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Phillips, Sir John Grant (Jock) (1911–1986)

by John Edwards

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir John Grant Phillips (1911-1986), central banker, was born on 13 March 1911 at Mosman, Sydney, second child of Sydney-born parents Oswald John Phillips, solicitor, and his wife Ethel Annie, née Grant, art teacher. Educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) and the University of Sydney (B.Ec., 1932), Jock sold haberdashery at Farmer & Co. Ltd while studying economics. He worked (1932-35) for the Retail Traders’ Association of New South Wales as a research officer.

On 9 March 1935 at the Shore chapel Phillips married Mary Willmott Debenham, who had graduated from the University of Sydney (BA, 1931) with first-class honours in economics. Boris Schedvin wrote in his history of the central bank that she was ‘judged to be at least the equal of such distinguished contemporaries as S. J. Butlin, J. G. Crawford, R. J. Randall, and her future husband’. She joined the Commonwealth Bank of Australia in 1932 as an assistant to the economist Leslie Melville. Under the rules of the bank (which were not unusual) she was obliged to resign on her marriage.

In 1936 Phillips joined the staff of the royal commission on the monetary and banking systems as an economic assistant. It was his introduction to financial issues and led to a job in the economics department of the Commonwealth Bank in 1937. H. C. (‘Nugget’) Coombs, an economist in the same department, moved to Treasury in Canberra in 1939. During World War II Coombs brought the Phillipses to Canberra. Willmott worked for the Commonwealth Rationing Commission before she became secretary (1943-44) to the Commonwealth Housing Commission; with Walter Bunning she co-authored a report that laid the foundations for postwar national housing policy. Jock worked in the Department of Post-War Reconstruction.

The Commonwealth Bank sent Phillips to London in 1946. He then went to Geneva as part of the team, led by Coombs, negotiating Australia’s adherence to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Willmott briefly worked in Geneva. Returning to Australia and the bank (with Coombs as governor), Phillips became head of the economic department in 1950 and soon moved to what became the investment department of the bank. In 1960, when the central banking arm of the Commonwealth Bank was established as the Reserve Bank of Australia, Phillips was appointed deputy-governor to Coombs.

Well organised, scrupulously honest and a capable mediator, Phillips complemented Coombs. He got things done and solved problems, while Coombs liked to analyse the ‘big picture’. Phillips thought issues through from the bottom up, it was said, while Coombs thought from the top down. While serving as deputy-governor Phillips oversaw the introduction of decimal currency in 1966 and the construction of a new building for the bank in Martin Place. On policy issues he developed nuances of difference with Coombs. Phillips leaned more to using interest rates rather than direct controls over the quantity of credit as the instrument of policy. He was more confident than Coombs that price signals would guide the economy.

In 1968 Phillips succeeded Coombs as governor and was appointed CBE. Within a year there was increasing pressure on the United States dollar, the lynchpin of the global system of fixed exchange rates. At the same time the global economy boomed, and Australia with it. Through 1969 until 1971 the Gorton and McMahon governments accepted Treasury and Reserve Bank advice that growth should be slowed to battle rising inflation, but the increasing threat of Gough Whitlam’s Australian Labor Party Opposition and signs of an economic slowdown saw the McMahon government switch to an expansionary strategy by the middle of 1971 and into 1972.

Perplexing years followed for Phillips. Though he accepted appointment as KBE in 1972, Phillips was a Labor voter and a protégé of the liberal-minded Coombs. He welcomed the new Labor government in December 1972. Its willingness to revalue the currency and to permit some tightening of credit, in line with Reserve Bank and Treasury advice, and to cut tariffs, marked its intellectual grasp and boldness and its freedom from the Country Party constraint that had hobbled the coalition government. The explosion of global inflation, the acceleration in domestic wages growth and the political struggles within the government through 1974 and into 1975 dismayed Phillips. In December 1974 he wrote to the treasurer, Jim Cairns, expressing his concern about rising inflation, and argued that the trade-off between unemployment and inflation no longer operated. Later the letter was leaked to the press, contributing to the controversy over economic policy. By the beginning of 1975, his retirement already scheduled for mid-year, Phillips began to withdraw from the policy battle in favour of his deputy and successor, Harry Knight.

As governor Phillips had gradually moved successive governments towards acceptance of interest and exchange-rate changes, moves seen now as the beginning of a long transition, which ultimately resulted in the float and finance-sector deregulation in the early 1980s, and central bank autonomy to pursue an inflation target in the early 1990s. In July 1975 Sir John retired.

Phillips remained a member (1967-79) of the Macquarie University council and treasurer (1971-86) of the Howard Florey Institute of Experimental Physiology and Medicine. He chaired (1976-81) the Australian Statistics Advisory Council and was a board member (1976-81) of Lend Lease Corporation Ltd. For relaxation Phillips played squash and swam; he and his wife enjoyed the company of their family and friends, travelling, music and art.

Although in good health, the Phillipses were members of a euthanasia society and prepared for their deaths with care and consideration. Survived by their two daughters and two sons, they committed suicide together between 7 and 8 October 1986 in their home at Manly. They were buried in Frenchs Forest cemetery. In a letter ‘to our children, their children and our friends’ they had concluded goodbye . . . with our gratitude for all the joy . . . We are happy to go together after our long partnership’. Phillips’s portrait by Jocelyn Maughan is held by the Reserve Bank.

Select Bibliography

  • C. B. Schedvin, In Reserve (1992)
  • Howard Florey Institute of Experimental Physiology and Medicine, Annual Report, 1986
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Nov 1967, p 9
  • Currency: Monthly Staff Magazine of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Aug 1975, p 6
  • Australian Financial Review, 10 Oct 1986, p 40
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Edwards, 'Phillips, Sir John Grant (Jock) (1911–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/phillips-sir-john-grant-jock-15440/text26655, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 October 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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