The endless seminar

‘The only kind of revolution possible is a cultural one. Simply to change the people in control of parliament or of the means of production is no revolution. It's a coup d'etat.' - Dr Jim Cairns. 

SO BEGAN A 1980 exam paper set by Donald Horne for a course on Australian political culture. Across barely a dozen questions Horne quotes Cairns, Murray Edelman, Antonio Gramsci, Robert Menzies, Sol Encel, Dennis Altman, Keith Hancock and Denis Kavanagh. In three hours political science undergraduates at the University of New South Wales were invited to consider the theory of hegemony, the distance between description and reality within political institutions, Australia as a home-owning democracy, the influence of middle-class affluence and Australia as a derivative culture.


THE MAN WHO set this exam had no tertiary qualifications. Donald Horne (1921–2005) had spent much of his life as a journalist and editor working for Sir Frank Packer. He was once known for his fierce anti-communism, his co-editorship of Quadrant, his book The Lucky Country that damned the nation's elites as second-rate, and his love of food, wine and conversation.

For a long time Donald Horne suspected there could be no role for public thinkers in Australia. ‘Intellectual' was a European term, seemingly ill-suited to an egalitarian nation. When it appeared in a publication Horne edited, ‘intellectual' was always surrounded by quotation marks. Yet the Donald Horne, academic, who set this exam paper had learned from experience that ideas can travel if articulated clearly, and presented as part of a conversation – that intellectuals ‘give shape to inchoate ideas already agitating the public mind'.[i]

By 1980 Horne had become a familiar public intellectual in Australia, a man who helped the nation understand itself. His regular books and newspaper articles, his lectures and political activism, and roles such as chairing the Australia Council, ensured a wide audience. How did Donald Horne come to embrace – and help shape – the category of public intellectual in Australia?

This was only in later years a conscious effort; the young Donald imagined his destiny as a poet or novelist, and his middle years were focused on journalism. It took the unexpected success of his first published book, written when he was forty-three, before Horne began to speak regularly in public about ideas. Even this public Donald Horne was rarely a systematic thinker, since his early training made him suspicious of epistemological claims, as of any attempt to influence the world. It was the late-blooming academic Donald Horne who strived to order a set of ideas that had preoccupied him for many years, shaped by the question of how culture is formed and sustained.

Horne's idea of a public intellectual developed as a response to experience – the thinking arose from the life. He observed his immediate world closely, and drew from this examination broader lessons about how to live and what to value.

The search for patterns, executed through a continued cycle of observation, speculation and writing, starts early. The method, as much as the content, marks his engagement with public issues. To capture his experiences, Horne kept diary notes, alongside the paraphernalia of a busy life.[ii] These Horne condensed into a series of popular autobiographical volumes, including The Education of Young Donald (1968), Confessions of a New Boy (1985), Portrait of an Optimist (1988) and Into the Open (2000). Each volume chronicles a phase of life, reading, conversations, friends, private and political passions. Perhaps it is this richness of primary material that has discouraged any detailed biography of Donald Horne to date, and yielded only a modest list of secondary works touching on his life and writing.

It is risky to rely closely on self-reporting. Horne began publishing his chronicles in middle age, and continued intermittently until his final years. We all hazard selective memory when recounting youth and early ambitions. Yet there is an appealing openness in Horne's account of failures and flaws, a coherence in his account of a shifting worldview nestled closely within the flow of his life. Taken together his writings offer the self-portrait of an intellectual who, as Horne observes, is at his worst when ideological and at his best when curiosity and skepticism make him question conventional wisdom.

It is instructive to trace the characteristic ideas and public arguments to emerge from each stage of a well-documented life. These suggest broadly four phases in the development of Horne's thinking: the early enthusiasms of student years under the influence of the philosopher John Anderson, a long period as a journalist and editor associated with causes of the political right, a shift in middle age to an interest in how culture is formed and sustained, and the final decades committed to political activism around issues of democracy and representation.

There are important continuities, notably Horne's libertarian beliefs and skeptical view of the state. There are also significant changes – not least, in recognising and promoting the possibility of public intellectuals in a culture that once seemed hostile to a public conversation. As a public intellectual, Horne believed in independence of judgement. Diana Gribble noted that Horne was capable of ‘startling moments' in which he would be persuaded by someone else's point of view and ‘completely change his mind'.[iii] This openness to new ideas makes it impossible to describe Donald Horne in conventional political terms. He was not simply a man of the right who moved to the left later in life, but someone who came slowly to a view about the role of ideas in society. The thinking and the journey are one.



DONALD HORNE WAS born in Sydney in 1921, the eldest child and only son of a schoolteacher shell-shocked by service in the Great War and a mother who put aside work for family. He could later recall his early years in astonishing detail: the buildings and families of his early home in Muswellbrook, the books on the shelves, the ten houses of his first sixteen years, the social structure of the town with its gradations of status and influence. When his father transferred to a new school in Sydney, the Horne family left the Hunter Valley for life in the suburbs during the Great Depression. It was a caring family, but a lonely life for a talkative boy with no siblings until a teenager and few opportunities to discuss the books he loved to read.

