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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Hughes, Helen (1928–2013)

by Damien Murphy

Helen Hughes, by Gary Ede, 2001

Helen Hughes, by Gary Ede, 2001

National Library of Australia, 13145681

Economist, political somersaulter and rocker of boats, Helen Hughes was born into a Jewish family in a small Bohemian town and as a child watched German tanks roll into Prague in March 1939. The family bribed an SS officer operating a profitable line in exit visas out of a lavatory in a posh Prague hotel and fled over the border, headed for Australia.

She was one of scores of children whose parents fled fascism who grew up to have an extraordinary impact on contemporary Australian life. Hughes was called Australia’s greatest female economist, an accolade earned over a lifetime of work that started in academia, shifted to development economics and then onto the World Bank before a late career move saw her become a bellwether for the crisis facing remote Aborigine and Torres Strait Islander communities as she drew a bead on Australia’s own development problems.

Like many of her generation, she embraced Marxism but drifted. Ostensibly working as a researcher in Papua New Guinea when it was still an Australian colony, she was also an activist for the Communist Party of Australia, but left in the late 1960s as the Prague Spring revealed the shadow between the idea and the action. Her old comrades still argue about her reasons for bailing out.

But one thing is patent: over the years she moved from being a committed Marxist to adopting a radical conservative position, ending her career working with the pro–free marketeers at the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS).

In post-war Australia, Melbourne was a destination point for many Jewish families leaving war-shattered Europe. But arriving with her family before war was declared, Helen Gintz was an early standout and after attending the select Mac.Robertson Girls High School, she effortlessly won a place at the University of Melbourne. In 1998 she recalled returning to Australia with a newly minted PhD from the London School of Economics in the 1950s and running hard up against a glass ceiling.

‘I owed my first academic job, at the University of NSW, to an Englishman, David Rowan, who was interested in staff quality and disinterested in gender. He saved me a lot of bother by showing me a (volunteered) reference from my master’s thesis supervisor, who informed my potential employers that my responsibilities as a mother precluded my fulfilling my responsibilities as an economics lecturer!’

She held various posts before taking a position at The Australian National University (including at the Research School of Pacific Studies) from 1963 to 1968, and then spent the next 15 years at the World Bank. Her involvement with the World Bank sat uneasily with former comrades who liked to point out it made Third World countries debt dependent, but her time in Washington impressed Foreign Minister Bill Hayden enough to appoint her Deputy Chair of the Jackson Committee, which reported on foreign aid to the Hawke Government, circa 1983.

Hughes then took up senior positions at the ANU, University of Melbourne and at the CIS.

Hughes attracted huge loyalty from her staff even though she terrified the rest of the University. Colleague Maree Tait remembered her having a real soft spot for Pacific Islander and Chinese students, and later became outraged at the corruption in their countries. ‘She had sent them home to fix that,’ Tait said. ‘Helen would make recalcitrant PhD students live with her until they had finished their thesis.’

Hughes presented the ABC Boyer Lectures in 1985, on ‘Australia in a Developing World’, and also wrote, edited or co-wrote at least 18 books.

Her final book, Lands of Shame (2007) was published by the CIS and concerned Aborigine and Torres Strait Islander homelands. It was controversial, reviewing law and order, land rights, welfare, education and health and assesses government policies. She upset many with her proposals to integrate Aborigines as full members of our market-based society.

Hughes skewered past practices in the book:

The most damaging discrimination in Australia’s history has been the exceptionalism of the last 30 years that was intended to make up for past mistreatment. It has widened the gap between indigenous and mainstream Australians in critical respects. It persuaded them, moreover, that they wanted apartheid in property rights, education and welfare rather than employment. The natural enemies of apartheid on the Left, who played such an important role in dismantling it in South Africa, have been the principal defenders of exceptionalism in Australia.

Her new political friends cheered, old ones on the left thought it an attempt to attack the legacy of H.C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs.

Hughes was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1985 for ‘service to international relations, particularly in the field of economics’. In 2001, she received the Centenary Medal for her work in poverty alleviation. In 2005 she was named by the Herald among Australia’s top 100 public intellectuals.

She married twice. She divorced first husband Ian Hughes and married International Monetary Fund economist Graeme Dorrance, a Canadian, in 1973. He predeceased her. Helen Hughes is survived by two sons from her first marriage, Jon and Mark.

* Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 21 June 2013.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Damien Murphy, 'Hughes, Helen (1928–2013)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hughes-helen-32626/text40492, accessed 8 August 2022.

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