Federal Politics


Canberrans who steered the course of Australia

Alex Millmow looks at the latest volume of the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Now that the politicians have made their great exodus, Canberra will see academics, free from exam marking and administration, arriving to resume their research.

Canberra is, in many ways, the scholarly centre of Australia with the jewels of the Australian National University, the National Library of Australia and the National Archives all within easy reach.

December is the month, too, when the release of the federal cabinet papers covering the years 1984 and 1985 will be discussed, starting on Tuesday. And on Thursday, another volume of the Australian Dictionary of Biography will be released. It will be freely available online next week. This volume, the 18th, covers noteworthy Australians who died between 1981 and 1990.

The idea of a national biographical dictionary came from Australia's university history departments in 1966, but it was the ANU that prompted the project, which is managed by the history department within the Research School of Social Sciences.

Three distinguished Canberrans, none born there, are just some of the cavalcade of characters covered by the biographical dictionary. Two of them were economists who rose to international eminence, while the other became one of Robert Menzies' ''Seven Dwarfs'' who dominated the Commonwealth public service in the postwar era.

Richard Randall began his working life as a wool-classer, acquiring accountancy qualifications by correspondence. He began to submit articles for publication in Smith's Weekly and was eventually appointed finance editor. He also flew Tiger Moths and offered joy flights at country shows, but it was not good enough for him to join the RAAF during the war. He joined Treasury and never looked back.


The ANU economics historian, Selwyn Cornish, who wrote the entry on Randall, summed him up as ''a typical Australian of his generation, self-effacing, modest, laconic, with a dry sense of humour''.

He continued to roll his own cigarettes, enjoyed a glass of beer for lunch at the bar of the Civic Hotel in Canberra or at Royal Canberra Golf Club, caught the bus to work, wrote with a broad-nibbed fountain pen and spoke in monosyllables.

Roland Wilson recalled: ''We used to lunch together at the golf club, and Dick mostly talking in grunts rather than normal sentences.''

Randall played golf at Royal Canberra and also loved the bush, often heading for the hills around Canberra to fish in the trout streams.

Randall succeeded his boss, Wilson, as secretary to the Treasury in 1966. Cornish noted that the two Treasury officials shared the same view on long-term economic policy, quoting a document Randall wrote in 1958: ''If growth is kept up it provides a sustaining force of undoubted strength. That is the great lesson from the postwar period. All through those years, the Australian economy has been borne along on a strong, persistent urge to grow, which has enabled it to surmount adversities, whether of external or internal origin.''

Those who might agree with that sentiment included two of Australia greatest economists.

Edward Ronald Walker was an economist who earned only the second PhD in economics awarded at Cambridge in 1933. Before his doctorate, Walker had already concluded that during the Great Depression the policy of general wage cuts would fail to stimulate activity and reduce unemployment. Rather than cutting wages, he recommended expenditure on public works as a remedy for chronic unemployment.

He returned home to become the country's most ardent Keynesian economist.

He left academic life in 1942 when he was appointed chief economic adviser and deputy director-general of the Department of War Organisation of Industry. He also became a member of the group of economists who planned the economics behind the Australian war effort and also in formulating policies for the postwar era.

Walker spent the rest of his career as a diplomat.

By all accounts, Australia's greatest economist, Trevor Swan, took up the first chair in economics at the department of economics at the ANU. The university had to wrestle him from the federal government, where, in a number of positions, bar the Treasury, he developed statistical procedures for the efficient deployment of manpower, drafted key passages of the 1945 white paper on full employment and contributed to the successful demobilisation of servicemen and women. He also formulated economic policy to deal with postwar inflation.

In this brief account of his life, Cornish suggests Swan's prodigious capacity for work during the war and immediate postwar years impaired his long-term health.

It was not in policy advice but the academy that Swan made his reputation.

He made two major theoretical contributions - one on a long-term growth model and the other on the macro-economic management of a trade-dependent economy with three policy objectives and three policy instruments.

The essential elements of this latter work were elegantly captured in a diagram named after him. These two contributions might have won him the Nobel prize in economics or at least a share in one, but Swan did not help matters by exclusively publishing his work in Australian economic journals.

There was also a paucity of output over the 30 years he was at the ANU, which was attributable to Swan's ill health and mania for perfection.

Alex Millmow is a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Ballarat.