Young Donald found solace in the four volumes of The History of the British Nation, with their optimistic view of Empire and virtue. Yet he did not miss the subtext revealed amid glimpses of setback and defeat – the ‘inhumanity, treachery, stupidity, and meaninglessness' of history.[iv] His father's later breakdown may have reinforced a disturbing realisation that life could be disconnected, discordant, irrational and unpredictable. During Horne's teenage years in Sydney the family would move once again, this time to his grandmother's house, ‘Denbigh', at 40 Arthur Street, Kogarah, to live on modest means.

Yet in retelling his time as a final-year student at Canterbury High – the same school attended two decades later by John Howard – Horne preferred not to dwell on family misfortunes. Instead, he recalled fondly the sympathetic worldview of a new newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, owned and run by Frank Packer – a very different paper from its present incarnation, with much serious writing and influenceThe Daily Telegraphspoke to Horne's desire for modernity. Horne ‘fell in love with it from the first issue' – its contemporary voice, the ‘rebelliousness of spirit' in a newspaper of firm opinions. Through the Daily Telegraph Horne could take the ‘side of Progress against Reaction or, perhaps more exactly, of Intelligence against Stupidity'. He became so immersed in the publication that one day while in the city he ‘walked into the Telegraph building to see what it looked like'.[v]

Horne would spend much of his professional life as a journalist and editor, working for Sir Frank Packer. He found in the Daily Telegraph a voice that matched his own character – optimistic, impatient with artifice, allied to the new and occasionally brash. In the magazines Horne would edit for the Packer family, he could reproduce his original enthusiasm for the Daily Telegraph formula – popularist, sometimes crusading, but always with an eye to sales and profit.

The transition from enthusiastic reader to writer was not immediate. On finishing school Horne enrolled in Arts at the University of Sydney on a Teachers College scholarship that would fund his studies and require him to follow his father's profession. Horne arrived on campus at the start of 1939, just seventeen and thrilled to be at university. Yet he felt quickly the gap between his background and that of the many privileged students. He found himself dissembling about his family origins. To modify his accent, Horne taught himself new diphthongs from an English textbook. He would reinvent himself in more important ways. Horne swiftly discovered talk in the Quad was more rewarding than time in the classroom. Like many students he was swept by each new discovery. He used campus to try on a rapid series of identities – as poet, follower of aesthetics, psychology and Freud, as scientist, artist and laconic conversationalist; ‘young Donald, mumbler of witticisms', as he later observed ruefully.[vi]

Horne seemed determined to test himself with the challenging ideas of his time. He found these personified in the most famous man on campus, the Challis Professor of Philosophy, John Anderson. ‘On the day I first arrived at the University I saw Anderson walking along the cloisters in the Quad: someone pointed him out as the Scottish radical who was the University's main rebel, a renowned atheist, not long ago a Communist, censured in the New South Wales Parliament and by the University Senate. Anderson seemed the most important person at the University...He was in his forties, very tall, stooped, gangling, striding loosely past in a brown suit and green hat with an upturned brim, usually sombre, with his pipe jutting out from between his teeth. He seemed an embodiment of what was grave and constant in human suffering, but sometimes he would wave an arm at a student, loosely, as if it were a puppet's, and smile, strong teeth bursting out beneath his full black moustache...Recognition. Sunshine...I was gripped by the need to know him.'[vii]

Horne began attending Literary Society meetings, with Anderson in the chair. The Professor's papers were heard in reverent silence. ‘It took only an hour,' recalled Horne, but ‘we felt that we had just witnessed an important new contribution to the theory of aesthetics.'[viii] In the Quad, Horne sought to master the argumentative style favoured by Anderson's many acolytes, with an emphasis on logic, grammatical integrity and precision. Horne found himself pounced on for many careless phrases – ‘But what do you mean by that?' – and bewildered as his flights of fancy were critiqued by others more attuned to acceptable utterances.

That Horne struggled to capture the essence of Andersonian thought is not surprising, for the Challis Professor was reworking his philosophical position. During the 1930s John Anderson had been associated with the Communist Party, then briefly became a Trotskyite before breaking with organised Marxism to embrace a libertarian position.[ix] This pitted him against authoritarian states and institutions, including the formal requirements of university life; he led a campaign, for example, against the presence of a university regiment on campus. Anderson sometimes characterised his later views as anarchist, but eventually rejected political labels and any suggestion that meaningful change can be achieved through political action. He turned to exposing the illusions of progress and the need to promote freethinking in all spheres of life. Anderson's vehicle, in part, was the Sydney University Freethought Society, which for a while welcomed DR Horne as secretary.

It can be hard from a distance to grasp what makes a teacher charismatic.[x] Anderson's striking influence on generations of students attest to his magnetism. When Anderson spoke ‘in his urgent Glaswegian sing-song the room seemed stilled by significance,' Horne said. Anderson could project certainty – Horne was ‘thrilled by his implacable lack of compromise and the way he argued stubbornly and passionately against almost everything said by anyone apart from the Freethinkers at Sydney University'. Anderson ‘led the Freethought Society with the distant assuredness of a prophet on a faraway mountain'. He appeared to the admiring young student an ‘intransigent believer in the exposure of all illusions and a prophet of the ideal of a life lived in permanent protest'.[xi] Anderson could seem entire and sufficient unto himself, a philosopher who had ‘lost interest in the intellectual world outside Sydney, apart from sometimes sneering at what was going on in Melbourne'.[xii]

