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Holmes, Austin Stewart (1924–1986)

by M. R. Hill

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

Austin Stewart Holmes (1924-1986), economist, was born on 16 June 1924 at Narrogin, Western Australia, first of three surviving children of Australian-born parents Peter Holmes, farmer, and his wife May Sylvia, née Stewart. Austin grew up on his parents’ wheat and sheep farm near Dumbleyung. After taking correspondence lessons, he attended a ten-pupil bush school and Albany High School. He did a year of science at the University of Western Australia before enlisting in the Royal Australian Air Force on 22 May 1943. Qualifying as a navigator-wireless operator, he flew in Dakotas with No.35 Squadron and in Vultee Vengeance dive-bombers with No.25 Squadron in Australia in 1944-45, and in Liberator bombers with No.12 Squadron in the Netherlands East Indies in 1945. He rose to temporary warrant officer in October 1945 and was discharged on 1 February 1946.

Returning to UWA (BA, 1949), Holmes switched to economics and graduated with first-class honours and a Hackett scholarship, which took him to Clare College, Cambridge (BA, 1952; MA, 1957). On 24 September 1951 at the register office, Cambridge, he married Edith Hansen, a Western Australian secondary science teacher. Next year they returned to Australia, where he took up a lectureship at the University of Queensland. His research on savings prompted the Commonwealth Bank of Australia to offer him a two-year contract in 1957 to compile flow-of-unds estimates. He moved to Sydney, where he also held for two years a senior lectureship at the University of New South Wales.

In 1960 Holmes joined the permanent staff of the newly formed Reserve Bank of Australia. From 1966 until 1973, when he was appointed an adviser, and again from 1978 to 1981 he headed the research department. Between these two periods he worked in Canberra, first as director of the priorities review staff in the Department of the Special Minister of State and, when the PRS was disbanded, as consultant economist in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. He was appointed OBE in 1977.

At the Reserve Bank Holmes was in the forefront of argument for market-determined interest rates and a floating exchange rate. In Canberra he argued for tariff cuts, the reduction of subsidies, and other structural reforms. Pursuing policy objectives through market measures was in his view not a matter of political philosophy but of economic and social efficiency; regulation often confounded the achievement of its goals.

In 1980 Holmes delivered the (L. F.) Giblin memorial lecture, which he called `The Good Fight’. He said: `the good fight to which I refer is the struggle to get good sense (economic rationality if you like) into our economic affairs and, more specifically, into the economic policies which influence those affairs’. A prodigious worker, he carried on the good fight for thirty years. With rigorous analysis and persistence he gradually persuaded others—including academics, politicians, bureaucrats and journalists—of the merits of his cause.

Beneath a bluntness and earthiness of speech there was a kind and compassionate man, self-effacing and encouraging. Aussie Holmes loved good company, food and drink. He was an avid reader, with a special love for Australian history. His favourite relaxation was travelling from his home at St Ives, Sydney, to the remotest corners of the outback. He retired from the Reserve Bank in March 1986. A few months later he was in the Northern Territory to supervise postgraduate theses. He died of myocardial infarction on 15 July at Alice Springs and was cremated with Uniting Church forms. His wife and their two daughters and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Ulyatt (ed), The Good Fight (1989)
  • C. B. Schedvin, In Reserve (1992)
  • Economic Record, vol 62, no 179, 1986, p 506, and for publications
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Aug 1973, p 6
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 July 1986, p 19
  • Financial Review, 24 July 1986, p 34
  • private information.

Citation details

M. R. Hill, 'Holmes, Austin Stewart (1924–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/holmes-austin-stewart-12645/text22785, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 12 December 2018.

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

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