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Hugh Stretton (1924–2015)

by Tony Stephens

Hugh Stretton, one of Australia's leading public intellectuals, was a social reformer who wanted to leave Australia fairer than he found it and believed that a mixture of public and private enterprise could do it best. "We need them [the private sector] to keep us [public] efficient and they need us to keep them honest," he would say.

Planning for a future Australia, he looked back to the mixed economy after World War II. Then, rarely in the history of capitalism, full employment, rising incomes and a measure of equality all coexisted and public ownership, now much derided, was the foundation of steady investment.

He argued that families who worked their way up from a lower to middle class were generally happier but those who became even richer were not incrementally happier. Pointing out that the workers who had delivered humanity its most valuable benefits were, mostly, people such as scientists on ordinary salaries, Stretton theorised that rich Australians might be happier being part of the fairest, most compassionate and companionable of rich democracies.

Hugh Stretton was born in Melbourne on July 15, 1924, one of four children of Leonard Stretton, a county court judge, and his wife, formerly Norah Crawford. Len's father, William, went to Melbourne from Staffordshire at 11 years in 1875. He worked at Castlemaine brewery but was a gambler who kept his family "in an ungenteel poverty". This changed in 1902, when The Victory won the Melbourne Cup at 25/1 and William won a fortune. He carried the winnings home in a paper bag, invested in property and saw that his eight children had good educations. Years later, grandson Hugh would have one bet on a horse every year, on an outsider in the Melbourne Cup. His choices never emulated The Victory.

William's other talented offspring included Alan Stretton, the major-general from Vietnam who led the Cyclone Tracy relief effort in 1974, and Andrea Stretton, the ABC and SBS presenter.

Hugh lived at Beaumaris, went to Mentone Grammar and Scotch College and recalled his young days as those of "a middle-class kid in a loving family", with a suburban house and garden, second-hand car, a walk to school and long holidays surfing and bushwalking". He said that Australia's economic growth in the 70 years since his schooldays was enough to allow every household to live like that if they wished.

War service interrupted Stretton's studies at the University of Melbourne; he served in the navy, mostly from Darwin. He would say later that those three years gave him card-carrying membership of the Australian working class.

Completing his degree, Stretton won a Rhodes Scholarship to study history at Oxford. In his early 20s, he was appointed as a tutor in modern history at Balliol College. He also studied at Princeton. While at Oxford, in 1951, he married Jennifer Gamble, the art student daughter of another Victorian county judge, and had two children.

In 1954, the University of Adelaide poached Stretton to become professor of history. He was 30, the youngest professor in an Australian university. After his first marriage failed, he married Pat Gibson, a history tutor, in 1963 and they had two children. His clarity of thought in witty and warm lectures inspired students and future policymakers, although listeners were distracted sometimes by his individualistic clothing. When first-year students were asked about their likes and dislikes in a history course, one replied: "Prof Stretton's clothes". Stretton led the establishment of a history department whose members later helped reshape historical scholarship in Australia and influence similar work internationally. He stood down from his professorship in 1969, taking a position as reader, to allow more time for research and writing.

Emeritus professor Norman Etherington​ said the move allowed more freedom: "The more he gave up in rank, money and formal authority, the more people took notice of his ideas." Stretton later became history professor emeritus and visiting research fellow in economics. A steady stream of books, essays and public lectures followed. Named in several lists of the nation's leading public intellectuals, Stretton confounded the frequent lament over the meagre contribution of Australian university academics to public debate.

After The Political Sciences (1969), acclaimed by The Times Literary Supplement as "a work of near genius", publishers rejected Ideas for Australian Cities (1970). He published the book himself and it became a bestseller, with profits going to the Brotherhood of St Laurence. It promoted the idea that urban planning should focus on cities with a more human, social scale.

His 1974 Boyer Lectures, Housing and Government, argued the virtues of a mixed private and public housing system. He didn't advocate more government involvement so much as better government. He didn't want "welfare" housing in what would become ghettos but public housing in the more affordable end of the market.

Capitalism, Socialism and the Environment (1976) analysed the possibilities for democratic socialist reform in capitalist democracies. Urban Planning in Rich and Poor Countries (1978) considered urban planning worldwide. As deputy chairman of the South Australian Housing Trust, Stretton saw many of his ideas put into practice. He worked with Liberal premier Thomas Playford​ and Labor's Don Dunstan. He tried not to let his work override his home. Discovering while working at the ANU that Pat was lonely in Canberra, he and the children wrote daily letters to her, even while living in the same house. He also wrote poetical musings for home consumption. With social democracy in retreat in the West and market forces ascendant, Stretton found many critics and lost many economic arguments. Political Essays (1987) argued that politics, morals and economics are inseparable, that some activities are better run by the public sector and some by the private, and that the shift to market forces had made society more selfish and overlooked social purpose.

Paul Keating, then Australian treasurer and largely responsible for reforming the economy, was a critic. Stretton, who engaged critics respectfully, believed Keating's motivation in wanting to deregulate the market to bring foreign investment, jobs and low inflation, with the new wealth to compensate losers, was good. However, he believed the government had relinquished the right to full employment and balanced development. Public Goods, Public Enterprise, Public Choice (1994 co-authored with Lionel Orchard) developed his call to balance private markets with public enterprise. Stretton saw his magnum opus, Economics: A New Introduction (1999), as an alternative text for first-year economic students and "a contribution to restoring some social democratic intent". Introduction, of 850 pages, argues that a century of progress towards greater equality has been reversed: "The advanced economies now produce enough, if it were appropriately distributed, to keep all their people in secure comfort. They have had the first two or three generations of full democracy … They lead in depleting and polluting the world's natural resources. Some are now increasing their inequalities." He was appointed Companion in the Order of Australia (AC) in 2004. His last book, Australia Fair (2005), is a social democratic manifesto proposing ideas about the fair management of new economic challenges. A social research centre in his name will open in Adelaide this year, to focus on sustainable cities. Hugh Stretton died from Alzheimer's disease at 91. He leaves Pat, their children – Simon a judge, Fabian, electronics engineer, Tim, history professor, and Sally Driden, IT specialist and environmentalist, their families and a sister, Althea Williams. Fabian's twin, Hugo, died as a baby.

Original publication

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Citation details

Tony Stephens, 'Stretton, Hugh (1924–2015)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 July 2024.

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