Anderson's influence on young Donald would be primarily political, and run counter to Horne's personality. As Horne later grasped, he was by temperament an optimist, but his intellectual training made him a pessimist. He took from Anderson an understanding that a freethinker should attack both right and left in politics, which Horne would do enthusiastically for decades to follow. But Anderson also reinforced an underlying conservatism in Horne's outlook – a sense that people cannot influence their surroundings, which are shaped by social forces rather than individual agency. Hence attempts to ‘reform' society are doomed to failure – ‘one must account for things, not try to change them. To plan for the future was sheer phantasy' – as Horne summarised a key learning from Quad discussions.[xiii]

Above all, Horne was influenced by Anderson's article ‘The Servile State', from which he derived an argument that ‘the well-intentioned reformer always produces results which he did not anticipate.'[xiv] Like Hayek inThe Road to Serfdom Anderson resisted the claims of the state to order individual lives in the interest of better social outcomes. Anderson evoked the phenomenon of unintended consequences – the assertion that attempts at social amelioration produce results that undermine the intention. This insight justified Horne's rejection of Labor politics as ‘meliorist' and misguided, preferring a view of himself as a ‘radical conservative'. In the Andersonian spirit – ‘the servile State is the unopposed State' – Horne did not register to vote and delighted in attacking ‘welfare' and ‘planning', as a student and later as a journalist.

Yet maintaining ironic detachment was never Donald Horne's most plausible persona. He was by instinct an activist. Even while professing Andersonian beliefs about the futility of individual agency, the undergraduate Horne embraced student and literary life with gusto. Student politics was unacceptable to the Freethinkers, but Horne launched an unsuccessful campaign against sex segregation in the university unions, before standing and failing to be elected to the student council. He eventually found a new home in the student newspaper, Honi Soit, and loved the immediacy of journalism – ‘I could think of some new thing on the tram on the way to the university and, minutes later, I could hurry to the Honi Soit office and start doing it.'[xv]

Donald Horne found a sense of purpose and achievement through student politics. ‘However trivial a source of power,' he decided later, ‘it can provide the same pleasures as the greatest office...this was my education.'[xvi] Finally, the activist Horne symbolically slayed the father – he organised enough votes to depose Anderson as president of the Literary Society and install himself as leader.

Still, for decades to follow Horne remained enthralled by Anderson's ideas, judging his own actions as inadequate against Anderson's more austere standards. As he worked as a journalist Horne ‘could go on feeling that Anderson's sad, brown eyes were staring over my shoulder while I was writing a Daily Telegraph piece...'[xvii] Horne sought guidance to life decisions in Andersonian terms, and worked much of his life, in journalism and later academia, with others trained by Anderson. These long years saw the natural optimist battle the learned pessimist, as the public Horne criticised planning and the illusions of reform while the private man wondered whether the world was quite as it had been presented in the lecture theatre.

In early 1942, Horne's university career was cut short by conscription. He found himself first in the regular army – ironically, given his Andersonian views, in the Sydney University Regiment – and then in the artillery. Horne was not a natural soldier, though his usual powers of observation produced a fine running commentary on the social structure and organisation of the Australian military, which he shared with his university friend the poet James McAuley, then a schoolteacher in Newcastle. Horne spent his spare time reading new British literary magazines such as Horizon and Scrutiny. He also discovered The Economist, which introduced him to the new genre of ‘current affairs', his first encounter with ‘serious journalism'.[xviii]

During the war years Horne began reading about Asia, as he wondered about the postwar settlement to follow. In 1944 this interest was given practical expression when Horne was selected for the first intake of the new Australian Diplomatic Corps. Horne left the army with relief, and moved to the Canberra University College, then part of the University of Melbourne, to train for overseas service. Thus the opponent of planning found himself recruited to the public service as part of a new generation ‘coming to power to modernise Australia'.[xix]

In the long college holidays, Horne headed home. He enjoyed the chance to read classics of political science and diplomacy as part of his course, but found Canberra ‘offered nothing more than the stunted amenities of an Australian suburb or country town'.[xx] There were interesting encounters, such as meeting Lieutenant-Colonel John Kerr over drinks at the Hotel Canberra, but the escapes to Sydney became more lengthy. Horne supplemented his cadet pay by writing for the Daily Telegraph. This involved a memorable interview with legendary editor Brian Penton, who warned Horne: ‘Just because you've got a university degree don't think you can walk in off the street and become a journalist!...Remember...your Returned Soldier's badge is worth more to you than your university degree.'[xxi]

Since Horne had neither a degree nor had seen overseas military service and yet had just secured work as aDaily Telegraph casual reporter, he delighted in Penton's supremely confident, though wholly inaccurate, advice. He relished too the world of reporters – his successor as Honi Soit editor, Murray Sayle, taught him the house style, the art of journalism in which ‘the mysteries of existence would freeze into a few short, sharp and solid sentences'.[xxii] Journalism meant making the world understandable for readers. It was teaching of a sort, a way to communicate with an imagined audience.

