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Frederick Henry George (Fred) Gruen (1921–1997)

by John Williams

I first met Fred Gruen in 1972 when he arrived at the ANU as Professor of Economics, RSSS. He was Australia's best known agricultural economist, and I had heard of the sensible and liberal role that he played as Professor at Monash during the difficult Vietnam war years, and with the push for more student influence on university policy.

Fred was an exceptional person, for a young academic to meet. He was very friendly, elegant and wore his clothes well. All his friends will remember his style of wearing a sports coat—draped over the shoulder but arms not in the sleeves. (Whenever I tried to copy this the coat fell off.)

It was obvious that Fred was very much an intellectual in the European tradition. In the RSSS tea room he discussed and argued with academics from all disciplines. He was broad in his interests and he liked clever and exciting people irrespective of personalities.

I had heard that Fred was an academic entrepreneur, which augured well. It seemed certain that Fred would build a dynamic and friendly department. However, before any of this could happen he moved across the lake and became Economic Consultant to Gough Whitlam who, as Prime Minister, had wanted an outside source of advice. I went to the Industry Assistance Commission.

They were exciting times. We met regularly and it was impossible not to be impressed by Fred. He was sensible, relaxed, well balanced, focussed on achieving things and never thought of policy setbacks or victories as personal losses or achievements. There was never any unnecessary tension and there was a strong feeling of doing the best we could and getting on with it. He played a substantial role in liberalising Australian trade and was a key player in the across-the-board 25 per cent tariff cut.

When Fred left the Prime Minister's service he turned his attention to Economics at RSSS which then went through one of its best periods. Fred was exceptionally good at hiring young people and creating an environment in which they worked well. But it was clear that the economics group was too small and its policy focus not strong enough, so Fred set about to create the Centre for Economic Policy Research. He became its first Director in 1981 and the Centre developed into a major forum for Australian policy discussion, and remains so today.

Fred's direct policy advising role continued at ANU. He chaired the Indicative Planning Council of the Housing Industry 1984-87, and in 1984 he chaired a Commonwealth committee which led to the reintroduction of the asset test for welfare payments. He reviewed the anti-dumping system for the Commonwealth Government in 1986, producing a report which led to a change in the system. In the ACT he chaired the Education and Training Council for three years, and from 1992 the Economic Priorities Advisory Committee.

Fred's research interests and policy role intertwined. Some of his early research dealt with theoretical topics but most of his research was applied and concerned with tariffs, welfare policy and unemployment. The research was driven by his belief that economics should be relevant and timely. He became President of the Economic Society of Australia from 1984 to 1986 and was recently made a Distinguished Fellow of the Society. He was President of the Academy of the Social Sciences of Australia and in 1986 was awarded the Order of Australia for services to education.

One naturally wonders how exceptional people like Fred are created. The question is all the more interesting when one realises that just before World War II Fred left Vienna to attend public school in the UK. The adjustment must have been difficult. When he arrived in England he could speak no English and his academic record in Austria left a lot to be desired. He left school in the UK and became an assistant in a printing firm. In 1940 Fred was shipped by the British government to Australia in the Dunera. He had been interned in Britain when the war began and was reinterned in Hay, NSW. During the war he joined the Australian Army and started a Melbourne University degree course. After obtaining the BA and B Comm degrees, his first Australian civilian job was in the NSW Department of Agriculture. Later he studied in Chicago, but illness prevented him from completing his PhD.

Could Fred have made such a large contribution if he had stayed in the UK? It seems unlikely. He seemed to fit so well here. He was a humanist in his values, rational and realistic in his economics, and remarkably dispassionate in his judgments. He made a unique contribution and is missed greatly.

There will be an assessment of Fred's academic and policy contributions during a memorial evening at Becker House on Thursday, 18 December.

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Citation details

John Williams, 'Gruen, Frederick Henry George (Fred) (1921–1997)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Grün, Fritz Heinz Georg

14 June, 1921
Vienna, Austria


29 October, 1997 (aged 76)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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