Interview with Sir Leslie Galfreid Melville

From the ANU Oral History Archive
Interviews conducted 14 April 1990
Interviewed by Daniel Connell
Edited and transferred to web media by Nik Fominas and Peter Stewart

Biographical introduction: Sir Leslie Melville was born at Marsfield, Sydney in 1902. He was educated at the Sydney CEGS and St Pauls College, University of Sydney.

From 1953 to 1960 he was Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University. Before taking up this appointment he had held distinguished positions in the public service, the University of Adelaide and the Commonwealth Bank.

His career as an economist began with appointment to the position of Public Actuary of South Australia, which he held from 1924 to 1928. Sir Leslie was then appointed as the first Professor of Economics in the University of Adelaide. In 1931 he was invited to be the first Economic Adviser to the Commonwealth Bank and remained in this position until 1950 when he was appointed Assistant Governor of the Bank, in charge of central banking.

Sir Leslie was awarded his knighthood in 1957. He left the ANU to take up the position of Chairman of the Australian Tariff Board. After completing his term on the Tariff Board he was appointed as a Member of the Reserve Bank Board and Chairman of the Commonwealth Grants Commission.

Transcript: Recoeding duration: 1 1/2 hours (2 tapes) Transcriber: Diana Nelson


          Identification: This is side 1, tape 1 of the interview with Sir Leslie Galfreid Melville. The interview is taking place on April 14 1990 and it's for the purpose of the ANU's Oral History collection with people who have played a distinguished part in the history of the university. This is Daniel Connell doing the interviewing. End of identification.

          Sir Leslie, could you describe for me where you got your original ideas about the role of universities in society?

Well, that covers the whole period of course of my academic work as a student in Sydney, and on the staff of the Adelaide University, and of course, during the period when I was working with the Commonwealth Bank as an economic adviser.

          Perhaps just talking about that early period when you were actually in universities, let's say, Adelaide University, at that time it was essentially a teaching function that the universities had. Is that fair?

Oh, almost entirely. There was not sufficient staff for anything else so I was, when I was first appointed, the only member of the Economic Department except perhaps for one man that we appointed to teach the newcomers to the university how to write essays, and do other English work of that kind. Otherwise I had to carry all the different faculties, all the different years of economics so that, of course, there was no time for much research work in those circumstances.

          What was the work you were doing? The teaching - what was it actually aimed at?

Oh well, teaching them some economics and statistics which I was also teaching.

          But for a particular purpose? For use in particular situations?

Oh no, not for a particular purpose, just to teach them the subject of economics. It didn't have any particular direction apart from that.

          You weren't thinking of the state of South Australia and the type of economists that it needed in the late '20s?

Oh no. I used what was going on in South Australia and in the rest of Australia as illustrations of course in economic lectures. But essentially it was simply to teach them the subject of economics, nothing more nor less than that.

          The Commonwealth Bank: why did you make the transition from University of Adelaide to the Commonwealth Bank?

Well, that was in 1931. It was a time, of course, when we were plunged into the Depression, and one thing very obvious was that the governments and the banks of that day sorely needed economic advice. It'd be silly of me to pretend that I was the one that ought to give that advice but I was asked to do it and naturally I accepted.

          And in doing that you were effectively involved in fairly continual research of an applied kind, weren't you?

Oh yes, there was a woeful lack of research in economics in Australia, and indeed in the whole of the social sciences; at that time there was very little work being done in any of the universities. Our statistics were very limited. We really didn't have enough data at that time to do any useful work on forecasting or .... In many ways it was very difficult to do any sensible advising because the data were not there.

          You were there during the Depression which was a time of obvious enormous stress. What sort of tasks would you be working on as the Economic Adviser to the Commonwealth Bank?

Well, mainly monetary of course - banking and monetary, because, after all, the central bank .... It wasn't a central bank then, I suppose - well, it was - it was used as a central bank but it was a commercial bank which had central banking functions attached to it. But there was very little guidance on monetary and banking subjects available and this was the sort of thing that was necessary to provide the Board with. So, naturally, in order to get some data, a good deal of time had to be spent on research in order to collect the data.

          Who decided what you had to research? Who decided what the need was?

Well, I had to decide that.

          So, I mean, in that sense, how different was your position, say, from that of a Fellow at the ANU, many years later?

Well, when do you mean? When I was a fellow at the ANU?

          No, no, I'm sorry. I'm not implying that you were a Fellow. I'm just asking about the amount of freedom that you had in terms of choosing the work that you thought was significant to work on in terms of defining it. What I'm sort of wanting to get at is trying to find out, just within the senior areas of the public service, what research was like in those areas, and I'm wanting to compare it, say, with CSIRO type research, and then ultimately, a bit further down the track, with the sort of ANU type research.

Well, I was completely free to do whatever I liked but I had to present advice to the Commonwealth Bank Board once a month. And it was necessary to decide just what it was wise for me to tell them at that time and so necessarily my research efforts at that time, and of the very small staff that I began with, were directed to that task of examining the course of economic events in Australia, and suggesting what should be done in the monetary field and in the banking field in order to try to do something to lift the depression which was obviously the centre of attention at that time.

          Do you remember any particular controversies at the time that you were in that role? For example, had ...?

Oh yes. Of course the main controversy was over what the exchange rate should be. Before I went to the Reserve Bank the Australian exchange rate had moved from about 106 or 108 to 130 and the principal debate that occupied us for a year or two was whether it should be higher or lower than that, and that was the central argument. But of course, behind that again was our struggle to meet our interest payments and to balance our current account.

