Eddie Foxcroft was a very senior federal public servant in Canberra in the Menzies era. Such a bald description conveys a sense of greyness which would be misleading because he had an interesting back story. His contribution to government and opinion was bookended by two very different acts of intervention in the field of Aboriginal affairs.
Edmund John Buchanan Foxcroft was born in Melbourne in 1915. His father worked at the Melbourne Public Library where he started off as a messenger and ended up as the assistant librarian.
Foxcroft entered Melbourne University in 1934 and graduated three years later with a first-class honours degree specialising in history and political science. He was obviously very bright. According to a fellow undergraduate (the young Manning Clark) Foxcroft "had all the gifts to rise to a place of prominence in the world".
Foxcroft stayed on at Melbourne University after graduating. For a while he was a college tutor. In 1938 he obtained a master of arts degree. His thesis dealt with official policy relating to First Nations communities since white colonisation, particularly in Victoria.
If ever there was a tyranny of silence about Indigenous Australians at this time Foxcroft was having no part of it. He was keen to publicise his research into Indigenous issues.
Foxcroft summarised his completed but still unpublished postgraduate thesis in a lecture delivered to the Anthropological Society of Victoria in the winter of 1938.
Since the 1830s, Foxcroft's audience was informed, a succession of public authorities in Victoria, had presided over the breakdown of Indigenous society and its rapid depopulation. Before whites came Indigenous Australians had adapted to their environment and had developed a distinctive culture. But white settlement and conquest shattered their territorial and tribal arrangements and fatally disrupted their food supplies. Government authorities could do nothing to halt this process.
The latest anthropological research, Foxcroft contended, confirmed the enduring importance and value of Indigenous hunting and gathering practices (so he was no early Bruce Pascoe). Such a culture had to be respected and preserved.
Foxcroft was well-equipped to build on these ideas but for a while his immersion in policy-related research led him into other fields. In 1938, as the prospect of another world war loomed, he contributed to a book edited by senior academic William Macmahon Ball which examined Australian media coverage of international events.
In 1939 Foxcroft's plans were centred on his going to Oxford University where he intended to conduct research into the influence of the British Dominions on imperial foreign policy. He was due to set sail at the end of August but the declaration of war meant he had to stay at home after his ship was commandeered for the war effort.
Unable to leave wartime Melbourne, Foxcroft continued on as a part-time lecturer in political science at the university.
Because he did not get to Oxford Foxcroft had the time, in 1941, to publish his MA thesis. The resulting book, Australian Native Policy, detailed his understanding of the best way to match anthropology and policy.
Aboriginal people in Australia, he suggested, were hunters who needed access to large remote areas of land to live on. It was destructive to force them into close settlements in an effort to teach them the imported ways of agriculture and Christianity.
Foxcroft's analysis of colonial dispossession received serious attention from academic commentators in Australia and the United States. His standing was further enhanced when a government member of federal parliament, Senator Dorothy Tangney, praised his book as a source of unbiased information.
Foxcroft, in publicising his book, stated it was his belief "our still considerable native population should be given a new deal".
This reference to President Roosevelt's heroic New Deal in the United States fell on deaf ears in Canberra, however. None of Senator Tangney's parliamentary colleagues shared her enthusiasm for his views. Aboriginal policy initiatives did not figure much at all in the agenda of the Curtin and Chifley governments.
Despite such inertia, Foxcroft was still well-placed academically. Melbourne's was the only university Department of Political Science operating in wartime Australia. The federal government saw it as a valuable national resource. It was tasked with training key administrative staff for the war effort.
Melbourne's political scientists soon divined they did not have to limit themselves to training future senior public servants. Their skill set meant they could become wartime mandarins themselves.
In 1944 Foxcroft joined the Department of War Organisation of Industry. In 1947, now a permanent officer, he moved on to the Department of Post-War Reconstruction.
In 1948 Foxcroft moved to Canberra. A year later he became an assistant secretary in the Department of Immigration. By 1954 he had transferred to the Prime Minister's Department.
By this time Cold War attitudes had kicked in. Extreme political discretion was the order of the day among academics and Canberra bureaucrats alike.
In 1940, when everything was unsettled, Foxcroft had once spoken under the auspices of the Left Book Club.
But in the 1950s any sign of divergence was unwise. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation was keen to hoover up the slightest sign of misguided intellectuality.
A prime example of ASIO's keenness in keeping tabs on Foxcroft and his immediate family in Canberra occurred just before Christmas in 1954 when an ASIO officer diligently reported Foxcroft's wife Rosalind had visited Mrs Dymphna Clark to borrow her copy of Martin Boyd's novel Lucinda Brayford, this copy having previously been borrowed by the researcher Russell Ward, a former Communist Party member.
ASIO was ever doubtful about Foxcroft's association with free-spirited people such as Dymphna and Manning Clark but could uncover absolutely no evidence of disloyalty on his part.
At the start of 1962 Foxcroft's career progression was still stellar. He was a first assistant secretary in the Prime Minister's Department and also was acting as the official secretary to federal cabinet. He was engaged in negotiations to do with the European Common Market.
On January 8, 1962, newspaper reports belatedly indicated prime minister Robert Menzies had appointed an interim council in the lead-up to the permanent establishment of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Foxcroft, who had advised Menzies on its establishment, was a member of the interim AIAS council.
On the following day Menzies informed the media an Australian delegation was attending the second Commonwealth Education Conference, which was about to begin in New Delhi. Foxcroft was one of our delegates.
But the ever upward trajectory was about to end. While in India Foxcroft contracted dysentery. He was "extremely debilitated" when he made it back to Australia. His return to his public service duties was delayed by a month's absence.
Once he was back at his desk work as a key advisor resumed as normal. In this capacity Foxcroft on April 30, 1962 sent a briefing note to prime minister Menzies which was duly studied. Two days previously the AIAS interim council had knocked back an application for research funding from Fred Rose, an Australian anthropologist who, since 1956, had worked at an East German university and was now eager to resume fieldwork in northern Australia.
The purpose of Foxcroft's note was to advise the prime minister on how best to respond should allegations of interference in academic funding be raised in federal parliament. Foxcroft suggested to avoid getting involved in controversy the prime minister "should not show any knowledge of the fact of rejection". Menzies was happy to comply.
Soon after, on May 17, Foxcroft commenced a period of annual leave. There had though been no real recovery in his health situation. He died suddenly, of a heart attack, on May 24, 1962, aged 46.
In 1962 Foxcroft's very recent role in the treatment of Fred Rose stood in contrast to the far more open approach that had characterised his involvement in Aboriginal studies at the very start of his career as a policy person. An element of liberality does seem to have been stifled by Cold War pressures. The impressiveness of his earlier initiative in seeking a new deal for Aboriginal communities still shines through, though.
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