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Richard Wigram (Dick) Austin (1919–2000)

by Robert Porter

This article was published online in 2023

Richard Wigram Locke Austin (1919–2000), senior intelligence officer and company executive, was born on 16 March 1919 at Woollahra, Sydney, eldest child of Australian-born parents Kenneth Teasdale Austin, horse breeder and stock and station agent, and his wife Ethel Joyce, née Allen, granddaughter of the solicitor, politician, and philanthropist Sir George Wigram Allen. Dick attended (1927–31) Cranbrook School, Bellevue Hill, before moving with his parents to the South Island, New Zealand, where his father had been appointed to manage the Elderslie Stud. He attended Waitaki Boys’ High School, Oamaru (1932–35), graduating as dux. Returning to Sydney in 1936, he studied at the University of Sydney (BA, 1939; LLB, 1948), also serving as an articled clerk with his maternal grandfather’s firm Allen, Allen & Hemsley. While there he became acquainted with the future prime minister (Sir) William McMahon, who was a junior partner.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Austin was commissioned in July 1940 as a lieutenant in the Citizen Military Forces. He transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in August and was attached to the 2/19th Infantry Battalion, which deployed to Malaya. Near Parit Sulong, late in the night of 21–22 January 1942, although severely wounded, he and a junior soldier quietly entered Japanese lines and recovered two ambulances and their patients, whom the Japanese had refused to release unless the Australian force surrendered. He entered captivity in Singapore on 15 February. With his talent for language, he learned basic Japanese and was engaged as an interpreter on the island and with working parties on the Burma-Thailand railway.

On his return to Australia and transfer to the Reserve of Officers in 1945, Austin resumed his legal studies while working as an associate to two Supreme Court justices, Reginald Bonney and (Sir) William Owen. He was admitted to the Bar in February 1948, also remaining as a teaching fellow in the law school. In 1952 he travelled to London, where he was employed as a junior member of the British Foreign Service, on the recommendation of a family friend, Richard (Baron) Casey, then minister for external affairs. His penchant for fashion and style had become pronounced—in 1950 he had been ranked as one of the ten best-dressed men in Sydney. In his new profession as a lowly intelligence officer, he developed his own distinctive style of dress, acquiring the necessary accoutrements from Savile Row. He would later add a monocle to complete his attire. By then, increasingly referred to as Dickie, he had undertaken postings in Hong Kong and Singapore, before returning to Australia by early 1955.

In April that year Austin began a career with Australia’s recently formed Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), with a posting to Tokyo. Appointments to Jakarta, and to ASIS headquarters at the Victoria Barracks, Melbourne, followed. His time with the organisation coincided with a series of significant regional events and crises. He recalled that, while he was stationed in Jakarta, Australia’s reluctance to recognise Indonesia’s territorial claims to Netherlands New Guinea (Irian Jaya) undermined much of the goodwill that had accrued from its support for Indonesia’s struggle with the Dutch. He rose to become deputy director of ASIS (1971–73). On 28 July 1962, at All Saints’ Church of England, Woollahra, he had married Arija Flomena Stepanitas Baltrumas, a Lithuanian-born widow and fashion design business owner.

Following the election of the Whitlam Labor government in December 1972, (Sir) Roderick Carnegie, chief executive of Conzinc Riotinto of Australia Ltd (CRA), offered Austin a role with the company. Having conservative political leanings and an antipathy towards the incoming government, Austin was persuaded to accept after the Commonwealth Police raid on the Australian Security Intelligence Organization offices on 16 March 1973, authorised by the then attorney-general, Lionel Murphy. Murphy suspected that ASIO was withholding information on Croatian militia in Australia. Austin had known Murphy from his days at the Sydney Bar and in a rare undiplomatic description, later referred to him as ‘a complete shit’ (NLA MS Acc03.015). Such was his mistrust of the Labor government that he and his colleagues removed files they considered sensitive from the ASIS premises, in case it too was raided by the government.

Austin resigned from ASIS later in 1973 to take up the position of CRA executive manager, corporate relations, and in March 1974 assumed an additional role as president and representative director of Rio Tinto-Zinc (Japan), in which CRA held a majority share. He represented the company on many associations including the Australia-Philippines Business Co-operation Committee and similar organisations for Korea, Indonesia, and Japan, as well as the Pacific Basin Economic Committee, the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)-Australia Business Council, and the Australia-Japan Foundation (1981–86). As Victorian state councillor, he  served on the Australian British Trade Association. In 1973 he was appointed a trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria and later deputy president (1979–84). He served as a councillor for the Australiana Fund and a member of the Australia Council (1979–82) and various fine arts and collectors’ societies.

On his retirement in 1986, Austin and his wife moved to Queensland where he served on an array of boards and committees, including the Queensland Films Board of Review, the council of Griffith University (1984–90), and the Queensland Art Gallery (chairman of trustees 1987–95) where he used his connections to secure funding for major exhibitions, as well as to build the gallery’s Asian and Pacific collections. He was appointed OBE in 1982, and AO in 1996. In 1993 Griffith University conferred on him an honorary doctorate, and 1995 he was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese government.

A man of diverse interests, oriental art, horse-racing, and shooting were Austin’s favourite forms of recreation. Fluent in Japanese, and competent in Indonesian, German, French, and Italian, he published two monographs—The Narrow Road to a Far Country (1991), and The Shadow of the Durian (1993)—reflecting on his experiences in Asia as a soldier, diplomat, and businessman. Small in stature, impeccably dressed, cultured, urbane, and charming, Austin was an articulate speaker, with a breadth of knowledge, as well as a fondness for Latin and Greek, and quoting poetry. Survived by his wife, he died of prostate cancer at Buderim, Queensland, on 17 May 2000, and was cremated. The couple had no children. The Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art awarded him the inaugural Gallery Medal posthumously in 2014. On her death in 2015, Arija bequeathed over 200 art works to the University of the Sunshine Coast, which also received the proceeds from the sale of the couple’s remaining collection.

Research edited by Peter Woodley

Select Bibliography

  • Austin, R. W. L. The Narrow Road to a Far Country: Intimations of Things Japanese. Australians in Asia Series, No 7. Centre for the Study of Australia-Asia Relations. Nathan, Qld: Griffith University, 1991
  • Austin, R. W. L. The Shadow of the Durian: Indonesia Observed. Australians in Asia Series, No. 10. Brisbane: Centre for the Study of Australia-Asia Relations, Griffith University, 1993
  • Austin, Richard W. L. ‘A Swim in the Red River.’ Unpublished manuscript, n.d. Papers of Richard W.L. Austin, MS Acc03.015. National Library of Australia
  • Gifford, Margaret. I Can Hear the Horses. North Ryde, NSW: Methuen Hayes, 1983
  • National Library of Australia. MS Acc03.015, Papers of Richard W.L. Austin, circa 1934–1997
  • Sun (Sydney). ‘Best-Dressed Men.’ 8 January 1950, 5
  • Toohey, Brian, and William Pinwill. Oyster: The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. Port Melbourne: Mandarin Australia, 1990
  • Woolcott, Richard. ‘From Burma Railway to Diplomatic Track.’ Australian, 31 May 2000, 14

Additional Resources

Citation details

Robert Porter, 'Austin, Richard Wigram (Dick) (1919–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/austin-richard-wigram-dick-32821/text40832, published online 2023, accessed online 25 February 2024.

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