Obituary: Des Moore – A True Believer of Public Policy

Written by:
9 November 2020
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On one side of every public economic policy debate in Australia for the past 35 years has been the vigorous voice of former Treasury deputy secretary Des Moore.

Moore, who died last week aged 88, spent three decades in the Treasury department during a period of great intellectual ferment about the scope and nature of economic policy, before making the transition from public service to public intellectual in the late 1980s.

His Treasury career was associated with John Stone, who was the department’s formidable secretary from 1979 to 1984. Stone had been Treasury’s representative in London in the late 1950s when Moore, who was studying at the London School of Economics, paid him a visit, which eventually resulted in a job offer.

Stone recalled this week that Moore had come from a wealthy Melbourne retailing family and he might have been expected to have returned from his London studies to pursue a profitable career in business, but instead chose to take on a low-paid position at Treasury.

“Des was never interested in his own wealth, but was a passionate believer in public policy and the public interest,” he said.

Treasury was an institution of extraordinary power and influence in the 60s and 70s, carrying sole responsibility for all Australia’s foreign borrowing, overseeing the exchange rate and in charge of the budget, which was the main instrument of economic policy. Monetary policy and central banking were much less important.

Through the 70s, there were big debates within Treasury about the place of government spending, the role of money supply, the regulation of financial markets and the cost of Australia’s wall of tariff protection. The department’s culture was to foster robust debates internally but present a united face to the outside world.

Treasury was appalled by what it saw as the spendthrift ways of the Whitlam government. Whitlam blamed Moore and Stone for what he believed was Treasury obstruction. Treasury also found itself at loggerheads with the subsequent government of Malcolm Fraser. Moore was at the centre of debates between Treasury and Fraser over devaluing the currency.

As Treasury deputy secretary through the early 1980s, Moore was involved in the implementation of the early reforms under treasurer Paul Keating but left Treasury in 1987, concerned the Hawke government’s economic settings were too expansionary. Stone left in 1984, replaced as secretary by Bernie Fraser.

Moore then threw himself into the realm of public policy, heading the economic policy unit at the libertarian Institute of Public Affairs, and then establishing a one-person think tank, the Institute for Private Enterprise, with a newsletter presenting the case for smaller government, lower taxes and deregulation of the economy.

He was active in the H.R Nicholls Society lobbying for industrial relations deregulation and was also involved in the formation of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Over the last decade, the climate change debate became a passion, as he argued there was not the statistical evidence to support the thesis of human-induced global warming.

Moore was a keen supporter of the arts, reflecting the engagements of his wife, Felicity. They could always be found close to the front row of the Australian concerts given by their daughter, Lisa, who is a renowned US-based performer of contemporary piano. He also leaves behind two sons.



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