zealand to advise on unemployment provisions), around the country.
Bockett transferred to the new Social Security Department in April 1939 as its assistant director, Unemployment and Sickness Benefits Division. He became assistant director of the National Service Department on its formation in June 1940, responsible for industrial manpower. In April 1942 he assumed the title of controller of manpower, and in May 1944 he was appointed director of the National Service Department, soon to become the National Employment Service. Bockett was one of a young breed of energetic public servants who, during the war, had administered economic controls and stabilisation policy. He urged the necessity of planning for post-war reconstruction and the importance of full employment.
With the amalgamation of the National Employment Service and the Department of Labour in 1947, Bockett became secretary of labour and director of employment. He modernised the department and expanded its functions greatly. During the post-war period it had a central role in promoting full employment (including Maori employment and training), assisted immigration from Britain (from the late 1940s) and from the Netherlands (in the early 1950s), and initiatives in industrial health, safety and welfare. Other significant activities included government-promoted industry training and the Home Aid Service for women. In the course of his work Bockett travelled overseas extensively, being a regular official representative at International Labour Organisation conferences in Geneva while secretary for labour.
Bockett took a decisive role in industrial relations, an area new to him. He worked closely with his twin brother, Arthur (who chaired the Waterfront Industry Commission from 1948), in dealing with the disturbed waterfront. The Bockett twins enforced the government’s hard line against militant unionists during the 1951 waterfront dispute, and were reported as making a ‘formidable contribution’, having a direct and forceful approach and not getting stampeded or rattled. They subsequently received a personal letter from Prime Minister S. G. Holland, thanking them for bringing ‘wide administrative experience, commonsense and wise judgement to the solution of the problem’.
Although Bert Bockett, contrary to the role necessarily taken in 1951, generally believed in diminished state intervention, he was to see a strengthening of the state’s and his role in industrial disputes. In 1961, in the interests of maintaining the stability of industrial relations, he managed to persuade the National government to modify its attack on compulsory unionism and develop a system of unqualified preference, which required union membership for employment under awards; in the process, he salvaged the arbitration system.
Bockett was awarded a CMG for his services in 1961, and retired at the end of 1964. That year he was awarded the Olivier van Noort medallion by the Dutch government for his services to immigration.
In retirement he continued to serve on a range of public bodies. He had been appointed chairman of the Workers’ Compensation Board in 1960 and continued in this work until the board was disbanded in 1976. He was also chairman of the Industrial Advisory Council from 1960. He was a member of the Commission of Inquiry into Vocational Training and Apprenticeship of 1965, and in 1966 he was appointed to the royal commission whose report eventually led to New Zealand’s radical no-fault system of accident compensation.
Bockett died at Wellington on 17 October 1980, survived by his wife and daughters. A dedicated public servant, he had made a substantial contribution to the shaping of post-depression New Zealand.