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Sir Douglas Berry Copland (1894–1971)

by Marjorie Harper

This article was published:

Douglas Berry Copland (1894-1971), by unknown photographer

Douglas Berry Copland (1894-1971), by unknown photographer

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L10809

Sir Douglas Berry Copland (1894-1971), academic, economist, bureaucrat and diplomat, was born on 24 February 1894 at Otaio, near Timaru, New Zealand, thirteenth of sixteen children of Alexander Copland and his wife Annie Morton, née Loudon, both Scottish-born Presbyterians. Alexander and Annie were pioneer farmers who grew wheat, raised sheep and bred horses. Educated at Esk Valley Primary School and Waimate District High School, Douglas qualified as a secondary schoolteacher at Christchurch Teachers' Training College and studied concurrently at Canterbury College, University of New Zealand (B.A., 1915; M.A. Hons, 1916).

Upon graduation, Copland tried to enlist in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and subsequently in the reserve, but was rejected as medically unfit. Greatly unsettled, he spent the summer of 1915-16 as a compiler at the Census and Statistics Office in Wellington before becoming a mathematics master (1916-17) at Christchurch Boys' High School and a graduate research assistant in economics (1917) at Canterbury College. In addition, in 1915-17 he lectured in economics for the Workers' Educational Association, both in Wellington and at Christchurch.

From 1917 Copland pioneered the development of the economics profession in Australia. That year he took up a joint appointment as lecturer in history and economics at the University of Tasmania and tutor with the State branch of the W.E.A. of Australia. By the end of his seven years in Hobart, he enjoyed an established reputation as professor of economics (from 1920) and dean of the new faculty of commerce (which he had helped to inaugurate in 1920), and as director of tutorial classes for the Tasmanian branch of W.E.A. (he was the organization's federal president in 1921-22). He had given advice to successive Tasmanian governments on economics and education, and become a prolific writer and controversial public speaker. The University of New Zealand awarded him a D.Sc. in 1925 for his study of the wheat industry in that country. Each of these achievements, although pleasing to him, merely stimulated him to look for a wider field of activity, either in his homeland or in Melbourne. Initially, he favoured New Zealand because of family ties. On 28 January 1919 he had married Ruth Victoria Jones with Presbyterian forms in her father's house at Waimate. Ruth and Douglas had known each other from their schooldays. She was reluctant to leave New Zealand, but Copland's applications for chairs at Canterbury College and the University of Otago were unsuccessful.

Supported by leaders of the business community, the University of Melbourne established a faculty of commerce and in 1924 appointed Copland to the foundation Sidney Myer chair. He was to occupy the post for twenty years until 1944 when he accepted the new Truby Williams chair of economics. From 1924 to 1939 (with the exception of 1933) he was also dean. His energetic and efficient leadership ensured the rapid expansion of the faculty and brought him control (from 1930) of the school of economics in the faculty of arts. The majority of commerce scholars were part-time or external students. Employed in industry, the public service or education, or enrolled externally if they lived in rural areas, they differed from the usual undergraduates. It was Copland's mission to see that they were at least equally esteemed. To this end, they were 'bred to the world of affairs, public policy and applied economics'.

Never did Copland interpret the professorial role in a narrow sense. He had been a founding member and first president (1925-28) of the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand. As editor-in-chief (1925-45) of the society's journal, the Economic Record, he aimed to give the profession a cohesive focus and to raise the level of public debate. His insistence that governments take professional advice on economic problems had two obvious effects: the public service, at State and Federal levels, was gradually opened up to graduates, and academics were increasingly consulted on policy matters. Many demands were placed on him. At the invitation of the Commonwealth Development and Migration Commission, he evaluated a series of investment projects and wrote 'The Control of the Business Cycle with Special Reference to Australia', Appendix 1 to the commission's Report on Unemployment and Business Stability in Australia (Melbourne, 1928). The Federal government sought his views on tariff policy. Although his book, The Australian Tariff: An Economic Enquiry (Melbourne, 1929), co-authored with James Brigden, Edward Dyason, Lyndhurst Giblin and Charles Wickens, was not acted upon, it achieved lasting fame in academic circles in Australia and abroad.

With the onset and deepening of the Depression, Copland publicly recommended exchange-rate depreciation, and, as an expert witness before the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, advocated a reduction in the basic wage. In 1931 he chaired a committee of economists and under-treasurers which reported to the Australian Loan Council on means of restoring financial stability. The resulting Premiers' Plan (first called the Copland Plan) featured budgetary cuts and the conversion of internal debt to a lower rate of interest. It underscored the need for Australia to retain viability as a borrower and to spread the income losses of the Depression across the community.