          You didn't stay Economic Adviser for the whole period of course that you were with the Commonwealth Bank. How was the ...? How did your role change over that period of time?

Well, I suppose I still remained the Economic Adviser in essence. The only change was that I was appointed to, I think it was the Council, it was called in the first instance, and later to the Board, of the bank. But in both positions I was still there to give economic advice. There were other economists, of course, who were also giving economic advice, and I could sit back more and let them do the work, and my role then was rather one of commenting on what they had to say, but essentially it was the same sort of function.

          Where did you first get involved with activities connected in any way with the ANU?

Well, during the period of the proposals for the formation of the university in Canberra I talked to, naturally, to Nugget Coombs but also to other people who were involved with it - Mills and Eggleston and others. But these were just general discussions as to what form a university in Canberra should take and what it should do. In those ways, I took some part in those preliminary discussions, not any very large part, but some part in it.

          I understand that in the period before you became Vice-Chancellor, there was some suggestion at one stage that you might go into the Research School of Social Sciences?

Yes, this was when I was at the International Monetary Fund and there was a suggestion then put to me that I should come in as the Director of the School of Social Sciences.

          What did you see the role of the ANU ...? What sort of role did you think that the ANU should play when all these discussions were going on? When you were talking to Coombs and Eggleston.

Well, my main concern was the dreadful lack of research in Australia, particularly the social sciences, although of course there was very little research in the natural sciences as well, but a great deal more research was going on in the natural sciences than was going on in the social sciences. It was lamentable the condition of economic science in Australia in the days when I came to the Commonwealth Bank. We had so little in the way of material to work on, that it was obvious that somehow we had to have a lot more research work done.

And I saw the ANU as a vehicle for doing this research work. Naturally I was thinking more in the field of the social sciences, and others were thinking in the field of the natural sciences where we had a lot more work to do too. But we did have the CSIR and several very good institutes of research in the natural sciences.

We had practically nothing in the social sciences and so I was, I suppose, more interested in the formation of an institute that would carry out a lot more research work in the social sciences, and of course in economics.

          By the sound of it perhaps connected in a general sort of way with Australia's future needs, as it was becoming a more independent nation?

Yes. Naturally, I saw the Institute as concentrating more on matters that would be of interest to Australia but we did have a lack of how the economic system really worked worldwide; this was not only a problem in Australia. We had the arguments of the thirty years of Keynesianism and so on in the general theory in 1936 and .... No, I was concerned that the research work that should go on would be much more global in character than simply relating to Australian problems, although of course, if you found out what should be done in one country you knew pretty well what should be done in another country. There wasn't a great deal of difference really.

          I remember a fair while ago interviewing Nugget Coombs and he made the comment that he and people like him had come out of the second world war feeling that the values and skills of national planning had been thoroughly vindicated, feeling very confident, and that they came to the peace and reconstruction with the idea of applying the same skills and planning approach to the great questions of poverty and health and education. Was this - I'm not for the moment, not at this stage, sort of suggesting a direct connection with the ANU - but do you think there was a connection between that sort of thinking and the setting up on the ANU?

I wasn't conscious of it. I saw it only as a problem concerning the lack of good research work that .... And it wasn't only a question of economic reconstruction but it was the whole working of the economic system.

          Your appointment as VC: could you describe for me the circumstances under which that took place, because, in one sense, it's quite a big step to move from a senior public service position into a position like that, is it not?

Yes. At the time, of course, I was over in Washington with the International Monetary Fund and they were looking for a vice-chancellor to succeed Douglas Copland. And there was some correspondence and the suggestion made that I should take on that job.

I was, at the time, contemplating taking other work in England and perhaps developmental work in some of the third world countries, and I wasn't sure what I was going to do until this offer was made. And I thought that would give me an opportunity to come back to Australia and I rather welcomed that.

          Who initiated the idea?

I don't know, I don't know.

          I mean, you presumably had quite a close working relationship with Nugget Coombs. You don't think it might have been him?

It could have been. I had a close working arrangement with a number of the prominent members of the University Council at that time - with Roland Wilson, of course, at the Treasury who was on the Council of the University, and with the Solicitor-General, we'd worked together a lot. But from where this came, I don't know.

          And so when you came back and you looked at the situation - you'd been away from Australia how long?

About three years.

          Right. So, in a sense, you hadn't been involved on a very close, frequent basis with what had been happening at the ANU, had you?


          What were your expectations when you came back? That's what I'm getting at.

I don't know how to answer that. My expectations were that here was a very young institution: it had only recently been formed, it had by no means settled down into doing the sort of work that it aimed to do, and there was obviously a job for planning the future of the organisation, although most of that had been done in fact. The plans were pretty well settled; the general direction had been established but there was certainly need for supplementing what had already been determined.

And there was the whole problem of administration, general organisation of the university and so on. This is where I thought my principal job would be found - in general organisation and administration, rather than in trying to keep up with the research work that was being done in the university.

          In terms of the administration, what did you see as the priorities?

Well, the main problems, of course, were budgetary problems as they always are in a university, and I saw my main task of organisation at the outset, to be one of getting the budgetary system into order. It wasn't very well organised at the time I came, but then, of course, there was the whole problem of organising committees of all kinds, from board meetings, council meetings and so on. This is a very complicated job as you know in the university and a very difficult one.

          What about buildings? There was quite a big building program going on, wasn't there?


          What buildings were giving you the most problems?

Well, I suppose the John Curtin School. There was a great deal of trouble surrounding that but every building that went up was surrounded with a great deal of trouble.

