Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Sir John Grenfell (Jack) Crawford (1910–1984)

by J. D. B. Miller

This article was published:

Sir John Grenfell (Jack) Crawford (1910-1984), economist, public servant and academic administrator, was born on 4 April 1910 at Hurstville, Sydney, tenth of twelve children of Henry Crawford, stationmaster, and his wife Harriet Isabel, née Wood, both born in New South Wales. Thomas Crawford was his uncle. His elder brother Raymond Maxwell Crawford (1906-1991) was to become professor of history at the University of Melbourne.

Jack was educated at Bexley Public and Sydney Boys’ High schools. He left the latter in 1926 because of his father’s unemployment and joined the Government Savings Bank of New South Wales. Returning to school in 1927, he achieved brilliant results in the Leaving certificate and won an exhibition to the University of Sydney (B.Ec., 1932; M.Ec., 1940), which allowed him to be employed by day as a junior clerk in the Department of the Attorney-General and of Justice. At the beginning of his third year he left the public service and gained a Teachers’ College scholarship; he did the training course by day while continuing his economics studies at night. He obtained first-class honours.

As a young man in the Depression, Crawford had a few months of unemployment before a year of school teaching at Stanmore and Temora. From 1933 to 1935 he held a Walter and Eliza Hall research fellowship at the University of Sydney and from 1934 to 1942 he was a part-time lecturer in rural economics there. He was also a highly successful tutor in economics and international affairs for the Workers’ Educational Association of New South Wales, and economic adviser (1935-44) to the Rural Bank of New South Wales. On 18 May 1935 at the Presbyterian Church, Bexley, he married Jessie Anderson Morgan, a clerk. The chronic illness, undiagnosed until her eventual death, of their intellectually gifted daughter profoundly distressed him.

In the 1930s Crawford was concerned for the state of Australian agriculture and vitally interested in international affairs, both in Asia and Europe. He published widely on trade. His book The National Income of Australia (1938), co-authored with Colin Clark, was a pioneering effort, as was his courageous chapter, `Australia as a Pacific Power’, in Australia’s Foreign Policy (1938), edited by Walter Duncan. That paper stands out still as a precursor of later attempts to analyse and foreshadow Australian relations with Asia, especially Japan; it looked forward to a more effective peace in Asia.

Perhaps the decisive element in Crawford’s development was the award of a Commonwealth Fund fellowship in 1938, which enabled him to study in the United States of America until 1940. He spent time at the Brookings Institution, the US Department of Agriculture and Harvard University. Crawford retained a long-standing affection for the USA and for the teachers and friends he had met there, and he was proud that he had learned to drive in Washington, DC. He was to be foundation president (1960-62) of the Canberra division of the Australian-American Association.

After returning to Sydney, Crawford obtained first-class honours and the university medal for his master’s thesis on tariffs, an issue that would concern him throughout his future career as a public servant. In 1942 he was appointed as rural adviser to the Commonwealth Department of War Organization of Industry, and next year director of research in the Department of Post-War Reconstruction. In this capacity he advised Ben Chifley wisely on postwar soldier settlement. He moved to Canberra in 1944.

A milestone in Crawford’s career was the establishment in 1945 of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics. As its founding director he made this agency an indispensable part of the Commonwealth’s resources, before becoming secretary of the Department of Commerce and Agriculture in 1950. Known as one of the `seven dwarfs’—senior public servants short in stature and influential in policy-making— he held that office until 1956, when, with a reorganisation of departments, he was made secretary of the new Department of Trade. In this role he supervised the negotiation of agreements with Britain and Japan. The first of these, concluded in 1956, greatly modified the 1932 Ottawa Agreement and its Imperial preference arrangements, leaving Australia free to eliminate preference to British goods. The second, the Australia-Japan Agreement on Commerce of 1957, provided for the expansion of trade with Japan, and, for the first time, most-favoured-nation treatment of Japanese imports. Awarded the Farrer Memorial medal in 1957, Crawford was president of the Australian Agricultural Economics Society in 1958.

