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Ernest Kelvin (Fred) Fisk (1917–2009)

by Jon Altman

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

Fred Fisk, former Professorial Fellow in the Department of Economics, Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University, and Fellow of the Academy since 1974, died on 21 July 2009, aged 91.

Ernest Kelvin Fisk was born in Pymble on 19 October 1917, the first of four boys. His parents were Ernest (later knighted) and Florence (née Chudleigh). He was always called Fred except by his parents who preferred the name Kelvin. Fred was educated at Geelong Grammar School as a boarder between 1928 and 1936. Having passed the special entrance examination and with the support of his headmaster, he planned to read philosophy at Christ Church College, Oxford, under Professor Gilbert Ryle. But his father vetoed this plan, preferring that Fred undertake a more practical career path at his firm Amalgamated Wireless Australia (AWA). Fred acquiesced, as the eldest son, to generously allow his younger brothers more latitude. He enrolled at the University of Sydney as a night student in economics in 1937. In September 1939, at the outbreak of war, Fred, already a cadet Lieutenant, enlisted, thus escaping a possible career at AWA.

Fred saw war service in Malaya in the Australian Signal Corps and made a hazardous escape from Singapore in early 1942, which included being sunk in the South China Sea; he was then a signal officer in Australia and also in London for a time using his AWA-acquired expertise. In 1944 he survived a flying boat crash in Sydney Harbour. At war’s end Fred, now a Lieutenant-Colonel, sought immediate discharge and returned as a mature-age student aged 28 to complete his studies at Oriel College, Oxford. Fred read philosophy, politics and economics, passed his BA (Hons) with flying colours and was awarded a college prize of £3, to be spent on books, that apparently he did not even collect.

On completing his studies in 1947, Fred returned to Malaya as a member of the Malayan Civil Service, specialising through a number of appointments as an economist, addressing issues of rural development. He was in Malaya for 13 years, became a fluent speaker of Malay and colloquial Cantonese, an avid flyer and glider, and spent a considerable period from 1951 to 1957 as State Development Officer for Perak province. In 1957 he was appointed Deputy Chair of the Rural and Industrial Development Authority (RIDA), and in 1958, after retiring from the Malayan Civil Service, returned as the chief economist to RIDA and head of its Economic and Planning Division on a two-year Colombo Plan posting, sponsored by the Australian Government.

In 1960, now married to Jane (née Ferguson, in 1958) and with a young son, Peter (born 1959), Fred was ready to return to Australia and secured an appointment as Senior Research Fellow in the new Department of Economics at the Research School of Pacific Studies, established by Sir John Crawford in that year.

Fisk’s brief was wide and included not just development issues in Southeast Asia where he had expertise, but also in the South Pacific, particularly Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Western Samoa, where he had none. He threw himself into his new life as an academic with characteristic gusto, focusing first on publishing material based on his substantial Malayan experience, but then expanding his research into Papua New Guinea from 1961, Fiji from 1965, the Torres Strait from the early 1970s, and then Aboriginal Australia from 1978. Some important books he authored or edited included The Political Economy of Independent Malaya (1964), which explored the special development problems faced by a racially plural society; New Guinea on the Threshold (1966), an important edited volume that summarised much ANU research including Fred’s work on subsistence affluence; and the Political Economy of Independent Fiji (1970), which looked at the unusual combination of pluralism and subsistence affluence. The six-volume series The Torres Strait Islanders (Fisk contributed to three) completed in 1974 and 1975 is a crucial baseline study based on the islands and the mainland. From 1978 to 1983, Fisk coordinated a major study ‘The Aboriginal Component of the Australian Economy’ that resulted in the publication of five volumes between 1981 and 1985. The last, The Aboriginal Economy in Town and Country (1985), solely authored by Fisk, is a classical study that provides the only quantification ever of the Aboriginal share of the national accounts and also provided some observations about choice and realistic development options that today’s policymakers would be wise to consult. Despite his relatively late start in academia, Fisk progressed quickly, promoted to senior fellow in 1962 and to Professorial Fellow in 1967. In 1974 he was elected a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. In 1975 he established the Development Studies Centre (partly owing to the demise of the Papua New Guinea Research Unit in 1974), which focused much research attention on small Pacific island countries that included Niue, Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Cook Islands. Fisk was to retire from the ANU in 1982 when 65, but returned for a short stint to run the Development Studies Centre until the arrival of a new director. His career at the University was symbolically book-ended by the award of a DLitt in 1983 by Sir John Crawford, by then the Chancellor, who had first encouraged Fisk to come to Canberra. The link between them survives, as the Development Studies Centre that Fisk established later became the National Centre for Development Studies and, more recently, the Crawford School for Economics and Management. The DLitt is a wonderful collection of Fisk’s published works in three volumes, covering contributions to policy in Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific, as well as theory and empirical studies.