Horne had been plagued with doubt about the prospect of becoming a diplomat. How could he speak for an Australian national interest when he had learned that ‘society was simply an arena of conflicting forces?' He imagined ‘John Anderson standing up at his rostrum in the Philosophy Room: in his most urgent whine, he was exposing me as mere "solidarist" who believed there was a common good.'[xxiii]


SO IN 1945 Donald Horne quit public service for journalism, an apartment in Kings Cross and the ‘general detachment from everyone's sense of reality' that defined the Daily Telegraph newsroom. He covered politics and city news and occasionally wrote features, including a two-page profile on John Anderson. He met legendary newspaper men in Sydney hotels, shared a Potts Point apartment with a fellow journalist, was excited and disappointed in love, and developed an enduring fascination with the court politics surrounding his employer, Frank Packer. He lived, in short, the life of a journalist engrossed in his work, skilled at his craft, at home in the heavy-drinking culture of newspapers, spending his income on books, hotels, taxis and restaurants.

Many of his memorable anecdotes from this period revolve around political argument at parties. Like his fellow student and lifelong friend Doug McCallum, Horne found himself a conservative in a profession more often peopled by the left. Horne was out of sympathy with the era of postwar reconstruction, quoting Hayek or The Economist to fellow journalists. ‘To be an anti-Stalinist intellectual as late in history as 1947,' he recalled, ‘seemed a gallant and lonely stand.'[xxiv] It did not help that fellow Andersonians had split into rival camps, with some upholding the writings of the present John Anderson and others denouncing the current philosopher as ‘reactionary', preferring an ‘earlier and truer Andersonianism'. Horne found this disconcerting, particularly when he came under attack from former allies – ‘here were Andersonians attacking me. Andersonians were not supposed to attack each other. They were expected to unite against the illusions of the rest of the world.'[xxv]

But Horne's thoughts were turning elsewhere. In 1948 he married Ethel, an Englishwoman living in Sydney. He was keen to pursue his literary ambitions – ‘reminders that I was now aged twenty-seven and had not yet written even one novel could strike me momentarily senseless with disbelief.'[xxvi] Within a year he and Ethel had abandoned life in Sydney for the slow voyage to the United Kingdom and a new life as a novelist. Horne settled into an English village, became active in the local Conservative Party and began work on a novel. When publication proved elusive he began a second novel, along with occasional journalism as funds ran short.

Eventually Horne could no longer live a financially haphazard existence. He moved to London, there to work with fellow Australian novelist George Johnson in the Fleet Street bureau of the Sydney Sun, before shifting to the Daily Telegraph. He worked first in London, then as an international correspondent. Finally he was recalled to Sydney by Frank Packer to establish a new newspaper closely modelled on a successful British publication of little repute. He returned to Sydney without Ethel and the marriage, already failing, fell apart ‘in an unexpected exchange of letters'.[xxvii]

Arriving home in Australia was a shock. ‘All of Sydney seemed second-rate and run-down: I saw myself as an exile from the old world – itself shabby, but with a shabbiness rich in meaning. Australia was mindless, I would say to myself. Where were the art museums and theatres, the intellectual debate?'[xxviii]

Horne resolved to start a journal of ideas, to create in Australia the sort of reading he had enjoyed in Britain. But first he must learn to be an editor, leading a new publication with the less than promising title Weekend: Australia's brightest newspaper. A quick study, Horne grasped the essentials of working in the Packer empire, in the newsroom and executive offices overlooking Sydney's Hyde Park – the need to generate profits, anticipate the whims of the boss and manage relations with current Packer favourites. Horne learned how to control costs and when to hire journalists.

It took longer to master managing a team. Horne's behaviour as editor could be ‘monstrous'.[xxix] Unhappy with the quality of one article produced for Weekend he tore up the typed copy and threw it out the window. His editorship was marked by bursts of rage, and he became notorious for his technique in sacking people, when he would lose his temper to give himself courage.[xxx] The very male and alcohol-fuelled culture of journalism made such incidents the stuff of barroom legend – the brother of one sacked employee poured a glass of beer over the Weekend editor in a local hotel. Horne would look back on these incidents with embarrassment, and later change his approach to working with a team.

Professional success did not mean personal happiness. Now in his mid-thirties, and still with no published novel, Horne worried about his life editing Australia's brightest newspaper and acting as court jester to Packer. There were periods of depression and doubt for DR Horne the ‘angry, ill-informed shouter', a failed novelist consumed by ‘alcohol, rage and self-pity'.[xxxi]

It also proved a time of political uncertainty. In the 1950s communism became the defining issue, particularly following Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin and the Hungarian uprising. Old friends, such as James McAuley, began to define themselves as anti-communists and established the Australian Committee for Cultural Freedom to publish a new journal, Quadrant, and build links with international anti-communist movements. Some fellow Andersonians followed McAuley into the committee. Others shared his opposition to repressive states but preferred to explore the ‘anarchist potential of being'.[xxxii] They declared themselves ‘libertarians' and became, in time, the Sydney Push, a subculture that lasted a generation.

