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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Ian Castles (1935–2010)

by Michael Keating

from Life Celebrations: ANU Obituaries 2000-2021 (ed. by James Fox), Australian National University

Ian Castles will be widely remembered by his family, friends and colleagues as possessing a great mind and a generous heart, who made a major contribution to Australian policy development and intellectual endeavour.

In one sense, Castles’ career can be divided into two parts. First, he was one of the most influential public servants during the 1970s and 1980s as a policy adviser, which ended when he left his position as Head of the Department of Finance in 1986. Castles then became the Australian Statistician, where he drew on his experience as a policy adviser to improve the quality and availability of statistical information, particularly in the area of social statistics. The second phase of Castles’ career, following his retirement from the Australian Public Service in 1994, was his appointment in 1996 as Executive Director of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, and subsequently as Vice-President from 1998 to 2001. Castles also continued to have appointments with The Australian National University, both during his time as an officer-holder with the Academy and since.

In another sense, however, this division of Castles’ career into two parts creates a false impression, as it fails to recognise the continuity of Castles’ interests and the inspiration for his work. As an economist, Castles’ work was informed by economic theory, but he was very much part of the Australian empirical tradition, insisting that analysis should be based on the evidence, frequently derived from research, and the evidence should be allowed to speak for itself. By nature, Castles was a sceptic and his advice eschewed conclusions that relied heavily on untested theories, let alone ideologies. Equally, Castles was determined to understand how statistical information was compiled and the implications of any underlying assumptions, in order to guard against misuse of data. Indeed, there were times when Castles’ quest for truth and accuracy may have been considered as bordering on obsessive by those who, for example, thought that some licence should be allowed in the prosecution of a ‘good cause’.

Castles’ insistence on the evidence meant, of course, that he also exemplified the tradition of giving frank and fearless advice. At the same time, Castles was very persuasive, and his advice was highly valued by ministers, including prime ministers, from both sides of politics. Furthermore, Castles achieved his influence in an environment where all advice was increasingly contested, so that it was easy for ministers, if they wished, to obtain alternative advice more consistent with what they wanted to hear. Central to Castles’ success was, first, the clarity of his advice, and he recognised the importance of good communication if an adviser is to be heard and read. Second, Castles’ had a great sense of what ministers were really trying to achieve, and this influenced how and when he framed his advice. In this way, Castles was exceptionally able to combine being frank and fearless, while also being responsive to the government of the day.

Castles’ policy advice covered most economic issues during the Whitlam and Fraser governments, including giving a second opinion to the Treasury on all macroeconomic issues and financial deregulation. Subsequently, as Head of the Department of Finance, Castles drove the evaluation of government expenditure programs, leading to improvements in their effectiveness. Castles also played an important role in beginning reforms to the system of financial management and budgeting that led to greater devolution in favour of ‘letting the managers manage’.

But where Castles possibly made his greatest contribution to policy was the integration of economic and social policy, and more specifically the need to integrate the income support and tax systems. Castles led the team that advised the introduction of family allowances. This advice was adopted by the Fraser Government early in its term in 1976, to the surprise of many, and the brilliance of Castles’ arguments was especially tested as the advice was opposed by many other departments. A few years later, Castles advised a much-simplified rate scale for the income tax system, with a much higher tax-free threshold, which removed most social security recipients from paying tax. These changes were largely adopted in 1978, and although they were not subsequently sustained, it is interesting that they were very similar to the proposals in the recent Henry Report on tax reform. Then, early in the life of the Hawke Government, Castles was instrumental in convincing the government to change the system of taxing superannuation lump sums, so that superannuation now is more directed to achieving its purpose of providing retirees with an income stream through their retirement.

Prior to Castles becoming the Australian Statistician, it would be fair to say that there was relatively more and better statistical information on the state of the economy than on our society. Castles’ policy interests and experience led him to seek to redress this imbalance. Castles not only expanded the amount of information collected, but he went further in its interpretation; for example, he used the data from an expanded household expenditure survey to initiate a publication showing how government spending and taxation affected the distribution of income. But Castles also made some important contributions to economic statistics, including a review of the consumer price index, and he personally contributed to improvements in international comparisons of income and production and broader measures of well-being. In recognition of Castles’ standing as a statistician, he was elected as President of the International Association of Official Statisticians.

Despite his many distinguished contributions, Castles was a very modest man, who had no regard for hierarchy or position, and little for reputation. Thus, his passion for getting the facts right led him into debate with at least two major international agencies. While Australian Statistician, Castles trenchantly criticised the work of the UN on its human development index, pointing out substantial errors and the failure to properly use the work of government statisticians. In more recent years, Castles’ interest in climate change led him to criticise the assumptions underpinning the projections of future economic growth in developing countries by the International Panel on Climate Change, and therefore the projections of future carbon pollution.

Castles also took issue with some major academic ‘names’, such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Kenneth Clark who attacked the role of economists through history, and Donald Horne and Hugh Stretton who alleged that public servant economists were a bastion of class and privilege. In each case, Castles meticulously examined the evidence in defence of economists’ pursuit of the public interest and demonstrated how these academic critics had displayed a callous disregard for the facts.

Castles’ involvement with the Academy started while he was still a public servant when he was elected as a fellow in 1989—a testimony to his intellectual leadership at the time. Castles’ later work as Executive Director and then Vice-President of the Academy was mutually rewarding for both parties. Importantly, Castles represented some of the hopes that had inspired the forefathers of the Academy who, at the end of World War II, were seeking to continue the influence of social scientists with government. Close collaboration between academics and government has, however, proved elusive, not least because of the difficulty that both parties will always wish to maintain their independence. But Castles was an especially able advocate on behalf of the Academy with government and was able to draw on his enormous experience in making use of independent academic research in formulating policy advice. In particular, Castles led the Academy’s challenge to the perceived bias in favour of the physical sciences and technology in the government’s research policy and the Academy’s rejection of the prime minister’s Science Council as the appropriate body to determine research priorities in the social sciences.

Throughout his career, Castles always had an eye for talented people, and he sought out and worked unusually closely with these people on some of the most exciting policy reforms of the time. A considerable number of Castles’ collaborators went on to also have outstanding careers, thanks in part to his tutelage and encouragement. Indeed, by my count as many as 14 people who subsequently became heads of Australian Government departments and agencies worked for and were inspired by Ian Castles at some stage of their career.

By any standards, Ian Castles has left a great legacy and, in his case, it can truly be said that he will be sorely missed. He is survived by his wife Glenice, his children Anne, Richard, Simon and Jane (his eldest son John died in 2002), and grandchildren, Jack and William. 

* Originally published in the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia Annual Report 2010.

Other Obituaries for Ian Castles

Additional Resources

Citation details

Michael Keating, 'Castles, Ian (1935–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 May 2024.

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