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Richard Boyer (1923–1989)

by Marion Consandine

This article was published:

Richard Boyer (1923-1989), pastoralist, public servant and Australian Broadcasting Corporation board-member, was born on 7 February 1923 at Charleville, Queensland, elder child of (Sir) Richard James Fildes Boyer and his wife Eleanor (Elenor) Muriel, née Underwood, both born in New South Wales. Richard’s early years were spent on his parents’ property Durella, near Morven, Queensland. Having attended (1936-41) Brisbane Boys’ College, on 10 March 1942 he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. He served in Australia as a radio and radar operator, spending most of 1943 at Exmouth Gulf, Western Australia, and rising to temporary sergeant before being discharged on 26 September 1945. He married his teenage sweetheart Marjorie Hitchcock on 14 December 1946 at St Thomas’s Church of England, Toowong, Queensland.

At the University of Sydney (BA, 1949), Boyer majored in economics. Lectures by Heinz Arndt `brought the subject alive’ for him. Boyer became manager and part owner of a sheep-grazing property, Aqua Downs, 80 miles (129 km) from Charleville. Bush life and its comradeship attracted him: `because of the great distance from everything … your neighbour will back you to the very hilt’. He believed that in so far as there was a distinctive Australian culture, it was to be discovered in the bush. Founder and chairman of a local community centre, he was also a member of the executive council of the United Graziers’ Association of Queensland.

Leaving Aqua Downs under the management of a cousin, in 1956 Boyer went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford (BA, 1958; MA, 1962), to study philosophy, politics and economics. Following his return to Australia in 1959 he lived in Sydney. Unemployed, he began writing a strategy for the marketing of wool in the future. At a seminar at the Australian National University, Canberra, in July that year—part of Sir Keith Hancock’s [q.v.] series on wool—he argued for a central wool marketing authority independent of government control. This paper was the beginning of Boyer’s determined efforts to reform the economic system.

After appointment to the Tariff Board in 1959 Boyer moved to Canberra. He never again lived permanently at Aqua Downs, but holidays were spent `going bush’ until the property was sold in 1964. Aware of the entrenched resistance from both rural and industrial sectors to changes in the tariff regime, he called for discussion of the negative effects of Australia’s high tariffs on the country’s economic development. An exponent of the benefits of free trade for underdeveloped countries, in 1972 he succeeded Sir Leslie Melville as chairman of the Papua and New Guinea Tariff Advisory Committee. Boyer’s mission was `to entice more industry to Papua New Guinea’.

He contended that developing countries could gain substantial advantages from the export of labour-intensive goods, as their main economic asset was cheap labour. While countries like Australia protected industries with tariff walls, they restricted the export of goods from developing countries, which were thus made dependent on aid. Boyer argued for `more trade, less aid’ and `more certain sources of foreign exchange’ for Third World countries so they could be more independent.

In 1974 Boyer was appointed by the Whitlam government to the Industries Assistance Commission, successor to the Tariff Board. In a speech that year on `Primary Production in a Harsh Environment—the Significance of the I.A.C.’, at the Rural Management School, Charleville, he outlined what he saw as the way forward for the bush. He argued that assistance for primary industries had to be based on its benefits to the nation as a whole and advocated that small farms should be consolidated into large ones and more efficient technologies and production practices adopted.

A major dispute erupted after this address. The United Graziers’ Association of Queensland said his views were contrary to those of the association. He resigned from its Warrego branch, deeply hurt by this response. In 1970 he founded Economic Wool Producers Ltd, which made a major contribution to the wool industry, introducing sale by sample and description, and developing a computerised selling system. At the Metal Trades Federation of Unions seminar on `The Future of Australian Manufacturing’ in 1977 at Bankstown Town Hall, Sydney, Boyer gave a paper on the role of the IAC, arguing that reduced protection would benefit not only the manufacturing sector but the economy and community as a whole. He felt keenly the opposition to his proposals expressed at the seminar.

The 1976 IAC inquiry into assistance to the performing arts, conducted by Boyer, supported `some long term assistance’ but could not assess the appropriate level. Boyer asserted that arts funding was little different from public subsidy in other areas of the economy and that the arts needed to demonstrate public benefit if they were to continue to receive public funds. Opera and classical ballet were not `intrinsically more worthy’ than other entertainments. He also suggested that State symphony orchestras had outlived their usefulness. For these attitudes he was branded a philistine. Gough Whitlam wrote in The Whitlam Government (1985) of his relief that the IAC’s `provocative, well-reasoned, widely misunderstood and in many ways salutary examination of the issues involved in public subvention for the arts finished up on [Malcolm] Fraser’s desk rather than mine’.

In 1981 Boyer’s term as commissioner expired. In twenty-two years with the Tariff Board and the IAC, he had been noted for his outspoken and independent ideas, which were often contrary to government policy and which cut across powerful sectional interests fiercely resistant to change. However, many of the reforms Boyer advocated were later taken up. He served briefly as a special (economic) adviser to the Liberal minister for foreign affairs, A. A. (Tony) Street, and on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Remuneration Tribunal and the Paper Conversion Printing and Publishing Industry Council. He was senior partner of Boyer & Associates, economic planning consultants.

In 1983 Boyer was appointed to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation board for a three-year term. As principal author of a board paper, The Role of a National Broadcaster in Contemporary Australia, he argued, with his usual intellectual rigour, that the most pressing issues for the ABC were how to maintain independence from government while remaining accountable to parliament, and how to increase the range of ideas, interests and experiences available to the whole Australian community. The ABC was uniquely placed to articulate the reality of a changing, complex, pluralistic society and to strengthen Australia’s democratic values of open-mindedness and tolerance by explaining and protecting diversity, even as it fostered unity.

Boyer’s last major address, `Australia—200 Years from Where I Sit’, delivered at Murdoch University, Perth, in November 1987, warned against nihilism, corruption, and the abandonment of the traditional value system. Capitalism needed to be lubricated by a strong sense of national purpose and by the values of honesty and integrity.

A tall, handsome man, fearlessly committed to fundamental change, Boyer envisaged, and sought to win acceptance for, an open, competitive economic system with a strong ethical base. He was against special government handouts or protection for sectional interests, including the rural community from which he had come. Retaining the values instilled in him from birth, he strove for the common good. He was appointed AM in 1987. Survived by his wife and their two sons and three daughters, he died of cancer on 25 January 1989 in his home at Red Hill, Canberra, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Whitlam, The Whitlam Government 1972-1975 (1985)
  • Oxford Mail, 19 Jan 1956 and Oxford Times, 27 July 1956 (copies held by ADB)
  • Age (Melbourne), 10 June 1983, p 7
  • Canberra Times, 6 Aug 1983, p 1, 27 Jan 1989, p 9
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Feb 1989, p 4
  • series A9301, item 62676 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Richard Boyer papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Marion Consandine, 'Boyer, Richard (1923–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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