Date of Passing: 29/04/2002
Sir Leslie Melville, Honorary Fellow of the Academy, and former Chair of the Social Science Research Council of Australia (SSRC), died on 30 April 2002, scarcely a month after celebrating his 100th birthday. His career occupied six decades and embraced a significant and diverse range of activities on several continents.
A graduate of the University of Sydney in economics, he was the inaugural Professor of Economics at the University of Adelaide, the first economist appointed to the Commonwealth Bank (then Australia’s central bank), Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, and chair of the Australian Tariff Board and the Commonwealth Grants Commission. He was an architect of Australia’s policies to combat the depression of the 1930s, helped to design the nation’s war economy, and formulated and promoted domestic and international programs of post-war reconstruction. He was one of the small group of Australians who established economics as a major subject of study in Australian universities in the 1920s and advised governments on economic policy from the 1920s to the 1940s.
Leslie Galfreid Melville was born in Sydney on 26 March 1902. His father was a bank manager whose forebears had come to Australia from Ulster. He attended primary schools in Rose Bay and Darlinghurst, and then won a scholarship to the Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) at North Sydney. So proficient was he at mathematics that he was often known among his contemporaries as the ‘Isaac Newton of Shore’. In his matriculation year he topped the state in mathematics. From Shore, he went to the University of Sydney to study engineering. But he was soon persuaded by the Professor of Mathematics, Professor Carslaw, to become an actuary and was offered part-time work in the office of the government superannuation board. He switched his course to science, and then to economics, which he could study part-time and combine it with mathematics and statistics. His teachers at the University of Sydney included RF Irvine, RC Mills and FC Benham. He graduated with first class honours in 1925.
While Melville was a student of economics at the University of Sydney, he commenced to study for professional qualifications by correspondence through the London Society of Actuaries. At the age of 21, and before he had completed either his economics degree (which he continued by external study) or his actuarial studies, he was appointed Public Actuary of South Australia. His major duties were to administer the public service superannuation scheme and regulate private schemes. But he was frequently called upon by the South Australian government to advise it on economic matters, so he became in effect the first economist appointed at a senior level in any Australian government service. He played a prominent part in the Financial Agreement of 1927, and gave evidence on Commonwealth-State economic and financial matters in 1928 before the Royal Commission on the Australian Constitution, and again in 1929 before the Royal Commission on the Finances of South Australia as Affected by Federation.
In 1929 he was appointed Professor of Economics at the University of Adelaide. Though he had lectured part-time for some years in statistics, he was reluctant to apply for the chair in economics, and did so after applications had closed, on the prompting of the Vice- Chancellor, Sir William Mitchell. As the only permanent member of the Department of Economics, he taught all three years of economics, together with the course in economic statistics. In addition, he gave public lectures on the economic problems facing Australia and the measures that needed to be taken to restore stability.
He left the University of Adelaide in March 1931 when he was appointed to the newly created post of Economist – later Economic Adviser – to the Commonwealth Bank. There he established the Bank’s Economic Department for the purpose of conducting economic research and furnishing advice to the Governor and the Board of the Bank. The Economic Department under Melville’s direction soon became one of the nation’s leading centres for economic research. Before he joined the Bank, he had participated with other economists in furnishing advice to the government on how to cope with the depression. He was a member of the Copland Committee, appointed in 1931 to advise the Australian Loan Council; it was this committee that formulated the so-called Premiers’ Plan. The following year he was appointed to the Wallace Bruce Committee, which reviewed the progress of the Premiers’ Plan at the invitation of the Prime Minister, JA Lyons. Later in 1932 he attended the Imperial Economic Conference at Ottawa, as adviser to the Governor of the Commonwealth Bank, and in 1933 he attended the World Economic Conference in London, as adviser to the leader of the Australian delegation, SM Bruce.
As the possibility of war grew, the government commenced to plan for a wartime economy. It appointed a committee of economists – the Financial and Economic Advisory Committee (the F and E Committee) – to advise it on economic matters. Melville was one of the three original members of this significant committee. It was here that strategies for financing the war were prepared. Another aspect of its work, in which Melville played a defining role, was the formulation of Australia’s response to Article 7 of the Mutual Aid Agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom, and subsequently between the United States and
Australia. As a result of this work he was chosen to lead the Australian delegation to the important British Commonwealth talks on finance and trade in London in early 1944. Later the same year he was appointed by Prime Minister Curtin to lead the Australian delegation to the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference at Bretton Woods, at which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank were created.
Following the war, Melville was appointed to the Investment and Employment Committee, the powerful committee chaired by the Prime Minister, which had been recommended in the 1945 white paper on Full Employment Policy for the purpose of implementing the policy directions outlined in the white paper. In 1946 he observed the first meeting of the governors of the IMF and World Bank in Savannah, Georgia, as the representative of Australia. Between 1947 and 1950 he was appointed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations to chair the Economic and Social Council’s sub-committee on Employment and Economic Stability.