Horne could not empathise with the Sydney Push – he disliked its masculine and often anti-intellectual culture, and its ‘romantic playing with anarchism'. John Anderson could no longer provide reliable guidance – in his final years as Challis Professor the philosopher had ‘now assumed a position so inherently contradictory that it was no longer available for imitation'.[xxxiii]

As Horne pondered his political stance in his middle thirties, two important changes in his life would define the path ahead. The first was personal – he met Myfanwy Gollan, a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald twelve years his junior, who like Horne learned her craft on Honi Soit. They married in 1960. Family life became central to Donald Horne and a source of great joy. Their close partnership would endure until Horne's death, forty-five years later. Myfanwy would recount at the memorial service: ‘We were very lucky that we were able to make such a life together. He was my companion and our companionship grew richer over the years.'[xxxiv]

The second change was an opportunity at last to edit an intellectual journal. Horne had long believed an audience for ideas existed in Australia, despite the paucity of serious books and journals about Australian life (as he noted, in 1950s Australia the number of foreign books banned each year was greater than the number of books published). With Packer underwriting publication, from 1958 Australians could read The Observerfortnightly, with commentary on local and international affairs, and regular writing from academics such as Henry Mayer, and writers such as Michael Baume, Robert Hughes, Bob Raymond, Bruce Beresford, Les Tanner and Desmond O'Grady. The Observer challenged the notion that ‘Australia' has ‘long since been reduced to an essence, bottled and labelled'.[xxxv] Through the pages of a journal he described as ‘intelligently conservative', Horne developed topics and themes he would publish in 1964 as The Lucky Country.

To assist with the new journal Horne hired Peter Coleman, a student of both Anderson and the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Coleman and Horne would work together on a number of Packer projects, providing space at times for fellow anti-communists.

The Observer encouraged frequent parties and dinners at the houses of contributors and friends, often including visiting British or American participants. These stimulating symposia were arranged by a new friend, Richard Krygier, the founder of the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, which published Quadrant.

Horne, ever social and interested in new ideas, sought possible Observer contributors among a lively group of political scientists and sociologists – his old friend Doug McCallum, now at the University of New South Wales, Brian Beddie, Arthur Burns, Sol Encel, Dick Spann and Hugo Wolfsohn, along with Henry Mayer. He was invited back to Sydney University to defend Weekend and found himself ‘addressing an overflow lecture theatre in the same room in which I had made my first public appearance as a student, seventeen years ago, defending (as a poet) good verse against bad'.[xxxvi]

A further significant change would take some years to play out, but went to the core of Horne's long-standing political beliefs. As a good Andersonian, Horne remained sceptical about the prospects for meaningful reform through the political process. So despite his personal misgivings, Horne judged it pointless to attack too vigorously the White Australia policy. Australian folk roots, he observed, ‘are in many ways among the most reactionary and racially bigoted in the world'.[xxxvii] The prevailing political culture argued for a ‘realist' approach; ‘there was not yet a chance of surmounting the prejudices of the Australian people.' The editor decided that The Observer would not press the issue of institutionalised racism in Australian migration policy.

He was to be convinced otherwise about the limits of political action. As he later observed, ‘a year after The Observer got going, twenty or so young intellectuals, mostly from the University of Melbourne, began meeting in a suburban house in Camberwell to discuss the practicalities of reforming the White Australia immigration policy. In the liberal intellectual tradition they decided to publish a was expressed conservatively, but it was a new way of looking at the practical chances of amending what was seen as one of the foundations of both the Australian state and Australian society and in only a few years it had practical effects, much bigger than those expected. As good intellectuals, they were negotiating part of the new sense of the possible in Australia.'[xxxviii]

The campaign proved influential. By 1966 the Commonwealth Government announced it would assess potential migrants on skills and suitability rather than race. Horne recognised the Melbourne campaign called into question his assumption that social progress is an illusion. Further, it suggested that intellectuals could organise campaigns and challenge foundational tenets of the Australian settlement. Donald Horne the pessimist, carefully schooled in ‘realism' by ‘Anderson and a host of books', glimpsed the possibility of Donald Horne the optimist, who saw that culture was not immutable, nor government necessarily no more than a reflection of prevailing attitudes. Horne had always held as true that reform is overwhelmed by unintended consequences. Now he grasped the risk of inaction – failing to change might also be harmful.

Marrying, beginning what would prove a happy and stable family life, editing The Observer and watching a successful political campaign all encouraged Horne to reassess his assumptions about the world. As a social commentator in the pages of an influential national opinion journal, he discovered a ‘new sense of the possible'. Ideas could matter; change was possible. And this could be led by people ‘doing one of the things only intellectuals can do: good, bad or indifferent, they were providing new concepts of what was going on and new concepts of what could go on. Despite myself, I was an intellectual, if not in quotation marks.'[xxxix]


IN 1960 FRANK Packer acquired a venerable, if moribund, Australian institution, The Bulletin, in a deal designed principally to block the young Rupert Murdoch. The Bulletin, with its famous pink covers and proud slogan under the masthead, ‘Australia for the White Man', had a reputation for ‘diehard reactionaryism, even among the conservatives'.[xl] Packer gave Donald Horne a choice: he could fold either The Observer or The Bulletin, and edit the remaining publication. Horne chose to reinvent The Bulletin, and set out to confound. He hired new writers, dropped the pink paper and slogan, removed the tired cartoons about Aboriginal Australians. He was determined to produce a Bulletin that included ‘as fellow Australians women, city dwellers, young people, New Australians, Catholics, Aborigines, scientists, intellectuals, executives and dozens of other previously forgotten species; and that now accepted that Australia adjoined South-East Asia and that we lived in changing times'.[xli]

Bulletin readers professed outrage, but for Horne it was ‘one further step from pessimism'. In transforming The Bulletin, he was also rethinking his own views. When transferred to other projects, Horne decided to leave the Packer empire. He spent some time contemplating other careers – one colleague suggested he become a state Liberal MP – before settling for financial security in advertising. In quiet moments at Australia's third-largest advertising agency, Jackson Wain, he began what would become his first published book, with a sustained look at contemporary Australian life.