          Recruitment of staff, of course, was another thing of this period. And this was the time when, I mean looking at the histories, there was all this on again, off again, relationship with the people, the advisers working in Britain.

Yes, that of course was the, in one way I suppose the major task - recruiting staff. We had a lot of positions to fill where the posts had been created but suitable people to fill them had not been recruited. Up to that time they .... It's not easy to find people of the sort of stature that we wanted and I spent a good deal of time travelling around the world on this task of trying to get people to fill the various posts.

          Talking about some of the key people coming from Britain - for example, Florey - could you tell me a bit more about Florey, your relationship with Florey? He'd already, of course, been involved with the university before you came, but what was the situation when you did arrive?

Well, it was a difficult one. Florey was commenting on what was going on in the ANU and he was provided with information from Australia that was far from accurate and ....

          Who was providing the information?

Well, I'd rather not mention names, but the information was being provided to him by people who weren't happy with the way in which they were being treated, but also the way in which some of their fellows were being treated. And Florey loved to get involved in a heated argument; we did have a long string of very irascible letters coming from Florey because he criticised what we were doing on the basis of information which, as I say, wasn't always accurate. So our relationships were in some ways quite difficult.

          This incidentally is a confidential recording, not for broadcast and the general public. So if you want to feel free, then please do. Another person in that group, of course, was Hancock.

Yes. Yes. Well, the relation between Hancock and Copland, of course, had been difficult. I was not party to any of that argument that went on and I didn't have the same sort of problems with Hancock. He wasn't easy to persuade to come to Australia. He was quite happy where he was.

I wanted him to come and I think a lot of other people at the university did, but he needed some persuading and he was suspicious of what we were doing on the basis, again, of some of the information that was coming to him from the university. But no, although later my relations with Hancock were not always so happy, at that period we got along quite well and eventually he agreed to come out to Australia to take on the Directorship of the School of Social Sciences.

          He'd had quite a bit of conflict with Eggleston, too, hadn't he?

Yes. I don't know that story well enough to be able to comment on it really, but it was mainly with Copland that I was aware that he had had difficulties.

          One of the issues, I understand, was the question of recruiting Australian staff. I've read that he was strongly of the opinion that there weren't very many Australians who were suitable for appointment.

Yes. I think there is some truth in that, although we were able to recruit our staff from overseas but who were originally Australians. Maybe it would have been difficult to have found the people we wanted in Australia but we did, nevertheless, find a great number of suitable people, who came from overseas, return to Australia.

          But during the period that you were working with him as Vice-Chancellor, was that ...?

Hancock, do you mean?

          With Hancock. Was that one of the issues that divided you, or were there other issues?

No. No, that never divided us very much. No, there were other issues that aren't really important enough for me to go into details about. They were minor things, comparatively, about what the university should do ....

          Well, perhaps, Sir Leslie, in view of the fact that the tape is for people working on the history of the ANU, while outsiders might not be interested in the conflicts that you might have had, but for historians interested specifically in the ANU, perhaps they would be worth recording, if you don't mind.

Well, am I being recorded, or not, on this?


No, I don't want to go into the sort of things on a recording.

          It is a confidential recording. It's not for public release.

All right. Well, on that basis. The issues were really so trivial that they weren't worth the sort of heated arguments that we had.

For example, one proposition that was put forward to the Professorial Board, was that every student who obtained his doctorate at the university should be sent overseas for a further course of instruction. Now, I was aware of the fact that the ANU was regarded, at that time, very suspiciously by the other universities in Australia and I thought this would be a great mistake to offer such inducements to people to come and study at the ANU when they weren't likely to be offered anything like that at their own universities. And so I thought that this was something that we shouldn't do. In any case, I wasn't quite convinced that it was worthwhile sending everyone over. It was perfectly proper to have generous scholarships that would allow a large number to go over, but that every single one who obtained his doctorate was considered worth the cost of sending him to a university overseas, was something about which I wasn't convinced. So I opposed this.

          It was also, perhaps, a bit of a slap in the face for the quality of teaching and supervision available at the ANU itself, was it not?

Well, not necessarily. I mean, it would be foolish to claim that what we could teach them in Australia couldn't be supplemented by what they could be taught at Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard or some other university of that kind. No, I wouldn't accept that view of it, that it was a slap in the face for the teaching at the university. No, I was mainly concerned with the fact that our relations ....



          Identification: This is side 2, tape 1, Sir Leslie Melville.

          Sorry, could you just go back a second ...?

As I took the view that we shouldn't be seen as trying to attract all their brightest students to come to the ANU; they wanted some of them at their own universities to take their doctorates there. And to establish these sort of frictions between universities didn't seem to me to be desirable.

Now this is not an issue over which there should have been a heated argument but in fact there was. It was a very, very bloody warfare, indeed.

          There was also an argument, I understand, about setting up a course in American studies, American history. Is that correct?

No. I don't remember any argument over that.

          Going back to the earlier thing that you mentioned, the question of the ANU's relationship with the State universities: that was a fairly constant theme, was it not in the original discussions?

What was a constant theme?

          Well, in a sense, anxiety on the part of the state universities that setting up the ANU would, well, you've mentioned the danger of taking away best students, but also taking away funds that they felt perhaps would be better assigned to them. Was that an issue?

