Research Guide: Sir Leslie Melville KBE
Sir Leslie Melville was one of the foremost Australian economists of the 20th century. An influential economist and trusted policy adviser to successive governments, he played an important role in many of the major economic and social changes that occurred during his working life including the depression, the World War II and post-war reconstruction. Melville held a wide range of jobs throughout his lifetime, starting as the government actuary in South Australia, before going on to become the inaugural professor of economics at the University of Adelaide, the first economist at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University. He also served on the Financial and Economic Advisory Committee, led delegations to the British Commonwealth talks on finance and trade and the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference at Bretton Woods and served as executive director for Australia and other countries at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
At the Commonwealth Bank, and later the Reserve Bank of Australia, Melville left a lasting legacy in the establishment of Economist’s Department which later became Research Department and, in the early 1990s, Economic Group. As the Bank’s first economist, Melville was responsible not only for establishing this department but also providing the Bank for the first time with statistical data and qualified advice on central banking matters. He was later appointed the first Assistant Governor (Central Banking) and served on the Commonwealth Bank Board and subsequently the Reserve Bank Board from 1951 until 1975.
Sir Leslie Melville established himself as a capable and discerning economist from an early age. He started his first job as the government actuary in South Australia at age 22 where his main duties were to administer the public service superannuation scheme and regulate private schemes. During his five years in this role Melville frequently found himself called upon to advise the South Australian government on economic and financial matters. In 1929 Melville resigned to become the inaugural professor of economics at the University of Adelaide where he had lectured part-time in statistics for some years. By stepping into this role Melville became one of the youngest professors of economics in the world and the only permanent member of the Department of Economics at the University of Adelaide.
Commonwealth Bank Economist
Although he was known as Professor Melville for over two decades after his appointment, he was only in the role for two years before leaving in 1931 to become the Commonwealth Bank’s first economist. The Bank’s decision to appoint an economist was the result of a growing recognition of its need for qualified and competent advice on central banking matters. By 1930 clear principles on central banking were beginning to develop. However, the Governor and senior staff were primarily trading bankers and the members of the Commonwealth Bank Board lacked a knowledgeable source of advice to make decisions on these matters. Spurred on by conversations with Sir Otto Niemeyer during his visit from the Bank of England in 1930, the Board recommended the appointment of an economist to the Bank’s staff with Melville as their first choice.
Melville took up the role on 16 March 1931 for an initial term of 12 months. In August 1931 his appointment was extended for a further five years. By 1936 his reappointment was considered automatic. One of the earliest tasks that Melville undertook in his new role was to build up a research staff capable of providing the data for advice on practical questions of central banking. This staff formed the newly created Economist’s Department which went on to become the Research Department (now Economic Group) at the Reserve Bank, one of the major centres for economic research in Australia. Melville’s department had an immediate impact at the Bank with a steady increase in the amount of statistical data and material on special questions provided to the Board from 1931. By 1935 the Board was being supplied with a review of economic conditions showing recent movements in matters such as external trade and balance payments, London funds, production and stocks, and a comprehensive account of banking movements at every meeting.
The Depression and Inter-War Period
Prior to joining the Bank, Melville was already playing an important and public role in the debates on how to cope with the depression. In 1931 he joined DB Copland, LF Giblin and E Shann on the committee appointed to report to the Loan Council, which had been established to coordinate state and commonwealth borrowing, on ‘The Possibilities of Reaching Equilibrium in Australia’. It was this committee that formulated the Premiers’ Plan of 1931. The following year Melville was appointed to the Wallace Bruce Committee, which reviewed the progress of the Premiers’ Plan to report to the Premiers’ Conference in April of that year.
Throughout the 1930s Melville continued to play an important part in financial policy. In 1932 he accompanied Commonwealth Bank Governor Ernest Riddle to the Imperial Economic Conference in Ottawa, attending as the financial adviser to the Australian delegates. In 1933 he once again acted as adviser to the Australian delegates, this time at the World Economic Conference in London. With the approval of the Commonwealth Bank Board, Melville gave evidence in his own right before the 1936–37 Royal Commission on Monetary and Banking Systems in Australia. In his statement Melville outlined his position on monetary policy with a large part of his evidence concerning Treasury Bills.
World War II
In 1938 Melville received the Board’s approval to serve on the Financial and Economic Advisory (F & E) Committee set up by the government to examine the economic implications of the impending war. Initially the committee consisted of Melville, R Wilson and LF Giblin as chairman, but it was later expanded with additional economists appointed including DB Copland, JB Brigden, RC Mills, HC Coombs and ER Walker. The committee helped to coordinate the government’s economic policy including preparing strategies for financing the war as well as discussing foreign exchange controls, banking regulation, international plans for a new world trade, and monetary order in peacetime. After the war it went on to provide many of the foundation ideas for the post-war reconstruction program and was influential in establishing Keynesian thinking in Australia.
