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Donald Richmond Horne (1921–2005)

by Tony Stephens

from Sydney Morning Herald

Donald Horne, by John Holdsworth, c.1992

Donald Horne, by John Holdsworth, c.1992

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-576

On November 11, 1975, when John Kerr dismissed Gough Whitlam, Donald Horne sent a telegram to the Governor-General: "Congratulations on beginning the destruction of the Australian monarchy. That will give you something to think about during your shameful retirement." The telegram was added to the pile marked "congratulations".

As Horne saw it, Kerr's action had proved that his own office, not to mention Australia's constitution, must be "democratised". Horne's view was that a ceremonial head of state should not possess "fanciful powers".

This and other strongly held opinions, vigorously propagated in a flood of books and articles, made Horne, who has died at 83, one of the most instantly recognisable and controversial figures of his day. According to one's point of view, he was erudite and entertaining, or infuriating.

Professor Elaine Thompson, of the University of NSW, described him as the most committed public intellectual in Australia. He had plenty to say about, and some influence on, most fields of human endeavour: political, artistic, educational, literary and commercial. The Herald's Poll of the Century in 1999 voted Horne's The Lucky Country one of the three most influential Australian books of the 20th century, together with Manning Clark's A History of Australia and Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch.

Horne was a writer, editor and academic. Despite not having an undergraduate degree, let alone a postgraduate degree (he had left the University of Sydney, where he was the editor of Honi Soit, without graduating), he became professor of political science at the University of NSW and chancellor of the University of Canberra. This lack of a degree always rather amused Horne and, although he was proud to receive three earlier honorary doctorates, he was especially delighted when, in April this year, Sydney University conferred an honorary doctorate on him.

He was chairman of the Australia Council from 1985 to 1990, chairman of Ideas Australia from 1991 to 1993, and of numerous other highly public committees. But he was, above all, a stirrer of many a possum.

He was a convinced republican long before the events of 1975 stirred him to fury. He canvassed the issue in The Lucky Country, published in 1964. This was the remarkably successful book in which Horne wrote: "Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck." He maintained he was attacking Australian leadership rather than Australian people. The phrase shed Horne's irony and took on a life of its own.

After Whitlam's sacking, Horne proclaimed the need for a new constitution. In 1992, he labelled the Queen a "foreign agent" who might act against Australia's interests.

He remained an indefatigible writer, lecturer and intellectual long after his retirement from active academic life.

Donald Richmond Horne was born in Muswellbrook, NSW, where he attended the local school. As a first-year undergraduate at Sydney University he professed himself an anarchist and refused to stand for God Save the King.

He joined the army in World War II, spending much of his service time in Darwin. Afterwards he became, briefly, a cadet in foreign affairs and then a journalist. By the time he left Sydney, in 1950, on the then traditional pilgrimage to London, he had become an Anglophile and a monarchist. In England he even fleetingly hoped to become a Conservative MP.

Instead, he returned to Sydney to edit two magazines simultaneously for Frank Packer. Packer, Kerry's father, allowed Horne to launch The Observer, a fortnightly intellectual periodical, largely as a deal for his having run successfully Weekend, which Horne called "a very foolish magazine".

He went on, in 1961, to spend the first of two periods as editor of The Bulletin. He also edited Quadrant, the journal of the right-wing Association for Cultural Freedom, in the 1960s.

Horne's work at The Bulletin is best remembered for his fight against racism and the White Australia Policy. The magazine's slogan was "Australia for the white man". Horne went to the composing room and threw the offending metal type away. This signalled, for many people, a fundamental change in the way Australia would be seen by the world.

After leaving The Bulletin the first time, Horne went into advertising and ran Bob Askin's successful 1965 campaign to become Liberal premier of NSW. After three years he was back at The Bulletin, which he edited again from '67 to '72 before going into academe.

Horne wrote more than 20 books of social history, biography and politics. The first volume of his autobiography, The Education of Young Donald, was published in 1967 and has been in print ever since. In 1998 it and its successors, Confessions of a New Boy and Portrait of an Optimist, were published in a single volume, An Interrupted Life. Other successes included God is an Englishman (1969), Money Made Us (1976) and The Lucky Country Revisited (1987).

His 1997 book, The Avenue of the Fair Go, was not as well received as many of his others but it spelled out some of his later passions, particularly for a civil society. He argued that Australia's greatest national belief had not been the Anzac legend or the bush ethos but the national anthem's ideas of golden soil and wealth for toil. The trouble was, this economic faith had gone and nothing had replaced it.

His memoir of his life from 1958 to 1999, Into the Open, published in 2000, is not a continuation of the autobiography but covers his encounters with people and events from Packer to Askin, Whitlam, B.A. Santamaria and Paul Keating, to Malcolm Turnbull and the republic issue. He commented after writing it that he had discovered only recently that "my life has been partly a problem in the management of enthusiasm".

Manning Clark called Donald Horne "a man of great moral passion". Certainly he delighted in an analysis of Australian society which exposed significant flaws, moral and otherwise. Horne put it more simply: "I have been addicted to keeping the conversation going."

In a radio interview with Phillip Adams on Late Night Live in May, breathing with the help of an oxygen tank, he said: "I have stopped being angered, by anything." He was, instead, deeply moved as he spoke of the loss of all the young Australian lives in two world wars. The sound of the 83-year-old Horne weeping for his fellows was a most eloquent part of the conversation.

Horne is survived by his wife, Myfanwy, and their children, Nicholas and Julia.

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Citation details

Tony Stephens, 'Horne, Donald Richmond (1921–2005)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 July 2024.

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