As young journalist Horne had in 1946 sketched out a book about Australia, to be written with Bruce Miller. He did not hold back – the book would show ‘that the theory of democracy as representative government was a swindle; that Canberra had the mentality of a small frontier settlement; that Australian nationalism was arrogant pep talk; that parliament provided a living exhibition of semi-literates; that the most serious distortion of newspaper reporting of parliament was to make politicians seem better than they were; that John Curtin had not been a great man; that politics was marked by tedium, stupidity and vulgarity; that most politicians were too old; that too few were university graduates, too few had been abroad, and most showed narrow prejudices against the "un-Australian"; that many politicians were openly prejudiced against modern trends towards sex equality and saw women as wives and mothers but not as citizens; and not one of them could be described as liberal. They were all book-banners and intolerant bourgeois moralists.'[xlii] And all of this before he warmed to his theme about the poverty of Australian elites – the Labor Party as a movement of prejudices dominated by Catholics and unionists, with no room for intellectuals, while the conservatives remained secretive and Australia a ‘desert of reaction'.

Horne did not get much further than a fifteen-page outline, but the idea of writing about Australia persisted. He noted the paucity of books about the nation, with the architect Robin Boyd's Australia's Home and The Australian Ugliness and the historian Manning Clark's three selections of Australian historical documents among the few exceptions. Beyond a few periodicals, such as the Australian Quarterly, he found nothing worth reading from the universities.[xliii] So, drawing on his articles for The Observer, feature ideas for The Bulletin and the editorials he had been writing in his head since his teenage years, Donald Horne sat in a backyard deckchair on a Sunday afternoon after lunch in December 1963, next to his wife and sleeping baby daughter, and ‘began writing a book about Australia'.[xliv]

This was not a scholarly work. Horne did little original research, and relied instead on old clippings and some fieldwork, such as the visit to South Sydney Junior Leagues Club that opens the original edition.[xlv] He had in mind a transient book, a collection of snapshots of Australia in ‘The Age of Menzies'. The book would trace the ‘innocent happiness' of Australians, the sense of national identity, the groups excluded from national conversation, ‘government by imitation' and ‘politics without ideas' in a ‘second-hand culture'. Horne wanted a book that was realistic about contemporary suburban living, avoiding the idealised landscape of Russell Ward's The Australian Legend. As his key theme, Horne developed the argument that Australia was fortunate rather than clever or innovative. It was Geoffrey Dutton, editor of the newly established Australian Penguin imprint, who suggested the title, drawing on the title of the final chapter and, subsequently, the most famous sentence in the book: ‘Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.'[xlvi]When the draft was complete Myfanwy ‘went through the typed copy, nipped out unnecessary words and sorted out word jams – in a way that became characteristic of what, in the old-fashioned sense, is our partnership.'[xlvii]

Published late in 1964 as a Penguin paperback costing eight shillings and sixpence,[xlviii] The Lucky Country was serialised in The Australian and sold its original print run in just nine days. Through multiple editions it would eventually sell more than 260,000 copies, and inspire television documentaries, school exams and a national slogan that profoundly misunderstood the irony of the title. Meaghan Morris would recall reading the book in one sitting: ‘I had never struck anything like it; we had old Australian novels and a history or two around, but I did not know that you could write like that about our way of life.'[xlix] Donald Horne found himself modestly famous, a public intellectual who spoke to, and about, Australia.

The Lucky Country was both description and program, with Horne calling for government to encourage the innovation missing from public and business life. He urged Australians to think about Asia and to embrace diversity – the word ‘multicultural' was not yet in wide use. As Horne observed later, he had become ‘unconservative' in deciding that progressive state action was possible.[l]

Yet if Donald Horne was reassessing his view of politics, neither he nor his friends perceived the shift at the time. Horne remained close to many in Coalition politics. As an advertising man he was engaged by the Liberal Opposition Leader, Robin Askin, for the 1965 New South Wales election. Horne helped design the campaign ‘With Askin You'll Get Action!' In the closing days of the race, Askin put his arm around a staffer and said: ‘I think we're going to win'. Then, with a laugh: ‘And think of the money we'll make.'

As Horne said, ‘I thought he was joking.'[li]

In 1964, Horne agreed to become co-editor of Quadrant with James McAuley. The following year, he was also invited to return as editor of The Bulletin. At this time Horne was closely involved in the Association for Cultural Freedom, working with Sydney colleagues such as Richard Krygier, David Armstrong, Leonie Kramer, Jim McClelland and Laurie Short, and new Melbourne contacts such as Frank Knopfelmacher and Bob Santamaria. In their company Horne embraced a fervent anti-communism that, for a season, marked his thinking and writing.

