Richard (Dick) Downing

Richard DowningPhoto: Matk Strizic

Richard Ivan (Dick) Downing (1915-1975), economist, was born on 13 March 1915 at Caulfield, Melbourne, second child of Horace Gleadow Downing, public servant, and his wife Blanche Pauline, née Domec-Carré, both Victorian born. When his father was transferred to Canberra with the Bureau of Census and Statistics in 1927, Dick remained in Melbourne with his mother, brother and sister. Educated at state schools and (from 1928) at Scotch College, Hawthorn, in 1932 he won a scholarship to the University of Melbourne (B.A. Hons, 1935). His studies ranged across history, commerce and law, but centred on economics, an interest he 'accidentally stumbled into' in 1929 and had confirmed for him by his awareness of the Depression.

The study of economics in Melbourne was enlivened by senior academics, most prominently (Sir) Douglas Copland and Lyndhurst Giblin, who participated in policy advice and public debate. In this environment Downing developed a lasting sense of the duty of economists to improve the world around them. At the end of his second year he became a part-time research-assistant to Giblin; following his graduation with first-class honours in economics, the position was made full time. Giblin encouraged Downing in the collection and analysis of statistics for understanding current problems and policy options. This emphasis shaped Downing's enduring fields of professional interest: macroeconomic policy, public finance, social welfare and wage policy, and demography. The last-mentioned area yielded his first publication, 'Forecasting the Age Distribution of Future Population', which appeared in the Economic Record in 1936. That year Downing encouraged W. B. Reddaway, who had arrived from Cambridge with page-proofs of J. M. (Baron) Keynes's The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), to give the talk that reputedly began the 'Keynesian revolution' in Australia.

During his years at university, and intermittently afterwards, Downing resided at Ormond College. He cut a striking figure there, already possessing those qualities which characterized him throughout his life: a deep, sonorous, modulated voice, fine and expressive features, a distinctive style and wit, but above all an earnest desire to convey intellectual understanding and moral concern. At Ormond he combined interest in music and theatre with study, and continued to do so at King's College, Cambridge, in 1938-39. Although Keynes was not giving regular lectures, Downing did attend his 'Monday Club'. Downing was more familiar with Michal Kalecki and met A. C. Pigou. At Cambridge he completed a diploma in economics and wrote a sub-thesis, 'The control of wages in Australia'. Before returning home in June 1939, he toured extensively in Europe with Dorian Le Gallienne, a friend from Melbourne who was studying music in London.

After a term as temporary lecturer in economics at the University of Western Australia, Downing was appointed lecturer at the University of Melbourne in 1940. Resuming old contacts, he was influential in persuading Sir George Beeby of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration to defer a basic-wage increase on condition that the Federal government introduce a child endowment scheme paid for by a payroll tax. In July 1941 Downing was summoned to Canberra to work as an assistant to Copland who had been appointed economic consultant to the prime minister. With Copland, he prepared drafts on wartime economic policy and price stabilization. Convinced that the war effort provided unprecedented opportunities to secure a wider conception of the 'national interest' and for 'giving justice to the people', Downing was also a member of the small group which drafted and revised sections of the white paper on full employment, published in 1945. Later that year, on Copland's recommendation, he joined the International Labour Organization at Montreal, Canada. The main product of this period with the I.L.O. was a report, Housing and Employment (1948).

Downing returned to Melbourne in 1947. After a short interlude in Canberra on secondment as acting chief economist to the Department of Post-war Reconstruction, he resumed lecturing in Melbourne on public finance, social accounts and statistical method. In 1950 he again joined the I.L.O., in Geneva, as assistant economic adviser. There he was involved in a diverse range of inquiries, including programmes of technical assistance in South East Asia and studies of international wages. He also completed a short textbook, National Income and Social Accounts (1951), which was to run to numerous editions. In 1954 Downing went back to Melbourne as Ritchie professor of economic research (Giblin's old chair).

For the next twenty-one years he adapted Giblin's legacy from times of uncertainty and restraint to the circumstances of affluence. In addition to his own research, Downing's activities encompassed some teaching and bouts of university administration (as chairman of the professorial board, 1968-70, and assistant vice-chancellor, 1969-74), the editorship of the Economic Record (1954-73), public comment on many issues, and advice to business and government. His central interest lay in promoting social welfare primarily through public policy, whether through the tax system (Taxation in Australia, 1964, with others), the reform of pensions (Raising Age Pensions, 1957), superannuation (National Superannuation, Adelaide, 1958) and medical and hospital benefits, or through public works and services, from transport to education. From 1962 the Institute of Applied Economic Research, which Downing had been instrumental in founding at the university, extended the tenor of these inquiries, particularly in relation to poverty. The dilemma faced by Downing in each of these areas was to frame policies which would secure specific equity objectives while advancing economic growth and without exacerbating inflation. He was concerned with balanced development, not only in the domestic context but also in relation to the Asian region.

