Thursday, 13 May 2010
Sir Laurence Macdonald Muir VRD, FSIA, FAIM
I rise tonight to acknowledge the passing of an Australian who may not exactly be a household name but whose mark on many Australians has been very significant. In particular, his mark on the city of Canberra is very heavy indeed.
The person I refer to is Sir Laurence Macdonald Muir, who died on 21 April this year, a man who played a notable part in the development of Canberra, particularly the Canberra business sector and many of its national institutions, including, incidentally, the building in which we now sit. The Canberra Times in November 1979 in fact described him as, ‘The man to be considered the shaper of Canberra’s future’.
He was born in Yallourn, Victoria in 1925. He later indicated that his parents were ‘migrant battlers’ who sacrificed much to give him and his three siblings a good education. That education was gained at Scotch College, where he was obviously showed talent, being made school captain in 1942. Like many other young Australians at the time, he served for four years in the Royal Australian Navy. He gained a law degree at Melbourne University and was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1950.
Having worked for a firm of stockbrokers during university vacations, he was offered a position with the firm on the day of his admission. It is perhaps a reflection of his practical business sense that he weighed up the security of the underwriting firm against the ‘insecurity but glowing prospects of the bar’. He opted for the security of underwriting. For the next 30 years he was a leading sharebroker, specialising in underwriting major capital raising for large Australian companies. It was this specialised knowledge and background that in fact proved very helpful in the development of Canberra’s business potential.
He had a number of major goals that he set himself throughout his life, some of which will have touched people in this place. For example, in the mid-seventies he was challenged by Sister Fabian, the then head of the Sisters of Charity at St Vincent’s, to raise $13 million to build St Vincent’s Private Hospital. Urged on by the sister, who used the phrase, ‘God will find a way, Mr Muir,’ the goal was achieved by persuading the state government to provide a government guarantee, thereby making the loan a 30-20 semi-governmental, which the institutions were happy to subscribe to at a rate the hospital could handle. The hospital was indeed built.
In the seventies he chaired a two-day conference of independent school headmasters and Catholic school representatives, resulting in the formation of the National Council of Independent Schools. In 1980 he chaired a two-day conference in Canberra involving federal ministers, opposition spokespeople, trade union leaders, Treasury officials, academics and 40 business leaders. The agenda explored the need for a business roundtable to be available for consultation with the government, and the result was the Australian Business Council, formed about 20 months later.
He was a man who set himself plenty of challenges and met, it seems, every one of them. In October 1979 the then Mr Muir established the Canberra Development Board for the federal government and as its chairman for eight years he was responsible for stimulating the private sector growth of the ACT economy. During this time he assisted the government in attracting and staging the IAAF World Cup in athletics in Canberra.
Described as an instinctive lateral thinker, he said that his work satisfaction came from ‘creating something that was not there before’. That certainly seems to have been the case in relation to his role in developing the private sector of the ACT. Although he was based in Melbourne, Sir Laurence was a staunch advocate for and promoter of private enterprise development in Canberra. He felt that ‘what is good for the capital is good for Australia,’ and that ‘Australians who did not live in Canberra should nevertheless feel a sense of belonging and a sense of pride in their national capital’—never a truer word was spoken.
In those days, Sir Laurence indicated that one of Canberra’s major disadvantages was its economic dependence on the public sector. He was reported in the Canberra Times as saying, ‘If the ratio in Australia at that time was 30 per cent public sector to 70 per cent private sector, Canberra was almost exactly the other way’. While we have not yet got a complete reversal of that percentage to 70 per cent private and 30 per cent public in the ACT we have come a very long way down that path, thanks in large part to the Canberra Development Board of which Sir Laurence Muir was a long time chair. It is interesting to note with current comments about population sustainability that he forecast a population for Canberra one day of 750,000 people.
I mentioned that he was a member of the Parliament House Construction Authority, and he was for many years the chairman of the Artworks Advisory Committee of that establishment. As a result he was a person very largely responsible for the development of the very fine collection of mainly 20th century art, which is a feature of this building and which I am sure every member of this place enjoys samples of in his or her suite.
Between 1981 and his death, Sir Laurie, as he was known to many people, served on a range of eminent boards. He served, for example, on the Council of the Australian National University and was the inaugural chair of the Canberra Development Board. He worked in 1986 with Sir Ian McLennan and Mr Baillieu Myer and the Minister for Science at the time, the Hon. Barry Jones, to establish the National Science and Technology Centre, now called Questacon. In 1988 the centre was built in the Parliamentary Triangle, enabling science to take its place with the arts and the law. The Board of the National Science and Technology Centre was asked by the government to take hands-on science to every part of Australia, an important task for the development of scientific endeavour and learning in Australia. Certainly, that role was amply achieved. He also worked with Professor Michael Gore, the CEO of Questacon, to develop corporate sponsorship, which was very successful.
Sir Laurie came into contact with many amazing people during his life and he wrote of some of them, including such people as Sir Reginald Ansett, Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop and Lyn Swinburne, in his book Some Inspirational People. In the foreword to that book he wrote:
They are all great achievers who have enriched my life and the lives of others. It has been a privilege to share experiences with each of them and to watch them succeed.
They have much in common; in particular they are linked by qualities of dedication and passion.
Hopefully their stories will help to inspire others and in particular will be of interest to young Australians.
Ironically, the words used by Sir Laurence Muir about other people could well describe him. He dedicated himself passionately to many important things and succeeded in providing a great many institutions and other facilities still enjoyed today by the people of Canberra and Australia. I trust that the young people of Canberra and indeed Australia will note his achievements with pride and thanks and today, with his passing, pay tribute to the benefits that he has conferred on them.