The
Inspiration
Project

WITH BRENDAN CORR

GUEST Ian Harper

Episode 08

Professor Ian Harper: Episode Summary

On this episode of ‘The Inspiration Project’, Brendan Corr talks to Professor Ian Harper about his books, economics, criticism, serving on the RBA board and his faith in practice.

Among other things Ian shares:

  • a Christian way of doing economics.
  • the people side of economic policy.
  • the surprising make up of the RBA board.
  • the genesis of Ian’s interest in economics.
  • discovering the intellectually robustness of the Christian faith.
  • ️dealing with criticism as a Christian.
  • what Section 116 of the Constitution says about people of faith in public office.
  • the antidote to despondency.

Professor Ian Harper: Episode Transcript

Sponsor Announcement
This podcast is sponsored by Australian Christian College, a network of schools committed to student wellbeing, character development and academic improvement.

Introduction
Welcome to The Inspiration Project, where well known Christians share their stories to inspire young people in their faith and life. Here’s your host Brendan Corr.

Brendan Corr
Hi there, welcome again to The Inspiration Project. We’re excited to have our next guest that we are putting in the hot seat, to learn from their experiences and some of their background. Absolutely delighted to welcome Professor Ian Harper to the podcast today. Professor Harper has had an illustrious career stretching over decades. He currently is a Dean of Melbourne Business School, Co-Dean of the University of Melbourne’s Faculty in Business and Economics, serving on the board of the Reserve Bank of Australia. He’s been involved with the University of Melbourne for more than 20 years in various roles, and was elected Emeritus Professor of the University when he concluded his formal commitments there in 2018. He’s also served in a number of government agencies, including the Australian Government’s Competition Policy Review in 2014 and 2015, and was the inaugural Chair of the Australian Fair Pay Commission, which was commissioned to look at the way in which the nation was balancing the needs for salaries and pay. He’s a member of many associations. He’s been elected to the Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, elected as Distinguished Public Policy Fellow of the Economic Society of Australia and received the Vice-Chancellor’s Alumni Excellence Award from the University of Queensland. In his spare time, he’s written almost a dozen books and articles, and continues to serve our community in the roles that he fills at the moment. Professor, it’s wonderful to have you here. How have you been able to fit in a conversation with us in all that busy schedule that you hold?

Ian Harper
Lovely to be here, Brendan, and thank you for the invitation. Not really a question of fitting it in brother, this is a privilege and I’m delighted to have a conversation with you about this.

Brendan Corr
Well, thank you. It’s no doubt, none question that you’ve had opportunities that few people could imagine having, and the one responsibility that few in the nation are asked to carry. I wonder, are you conscious when you’re, for example, serving on the Reserve Bank of Australia and making decisions that affect the fiscal policy and the financial environment of the nation all the way down to households? Are you conscious of the burden of that responsibility?

Ian Harper
I would say, Brendan, that is shared responsibility. So one thing is that, yes, they are responsible positions, thank you for mentioning that. But I’m not alone. In each of those cases, I share the responsibility with other Australians and that I think makes it easier. As you would know, a burden shared is a burden halved. And I think that applies to these positions of responsibility as much as it does to other personal issues.

Brendan Corr
That’s a good point to remember. I guess that is a truism regardless of how large the decisions are that you’re making, when you are able to get the wisdom and the counsel of peers.

Ian Harper
That’s right, Brendan, and I may have to given that our audience is younger than you and I, we were much more used to hierarchical systems where there was, so to speak, a boss at the top. I mean, they still exist those types of systems, but it’s much more common these days, and our young people will know this and recognise this when they go into the workforce. For these decisions to be made by teams, the issues often are too complex for just one person and there’s much greater wisdom residing in groups of people than just one. So teamwork becomes far more important than it was perhaps when you and I were the age of some of our listeners, and making teams work and sharing responsibilities are key to good organisational behaviour.

Brendan Corr
Professor, if you don’t mind my falling for an old caricature, individuals who are interested in economics aren’t always known to have been strong people sort of people. And yet you’re talking very sensitively about the way you need to reach decisions in an economic situation, based on relationship with people. How do you see the balance between the cold hard facts, and the need for personal engagement and personal understanding?

