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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Salter, Wilfred Edward Graham (1929–1963)

by John Pitchford

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Wilfred Edward Graham Salter (1929-1963), economist, was born on 27 March 1929 at Cottesloe, Perth, eldest of three children of Western Australian-born parents Harold Peter Salter, health inspector, and his wife May, née Dunderdale, a piano teacher. Wilf was educated at Wesley College (1942-46) and at the University of Western Australia (B.A., 1952). He gained first-class honours in economics in 1953 and represented the university in Rugby Union football. At the district registrar's office, Perth, on 5 December 1952 he had married Moira Joan Burke, a welfare officer.

Awarded a Hackett travelling studentship, Salter entered Clare College, Cambridge (Ph.D., 1956), and won the Stevenson prize in economics in 1954. The originality of his doctoral thesis on labour productivity in relation to technological change so impressed W. B. Reddaway, director of the department of applied economics, that he gave a seminar on Salter's work. A postdoctoral research fellowship at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, United States of America, for the academic year 1955-56 enabled Salter to add American data to his analysis.

Salter returned to Australia in September 1956 to take up a research fellowship in the department of economics, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra. He delivered a paper at the 1958 congress of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science and published two articles in the Economic Record (April and August 1959). The second of these articles, analysing price and expenditure effects, provided an incisive examination of the problems of achieving equilibrium between full employment and balance of payments in a small open economy. As a result of his investigation into capital and labour productivity in Australia's manufacturing industry, he was asked by R. J. L. Hawke, research officer for the Australian Council of Trade Unions, to appear before the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission as a witness in the 1959 basic wage case.

In 1960 Cambridge University Press published Salter's thesis as Productivity and Technical Change. M. M. Postan described it as 'one of the most elegant exercises . . . in the theory of investment and innovations to come out of post-war Britain'. Noting that 'behind productivity lie all the dynamic forces of economic life', Salter emphasized that an understanding of these forces was essential in interpreting data relating to productivity. The economics of the process by which new, durable capital equipment replaced older equipment formed a critical part of his analysis. In general, he stressed that understanding of economy-wide productivity trends required study of experience and behaviour at both the firm and industry levels. Another of his major conclusions cast doubt on the popular view of wage determination which held that real wages should rise with labour productivity. Instead, he found that 'industries with above-average increases in productivity have not received above-average increases in earnings'. Productivity gains were distributed to consumers through lower prices of products with high productivity growth.

In January 1960 Salter was appointed to the Commonwealth Public Service as an assistant-secretary in the cabinet division of the Prime Minister's Department. He took an active part in working out economic policies on almost every front; 'his performance deeply impressed the old Canberra hands, even when they disagreed with him'. Obtaining leave in July 1962, he joined Harvard University's development advisory service and was sent to West Pakistan as an economic adviser to the government. He died of heart disease on 10 November 1963 at Lahore; his wife, and their son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Postan, Fact and Relevance (Cambridge, Eng, 1971)
  • Economic Record, Dec 1963
  • Gazette of the University of Western Australia, 14, Mar 1964
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Nov 1963
  • Salter papers (privately held).

Citation details

John Pitchford, 'Salter, Wilfred Edward Graham (1929–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 8 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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