In early 1944, Melville was chosen to lead the Australian delegation to the British Commonwealth talks on finance and trade in London. Later that year Prime Minister Curtin appointed him to lead the Australian delegation to the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference at Bretton Woods. At this conference the 44 Allied nations agreed upon a system of rules and multilateral institutional arrangements that would regulate the post-war international monetary system and created the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Although Melville recommended that Australia should sign the Final Act, the Australian Government chose not to sign. It was not until 1947 that Australia secured membership of the new institutions set up by the Bretton Woods Agreement.
Post-World War II
The Commonwealth Bank Act and the Banking Act 1945 abolished the Commonwealth Bank Board and placed management of the Bank in the hands of the governor to be advised by council of experts. Melville was appointed to this advisory council. In 1948 he gave evidence for the Chifley Government during the bank nationalisation court case as the economic adviser to the Commonwealth Bank. The following year he was appointed Assistant Governor (Central Banking) of the Commonwealth Bank. In August 1951 he was appointed to the reconstituted Commonwealth Bank Board despite being overseas in Washington at the time.
Outside his work at the Bank, Melville took on a number of additional roles in the decades after the war. In 1946 he observed the first meeting of the governors of the IMF and the World Bank as the representative of Australia. Between 1947 and 1950 he was appointed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations to chair the Economic and Social Council’s subcommittee on Employment and Economic Stability. While retaining his role at the Bank, Melville went to Washington from 1950 to 1953 to serve as executive director for Australia and other countries at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. He was awarded a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1953 and knighted in 1957.
Melville resigned from the Bank in December 1953 to take up the office of Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University. He held this position for seven years, continuing the work of his predecessor, Sir Douglas Copland, to create a university of international stature. He was also appointed chairman of the Tariff Board in 1960, resigning unexpectedly in 1963 without public explanation. Melville was appointed to the Commonwealth Grants Commission in 1965, becoming chairman one year later and remaining in this role until 1974. He also took on a number of assignments for the Australian Government including enquiries into wages and industry in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, the oil industry’s terms and conditions for the refining of indigenous crude oil, the Treasurer’s proposal for a new superannuation scheme for Australian government employees, and the Commonwealth Committee of Enquiry on Health Insurance.
During this period Melville continued to serve on the Commonwealth Bank Board and was appointed to the Board of the Reserve Bank when it was established in 1960. He served on the Reserve Bank Board, from 1960 to 1975, with a brief break between 1963 and 1965 when he took a position as a consultant with the Advisory Service of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Washington.
After the Bank
Melville returned to the Grants Commission in 1979 as a part-time member and stayed until 1982 to help with special enquiries. He spent the last years of his working life sharing his knowledge and experiences through seminars and papers as an Honorary Fellow in the Research School of Pacific Studies at the Australian National University.
Melville died on 30 April 2002, shortly after his 100th birthday. At the inaugural Sir Leslie Melville Lecture, delivered at the Australian National University on 22 March 2002, the Governor of the Reserve Bank, Ian Macfarlane, paid tribute to Sir Leslie Melville’s achievements stating ‘it seems to me that any objective assessment of achievements would place Sir Leslie among the most distinguished Australians of the past century’ (Macfarlane 2002).
This information is drawn from records held by the Reserve Bank of Australia and the following external sources:
Cornish S (2002), ‘Leslie Galfreid Melville 1902-2002’, Economic Record, vol. 28, no. 243, viewed 9 July 2021. Available at <https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.eureka.idm.oclc.org/doi/epdf/10.1111/1475-4932.00072>.
Farquharson J (2002), ‘Melville, Sir Leslie Galfreid (1902–2002)’, Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, viewed 9 July 2021. Available at <https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/melville-sir-leslie-galfreid-720/text721>.
Giblin LF (1951), The Growth of a Central Bank: The Development of The Commonwealth Bank of Australia 1924-1945, Melbourne University Press, Carlton.
Macfarlane IJ (2002), ‘Sir Leslie Melville: His Contribution to Central Banking in Australia’, Speech at the inaugural Sir Leslie Melville Lecture, Canberra, 22 March.
Schevdin CB (1970), Australia and the Great Depression: A Study of Economic Development and Policy in the 1920s and 1930s, Sydney University Press, Sydney.
Tilley P (2019), Changing Fortunes: A History of the Australian Treasury, Melbourne University Press, Carlton.
