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Wilson, Sir Roland (1904–1996)

by Selwyn Cornish

This article was published online in 2021

Sir Roland Wilson, Australian News and Information Bureau, 1964

Sir Roland Wilson, Australian News and Information Bureau, 1964

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L55804

Sir Roland Wilson (1904–1996), economist, public servant, and company director, was born on 7 April 1904 at Ulverstone, Tasmania, second of five sons of English-born Thomas Wilson, carpenter and builder, and his Tasmanian-born wife Mabel, née Inglis. At age fourteen, Roland weighed only fifty-five pounds (25 kg), and as an adult his five feet two inches (158 cm) stature was frequently remarked upon. He expected to join his father in the building trade, but academic achievement and administrative acumen created other opportunities. His formal education began at Ulverstone Convent School, even though the Wilsons were Protestants. At Devonport State High School he came first in the State at the junior public examination in 1919, and second in the senior public examination in 1921. His father continued to insist on a career in the building industry, but (Sir) Douglas Copland, dean of commerce at the University of Tasmania, had other plans. Observing Roland’s examination results, he went to Ulverstone to persuade Wilson senior that his son should attend the university. Roland was allowed to do so for one year; when he topped the first year of the commerce course, he was permitted to continue.

Wilson graduated with first-class honours in economics (BCom, 1926), and was the Tasmanian Rhodes scholar for 1925, the first from a State secondary school. Copland told the selection committee that Wilson was ‘the most brilliant student that has passed through my hands’ (TAHO 34/4(50) since he had come to Tasmania in 1917. J. B. Brigden, another distinguished economist, added that Wilson had ‘unusual analytical and critical qualities of mind, happily combined with clarity and consistency of application’ (TAHO 34/4(50). Yet questions were asked, including in the press, about Wilson’s suitability for the scholarship given his background as a commerce student from a State school, his lack of knowledge of Greek or Latin, and, despite his success in athletics at school and university, his physique. Stung, he considered instead accepting a job offer at the Cadbury Pascall Australia Ltd chocolate factory in Hobart. When a member of the Rhodes selection committee lectured him on moral courage, he decided to proceed with the scholarship. The importance of this lesson remained with him.

At the University of Oxford Wilson went into residence at Oriel College, but since the university did not recognise a commerce degree from Tasmania as a qualification for postgraduate study, he enrolled for the diploma in economics and political science, passing with distinction (1926). An essay he submitted won the prestigious Beit Prize in colonial history, and the grant of advanced-student status allowed him to commence a doctoral thesis on ‘The Import of Capital’ (DPhil, 1929). During 1926 he visited the United States of America with a student debating team, beginning a lifelong fascination with that nation. Before completing his thesis, he was elected to a Commonwealth Fund (Harkness) Fellowship, which permitted graduate study in the United States. He embarked on another doctorate at the University of Chicago (PhD, 1930), writing a thesis on ‘Capital Movements and Their Economic Consequences’ which developed themes adumbrated in his Oxford thesis. His supervisor, the renowned economist Jacob Viner, judged Wilson to be ‘one of the two or three best students I have ever encountered’ (NLA MS 1155), whose research ‘takes more of the variables simultaneously into account and deals with some of them with a greater measure of precision of analysis than had previously been achieved’ (Viner 1937, 327).

On 14 June 1930 Wilson had married New Mexico-born Valeska Thompson, a dietician, at Chicago. He returned to Australia with her later that year to take up the Pitt-Cobbett lectureship in economics at the University of Tasmania. In 1931 Melbourne University Press published his Capital Imports and the Terms of Trade, which encapsulated Wilson’s major contribution to economic thought. Whereas previous writers had argued that capital inflows would tend to increase the borrowing country’s terms of trade, he contended that they raised the price of non-traded goods in borrowing countries relative to the price of their imports and exports. This insight later gained international recognition in concepts such as ‘Dutch Disease’ and the ‘Gregory Effect.’

Yet Wilson was not entirely happy as an academic economist. In 1932 he accepted an offer from L. F. Giblin, his mentor as an undergraduate and now the acting Commonwealth statistician, of the position of economist in the statistician’s branch of the Treasury in Canberra. He was soon promoted to assistant Commonwealth statistician. After he declined the chair in economics at the University of Tasmania, the post of economic adviser to the Commonwealth Treasury was created for him. In 1936, at the precocious age of thirty-two, he was appointed Commonwealth statistician, a position he held until 1940. One of his achievements in this post was the preparation of the first official balance of payments estimates for Australia; another was the creation of the new public service classification of research officer, which provided employment opportunities for other university graduates.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Wilson proposed and was appointed to the Financial and Economic (‘F and E’) Advisory Committee, attached to the Treasury. This group of senior government economists was chaired by Giblin and was responsible for planning much of the early financial direction of the war, as well as initiating plans for postwar reconstruction. An even more important career change occurred in November 1940 when Wilson became secretary of the new Department of Labour and National Service, with responsibility for manpower planning. A division of postwar reconstruction that he established in the department was the precursor of the Department of Post-War Reconstruction.