Oh yes, indeed, that was an issue. It wasn't only related to the state universities; some of the research institutes that we had in Australia at the time - Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, for example - they didn't very much like the idea of funds being made available for the ANU. Naturally, they thought they could be used better at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

So, yes, that's true, there was that sort of feeling that it would be much better, rather than to have a university formed in Canberra, for the funds that would be used there to be made available to the different State universities and the different research institutes so that they could expand their activities.

          What sort of role did Sir Macfarlane Burnet play in the John Curtin Medical School? You mentioned an anxiety about funds but other areas of the relationship?

I don't know just what part he actually played. I know that when I came he wasn't at all friendly toward us - the ANU or what it was doing. But what part he had in its establishment I just don't know.

          Oliphant, of course, was here and he was, I guess, one of the few directors who was here. What sort of relationship did you have with him? He came with big plans which is what the ANU wanted, I understand. How did you ...?

Well, I think on the whole quite well. Oliphant, of course, is a very argumentative man and we had quite strong debates from time to time but ....

          What sort of debates?

Well, I suppose, some of the major ones were on the question of amalgamation with the college as it was at that time. But there were other debates, too, about the ....

Well, one was about the organisation of his Stores Department. This is something which the Auditor-General had commented on very adversely, that we just hadn't got it properly organised - our Stores Department, from the financial point of view - that records were not being kept properly. And indeed, he refused to certify the university's accounts because of problems of this kind.

And I thought it necessary to take notice of what the Auditor-General had to say and to organise the Stores Department so that it would meet his requirements, and I didn't think they were unreasonable requirements; I didn't see any way in which the Stores Department, as it was organised at the time that I came, could really prevent people from taking what were fairly valuable pieces of equipment away and no one would really know.

But Oliphant just didn't want to spend the money on organising a Stores Department, he wanted all the money that was available to be used for research and not for organising financial records that would satisfy the Auditor-General. We had arguments over these sort of things.

          The amalgamation with the CUC is something I was going to come to later, but in this context, what sort of arguments did you have with Oliphant about that?

Well, there were arguments as to whether we should amalgamate with the college. On the whole the view of people at the ANU was that they didn't want to amalgamate. It wasn't the only view; quite a few of them quite welcomed the idea.

          In Chemistry, for example, did they ...? No, that was later.

That was later, yes. In the natural sciences I think rather less than in the social sciences. Some of the social scientists didn't mind a bit having an amalgamation and taking some part even in the lecturing work at the college. They wouldn't, of course, have welcomed spending most of their time lecturing. They wanted ....

Their main object was for research but they certainly didn't object to giving occasional lectures at the college. But there was less, I suppose, wish to do this in the case of the natural sciences, but not altogether. Most of them were opposed to amalgamation, but some, I think, would have quite liked to have the amalgamation.

No, I suppose, the main problem was on funds. Some of them were worried that if we had an amalgamation that the funds would go to the undergraduate part of the university and the research activities would be starved of funds for their working.

          What were your own feelings about amalgamation?

Well, I always thought there should be amalgamation and that was certainly not my publicly expressed views which were opposed to amalgamation, but there ....

          I remember some of your speeches at about the time of amalgamation expressing caution about the dangers of joining the two together.

Yes, that is so. My publicly expressed views were against amalgamation because that was what the ANU wanted and I took it that my role was to express the universities point of view which was against amalgamation. But personally I thought we should amalgamate; it wasn't a good idea to have two universities within the Capital Territory.

          With whom did you discuss your personal views at the time?

Only with members of the staff of the ANU. I never discussed my personal views with the Government or the Treasury or the Solicitor-General, Bailey, the Solicitor-General. I simply expressed them to my colleagues on the staff of the university.

          As I understand it Murray, of the Murray enquiry, had a very similar view, did he not, and expressed them to Menzies.

Yes. Murray thought that they should - the two institutions .... And in fact, indeed, that was why Menzies decided to amalgamate the two universities, because it was Murray's recommendation.

          You just described your role as a representative, as a spokesperson for the university in this case for the amalgamation, which brings me to another interesting area, I think, and that's your relationship with the Directors. Now, we've just been talking about that, of course, with Hancock and Oliphant and, although Florey didn't come, he was possibly going to be one. Some of the schools didn't have Directors for a long period of time, the Research School of Social Sciences, of course, and the Pacific Studies. For quite long periods of time those positions were vacant. What sort of role did that mean for you?

No particular role. They appointed their own dean who carried out the work that a director would have done, not with the same authority, of course as the director would have had but essentially they aimed to do the same sort of things as a director of the school would.

Indeed, in relation to one of the schools, there was some wish not to have a director at all because they didn't want anybody to have the sort of authority that ....

          That was the medical school, wasn't it?

That was the medical school, yes - the sort of authority that a director would have. But it didn't involve me in any additional work or any additional participation in the work of the school.

          Did you get involved at all in discussing things like research priorities?

Oh yes, but they were more in the nature of private discussions with individual members of staff. The question of research priorities were hammered out in the boards of the different schools, faculties of the different schools, and I only came into this when there were final proposals being made.

          In the history of the ANU I've come across all sorts of discussions of different ways of organising the activities of people and many of the proposals involved getting away from the traditional departmental structure in various ways, breaking down the classical boundaries but the departments seemed to keep reappearing in the most extraordinary fashion. I mean it's most amazing the resilience of the departmental style of organisation.

Yes, that's perfectly true. We were always trying to break down the barriers but we didn't seem to be able to do it. The nearest we came to it really was getting them to take afternoon tea together. This did something to get them talking to each other across departmental barriers, but essentially they worked within their confines and there was very little inter-disciplinary ....

