Legacy of an intellectual giant
Professor Hugh Stretton
(photo by Dean Martin,
The Advertiser) Australia has farewelled one if its finest public intellectuals and leaders, celebrated University of Adelaide alumnus Professor Hugh Stretton.
During a rich and diverse career which spanned multiple disciplines, Hugh inspired generations of students and colleagues with his measured determination for change and deep commitment to make the world a better place.
He died on 18 July 2015 at the age of 91 leaving a legacy that covered history, economics, political theory, social policy and justice, housing, urban planning, public finance and the role of governments.
Born in Melbourne in 1924, Hugh graduated with degrees in arts and law from the University of Melbourne in 1946 and was a Rhodes scholar and graduate of Princeton University.
He then taught at Balliol College, Oxford before leaving Britain in 1954 to take up an appointment as chair of the history department at the University of Adelaide. Just 29, Hugh was the youngest professor in Australia at that time.
He presided over the department’s rapid expansion during the 1950s and 1960s, shaping its teaching and research programs, and attracting historians of international stature.
In 1968 Hugh stepped down from his position to become a Reader in History so he could devote more time to writing. He was soon making a landmark contribution to the social sciences through his seminal book The Political Sciences (1969). Key later works included Ideas for Australian Cities (1970) which captured the imagination of urban policymakers and practitioners looking for insights into the complexity and richness of Australian suburban life.
He built on this theme in 1974 through the ABC’s Boyer Lectures, focusing on housing and government, and two years later was awarded The Age Book of the Year award for Capitalism, Socialism and the Environment, a book well ahead of it’s time. This was followed in 1978 by his internationally focused Urban Planning in Rich and Poor Countries.
Hugh not only wrote with great compassion and insight about suburban Australia, he also engaged in the policy process as Deputy Chair of the South Australian Housing Trust for 17 years where he was able to put his progressive ideas into practice.
In 1989 he retired from his role as Reader of History but remained active as a Research Fellow in Economics, generating important works, including Public Goods, Public Enterprise, Public Choice (1994) with Lionel Orchard and Economics: a new introduction (1999) which offered both teachers and students a pluralist alternative to commonly available economics texts.
Hugh’s exceptional career is marked by a lifetime of significant achievements – an extraordinary contribution which saw him voted one of Australia’s 10 most influential public intellectuals.
He will be remembered as one of the nation’s finest progressive polymaths, thoughtful and generous, modest and charming, witty and warm. Hugh is survived by his wife Pat and children Simon, Fabian, Tim and Sally.
"There are only a few lecturers that stand out in my mind. Hugh Stretton, without a doubt, stands above them all. Both what he had to say and how he said it was engaging. One couldn’t help but listen. With Stretton there was a complete absence of any sense of superiority. Not a condescending air to be found." Amanda Vanstone, former Federal Government minister (Extract from Pasts Present: History at Australia’s Third University, 2014)
"Over the years governments of all political persuasions have benefited from Hugh Stretton’s willingness to advise and his readiness to serve. They have also occasionally felt the full force of his commitments to a broad humanistic tradition which holds that the State exists to serve the people and not just to manage." John Bannon, former Premier of South Australia (foreword to Markets, Morals and Public Policy, 1989)
Story by Ian Williams