Ian Harper
Well, economics is a social science and isn’t abstract like mathematics. You can use mathematics and abstract reasoning and argument to help understand economic problems, in the same way you can with physics. But at the end of the day, economics is about people’s lives and their livelihoods, and you really can’t make wise judgement about those things purely on the basis of science. Another way to answer your question, Brendan, is to say that there’s a lot about economics that is similar to medicine, and you can to use your own point, you can be a very fine technician, you could know all of the scientific results from the medical technology inside out, and yet not be a good doctor. Because you can’t really relate to and understand your patients. So you’ve got to, in medicine and economics, have an eye out for how you relate to your patients, to the people, as much as you need to have a technical grasp of the knowledge that you need to, as it were, make a good diagnosis.

Brendan Corr
And I’m interpreting or listening to you, hearing that each of those things are equally important. You must have a thorough knowledge of the theory and of the constructs, but that’s not enough. Similarly, you must be conscious of people and of what’s going on, but that’s neither enough. It is the combination of those two things.

Ian Harper
Combination of the two and that’s absolutely right, Brendan. And you see that if I could literally take our listeners into the boardroom of the Reserve Bank, where we meet on the first Tuesday of every month to make decisions about the Australian economy, if I can take them in there, then they would see what we’ve just described in operation. The decisions that the board makes could be simply reduced to technical decisions, about whether the interest rate should be put up or down, or whatever. And frankly, Brendan, you could have a machine do that. You could have a computer decide that and you don’t need anybody to be involved. It’s just putting rates up or down as the case may be. In fact, of course, that’s not what happens. The decision is made by nine Australians, most of whom I might add aren’t economists. But there are people who come from different walks of life, with different experience and they then interpret the information which is put before them by the technical economists. Now, it turns out, of course, that there are also at least three economists; myself, and the Governor and the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank, three out of nine who are technically trained, and the other six are men and women from very different backgrounds. And so the decision that gets made is made through the interplay of this analysis, and wisdom and input. People who can interrogate the technical discipline, the technical economic conclusion, as well as the technical economists who can then interrogate judgments, or decisions or experience that is brought to the table by people who don’t necessarily think like economists. And out of that, we believe, is where you get the wisdom. That’s where the strength in the process is and that’s just one institution.

Brendan Corr
Yeah, that’s excellent. I was not aware of the composition of the Board of the Reserve Bank. That’s really interesting. We’ve been talking about the complimentary nature of two types, of two approaches to deciding or interacting. I was interested in looking at your biography, that there have been two complimentary spheres of endeavour. You’ve spent a lot of your life in the world of the academics, academia, and you’ve spent a proportionate part of your life in community service and in government agencies. The comments we’ve been talking about, has that been partly the motivation for you to have straddled to those two spheres, rather than concentrating in either one?

Ian Harper
Well, just because of who I am, Brendan. I would not have been the one of a better description, a lab rat type economist. Somebody who is simply interested in the technical side of the discipline, that’s perfectly happy sitting in front of a computer. I don’t mean to disparage those of my colleagues who do that, that’s important work. And being a lab rat or lab based researcher is very important work, but it’s not me. I wanted to combine a technical knowledge of the discipline with the ability to apply it in real situations, to real people’s lives and to be of like a more immediate benefit. And so the service, the great strength of being an academic is that you are able to do those other things as well. Maybe it’s not as encouraged as much as it was when I was going through, but I’m trying my hardest to recreate that at the university because it’s very important, that the university be seen to be actively involved in people’s lives. As we’re making this recording, of course, my colleagues in the Department of Immunology and Virology are working night and day, with their colleagues around the world to try and crack the COVID-19 code. But they too, will come out of their laboratories and talk to people about basic things, like washing your hands and not congregating in large numbers. These are conclusions that people can grasp. They’re very oriented towards people’s welfare, and they’re very immediate and a long way away from laboratory, but it’s important that those two things never get too far apart. That’s true in economics as much as it is in immunology.

Brendan Corr
Yes. I think if we take that point on and extrapolate it, what I’m hearing is that all knowledge can’t stay as theoretical. It has to be applied at some point, and having knowledge is a value only if it makes a difference in the way we are living, or the way we are interacting with people. Would that be a fair comment?

