History of AARES

by Keith O. Campbell - Foundation President

The Australian Agricultural Economics Society was founded at a conference convened in Sydney in February 1957. T he organising committee for that conference consisted of I.A. Butler (Chairman), K.O. Campbell (Secretary), C.P. Dowsett, P.C. Druce and F.H. Gruen.

If there was an external impetus to form a professional society in Australia, it was in the person of J.R. (Jock) Currie, foundation secretary of the International Conference (now Association) of Agricultural Economists. Currie visited Sydney in the early fifties during the course of a world tour and induced me to become the Australian correspondent of his organisation. During his short visit, a meeting of potential members of the International Conference was held in the head office of the Commonwealth Bank in Sydney. Currie impressed the gathering not only with his canny Scots personality, but also with his enthusiasm for the idea of agricultural economists meeting together professionally to their mutual benefit.

During 1956, I discussed with a number of people in Sydney, and Canberra the proposition that the time was ripe to form an Australian professional society along the lines of the American, Canadian and British associations. A somewhat different contemporary view, which had some support, was that, for the time being at least, we should be content with an Australian group of the International Conference. The group at that time numbered about 40. The Sydney people nevertheless went ahead and drew up plans for an inaugural meeting of an independent Australian society. The argument in favour of this course of action was that more people were likely to join an Australian organisation if it did not also involve compulsory participation in the international association.

The date of the meeting was timed to follow immediately after a meeting of the Australian Agricultural Council in Sydney in order to ensure a satisfactory attendance of interstate people. The worry about numbers was unfounded as in excess of 120 persons turned up for the meeting held in the conference room of the Rural Bank of New South Wales on 20 and 21 February 1957. In order to provide an atmosphere in accord with international agricultural economic traditions, I searched Sydney and eventually located a cowbell to be used in lieu of a chairman's gavel. The professional section of the first meeting dealt with the state of agricultural economics in Australia, with the survey method, with agricultural finance and other timeless subjects. At a business meeting those present agreed to form an Australian Society. An interim Council was elected and entrusted with the task of drawing up a constitution to be ratified at the next meeting a year later. As the Society's first president, I can attest to the fact that its constitution (though modified over the years) was largely the handiwork of the first secretary, Cecil Dowsett. Dowsett was a meticulously thorough man whom the Society was particularly fortunate to have as its secretary in its formative years.

It is of interest that two of the matters discussed at the inaugural general meeting were the question of support for a (British) Commonwealth Bureau of Agricultural Economics and the possibility of forming a joint Australian and New Zealand society rather than simply an Australian one. On the latter point, the meeting decided that it would be wise to establish a society firmly on Australian soil before beginning trans-Tasman adventures. A New Zealand branch was eventually constituted in 1975 and the first off-shore annual meeting of the Society was held in Christchurch in 1981.

Apart from drawing up a constitution and making plans for the second meeting in Canberra in February 1958, the interim Council took steps to establish the Australian Journal of Agricultural Economics, with Alan McIntyre as editor. Volume 1 No. 1 consisted of the proceedings of the Sydney meeting and was published as an issue of the NSW Department of Agriculture's Review of Marketing and Agricultural Economics. That issue did not appear without an abortive attempt at censorship and the misuse of power based on Commonwealth-State relations. The embryonic Society itself was also subjected to denigration in the columns of the Queensland Country Life newspaper, charges to which several university-based members of the Society replied in defence of the Society. The editor of the Journal was assisted by an editorial committee from 1962 onwards.

In retrospect, it would seem that the Society might have done better not to have adopted the federal-type of constitution so traditional among Australian organisations. With 50 states and 12 provinces and territories in their respective federations, our American and Canadian counterparts do not feel bound to have each state or province specifically represented on their councils. In the event, the tyranny of Australian distance has meant that over the years the management of the Society (except at the time of the annual meetings in February) has been left to the few, who could contrive to attend council meetings. Such financial resources as the Society was able to command went to build up necessary reserves rather than being dissipated (as they have in the case of some other Australian societies) in paying the fares of distant state delegates to attend Council meetings.

