Academic journal article History of Economics Review

Charles Harper through a Galbraithian Lens: Agricultural Cooperation and Countervailing Power in Colonial Western Australia

Academic journal article History of Economics Review

Charles Harper through a Galbraithian Lens: Agricultural Cooperation and Countervailing Power in Colonial Western Australia

Article excerpt

Abstract: Charles Harper (1842-1912) has been rightly identified as the founder of agricultural cooperation in Western Australia. While it was his son (Charles Walter, 1880-1956) who established the principal cooperative organisations in Western Australia, Charles senior prepared the ground for the development of agricultural cooperation via his work in popularising the concept, implementing experiments in cooperative activities and influencing the development of government infrastructure and policy aimed at encouraging what J.K. Galbraith would later call the development of countervailing power. Harper was disinclined to express his economic thought directly and so, in this paper, Charles Harper's economic thought is demonstrated within a framework of countervailing power.

1 Introduction

Charles Harper was born in 1842 into a colony at the very edge of the British Empire and lived through very lean and frustrating economic times. Together with many of his compatriots, Harper recognised that his homeland boasted abundant natural resources and was eager to exploit them in his own interest and the interest of Western Australia. However, it was a source of frustration for him that there was a lack of capital and people available to be applied to the development task. This stagnant state of economic affairs fortunately changed when the gold rushes of the 1890s created boom conditions that drew resources to the Colony from throughout the Empire. In seeking to exploit this temporary--in their minds--windfall opportunity, Harper and many other leaders of the Colony were eager to place economic development, particularly agricultural development, above all other considerations. Indeed, notwithstanding his political, community and educational roles, Harper is now chiefly remembered for his contribution to the development of the agricultural sector in the West and particularly for his role in the establishment of agricultural cooperation (Gilchrist 2009; Mercer 1958; Sandford 1955). The expansion of the agricultural sector as a general goal, and the use of both state funds and the cooperative form of enterprise as specific instruments to achieve this goal, subsequently drove most of what stood for economic debate in Western Australia in the decades either side of Federation. Harper, who took a leading part in these debates, saw in cooperation an opportunity for the man on the land to manage his own destiny by coming together with others--in an environment still bereft of public goods and other appropriate capital infrastructure--to ensure an adequate return for the risk and effort they undertook in opening up that land. Harper's view was that if agriculturalists were adequately rewarded, more people would migrate to Western Australia and so the colony would develop both its own market and increase its capacity to meet the demands of distant foreign markets.

In this paper, I examine Harper's cooperativist beliefs and the way in which they shaped his contribution to the formation of economic policy in Western Australia. What follows is an exercise in the history of economic doctrine rather than the history of economic thought proper, since my focus is on the interaction between economic policy and economic thought, rather than economic thought alone. Indeed, given that nearly all of the economic conversations in Western Australia prior to the institutionalisation of economics at the University of Western Australia from Edward Shann onwards (for example, Shann 1927) were at a policy level, with virtually no arguments published as conventional theoretical tracts, an exercise in traditional history of economic thought is simply not relevant for this period. Harper was certainly not prone to describing his economic thinking in the extended written form. Fortunately, however, considerable understanding of Charles Harper's economic thought may be derived via a review of his extant papers, his recorded actions, records of his speeches in Parliament and on various Parliamentary committees as well as newspaper reports of his activities. …

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