In retirement Fred was hardly idle. Initially, he undertook consultancies, mainly in the Pacific, for the Australian Government and the United Nations. But with characteristic reflexivity he became a little disillusioned with such efforts, observing that too many consultants’ reports, including his own, just gathered dust on shelves, a classic case perhaps of oversupply. His final book in the University’s History of Development Studies series was Hardly Ever a Dull Moment (1995), an even-handed and dispassionate autobiography of a long career in development economics that began with the advent of the sub-discipline. Fred spent his last years returning to his early interest in philosophy and the mind, working on a book on parapsychology, spending long periods, as his widow Jane put it, in ‘companionable silence’, being together but working on their own writing projects in the sunny ‘craft room’ in the Deakin home where they had resided since 1960.

I knew Fred well enough to know that he would not appreciate either a hagiographic or impersonal obituary, so let me shift gear a little. As a development economist, Fred was not anti-development—that would be too oxymoronic for him. But he did display a healthy social sciences scepticism of mainstream economics and the modernisation paradigm in cross-cultural settings, a scepticism built on his grounded empirical practice—his form of economics had a very human face. His major and enduring theoretical contribution, that is all too often overlooked in these neoliberal times, is the value of the non-market or subsistence sector. How could development planning be undertaken if the way non-market production is valued, produced and exchanged is overlooked? He seriously questioned the value of rampant materialism as a development goal. Perhaps today he might also question whether the rapid transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture was a sound strategy, with food security an issue in countries like Papua New Guinea. Fred published a number of books with ‘political economy’ in the title and his research highlighted the development problems generated by differential power relations and uneven penetration of capital. His conceptual framework, though, was neoclassical and he was reluctant to consider himself either radical or Marxist.

I was first introduced to Fisk’s writings in 1975 (in New Zealand) by my supervisor Conrad Blyth, a colleague of his from economics at ANU. My MA thesis in development economics, focused on Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Western Samoa, was littered with references to Fisk; I was especially taken by his theoretical explanation for backward-bending labour supply curves. In 1977, I approached Fred with an eye to undertaking a PhD in his department, but with characteristic candour he recommended I would have a better chance of success, and gain a better degree, in the Anthropology Department where my brand of economics and an interest in Aboriginal Australians might be appreciated more than by his colleagues. Paradoxically, in 1978, Fred himself turned his own considerable development experience to this difficult issue—he would probably be surprised that a quick citation index search indicates that his book The Aboriginal Economy in Town and Country is his most cited work. Fred examined my PhD thesis and was a strong supporter of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research in its early years. Years later when we reconnected, he generously bequeathed to me his collection of books on Aboriginal Australia. There was very much to like about Fred Fisk—his humility, generosity and open mind.

I especially liked his practical side. He was not just an armchair economist, but put his considerable agricultural expertise to good use in the purchase, and then management, of two serious grazing properties: first ‘Westbrook’ near Glen Innes, and then ‘Foxhill’ near Braidwood. The latter became a home away from home for his family, Jane, Peter and Rosemary (born 1962), between 1963 and 1980. One of Fred’s characteristics was to incorporate past experiences from his various life stages, but then cut off and move on—be it his work with AWA, his army period, his Malay civil service, or his longest stint of employment from 1960 to 1983 at ANU. He was sad when he sold Foxhill, a place to which he had a strong sentimental attachment, and he never returned. In July 2009, appropriately, his ashes were scattered there. 

* Originally published in the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia Annual Report 2009.

Other Obituaries for Ernest Kelvin (Fred) Fisk

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Citation details

Jon Altman, 'Fisk, Ernest Kelvin (Fred) (1917–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


19 October, 1917
Pymble, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


21 July, 2009 (aged 91)

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