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John William Wainwright (1880–1948)

by Hugh Stretton and Pat Stretton

This article was published:

John William Wainwright (1880-1948), public servant, was born on 27 November 1880 at Naracoorte, South Australia, son of Charles Wainwright, head teacher, and his wife Anne, née Brooke. William attended his father's schools at Naracoorte and at Eudunda where he remained for two more years as an unpaid pupil-teacher. Having attended Adelaide High School and done further pupil-teaching, he entered the Training College whence he studied at the University of Adelaide in 1903-04. After a year's teaching at North Adelaide Model School, he resigned and is said to have worked as a tailor's assistant. In 1908 Wainwright joined the public service and in 1910 became a clerk in the audit section of the Chief Secretary's Department. Three times during World War I he tried to enlist, though told on each occasion that he could never be accepted; a childhood accident had left him with a glass eye. In the State service he rose to be inspector (1923), assistant auditor-general (1928), then auditor-general from 1934 until his retirement in 1945. When few State public servants had much education, he was one of several ex-schoolteachers who led the South Australian service. During and after World War II he also served the Commonwealth as its South Australian deputy director of war organization of industry and in the secondary industries division of the ministry of post-war reconstruction.

His private life had some coldness. William's mother had died in his infancy. When the boy was 7, his father married an Englishwoman, Emma Brooke, but she was widowed when William was 23 and they shared a house for the rest of her life. Her health began to fail in 1920. On 26 March 1921 in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Ivanhoe, Victoria, Wainwright married with Catholic rites Agnes Matilda Samuels, a clerk. They were described as a tough pair who shared a housekeeping rather than a passionate partnership; with no children of their own, they adopted a daughter who found little warmth in their household, left it as soon as she could, and was bequeathed nothing.

In 1910-17, as an evening student, Wainwright had qualified as an accountant (A.I.C.A., 1922) and completed an undistinguished degree (B.A., 1917). His economics texts included one by the orthodox Alfred Marshall and one by J. A. Hobson, an 'underconsumptionist' forerunner of J. M. Keynes. When the university later employed Wainwright as a part-time lecturer in public finance, he set texts by Henry George, Arthur Pigou and Hugh Dalton. He was citing Keynes's work, and predicting multiplier effects of industrial changes in South Australia, before Keynes published The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (London, 1936). With (Sir) Leslie Melville, Wainwright wrote a pamphlet, The Economic Effects of Federation (1929). It had two main themes: the balance between Commonwealth and State power had shifted, divorcing financial resources from investment responsibilities and handicapping the States' developmental efforts; and that shift combined with the Commonwealth's tariff policies to disadvantage those States which produced the least protected goods and relied most on exporting primary products.

Both Labor and non-Labor governments appointed Wainwright to commissions and committees of inquiry, and used him as a general economic adviser. He sat on royal commissions on the railways (1930), dairy produce industries (1933), transport (1937) and electricity supply (1931, 1945), and on boards and committees concerned with public service efficiency, secondary industries, public transport, regional development, forestry, dairying, abattoirs, building materials, taxation, and financial relations with the Commonwealth. Their reports express a consistent approach to economic development and management which many of his associates attributed to Wainwright and which is also clear in his auditor-general's reports and his other writing.

His principles were those of a Keynesian theorist with a practical gift for effective business regulation. They included the following: when approaching any industry's problems, government should survey the relevant experience and policies of other States and the world outside. It should try to see the industry 'whole' and in its economic context; for example, a rail or road policy should minimize the social cost of transport (the total costs of public and private transport by rail, truck, bus and car). Where natural monopoly allows price fixing, the fixing may best be done by government; Wainwright designed ingenious patterns of price control which preserved cost-cutting and competitive incentives. Whether public control might best be achieved by regulating, or by owning the industries concerned, should be decided by considerations of public interest alone.

To Wainwright, public enterprises could be as efficient as private ones, provided that they were not directed by their managers (who may be self-indulgent), or by politicians (who may be pork-barrellers), or by representatives of the industries with which they deal (who may put private before public interests). Like private companies, they should have boards of directors. Their directors should be disinterested, non-executive, and should include both experts and laymen. The model has prevailed in South Australia since.

Wainwright was not the initiator of South Australian industrialization. The State already made motor bodies, agricultural machinery and metal products. His originality lay in reasoning that technical progress meant that—merely to maintain employment—any given population must continually increase its manufacturing activity because primary production, limited by its natural resources, had no such capacity to expand output in step with increasing productivity per head. The more productive the primary industries, the fewer people they could employ; the more competitive the secondary industries, the more they should be able to employ. Wainwright and others devised an industrial strategy to keep costs of production in Adelaide lower than those in the eastern States by more than the cost of transporting manufactured goods to their main markets in those States. Government agencies supplied cheap land, rail connexions, power, water, sewerage, planning and advisory services and (during and after the war) factories and credit. Cheap public housing was built in the industrial suburbs. Price control was applied to many necessaries, especially the components of the cost-of-living index to which local wage rates were linked. Compared with their eastern competitors, low money wages benefited employers, while equal real wages made for industrial peace.

Besides monetary incentives, Wainwright believed that economic development also needed a productive culture and collective purpose. In 1942 he and Tom Garland, a communist union secretary, founded a movement called Common Cause. Its priority was to intensify the war effort. In the longer run it hoped to 'generate a new and vital attitude to society and ourselves': business and labour leaders, churchmen and academics managed to agree on statements of social purpose, and on the need for social research as an aid to political consensus. Wainwright wrote: 'We need to know more about our State and its affairs and the needs of the people, needs for housing, defence, education, unemployment, public finance, families and the decline in birth rates, social evils and their cure … and when we know more, a strong public opinion will grow up'. His driving purpose seems to have been to use his and others' brains to remodel the economy so as to generate less poverty and unemployment.

As Australia recovered from the Depression, South Australian industry revived and grew impressively. Much credit for that was claimed by (Sir) Thomas Playford's Liberal and Country League government (1938-65). As to how much of the recovery was simply cyclical, and how much it owed to Wainwright's influence and the government's measures, experts disagree; but in Wainwright's lifetime South Australia's industrial growth was proportionately the nation's fastest.

In person Wainwright was a short, ordinary-looking man. Contemporaries described him as efficient, logical, self-effacing, humourless; some thought his glass eye the kinder of the two. He worked long hours and was a hard-driving taskmaster. In most things he cared for the substance and despised the show. He never appeared in Who's Who. He belonged to no church. He liked tennis and music, and belonged to the Adelaide Dual Club. Wainwright offended his wife and adopted daughter in his last years by preferring the company of young women he met at tennis. To one of them he bequeathed his house and savings, after providing for his widow during her lifetime. He died of a coronary occlusion on 12 November 1948 at Fullarton, Adelaide. His will directed that there be no advertisement of his death or burial, and that his body be taken to the Glen Osmond cemetery in a plain coffin in his own car. His efficiency had died with him: the car broke down and had to be towed.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Sheridan (ed), The State as Developer (Adel, 1986)
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History, May 1962
  • Australian Economic Review, Mar 1984
  • T. J. Mitchell, The Industrialisation of South Australia 1935-1940 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1957)
  • R. F. I. Smith, The Butler Government in South Australia, 1933-1938 (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1964).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Hugh Stretton and Pat Stretton, 'Wainwright, John William (1880–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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