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Kemp, Charles Denton (Ref) (1911–1993)

by John Roskam

This article was published online in 2017

Charles Denton Kemp (1911–1993), economist and economic policy commentator, was born on 23 April 1911 at Malvern, Melbourne, second son of Victorian-born parents Charles Herbert Kemp, civil engineer, and his wife Alice Maude Restori, née Denton. His father was Presbyterian and his mother Catholic, and they fostered in him a tolerant and non-sectarian attitude to life. Charles’s birth three days before a constitutional referendum led to his lifelong nickname ‘Ref.’ After his mother died in 1925, he and his brother were cared for by their maternal grandmother.

Educated at Toorak Preparatory Grammar School (Glamorgan) and Scotch College, Kemp started work as an office boy, later describing it as ‘the worst year of his life’ (Kemp 1993, 25). He resumed his education, studying commerce at the University of Melbourne (BCom, 1933), where he won four exhibitions and represented the university in hockey, baseball, and cricket. Over the following years he worked in several jobs including as a research assistant for the economist Professor (Sir) Douglas Copland and at the Farmers’ Debts Adjustment Board. In 1937 he became personal assistant to Sir Herbert Gepp, managing director of Australian Paper Manufacturers Ltd. On 3 August 1940 at the Littlejohn Memorial Chapel, Scotch College, he married Elizabeth Noel Wilson.

As socialist ideas gained force during World War II, Gepp, concerned about the future of private enterprise, instructed Kemp to write a report for the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures. Kemp argued that effectively combating the socialist influence required wider public economic understanding, especially among workers, unions, and business, and that this was best achieved through a new organisation. The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) was established in Victoria in 1943 to carry out this task. Many of Melbourne's leading businessmen were founding directors including Sir Walter Massy-Greene, Sir Keith Murdoch, Harold Darling, Geoffrey Grimwade, and (Sir) Ian Potter. George Coles was its first chairman. Kemp became economic adviser to the council of the IPA and in 1948 director of the institute.

A long-standing advocate of the English economist Alfred Marshall’s emphasis on the need for economists to understand human behaviour and society, Kemp was also an avid student of J. M. (Baron) Keynes and F. A. Hayek. He dissented, however, from the more extreme demand-management policies of some of Keynes’s Australian disciples. His views on economic planning were similar to the sceptical position of Hayek, who later wrote for the IPA Review and whose 1976 visit to Australia was sponsored by the IPA.

During 1944 Kemp was the principal draftsman of an economic strategy for Australia, Looking Forward, advocating policies to strengthen the private economy and improve relations between business and unions. The Opposition leader, (Sir) Robert Menzies, described it as ‘the finest statement of basic political and economic problems made in Australia for many years’ (Menzies 1944). Political scientist James Walter has claimed that the IPA provided ‘the ammunition’ for Menzies who then ‘carried it brilliantly into the public arena’ (1988, 265).

In 1947 Kemp commenced publication of the IPA Review to provide commentary on industrial and economic policies to readers in business, the public service, and educational institutions. While it featured articles by leading Australian and international economists, Kemp wrote most of the content. Five years later, building on the Review’s circulation of some seventeen thousand copies, he began publishing the information booklet Facts that was written in an accessible style to make it more appealing to workers and supervisors.

Through the Review, Kemp was one of the main critics of bank nationalisation, and he supported the trading banks’ campaign against it in the late 1940s. He also became a critic of the process of developing economic policy by the Menzies government, with its reliance on bureaucratic advice and what he judged to be inadequate understanding of the economic impact of government decisions. The effect of high levels of immigration and continuing inflation particularly troubled him. In response he advocated the formation of an expert economic advisory council and greater transparency of government economic data and thinking. He welcomed the initiation of Treasury economic papers as a step towards the IPA’s preferred policy process.

Kemp valued his independence from party politics. As his son David recalled of discussion at home, however, theirs was ‘a family coming from a liberal perspective’ (Cumming 1996, 30). ‘Ref’ was appointed CBE in 1959 and retired as director of the IPA in 1976. He remained a contributor to public debate and, in Quadrant in the early 1990s, was critical of the deregulatory approach in economic policy, expressing his distrust of simple ‘laissez faire.’

Survived by his two sons and daughter, Kemp died on 24 June 1993, three months after his wife, at Hawthorn East and was cremated. The C. D. Kemp lecture was named after him. Both of his sons had joined the Liberal Party of Australia and in 1996 became the first siblings to hold office simultaneously as Federal ministers. Rod had also served as director (1982–89) of the IPA and was later appointed chairman (2008).

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Cumming, Fia. ‘Brothers in Law-Making.’ Sun-Herald (Sydney), 1 December 1996, 30–31
  • Kemp, C. D. Big Businessmen: Four Biographical Essays. Melbourne: Institute of Public Affairs, 1964
  • Kemp, D. A. ‘The Institute of Public Affairs, 1942–1947.’ Hons thesis, University of Melbourne, 1963. Kemp, David. ‘Charles Denton Kemp CBE, 1911–1993.’ Quadrant 37, no. 9 (September 1993): 24–27
  • Kenaelly, Shaun Patrick. ‘C. D. Kemp and the IPA’s Foundations.’ IPA Review 46, no. 3 (1993): 57–62
  • Menzies, R. G. Letter to C. D. Kemp, 10 October 1944. Kemp Papers. Private collection
  • Noel Butlin Archives Centre, Australian National University, Canberra. N136, Institute of Public Affairs deposit 1
  • Walter, James. ‘Intellectuals and the Political Culture.’ In Intellectual Movements and Australian Society, edited by James Walter and Brian Head, 237–73. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1988

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Roskam, 'Kemp, Charles Denton (Ref) (1911–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kemp-charles-denton-ref-18187/text29757, published online 2017, accessed online 17 October 2017.

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