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Brown, Horace Plessay (Horrie) (1916–1971)

by Margot Kerley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Horace Plessay (Horrie) Brown (1916-1971), statistician and economist, was born on 7 December 1916 in Melbourne, second child of Clifton Plessay Brown, Anglican clergyman, and his wife Emma Nodin, née Wilcox, both native-born. Educated at Caulfield Grammar School (dux 1933) and at Trinity College, University of Melbourne, Horrie graduated with first-class honours in his economics subjects (B.A., 1938). While still an undergraduate, he was part-time research assistant to Professor L. F. Giblin who taught him to regard statistical data—painstakingly collected and tabulated—as the proper raw material upon which to base economic theory. In 1938 Brown spent a term as an economics lecturer at the University of Western Australia before returning to Melbourne in October to take a post with the Commonwealth Grants Commission.

On 27 March 1941 in Canberra he joined the research section of the Treasury's bureau of census and statistics. Secretary to the Commonwealth committee on uniform taxation, he was associated with the advisory committee on financial and economic policy, and later with the investment and employment committee which was chaired by J. B. Chifley who became a close friend. Brown assisted with the introduction of 'pay-as-you-earn' income taxation, and was largely responsible for drawing up the pioneering national income and expenditure papers of 1944-45 to 1948-49. With D. V. Youngman, he developed sampling techniques for the bureau's series, Quarterly Business Survey, begun in 1947. Promoted director of research that year, Brown was 'an outstanding but almost invisible member of the maquis which worked to exchange information and to influence policy, regardless of Departmental demarcations or ministerial pre-opinions'.

On 7 September 1946 he had married a fellow economist Helen Margaret McCulloch in St John's Anglican Church, Sorrento, Victoria. Frustrated in his work, he accepted a readership in economic statistics at the research school of social sciences, Australian National University. On his departure from the bureau he provided (Sir) Stanley Carver with a list of its general deficiencies and specific items which required attention, and nominated sixty 'neglected categories of statistics'. Brown was elected to the International Statistical Institute in 1952. Although a key adviser to the Federal Labor Opposition, he did not join the party until shortly before his death. He volunteered his services as an expert witness on behalf of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in the basic wage case of 1952-53: 'his evidence . . . amounted to the most thorough-going review of the Australian economy yet undertaken'. Having helped to prepare A.C.T.U. submissions in support of a 40-hour week, he again appeared before the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission in the 1970 national wage case. While at the A.N.U., he helped students, colleagues and others with his encyclopaedic knowledge, and published papers on social accounting, income distribution measurement and retail price indexation.

Never a doctrinaire economist, Brown was a pragmatist whose statistical expertise enabled him to use precise indicators as the basis for policy-making. His work was distinguished by its 'unusual blend of creativeness and scepticism'. He was an accomplished woodcraftsman and loved fishing. Survived by his wife, daughter and son, he died of coronary vascular disease on 30 January 1971 in Canberra and was cremated. A library at the R.S.S.S., A.N.U., is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Forster and C. Hazlehurst, Australian Statisticians and the Development of Official Statistics (Canb, 1988)
  • Economic Record, 47, Mar 1971, p 115
  • Canberra Times, 2 Feb 1971
  • Financial Review, 2 Feb 1971
  • Brown papers (privately held).

Citation details

Margot Kerley, 'Brown, Horace Plessay (Horrie) (1916–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brown-horace-plessay-horrie-9599/text16921, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 19 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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