Ian Harper
Well, this is my view, Brendan, as I hear you say it, I only winch slightly because I know there are colleagues of mine at the university, who do work which is utterly abstract. Obviously colleagues in the Mathematics Department do some work with just completely abstract, but they’re not alone in that. Even people who are studying art would say that some of their work, or music for that matter is completely abstract. So I just thought of saying that the only useful knowledge, there is no doubt when it comes to economics anyway, that a substantial part of what we do in my discipline is really only of value, if it can help people to live lives that they really have reason to value. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.

Brendan Corr
Let me take you back, Professor. When was it that you realised economics was a field of interest for you? At what point, were you playing like a monopoly?

Ian Harper
Well, it was at school, Brendan, and some of our listeners might recognise this too. I walked into my first class in economics in year 11, and I had chosen it because I didn’t think I was good enough to do physics and math too, and other higher level sciences. I wasn’t that interested, but I also didn’t think I could do it. So I chose history and economics and geography, and a language. I’m sure maybe some of our listeners might recognise that. Anyway, I went in my first economics class with my school friend who also had signed up. He wanted to be a lawyer. He didn’t want to do or couldn’t do physics either. And I said to him in the very first class, I said to him, “So what is economics anyway?” I literally had no idea, but we had an outstanding economics teacher, a man who stimulated us and challenged us, and made us curious about all sorts of things I’d never thought about. And it’s one of the things, Brendan, that’s given me an enduring respect for you and your colleagues, people who are professional teachers. I don’t need to tell you how much influence you have on people’s lives, although they don’t often recognise it until much later. And when they do, they realise what a gift you’ve given them in the classroom, even if they didn’t know it at the time, sometimes even if they resisted it. Well, in my case, I can source my interest in this discipline and it served me throughout nearly a whole life now of professional economics, to one man who stimulated me and made me curious about things I’d never thought about before.

Brendan Corr
How wonderful. What a great gift that was to you, that opened the door to a pathway that has led you with twists and turns no doubt, to something that I’m inferring would have been a wonderful adventure for you.

Ian Harper
That’s right and, Brendan, so many people listening to this podcast are in exactly the position I was in. So they should be thinking about what their teachers are saying, and whether the things they might find a bit difficult, in fact they’re being influenced by the teacher in the right direction and to your colleagues, how encouraged they should be.

Brendan Corr
Yeah. We will take that encouragement. Thank you very much.

Ian Harper
Yeah, please do.

Brendan Corr
It’s a great story for that. Professor, one of the books you wrote is called Christian Theology and Market Economics. That’s an interesting combination of concepts. Can you tell us about how your Christian faith has played a part in your career or in your understanding of economics?

Ian Harper
Well, all intellectual activity or scientific endeavour takes place within a social and moral, political context. And economics is probably foremost amongst other sciences in that regard, it started out life as moral philosophy. The man who is often credited with establishing what we now know as modern economics, a man called Adam Smith, who was a Scottish Enlightenment thinker in the late 18th century. Smith was a Professor of Moral Philosophy, and his writing about economics started from that base and other writers did the same. It sort of left behind it’s moral philosophical base, as a lot of other sciences did too in the late 19th century. And then there was a separation between values and science. What my Christian faith has enabled me to do, Brendan, is to reattach a moral framework, a sense of right and wrong to what is otherwise an experimental science, where many people would say that it’s no business of the science to know what’s right or wrong, the business of the science is simply to do the science, work out where the evidence is taking. Well, I can accept that. But if you’re a scientist, or economist or medical practitioner, for that matter, who has no moral framework, no structure of meaning or purpose that attaches to that science, then not only do I think that you are the poorer of that, I think you might be a poor scientist and practitioner, for that lack the understanding that comes from grounding, a proper grounding in moral philosophy, ideally in a faith. So in my case, my economics I like to think, Brendan, is grounded in my Christian faith. And that gives me a much stronger framework from which to make judgments, about whether we should be putting up or down interest rates, or minimum wages or changing the tax system. They’re not just technical questions. They’re questions which have a right or wrong dimension to them.

Brendan Corr
I’d love to come back to some of those points in a moment. But can you share with us a little bit, how did you come to have such a strong Christian faith, that has become that bedrock for you making big decisions?

