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Fitzgerald, Thomas Michael (Tom) (1918–1993)

This article was published online in 2017

Thomas Michael Fitzgerald (1918–1993), journalist, economist, and owner of a fortnightly magazine, was born on 28 August 1918 at Marrickville, Sydney, eldest of six children of Sydney-born Thomas Michael Fitzgerald, milk vendor, and his Irish-born wife Elizabeth (Lizzie), née Trant. Tom attended Erskineville convent school; Marist Brothers Boys’ School, Kogarah, where he completed his Intermediate certificate; Marist Brothers’ High School, Darlinghurst; and Christian Brothers’ High School, Lewisham, where he earned an exhibition. Joining the Commonwealth Public Service in 1936, he worked for the Department of Defence at Victoria Barracks; although he later gained an appointment with the Treasury, he remained seconded to Victoria Barracks. His evening studies at the University of Sydney (BEc, 1943) were disrupted by the deaths of his mother in 1937 and his father in 1940. After his father died, he left the public service and returned to the family milk run around Marrickville, becoming chair of the local milk-zoning committee.

During World War II Fitzgerald served in the Royal Australian Air Force, enlisting on 5 November 1942. After training as a navigator, he was sent to Britain, where he flew (1944–45) in Liberator bombers on anti-submarine operations with No. 547 Squadron, Royal Air Force. He was demobilised in Australia on 13 December 1945 as a flight lieutenant. He had become engaged by post to Margaret Mary Pahlow, whom he had met at Victoria Barracks; they had married at St Vincent’s Roman Catholic Church, Ashfield, on 14 November 1945.

Impressed by the intellectual vibrancy he had perceived in the United States of America when travelling to England during the war, and encouraged—as in all his endeavours—by Margaret, Fitzgerald applied without success for an immigrant visa until the mid-1950s. He joined the Bulletin as a financial journalist in 1946, editing its Wild Cat Monthly from 1948. In 1950 he transferred to the Sydney Morning Herald as commercial editor on a salary of £1,000 a year, becoming financial editor from September 1952 and economics leader writer in 1956. His columns at times revealed others’ ill-doings; at one point, four people who had sought stop-writs were serving gaol sentences for offences he had exposed. Although management dangled before him the Herald editorship, he kept his distance, in the spirit of George Orwell, whose death he felt like ‘a second father or an elder brother’ (Fitzgerald 1988).

By 1956 managerial control of editorial content at the Herald convinced Fitzgerald that he should quit and set up his own publication. He later remarked that it was hard ‘for people to realise … that to a journalist who was in the kitchen of a daily newspaper, having the freedom to produce your own paper, however small, is infinitely more rewarding than to be the nominal editor of any bloody metropolitan paper’ (Fitzgerald 1988). Eventually the Fairfaxes agreed to his conducting Nation (‘an independent journal of opinion’) without leaving his employment at the Herald. Issued fortnightly from 26 September 1958, Nation was funded by mortgages against the family home in Abbotsford. Sales would eventually reach more than 10,000.

At Lorenzini’s late-night eatery, Barry Humphries introduced Fitzgerald to George Munster, who joined Nation as business manager, forming a personal and intellectual intimacy that would last until Munster’s death in 1984. Nation attracted a galaxy of writers, including the art critic Robert Hughes, theatre critic Harry Kippax (‘Brek’), and film critic Sylvia Lawson, together with Clive James, K. S. (Ken) Inglis, Cyril Pearl, Brian Johns, Peter Ryan, and Maxwell Newton. The Nation crowd later met at Vadim’s coffee house in Kings Cross, until it closed in 1969. On some occasions, Fitzgerald and Munster would continue subbing nearby in the all-night Hasty Tasty. He left Fairfax in 1970, cashing in part of his superannuation to keep Nation afloat. The funds were not enough and he sold it to Gordon Barton; it emerged as Nation Review from 29 July 1972. From August 1970 to December 1972 Fitzgerald worked for Rupert Murdoch as editorial director of News Ltd. He later recalled those years as ‘ignominious,’ especially after Murdoch dismissed Adrian Deamer as editor of the Australian in July 1971 (Fitzgerald 1988).

