Date of Passing: 01/03/2000
Russell Mathews, a Fellow of this Academy from its inception in 1972, and of its predecessor, the Social Science Research Council of Australia since 1959, died in Canberra on 1 March, 2000 after a short illness. Educated in Melbourne, Russell held academic posts at the University of Adelaide before taking up the chair of Accounting and Public Finance at the Australian National University in 1965 and the Directorship of its Centre for Research on Federal Financial Relations from its inception in 1972 to 1986, the year of his retirement. During his long academic career, Russell published extensively – initially in the field of accounting, then more generally in public finance topics, especially taxation, and, from the early 1970s, topics associated with fiscal federalism. He also acted on several occasions as a member of government inquiries, at both the federal and the territory level, investigating issues in accounting, taxation, education and land tenures, and he became the longest serving member (18 years) of the Commonwealth Grants Commission (from December 1972 to January 1990).
Russell Mathews was born on 5 January 1921 at Geelong (Victoria), the son of Percival Mathews and Rose Mathews (nee Goslin). He early on showed signs of things to come with respect to academic and scholarly brilliance. He won a scholarship from Sandringham State School to Hayleybury College, where he became Dux of the school, a prefect and an accomplished sportsman. In 1939, he gained employment with the Australian Estates Company Limited, concurrently studying for accountancy qualifications which, from 1942, entitled him to provisional membership of the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants. Many years hence he was to become a Fellow of the Australian Society of Accountants and to receive honours and awards in recognition of his distinguished contributions to accounting.
Russell Mathews joined the army in 1941, serving as an officer with the 58th/59th Infantry Battalion, which earned for itself a distinguished record through its defence against the invading Japanese forces in New Guinea and Bougainville. During the war, Russell was promoted to Captain, mentioned in dispatches and forced to end his active service on being wounded in May 1945. Hospitalisation and a permanent disability (he had a pronounced limp for the remainder of his life) followed. Later he wrote the history of his battalion’s World War II action, published in 1961 as Militia Battalion at War.
In 1946, as part of the crop of ex-servicemen eligible for university education, Russell enrolled in Commerce at the University of Melbourne, graduating with first class honours in 1949. Shortly afterwards, he became Douglas Copland’s research assistant, assisting Copland in the publication of his Essays on the Australian Economy, Inflation and Expansion. At that stage, Copland was Vice Chancellor of the then newly established Australian National University, an academic post on which Russell later contributed an essay to the festschrift in honour of Sir John Crawford, a later ANU Vice Chancellor.
After a brief stint as administrative officer for the ANU in London, Russell entered academic life as Reader in Commercial Studies at the University of Adelaide in 1953, becoming Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Commerce in this university in 1958. During his Adelaide years, which ended in 1964, Russell published two books on accounting and half a dozen or so accounting articles. As coauthor, he also contributed (together with HW Arndt, RI Downing and AH Boxer) to the Social Science Research Council sponsored Taxation in Australia. Agenda for Reform, which was published in 1964 and which greatly influenced tax reform debate in the ensuing decades.
In 1964 he was appointed Professor of Accounting and Public Finance at the ANU, a position he held until 1978. The ANU and Canberra thereby became Russell’s final resting place (if this adjective can be used with respect to such a hardworking and productive person as Russell was). From 1972, he joined this post with Directorship of the Centre for Research on Federal Financial Relations, whose purpose embraced the area of study to which Russell devoted most of his time from the early 1970s. Two highlights from this part of his academic life may be briefly mentioned. In 1967, he published an innovating research study on Public Investment in Australia for CEDA, an organization concerned with economic development in which he had been active for some time and of whose governing body he was a member. In 1972, jointly with WRC Jay, a frequent co-worker, colleague and initial assistant Director of the Federalism Centre, Russell published a splendid historical treatment of Australian federal financial relations from the beginnings of the federal movement in the 19th century and especially the 1890s. It was probably this last publication, together with some well-publicised papers on the subject, which secured him his appointment as foundation Director of the Centre for Research on Federal Financial Relations, set up by the McMahon government in 1972.