Ian Harper
Thank you. Well, I wasn’t raised a Christian or I wasn’t raised in a household that was hostile to Christian faith. My parents sent me to an Anglican school, and that school did a good job certainly in exposing me to what you might call liturgical worship and the practise of Christian faith, according to one tradition, but I didn’t experience any quickening of faith. I didn’t feel like … Well, I wasn’t converted during that experience, and there’s no fault of the school in that. They could well have been making an invitation to me, I wasn’t listening on. I don’t know, but it did ground me in say worship, and liturgy and aspect of church life, which I have come to value immensely in more recent years. The turning point for me really came when I came to the university, basically. In fact, I was a professor of the university. I wasn’t just a student some years later. I was converted to Christianity when I was in my early 30s. And that really arose because of a series of circumstances, more personal circumstances. My wife who had no Christian upbringing at all, she suddenly decided or discovered for herself her own faith and challenged me about that. And I was challenged because I thought I knew about this Christian faith, and that I’d rejected it basically or I wasn’t hostile to it. I just thought that it was of no particular relevance to my life. And my wife had decided the opposite was true, and that led us to be at odds for a while there. And then anyway, one day she said to me, and she’d never spoke to me like this in 12 years of marriage, she said, well, she’s the one taking our sons to church. “I’m going to church with them and I’m going to raise them as Christians, and you can do what you like.” I thought, “No, no, no, no.” Faced with that fork in the road, I knew that my responsibility was to my wife and family. So after some angry words, I have to say with shame, I did say, “All right, well, if that’s the case, then we will go to church but I want us to go to a church that I’m familiar with, and not something else.” And so I agreed to go to an Anglican Church, because I had gone to an Anglican school and I knew the Anglican Church was harmless. And so we went along to the harmless Anglican Church and they’re in sort of succession, firstly, the vicar and then another gentleman who turned out to be another professor of the university. Both turned out to be obviously Christians but also professional economists. So in quick succession, God brought into my life two men, who it was impossible for me to say that they were fools, they weren’t deluded or the usual sorts of excuses. I couldn’t say that, Brendan, because they were my professional colleagues and I admired them. Yes, I knew where they’d come from, what they’d done. They were clearly not fools and yet they had taken on for themselves this strange faith. And so that led me on a journey as they were challenging me and I was challenging them. The man who was the vicar of the church we were going to said, “Would I meet with him to talk about it?” I said, “Of course.” He said, “Well, if you got a Bible?” I said, “I do.” He said, “Well, get it and open up to what’s called the Gospel of Mark, and you’ll find it towards the end.” He said, “Read it. Read the first two chapters and I’ll come to you Tuesday night, and you can ask me any question you like.” And I said, “Okay, I’ll do that.” So I asked him all sorts of questions. And the thing that most impressed me during that process, Brendan, was when he would say to me, “That’s a very good question. And I don’t know the answer to that.” And I would say, “You mean to tell me you don’t know the answer to this, and yet you still believe it to be true.” And he said, “Yeah, that’s right.” And I said, “Well, how does that work?” He said, “Oh.” He said, “I reckon there are lots of things that you believe to be true, that you don’t understand.” And I thought, “You got me there.”

Brendan Corr
You could concede the truth of that.

Ian Harper
Absolutely. Well, starting with commonplace things like electricity or how various things work. I trust them. I have faith in them. Can I really explain how they operate? Well, there’s computer. I trust it, I have faith in it, do I understand how it works? No. So he was right about that and I thought, “Yeah, yeah. victar.” At the end of that process, we read through the Gospel of Mark and then he said, “Well, what do you think?” I said, “Well,” I said, “To tell you the truth, I don’t really know.” He said, “Is that all?” And I said, “Well, no. I’ll tell you this, I don’t think it’s made up.” And he said, “Really? Why not?” And I said, “Well, if you’re trying to make this up to trick people, I don’t believe you put all sorts of things in there in particular Gospel of Mark, Jesus chastising his disciples saying things like, “How long do I have to be with you?” And all sorts of things. You wouldn’t put that in there.

Brendan Corr
It was too authentic.