In the wake of the mining-share boom and bust of 1968–70, Fitzgerald advised the Senate select committee on securities and exchange. That experience led him in June 1973 to undertake research for the Labor minister for minerals and energy, Rex Connor, who raised a question which he recalled no expert having posed: what had been the contribution of the resources boom to Australian welfare? He calculated a $55 million deficit during the six years to 1972–73 in subsidies and tax concessions to resource companies over taxes paid; the Industries Assistance Commission came up with a figure of only $5 million. Fitzgerald resisted Connor’s push for immediate higher returns, believing that any changes should be introduced gradually. From 1975 he worked for the royal commission on Australian government administration chaired by his friend H. C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs. He was an economic advisor in Premier Neville Wran’s ministerial advisory unit in New South Wales from 1976 to 1983.

Returning to study, Fitzgerald took classes at his alma mater from 1967 to 1970, including units in the history and philosophy of science, philosophy, and classical Greek, as well as receiving private tutoring in mathematics. He also researched the intellectual formation before 1935 of the Labor leader John Curtin as a self-taught economic thinker. His interest had been sparked by his sense that the Whitlam administration had undone itself by not following Curtin’s precept: if you get the economy wrong, you cannot get anything right. He also wrote on another autodidact, the financier and pioneer of hire purchase, Ian Jacoby.

When the Australian Broadcasting Commission chairman David Hill, a colleague from Wran’s office, invited Fitzgerald to deliver the 1990 Boyer Lectures, he wove together a lifetime of reflections on current problems in Between Life and Economics, declaring his preference for the former by opening with Charles Darwin and poetry. When he was a boy, his mother had given him the works of Shakespeare before he went to secondary school. J. M. (Baron) Keynes had appealed as a literary figure as much as an economist, though Fitzgerald’s major influences in the late 1930s were T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Selected Essays 1917–1932, and Murder in the Cathedral, from which he could quote passages fifty years later.

Always courtly and in his later years growing portly, with ‘the round, rosy face of a very shrewd-looking cherub’ (Souter 1981, 386), he could be scathing about fools in high places, notably those in the besieged manufacturing sector. Inglis described his Herald editorials as the product of ‘a powerful, cultivated, clear and independent mind’ (Inglis 1989, 4); an obituary in the Australian recalled his ‘gentlemanly belligerence’ (Australian 1993, 3). He declined offers of appointment to the Order of Australia on the ground that it could do him no honour to be associated with people about whom he knew enough to gaol. His unmet ambition was a seat on the board of the Reserve Bank, in order to unearth how it arrived at its decisions. A heart attack in 1975 and continuing heart disease culminated in surgery in 1989. He feared a loss of mental powers more than death, which came on 25 January 1993 in St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst. An atheist since his late teens, he was cremated after a private ceremony. He was survived by his wife, two sons, and two daughters.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • ‘Economic Critic Kept Alight Flame of Social Welfare.’ 27 January 1993, 3

  • Brazier, Jan, ‘Tom Fitzgerald’s Nation: An Australian Independent Journal of Opinion 1958-72.’ Australian & New Zealand Journal of Serials Librarianship 2, no. 1 (1991): 35–43

  • Fitzgerald, T. M. Interview by Ken Inglis, 10 February–3 September 1988. Transcript. National Library of Australia

  • Inglis, K. S., ed., assisted by Jan Brazier. Nation: The Life of an Independent Journal of Opinion 1958–1972. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1989

  • Lawson, Valerie. ‘A “Lion” of Australian Journalism Dies.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 27 January 1993, 2

  • McQueen, Humphrey. ‘A Human Face of Economics and an Emperor of Ice Cream.’ 24 Hours, April 1993, 84–88

  • McQueen, Humphrey, personal knowledge of ADB subject

  • National Library of Australia. MS 7995, Papers of Tom Fitzgerald, 1956-1987

  • Souter, Gavin. Company of Heralds: A Century and a Half of Australian Publishing by John Fairfax Limited and its Predecessors 1831–1981. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1981.

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Citation details

'Fitzgerald, Thomas Michael (Tom) (1918–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fitzgerald-thomas-michael-tom-18613/text30251, published online 2017, accessed online 14 November 2018.

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