Saturday, December 02, 2017

The two of us: Geoff and Tim Harcourt

"Airport economist" Tim Harcourt, 52, teaches at the University of NSW alongside his dad, leading economic theorist Geoff Harcourt, 86, whose influence accounts for his politics – if not their shared profession.

GEOFF: Tim was an extraordinarily happy baby, until he was one and a half. He got measles on the boat back from the United Kingdom. I had been at Cambridge for 18 months on leave from the University of Adelaide, lecturing and refining the ideas of John Maynard Keynes. When we came back he was miserable, pining for his old home. In the UK, we'd had this little Ford Prefect. In Adelaide, whenever a Ford Prefect drove by his face just lit up. He thought he was back in Cambridge.

When he was four we all went to Japan for four months. On our return he suddenly realised he was home in Adelaide. He couldn't keep the grin off his face for a week. He is the most proudly Australian of our four children, even though he's the only one born overseas. But that insecurity has probably never gone away. He seems to be Mr Cool, Crocodile Dundee, but beneath that he is anxious.

Working at Austrade and for the trade union movement has been part of that patriotism. He has toyed with running as a Labor candidate, which isn't surprising given the meetings and rallies we have taken him to. His mother Joan, still alive, was an abortion law reformer and a Labor candidate. He featured in her campaign poster, aged three. But I don't think he should go into politics. If he wanted to I have no doubt they would take him up. He is one of the best people I know at explaining economics.

But he hates Canberra. Bill Kelty sent him there for six months in the 1990s while he was ACTU chief economist and he was miserable. He loves Sydney and his family is important to him. He has an American wife and two adopted children, one from China and the other from Taiwan. 

Tim found out my father had changed the family surname from Harkowitz to Harcourt. I knew we were Jewish, but I didn't know that. My father's parents emigrated from Transylvania and Poland in the early 1900s. My mother wanted to fit in. Only when she died did my father talk about the name to Tim. Tim took Jewishness on board, but not in a religious way. He celebrates Jewish and Christian and Buddhist festivals in keeping with his mixed family.

I don't think he wants to change the world as much as I did. He is more of a pragmatist. As Austrade's chief economist he had no real job description, so he made it up as he went along, promoting trade and economics and also promoting himself along the way. He is one of the best people I know at explaining economics.

Now at university we have coffee or lunch every day. It's like being at home.

TIM: My dad had a broken nose the day I was born, from playing cricket in Cambridge. Growing up in Adelaide, he took me to all my footy and cricket games, and took me to his. My older brother and sister missed out because of the Vietnam War. Dad was too busy with the Campaign for Peace in Vietnam. He would convene meetings at our house attended by the likes of the then South Australian Labor premier Don Dunstan and future ministers Mick Young and Neal Blewett. I'd interview them on my cassette recorder as they arrived, pretending to be Norman Gunston.

I didn't know about the danger we were in. Years later, when I was at Austrade, I got death threats after I wrote about multiculturalism and my adopted Chinese child. My dad told me to take them seriously. During the Vietnam War we had received them at all hours of the day and night. Someone tried to blow up our Holden. For a while we had police protection.

Former prime minister Bob Hawke said something about his dad that applies to my dad, that he was "kindness personified". Mine is generous, even to his enemies. He has turned several into friends. Hawke's dad was a Congregationalist minister. I reckon mine is a minister in different clothes. He could have been a rabbi.

I was shocked when I discovered our family name had been Harkowitz. My grandmother wanted to assimilate, so she sent my dad to Wesley College in Melbourne, run by Methodists. It's where he developed his love of sport. He used to say that if you played football, they thought you were only "half a Yid". He called himself the only Methodist Jew in Adelaide.

He used to help out the South Australian Trades and Labor Council in wage cases. I would go as a schoolboy and sit in the courtroom. I decided then and there that I wanted to work for the Council of Trades Unions. That's why I studied economics, not because of Dad. I went to see the president of the ACTU, Cliff Dolan, at 15. He said to work there you needed a trade or a degree in economics or law, and he said they had plenty of lawyers, so economics might be the better bet.

At university, I didn't learn much about Dad's contribution. He helped develop what is known as post-Keynesian economics. It was only in the later years when they taught me about Keynes and the work of my dad that economics made sense. It had been like learning the New Testament without the Old.

The job offer from the University of NSW came out of the blue in 2011. They wanted someone who could popularise economics, which I'd done in The Airport Economist. I am the J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics. John Nevile is one of my dad's closest colleagues. When he visits, he uses the same office as Dad, just down the corridor. For 28 years I saw Dad nearly every day, then not as much. Now, I'm blessed to get to see him whenever I'm at work in Sydney. 

In The Good Weekend