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Dix, Alexander Thomas (Alex) (1927–2001)

by John Farquharson

Though he had a diverse and notable career in business and as a government and institutional consultant, Alex Dix, who has died in Sydney aged 74, was linked inseparably with the wide-ranging inquiry he headed into the then Australian Broadcasting Commission.

This inquiry, which he undertook from 1979 to 1981, assisted by film producer Pat Lovell, Brisbane businessman-literateur Brian Sweeney, and then Adelaide University Law Professor Alex Castles, remains the most comprehensive independent review of the national broadcaster so far undertaken. Many, though not all, of its sweeping recommendations were largely ignored under the government of then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. However, under Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1983, it led to the old Australian Broadcasting Commission becoming a corporation and slowly taking on a more businesslike character.

This, of course, fitted into the ‘edging forward role’, which Dix believed the ABC should have. This was reflected in his report, which began with a quotation from T. S. Elliot, ‘A good past is positively dangerous if it makes us content with the present and so unprepared for the future’. That quotation epitomised his whole approach to the inquiry. It also captured his vision for the ABC which, he believed, should be ‘doing the bold dramas’, providing ‘a distinctive choice from the commercials’ and delivering ‘in-depth coverage in important domestic public affairs and commentary in radio and TV news and current affairs programs’. In that context, it is not surprising then that his recommendations should include hiving off the orchestras, cutting sports coverage, concentration on news and information and even corporate sponsorship of programs not in the area of news and current affairs.

To him the ABC was ‘the most significant cultural institution in the country’. For that reason, he wanted a ‘healthy and vigorous ABC’, which he saw as ‘one of the cornerstones of Australian society’. While Dix believed that his report would enhance the ABC in fulfilling that role, he was not unduly miffed when the bulk of the 273 recommendations contained in the six-volume report were set aside. He took a broad philosophical view – satisfied that some of his proposals had been adopted and gratified to see others taken up later. For subsequent inquiries and reviews, invariably referred back to his original report. Moreover, he knew the risks attached to government inquiries – recommendations sinking without trace – when he was originally tapped for the job by the then Minister for Posts and Telecommunications, Tony Staley.

He recognised too that a key factor in the failure to implement his report’s recommendations fully, was that it fell between ministers (Ian Sinclair having replaced Staley in the communications portfolio) and between governments (the Fraser government going down to Bob Hawke and Labor in 1983). He seems to have been equally philosophical about not being named chairman of the ABC board, as he had been widely tipped to do so, when his inquiry was being wound up. The loser, it would seem, was the ABC, for it became acknowledged that Dix had brought an unusual combination of conglomerate generalship and academic contemplation to his inquiry  - just the qualities the ABC could have benefited from at that time.

That background seems to have been a factor in him being approached to take on the inquiry in the first place, plus the fact he had come recommended to Staley by a range of people from both the Right and the Left. Though no longer the responsible minister when Dix completed his report, Staley always valued it highly. He said it reflected ‘how deeply Dix held the interests of the ABC and the community at heart’.

Born in Melbourne on February 18, 1927, Alex Dix came from a family, which he himself once described as ‘middle-class managerial’. His father had been the manager of a textile mill in the English city of Leicester before migrating to Melbourne in the 1920s to take over an associated mill making clothing for the military services.

His parents made sacrifices for him to go as a boarder to Scotch College, where he was school captain in his final two years, before going on to Ormond College at Melbourne University. There, he graduated with an honours arts degree and met his future wife, Ann Pryce, whose parents (with an English trading background) had fled Batavia (now Jakarta) before the Japanese invasion of 1942. Going through university, he made friends with Peter Ryan (later director of Melbourne University Press). Together they came under the influence of Manning Clark, as their lecturer in history. The friendship between the Ryan and Dix families endured over the years, with Peter Ryan describing his friend as a man of ‘great integrity and kindness – a most genuine gentleman’.

In 1949, after marrying Ann Pryce, the Dixes went to Canberra where he worked as an archivist at the National Library under Sir Harold White, and as a part-time lecturer in modern history at the then Canberra University College (now the Australian National University’s undergraduate school). In 1951, Dix went to the South Pacific Commission’s social development section in Sydney, working under the well-loved and celebrated Pacific historian H.E. (Harry) Maude. Because the SPC had links with the Australian School of Pacific Administration at Mosman, Dix became exposed to some of the people associated with it. He either knew, or had contact with, the poet James McAuley, philosopher Douglas Gasking, anthropologist Camilla Wedgewood, novelist Nancy Phelan and Mitchell librarian Ida Leeson.