In 1948 his career suffered a setback when the Prime Minister and Treasurer, JB Chifley, nominated Dr HC Coombs for the position of Governor of the Commonwealth Bank. Coombs himself believed that the position should have been Melville’s, and had argued without success in favour of Melville in discussions with the Prime Minister. The decision was a political one, motivated in part by Chifley’s disappointment over the rebuff to his plans to nationalise the private banks. Melville was appointed Assistant Governor (Central Banking), declining offers to become Ritchie Research Professor of Economics at the University of Melbourne, and inaugural Director of the Research School of Social Sciences at the new national university in Canberra; earlier he had narrowly missed out to Copland in the selection for ANU’s first Vice- Chancellor. He decided to take a year off from his duties at the Bank to familiarise himself with the latest mathematical and econometric techniques in economics and to work on the draft of a book which attempted to apply dynamics to economic theory. His sabbatical year came to an end in late 1950 when he was appointed
Executive Director for Australia and other countries at the IMF and World Bank in Washington. There he became a powerful advocate for the immediate convertibility of sterling and related currencies. When he retired from the Commonwealth Bank on his return to Australia in 1953 to succeed Copland as the ANU’s second Vice Chancellor, Coombs wrote to him saying that ‘in the years you were with the Bank, you made a contribution to the theory and practice of central banking which is without equal in the world’.
At the ANU Melville continued the work of his predecessor to create a university of international stature. By the end of his seven year term this had largely been achieved. One of his final and most difficult tasks was to negotiate the amalgamation of the ANU with Canberra University College. In Canberra he resumed his career as one of Australia’s leading economic advisers; he wrote articles on policy issues, was appointed to government advisory committees, reoccupied his seat on the board of the Commonwealth Bank, and attended the biannual meetings in Sydney of university economists with the governor of the Bank. When his term as Vice-Chancellor expired in 1960 he was appointed by Prime Minister Menzies to the Tariff Board as its chairman. This was always going to be a difficult assignment for one who strongly believed that Australia’s tariff protection was excessive and that tariff making required a rational rather than an emotional approach. After two years of considerable turbulence he resigned following irreconcilable differences with the Minister for Trade, John McEwen.
Thereafter, until his effective retirement in the late 1970s, he worked first as a consultant to the Development Advisory Service of the World Bank in Washington, leading missions to the Arab Republic of Syria and to the Philippines, where he was stationed for two years. Then he undertook a number of Australian government assignments, including inquiries into Wages and Industry in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea; the Oil Industry’s Terms and Conditions for the Refining of Indigenous Crude Oil; the Treasurer’s Proposals for a New Superannuation Scheme for Australian Government Employees; and the Commonwealth Committee of Enquiry on Health Insurance. He had been appointed to the Reserve Bank Board in 1959 and remained a member until 1974. He joined the Commonwealth Grants Commission, and for eight years was its chairman. For most of this time he held a Visiting Fellowship in the Department of Economics at the ANU’s Research School of Pacific Studies. There he participated actively in seminars and occasionally presented papers.
Melville was a person of his time and social circumstances. Born in the second year of Federation, he worked for most of his life in institutions established by the Commonwealth. He possessed a restrained temperament, was earnest, and never sought the limelight. He distrusted flamboyance and excessive exuberance, and was quick to condemn opinions and actions that appeared to him to be irresponsible. He never doubted his own abilities, which were substantial, and never shied away from responsibility, which had been thrust upon him at a remarkably early age. He continued throughout his career to regard himself primarily as an economist and was proud of the respect with which economics and economists had come to be held within Australia by the middle of the 20th century. He served as President of the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand (later the Economic Society of Australia), and was President of Section G (Economics) of ANZAAS. He was awarded the CBE in 1953, created KBE in 1957, and honorary degrees were conferred upon him by the ANU and the Universities of Sydney and Toronto. He was elected Distinguished Fellow of the Economic Society of Australia upon his 90th birthday in 1992. He was a Fellow of both the Institute of Actuaries (London) and the Institute of Actuaries (Australia). In 1943 he was elected a Fellow of the SSRC (he was a member of the first group of Fellows), and was its chairman from 1953 to 1958. He became an Honorary Fellow of the Academy in 1979. He was the author of more than thirty published articles, lectures, reports and submissions to public enquiries, but the bulk of his writing is to be found unpublished in memoranda at the archives of the Reserve Bank in Sydney and at the National Archives in Canberra.
(A version of this obituary appeared in the ANU Reporter on 24 May 2002).