There were some, there were some projects that were formed in which people from different disciplines undertook work on a project that crossed the boundaries but not very much.

          It's amazing. You'll get people constantly to agree when you name a particular problem that obviously this particular problem involves all sorts of dimensions that don't fit within the structure of any department. I mean, you take any example, you can get a fairly widespread agreement on that it seems to me, but at the same time there is this constant pull-back. What do you think is the source of resilience in departmental continuance?

I think mainly because they don't speak the same language. Each discipline has evolved its own particular jargon and they are accustomed to talking to each other in terms of that jargon. When the two disciplines get together they misunderstand what each other is saying and they don't really have very effective discussions.

          Do you remember any particular examples, to get them together?

Well, yes. We had a series of papers between economists and, no, my memory's gone now .... I suppose ....

          Was the wool project going during your time?

No, I don't think so. No, I've forgotten the details. I know we did have a series of inter-disciplinary discussions between economists and some other faculty. And this went on over a˙.... I don't even remember just what the subjects were that were discussed. They weren't unproductive but finally, I think, everybody was happy to settle back into their own particular discipline and work on it.

          It was a time in which - the Menzies Government was in power of course and the ANU had originally got started under Chifley - how did you relate to the Menzies Government? Did you meet them often?

Yes. Menzies was always very generous in giving me time whenever I wanted to talk to him about any university matters.

          What was his attitude to the university?

Oh, very good, really. He was always very helpful. He always was grudging of the money that he had to provide to the university but not unreasonably so. He was very helpful to the university, certainly all the time I was there.

          Do you remember any particular meetings with him? I'm just trying to get a bit of the atmosphere that might have existed.

Not really. I remember some financial discussions that we had with him and the Treasury, but other matters were usually discussions that I had with him when we were trying to induce Florey to come out here, and when we were appointing a Professor of Astronomy, when we appointed Bok to be the Professor of Astronomy. And on both these occasions, of course, we wanted money to finance Florey's hoped for advent and money to bring Bok here.

These were very amicable and Menzies was quite generous in the way in which he approached it and the money that he was willing to provide.

          It was a time - politically it was a difficult time, was it not? Thinking of the McCarthy period in the United States.

Yes. It was a very difficult time. We didn't really have interference from the Government, Menzies, in this matter. But there were provocative things that .... I suppose the provocation came from us as much as from the Government.

For example, I remember one occasion when we had a visitor, a visiting anthropologist, who naturally wanted to go to New Guinea. Well, we didn't bother to find out in advance whether the Government would let him go to New Guinea and I'm afraid the anthropologist deliberately didn't find out beforehand. The result was, of course, that we finally applied for the necessary papers for him to go to New Guinea and the Government refused them and there was a public argument about this which didn't do any of us any good, really.

It didn't do the university any good. It didn't do the unfortunate visitor any good, his reputation was sullied in the process of the public discussion. And I don't think it did the ANU Department of Anthropology any good. But there were these sort of things. I think they rather took the view that they ought to be provocative on these sort of issues so as to show that the Government was behaving in a - to show publicly that the Government was behaving in an unreasonable way - and I think they rather welcomed showing the Government up in this fashion. I'm afraid I didn't agree with that sort of attitude.

          What sort of discussions would you have about that within the university?

Within the university?


Well. The discussions arose, of course, when the department applied for the necessary papers for this visiting anthropologist to go to New Guinea and they refused and then there was the discussion, what we should do to protest publicly about this action of the Government. That's one sort of issue that we had with the Government.

Well, another one was .... Well, this wasn't actually in my time, it came later. We did have a visiting president or king or somebody from one of the Asian countries, I've forgotten now what he was and who he was. And I made sure that before we offered him an honorary degree that ... the Government wanted to offer him an honorary degree . I made sure that the ANU would agree to this before we actually issued an invitation. I think in my case, I found out they wouldn't agree and therefore I didn't issue any invitation, and ....

          You don't remember who it was?

No, I'm afraid I don't remember. But the same thing happened again and on this occasion, I'm afraid, my successor did issue the invitation. How did it go? Oh, yes, the Government asked the Vice-Chancellor to award the degree and he agreed and then he found that the university wouldn't permit it, it amounted to that I think. And there was a dickens of a row over this issue.

So, well, these are the sort of arguments that we had. They were, I suppose, arose out of the political troubles of the time, the dictators and the communists and so on who abounded in Asia.

          What about Sir Ernest Titterton's involvement in the Maralinga tests? Was that discussed at all?

Not in my time. There was bother over that later on but I had no problems on that particular issue.

          And what was the sort of relationship that existed between Titterton and Oliphant? Was that something you got involved in?

Yes. Well, this is the usual sort of rivalry of different disciplines each wanting money for their own particular purpose. Titterton didn't really think much of Oliphant and so schemes for building a homopolar generator and then using it for certain scientific work .... I don't think Oliphant had the same objections to what Titterton was doing, but at any rate there was some pushing and pulling over this sort of issue.

          The business of funding is something that you've mentioned a number of times: was triennial funding introduced during this period?

I've forgotten. I'm not sure whether we had triennial funding in my time, or not.

          Was funding a problem when it came to planning?

Oh yes.

          Was it not just the restraint of it but the unpredictability of it? Was that a problem?

Well, not the unpredictability of it but it was silly in the sense that you had to spend your money in a particular year or the vote vanished and this meant that some departments rushed in at the beginning of the year and bought all sorts of things in order to use up the money before the expiry of the year.