Downing was always aware of the claims of conflicting sectional interests and of the need to mediate between them through public advocacy. Economists, he wrote, were trained to 'identify what we have to give up, and how much, in order to get a little more of something we want'. He admitted candidly that economics, as an 'instrument of human progress', relied on value judgements, and described himself as a 'poetic' or 'literary' economist; he was alarmed by what he saw as an increasing reliance on jargon in the discipline. To assist informed debate, in 1956 the Economic Record commenced publishing regular surveys of the Australian economy, the first written by Downing. Earlier that year he joined seven other senior economists in a public 'manifesto', recommending taxation and interest-rate increases to redress 'spendthrift prosperity'. Elected chairman of the Social Science Research Council of Australia in 1969 and president (1971-73) of its successor, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, he also adapted this platform to foster greater co-ordination and public awareness of research. He wrote frequently for (and to) the press, as well as for economic journals; conferences, lectures and addresses were some of his routine engagements.

While advocating substantial reforms in the 1950s and 1960s, Downing praised the 'real social advance' that had occurred since the 1930s, and was essentially an optimistic commentator on Australia's economic prospects. He described himself as 'not political'; he had 'little respect' for the Menzies governments and was wary of Labor's narrowness and inexperience. In 1949, however, following an approach from Richard Gavin (Baron) Casey, he drafted with Benjamin Higgins (then Ritchie professor) the economic platform of the Liberal Party of Australia?as much out of a sense of the need for broader policy debate as in direct support of the party. Similarly, and more openly, in 1972 he signed, with sixteen others, a letter to the national press urging a vote for E. G. Whitlam. Again, he confided that he signed on 'democratic principle' rather than 'relative merits'. The election of Whitlam's Labor government brought Downing further opportunities to pursue his interest in Australian culture and the arts. Having served on the boards of the Melbourne Theatre Company, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Ballet School, early in 1973 he joined the Australian Council for the Arts.

In June that year Downing was appointed chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. He took to this position with vigour and was soon embroiled in controversy as the A.B.C. itself was adjusting to social change. If he was 'instinctively opposed' to artistic novelty for its own sake, Downing had little tolerance of censorship. He sought instead an 'adventurous, innovative and informing' broadcasting service which would correspond to the diversity of contemporary society. By upholding the broadcasting of material dealing directly and realistically with sexuality, violence and obscene language, he generated considerable criticism both within the A.B.C. and publicly. Yet, at the same time as he was encouraging cultural tolerance, he expressed concern as an economist that a lack of 'self-restraint' evident in the inflationary pressures of 1974-75 might lead to 'a breakdown of the very real achievements on which continued economic growth depends', threatening democracy itself.

Outwardly gregarious, Downing also valued his privacy. In 1948 he and Le Gallienne had jointly bought 300 acres (121 ha) of bushland at Eltham with the intention of building a weekend retreat. Such was their attraction to the area that they lived there in a mud-brick house designed for them by Alistair Knox. Over the years more land was acquired to secure it from developers. During extensive international travels, Downing maintained broad interest in theatre, music, film and opera, yet he delighted in the bush and proclaimed himself to be 'fiercely?not proud, just pleased to be Australian'. Following Le Gallienne's death in 1963, Downing lived alone. On 15 February 1965 at Littlejohn Memorial Chapel, Scotch College, he married Jean Olive Norman, née McGregor, a widow and mother of six children. They joined him at Eltham. A daughter was born in 1967.

Chairing the A.B.C. was a stimulating experience for Downing, but it was demanding and allegations of political partiality distressed him. Added to other commitments, among them the chairmanship (1972-75) of the Ormond College council and a directorship (1971-75) of the Gas and Fuel Corporation of Victoria, it sometimes left him 'past exhaustion'. After attending an A.B.C. concert in Canberra, Downing died of a coronary occlusion on 10 November 1975 at Acton and was cremated. His wife and daughter survived him, as did his four stepsons and two stepdaughters. Tributes were legion: they referred to him as one of the founders of the welfare state in Australia and to 'the singular warmth and force of his personality'. A fellowship in his memory was established at the University of Melbourne to bring international scholars in social economics to Australia.

H. W. Arndt and Nicholas Brown for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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