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Sir Douglas Berry Copland (1894–1971)

by Bruce Juddery

from Canberra Times

Sir Douglas Copland, when he died yesterday at Kyneton, Victoria, after a long illness, had been for more than 50 years near the forefront of Australian public life.

Successively he was a pioneer of the economics profession, adviser to governments, wartime administrator, diplomat, university administrator and, in a retirement that for several years belied the title, a campaigner for the development of his adopted country.

Sir Douglas left no single monument, though a building of the Australian National University bears his name, in recognition of his services as its first Vice-Chancellor.

His real memorial is in the historical record of Australia in the 20th century. His own prolific writings trace the evolution of economic thought and policies in this country away from the simple truths of the early Commonwealth towards the complexities of the present.

No history of the Great Depression will be complete without frequent reference to Douglas Copland, both as one of its chief historians of the past, and as one of the small group of economists who struggled first to understand the nature of that disaster, then to advise confused Australian governments, State and Commonwealth, on the priorities they should follow to counter its effects.

During World War II he played a chief role as Commonwealth Prices Commissioner in the only wholehearted and protracted Australian experiment in direct government intervention in the economy. His mark on the Commonwealth service is still apparent in the persons of some of the young men whom he recruited for Canberra in those years, most notably Sir Frederick Wheeler, Secretary-designate of the Treasury, and Sir Lenox Hewitt, Permanent Head of the Department of the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts.

For all his identification with Australia's history, Douglas Berry Copland was born not in this country but, in February 1894, in Timaru, New Zealand. His Scottish family background probably played an important role in turning him, first, to an academic career.

A country town education, and university study at Canterbury College, Christchurch, culminated in 1915 in a master's degree in economics with first-class honours. Two years later he came to Australia, initially as lecturer in history and economics and director of tutorial classes at the University of Tasmania. Despite his youth, in 1920, a year after his marriage, the then Mr Copland was appointed full professor of economics, and Dean of the university's Faculty of Commerce.

In 1924 he took up the university position which he was to hold for 20 years, Sidney Myer Professor of Commerce, and Dean of the Faculty of Commerce, at the University of Melbourne.

The move to Melbourne also marked his transfer to the wider public stage. Already Copland was a prolific writer on economics theory and practice. Not himself a notably original economist, his talent lay in his application of current theory to contemporary problems. In 1924 he stepped from the purely academic stage to help found the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand, of which he became first president. In 1925 he launched its journal, The Economic Record, which he was to edit for 20 years.

Copland's new position put him to the fore among the small group of academic economists to whom governments, crippled by the paucity of economic advice from within their services, turned as the boom of the 20s gave way to depression.

In 1928 this group was "blooded" by its preparation of a pioneer work on the Australian tariff. Two years later Dr Copland – his researches had earned him a Doctorate of Science in 1925 – was chairman of the committee whose report to the Australian Loan Council achieved fame, or notoriety, as the Premiers' Plan. Already he had participated in recommending the devaluation of 1930-31, which undoubtedly helped mitigate some of the worst impact of the Depression.

This undoubtedly was the most controversial period in Sir Douglas' career. His plan had been attacked for heartlessness, and for allegedly worsening the deflation of the Depression. It has been defended, on the other hand, as inevitable given the condition of Australia's balance of payments then, and the unfeasibility of measures which must have accompanied more expansionist policies.

The debate continues today as it did through the 30s. Sir Douglas' public career, however, was not seriously damaged. In 1938 he became chairman of the Victorian State Economic Committee, a year later, at the outbreak of war, Commonwealth Prices Commissioner, in 1940 Commissioner of the Victorian State Savings Bank, and a year later, economic consultant to the Prime Minister, all posts he was to hold until 1945.

The high point of his wartime career came in 1943, when Copland persuaded the then Prime Minister, Mr Curtin, and Treasurer, Mr Chifley, to adopt a price stabilisation plan which held the price level in Australia at about 22.5 per cent above the pre-war level, a program recognised as the most successful among the Western powers. Later his report on the Tennessee Valley Authority helped prepare the way for Australia's Snowy Mountains scheme.

By the war's end, however, Copland was seeking an alternative to economics, a profession which Keynes and an influx of young economists to Canberra had stood on its head. He turned first to diplomacy, going in 1946-48 to China as Australian Minister.

Back in Australia he turned to university administration, or perhaps creation: as the first Vice-Chancellor of the ANU, working out of makeshift offices, he made concrete the first plans for what is now the Institute of Advanced Studies.

By the late 1940s, Sir Douglas' contributions were generally recognised. In 1945 he was asked to deliver the Godkin Lecture on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Harvard University, a point of particular pride to him. The change of government in Australia brought him a knighthood in 1950. Three years later he went abroad again, this time as High Commissioner to Canada. In 1955 he was elected president of the United Nations' Economic and Social Council.

Sir Douglas returned from Canada in 1956 to become first principal of the Australian Administrative Staff College at Mt Eliza, Victoria. Even in retirement after 1960 he sought new roles to play: as an economic consultant and company director; as chairman of the executive committee of the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia; as chairman of the National Council for Balanced Development.

A large man physically, temperamentally inclined to public affairs, Sir Douglas' activity in the near-politics of the Public Service as well as in the academic and related spheres was muted only by ill-health in his last years. He is survived by Lady Copland and their two daughters.

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Citation details

Bruce Juddery, 'Copland, Sir Douglas Berry (1894–1971)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

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