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Ewing, Robert (1871–1957)

by P. D. Groenewegen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Robert Ewing (1871-1957), taxation commissioner, was born on 31 August 1871 at East Maitland, New South Wales, son of Robert Ewing, engineer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Cunningham. Educated at Sydney High School, he did some junior reporting for the Sydney Morning Herald. In September 1896 he joined the New South Wales public service as a temporary officer in customs, Colonial Treasurer's Department, and for a time acted as secretary to the commissioners of taxation. In 1901 he was transferred to the central staff of the new Federal Department of Trade and Customs in Melbourne where he became confidential clerk to the comptroller-general of customs, (Sir) Nicholas Lockyer. In 1911 Ewing joined the land tax branch of the Department of Treasury as secretary and in 1916-17 he served as deputy commissioner of taxation in Victoria. After a brief spell as acting commissioner of taxation, he was appointed commissioner in 1917, holding the place until his retirement in 1939. From 1925 he also held the separate position of commissioner of land tax. His influence was far-reaching: on his death most of the senior Commonwealth taxation officials had been trained by him.

The three decades during which Robert Ewing was associated with the Federal taxation office and for the greater part of which he was its commissioner, were years during which the Commonwealth substantially increased its powers over Australian taxation. Between 1916-17 and 1938-39 total Federal taxation collections rose from £24.5 million to £74.1 million (or from 4.8 to 8.1 per cent of gross domestic product) which effectively doubled per capita Federal tax burdens. During the first decade of Federation, the Commonwealth had raised all its financial requirements from customs and excise revenue. It then entered other areas of taxation, frequently in direct competition with the States. The Fisher Labor government introduced the land tax in 1910 and followed this in 1914 with a Federal estate duty. In 1915, largely to finance the growing expenditure requirements of Australia's participation in World War I, a Federal income tax was introduced which in 1917 was supplemented with a special wartime profits tax. An entertainment tax came into force the same year. Shortfalls in customs revenue during 1930 were compensated for by the introduction of a sales tax at a rate of two and a half per cent, raised to six per cent in 1931.

Ewing was closely associated with all these measures, but more particularly with the introduction of income tax, the wartime profits tax and the sales tax. The last two resulted in his publications, War-Time Profits Tax (1917) and Sales Tax (1932). These were in fact official handbooks prepared under his auspices as taxation commissioner. His third publication in this area, Taxes and Their Incidence (1926), provided an historical overview of the development of taxation in Australia, particularly the more recent developments at the Federal level, and was given originally as a lecture to the Melbourne University Commerce Society. Although the title suggests a theoretical discussion of the incidence of specific tax instruments, the contents provide little more than a descriptive account of developments and problems in Federal income tax, land tax and estate duty, the emphasis being on 'the many details associated with taxation in practice, and the general reasons for taxation'.

Appointed C.M.G. in 1933, Ewing was described on his retirement as a man whose mild demeanour and frail appearance concealed outstanding administrative efficiency and a determination to uphold the integrity of his office. His more interesting publications, written in retirement, emphasize Christian socialist principles. The first, A Plan of Economic Reconstruction (1941), contains a Utopian scheme for the reconstruction of post-war Australia. The second, Money Pitfalls in Labor's Socialism, the Cure, was privately printed in 1947, and supplements the previous work on certain issues. Both booklets were followed by a spate of shorter pamphlets in the 1950s; they raise intriguing questions about the economic ideas of Australia's commissioner of taxation—because so much of their economic content was influenced by 'currency cranks' such as the Victorian L. G. de Garis, as well as by the more well-known heretical ideas of Major Douglas and Henry George.

Ewing's Plan for Economic Reconstruction is based on the simple premise that post-war reconstruction provided a unique opportunity 'to establish … the Kingdom of God on Earth within the Nation and the Empire'. The spiritual foundations of this kingdom lay in the two commandments to 'love the Lord thy God' and 'love thy neighbour as thyself', that is, in the principles of mutual co-operation and ownership in common. Its economic basis rested on the propositions that 'production of all goods essential to the best possible standard of living should be secured; and that the distribution of the goods should be effected in the simplest possible manner'. The plan was to be implemented by replacing ownership of the means of production with 'a compensated tenant-trusteeship', by paying a basic standard of living to all, by regulating wages in terms of this living standard, by the abolition of interest and by central control over international trade. His Money Pitfalls in Labor's Socialism compared this plan with the Australian Labor Party's 'socialistic' platform of reconstruction, attacking the latter as a half measure which left the 'money power' untouched. Although Ewing's plan was enthusiastically endorsed by the Melbourne journalist and writer, Ambrose Pratt, no reviews or serious discussions of its proposals appear to have been published.

Ewing's first wife, Alice Mary Church, whom he had married on 9 May 1900 at St Aidan's Anglican Church, Annandale, Sydney, died in 1904. On 16 January 1909 at Upper Hawthorn, Melbourne, he married her sister, Maude Olivia (d.1945), according to Methodist forms. There were no children of either marriage. Ewing died on 15 October 1957 at East Camberwell and was cremated. His estate was valued for probate at £12,533.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Commission on Taxation, Report, Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1932-34, 4, p 2249, 1934-37, 3, p 1917
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 June 1933
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 June 1933, 21 Oct 1957
  • Age (Melbourne), 16 Oct 1957
  • Canberra Times, 18 Oct 1957.

Citation details

P. D. Groenewegen, 'Ewing, Robert (1871–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ewing-robert-6129/text10511, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 1 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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