This was obviously a silly sort of arrangement. They didn't always get the things that they would have got if they'd waited a little longer and let the money be carried forward. I think perhaps we did make some arrangements on this matter to .... I know, discussing with the Treasury how silly this all was and that we shouldn't have to spend every penny in a particular year but have a longer program and we may have worked out some sort of triennial arrangement then, I forget, I don't know.

          Eggleston, was he still ...? Was Eggleston still there when you were involved?

No, I don't think at all, but I wouldn't be sure, but I don't think at all, as far as I .... I think he must have died before I came to the ANU. I saw a lot of Eggleston before, of course, but I don't remember him while I was at the university, but maybe I've got a lapse of memory there.

          Coombs. Well, presumably you had a fair bit to do with Coombs.

Oh, yes.

          What sort of influence was Coombs playing? What was his role?

Well, as you know, he had a great deal to do with the original formation of the university and he continued a role, not, I wouldn't say an interfering role by any means, rather a supporting role than an interfering role. But he was always very interested in the university and in its development and always willing to be helpful in any way he could with the development of the work of the university.

          There was some suggestion that he felt that there should have been a closer relationship perhaps in the research program, connecting it more closely with Australia's specific needs and problems as in setting up the School of Pacific Studies. That, in itself, suggests a fairly close relationship to Australia's foreign policy and defence needs in the region, and other interests. But did you see any evidence of this?

Not really. It's perfectly true that he was very concerned that the university should be involved with Australian problems and, indeed, I think it had to be in order that we got the money from the Government to get it started in the first place. I suppose this is less true in the natural sciences than it is in the social sciences.

It's not very easy to see just what Australia's specific problems had to do with either the School of Physical Sciences or the Medical School. That sort of research work went on more at the CSIRO than ever did at the ANU, but still, of course, there were some cases like the research into the spread and development of myxomatosis, for example, that was clearly a medical research project that was involved with a peculiarly Australian problem. So it did affect the natural sciences but not to the same extent as it did in the social sciences.

Yes, Coombs was certainly interested in having the research schools being engaged in projects that were applicable to Australia, but I never got the impression that he was particularly dogmatic about this, or particularly biased about it, certainly he didn't give me that impression.



          Identification: This is tape 2, side 1, the interview with Sir Leslie Melville. End of identification.

          The culture of the university, the way people interacted together, spoke together, worked together - you've referred to it a little bit talking about the business of getting them to meet to some degree in the tea room - but perhaps, if we could expand on that a little bit because it seems to me that's a fairly essential part of what a lot of people see as a crucial part of university life; that intellectual exchange. How did you see that developing in the ANU?

I never saw it developing very well. We did have our various inter-disciplinary conferences where there were particular projects which the group worked on but they didn't seem to me to go particularly well.

And as I said in the case of the ones that I took some part in, myself, they lapsed back into their individual disciplines at the end of the period. Now, this is a problem that I think you'll find is universal. People don't cross disciplines very easily and it's easy enough, of course, between economics and economic history but it's not easy between economics and geography, although that ought to be a reasonably easy one, but I've never found economists and geographers working together very happily. But I think in that case they can both understand each other's language.

I don't know what the answer to it is. As I say, I think universities have become so specialised that their interests get very narrow in a sense, and they're not able to understand people from another discipline. This tends to be true to some extent even in economics where people who are engaged in work in one branch of economics don't really understand what people are talking about who are engaged in work in another branch of economics. We've become so specialised, I'm afraid, that there is this lack of understanding.

          Another element that I thought I detected was a very individualistic spirit, to the extent that suggestions of coordination were always put forward extremely tentatively, with a tremendous amount of reassurance to everyone that might be involved that no one was going to be asked to do anything that they really didn't want to do, and it was only if they wanted to combine in this particular activity that that's the only grounds upon which they would have to combine.

Yes, that's true. It would be very difficult to get away from this in a university. You do get away from it, to some extent, in the natural sciences because people know they have to work as a team and they know that there are certain things that they'll have to do within that field but still, they know that when they accept the job that they are working on a particular part of a project and that's what they must give their attention to.

But in the social sciences there's not that same understanding when anybody comes to a job in a university: I can't think of any cases where a social scientist has been appointed to do a particular line of work. It's much more general than that and he knows he's always free to choose to do just what he wants to do.

So I don't see how you can easily alter this, maybe in time we'll get into team work in the social sciences in the same way as they have done in the natural sciences, but I haven't seen very much sign of it up to the present.

          Just going back to your experience in the bank, where you presumably would be in a situation of being directed or directing some of your staff: for example, 'Let's concentrate on the exchange rate because that happens to be a priority at the moment'. Did you, I mean at the time in the environment which that discussion was being undertaken, did you feel that people weren't free back in that situation to express their different opinions and act in an intellectually mature, as opposed to, a military fashion?

In the bank, you mean?


Oh, it was certainly clear that they could express their own opinions. There was never any doubt about that.

          What I'm suggesting: you never had the feeling that perhaps a little bit more of, say, that public service think tank environment wouldn't have gone astray in the ANU?

No, I don't think I ever felt that about the ANU. Of course in the bank it was a different matter, people were then given jobs to do. We wanted to examine a particular problem and they were asked to concentrate on that particular problem. That didn't mean that they couldn't do other work as well, if they wanted to.

          But that situation in the bank, it's a bit similar to what you were describing in the natural sciences, isn't it?

Yes it is, of course, but it was necessary in the bank because we had to have a policy for a particular condition. We had to be able to tell the Board what we thought should be done in certain circumstances, and that meant that research work had to be done on that particular problem. One couldn't say it was the same thing in the university, there weren't˙....