Ian Harper
That’s right. He said, “Good. So. So?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know.” He said, “Okay, so you need to do one more thing for me.” And I said, “What thing?” He said, “Meet me in town.” So we went to a bookshop. It doesn’t exist anymore, but it was the bookshop for a theological college, which I happen to now to be a board member. Anyway, we met there. I said, “What’s this?” He says. “This is a theological college and this is a bookshop.” Well, I was an academic, Brendan, I was used to the world of books and ideas. I walked into that shop and I thought, “Oh my goodness, I have underestimated this. I have sold this very, very short.” So he said, “Come over here,” and he said, “Now listen, this is the apologetic section.” I said, “What’s that?” “This is where people ask all sorts of questions that you’ve been asking, and they give answers to defend the faith.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Yeah.” He said, “yeah here’s one” and pulled one off the shelf. He said, “Look at this.” I looked down and I had all the arguments I’ve been putting to him. He looked at me and he said, “You weren’t the first one to think of these things, were you?” Anyway, I say, “When was this written?” He says, “About 400 years ago. Thanks very much.” Anyway, he said, “I wanted to buy you a book”. I said “what’s that?” He said “this is called a commentary. I’m going to buy you this commentary on Mark. All the questions you were asking me, to me those questions are discussed in this book.” I said, “What? Are there answers there?” He said, “No, no. The answers aren’t there.” He said, “But people have wrestled with the same questions. And this book will tell you about different views people have about different aspects.” And Brendan I realised that, one, I was dealing with an intelligent man. Secondly, he was introducing me to a whole world that I had sold short. And I was deeply ashamed to tell you the truth, as a man who saw himself as an intellectual, that I had basically written off Christianity as a waste of time and as a sort of childish superstition.

Ian Harper
I felt ashamed because I had simply failed to think about it. Anyway, I went off and then the next Sunday we were in church, might have been a couple of Sundays afterwards. And I was sitting in the church. It was Christmas Day actually. And this friend of mine had just given a lovely sermon on: Jesus: Prophet, Priest & King, and he called then for people to come up for communion. I hadn’t been taking communion because I didn’t believe. I was sitting there in the church, I knew people were piling up to go forward to take communion. I thought to myself, “What do you know? It’s actually true.”

Brendan Corr
There it is.

Ian Harper
So I got up and I took communion. Anyway, he came along to give me my communion. He looked at me and gave me my communion. And then after the service, he came straight down and he said to me, “You took communion today.” I said, “That’s right.” He says, “Why?” And I said, “Because it’s true.”

Brendan Corr
There it is.

Ian Harper
He gave me a great big hug and I was in the kingdom, Brother.

Brendan Corr
There it is. That is a wonderful story. A long process of … Would you describe that it was being convinced or was it having your questions answered? Or was it something other than that?

Ian Harper
Well, no. Certainly not much questions answered, but questions treated serious.

Brendan Corr
Yeah, right.

Ian Harper
And giving me enough reason to believe. As you well know, that the distinction, no one can prove the Christian faith in the way that you can prove a mathematical proof. That not what you’re asked. And Jesus Himself, He doesn’t ask us to do that. He asks us to have faith and to belief that we have, as Paul reminds us, that is itself divine. So at some point, you made that leap. Thanks be to God, basically. It’s thanks to Him and the Holy Spirit that we actually make that. I wouldn’t want to compare myself with C.S Lewis for a moment, but in that sense, he got into the sidecar on his motorbike, in Oxford as he says not a Christian and got out of the sidecar in London a Christian. Well, I went to that church on a Christmas morning not a Christian, and I came home from church that day a Christian.

Brendan Corr
Yeah, a believer.

Ian Harper
Exactly. So what is it? Well it’s the action of the Holy Spirit that quickens your heart, a strange quickening is Wesley said, and God prepares the ground. Importantly, of course, like the Hound of Heaven, he keeps on your case.

Brendan Corr
He sees you, yes.

Ian Harper
And He knows exactly what it is that’s going to get to you. So in my case, bringing in two of my professional colleagues whom I could not dismiss as delusional. It was as if He was saying to me. “Here, see what you make of that, get out of that.” And of course I couldn’t, but neither of them did “convinced me,” and neither of them would say they had convinced me. What they did was to show me that you could be a man of intelligence and integrity, and a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. And that essentially what I like to think I am, someone who has intelligence by God’s grace, some integrity by God’s grace. And again by God’s grace, a believer on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Brendan Corr
So let me ask you this Professor, as a man of undoubted intellectual capacity and interest proven by your academic success before you became a Christian, have you found Christianity intellectually satisfying? Is it something that…

