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Study of Economics

The distant spectator will take Tasmanian economics to be an ox-bow lake of the great stream of economic thought. The truer observer would compare it to an ephemeral river, episodically spilling fast and strong into the main current, then falling silent, until swelling anew with more favourable circumstances.

The wellspring of economics in Tasmania has been her university, where the subject has been examined since 1892. The first reading list for 'political economy' was solid and modern; Mill, Jevons and Marshall's utterly up-to-the minute text, the Principles of Economics. But this vigorous start was followed by 25 years of drift until 1917, when DB Copland made Tasmania one of the more interesting places to do economics in the world.

Two contributions of 1920s Tasmanians are worth highlighting. Firstly, the Keynesian 'multiplier' analysis was worked out two years before Keynes' circle produced it. Secondly, the 'Brigden Report' provided a scientific 'Australian case' for the tariff, that was to prove a landmark in Australian economic history, and in modern trade theory. PA Samuelson, the Nobel Laureate, recalled that in developing this theory: 'I at least had very much in mind at the … the correctness of the "Australian case for the tariff"'.

This brilliant spurt was soon spent. There began a period mostly absent of professors; or with professors mostly absent. Renewed life came with the appointment in 1947 of Gerald Firth, whose thirty-year tenure oversaw extensive modernisations (such as the BEc degree and postgraduate research), and of Alf Hagger, whose pursuit of quantitative studies restored Tasmania's international reputation. By the centenary of the university there was a thriving department, strong in applied research, rich in international linkages, and with 24 academics. With that happy anniversary another period of drought struck. One of its sad casualties was the Centre for Regional Economics, founded in 1980 to research Australian regional economies, which over its 22-year life became an object of widespread emulation.

The Centre's advice to policy-makers was complemented by the Department of Treasury and Finance, that since the appointment of the first 'Investigation and Statistical Officer' in 1942 has increasingly been a source of trained economic judgement to government. That role has been shared with the university's economists, who have had an unusually extensive involvement in the state's public policy formation, and (earlier) by Tasmania's lively Economic Society (founded 1924), that was considered worthy enough to have the governor as its first president.

The Tasmanian situation has never inspired any 'Tasmanian School', but it has given her economists a pre-occupation: 'Tasmanian Disadvantages', in law and geography. But the key feature of her economics has not been some fanciful 'isolation', but a very real smallness, that makes it open to the wider world, but also leaves it to flourish and languish with accidents of personalities, shifts in society's favour, and the fluctuations of a regional economy.

Further reading: A Hagger, 'Economics at the University of Tasmania', manuscript, 2003; L Dunn & D Pratt, 'The Faculty of Commerce …', manuscript, 1990; W Coleman & A Hagger, 'An Edinburgh of the south?', THS 8/2, 2003.

William Coleman