A day in Adelaide revived affection memories of an old friend and economist.
Norm Thomson was a visiting economist to the Canterbury department from December 1980 to May 1981. He came over from the University of Adelaide to prepare a New Zealand edition of the textbook An Introduction to the Australian Economy, which he and Ron Hefford (with the help of two teachers) had written. No one else was much interested, so he and I teamed up.
In retrospect the book, An Introduction to the New Zealand Economy, was written in a strange way. I took each chapter of the Australian edition, revised it, handed to Norm; he re-revised it handed it back, and so on. (There were never many reiterations.) But we never actually discussed the text – that was unnecessary.
Instead, we had many convivial discussions on a wide range of matters, which evolved into friendship for life. Our families met: Rosemary and his four children and Jenny and my two. It was before email, so we corresponded including cards for family events, we arranged to meet in Adelaide and Knoxville or wherever. The last time we met was for a dinner in Melbourne when we were both passing through. It was a good evening but other than the friendship the only thing I remember was his mentioning his stupidity as a youth spending so much time in the sun.
In his youth Norm had flown for the Australian Army (sometimes he was based with their Air Force). After that he went teaching. They chose Adelaide because it was between Canberra, where Rosemary came from, and Perth, were Norm he came from. He did an economics degree part-time, and was appointed to the Adelaide faculty when an English staff member refused to return from leave because his wife did not like the place.
Norm was modest about his economic achievements. His interest was in using economic theory as a tool to test ideas or applications. As an applied economist he was passionate about using economics to improve life for everyone.
His research was focused on fiscal policy and the use of cost benefit analysis. It applied to a wide range of issues: agricultural economics, death duties, student assistance, education financing, and the Grants Commission, heritage grants, retention of native vegetation, soil salinity problems, state and federal revenue, and taxation. A lot was done as a consultant. I recall his talking about ‘after sales service’; you included a margin in the fee for it.
Norm was an honest consultant. I once wrote a Listener economics column about the economics of the Australian Grand Prix; Norm had contributed to the report I used. The evaluation was an honest effort. They are not always. The research commissioners usually want a very large dollar number to justify them applying for another large public subsidy. It is quite easy to inflate the truth by using multipliers which are excessive and by ignoring any downside costs. That’s why I will not do an event evaluation.
He was a prime mover in the setting up of the Centre for South Australian Economic Studies and its foundation director, as well as being on several editorial boards and such like.
Despite Norm’s modest claims, he was promoted to the position of Reader in the Adelaide economics department which, at the time, had a higher reputation than any New Zealand department. (He turned down offers of a chair elsewhere.) He became a Dean of Economics and later, following a reorganisation, Dean of Economics and Commerce.
In 1995, I learned that Norm had died at the age of 59. I could not get much information except that it was from melanoma. For a long time I assumed that he knew he had it at our Melbourne dinner and hadn’t told me. I eventually learned that he was referring to a proneness to scabs, that the melanoma had flared up much later and he had died within a year. I do not know much about the course of the illness but apparently seven weeks before he went, he had gone out flying, returning with the cheerful news he had beaten it; he hadn’t.
After he died, a university fund was set up to award the ‘Norman John Thomson Memorial Prize’ to an undergraduate or a postgraduate student for advanced study in public finance.
For 25 years I was left with the unfinished business of not knowing what happened to him nor of paying my respects. But recently I was in Adelaide. One day, her last in town before she visited grandchildren in Brisbane and Hobart, Rosemary picked us up, and we went to the cemetery where he was buried, near Stirling where she and Norm had lived. We met there John and Brian, two now-retired colleagues,
The Stirling cemetery is a standard one, almost full with plots. Norm’s grave is down at the far end near a steep bank of Australian bush (gum trees). Apparently it was bought early: Norm shorted the market when the local council was threatening to raise prices, although he did not plan to use it quite so soon. It has a local Adelaide stone (bluestone) surround, a wooden cross with his name and tributes on, no overing stone with flowering plants growing out of the gravel. Despite the twenty-five years, the grave is still regularly visited. I left flowers.
We went for coffee at a local shopping centre. Rosemary and Elizabeth talked family and places to visit. The men gossiped economics. Rosemary ran us home showing us around the attractive central city.
It was hello again, Norm; not goodbye – you’ll always be with me.
Dad’s highest commendation is that ‘he was a good bloke’. Norm was a good bloke.
Rosemary Thomson helped by providing detail on Norm’s background. Thankyou.