From October to November 1942 Wilson represented Australia at the first British Commonwealth conference on postwar economic policy, held in London. At the conference John Maynard (Baron) Keynes outlined his plan for an international clearing union to help give trading nations access to the quantities of currency needed to sustain high levels of international trade. Keynes later wrote to Giblin that Wilson ‘took a prominent, indeed a leading part through all the discussions,’ and that Whitehall officials ‘came to feel the greatest respect both for his wisdom and for his pertinacity’ (RBAA C.3.7.6.64).

Between March and June 1945 Wilson was an adviser to the Australian delegation to the United Nations conference at San Francisco, where Australia was one of fifty nations to sign the Charter of the United Nations. So important was his contribution that the leader of the delegation, Frank Forde, rejected a request from the acting prime minister, J. B. Chifley, for Wilson’s early return to Australia. It was largely because of his work that Australia had full employment recognised as a goal of the United Nations. He was subsequently appointed to the United Nations’ Economic and Employment Commission (chairman 1948–49). Again Commonwealth statistician (1946–51), he also served briefly (1948-49) as economic counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Washington, DC, and was the alternate executive director for Australia at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Back home, the newly created Australian National University (ANU) was recruiting staff, and in 1949 offered Wilson its chair of economics. He declined, confessing to Copland, now the ANU vice-chancellor, that ‘I do not believe that I possess in sufficient measure the scholarly instincts and attributes without which one could neither tolerate nor be tolerated in a research chair in the social sciences’ (ANUA 18-104/1/8). Copland persisted, but Wilson declined once more, adding his ‘disinclination to break the long associations I had with the Commonwealth [Public] Service’ (ANUA 18-104/1/8). Though he never became a member of the ANU’s academic staff, he served for over seventeen years on its council, having earlier been a member of the governing body of Canberra University College.

On 1 April 1951 Wilson was appointed secretary to the Commonwealth Treasury, the first economist to hold the position and, aged just short of forty-seven, the youngest secretary to that date. During his fifteen years in the role, Treasury evolved from a department of finance and supply into the government’s main source of economic policy advice. Although this era of low inflation, high employment, and sustained economic growth is often regarded as the high watermark of Keynesian economics, Wilson was never fully committed to short-term demand management. A major source of friction with his counterpart at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (Reserve Bank of Australia from 1960), H. C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs, was whether policy should be tightened to control inflation and stabilise the balance of payments, or whether the economy should be allowed to continue its upward momentum unimpeded. Wilson and his Treasury colleagues preferred a fiscal policy that maintained the economy’s growth trajectory, while the bank was inclined to tighten monetary policy whenever inflation accelerated.

In 1951 Wilson was appointed to the board of the Commonwealth Bank. The following year, as inflation grew out of control, he was at one with Coombs in endorsing the government’s package of deflationary measures, drawing public criticism to himself and his Treasurer, (Sir) Arthur Fadden. Although Wilson supported the reimposition of import controls as the economy was flooded by imports following the end of the Korean War wool boom, he otherwise opposed such quantitative controls; given a choice between import controls and an adjustable exchange rate, he preferred the latter. He also consistently opposed Australia’s high rate of protection, leading to clashes with the minister for trade and industry, (Sir) John McEwen, and his departmental secretary, Sir John Crawford.

During 1960, in response to accelerating inflation and erosion in the balance of payments, the Menzies government followed official advice in a contractionary mini budget, which contributed to its near defeat at the election of December that year. Both the Treasury and Wilson came in for criticism, but the economic recovery during 1962 drew praise from his public service peers. In 1965 he successfully opposed a recommendation by the Committee of Economic Enquiry (the Vernon Committee) to establish an advisory council on economic growth, observing that ‘to set up competitive evaluations still leaves the task of evaluating the evaluators’ (NLA MS 1155).

Three years ahead of the compulsory retiring age, Wilson left Treasury in October 1966. Although ready for new challenges, he also timed his departure to ensure that his deputy, Sir Richard Randall, would succeed him. Additionally, four months earlier Wilson had become chairman of Qantas Empire Airways Ltd (1966–73), having been on its board since 1954, and was about to be appointed chairman of the Commonwealth Banking Corporation (1966–75). As well as these positions, he served as chairman of the Wentworth Hotel in Sydney—a fully owned subsidiary of Qantas—and joined the boards of the Mutual Life and Citizens’ Assurance Co. Ltd, Imperial Chemical Industries of Australia and New Zealand Ltd, and the Australian European Finance Corporation Ltd. Qantas occupied more of his time than he had expected. A strike by pilots in November and December 1966 was not resolved quickly, and an unhappy working relationship with the company’s long-serving general manager, C. O. Turner, concluded with Turner’s early retirement in June 1967. Wilson and the rest of the Qantas board contended also with growing international competition, and rises in aircraft and fuel costs, interest rates, and navigation charges.

Valeska died in June 1971 in a traffic accident at San Agustin de las Juntas, Mexico, while en route with friends to the Oaxaca archaeological sites. On 18 January 1975 Wilson married Joyce Clarice Chivers at his home in suburban Forrest. New South Wales-born, she had worked at the Australian mission to the United Nations and in Qantas’s public affairs departments in New York, San Francisco, and Sydney.

