News

Obituary: Ted Wheelwright, 1921-2007


10 August 2007

Ted Wheelwrightwas teaching and writing about global capitalism decades before the term "globalisation" became fashionable.

He warned of its dangers: dependence on foreign investment, economic inequality, environmental degradation, the power of transnational corporations and the undermining of national sovereignty.

These prescient warnings proved less influential than the neo-liberal ideas, sometimes called economic rationalism, that have been the orthodoxy in economic thinking in the past two decades.

His influence was strong, however, both at the University of Sydney and in the wider society. He contributed to the development of the political economy program of courses that still flourishes at the university, attracting about 400 students annually.

Wheelwright was also a frequent contributor to media debate, regularly presenting Notes on the News for ABC radio, invariably with some critical insights on current events. His legacy also includes the 11 books that he wrote and nine others he co-edited, five with the economic historian Ken Buckley, who died last year.

Wheelwright had an enduring impact on the generations of students he taught between 1952 and 1986, when he retired as associate professor of economics. As a teacher he was much respected for his authority and clarity, charm and charisma.

Students admired, even loved, him for much the same reasons as orthodox economists found his views unsettling. He was refused promotion to a full professorship at Sydney University six times, despite his outstanding teaching and publications, on the last occasion sparking a public controversy.

Forty parliamentarians signed a petition calling on the university to change its decision. This was in 1975 when the alternative political economy course was just beginning and conservatives were still trying to frustrate its development.

Edward Lawrence Wheelwright, who has died of bronchial pneumonia, at 85, was born in Sheffield, England. He worked as a bank clerk after leaving school. At the outbreak of World War II, he joined the Royal Air Force, rising to the rank of squadron leader.

He flew in Lancasters on bombing raids over Germany and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. One of his tasks as a navigator was to instruct colleagues about each mission before they took off. He later recalled this was where he learnt the essentials of clear teaching. It was, after all, a matter of life and death.

After the war he married Wendy McGregor in Glasgow and received an ex-serviceman's scholarship to study economics and political science at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

As a mature-aged student, he knew what he wanted from his studies. He wanted to know what caused war, and why his father - a steelworker - had been out of work for five years during the Depression. He found some answers in a combination of Keynesian, Marxian and institutional economics.

After teaching for two years at Bristol University, he emigrated to Australia to become a lecturer at the University of Sydney in 1952. He became active in the ALP and later in the movement opposing the Vietnam War. He marched at the head of a demonstration by Veterans Against the War, proudly wearing his medals.

Wheelwright was an intellectual of unashamedly socialist inclinations, so some thought it inconsistent that he drove a big old Mercedes, but that was the only car he could fit his long legs into. Like J.K. Galbraith, the great American political economist who died last year, he was a giant in intellect and stature.

The topics Wheelwright addressed in his teaching and writing included multinational corporations, international finance, imperialism, economic development, the Chinese economy, education, environmentalism, consumerism and Australian industry. He always stressed that economic policy involves much more than textbook economics - that it is an issue involving ethical judgments and requiring an understanding of the use and abuse of economic power.

The Whitlam government appointed him to two committees of inquiry: into the future of Australian manufacturing industry, and into government procurement policy. He served on the board of the Commonwealth Bank before it was privatised - a process he vigorously opposed - and on the board of the H.V. Evatt Foundation.

Wheelwright was instrumental in the formation of the Australian Consumers' Association and the University Co-operative Bookshop. Graduates elected him to the Sydney University senate, where he chaired the finance committee.

An annual prize in his honour is awarded to the top student in the introductory political economy course at the university. In retirement he publish a bi-monthly Political Economy newsletter up until two years ago.

Wheelwright is survived by Wendy, two daughters, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. A celebration of his life will be held at Balmoral Beach Club on September 23.

Frank Stilwell


Contact: Kath Kenny

Phone: 02 9351 2261