Then, and later, these measures proved highly controversial. Encouraged by J. M. (Baron) Keynes's public assessment in 1932 that 'the Premiers' Plan last year saved the economic structure of Australia', Copland vigorously explained and defended the strategy adopted. In particular, the publication of Australia in the World Crisis 1929-1933 (Cambridge, 1934)—the Alfred Marshall Lectures he had delivered in England at the University of Cambridge in 1933—roused international debate on Australian policies and earned Copland a Litt.D. (1935) from the University of Melbourne. From 1932 the Victorian government had regularly asked for his advice on financial relations with the Commonwealth and chose him in 1938 to chair the State Economic Committee. The premier of New South Wales (Sir) Bertram Stevens retained his services as an unofficial adviser (1932-39); so, too, after 1932, did the businessmen whose firms constituted the Collins House Group, their principal contact with Copland being William Robinson.

Copland's influence was not confined to Australian affairs. Having been selected in 1925 by the Rockefeller Foundation as its Australian and New Zealand representative on the Laura Spelman Rockefeller memorial (fund), he forged links with the international community of economists. In 1926, as guest of the foundation, he visited key universities, business schools, agricultural colleges, research institutes, government departments and banks in the United States of America, Canada, Britain and Europe. Opportunities were thus created for overseas scholars to visit Australia and for Australians to study abroad. Australia thereby became locked into an international study of quantitative aspects of the business cycle, which the foundation sponsored and which continued through the 1930s.

In 1932 Copland was one of four members of the Economic Committee which reported to the New Zealand government on Depression policies. In 1933 he was an Australian delegate to the fourteenth session of the League of Nations, held at Geneva, Switzerland, and that year gave advice—especially on the problems of wheat marketing—to Stanley Melbourne (Viscount) Bruce at the Monetary and Economic Conference, London. In 1935 he lectured at universities in Japan as a guest of the Japanese government. In 1938, representing the Australian Institute of International Affairs, he was a delegate to the second British Commonwealth Relations Conference, held at Lapstone, New South Wales. Increasingly concerned with the consequences of autarky and totalitarianism, he campaigned in favour of industrial mobilization for the defence of Australia.

As Copland grew in public stature, his role at the University of Melbourne expanded. He became increasingly involved in finance and administration. In his opinion there was much room for reform—through increased State grants, financial support from the private sector, the appointment of a paid vice-chancellor, and the recognition of academic initiative and opinion in the direction of university affairs. As chairman of the professorial board (1935-37) and acting vice-chancellor (1936-37), he vigorously pursued these ends. On the resignation of the first salaried vice-chancellor (Sir) Raymond Priestley, Copland was the choice of a committee of the university council, and a majority of the professorial board, for the post. Influential members of the council sought an alternative candidate, however, and (Sir) John Medley was selected in March 1938 by a vote of 15 to 14. Severely embarrassed by the rebuff, Copland began to seek employment elsewhere. He did not formally resign from the university until late 1945, but he increasingly withdrew from Melbourne, accepting secondment to Canberra as Commonwealth prices commissioner (1939-45) and as economic consultant to the prime minister (1941-45).

Copland's national and international experience fitted him for the work of a wartime bureaucrat. As prices commissioner, he was outstandingly successful. He aimed to control rather than to fix prices. In early 1943 he initiated a comprehensive policy of stabilization, which provided for price ceilings and subsidies to ensure adequate production and equitable distribution of basic articles of consumption at reasonable prices. The Australian system was recognized as one of the most effective in the Western world. In the role of economic consultant, Copland maintained liaisons with appropriate departments. He was concerned with the development of social security, and with Australia's external economic relationships in the light of the government's full employment policy and its attitude towards the Bretton Woods agreement (1944).

A break in Copland's career came in 1946 when he was appointed Australian minister to China. The power of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) government was fading. Copland's dispatches revealed a quick disillusionment with the Nationalists, who appeared inefficient, corrupt and intractable, and destined to be displaced by the communists. His time in China was that of an itinerant. He travelled widely, attended the first session of the United Nations General Assembly (1946) and participated in preliminary negotiations for drafting a peace treaty with Japan.

In 1948 Copland returned to Canberra and to academic life as founding vice-chancellor (from 11 May) of the Australian National University. His pioneering activity entailed gruelling demands, for the university existed as little more than an idea and a name, supported by the services of an interim council and an academic advisory committee. The construction of buildings was made difficult by shortages of supplies. Potential staff and scholars were apt to be repelled by Canberra's relative isolation. Relationships with the State universities, eager for funds, were delicate. In the five years of his tenure he presided over the establishment of University House (the residential college), the research schools of physical sciences, social sciences and Pacific studies, and the John Curtin School of Medical Research. Eminent expatriate scholars and promising younger Australians were attracted to the staff. By publicly stressing A.N.U.'s research role and by taking a leading part in the Commonwealth committee of inquiry into the universities (1950), Copland did much to allay the fears of State universities.

When accepting appointment as vice-chancellor, he had stipulated that he retain his role as economist. He was outspoken on Federal policy; in particular, he warned in 1949 that Australia could develop a 'milk-bar economy' if the balance of production were not moved to basic industries; he was also critical of the management of the wool boom. Copland began a long association (1949-68) with the Immigration Planning Council, gave advice concerning the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority and urged closer economic ties with the U.S.A. While his efforts to influence public policy were not always popular with the Federal government, he was appointed K.B.E. in 1950.