Ian Harper
Well, it’s a very deep pond. You know well, Brendan, that you can spend a lifetime as many Christians have done in ages, wrestling with all the depths, and the riches and the height and the depth, as Paul describes of the gospel, on the riches of faith. I’ve faced the decision early in my Christian walk as to whether I’d take my intellect as it is, and use that to become a theologian or to become an ordained minister and I didn’t feel God calling me that way. There were no doors that were opening or more to the point doors weren’t closing for me in my other profession. And so I decided under God that… Well I said, “Look, if you want not to go that way, then close the door.” And it wasn’t closed, so my calling is to continue being an economist, and do the best I can in the light of my Christian faith, all I’m called to do. That’s what I believe. But can I get intellectually stimulated and challenged by the depth and riches of the Christian gospel and the scriptures? Well, you know the answer to that, Brendan. It is without a bottom mate.

Brendan Corr
I love the way you’re describing the understanding you have about your current role that you … without actually articulating in this way, you’ve described your current opportunities to serve as God’s work. Is that a fair way for us to understand your work?

Ian Harper
Yeah, absolutely. And as an economist, I often quote Jeremiah 29:7, that we should pray for the welfare of the city or we should seek the welfare of the city. He was talking about the city to which the Israelites had been sent into exile. Of course, now that since we’re in exile as you well know from the Holy City, but to seek the welfare of the city into which I’ve sent you and to pray for it, because in its welfare you will find your welfare, says Jeremiah or says God through Jeremiah in 29:7. And that’s what economists do. We think about the city basically as our material life, our circumstances, our economy, then feeding the welfare of that city, making that work. The people’s welfare is the sort of mundane role that economists have, and that is a Godly role. Nothing about saving people’s souls I might add, an individual Christian practitioner, of course, you’re called as all believers are to share the word, and well, love others as you love yourself and love God, of course. You’re called to do that at the very least, but the particular calling is about that. And the caring profession as much as doctors and nurses, and teachers, and others who are called in a similar way, to use your expertise in this world to serve people in that capacity, but in doing so, well, you try to be the Lord Jesus to people. And Jesus wasn’t any friend of poverty, that’s for sure. And good economics is about, amongst other things relieving poverty and material distress.

Brendan Corr
Getting a little bit more philosophical and going back to some of the points we were discussing earlier, many people would see the field of economics as being associated with the management of power structures, of who has and who hasn’t control, or opportunity or resources. Where do you understand that view of economic leverage in the terms of serving a nation? Is this overlay of power struggle, that many people read into an economic programme or an economic philosophy?

Ian Harper
Well, great question as there are many dimensions to that question. Brendan, money is power, resources, command over resources confers power in this world. And one of the things that a Christian finds him or herself doing, and just as an aside here, it’s unsurprising that in many of these senior roles in public institutions that I have to deal with these questions, you will find Christians serving in those places. One of the things that a Christian finds him or herself doing, is trying to mediate that power for the benefit of the people, of ordinary people. Because the power itself can be used to aggrandize individuals at other people’s expense. And one of the things that economics tries to do, well, firstly is to study how the exercise of that power is conferred by particular types of economic arrangements. And so economists have quite a bit to say about what’s called market power, which is the power of monopolies or cartels to make themselves richer, at the expense of their customers or their workers. Governments can accumulate and exercise power through taxation or regulation, granting favours, establishing prohibitions and such like. Now all of those things can be used for ill, as well as for good. And an economist as scientist tries to understand and see which parts of these structures confer power and how, to understand that. And then the economist who in particular is a Christian, but even if he or she isn’t a Christian has some sense of decency and right or wrong, tries to ensure that the structures that are created use that power for good and not for evil. And, Brendan, as we record this podcast, you and your listeners will know that governments are using power, well, in ways we’ve not seen since the Second World War or possibly even earlier, to intervene in economic decisions ideally to preserve people’s economic welfare in the face of quite significant challenges. So economists are involved, my colleagues and I to some extent, but my colleagues are involved in designing those interventions, advocating for some things and not others, and trying to be on the lookout on the guard against the exercise of power, which would actually bring people low rather than bring them up in these conditions. That may be a bit abstract for you, but that’s how I think about your question.

