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Russell Lloyd Mathews (1921–2000)

by Selwyn Cornish

This article was published online in 2023

Russell Mathews, by Marlee Maxwell, 1986

Russell Mathews, by Marlee Maxwell, 1986

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-839

Russell Lloyd Mathews (1921–2000), accountant, economist, and adviser to governments, was born on 5 January 1921 at Geelong, Victoria, younger son of Percival Samuel Mathews, master butcher, and his wife Rose Florabel Alveria, née Goslin, both Victorian born. Russell attended Sandringham State School, and in 1931 won a Charles Rendall memorial scholarship to Haileybury College, where he was dux (1936) and a prefect (1937). A keen sportsman, he represented the college at cricket, Australian Rules football, and tennis. Despite qualifying for university admission, in 1937 he commenced employment at Australian Estates and Mortgage Co. Ltd as a junior clerk working on wool sales, and was soon promoted to the securities department. He studied accountancy by correspondence, and in 1941 qualified for membership of the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants.

On 31 October 1941 Mathews was called up for full-time duty with the Citizen Military Forces in World War II. Transferring to the Australian Imperial Force in August 1942, he was commissioned and posted to the combined 58th/59th Battalion in New Guinea in July 1943. The next month he was wounded while leading his platoon in an attack and did not return to the unit until May 1944, when he assumed the title of adjutant (as a temporary captain from August). In April 1945 the battalion began operations in Bougainville and the following month a misdirected bullet from an Allied aircraft struck Mathews’s right knee. He was repatriated in July, and thereafter walked with a pronounced limp. Invalided out of the army in April 1946, he was mentioned in dispatches (1947), and later wrote Militia Battalion at War (1961), the 58th/59th’s history. Through the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme he enrolled to study accounting at the University of Melbourne (BCom Hons, 1950). On 13 December 1947 at St John’s Anglican Church, Toorak, he married Joan Marie Tingate, also a commerce graduate.

After completing his degree, Mathews accepted part-time work at the Commonwealth Grants Commission. In December 1949 he was appointed assistant to Sir Douglas Copland, vice-chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU). Copland’s prominence as a government adviser made the role ‘a memorable apprenticeship in the application of economic analysis to problems of economic policy’ (Mathews 1985, 6), while Copland considered his assistant ‘the best trained young economist that I know in the combined field of accountancy and economics’ (ANUA 19-

In 1951 Mathews became the ANU’s administrative officer in Britain, where he assisted in the recruitment of staff and research students. His academic career commenced two years later when, with Copland’s support, he was appointed reader in commercial studies at the University of Adelaide. There he designed courses in government accounting, social accounting, and public finance, and established a pioneering master of business management degree. He was twice dean of the faculty of economics (1957–58 and 1961–63), and was elected president of the Adelaide University Staff Association (1958). In 1959 he became a member of the Social Science Research Council, precursor to the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. He was appointed professor of commerce in 1960, and in 1963 became president of the Australian Association of University Teachers of Accounting. Pursuing an impressive research agenda, he produced papers on management education, national income accounting, public investment, taxation systems, and capital markets. He authored or co-authored Inflation and Company Finance (1958); Taxation in Australia: Agenda for Reform (1964); Accounting for Economists (1962); and The Accounting Frontier (1965).

Frustrated by a continued lack of support in Adelaide for the business management degree, Mathews returned to the ANU in 1965 as professor of accounting and public finance, a chair created especially for him. He served as dean of the faculty of economics (1967–69) and was appointed to the ANU Council (1967–71). As head of department, he maintained ‘a pretty tight rein on individual staff’ (Mathews July 1991), such as by attending their lectures, and introduced computing techniques into curricula. He was proud of the attention his Public Investment in Australia (1967) attracted, including from the Federal Opposition leader, Gough Whitlam.

