What did the Vernon report say?
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What did the Vernon report say?

A summary of the 1965 report of the committee of economic enquiry.

One feature of the Vernon report that gives its age away is the lack of an executive summary. The closest the report comes to helping a busy reader come to terms quickly with its contents are sections at the end of various chapters labelled "conclusions" or "general conclusions".

The committee was appropriately named "the committee of economic enquiry". "Having in mind that the objectives of the government's economic policy" were, inter alia, "a high rate of economic and population growth with full employment", the committee's task was one of enquiry and report on a range of specified matters, including trends in population, physical resources, overseas investment in Australia, trends in costs, prices and wages, trends in the standard of living, the situation with respect to the external balance of payments, imports and exports, and "the effect of customs tariffs and other forms, direct or indirect, of protection on the disposition of resources".

Former CSR chairman managing director Sir James Vernon (left) in 1983, receiving an honour from the Japanese ambassador.

Former CSR chairman managing director Sir James Vernon (left) in 1983, receiving an honour from the Japanese ambassador.

One analyst (Professor R. I. Downing, of Melbourne University), who essayed a summary of what the report had to say, described its findings on physical resources thus: "Australia's economic future will be determined then, not by any shortage of resources, but by good luck, particularly in external economic relations, and by good management and willingness to save for capital formation."

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On migration, the report proposed "a long-term average rate of net migration at 100,000 a year for at least the next few years, significantly more than the long-term average of the last 15 years".

The report also expected that "the proportion of women in the workforce is going to increase substantially". The likely growth of tertiary industries would make it easier to absorb the growing proportion of women in the work force.

One conclusion of special interest in retrospect was that: "Aggregate demand in 1974-75 is likely to exceed aggregate supply, implying over-full employment, inflation, pressure for more imports and reduction of supplies available for export."

In the expectation that public investment would continue to play a large part in total capital formation, the report proposed a special projects commission "with power to investigate proposals for major development projects" and equipped with a skilled staff to carry out cost-benefit analyses, which the committee considered basic to project planning.

The report, however, rejected a national economic plan for Australia.

It was highly ambivalent about the tariff: "It cannot be said with certainty that the tariff has ensured higher total incomes or incomes per head than might have been possible under some alternative system."

But free trade with devaluation would probably not have been practicable. "The tariff has been important in the expansion and increased diversity of industry, the development of labour skills, the advance of technology, the ability to absorb a rapid increase in population, involving a high rate of immigration, and the steady increase in capital investment essential to all these achievements."

Economist Max Corden began an attempt to summarise the report's findings on the tariff thus: "For one reason or another, the tariff in general has been either a Good Thing or cannot be proven to have been a Bad Thing."

The report's most famous recommendation was the creation of an advisory council on economic growth to review the economy's experience and prospects of growth, and to provide a forum for debate, consultation and communication about various matters concerning the economy.

J. R. Nethercote is an adjunct professor at the Australian Catholic University's Canberra campus. john.nethercote@anu.edu.au