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Higgins, Christopher Ian (Chris) (1943–1990)

by Michael Keating

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Christopher Ian (Chris) Higgins (1943-1990), public servant and economist, was born on 3 April 1943 at Murwillumbah, New South Wales, eldest of four sons of Australian-born parents George Patrick Higgins, sawmill employee, and his wife Muriel Adelaide, née McEwan. The family struggled financially—Chris did not wear shoes until sixth grade—and an academic secondary school program was out of his reach until the local headmaster and business community provided financial assistance. In his final year at Ballina High School he won a cadetship from the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics to study economics at the Australian National University (B.Ec., 1964), Canberra. An outstanding student, he graduated with first-class honours and the Tillyard prize before beginning work with the statistics bureau.

In September 1964 Higgins commenced research at the University of Pennsylvania (Ph.D., 1968), United States of America, under Professor Lawrence Klein, who rated him one of the best students he ever had. On 22 December 1966 at Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, Higgins married Paula Abigail Gomberg, a fellow student. On his return to Australia in January 1968, he rejoined the statistics bureau. Using his newly acquired skills in econometrics and economic modelling, he pioneered the first official national-income forecasting model. His work in this field led him to move to the Treasury in 1969. There he was an influential adviser from an early stage, particularly on economic conditions and macroeconomic policy.

Higgins’s career was distinguished by his enduring determination to combine his interest in academic economics with his professional work as a public servant. He spent 1973-74 as an academic at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of British Columbia, Canada. After serving as minister (economic and financial affairs) in the Australian delegation to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris, in 1980-81, he took leave from the Treasury to become director of the general economics branch of the economics and statistics department of the OECD, in 1981-84. Back in Australia, he was appointed deputy-secretary (economic) in February 1985. In 1987 he was elected a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. He took up his final position as secretary of the Treasury on 18 September 1989.

In a Treasury department proud of its intellectual foundations, Higgins provided leadership. His influence stemmed from a rare combination of strong convictions about the direction of policy and an open and enquiring mind. He proposed policies to reduce inflation in the 1980s, and to effect microeconomic reform. Both treasurers in the 1980s—John Howard and especially Paul Keating—held Higgins in high regard. Unusually for a senior public servant, he maintained his membership of the Australian Labor Party, and this was symptomatic of his unfailing commitment to social justice. At the same time he appreciated early on that society’s well-being and low unemployment depend on maintaining national competitiveness and low inflation. The improved performance of the Australian economy since the 1980s owed much to his foresight and the power of his advocacy.

Higgins enjoyed to the full his short life, which was marked by his sense of fun and his enthusiasm for whatever he tackled. Family and friends, food and wine, and sport all provided a balance to his considerable commitment to work. He collapsed and died of myocardial infarction on 6 December 1990 at Bruce, Canberra, after competing at an athletics meeting. He had undergone a coronary angioplasty in 1989 and knew the risks that he was taking, but nothing would ever hold him back. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he was cremated with Presbyterian forms.

Select Bibliography

  • Treasury (Commonwealth), Annual Report, 1970-91
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Aug 1984, p 17
  • Canberra Times, 9 July 1989, p 28, 8 Dec 1990, p 15, 12 Dec 1990, p 3
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 Mar 1990, `Money’, p 1
  • Australian, 8-9 Dec 1990, p 4
  • Australian Financial Review, 10 Dec 1990, p 8
  • private information.

Citation details

Michael Keating, 'Higgins, Christopher Ian (Chris) (1943–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/higgins-christopher-ian-chris-12633/text22761, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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