It was agreed very early in the Society's history not to demand any professional qualifications for membership. This policy paid off by giving the Society numerical (and relative financial) strength in its early years. As a trade-off, it necessitated a policy of taking care not to overload the programmes of early meetings (and the Journal) with highly technical discussions. As the number of better-trained professional agricultural economists grew and this was reflected in the conference programmes, the active interest of farmers, valuers, agricultural processors and marketing board executives waned.

In 1966, the practice of inviting contributed papers at the annual meetings was begun, initially to provide encouragement to younger members of the Society. This section of the annual conference programme, as might be expected, has snowballed in later years, despite the attempt of some Councils to exercise a degree of control over the quality.

The idea of holding workshops separate from the annual meetings was canvassed in the early sixties, but no action was taken at that time. In 1976 they were introduced in the form of special sessions held immediately prior to the annual meetings. Their number and format at particular meetings have varied, some representing simply an extension of the regular sessions, that is, prepared papers followed by discussion thereon.

Given the disparate nature of the original membership of the Society previously described and the variable quality of papers contributed at the annual conferences, the Council of the Society soon found it impossible to publish all the papers presented at the annual meetings in the Journal. Thereafter normal refereeing procedures were applied in all cases. Today there is a tendency for authors of good papers to tire after presenting their papers at the annual general meeting and to fail to submit them for publication in the Journal. As a result, many papers of potentially abiding value are largely lost.

The Society has introduced several activities aimed at improving the quality and status of the profession. In 1965 it commenced awarding an annual prize for the best master's thesis in agricultural economics submitted at an Australian university. This was followed in 1970 by an annual award for the article judged by the Editorial Committee to be the best article submitted to the Journal and in 1986 a prize for the best PhD Thesis was awarded. In 1970, the Society decided to make a triennial travel grant to assist at least one of its members to attend the international conference of agricultural economists. The first award was made in that year.

The Society has from time to time established working parties to prepare papers on specific topics, leading often to submissions to governmental enquires or authorities. Among the committees established were those on farm investment statistics, on terminology in farm accounting, and on the funding of research in agricultural economics.

The original constitution made provision for the establishment of branches in states and regions to provide opportunities for members to get together periodically for professional purposes between the annual federal meetings. Branches were established in Victoria and the ACT in 1959 and in New South Wales and Western Australia in 1960. These branches have been mainly financed by subventions from the federal body, made on the basis of membership numbers. The activities of the branches have waxed and waned from time to time and one state still has not elected to form one. The variable activity is partly to be explained in terms of personalities, but is also partly associated with the changing nature of the membership mentioned earlier.

Donations were solicited in 1964 from leading banks and agriculturally-related institutions to help finance the Journal. In the following year changes were made in the Society's constitution to enable the establishment of the special category of corporate membership to cover financial assistance received from institutions.

To minimise the overall costs of attending meetings and to maintain membership, the location of the federal annual meetings was originally rotated between Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. Within a decade, the meetings were alternated between these capitals and more distant locations. The Perth meeting held in 1965 was the first of the latter type of gathering.

The central secretariat of the Society initially was also rotated around the three capitals mentioned above, Sydney being the first location. Subsequently the New England branch provided a home for the secretariat. From 1972 onwards the Society has utilised paid secretarial services located in Melbourne, to carry out its central administrative functions.

The annual meeting of the Society in 1990 approved the Society's assuming responsibility for publishing the Review of Marketing and Agricultural Economics (previously published by the NSW Department of Agriculture) in addition to its own journal. In 1995 the Society determined to change its original name to that of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society. In 1996 the annual meeting decided to combine the two journals it had previously published into a single journal to be called the Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

From the standpoint of international recognition, perhaps the major accomplishment of the Society and its members lay in the acceptance of the invitation issued to the International Association of Agricultural Economists to hold its thirteenth conference in Sydney in August 1967 - a mere decade after the Australian Society's formation. This conference proved to be not only a welcome stimulus to the local profession, but many overseas visitors discovered for the first time that there was in Australia an active group of agricultural economists, whose contributions were of a standard that deserved world-wide attention.