Following retirement from public life, Wilson was highly critical of the Whitlam government, judging that ‘monetary policy … veered from side to side’ and that ‘fiscal policy became a simple game of “You name it—you can have it,”’ leading the budget ‘up its own Blue Pole’ (Wilson 1976, 313), a reference to the controversial purchase of Jackson Pollock’s painting. He celebrated his departure from the last of his board appointments with friends and colleagues at the Australian Club in Sydney on 28 March 1979. The Wilsons enjoyed their more relaxed life at homes in Canberra, Sydney, and Hawaii. After a short illness, he died on 25 October 1996 in Canberra and was cremated. His wife survived him; he had been childless. A thanksgiving service was held at the Anglican Church of St John the Baptist in Reid, where his ashes were interred.

Wilson is widely recognised as one of the ‘seven dwarfs,’ a coterie of powerful postwar Commonwealth public servants who happened to be of modest physical stature. Sir Paul Hasluck, a government minister during Wilson’s tenure as Treasury secretary, believed that his authority derived from the impression ‘of having no political motive of his own but a scientific detachment’ (Hasluck 1997, 56). Tom Fitzgerald, finance editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, judged that ‘by his intelligence and force of character, Sir Roland Wilson has been the outstanding public servant of his generation’ (Farquharson 1996, 4).

A brilliant mind enabled Wilson to solve difficult problems with apparent ease, to the point that Fadden was reportedly ‘a little afraid of Wilson’s razor-sharp intellect’ (Coombs 1981, 132). When invited into cabinet meetings, he engaged in ‘polite but uncompromising’ (Hasluck 1997, 56) debates with ministers. He retained his youthful appearance into old age. Although markedly shy in his youth, his later confident manner owed much to a voice that was ‘vibrant, measured and alive with his cultivated intelligence’ (Castles 1996, 14). He also exhibited throughout his life a remarkable skill in designing and making tangible objects. At university he had fashioned a lightweight pole-vaulting pole from Oregon timber. To cope with wartime petrol rationing, he built an electric car from discarded materials and drove it regularly between home and work. He was a proficient cabinet-maker, tiler, and stonemason, building a swimming pool at his home and furniture in his workshop.

In 1941 Wilson had been appointed CBE, knighted in 1955, and elevated to KBE in 1965. The University of Tasmania conferred on him an honorary doctorate of letters in 1969, and the Economic Society of Australia had in 1988 elected him a distinguished fellow. A building and a chair of economics at the ANU were named for him. The ANU’s Sir Roland Wilson Foundation, which awards PhD scholarships to Commonwealth public servants, is funded from an original endowment bequeathed by the Wilson family, augmented by the ANU, Charles Darwin University, and the Australian government.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Australian National University Archives (ANUA). AU ANUA 18-104/1/8 Part 3, Academic Advisory Committee
  • Castles, Ian. ‘Menzies’ Economic Commander.’ Australian, 30 October 1996, 14
  • Castles, Ian. ‘Planning for the Post-War World: The Contribution of Dr Roland Wilson to Public Policy and Administration in the 1940s.’ Canberra Bulletin of Public Administration, no. 94 (December 1999): 73–77
  • Coleman, William, Selwyn Cornish, and Alf Hagger. Giblin’s Platoon: The Trials and Triumphs of the Economist in Australian Public Life. Canberra: ANU Press, 2006
  • Coombs, H. C. Trial Balance. South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1981
  • Cornish, Selwyn. ‘The Appointment of the ANU’s First Professor of Economics.’ History of Economics Review, no. 46 (2007): 1–18
  • Cornish, Selwyn. ‘Roland Wilson.’ In Biographical Dictionary of Australian and New Zealand Economists, edited by J. E. King, 310–14. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2007
  • Cornish, Selwyn. ‘Roland Wilson—Primus Inter Pares.’ In The Seven Dwarfs and the Age of the Mandarins, edited by Samuel Furphy, 124–41. Canberra: ANU Press, 2015
  • Cornish, Selwyn. Sir Roland Wilson: A Biographical Essay. Canberra: The Roland Wilson Foundation, 2002
  • Farquharson, John. ‘Outstanding Public Servant of His Generation.’ Canberra Times, 27 October 1996, 4
  • Gunn, John. High Corridors: Qantas 1954–1970. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1988
  • Hasluck, Paul. The Chance of Politics. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 1997
  • Hetherington, John. Uncommon Men. Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire, 1965
  • National Library of Australia. MS 1155, Papers of Sir Roland Wilson
  • Reserve Bank of Australia Archives. C.3.7.6.64
  • Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office (TAHO). UT34/4(50) R. Wilson, AE418/1/65
  • Viner, Jacob. Studies in the Theory of International Trade. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1937
  • Wilson, Roland. ‘L. F. Giblin Memorial Lecture.’ Search 7, no. 7 (July 1976): 307–15

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Selwyn Cornish, 'Wilson, Sir Roland (1904–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilson-sir-roland-1558/text37903, published online 2021, accessed online 28 July 2021.

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