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

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Leslie Finlay (Fin) Crisp (1917–1984)

by I. F. H. Wilson

The profession of Political Science lost a noted leader with the passing of 'Fin' Crisp on 21 December 1984 after a second major heart attack.

Born, but seldom admitting to, Leslie Finlay Crisp on 19 January 1917 in Victoria, he moved to Adelaide to complete his secondary education at St Peter's College during difficult times and he later wrote of the impact of the Depression on his thinking. It also touched his compassion as a teacher and provided the negative example for his work in the ALP and the Commonwealth Bank Board.

He went on to the University of Adelaide where he read History and Politics under G.V. Portus, completing his MA and winning the Rhodes Scholarship in 1938. During this period he met his wife, Helen, and together they helped found the National Union of Australian University Students, later the AUS. He was already active in politics and a regular WEA lecturer in and around Adelaide.

Fin's years at Balliol informed and firmed his intellectual position, but the war prevented him from making the most of the opportunity. It was characteristic that he should enter the public service upon his return in 1940 because his land and obligation were always important to him. He quickly came to the notice of the Government and was a member of Forde's group in the delegation to San Francisco in 1945, although he also worked at times with Dr Evatt. He formed a great respect for Chifley during these years and in 1949 became Director-General of Post-War Reconstruction, the department through which so much of the reform program was being managed. But before Fin turned 33 Labor was out of office and he was faced with a major decision.

Although he later wrote of himself as one 'who has never aspired to Party honours beyond local branch and electorate council levels, nor to elective public office beyond the local hospital board', the temptation was there. In 1950 he took the Chair of Political Science at Canberra University College and for the next 10 years built up a department which operated uneasily under the University of Melbourne. Brian Beddie, Creighton Burns, Sol Encel, David Corbett and Kathy West were early members before the amalgamation, 'by no choice of their own' as Fin put it, with the Australian National University, 'that most exotic of all Chifley foundations'.

The Parliamentary Government of the Commonwealth of Australia, which grew out of his MA, appeared in 1949 and was soon established as a text, firmly drawing the line between the 'party of Labour' and the 'parties of Capital'. The Australian Federal Labor Party was published in 1955 and in 1960 he completed his notable biography, Ben Chifley. Of the book he quoted Martin Luther: 'Here I stand; I could do no other.'

But Fin was only 43 and restless. It was to be regretted that a similar challenge did not present itself and the next decade was to be spent in building and managing a large department and adjusting to different patterns of communication and decision-making when the old methods showed signs of strain. This took toll of his health and he stepped down as head of department some time before Gordon Reid took up the Chair. Only much later when he had also retired from teaching did the shorter biographies of early political figures begin to see print, but circumstances prevented him from tackling what should have been another great biography, that of J. C. Watson.

Fin was often characterised as conservative and did not himself shrink from the rightist label within the ALP, but his was an older Labor view in which equality and equality of opportunity and access in education were vitally important.

He took great pains to overcome what he saw as the deprivations students from rural or industrial suburban backgrounds brought with them to university. Each weekend, groups of undergraduates would be brought home to meet his family and be introduced to his other great love, that of good books. These acts were paternal rather than paternalistic and were never patronising. He remained active within the local ALP and his criticisms of it again had their roots in his impressions of the 1930s. He deplored the white-collar colonisation of the party and was just as outspoken in his attacks on student radicalism when its social base was the middle-class.

It was fitting, given Chifley's thinking on a central bank, that Fin should have been appointed to the board of the Commonwealth Bank. A man slow to come to terms with modern credit who had his university salary paid in cash, he tackled the job with his usual energy and devotion. He became Chairman, despite the added travelling and responsibilities, but still kept up the output of the political biographies with the assistance of Mrs Barbara Atkinson.

His love of books and his ambition to make them more widely available kindled an interest in, and later a close involvement with, the University Co-operative Bookshop, for a time as a Director. It was after a strenuous day and a publishing occasion after work that he suffered another heart attack.

He had sometimes spoken of the appropriateness of dying still 'in harness', as he put it, and he was granted this. His many colleagues and countless students remain in his debt.

* This obituary was prepared originally for the Australian Political Studies Association and appears in the March issue of its newsletter.

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Citation details

I. F. H. Wilson, 'Crisp, Leslie Finlay (Fin) (1917–1984)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

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