Of his career as an anti-communist, Horne later observed: ‘I did fall into folly for something like a year and a half, mainly from ignoring one of the key maxims of sceptical conservatism, pas trop de zèle' – no excessive zeal.[lii] He believed that no foolishness by himself or his friends ‘matched the errors of those who saw in Stalin and then Mao Zedong liberators of humankind'. Still, Horne concluded that a too-passionate rhetoric had sacrificed the civil tone that characterised his earlier writing.

As co-editor of Quadrant Horne was an advocate of the war in Vietnam, of close ties with America, and was a familiar voice in the causes of the right. Tribune, the Communist Party newspaper, dismissed The Lucky Country as ‘right-wing extremism'. Horne used his editorships to pursue alleged communists – a 1961 Bulletin story included sensational, but little substantiated, claims of red influence in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne.[liii]

Though Horne would later regret a failure to manage his enthusiasm, his anti-communism was shared by many former Andersonians within the Association of Cultural Freedom. As an editor, said Horne, ‘I was the full Andersonian ticket: I believed that liberty was the active part of democracy (flourishing most in opposition); that people should be allowed to pursue their own ways of life in all their diversity; that all censorship should be abolished; that homosexuality and abortion should be made legal; that restrictions on drinking, betting and other forms of amusement should be taken off the books; and that the state could be a particular enemy of freedom.'[liv]

Horne retained these libertarian values through this life. By the later 1960s, though, he found himself at odds with aspects of the outlook reflected in Quadrant, which he found conservative rather than libertarian. Horne was criticised by Leonie Kramer and Peter Coleman for advocating Australian republicanism in The Lucky Country. Richard Krygier took Horne to task for his regular lunches with the avowedly communist author Frank Hardy. A rift occurred within the Association of Cultural Freedom following revelations of funding by the Central Intelligence Agency through dummy foundations. Horne argued that while CIA money did not influence the content of Quadrant, secrecy about the donations fostered ‘image problems' for the association and raised questions of trust in its leadership.

Still, it was some years before Horne and his long-time political allies parted ways. In 1967 he handed the Quadrant editorship to Peter Coleman, though he remained on the management committee for some time. Horne attended occasional seminars until the 1970s, by which time he found the Association of Cultural Freedom ‘a fortress defending cultural freedom against the threats of Whitlamism'. When Horne published Death of the Lucky Country following the 1975 Dismissal, relations cooled sharply with friends of decades' standing. Donald Horne was not mentioned at celebrations in 1981 for Quadrant's first twenty-five years. James McAuley, a friend since 1939, did not speak with him again. In his final public speech, the poet condemned the works of Gough Whitlam and his four beasts: Germaine Greer, Manning Clark, Patrick White and Donald Horne.[lv]

Horne had formed his political identity as a student, and contributed to public debate as journalist, editor and author. He joined those former Andersonians who viewed communism as the larger threat to human liberty, and promoted their arguments with characteristic vigour and enthusiasm. This was a cause shared for decades with prominent and engaging Sydney intellectuals. To break with such company must have been distressing, but Horne published little about his personal response. His new political opponents, though, made clear their views. In a review published in Quadrant in 1998 the Melbourne University Press publisher Peter Ryan criticised Horne as ‘the national know-all', a narcissist and showman.[lvi] Horne would later reconnect with some old friends, but for many the rift was permanent and bitter.


THE LUCKY COUNTRY proved the first of numerous books by Donald Horne. Its success enticed many offers from publishers, and Horne used the opportunity to rework with Myfanwy an early unpublished novel as The Permit in 1965. Volumes of social commentary followed, along with a series of autobiographical books, beginning in 1967 with The Education of Young Donald. As Horne observed with pride, he had ‘become "a writer" – average one book a year – our household had become, among other things, a workshop in which I had the physical pleasure of feeling all those words come out of my felt pen onto a long, lined foolscap writing pad, then of feeling them come onto the page through a typewriter and of writing revisions all over the typescript, then seeing a new, clean draft – a process that went on until there was something new and clean enough to give to Myfanwy for reactions.'[lvii]

For some years, Horne combined this writing with editing The Bulletin. Through the final years of the long Liberal postwar incumbency, The Bulletin traced shifting preoccupations for Australian politics: the new priorities of Harold Holt, including the referendum to include Indigenous Australians in the national census, John Gorton and his interest in a local film industry, the emerging nationalism Horne had anticipated in The Lucky Country. He used The Bulletin to press causes such as republicanism, with the poet Les Murray designing a new national flag.[lviii] As Elaine Thompson suggests, Horne's ‘belief that you could energise people intellectually was obviously there'.[lix]

Horne recognised the emergence of the arts as definers of national identity, hiring younger writers such as Sandra Hall and Sandra Forbes to cover film and books. When the emerging novelist Frank Moorhouse failed to secure a Commonwealth Literary Fund Fellowship, Horne offered him a weekly grant through the Bulletin payroll to pursue his writing. ‘It's a Frank Packer Fellowship,' explained Horne, ‘but don't ever tell Frank Packer!'[lx]

Moorhouse in turn would encourage contact with a younger Sydney literary life. He and Horne became friends as they participated in the many seminars, workshops and symposia of the period. Conference-ville, a Moorhouse novella from 1976, includes a character named Horne, whose first rule of conference diligence is ‘miss nothing and take one of everything' – that is, be committed to the whole experience.[lxi]