The majority of the file relating to Melville’s work at the Bank can be found in the Bank Governors & Senior Personnel Series and the Research Department Series.
The following materials are of particular relevance but are not currently available on this site. To request to view these materials please contact the Archives.
- C.126.96.36.199 Research Department - Government Finance - Commonwealth Government - Government Finances - Correspondence - June 1931 - March 1940
- C.3.15.1 Research Department - General Economic Conditions - National Income - 1931 – 1946
- C.188.8.131.52 Research Department - Miscellaneous Correspondence - Miscellaneous, General - 1929 - 1931
- C.184.108.40.206 Research Department - Miscellaneous Correspondence - Miscellaneous, General - Giblin, Professor LF - April 1931 - November 1940
- C.220.127.116.11 Research Department - Miscellaneous Correspondence - Miscellaneous, General - Casey, RG and Melville, Professor LG - 1933 - 1941
- C.18.104.22.168 Research Department - Miscellaneous Correspondence - Miscellaneous, General - Melville, Professor LG and Riddle, EC - 1932 - 1933
- C.22.214.171.124 Research Department - Miscellaneous Correspondence - Miscellaneous, General - Melville, Professor LG - 1935 - 1939
- C.126.96.36.199 Research Department - Miscellaneous Correspondence - Miscellaneous, General - Melville, Professor LG - 1940 - 1942
- C.188.8.131.52-9 Research Department - Miscellaneous Correspondence - Miscellaneous, General - Melville, Professor LG - File 9 - 1943 - 1955
- C.184.108.40.206 Research Department - Miscellaneous Correspondence - Miscellaneous, General - Coombs, Dr HC and Melville, Professor LG - 1951 - 1953
- C.220.127.116.11 Research Department - Legislation - National Security (War Time Banking Control) Regulations - General Correspondence and Memoranda - (Professor LG Melville File) - December 1940 - October 1943
- BM-50-2 Bank Management - General Correspondence - Advisory Council Members Correspondence - Melville, L.G.
- BM-53-4 Bank Management - Board Members Correspondence - Melville, L.G.
- BM-59-4 Bank Management - Board Members Correspondence - Melville, L.G.
- BM-60-1 Bank Management - General Correspondence - Board & Board Members - Administrative Arrangements
- BM-63-3 Bank Management - Board Members Correspondence - Melville, Sir Leslie
- BM-65-3 Bank Management - Board Members Correspondence - Melville, Sir Leslie - 1964 - 1965
- S-a-1589 SECRETARY'S DEPARTMENT - International Trade & Employment Conference - Section 8 - "Effects of the Tariff" - LG Melville
- S-a-1916 SECRETARY'S DEPARTMENT - Melville, LG - Executive Director, International Monetary Fund (IMF) - Bank Board Meetings Correspondence
- S-h49-8 Secretary's Department - Melville, L.G. - Visit to United States - Reports
- IT-f-567-1 International Department - International Monetary Fund - Melville Address to Trading Bank Representatives re International Bank for Reconstruction and Development IBRD and IMF - 1944
- IT-f-568 International Department - International Monetary Fund - Melville Review of Procedure and Working of Conference - December 1944
GOVERNORS & SENIOR PERSONNEL - Leslie Melville - Royal Commission on Banking - Correspondence with J.G. Phillips
GOVERNORS & SENIOR PERSONNEL - Leslie Melville - "Monetary Policy and the Depression" - Notes and Memoranda - C. 1935
GOVERNORS & SENIOR PERSONNEL - Leslie Galfreid Melville - Commissions - Re-appointment - Member Board of the Reserve Bank of Australia - dated 06/07/1965 - Appointment commenced 23 August 1965
Research Department - Central Bank - General - Miscellaneous - The Imperial Economic Conference, Ottawa - 1932
Research Department - Central Bank - General - Miscellaneous - Commonwealth - State finances - Professor LG Melville Papers - 1930 - 1931
Research Department - Central Bank - General - Miscellaneous - Convertibility - Including a Report of a Discussion with Professor LG Melville - 1952 - 1955
Research Department - Central Bank - General - Royal Commission on Monetary & Banking Systems in Australia - Correspondence - LG Melville and DB Copland - 1937
Bank's Aircraft VH-CBA - Inaugural Flight - (L to R) Mr AW Mason, Mrs Armitage, Leslie Melville, Governor Hugh Armitage - 3 March 1947
Staff - Individual Officer - Mr L.G. Melville (circled) - Head Office 65 Martin Place - taken at the Imperial Economic Conference, Ottawa - July 1932