          I was just being a bit of a devil's advocate in suggesting that maybe it should have.

Yes, there may be a case for it, but I've certainly seen no sign in the social sciences of anything of this sort developing up to the present.

          One of the things that strikes me whenever we talk about things like this, is that most of the senior people involved on either the science side or the social science side had just come through that extraordinary planning experience of the second world war where, in a sense, success in 1945 was a victory for planning on a grand scale. And I'm just a little bit surprised that there wasn't a bit more carry over, perhaps, it's reaction to it, of the attitudes that would have developed in the major planning institutions of the second world war.

There's not the same urgency, is there? In the planning in post-war reconstruction, for example, there were certain things to which we knew we had to have the answers when the war was over˙....

          When the war was on, do you mean? During the war?

No, we had to have the answers when .... Well in post-war reconstruction, we had to have the answers when the war was over; we had to know what we were going to do and we had to know pretty quickly what we were going to do.

And it was pretty easy to pick out the sort of thing - how you were going to employ people, what prospects were there in agriculture, what prospects were there in manufacturing, what should be the manpower problem, how should people be trained or retrained after the war. These issues presented themselves pretty clearly; there wasn't much doubt about the sort of things about which you would expect to give recommendations when the war was over.

Now that sort of situation doesn't arise in a university. There, you have a person who is interested in a particular topic and he wants to, that's what he wants to research into and you can't very well go round to him and say, look, I think you'd do better to, well, I think you can do that, I think you can go round and I think you'd better do this rather than that. But it's up to him to take any notice of that advice.

In post-war reconstruction, you just had to take notice of that because the director would say, these are the sort of things we've got to do and somebody's got to do it. Will you go away now and do this. And there's not the same urgency in a university.

          But in some of the ten-year reviews that the schools have had - and just because of when the school was set up and when you were Vice-Chancellor, I suppose most of the ten-year reviews perhaps occurred after your time - but some of them did criticise some of the schools for a lack of coordination, a lack of clear direction in their planning of research priorities.

Yes. I never felt that the ANU, that the research projects of people were not directed to matters of importance. In any case, I'd feel a bit diffident about saying that a particular piece of research work wasn't important. You never know.

Let me take an illustration, for example. This comes from the natural sciences, not from the social sciences, but I remember Eccles had been working on some very interesting work on the interaction of nerves and had produced various papers and won various prizes.

And I remember Florey coming out here on a visit and looking at this work of Eccles and saying, 'You know, I think perhaps you've gone about as far as you profitably can. I think you ought to switch your attention to something else'. Well, Eccles took this very badly and went on and got the Nobel Prize. [laughs]

So, I suggest that you've got to be pretty diffident in telling somebody that the work they're doing is not really important. And this perhaps might be less true in the social sciences than in the natural sciences when you don't really know what's going to come out of a piece of research work. We're constantly being surprised by what happens.

          But in a sense the irony from what we've just been saying is that it's the natural sciences, the physical sciences that have the bigger projects, the longer term planning, the greater degree of coordination, and it's the social sciences that have the more individualistic projects.

Oh, yes, but this was a very individualistic project on Eccles' part. What Florey was trying to say was: I don't think it's really worthwhile your going on any further with this. And Eccles .... But the team of course that Eccles had with him had to do exactly as he wanted and they had the team effort going on.

In the social sciences you wouldn't have a parallel with that. I suppose you might in .... I suppose in history it's possible that somebody might think, well, this is a bit of history that's not really worthwhile following up, it's trivial, and get onto something that's of greater importance.

In economics, I don't think it's as easy as that; what doesn't seem very important to one person does seem very important to another.

          I'm not taking sides in the debate, of course, but I'm just mentioning that some of the reviews did feel that there should have been a bit more coordination.

Yes. Well, I suppose that's true, but certainly I looked over the work that different people were doing at the ANU at the time that I was there and it all seemed worthwhile. A lot of it, I suppose, is work that I wouldn't have chosen to do myself, but that didn't leave me with the impression that it wasn't worth doing.

          You were about, what, fifty-eight when you retired?


          Why did you retire at that time?

Oh, a number of reasons. I'd been seven years Vice-Chancellor and I think each vice-chancellor can add whatever useful contribution he came make to the university in that time. I rather doubt whether he can do anything more in another seven years and so I felt, from that point of view, that it was time for a change. I provided certain qualities of administration and budgeting and so on that the university needed, other vice-chancellors would provide other things that the university needed. That was one reason. We had got bogged down into a lot of very unhappy disputes within the university and I didn't enjoy these very much.

          Which particular ones?

Well, there was one over Lindsay, for example. That was an unpleasant business and ....

          What was your feeling on that particular issue, that he should have been appointed, or not?

Oh, no, certainly that he shouldn't be appointed. But it was difficult, you see .... There was within the School of Pacific Studies, a certain prejudice against Lindsay. He was by no means a reactionary or a conservative but he was certainly not as far left - not that the leftists were communists or anarchists or anything of that sort but they were to the left of Lindsay - and there was, I think, the feeling on Lindsay's part that this prejudice against him had led to him not being appointed to the chair.

Well, I knew of this prejudice but at the same time I was fully satisfied that he shouldn't have got the chair; that the quality of his work wasn't such that he deserved it. And in any case, the man who was invited to come certainly was without question a better candidate than Lindsay was, so I had no doubt that whatever the prejudice might have been, it wasn't ....