Brendan Corr
Yeah. That’s a very good answer. I think what I’m hearing you describe is there … I know there’ll be some Christians who would say that a Christian view of the economy should be totally free market, and it should be therefore … Another view would be that it should be totally regulating. What I’m hearing is that, you need the wisdom to respond with either of those positions depending on what’s on, for the good of the nation, for the good of the people of the nation.

Ian Harper
Exactly right, Brendan, that there’s a historical context to these things, there are objectives that you’re trying to achieve. And in some cases using market processes, which are essentially, free people can make up their own minds, whether they want to do X or Y. Sometimes that’s an appropriate response and other times you’ve got to switch that off, and you have to use a much more directive approach in economic matters for the sake of people’s livelihoods, for the sake of giving them their daily bread, to be frank. And one of the exciting things about economics, is that it gives us a whole raft of tools, many of which we’re calling on right at this minute to be able to use to alleviate hardship. We’re still in the midst of the experience we’re going through with COVID-19. But most of my colleagues at this stage anyway, are not predicting that it will be as deep an economic disaster as the 1930s Great Depression was, let alone the 1890s Great Depression in this country, which I assume many of your students simply never heard of, was a desperately serious downturn, very, very bad. At a time when there was no federal government. There was no central bank. There was no monetary policy, there was no tax policy. So we weathered the Great Depression of the 1890s without any of those safety lines, safeguards, and it was a desperately bad situation. Now this time for all the seriousness, we have lots of weapons at our disposal and we are using them, as you probably are aware, and much of that is a result of, in the meantime, well 100 years worth of writing and thinking about economics, and what actually works and doesn’t work in particular circumstances. And thank goodness we have those weapons we can wage war with on this occasion.

Brendan Corr
Another question, if you don’t mind, about how you understand your faith position in the work that you do, are you ever concerned that society at large and individuals in that society, are tending to look more to government or to the institution of society as their point of salvation, their point of provision, than they might be to other sources, friends, church, family, God? Is that ever an issue for you guys?

Ian Harper
Well, I think every believer, Brendan, every Christian who loves the Lord Jesus is at some level of pain, when he or she sees other people whom Jesus loves and for whom the gospel is an open invitation, turning and seeking, putting their trust in princes as the Bible says. The Bible says not to do, of course. Putting their trust in princes, putting their trust in everywhere else. We know as believers that that’s building a house on the sand, not on the rock, and it’s something that every Christian in ways that a call he or she is called to, in particular circumstance to gently point out to people that there’s another a way in the right circumstances. Yes, it is a troubling thing when people look to other systems to save them rather than the gospel. Now, having said that, there’s no Christians council, the advice that is to say is not, “Well, forget about going to the doctor if you’re sick, God will look after you or forget about taking other precautions, God will look after you.” You know that that’s a presumption. That isn’t faith. And God works through the institutions of our society to bring about welfare and health. And that’s how come God works through economists, and doctors and others.

Brendan Corr
That’s good.

Ian Harper
The question is this, Brendan, do people regard that as God or they regard that is something that God has provided to them, to give their welfare. And that’s the difference. If you worship these things, that’s when you’re on the wrong trend.

Brendan Corr
Yeah, very good. One last question, Professor, if you don’t mind, in the role that you fill in almost nearly every area of your life I suspect, you will have your critics. Those that think you should have made a different decision or taken a different action. Some of those criticisms are very vocal and can be harsh. How have you lived with the criticism that comes to the work that you do, when you’ve done it in such good faith?

