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Walker, Sir Edward Ronald (1907–1988)

by Selwyn Cornish

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir Edward Ronald Walker (1907-1988), economist and diplomat, was born on 26 January 1907 at Cobar, New South Wales, eldest child of Australian-born parents Frederick Thomas Walker, Methodist minister, and his wife Mary Melvina Annie, née King, the daughter of a Methodist preacher. Ronald was a cousin of the Methodist clergyman and social activist Sir Alan Walker.

Matriculating from Fort Street Boys’ High School, Walker won a Teachers’ College scholarship to the University of Sydney (BA, 1927; MA, 1930). After graduating with first-class honours in economics and psychology, he was appointed to a lectureship in economics. His master’s thesis dealt with unemployment—a topic that was to occupy his attention throughout the next decade. Awarded a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship in 1931, he entered St John’s College, Cambridge (Ph.D., 1933; Litt.D., 1949). His thesis, supervised by (Sir) Dennis Robertson and Arthur Pigou, was only the second accepted for a Ph.D. in economics at Cambridge; it was published without amendment as Australia in the World Depression (1933).

Walker joined the Political Economy Club, founded by John Maynard (Baron) Keynes, and was part of the coterie that gathered around Keynes in the early 1930s. Drawing upon Keynes’s A Treatise on Money (1930), Walker concluded that general wage cuts would fail to stimulate economic activity. Instead, he recommended expenditure on public works as a remedy for chronic unemployment. On 8 April 1933 at Beaumont, Belgium, he married Belgian-born Louise Clementine Donckers, a schoolteacher.

Returning to Australia, Walker was a lecturer in economics (1933-38) at the University of Sydney. There he taught and wrote on unemployment, wage and monetary policy, public works and the exchange rate. He had published in 1931 with (Sir) Robert Madgwick the widely used textbook, An Outline of Australian Economics; with R. C. Mills he wrote Money (1935) and he also published Unemployment Policy (1936). Appearing before the 1936-37 royal commission to inquire into the monetary and banking systems, he argued that monetary policy should have two objectives: ‘the avoidance or mitigation of depressions’ and ‘the stabilization of the purchasing power of money’, with priority given to the former. In 1938 he was appointed economic adviser to the New South Wales Treasury.

By the end of the 1930s Walker had become Australia’s pre-eminent Keynesian economist. He was the professor of economics (1939-46) at the University of Tasmania and an economic adviser to the State government. In December 1941 he was appointed chief economic adviser and later deputy director-general of the Department of War Organization of Industry, Melbourne. He became a member of the Commonwealth Advisory Committee on Finance and Economic Policy, led by L. F. Giblin. Walker’s final book, The Australian Economy in War and Reconstruction (1947), drew heavily upon his experience advising governments in this period.

With the decision in 1945 to abolish WOI, Walker was appointed chief of the country programs branch of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Washington, DC. Reassigned for what was intended to be a short term as counsellor at the Australian legation in Paris, with special responsibility for economic work associated with the Peace Conference, he led the Australian delegation to the 1945 Paris Conference on Reparations. In 1946 he was appointed senior adviser on economic questions to Australian representatives in Europe. Later that year he declined an offer to be the professor of applied economics at the University of Sydney and instead accepted a permanent appointment to the Department of External Affairs. He remained in Paris till the end of 1949. (Sir) Robert Menzies appointed him in 1950 to head the National Security Resources Board, which had been established following the outbreak of the Korean War.

Walker’s interest in foreign affairs had commenced in 1928 when he led a group of Young Methodists on a visit to India. In 1933 he had travelled to Munich; hoping to interview Hitler, he met Rudolph Hess instead. He was an Australian delegate to the League of Nations in 1937 and was for many years a commentator on international affairs for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Appointed Australia’s first ambassador to Japan (1952-55), he moved to New York as Australia’s permanent representative (1956-59) to the UN. During his time there, the Suez crisis erupted and the Soviet Union invaded Hungary. He was ambassador to France (1959-68), to the Federal Republic of Germany (1968-71) and to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris (1971-73).

Throughout his diplomatic career Walker continued to serve on various UN agencies and committees. Chairman (1947-48) of the executive board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and of the UN’s expert committee on National and International Measures for Full Employment (1949), he was Australia’s representative on the UN Security Council (1956-57) and Trusteeship Council (1956-58) and the Economic and Social Council (1948-50, 1962-64, president 1964). He led UN technical missions to Tunisia (1965) and to Pakistan (1968), and was a member (1964-75, chairman 1970) of the UN Advisory Committee on the Application of Science and Technology for Development.

After his retirement in 1973 Walker lived in France, where he had worked as a diplomat for eighteen years. He was later a member of the UN ‘Group of Eminent Persons’ studying the impact of multinational corporations. In his work as a public servant and diplomat he had applied his knowledge of economics and his understanding of political events to his reporting and policy advice. Appointed CBE in 1956, Walker was knighted in 1963. President of section G (economics) at the Brisbane meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science in 1951, he delivered the ANZAAS Giblin lecture in 1964. He was awarded the honorary degree of D.Sc.Econ. (University of Sydney, 1973).

Sir Ronald was courteous, modest and compassionate. A powerful speaker and an acclaimed teacher, he was respected for his integrity, dignity, insights and professionalism. He died on 28 November 1988 in Paris and was buried in Hellenvilliers cemetery, Normandy. His wife and their son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Millmow, The Power of Economic Ideas (2010)
  • Minutes of Evidence (Royal Commission to inquire into the Monetary and Banking Systems at Present in Operation in Australia), vol 2, 1936, p 1290
  • Economic Record, vol 60, no 171, 1984, p 366, and S. Cornish, ‘Edward Ronald Walker’, vol 67, no 196, 1991, p 59
  • Canberra Times, 1 Dec 1988, p 11
  • private information.

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Citation details

Selwyn Cornish, 'Walker, Sir Edward Ronald (1907–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/walker-sir-edward-ronald-15889/text27090, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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