Sir Ronald East


(1899 – 1994)

“Where land is held as private property – as it is here – a farmer’s status in the community is determined more by the value of the land he owns, and what he could get if he sold it, than by the use to which the land is put.”

“With our system of land tenure, each generation pays an ever-increasing tribute to the landowner. Nearly all the benefit of mechanical invention and discovery, scientific and agricultural development, increased efficiency of labor, improved methods of business go not to the worker, employer or investor in industrial stocks, but to the investor in land. It is thus that great fortunes are made – by unearned increment.”

“For one law to protect the rights of Man, we have 100 to protect the sacred rights of property. For every war fought for liberty, 100s are fought for territory or commercial plunder.”

“To die rich is to die shamed”. These words – from a bygone age, it seems – were instilled into Ron East by his father, and this was the starry ideal which Ron was to follow in a marvellously-productive career as a servant of the public (“public servant” has been too demeaned these days). In stark contrast to today’s robber barons and economic rent-seekers, at the end of a life of great achievement Ron East had a house, a car, and $12,000 in the bank.

Lewis Ronald East was great-grandson of a pioneer South Australian colonist of 1836 and of an Irish orphan shipped from the famine, grandson of a miner who died young of miners’ tuberculosis, and son of a country-educated boy who drafted our Commonwealth Marine Law. He was a very frail baby and not expected to live so the family moved to the country (Ringwood, before it was swallowed up by Melbourne’s suburbs) for his health, and he grew up as a healthy country boy, helping with work on their few acres, and riding a horse to school.

Ron considered himself fortunate with a series of fine teachers – at Tooronga Road State School, University of Melbourne, and his first boss at the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, the chairman A. S. Kenyon. Kenyon had a tremendous influence as his friend and patron, taking him around the countryside and widening his interests and his understanding of Victoria. It gave Ron a vision of both its history and its future.

Ron was the longest serving public servant in Australia. A few of his appointments include an engineer to the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission (SR&WSC) 1922, Commissioner 1935, Chairman for 29 years from 1936-1965, and as River Murray Commissioner 1936-1965. He was responsible for increasing Victorian’s water storage capacity threefold, doubling its irrigated areas, enlarging Eildon Dam, improving and expanding flood protection and country town water supplies and sewerage. He was a planner of the Hume Dam and the Snowy Mountains project.

He was an environmentalist before that word was coined. He planned for present and future needs of Victoria, and took a leading part in drafting legislation and working for soil conservation, water-catchment protection and river improvement. He foresaw and tried to prevent problems that were hardly recognised but have now become desperate, such as salination, river pollution, waste of water, silting, loss of river flow, housing development below flood levels, and squabbling by competing interests. He later realised that he was insufficiently aware of the effects of draining swamps.

He was an enemy of greed as the ultimate cause of the waste and destruction of our natural heritage – the waste of water that results in salination and non-flowing rivers, the financial pressures on farmers that lead to overstocking and turning poor land into worse, the developers who build on unprotectable flood-risks, the importers of pests, and the greed to exploit that wants to leave nothing for our children.

Considering his upbringing, it’s no surprise that Ron was actively involved in Melbourne’s Henry George League. His work and travels enabled him to see (and be repelled by) the great private profit made from increases in land value resulting from his public works, while the cost of those works remained as heavy public debt. He also saw the land question as a spiritual concern, and wrote “Sin to my mind is the non-observance through wilfulness or ignorance of a natural law. Punishment is simply the inevitable result of the operation of the law. (The sin is) as Henry George says, that ‘civilised man has parcelled out and sold God’s Earth, the birthright of all generations, to be the sport of speculators’.

He always took work home, and took two weeks’ holiday each year, but had many other interests. He served as a local town councillor, and was active in the Methodist/Uniting Church, Rotary, the RSL (he was in the Australian Flying Corps in WW1), the Old People’s Welfare Council, and sponsored refugees and overseas students. He worked energetically against numerous injustices, and received a knighthood on his retirement from the SR&WSC.

After retirement he was active in community life, published four volumes of family history, edited the Gallipoli diary of sapper Sergeant Lawrence, taught youngsters to make model engines, and ran his own working models on the Puffing Billy railway days for local children and relatives. Until the age of 92 he was a sought-after public speaker, able to speak on anything from gumtrees to astronomy.

He believed that nobody ever died from over-work, only stress – indeed, he remained active in a wide range of public pursuits throughout his long life. He did not mind opposition; he said the minority was usually right. They don’t seem to make ’em like Ron East any more – the young today could be forgiven that such virtuous souls never really existed.

Ron East’s wonderful booklet “The Faith of an Engineer” has been reprinted as sells for a nominal $1 at our office.

[Photo is East astride the River Murray before the construction of Hume Reservoir]
Photo courtesy of State Library of Victoria