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The Cambridge Economic History of Australia

Editor(s):Ville, Simon
Withers, Glenn
Reviewer(s):Harper, Ian

Published by EH.Net (August 2016)

Simon Ville and Glenn Withers, editors, The Cambridge Economic History of Australia. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2015. xxi + 668 pp. £120/$180 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-107-02949-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Ian Harper, Deloitte Access Economics.

Hot on the heels of Ian McLean’s magisterial Why Australia Prospered (2013) comes this edited volume of twenty-four chapters, each focused on different aspects of Australia’s remarkable economic history.  The 30-strong list of contributors contains the names of some of Australia’s most prominent economic historians and economists, as well as one or two scholars from abroad whose research interests include Australian economic history.

The chapters are grouped into six parts, ordered chronologically. Part 1 deals with the “framework” of Australian economic history, with chapters devoted to historiography, the drivers of economic growth since European settlement, and the analytical methods employed in Australian economic-historical research.

Part 2 contains a chapter each on the Aboriginal legacy and the convict economy. A distinctive and timely feature of this book is the attention given to the economic circumstances, experience and prospects of Australia’s Aboriginal people.  The economic contribution of the Australian Aborigines and their descendants was essentially ignored from European settlement in 1788 until the national census of 1971.  (The Constitutional amendment following the referendum of 1967 allowed Aborigines to be included for the first time.)  As a result, historical statistics on the level and growth of Australia’s population and GDP are distorted, most seriously before 1830, when the Indigenous population was many times larger than the European population by any sensible measure.

Part 3 covers the economic expansion of the Australian colonies from the early decades of the nineteenth century through to Federation in 1901.  Six chapters deal thematically with key dimensions of economic development, including technological change, skills development and migration, enterprise, infrastructure, urbanization and Australia’s peculiar experience of government-led economic development, so-called “colonial socialism.”

Part 4 deals with the emergence of a national economy following federation of the six former colonies at the turn of the twentieth century.  Again six chapters follow particular threads, including the development of national capital markets, the rise of manufacturing to counter the long quiescence of mining until the 1960s, the emergence of big business, the evolution of public policy, and the increasing dominance of the service sector as a share of national output and employment.

Part 5 focuses on the development of the “modern” Australian economy, essentially since 1945.  Three chapters deal, respectively, with the reorientation of Australia’s trade, investment and migration, first away from Great Britain towards the United States and more recently towards Asia, especially China; the microeconomic reform agenda of the 1980s and 1990s; and Australian macroeconomic policy since World War II.

The final part looks “backwards and to the future.” Chapter 21 (together with its Statistical Appendix) presents the longest consistent time series of economic data that are available on the Australian economy and cover the period 1800-2010.  The data relate to four broad themes of Australian economic development: scale of settlement, living standards, economic structure, and openness to the international economy.  Simple line graphs reveal important features of Australia’s economic experience over the long run that are easily overlooked or forgotten, including the remarkable consistency of Australia’s economic growth over time, including GDP per capita, and the marked reduction in economic volatility in the later decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century compared with earlier times.

The three remaining chapters of Part 6 deal with Australia’s longstanding emphasis on egalitarian outcomes in the distribution of income and, to a lesser extent, wealth; the long-term environmental impact of Australia’s extractive primary industries, especially mining and pastoral agriculture; and the prospects for “closing the gap” between the currently divergent economic outcomes experienced by Australia’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations.  Chapter 24, which deals with this last topic, presents some remarkable evidence on the impact of recognizing native title to unalienated land following the passage of the Native Title Act 1993.  As the authors note (p. 549): “In aggregate it is possible that some form of land rights or native title might be recognised in more than 70 per cent of Australia, where more than 40 per cent of the Indigenous population currently resides. … This is an extraordinary turnaround from the mid-1960s when there was no recognition of land rights under Australian law.” Furthermore, they conclude that “the demographic survival of Indigenous people is more certain today than at any other time since 1788” (p. 554).

Edited collections are often of uneven quality and it can be difficult to sustain a consistent narrative.  In this case the editors are to be commended on both counts: the chapters are uniformly readable, informative and well documented; and while alternative perspectives are acknowledged in individual chapters, no two chapters jar in their interpretation of major developments or identification of dominant themes.  There is a consistent narrative which sustains the reader’s interest if the volume is read, as this reviewer did, from cover to cover.  Yet individual chapters stand alone and can be read profitably in any order according to interest.

One helpful feature is the conclusion provided at the end of each chapter summarizing the foregoing argument and evidence.  This serves as a ready means of grasping the key points or as an aid to recall when returning to particular chapters.  There are useful tables, charts and maps included throughout the volume in addition to the Statistical Appendix, and there are two indexes, one covering subjects and the other companies, as well as a comprehensive bibliography.

The publisher’s claim that this book represents “the definitive study of Australia’s economic past and present” may be a touch grandiose but there is no doubt that it is a work of formidable scholarship and an essential addition to the professional library of any economist with a serious interest in Australia’s economic development and prospects.

Ian Harper is Professor Emeritus of the University of Melbourne and a Senior Advisor to Deloitte Access Economics Pty Ltd. He recently co-wrote a report on the future of Australia’s cities and regions entitled, “The Purpose of Place: Reconsidered” ( Email:

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Australia/New Zealand, incl. Pacific Islands
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII