Hugh Stretton: a great Australian public intellectual

Last month we lost a great Australian public intellectual – historian and polymath, Hugh Stretton.

Spellbinding clarity of thought and a beautiful turn of phrase, argument stripped of dogma and enriched by great narrative – Hugh Stretton inspired us through his rich and textured writing, his lectures and talks and most importantly through his actions. Hugh was deeply engaged in academic and public life, testing out ideas, looking for opportunities to make a difference, sparring with policymakers and colleagues. In Hugh we witnessed great authenticity and determination for change –grounded in a deep commitment to making the world a better place, to tackling inequality and disadvantage. “We should be doing whatever we can, by old and new means that fit our changing historical conditions, to leave Australia fairer than we found it.” Hugh Stretton, Australia Fair, 2005 Like so many of my generation, Hugh had a profound influence on me as a young writer. He helped me to better understand the inextricable links between the political and the economic in our lives, how power, privilege and deprivation are created and recreated and how we, through an understanding of history, might strive for a fairer and more compassionate world. Hugh Stretton was one of Australia’s most influential social theorists. His lucid writing and engagement in policy processes helped to inform urban, economic and housing policies over many decades, always with a view to improving well-being, minimising conflicts between economic and natural systems and reducing disadvantage and hardship. He completed his undergraduate education in Arts/Law at Melbourne University in 1946. A Rhodes Scholar, and graduate of Princeton University, he went on to teach at Balliol College, Oxford. He left Britain in 1954 to take up an appointment at the University of Adelaide as chair of the History Department. Hugh made a landmark contribution to the social sciences early in his career through his seminal book The Political Sciences (1969) and played a key role in establishing the University of Adelaide as a leading centre for teaching and research in history. Key later works included Ideas for Australian Cities (1970), which had a profound impact on urban and housing policy debates in Australia and beyond. He built on this theme in 1974 through the ABC’s Boyer Lectures focusing on housing and government. In 1976 Hugh was awarded the Age Book of the Year award for a book that was well ahead of its time, Capitalism, Socialism and the Environment. This was followed in 1978 by his internationally focused Urban Planning in Rich and Poor Countries. While Hugh retired from his role as Reader of History in 1989, he 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 of economics a pluralist alternative to commonly available texts. Hugh was voted one of Australia’s 10 most influential public intellectuals. Throughout his life, Hugh was actively involved in Australian urban and housing policy development, particularly through his role as Deputy Chair of the Housing Trust of South Australia for 17 years. In his retirement, policymakers and politicians would often meet with him to test out their ideas and seek advice. Hugh’s contributions will live on through the Stretton Centre, located in Adelaide’s fast growing northern suburbs. The Centre is a focal point for research, policy development and action on sustainable cities and the industries and jobs of the future. It brings together researchers, industry, government and the community around projects that help build more sustainable places in which to live, work and play. The official opening of the Centre will be at the end of September. We remember Hugh Stretton as one of the nation’s finest progressive public intellectuals, thoughtful and generous, modest and charming, witty and warm.     Associate Professor John Spoehr is the Executive Director of the Australian Workplace Innovation and Social Research Centre at the University of Adelaide @johnspoehr