Having been appointed CBE in 1954, Crawford was knighted in 1959. In 1960 he left formal government service, and became professor of economics in, and director of, the Research School of Pacific Studies at the Australian National University, Canberra, while stipulating that he must be free to undertake government inquiries and international commitments. The school had been in some disarray because of personal conflicts, doubts about purposes and concerns about regional emphases. Crawford took firm control. He reestablished the department of international relations, instituted regular faculty board meetings, set up a department of economics specialising in Indonesia, founded the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and encouraged the New Guinea Research Unit, thus giving the school a strong regional focus while not preventing units and departments from venturing further afield. His work led to the development of the Contemporary China Centre, the North Australia Research Unit and the Australia-Japan Research Centre. The school attained much international attention and respect under his leadership.

Crawford’s association with the ANU, of which he had become fiscal adviser soon after his arrival, did not prevent his involvement in wider activities. He was chairman (1962-64) of the Australian Wool Industry Conference. In 1964-65 he took part in the World Bank’s economic mission to India; he then made regular visits to assist in the implementation of his strategy for Indian agricultural development. From his earlier concern with local agriculture he had moved on to international considerations in the same sphere, his work on India being the most comprehensive and effective. It was the initiative of which he was most proud, contributing as it did to the making of a world where people would have enough to eat. His Roy Milne memorial lecture of 1961 for the Australian Institute of International Affairs entitled `International Aspects of Feeding Six Billion People’ set out his position as a `Malthusian optimist’ (Lloyd Evans’s expression) who sought to falsify the `Malthusian expectation’ of population growth outstripping the means of subsistence. In his association with the World Bank and with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations he pursued that aim to the end of his life.

In Australia Crawford served on a variety of government inquiries. The most significant was (Sir) James Vernon’s committee of economic inquiry (1963-65), of which he was vice-chairman and the most active member; the government’s rejection of its main recommendations was one of Crawford’s greatest disappointments. The state of the Australian economy was his continuing concern, and he was to chair a study group on the structural adjustment of manufacturing industries, which reported to the government in 1979. His interest in Australian trade policy also persisted; his last major work was Australian Trade Policy 1942-1966 (1968), in which he was assisted by Nancy Anderson and Margery Morris.

Sir John’s appointments as vice-chancellor (1968-73) and chancellor (1976-84) of the ANU were logical culminations of his career. To his years as vice-chancellor he brought his intense managerial style and his capacity to identify issues and confront them. He weathered the years of student revolt with careful strategic preparation, improved communication between the university’s administration and student bodies, and increased student involvement in university government. He also sought to promote the intellectual unity of the university and to strengthen relations between the Institute of Advanced Studies and the School of General Studies, while maintaining the existing structure.

As chancellor, Crawford perhaps overdid his part; but always his initiatives were for perceived purposes, such as the concern about the deterioration of the environment that had led to his creation of the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies. Its establishment also furthered his aim of bringing the IAS and the SGS closer together. His approach to university management and funding was constant; allied with this was his close interest in scientific discovery and the effect it might have on the environment and on human prosperity. President of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science in 1967-68, he was awarded the ANZAAS medal in 1971.

Crawford continued to be in demand internationally. One of his more challenging roles at this period was that of chairman (1971-76) of the technical advisory committee of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. During his term he persuaded the group to establish several new research centres; he was to be a driving force behind the formation of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research in 1982. He demonstrated his concern for Papua New Guinea by serving as chancellor of its university in 1972-75 and chairman of the Development Bank of Papua and New Guinea in 1972-74. At the invitation of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira of Japan, he convened in September 1980 the Pacific Community Seminar, which charted the course for the later establishment of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and he became a close adviser of Prime Minister Bob Hawke on the first steps towards that initiative. In 1972 he had been appointed to the Japanese Order of the Sacred Treasure and in 1984 he won a Japan Foundation award. Appointed AC in 1978, he was named Australian of the Year for 1981. He received honorary doctorates from the ANU and the universities of Newcastle, New England, Tasmania, Sydney, Papua New Guinea and Orissa, India.

