Hugh Stretton – one of the greatest social scientists and public intellectuals Australia has produced – passed away in late July after a long illness. His legacy is vast as a thinker, writer, activist, advisor, teacher, mentor, and friend. Those of us who had the honour of his advice and support can only marvel at the way in which Hugh balanced his great mind, deep knowledge, and engagement across a very wide intellectual terrain, with human capacities to connect with others at all levels with an inner calm, wisdom, kindness, humility, and self-deprecation.
Hugh’s life was from the outset one of high achievement. After, as he put it, “a happy childhood down the bay from Melbourne” and success at Melbourne University interrupted by war service, he won a Rhodes scholarship to study history at Oxford. There, his achievements saw his appointment in his early 20s as a tutor in modern history at Balliol College prior to the award of his Oxford degree. He was then, at the age of 30 in 1954, appointed Professor of History at the University of Adelaide, the youngest professor in an Australian university at the time.
Over the next 15 years, he presided over the establishment of a history department whose members would go onto play central roles in reshaping historical scholarship in Australia and beyond.
In 1968, he stepped down from his professorship to a readership at the University of Adelaide to concentrate on research and writing. The high achievement continued. From the late 1960s to the mid 2000s, he published seminal books and essays, and delivered public lectures in what is perhaps the most impressive output of any Australian social scientist of his generation.
The Political Sciences (1969) challenged the growth of positivism and abstraction in political, social, and economic understanding. The book promoted a view of the social sciences as inherently values-based, moral, and practical in nature. It was widely influential locally and internationally.
Perhaps best known is his work on cities and housing. His self-published Ideas for Australian Cities (1970) offered powerful histories of city planning in Australia, while developing the idea that the good city is of human scale needing urban planning concerned with its social, distributional, and equity impacts. His 1974 Boyer Lectures Housing & Government put the case for improved recognition of the productive economic and social activity enabled by good housing (the “domestic economy”, as Stretton put it), and the virtues of a mixed private and public housing system. He defended the need for national housing policy to address new market and public failures then on the horizon. Urban Planning in Rich & Poor Countries (1978) distilled insights from rival theories about cities and trends in urban planning across the world in what was described by one reviewer as “like one of those rare miniatures that reveal more sheer skill than many a famed old master”.
The future of social democracy and the attack it has faced from economic rationalism and neoliberalism were other foci of Stretton’s work. Capitalism, Socialism & the Environment (1976) deployed many of the ideas of his earlier work about values, choices, and the “imagination of alternatives”. The book offered a powerful analysis of the options and possibilities for democratic socialist reform in capitalist democracies taking heed of new problems of inflation, economic inequality, and environmental limits. Neal Blewett described the book as “a classic both of, and for, our times”. Political Essays (1987) brought together many of Stretton’s short writings on business and government, housing, public service, and the nature of the social sciences assembled against the rising tide of economic rationalist change in Australian politics and public policy.
Public Goods, Public Enterprise, Public Choice (1994, co-authored with Lionel Orchard) developed a critique of public choice theory, by then an influential stream of neo-liberal anti-government thinking. It reminded readers about the virtues of the mixed economy balancing private markets with public enterprise, and provided insight into the nature of politics and governing, gleaned from other traditions of non-reductive political thought.
What some saw as the product of a lifetime of reflection, Stretton’s magnum opus Economics: A New Introduction (1999) offered a comprehensive new curriculum for teaching economics based on his views about value-based social science, this time expressed through a comprehensive defence of an “institutional” view of the modern mixed economy.
His last book Australia Fair (2005) presented a social democratic manifesto, taking heed of many new economic, social, and environmental problems facing Australian society, and proposing ideas about how to manage them equitably and fairly. For him, improved active government was and is central to that task.
Alongside his academic work, Hugh Stretton was widely admired as an activist and advocate. He was also much sought after as an advisor across the political spectrum. Much of his engagement was focused on where he lived much of his life – Adelaide and South Australia – but his voice was strong on the national stage. He served as Deputy Chairperson of the SA Housing Trust from 1973 to 1989, and on planning bodies, particularly in the City of Adelaide. Some of his most engaging writing on public issues appeared in a diverse range of media outlets, perhaps most prominently Christopher Pearson’s Adelaide Review.
Reflecting his open and practical disposition, Stretton was involved in and often led policy experiments and initiatives, particularly in urban and housing policy. The Ramsay Trust engaged him in the 1980s, a venture to marshal savings into a new kind of capital-indexed structure for housing finance. He was proud of documents he wrote or contributed to in the 1970s, which led to the establishment of the Noarlunga Centre in Adelaide’s southern suburbs and the preservation of old housing fabric in Hackney, an inner Adelaide suburb threatened with redevelopment.
As an engaged public intellectual, Stretton took his role as critic seriously and responsibly when the need arose on many local and national issues. Mainstream economists and politicians in their thrall took exception to Stretton’s thinking throughout his career – from those critical of his Boyer Lectures, to those critical of his views about positivism and the winding back of social democratic governing in Australia in the 1980s, to Paul Keating’s attack on his Political Essays in 1987. Stretton always engaged critics with respectful, reasoned responses.
Through all this high level intellectual and policy work, Hugh was also widely admired as a gifted teacher and mentor. I speak with firsthand experience of his skill and generosity on these fronts. As with many others, Hugh went out of his way as supervisor of my PhD research to guide and support me intellectually and personally in his unobtrusive but firm way. In these respects, I was very fortunate.
No man is an island, and this is true for Hugh Stretton. Testament to that is the wide group of intellectuals who were his friends and advisors. In the Australian context, he was an original. He belongs, however, in the company of other giants on the international stage. Some suggested after the publication of his early books that he was the “nearest thing to an Australian J K Galbraith”. Indeed, like Galbraith, his work echoes and connects with the work of social scientists and philosophers – Albert Hirschman, Martha Nussbaum and Charles Taylor among others – struggling to maintain and hold to a liberal, social democratic, pluralist centre in the face of the limits of the positivist mainstream, relentless economic and social change, and post-modern pressure to abandon any such ambition. The task we face is to draw on Hugh Stretton’s legacy in this spirit.