Whether it influenced the decision or not I wouldn't know but certainly it didn't mean that the decision wasn't the right one. It quite clearly was the right one but nevertheless the whole argument was a very unpleasant one and ....

          How was it conducted? I mean, I'm remembering those CP Snow novels. How was the argument conducted?

Well, this was another argument .... But I don't think that over this issue Hancock really differed from the view that Lindsay should not have been offered the job. But he felt somehow that Lindsay had been unfairly dealt with; I never could quite see why he had been unfairly dealt with, if he hadn't been appointed to the job.

And Lindsay, of course, was taking his case up with Hancock and saying how wrong the whole decision was and he should have been appointed to the chair and so on. And Hancock took his fight up, not as I say, proclaiming that he should have been appointed to the chair, but just that we hadn't been fair to him and so on.

          It's a bit difficult to argue, isn't it? Unless you're going to argue to reverse an earlier decision, so how would he conduct that?

Oh, well, finally he suggested that, well, he should be appointed to a readership and there was some agreement amongst the Heads of Schools, that we should do this but there again, I certainly wouldn't have been willing to appoint Lindsay to a readership unless we had a selection committee and applications for the readership and so on.

And for the Vice-Chancellor or the Heads of Schools to say we're going to appoint Lindsay to a readership seemed to me to be quite against what a university should do. So there were .... The dispute was ended, of course, by Lindsay writing to, I've forgotten the name of the man that we invited at that time, and telling him how he, Lindsay, should have been appointed to this chair, and the man didn't come, so it all ended up at this end of the debate, but didn't end up very happily.

          I sometimes have a bit of a feeling as, say, reading about Hancock or Oliphant that, in a sense, they did expect the rules to be bent a little bit their way, or that their judgement should prevail and it shouldn't be routines that have been worked out in a traditional manner that should dictate decisions; it should be more their personal judgement that should dictate decisions. Is that a fair comment?

That is a fair comment, yes. I would have thought that on this particular issue that I was just discussing over Lindsay that the traditional roles of a university in making an appointment were well enough known to everybody that I was rather surprised when Hancock and Oliphant suggested we should appoint Lindsay to a readership. This seemed to be quite going against all the routine of the university.

Yes, they did. They didn't like what they regarded as the public service method of having precedents and you never did anything new because it might result in a precedent; they disliked that whole attitude. And as you say, they did think we should bend the rules in order to do something which they thought should be done anyway.

          And this came fairly near the end of your time as Vice-Chancellor?

Yes. This is pretty well right at the end. There were other things that we were wrangling about at the time, not only the Lindsay incident. I've forgotten really what some of the others were, but there were quite a few of them.

          And amalgamation occurred almost exactly at this time, or very, very ....

Well, that was another one on which we were wrangling, of course, within the ANU about what should be done. There was a lot of argument about that. So I had the offer of this other job and I thought I'd had seven years and that was as long as I should be inflicted on the university and decided to take it.

          The actual business of leaving, how did you feel after, obviously, seven fairly turbulent years, you know, the last few days, your feelings during that time? What were they like?

Oh, I was unhappy of course, but you don't make a break in your career without having some misgivings about what you're doing, and the old familiar ways are pleasant and the new are unknown, but nothing very traumatic.

          Just going back a little bit, the Murray Report, what did that mean, apart from the fact that Murray obviously thought amalgamation should take place, what other significance did that report have for the ANU?

Well the funding was made much easier. We'd been struggling to get more funds and the Murray Report made it very much easier. That's the main thing that the Murray Report did for the ANU; for buildings, for staff generally, right through the system we had a much easier access to the Government and to funding than we had before.

          One of the things, I understand, that he was talking about quite a bit was getting universities throughout the country to work together more in various ways. Now, did that have any significance for you?

I can't recollect any action following from that. It was significant, of course, and indeed we'd always thought that we ought to be doing that ourselves. We perhaps didn't do a great deal of it but there were some members of staff who on their own did do a great deal. Bok, for example, in astronomy, he certainly went all round the universities lecturing and working with them trying to choose different places where astronomy could be better carried out and so on, but he was rather an isolated case.

But there was interaction; our staff did go to other universities to give lectures and to do those sort of things, but I don't know that the Murray Report altered what we'd been doing.

          Was there a conscious policy of perhaps getting people to come to the ANU to take up fellowships, things like that - research fellowships - as a way of effectively giving them an opportunity to do research that they weren't doing elsewhere?

Oh, yes. We were doing this always, of course. There were always vacancies on the staff that we hadn't filled because we couldn't find the right man and yes, surely, where we saw somebody who looked as if they'd fill the post very adequately, we would approach them to see if they'd be interested in the offer of a job and ....

          I was thinking of the ANU, in a sense, as being the place which was pre-eminently the research place, as being the intellectual resource place for other universities; of consciously setting out to upgrade what's happening in the other universities by providing opportunities, not just recruiting good people who can work on projects that are perhaps underway at the ANU, but more a recycling, recharging of batteries angle.

I'm not sure that I quite see what you mean. Yes, of course, we always did aim to bring people in to different posts as scholars, as research fellows, as senior research fellows and so on, always with the hope, at least, that they would stay with us for a time and then move on to another university.

We never wanted to have the university as a static university with people staying there for thirty or forty years. The idea was that the posts should all be temporary, and, well, to some extent, this did happen, not to the extent that I would have wished.

I would have liked to have seen much more movement between the ANU and the other universities, but there are difficulties in people getting jobs at other universities and so we weren't as interactive in that sense as I would have liked, but that was very much the original philosophy of the university.