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Sir John Grenfell (Jack) Crawford (1910–1984)

by Oskar Spate

Sir John Crawford, former Chancellor of the Australian National University, died in Canberra on 28 October, aged 74. Sir John had a brilliant and diverse career, both in the Public Service and in the University where he served successively as Director of the Research School of Pacific Studies, Vice-Chancellor and Chancellor. This tribute to him is by one of his former colleagues, Emeritus Professor Oskar Spate.

The announcement in 1960 that Sir John Crawford was to be Director of the Research School of Pacific Studies caused some murmurings among its professors.

We had not grown up with the Canberra scene and so knew him, if at all, only by name; the paper sent round was brief and formal, with only a handful of publications listed. Fiscally, the School had always been the poor relation, and this seemed to us yet another example of discriminatory treatment. Our indignation was sincere and in the circumstances — so far as we knew them — valid. Then, like a deus ex machina, Trevor Swan, Professor of Economics in Social Sciences and an old friend of Crawford's, stepped in with an invitation to meet him over drinks in Trevor's house. We went, warily suspicious, and found a man of short stature, anything but an imposing presence, very quietly-spoken; and before the evening was out we knew we had the man to lead us.

Crawford came very late to strictly academic life, but — unknown to most of us — he had in fact had a great deal to do with the planning for ANU itself, in the 1940s when the Old Hospital Building, where the Research Schools of Pacific Studies and of Social Sciences had begun their physical existence, had been home for the busy brainstrusters of the Ministry of Post-War Reconstruction.

His career in the public service after the war had been legendary — first Director of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, Secretary to the Department of Commerce and Agriculture, later the Trade Department, and in the latter capacity architect of the commercial rapprochement with Japan, a move of incalculable significance for the economic development of Australia. Together with the building of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics on the domestic side, this achievement alone would seem enough for any man of reasonable ability and energy; it was only a fraction of Crawford's work.

Nor, though he moved in the corridors of power and fostered the application of more sophisticated techniques to the problems of primary industry and trade, were Crawford's economics merely econometrics nor his politics just those of power: both had always a strong component not only of application but also of welfare. I have never forgotten the restrained bitterness with which he spoke of those bureaucrats to whom the poor and the unemployed were not persons but simply component figures in a statistical index.

Sir John was fifty when he joined the ANU, with a full and distinguished career behind him; but his mind was very far from set and he soon became as skilled in academic arts as he ever had been in those of governmental administration.

Almost at once the Research School of Pacific Studies was reinvigorated; the Director's guidance was always tactful but firm — he was wonderful in the chair. Genial and accessible, he had the art of entering into enthusiasms without losing balance, and any necessary deflation was so gently done that one did not feel let down. He was indeed avid for new approaches and initiatives; his was a major inspiration for the New Guinea Research Unit, which played a very significant part in advancing the understanding of Papua New Guinea both within and without that country; for the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre; and, later, for the Centre for Research on Federal Financial Relations and the Northern Australia Research Unit. But more important than these specific developments was the general tone of his leadership, which educed a remarkable degree of co-operation between the various departments of the Research School, a tradition which carried over beyond the term of his directorship. 

One of Sir John's most marked characteristics was an apparently boundless energy; he did enough work for two or three men, enjoyed it, and very rarely seemed tired. Without losing his firm grip on his duties to the University, he did not fail to meet the demands on him for advice, often at the highest level, from a multitude of agencies.  

New Guinea was one bridge between his academic and his extramural public life. In the 1960s, he was one of the founders of the Council on New Guinea Affairs, which at a tricky stage did much to improve Australian understanding of that country's problems; he took great interest in the University of Papua New Guinea, and indeed served as its Chancellor. Another concern which spanned the space between the academic and the applied, between Australia and her neighbours, was the development in ANU of Master's courses in agrarian and marketing problems for students from Third World countries, mainly but not solely from Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Much more in the public eye was his activity as Deputy Chairman of the Vernon Committee inquiring into the economy; it was common knowledge that Sir John was largely responsible for both the substance and the presentation of its forward-looking findings, and one of the few things which stirred him to real anger was the cavalier and opportunistic jettisoning of its report by the Prime Minister, Menzies. A bonny fighter when roused, though fair and courteous, he was also ever ready to resist attempts to impede the action of the Industries Assistance Commission, another of his brain-children.

The activities mentioned here do not exhaust the list; Sir John Crawford must rank as an economic statesman of a high order, a formative influence in post-war Australia, a leading citizen of the Pacific world.

Sir John left the directorship of Pacific Studies to become Vice-Chancellor in 1967, but even before that his financial acumen and his intimate knowledge of the ways of government had been of much service to the University. They were to be even more needed after Sir Robert Menzies' golden days were ended and the chill breezes of fiscal restraint began to blow. On campuses throughout the country these were accompanied by the hot winds of student unrest; and that these were not stormier in the Acton Peninsula was largely due to Sir John's broad tolerance and tact. In the Research School of Pacific Studies, for example, he gave strong support to his successor's efforts to secure full student representation on Faculty and Faculty Board, in face of considerable scepticism from other heads of schools; and in the heat of the Vietnam War he successfully withstood official attempts to secure access to the records of students active in resistance.

Great administrative skill, intellectual grasp and acuity, integrity, decisiveness, a zest for work — these were leading traits in Sir John Crawford's character, nor was he unaware of his distinction; he took a proper pride in his achievement. But this was utterly without pomposity or pedantry or dogmatism; and there was another Crawford, Jack Crawford, another and yet the same — a simple man, kindly, human and humane. To have been associated with his diverse work was an honour, to enjoy his friendship a greater one, and it is sad indeed to think of our loss, still more the manner of it. But the University may take pride in the fact that a man so gifted found so much of his fulfilment in its service.

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Citation details

Oskar Spate, 'Crawford, Sir John Grenfell (Jack) (1910–1984)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


4 April, 1910
Hurstville, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


28 October, 1984 (aged 74)
Acton, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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