To come out of Canberra and be thrown into that scene he considered a ‘tremendous experience’, especially seeing how ‘the Pacific worked in the dying days of colonialism’.  After four years at the SPC, Dix was faced with having to move to Noumea, where the commission’s headquarters were located. With a young family he did not wish to do this. The matter was resolved for him when, ‘out of the blue’ Fred Osborne, Minister for Customs and later Minister for Air in the Menzies Government, offered him a job as a private secretary. Though not political, he was interested in the processes of government, and spent three years with Osborne. Dix saw himself essentially ‘as a man of the middle’, once declaring that ‘I probably have as many Labor-voting friends as Liberals’.

Seeking to vary his experience, in 1959 Dix answered an anonymous newspaper advertisement for an assistant to the chairman of an international company. He soon found himself working for the redoubtable chairman of Reckitt and Colman, Bernard Jones, and later becoming managing director of that food-wine-household goods-aerosol conglomerate. It was Dix who largely engineered the Reckitt and Colman strategy of isolating its aerosol subsidiary, Samuel Taylor, during a 1970s controversy over fluorocarbons. This saved the corporate whole from public opprobrium.

However, with Dix, there was always more to the businessman than just business. As one colleague put it, ‘He was a rare quantity in business; someone whose interests went beyond the bottom line’. Discussing with an interviewer what appealed to him about working in a multinational such as Reckitt and Colman he said, ‘I suppose it’s the challenge of planning the growth of a large institution. When you’re in a business as diverse as Reckitt you’re faced with the on-going problem of working out systems that protect the independent flavour and spirit of a subsidiary company, but ensure that the investment of the company is discretely protected’. He stayed with Reckitt and Colman until 1983, but from 1978 to about 1987 served on the boards of Thorn EMI Aust. Ltd, George Salter Aust. Ltd and Smiths Industries Aust. Ltd, of which he was chairman. Later he became a director of Munich Reinsurance Aust. of Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, a consultant to the NSW Health Department from 1993 to 1998 and from 1988 had a 10-year term as deputy chancellor of the University of Western Sydney.

Institutions always interested him and in 1980 he became chairman of the National Museum of Australia Council. He worked hard for nine years to get the museum up and running until frustrated by the Federal Labor government’s 1988 decision to defer funding for five years. The great disappointment Dix felt over this marking time was reflected in the museum council’s annual report. This described the decision as being based on ‘irrational and uninformed arguments’. However, he was gratified when Tony Staley, who became chairman of the council a few years ago, visited him to assure him that the museum was well on track again. And this year the early groundwork put in by Dix’s inaugural council finally came to fruition.

In private life, he had a wide circle of friends beyond immediate business associates and enjoyed quiet pursuits. He eschewed the weekend golf and tennis circuit in favour of sailing at Pittwater and bushwalking with long-time friend, architect Bryce Mortlock.

When talking about Alex Dix people invariably remark on his goodwill and tolerance; how he was sympathetic and a good father. He also had a way with people, putting them at their ease while being encouraging. This was evident during the ABC inquiry, marked by his open conduct of hearings. His style earned praise, but also some criticism as being vacillating and showing a tendency to ‘bend with the wind’, though this was not evident in his final report. Overall his record projects a man who was a creative contributor who left his mark on whatever enterprise he undertook and, as Tony Staley put it, ‘A wonderfully civilised man who was a marvellous Australian’.

Alex Dix died in Sydney on December 9 at Gertrude Abbott Nursing Home, run by the sisters of St Joseph, at Surry Hills, after a long decline with Alzheimer’s disease. His wife, Ann, three sons, three daughters and their families survive him.

Alexander Thomas Dix, born Melbourne February 18, 1927; died Sydney December 9, 2001.  

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 December 2001
  • Age (Melbourne), 26 December 2001

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Dix, Alexander Thomas (Alex) (1927–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/dix-alexander-thomas-alex-312/text313, accessed 17 November 2019.

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