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Campbell, Sir James Keith (1928–1983)

by Peter Spearritt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Sir James Keith Campbell (1928-1983), accountant and company director, was born on 4 March 1928 in Sydney, second of three children of Edward Colin Campbell, a bricklayer who was born at Braidwood, New South Wales, and his Victorian-born wife Amanda Maude, née Goodman. Keith was educated at Homebush Junior High School. Awarded a commerce scholarship, he attended the Australian Accountancy College Pty Ltd, run by (Sir) Keith Yorston. After working for Rettie & Vickery he joined the accounting firm D. M. Dixon (& Co.) in 1950, becoming a junior partner in 1952 at the age of 24. He gained a reputation for the restoration of ailing businesses. On 25 September 1951 he married Marjorie Elizabeth Burford, a bank clerk, at St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Enfield.

As part of his work at Dixon’s, Campbell was auditor for a home-building business, G. H. Thomas Pty Ltd, known as Thomas Homes, and he later joined the firm as a codirector. When the L. J. Hooker Investment Corporation Ltd (Hooker Corporation Ltd from 1968) acquired Thomas Homes, Campbell worked for both firms part time. Hooker’s reached the brink of bankruptcy following the Federal government’s 1960 `credit squeeze’, and Campbell came to the fore in restructuring the complex real estate and development business. In 1963 he was appointed general manager and from 1964 was called chief general manager. A director of the corporation from 1964, he was appointed chairman in 1974. During his time in charge of Hooker’s the firm dealt with real estate, hotels, pastoral interests, retail and industrial developments and jewellery outlets. He selected able staff: he acknowledged that he was `ruthless about transferring people if they don’t fit’, but ensured they were always treated with `dignity’.

Campbell was a director of several companies including IBM Australia Ltd (1969-80), CitiNational Holdings Pty Ltd, later Citi-National Holdings Ltd and CitiNational Ltd (chairman 1971-80), and Network Finance Ltd (deputy chairman 1966-83). He relinquished his position with all but the last of these after the Fraser government appointed him chairman of a committee of inquiry into the Australian financial system. What the media termed `the Campbell Inquiry’ soon became a catch-phrase for economic reform. The lengthy submissions process provoked substantial debate about the antiquated Australian financial system. A perfectionist, Campbell closely supervised the committee. The 838-page report (1981) recommended a move from a fixed to a market-base currency exchange rate, permitting entry of foreign banks and deregulation of the banking sector. The Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia, of which Campbell became a fellow in 1955, gave him the inaugural Chartered Accountant of the Year award in 1983. He had been appointed CBE in 1972 and knighted in 1982.

A tall, spare man with sandy (later greying) hair, Campbell commanded widespread respect. He held appointments in educational, charitable and government bodies, including the Australian Industry Development Corporation (1974-80) and (from 1981) the council of the University of New South Wales. He was also a member (1970-75) and then chairman of the council of the Science Foundation for Physics at the University of Sydney, chairman of the Eastern Suburbs Railway Board of Review (1976) and a member of the committee of inquiry into the cost of housing in New South Wales (1977-78). He supported the Salvation Army and was a foundation director (1970-76) and chairman (1976-83) of the board of the Shepherd Centre for deaf children. In addition to his many other commitments he helped with the accounts at Santa Sabina Convent, Strathfield, where his children were educated: when one of the nuns chided him about smoking he jokingly replied that he would give up smoking when she changed her religion. The Campbell family lived at Strath-field until the mid-1970s and then moved to Mosman.

In April 1983 Campbell participated in Prime Minister Hawke’s National Economic Summit, urging that unemployment and inflation must be addressed simultaneously; higher unemployment could not be tolerated because it caused great distress. His heavy workload took a toll on his health. Sir Keith died of ischaemic heart disease on 16 April 1983 at Concord. He had been playing golf which, with surfing, was his favourite recreation. Hundreds of mourners attended the requiem Mass for him at Santa Sabina Chapel, Strathfield. Survived by his wife and their three daughters and son, he was cremated. Financial commentators agreed that he had been both effective and intellectually flexible, an uncommon characteristic among accountants of his era. Though he was appointed to lead an inquiry under a Federal coalition government, most of his main recommendations were, ironically, not implemented until the Hawke Labor government, with Paul Keating as treasurer, came to power. According to an obituary he was regarded as `unfailingly courteous’ in a business climate where ideological posturing often took the place of reasoned argument.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Appleyard and C. Schedvin (eds), Australian Financiers (1988)
  • National Times, 26 May 1979, p 36
  • Australian, 1 Jan 1982, p 2
  • Chartered Accountant, Feb 1983, p 3
  • Australian Financial Review, 18 Apr 1983, p 3
  • Canberra Times, 18 Apr 1983, p 3
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Apr 1983, p 6, 25 Apr 1983, p 11.

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Citation details

Peter Spearritt, 'Campbell, Sir James Keith (1928–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/campbell-sir-james-keith-12285/text22057, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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