A small man with a big head, Crawford joked about having trouble buying shirts because of his short arms. He also became somewhat deaf. None of these characteristics reduced his impact on those with whom he worked. Russell Mathews, a colleague and friend, listed his qualities as `authority, persuasiveness, reason, fairness, humanity, integrity, stubbornness, fiscal acumen, a background of scholarship and public service, academic vision and administrative capacity’.

Garnet Portus, who had taught him, remembered him as `wise, kindly, humorous, lovable’. To these qualities should be added loyalty, pragmatism and personal dignity combined with good-humoured self-deprecation; he was also a `workaholic’.

Sir John pursued the public good, both nationally and internationally. He was not dogmatic, nor a follower of any political party. The ministers whom he admired most were Chifley and (Sir) John McEwen, from opposite sides in politics: he found that both had visions of a future Australia and both could be persuaded to courses of action which went beyond immediate pressures and considerations. Well aware of how different interests pulled in different directions, he looked for consensus and for the best level of agreement that could be achieved, which made him a remarkably effective committee chairman.

Crawford’s pragmatism was not opportunism. Given a particular problem, in a committee or an inquiry, he would often begin with the desired outcome and would pursue it in the debate. Maintaining respect for other points of view, he yielded to them if he was persuaded of their validity, while making clear his own original position if he thought it vital. He operated in terms of principle, yet also had a natural politician’s awareness of the plurality of opinion and of the bounds of possibility. His basic reasonableness and his persuasiveness, combined with his sense of fairness and his humorous nature, meant that he often got what he wanted. When he did not, as with the unhappy outcome of the Vernon committee and the unsuccessful attempt in the early 1970s to retain a somewhat privileged position in government funding for the ANU, he accepted the result and did not repine.

Although Crawford was among the earliest Australian economists to gain general respect, he did not find the development of the subject, or of the social sciences at large, entirely to his liking. H. W. Arndt related that Crawford thought of himself as `an economist, but very much a practising applied economist’. He had a poor opinion of `what passes for economics’ at universities, so much of it being, he believed, `exercises in mathematical logic’. He was a policy man. His natural bent and his experience in government led him to the view that, while knowledge might well be pursued for its own sake, the resources available might be better spent when they had practical purposes.

Survived by his wife, Crawford died on 28 October 1984 in Royal Canberra Hospital and was cremated. He was universally mourned by those who had known and worked with him. His final illness had brought letters from Indira Gandhi, Pierre Trudeau and Lord Home. Bryan Westwood’s portrait (1973) of Crawford is held by the ANU, where a building and a prize for postgraduate students are named after him. A memorial lecture, sponsored by the Australian government, is held at annual CGIAR meetings. The Crawford Fund, established by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in 1987, promotes international agricultural research.

Select Bibliography

  • Sir John Crawford 1910-1984 (1986)
  • L. T. Evans and J. D. B. Miller (eds), Policy and Practice (1987) and for publications
  • S. G. Foster and M. M. Varghese, The Making of the Australian National University 1946-1996 (1996)
  • The Australia-Japan Agreement on Commerce 1957 (1997)
  • Economic Record, vol 61, no 173, 1985, p 507
  • ANU Reporter, 11 May 1984, p 2, 9 Nov 1984, p 2
  • Canberra Times, 31 Oct 1984, p 2
  • Crawford papers (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

J. D. B. Miller, 'Crawford, Sir John Grenfell (Jack) (1910–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 16 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


4 April, 1910
Hurstville, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


28 October, 1984 (aged 74)
Acton, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Key Events
Key Organisations