In 1972 the McMahon government established and funded the Centre for Research on Federal Financial Relations at the ANU. The university insisted on the centre’s independence, and chose Mathews, who had long thought that the States ‘weren’t able to carry out the functions that they were constitutionally responsible for’ (Mathews July 1991), as director (1972–86). His management of the centre’s ground-breaking research led to a series of appointments by the Whitlam and Fraser governments, notably to the Commonwealth Grants Commission (1972–90); the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Land Tenures (1973–76); and the Advisory Council for Inter-government Relations (chairman 1977–79). He also advised overseas governments, including Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Cyprus, and the Canadian provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador. His later books included Government Accounting in Australia (1968) and Federal Finance: Intergovernmental Financial Relations in Australia since Federation (1972).

Several themes dominated Mathews’s thinking and writing throughout his career. One was the interdependence of accounting and economics. Accounting, he contended, should adopt an analytical and conceptual approach appropriate for solving problems and achieving policy objectives. He was a relentless critic of historical cost accounting and a powerful proponent of inflation accounting. Supporting fiscal equalisation, he proposed that an independent body, such as the Commonwealth Grants Commission, should oversee the distribution of general revenue grants from the Commonwealth to the States and Territories. He wanted to see the burden of taxation distributed fairly and equitably, and was critical of governments and courts for letting tax avoidance go unpunished. As chairman of the Inquiry into Inflation and Taxation (1974–75), he championed tax indexation. Always sceptical of the benefits of deregulating market forces, he criticised the Hawke government’s embrace of the Campbell Committee of Inquiry into the Australian Financial System (1981).

Mathews was appointed CBE in 1978 and AO in 1987. He retired from the ANU in 1986 but continued to research and comment on accounting and fiscal issues, including by chairing the Review of the Accounting Discipline in Higher Education (1989–90) and publishing The Public Sector in Jeopardy: Australia’s Fiscal Federalism from Whitlam to Keating (1995). As a supporter of social justice programs and Keynesian macroeconomic management, he feared that neo-liberalism was ‘killing the Australian economy and causing hardship and financial ruin for millions of Australians’ (Mathews 1991, 9).

The strong featured, tall, and bulky Mathews died in Canberra on 1 March 2000. He was survived by his wife and by their son Peter and daughter Sue. The author or editor of forty-one books and monographs, forty-seven official reports, and approximately two hundred articles and book chapters, this ‘gentleman in every sense of the term’ (Grewal and Barton 2000, 407) was an inspiring leader admired by colleagues and students alike. He was also a generous benefactor who donated to the ANU for the purchase of works of art and for student prizes for the study of public economics.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Australian National University Archives. AU ANUA 19- Mathews R. L.
  • Australian National University Archives. AU ANUA 19-4658 Mathews R. L.
  • Brennan, Geoffrey, Bhajan S. Grewal, and Peter Groenewegen, eds. Taxation and Fiscal Federalism: Essays in Honour of Russell Mathews. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1988
  • Grewal, Bhajan S., and Allan D. Barton. ‘Russell Lloyd Mathews: An Appreciation.’ Economic Record 76, no. 235 (December 2000): 401–11
  • Mathews, Russell Lloyd. ‘Free-Market Policies Have Been Disastrous.’ Canberra Times, 14 November 1991, 9
  • Mathews, Russell Lloyd. Interview by Stephen Foster, July 1991. Australian Heritage Projects for ANU Oral History Project. ANU Archives
  • Mathews, Russell Lloyd. Interview by Stewart Harris, 11 October 1994. National Library of Australia
  • Mathews, Russell. ‘Sir Douglas Copland: An Appreciation.’ In Problems & Progress: CEDA’s Evolving Role: Think Tanks and the Australian Political Environment, edited by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, 6–8. Melbourne: Committee for Economic Development of Australia, 1985
  • National Library of Australia. MS 6594, Papers of Russell Lloyd Mathews

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Selwyn Cornish, 'Mathews, Russell Lloyd (1921–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 18 June 2024.

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