The life and work of Tom Fitzgerald - header


Advisor to government - 'Fascinating intellectual cut and thrust'

I was approached in ’72 by the Senate Select Committee on Securities and Exchange to help them in their work, investigating the various scandals they had unearthed. And with Murdoch’s agreement I gave them a part of my time, they paying a due proportion of my salary into News Limited.

The approach to join Minerals and Energy, came from Lennox Hewitt. He asked me, before I could join, to come and meet the Minister which I did. I was impressed with the Minister, Mr Connor’s, range of issues that he thought the Department should apply itself to. They were all intelligent questions. He wasn’t of course seeking anything like immediate responses. But he gave me an outline of things that he thought the Department should consider. They were good ideas.

I moved into that Department the day after the budget, probably in September, 1973. [1]

Fitzgerald was given a broad brief to report on the question 'What is Australia getting from its mineral industry?' and left to get on with it by the Minister who advised 'I’ll leave it to you. It’s a hard one but you can do it.'



  Tom Fitzgerald, 1982

Tom Fitzgerald in pensive mood, 1982

Image cropped from: John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Fitzgerald family. Tom Fitzgerald and grandson David, 1982. JCPML00720/47



To sum up very briefly I think there were three elements of my thesis. The first was the scale of the taxation concessions granted by the federal government to the mining industry. And the way in which some of those concessions which were not outright reductions in tax but deferments of tax could in practice lead to an enormously advantaged acceleration of growth in the industry. Which may not have been contemplated by the people who drew up the tax concessions in the era of the Chifley government when Australia was thought to be barren of minerals. The taxation concessions greatly advantaged expanding mineral companies. The emphasis being on expanding.

The second part was the extent of the overseas ownership of these advantaged mineral exploiters. And the third, in a way to me the most interesting, was the power and disposition of state governments, without any reference to the federal government, to grant great mineral rights to companies, foreign or local, which would automatically mean granting extraordinary federal taxation concessions to the expansion of those deposits. And I had to spend quite a substantial part of the paper trying to set out the nature of the tax concessions and the real meaning of what was commonly and loosely described as ‘deferred tax’ provisions made by the companies. [2]

The paper became embroiled in controversy with Fitzgerald himself being 'about equally annoyed by the bitter opponents of the paper and its doughty champions.'


Humphrey McQueen made the following assessment of the impact of the Fitzgerald Report:

Production of the Fitzgerald Report had to be rushed after a snap election was declared for May 1974. Few roneoed publications have been so elegant in style or reasoning. His conclusion was that the Australian taxpayer had subsidised the mining corporations by $55 million. Using different criteria for assessment, the Industries Assistance Commission calculated later that the subsidy had been $5m. [3]


  Farewell dinner for Neville Wran, 1986

Left to right: Mrs Carr, Vincent Serventy, Tom Fitzgerald, Bob Carr and Nigel Stokes at a farewell dinner for Neville Wran in 1986

John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Fitzgerald family. Mrs Carr, Vincent Serventy, Tom Fitzgerald, Bob Carr, Nigel Stokes; farewell dinner for Neville Wran, 1986. JCPML00720/54



Shortly after the release of the Report, Fitzgerald was approached to undertake further advisory work for government.

About that time, I don’t think with any knowledge of what had happened to me, Nugget Coombs, Dr Coombs, asked me would I join his Royal Commission into Government Administration. The Public Service. And I agreed to do that. I was to be a special adviser, replacing Peter Wilenski. And from early 1975...I stayed a few weeks at least in Minerals in 1975 but quite early I joined Nugget Coombs and worked for about eighteen months on that enquiry. Which I found again extremely interesting. Because it gave one a chance to meet the heads and other senior officials of almost all departments. To meet with them, to sit in on the hearings with...either public or private, to have informal discussions with them and to get to know what sort of people they were. And that kept me in Canberra for another eighteen months.

So I’d been altogether three years in Canberra when I had the approach from Neville Wran, through David Hill. And at first I thought I could work in the Premier’s Department as part of the unit called the Ministerial Advisory Unit. I’d be part-time. By this time I’d conceived the idea of writing something about John Curtin and I wanted to use most of that part-time to work on Curtin…

I was asked especially to represent the Premier on issues relating to minerals and that meant mainly coal mining. And I had the chance to go with the State Minister for Minerals to Tokyo and Seoul. We only had a week there but a great experience.

I had been with the Premier’s Department, for about six years which was longer than I had expected. I was confirmed in that period in an impression I had formed a long time before. That some discussions of a committee character between people who are not necessarily academically qualified can reach an extraordinarily high level of intelligence. I’d had experience of that even with milk vendors in the very early forties. I had more of it from time to time after leaving journalism in both the Commonwealth, but particularly in the state government sphere. To attend inter-departmental meetings or meetings between government ministers and/or departmental officers on the one side and business people and/or trade union officials on the other side, not always but sometimes gave one very fascinating intellectual cut and thrust. Highest... the highest ability was shown. And I have often thought that this all goes unrecorded of course and that the more literary people among us who can never reproduce such occasions in their literary works underrate the intelligence of more practical people in government and in business.

I possibly worked for a few weeks in January 1983 but I was winding up, trying to wind up, in ’82. I left, therefore, before the elections which brought the Hawke government into power. [4]


1 - 2 John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the National Library of Australia. Interview of Tom Fitzgerald, 01/02/1988 - 3/09/1988. JCPML00658/1. Original held by National Library of Australia TRC 2247

3. McQueen, Humphry, A human face of economics and an emperor of ice cream, 24 Hours, April 1993

4. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the National Library of Australia. Interview of Tom Fitzgerald, 01/02/1988 - 3/09/1988. JCPML00658/1. Original held by National Library of Australia TRC 2247


Investigating John Curtin home
The joy of study and  'the Murdoch years - the most ignominious of my life'
Between life and economics - 'A dissenting case'