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Leslie Finlay (Fin) Crisp (1917–1984)

by Scott Bennett

This article was published:

Leslie Finlay (Fin) Crisp (1917-1984), professor of political science and public servant, was born on 19 January 1917 at Sandringham, Melbourne, son of Leslie Walter Crisp, hardware salesman, and his wife Ruby Elizabeth, née Duff, both Melbourne born. `Fin’ was educated at Black Rock State School (1924-28), Caulfield Grammar School (1929) and the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide (1930-34). Graduating from the University of Adelaide (BA, 1938; MA, 1948) with first-class honours in political science and history, he was selected as South Australian Rhodes scholar for 1938. Next year he enrolled at Balliol College, Oxford (BA, MA, 1948). On 22 June 1940 at the register office, Oxford, he married Helen Craven Wighton, whom he had met at university in Adelaide. Crisp chose not to complete a wartime degree and, rejected on medical grounds for military service, sailed with his wife for Australia. Their wedding had been brought forward to enable them to share a cabin home.

Joining the Commonwealth Public Service in 1940, Crisp worked first in Melbourne with the Department of Information then in Canberra in the reconstruction division of the Department of Labour and National Service (Department of Post-War Reconstruction from 1942). His work was interrupted in 1947-48 when he and Helen returned to Oxford, where he gained first-class honours in philosophy, politics and economics. In 1949 he was appointed director-general of postwar reconstruction.

Next year Crisp took up his appointment as the first professor of political science at Canberra University College. Despite having been a member (1949-50) of the interim council of the Australian National University, he later opposed what he called the `shotgun wedding’ of the college and the research-only ANU in 1960. After the amalgamation, however, he worked hard to give a sense of permanence to the reshaped university. He helped in the development of a student union, served as president of the staff association, did his share of committee work and endeavoured to ensure that the teaching of undergraduates received its due recognition. Unfailingly helpful to younger staff and students, he encouraged them in their research and writing, and enjoyed entertaining them at home. Crisp was a distinctive figure on campus. He was one of the last to lecture in a gown and, until his retirement, continued to line up to receive his fortnightly pay in cash. His lecturing style was deliberately theatrical: chin tucked into his chest, he peered at the class over the top of his glasses, addressing them in his deep, rumbling voice. Students enjoyed the performance.

Crisp spoke of how growing up in the Depression years shaped his world view, which included a lifelong membership of the Australian Labor Party. This coloured his teaching.

Generations of students were told that the `anti-Labour’ parties (the `parties of town and country capital’) `lifted’ most of their social policies from the ALP, that the Australian federal system was a `constitutional confection’, and that a `formidable’ case could be mounted for the abolition of the Senate.

Crisp’s teaching focused heavily on political and governmental institutions, and was interlarded with what a colleague described as `a wealth of political history’. He believed that students could comprehend Australian government only if they understood it as an ongoing development of the Westminster model. His introductory course therefore began with an analysis of British government before moving to the Australian example. This approach could also be seen in his writing. In 1949 his University of Adelaide master’s thesis had been published as The Parliamentary Government of the Commonwealth of Australia, a work expanded and renamed Australian National Government in 1965. This textbook was ground-breaking in Australia and was a staple of many reading lists, going through numerous editions and remaining in print for some years after his death. The book made few concessions to contemporary events, which limited its usefulness as a pedagogical tool, and it was eventually superseded by works less rooted in the past. Crisp’s other major works were a history of the ALP (1955) and a fine biography of Ben Chifley (1961), both of which showed his skills in historical analysis.

During the 1960s Crisp became disillusioned with changes in Australian universities. He was a vocal critic of the emerging `institutions versus theory’ divide in political science; he regretted the push to continuous assessment; and he deplored burgeoning student demands for some say in their course structures and assessment, claiming in his John Curtin lecture of 1974 that the `middle-class sprigs of this post-Spock generation’ were more interested in political power than in hard study. Crisp stepped down from the departmental headship in 1970. In his words, he `pulled up the drawbridge’ on most of his colleagues, abandoned his undergraduate work in Australian politics and shifted his teaching focus to United States politics. He retired in 1977.

Appointed by the ANU to an honorary research position, Crisp enjoyed the opportunity to study the views of some of his heroes of the Federation story. Sir George Dibbs, Sir George Reid, Albert Piddington, Thomas Price, Henry Bournes Higgins, Sir Isaac Isaacs and Charles Kingston were for him men who stood apart from `the narrowly conservative and provincialist federalism’ of men like Sir Samuel Griffith, Sir Edmund Barton and Andrew Inglis Clark. Between 1979 and 1984 he wrote five self-published booklets dealing with these men’s concerns over how Australian Federation had been shaped. The essays and his Federation bibliography were published as Federation Fathers (1990) after his death. Crisp also remained active as chairman of the Commonwealth Banking Corporation, a position he had held since 1975.

Life in the national capital suited Crisp—he spoke of `forty years’ happy residence in Canberra’. He served as a long-term, active member of the local branch of the ALP, worked on the Canberra Community Hospital board (chairman 1951-55), assisted the push for Australian Capital Territory parliamentary representation and enjoyed his golf at the Royal Canberra Golf Club. Survived by his wife (d.2002), and their two daughters and son, Fin Crisp died of myocardial infarction on 21 December 1984 in Canberra and was cremated. He is commemorated in the city by the Finlay Crisp centre and by the L. F. Crisp building on the ANU campus.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Aitkin (ed), Surveys of Australian Political Science (1985)
  • S. G. Foster and M. M. Varghese, The Making of the Australian National University (1996)
  • T. Rowse, Nugget Coombs (2002)
  • Australian College of Education, Unicorn, vol 20, no 4, 1994, p 59
  • Canberra Times, 14 June 1969, p 1, 22 Dec 1984, p 7
  • ANU Reporter, 22 Mar 1985, p 6
  • Crisp papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Thematic Essay

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Citation details

Scott Bennett, 'Crisp, Leslie Finlay (Fin) (1917–1984)', 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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