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Research explores unsung WA pioneer of economic thinking

Exploring the pragmatic economic thinking of former Western Australian politician and pastoralist, Charles Harper, and its influence in society, is the subject of research undertaken by Notre Dame graduate, David Gilchrist.

David, who has completed a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), will joined more than 500 graduates at The University of Notre Dame Australia’s July Graduation Ceremony in Fremantle on Friday 22 July 2016.

Supervised by Professor Greg Moore, Coordinator of Economics in the School of Business, David’s research aimed to shine the spotlight on Mr Harper and his profound contribution to WA’s economic development during the late-1800s. The title of David’s thesis is ‘Antipodean Owenite or Colonial Socialist: Charles Harper, Economic Development, and Agricultural Co-operation in Western Australia, 1890 to 1910’.

“Researching Charles Harper allowed me to pursue my interest of the history of economic thought in a WA context, but also to be introduced to someone who I believe has been mistakenly left out of our history,” David said.

“The principal concept that Charles Harper brought to public policy in the early development of Western Australia was pragmatism. WA was very much a developing economy that had stagnated and it wasn’t until we discovered gold in the late-1880s that the economy started to grow. Charles Harper didn’t allow ideology to get in the way of good decision-making for the benefit of the economy.

“In reality, the WA economic challenge was markedly more different and more profound than other colonies because WA was not only a very large geographical area, but also it has varied soil qualities, among other things. It was very difficult to have concentrated groups of farms like you had in other States, which of course then had an impact on transport.”

According to the research, the influence of Mr Harper in WA was profound. Not only did he identify the agricultural sector as the economic future of Western Australia, his work set-up the opportunity for his son to establish Wesfarmers and Cooperative Bulk Handling (CBH Group) which are common business names today.

Mr Harper also joined with John Winthrop Hackett to establish The Western Australian Times newspaper, which was later renamed as The West Australian in November 1879.

David chose to undertake his research project at Notre Dame because of the University’s connection with WA’s history, being located in Fremantle’s historic West End, and its “community Campus feel”.

“I have an enduring interest in what happens in society and I think Notre Dame plays an integral role in fostering that. Professor Greg Moore in the School of Business was an outstanding supervisor and I thank him for giving me the opportunity to expand my passion for economics and economic thinking in Western Australia,” David said.

Professor Moore said David’s dissertation showed how early European settlers spontaneously formed groups to provide the capital and social infrastructure that the over-stretched WA central government could not provide.

“David’s focus on such voluntary cooperative behaviour, as well as the contemporary intellectual justification of such behaviour, amounts to an innovative and healthy departure from traditional narratives devoted to Australian economic development,” Professor Moore said.

“David does not represent the settler as either a rugged individual working in isolation or the over-reliant beneficiary of a Colonial-Socialist State.

“This research also provides a sound philosophical framework for David’s important work in the not-for-profit sector, including his role as director of Curtin’s School of Accounting Not-for-profit Initiative and as a member of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Advisory Board.”

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