The life and work of Tom Fitzgerald - header


As seen by others - 'One of the most cultivated minds of our time'

Ken Inglis

‘There must be another Fitzgerald somewhere’, says an old colleague. The perfect replica would be an economist with the cultural range of a Keynes, a polemicist with the honesty and purpose of an Orwell, a journalist unable to think in clichés, a spouse and parent prepared to mortgage the family house in order to create and produce in spare time an independent journal of opinion, married to a partner working full-time for the paper as well as full-time at home. We would have to be lucky. We are lucky, to have had those fourteen years of Nation. [1]

For twelve of Nation’s years he [Fitzgerald] was financial editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, and for the last two he was editorial director of Murdoch’s News Ltd, while being proprietor and editor of a fortnightly journal. As if that were not enough, from 1967 to 1970 he was taking subjects at the University of Sydney, adding to his degree in Economics, earned before the war, a series of courses in History and Philosophy of Science, Philosophy and Greek…with distinguished results….If this were fiction it would strain credulity. In the real-life story of Nation it is eloquent evidence of a powerful curiosity about the human condition which informed the paper. [2]

Peter Ryan

One of the best books to be published in Australia recently…This little gem [Between Life and Economics] is significant, in the best and proper sense of 'signifying something', but I commend it to you on other grounds – that it is delightful.

It shows the play of one of the most cultivated minds of our time and continent. In prose of Orwellian transparency it analyses what it calls this “strangest” period of Australia’s whole economic history.

…he draws into the service of his argument and of our understanding his mastery of an astonishing range of reference. We learn about Charles Darwin’s study of the two-million-year history of the embryology of barnacles; of the heroic death of Flight-Lieutenant Bill Newton, VC, murdered by the Japanese at Salamaua in 1943; of the (to me) entirely unknown Australian poet W.J. Turner, whom W.B. Yeats admired, praised and anthologised; of the understanding by Pericles of the economic 'multiplier effect', back in Athens of the Fourth Century BC.

…He quotes as a welcome contrast the wiser views and insights of John Curtin’s economic policies so many years before, lamenting that the intelligence they expressed is not available now. [3]

  Sketch of Tom Fitzgerald by Bill Leak

Sketch of Tom Fitzgerald by Bill Leak, 1987

John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Fitzgerald family. Bill Leak sketch of Tom Fitzgerald; March 1987. JCPML00720/65


Humphrey McQueen

Tom’s friendship and his company brought out the best in many of us. He was surprised to be told that his employer Neville Wran had a strong line of expletives and perplexed when informed that the premier of New South Wales was not the only person who adjusted his behaviour in the Fitzgerald presence.

He remained a gentleman of his generation who would walk the floor at night with a sick child but for whom the domestic economy remained a mystery. He taught himself to stack the washing-up machine, burn toast and boil water for instant coffee but never surrendered his amazement at my ability to jiggle a teabag.

…Whether Fitzgerald had memorised all Shakespeare’s plays is uncertain but he could pick up from any cue dropped in conversation. In the Air Force, his capacity for apt quotation had earned him the sobriquet of ‘Shakespeare’s Ghost’. He delighted in the bawdy for its own sake as well as for Shakespeare’s use of it to deepen his profoundest observations. Shakespeare’s attainments he considered to be unsurpassed, though not without fault. How could Hamlet, after communing with his father’s ghost, soliloquise on ‘The undiscovered country from whose bourne/ No traveller returns’? Claims that the plays were written by Ben Jonson or the Earl of Oxford, Fitzgerald spurned as snobbery. Why should a butcher’s son not be a genius? demanded the milkman’s lad. His other dislike was for biographers who used the playtexts as evidence for the life or opinions. The sure facts of Shakespeare’s life could fit onto one sheet of paper. The rest was problematical. That attitude steered Fitzgerald’s biographical essays.

…His disaffection for the Whitlam debacle spurred him towards the preparation of a life of John Curtin. As well as his having been Fitzgerald’s war-time prime minister, Curtin appealed as a leader who embodied two essentials lacking in Whitlam. The first was a sense of fellowship with Caucus. The second was an understanding of the economy – for if that went awry nothing else could be set to rights. Fitzgerald had waited twenty years to achieve social, political and cultural change only to have too many of his and the nation’s hopes mutilated through ignorance and arrogance. [4]

Although Fitzgerald’s career has been in economics, he has never supposed that their study or application was all that life had to offer. For him, the billion years before human economics began, the marvels of poetic creation and composure in the face of death come closer to determining significance. Yet he knows that a society or government that lets its economy go to the bad will not be able to put much else to rights. He is rational about economics, without being an economic rationalist.

‘Dissenting’ is the term Fitzgerald uses to describe his position against conventional economic doctrine; yet he also places himself in a different line of orthodoxy, one that includes Joseph Schumpeter, Maynard Keynes and Paul Samuelson – and does not deny entry to Adam Smith. Fitzgerald asks how much of Smith today’s worshippers of the ‘free market’ have read, before citing several passages that would discomfort those still honest enough to take in their master’s meaning.

Fitzgerald is attracted to this tradition because its practitioners have attended to the changing realities and provisional conclusions that are the stuff of making and spending, whereas the current orthodoxy is dominated by dogmatic abstraction, spuriously legitimated by second-rate mathematics. Algebraic ‘symbols tend to give an aura of precision and finality in some readers’ minds, when in fact they’re promoting evasion of the logical complications’. [5]

Sydney Morning Herald obituary for Tom Fitzgerald

He was 'one of the greatest journalists of his time', said Mr Harry Kippax, former news editor and drama critic of the Herald. Professor Ken Inglis, Professor of History at the Australian National University, said yesterday 'it was greedy to want more from someone who had given his country and culture so much'.

'But many of us had just assumed he would go on forever, offering indispensable wisdom about our condition in immaculate prose. What I’ll miss most though, is his simple goodness.'

Mr V.J. Carroll, former editor-in-chief of the Herald, said of Mr Fitzgerald: 'At a time when a lot of our political and economic wisdom is based on survival of the fittest – ‘every man for himself,’ said the lion as he danced among the chickens – Tom was a real lion whose concern was always for the chickens.' [6]


1. Inglis, K, 1989, Nation: The Life of an Independent Journal of Opinion, 1958 – 1972, Melbourne University Press

2 Inglis, K, 1989/90, ‘Nation’s Strength’, Independent Monthly, December 1989 – January 1990; and Inglis, k, 1988, ‘Eight million words of Nation’, Australian Society, September 1988

3. Ryan, P, 1991, ‘Lashing the taboos of Treasury’, The Age, 9 February 1991

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

5. McQueen, H, 1990,‘On economics, life, love and barnacles’, 24 Hours, November 1990

6. Valerie Lawson, ‘A ‘lion’ of Australian journalism dies’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 January 1993

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