Donald Horne

Donald Horne

I feel guilty; and more than tad ignorant. I’m blaming both ‘The Scone Literary Long Week End’; and Phillip Adams. The latter is difficult to better. He reminded me and others ‘in conversation with Peter Fitzsimons’ that Donald Horne was one of the greatest writers to emerge from the Upper Hunter. I ‘Googled’. He was right; as he invariably is. Donald Horne was born in Kogarah; like Clive James. It must be the water? Young Donald was raised in Muswellbrook where his parents were teachers. It’s a common scenario. We’ll claim him anyway! There MUST have been some osmotic influence; at least from the school. Muswellbrook High School also spawned Stephen Gageler AC High Court of Australia. It’s good water in the Hunter as well.

I’m indebted to ‘The Australian’ for the following and duly acknowledge the source.

Donald Horne: The Thinking Person’s Guide to National Identity

For a half-century, Donald Horne held up a mirror to Australia and asked us to ponder difficult questions about our political leadership, our economy and society, and our culture. He was driven to probe and to challenge us about who we are and what kind of country and people we wanted to be.

Horne’s seminal book, The Lucky Country, published in 1964, had a galvanising impact. It was not a paean to our good fortune or greatness but a damning assessment of a country adrift, derivative and resting on its laurels. The title is often quoted but the meaning is frequently forgotten.

“Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck,” Horne wrote. “It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”

He also examined his own trajectory as a journalist, editor, academic, public servant and activist. Horne’s The Education of Young Donald (1967) is a classic. His Into the Open (2000) and his memoir of dying, published posthumously in 2007, are superb books. I read The Lucky Country in high school and picked up the others when I went to university, which then opened up a dozen more of his books.

In the last years of his life I was privileged to see Horne on a regular basis. We were members of the NSW government’s centenary of Federation committee from 1997 to 2001. These meetings were like attending a Horne lecture where he gave full expression to his ideas about democracy, citizenship, leadership, culture and history. I told him I had read The Coming Republic (1992) and he encouraged me to pick up Ideas for a Nation (1989). We talked about The Avenue of the Fair Go (1997), which was an imaginative examination of political concepts, ideology and history. I could not put down his Looking for Leadership (2000), although in hindsight he was too hard on John Howard, the great survivor.

In the sidelines of committee meetings, over lunch and coffee, or even in the lift, I would pepper him with questions. Horne treated me like a student. He was then an emeritus professor at the Univer­sity of NSW. Previously he had been chancellor of the University of Canberra, even though he had never earned a degree.

At this time, Horne was interested in the concept of citizenship. We like to honour sporting stars, bushrangers and horses but we do not celebrate our civic culture like other nations. A stronger civic identity would emphasise that politics is not just about politicians but about how we relate to the state and to each other. He explored the idea of a civic compact. It would be a commitment that citizens would pledge to maintaining the rule of law and upholding representative democracy with freedom, fairness, inclusiveness, res­pect and wellbeing highlighted.

Horne’s critical verdict in The Lucky Country — which he wrote in six weeks while working in advertising — would be challenged by leaders who turned Australia in a new direction. Gough Whitlam was the great change-maker (1972-75) but the pivot, Horne argued, began with Harold Holt (1966-67), John Gorton (1968-71) and, to a degree, Billy McMahon (1971-72). Horne documented this in his book, A Time of Hope (1980).

After Whitlam’s dismissal, Horne became a leading republican. He always complained that The Lucky Country had been misconstrued and misappropriated. It was meant to be ironic. But he employed it to elevate his critique of the dismissal in Death of the Lucky Country (1976).

In 1995, Horne wrote an article called “Age of the giants”. He named four political leaders who had evoked “the spirit of their times” and defined an era: Robert Menzies, Whitlam, Alfred Deakin and Billy Hughes. The latter continued to intrigue Horne; the only biography he wrote was In Search of Billy Hughes (1979). Horne was an unreconstructed Whitlamite and had little time for Bob Hawke or Paul Keating, let alone Howard.

I recall him talking about how he removed “Australia for the White Man” from the masthead of The Bulletin while he was editor in the 1960s. He reminisced about writing for The Daily Telegraph, teaching political science and running the Australia Council in the 80s. He thought the creative energies of artists, academics and writers could be harnessed by a hum­anities foundation that would en­courage all Australians to have an active intellectual life of their own.

Horne disliked the description public intellectual but he came to fulfil this role like few others. He had an inquiring mind that constantly threw up questions that demanded answers. He had original ideas and informed opinions that he expressed prodigiously. He was always writing books and articles, giving lectures or being interviewed on radio or television.

In the splendid book Donald Horne: Selected Writings (La Trobe University Press), edited by his son, Nick, we can rediscover what Horne taught us about ourselves and our country, and lament that he is no longer able to guide us through these tumultuous times.