In 1953 Sir Douglas accepted the post of high commissioner to Canada, a move which gave scope to his skills as diplomat and economist. Apart from his duties in Canada, where he was a popular appointee, he represented Australia at sessions of the United Nations General Assembly. As a member (president 1955) of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, he chaired the fifth session of the Intergovernmental Committee on European Migration (1953) at Geneva and attended the World Population Conference (1954) in Rome.

He greatly enjoyed his work in Canada, but resigned after three years to undertake a new venture. During the 1950s there was in Australia a growing recognition of the need to develop managerial and administrative skills. In 1956 a group of prominent businessmen established the Australian Administrative Staff College and considered Copland the obvious choice for its founding principal. He accepted, seeing the post as a new frontier in education. Very soon the college, wonderfully housed at Mount Eliza, Victoria, was conducting its first programmes, with participants living-in for a fixed session. Demand for its services was brisk, and the principal had a new forum as economist. He tirelessly preached the 'adventure of growth', and became the inaugural chairman of the National Obsolescence Council (1958) and of the Australian Productivity Council (1959). Alert to the future educational possibilities of business archives, in 1957 he had been chosen as first president of the Victorian branch of the Business Archives Council of Australia.

In 1960 his term at Mount Eliza ended and he was invited to lead a group of Australian industrialists and manufacturers on a trade mission to Canada and the U.S.A. It was well received. On his way home, he visited Geneva. There he advised the director-general of the International Labour Organization on setting up an international institute for labour studies, using the institutional methods adopted at Mount Eliza. Offered a three-year appointment as director, Copland took the job. He quickly became convinced that he was being used as a figurehead, rather than as a working director, and resigned. Back in Melbourne, it was necessary to make a new start, but that was not difficult. He became first chairman of the board of trustees of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, accepted a number of directorships with private industry and was economic consultant to Walter P. Ham & Co., stockbrokers. Retirement came only with illness.

Copland was a big man, with immediate presence. He dressed immaculately. His large face was usually set in an expression of bland determination or urbane geniality, without which it looked somewhat aloof. Although athletic and energetic, he had been rejected for military service because of a lesion in the heart valve. In 1922 overwork resulted in a general breakdown of health and the development of a stomach ulcer which proved troublesome for the rest of his life, particularly at times of stress. He was hospitalized in 1932 after his exertions of the previous two years. Gregarious by nature, he evoked affection and loyalty, or dislike and hostility, but seldom indifference. He was admired for his optimism, forthrightness, warmth and courage, but criticized for his aggressiveness, naive vanity and occasional irritability—criticism which he accepted without malice.

An outstanding administrator, Copland was often 'first in the freshest field'. He chose his staff carefully, built up a feeling of solidarity, and delegated well. As an economist, he concentrated on the application of theory rather than on its advancement. His writings were abundant and various: books, monographs, articles in a wide range of scholarly journals, and contributions to popular magazines and newspapers. His skills as an editor encouraged other scholars; as a radio commentator, he was in constant demand. Among many overseas universities, he lectured at Harvard, U.S.A. (for its Tercentenary in 1936 and as Godkin lecturer in 1945), Oxford, England (Sidney Ball Lecture 1953), Dublin, Ireland, and McGill, Canada. He was a member (1948) of the American Philosophical Society.

Public recognition was not lacking. He had been appointed C.M.G. (1933) and received honorary doctorates from the A.N.U. (1967), as well as other universities in Australia, the U.S.A. and Canada. For his sixty-fifth birthday, the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand devoted the March 1960 issue of the Economic Record to 'Essays in Honour of Sir Douglas Copland'. Survived by his wife and two daughters, he died on 27 September 1971 at Kyneton, Victoria, and was buried in Springvale cemetery. His name is perpetuated by a lecture theatre at the University of Melbourne, a building at A.N.U., a secondary college in the Canberra suburb of Melba and by a series of lectures sponsored by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. Charles Wheeler's portrait of Copland is held by the University of Melbourne; another by Paul Fitzgerald is at the Australian Management College, Mount Eliza.

Select Bibliography

  • Economic Record, vol 36, no 73, Mar 1960, pp 1, 124, and for pubs, p 173, vol 47, no 120, Dec 1971, p 465
  • Australian Economic Historical Review, 32, no 2, Sept 1983, p 193
  • H. Bourke, Worker Education and Social Inquiry in Australia (Ph.D. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1981)
  • D. B. Copland papers (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Related Thematic Essay

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Citation details

Marjorie Harper, 'Copland, Sir Douglas Berry (1894–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 19 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Douglas Berry Copland (1894-1971), by unknown photographer

Douglas Berry Copland (1894-1971), by unknown photographer

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L10809