Ian Harper
Well, thank you. I respect other people’s points of view as far as I possibly can, Brendan, and I don’t regard myself as having a monopoly on the truth. That is why I made a point about teams earlier on. Working in teams is a great insulator against being wrong and arrogantly wrong. Of course, you want to stick to your guns, but when it’s clear that you’re on the wrong trend, so to speak, then you can be put right by your colleagues. So I don’t mind criticism. Obviously, I prefer the criticism to be directed towards the decision, towards the evidence or the argument, rather than imputing that in some way I personally am responsible or that I am a bad person. So I try as hard as possible in my own critical engagements, to separate those two things. No, play the ball and not the man, you might say in a sporting context, and it’s the same thing here. Stick to the argument. Don’t pick people off. But in the context of being a Christian in these areas, it doesn’t happen as much now or at least hasn’t for a while, as it has done in the past when people have found out that I’m a Christian, and therefore decided that’s the way they can attack me, and to make a mockery of my faith and to imply … One day a person implied that since I was a Christian, I was asked to set the minimum wage, that I would decide the minimum wage by consulting the in trails of an owel. In other words, I was some sort of superstitious fool, at least that was what I thought I was, and it was just a mockery. Another person claimed that it was unconstitutional for a Christian to be asked to set minimum wages or to sit at any public office. And that be a person is completely 180 degrees wrong, of course. The Constitution doesn’t say much about religion at all. But what it does say, in Section 116, and your students might like to go and look that up, and it’s very short, it clearly says that there shall be no religious test to hold an office of the Commonwealth. And what that means is that apart from it being unconstitutional for a Christian to be the Prime Minister, for instance, let alone on the Board of the Reserve Bank, is that it would be unconstitutional in Australia for anybody to say, “You know what? You can’t be a Prime Minister because you’re a Christian. You can’t sit on the Board of the Reserve Bank, because you’re a Christian.”

Brendan Corr
It cuts both ways. Yeah.

Ian Harper
Or a Jew, or a Muslim or whatever. That would be unconstitutional. I’m not alone and you’re not alone, and many of our students listening wouldn’t be alone in being mocked or ridiculed for their faith. I don’t like it any more than you do. All I remember, of course, is that much worse happened to the Lord Jesus Himself.

Brendan Corr
Amen.

Ian Harper
And as much as people argue, and make nasty things and say nasty words, I’m under no threat at the stage of being put up on a cross. So I just think we we’re promised as much. You stick to your guns, you pray about it, you ask for the strength. And the Holy Spirit will give you the words that are appropriate at the time.

Brendan Corr
Amen. Use the gifts that God has given you, the training and insight is provided through your life and be faithful. Professor, you’ve been incredibly generous with your time. I really want to thank you for that.

Ian Harper
Pleasure, Brendan.

Brendan Corr
It’s been an absolute privilege to hear a little of your heart, and to explore the things that are leading you as you assist in leading our nation. I’m sure that the people listening to this will have a renewed sense of needing to pray for the leaders of our country-

Ian Harper
Yes, please.

Brendan Corr
… having dispensation of God’s grace on you personally and professionally. We continue to do that. Is there any last thing you might want to leave with our listeners before we let you go?

Ian Harper
Well, I often like to say as the old prayer book says, “sursum corda” - lift up your hearts. These are difficult times we’re living through. There are lots of reasons to be despondent. But God so loved the world that He sent His only Son, so everyone who believes in Him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life. That’s our gospel. That’s our promise. Hang on to that, share that with others as they become despondent. There’s a good reason to be despondent, that’s for sure. But at the end of the day God is in control.

Brendan Corr
There is good news.

Ian Harper
There will be a good change.

Brendan Corr
Amen.

Ian Harper
Lift up your heart. It is good news. And Brendan, can I say to you and your professional colleagues, thank you for the work that you do as teachers. Your dedication and commitment, bless you all. And to the students who are studying and perhaps listening to this podcast, very best wishes and God’s love from me to you in all that lies ahead. Every blessing.

Brendan Corr
Thank you, Professor Harper. The Lord be with you.

Ian Harper
And also with you. Thanks Brendan.

About Ian Harper

Ian Harper is the Dean of Melbourne Business School at The University of Melbourne and also Co-Dean of the University’s Faculty of Business and Economics. In 2016 he was appointed to the Board of the Reserve Bank. Ian was a Partner of Deloitte Access Economics from 2011 to 2016 and from March 2014 to March 2015 chaired the Australian Government's Competition Policy Review. He authored “Economics for Life”, which won the Australian Christian Book of the Year Award, and “Confessions of a Meddlesome Economist”. Ian’s career has spanned academe, government and business.

Photo of Brendan Corr

About Brendan Corr

Originally a Secondary Science Teacher, Brendan is a graduate of UTS, Deakin and Regent College, Canada. While Deputy Principal at Pacific Hills for 12 years, Brendan also led the NSW Christian Schools Australia registration system. Brendan’s faith is grounded in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and a deep knowledge of God’s Word. Married for over 30 years, Brendan and Kim have 4 adult children. On the weekends, Brendan enjoys cycling (but he enjoys coffee with his mates afterwards slightly more).