From then on, fiscal federalism issues dominated his work, as evidenced by the long list of publications published under the auspices of the Centre (which he and Bob Jay invariably edited with great care) and his long membership of the Commonwealth Grants Commission which stated that same year. This work cannot be satisfactorily summarised in a brief obituary tribute, but several specific features of its quality can be highlighted. One of these is an important administrative feature of his stewardship of the Centre. To make this a genuinely federal institution Russell arranged, and financed, interest groups in the State, and territory, capitals which met on a regular basis for a discussion of federalism issues (or more broadly, public finance and taxation topics) in which international guests of the Canberra Centre often acted as speakers, and where academics met with public servants to discuss these important issues (a good idea of their range can be found from the papers included in State and Local Taxation, edited by Russell in 1977). These foreign visitors, it should also be mentioned, formed a virtual who’s who of public finance experts drawn largely, but not exclusively, from the English speaking world. Their caliber is illustrated by the list of non-Australian contributors to the Essays on Fiscal Federalism and Taxation
published in his honour in 1988. In 1982, Russell hosted the International Seminar on Public Economics whose proceedings were edited by Charles McLure Jr under the title, Tax Assignment in Federal Countries, and published by the Centre in 1983. Finally, it should be remarked that the Annual Reports of the Centre (largely written by Russell) provided researchers not only with a splendid annual chronicle of its various activities, but also one of the year’s events in Australian fiscal federalism, a fabulous resource and record of such a rapidly changing scene.
During the 1970s and 1980s Russell Mathews also contributed significantly to government inquiries for Australian as well as for non-Australian governments - Fiji and Cyprus - on matters associated with taxation policy for these then newly independent nations. For Australia, they included the Commission of Inquiry into Land Tenures (the report of which he substantially authored) and the Commission of Inquiry into Taxation and Inflation, of which he was Chairman and whose important report briefly introduced the realities of tax indexation to Australian income tax administration. From 1990 to 1999, Russell was a member of the ACT Casino Surveillance Authority. For these, and for his many other public services, Russell was honoured by successive Australian governments through being awarded a CBE in 1978 and an AO in 1987.
In 1947, Russell had married Joan Tingate, a fellow graduate from the University of Melbourne. For many years they were known in Canberra as a devoted and hospitable couple, whose interests in art, music, ceramics and the theatre went well beyond the boundaries of the ‘dismal’ science. They also both regularly attended the weekly Wednesday dinners at University House as a way of meeting with visitors to the ANU as well as with its longer term residents. The two children branched out in directions other than economics: their son Peter becoming a distinguished archaeologist and their daughter Sue as a student of zoology before moving to another profession. Those who had the opportunity of enjoying the hospitality of the Mathews family at their Canberra residence, as I was able to do on several occasions, will invariably recall such events with pleasure and delight.
In 1997, Russell (together with Bhajan Grewal, another long time collaborator and associate) published his final book, The Public Sector in Jeopardy. This not only reflected Russell’s strong and enduring concern with adequately financed public sectors at the national, the State, and the local level, it also continued the history of Australian fiscal federalism he had published with Bob Jay in 1972, for the years ending with the Keating Labor government in 1996. Its concluding paragraph provides an appropriate epitaph for this dedicated fighter for an adequate provision of public goods and for their equitable distribution, whose voice, alas, has now been stilled:
The failed economic policies of the Hawke and Keating Governments placed the Australian public sector and the federal system of government in jeopardy. Among the casualties were the services which governments traditionally provide in response to the failure of the market. Most of these services are supplied by State governments. Because the financial resources available to the States to meet the community and social needs of citizens were progressively whittled away by the Commonwealth, the malaise of the Australian economy and the decline of the public sector further weakened the already badly frayed federal system.