Through these final years in journalism, Horne continued a long-established habit of long lunches and dinners with a shifting cast – his way to keep in touch with numerous worlds and associates. He enjoyed the company of fellow editors: Adrian Deamer of The Australian, Graham Perkin of The Age, John Pringle of the Sydney Morning Herald, Vic Carroll of the Australian Financial Review, Bob Raymond of Four Corners and Richard Walsh of Nation Review. There were new associations with publishers, political friends such as Jim McClelland and Neville Wran, longstanding fellow journalists such as Patricia Rolfe, old Andersonian friends until the 1970s, and thereafter a number of younger women writers and academics, as Horne began to ‘re-set' his ‘personal compass' after reading Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique.[lxii] Meaghan Morris remembers Horne as ‘one of the great, old-school Sydney lunchers who could eat and drink for hours and go home clear-headed for work'.[lxiii] These conversations and a regular supply of new reading from Sydney's Pocket Bookshop shaped The Bulletin and his own writing.

Going to lunch with Donald Horne, recalled Frank Moorhouse, ‘was like being part of an endless seminar'.[lxiv] Max Bourke noted that in speaking over lunch, as in his writing (in parentheses) somewhere into the third bottle of red Donald Horne would pause and say, ‘I wonder what I meant by that?'[lxv]

Yet amid the conviviality, Horne sensed his time with The Bulletin drawing to a close. He found the editing task ‘tiresome' and felt out of place in the commercial machinations of the Packer empire. During a long walk through the city to think about the future, he decided to resign. Soon after the 1972 federal election, aged fifty-two, Donald Horne left the Packer building unsure what to do next.

The choice of academia was unlikely and unplanned; the suggestion came in a telephone call from Owen Harries after a newspaper column suggested erroneously that Horne had been fired from The Bulletin.[lxvi]Horne had no academic qualifications, and the research fellowship he was offered in the Faculty of Arts at the University of New South Wales paid less than half his income at The Bulletin. But Horne welcomed the opportunity to think and write, and could supplement his pay by acting as a contributing editor to Newsweek. He was invited to UNSW by the historian and dean Frank Crowley, who at a time of ‘flourishing confidence and expanding budgets' could act as a ‘spirited academic entrepreneur, enthusiastically appointing professors and creating schools like a good farmer trying out new crops'.[lxvii] Though a grateful beneficiary of this largesse, Horne would later head a faculty committee to trim an over-stretched Arts budget, a role he inherited from the historian Alan Gilbert.


WHEN HORNE JOINED joined the Department of Political Science, led by his friend from student days Doug McCallum, he had no experience as a university teacher. ‘I had given less than a dozen lectures in my life; they had all been to small intellectual audiences and they had all ruthlessly exposed some form of intellectual folly. What was I going to do in preparing a lecture for an audience of "real people"? I recognised that I must avoid gabbling into the maze of unfinished sentences, switches in theme, illustrative anecdotes, even doing imitations, that sometimes made up the way I talked, so I fenced myself in with notes set out in simple, overall structure that I would be able to read easily with my bifocals. Notes, not a full text. Notes would give me a chance to seem natural and look the audience in the eyes, if there was an audience.'[lxviii]

Horne proved a talented educator, and would present 1,500 or so university lectures over the next fourteen years. He could stand at the podium and transform the apparently dull – constitutional arrangements, the work routines of journalism – into keys to the wider workings of politics and the media. He kept students engaged through striking assertions, rhetorical questions, amusing asides, always remembering to restate and reinforce his central points. When all else failed, a supply of anecdotes – and the occasional impersonation of political figures – carried him through until five minutes before the hour.

Students would seek some sense of the man behind the podium, and scan the books ­– The Lucky Country, now in many editions, the novels, the discussion of Britain in God Is an Englishman, the polemics – in search of clues. The later autobiographies were not published until the career in academia was all but complete, though students sometimes received essay comments scrawled on the back of rejected manuscript paper. ‘He's describing a girl with blond hair. There's a line through the page. Perhaps she rejected him,' suggested Joanne Pemberton.

In his first years at UNSW, Horne sought to master academic research. He abandoned long notepads for neat little index cards that could be arranged or rearranged, though he was never an enthusiast for the apparatus of footnotes and detailed references, or for learned journals over books. His writing would be criticised for relying too heavily on the telling story, though his apparent fluent and accessible style often disguised considerable reading and careful construction. Horne spent time working in the Mitchell Library in Sydney, and established a friendship with Manning Clark when they ate pink iced cake together in the upstairs café during breaks from writing.[lxix] On campus he watched with amusement the petty politics of academic departments: the corridor of closed doors; office space allocated according to academic rank; the empty common room and colleagues who never appeared, preferring to eat lunch alone at their desk.

As a new academic, Horne explored various intellectual approaches – ‘behaviouralism', ‘elite theory' and recent German writing in political sociology – before settling on ‘political culture' as his research topic of choice. ‘Even if I hadn't known it,' he observed later, ‘ever since The Lucky Country "culture" was what I had been talking all the time.' The concept of political culture reminded Horne of John Anderson's phrase ‘ways of life', understanding culture as ‘a repertoire of habits of thinking and acting that give particular meanings to existence'.[lxx] In an Australian context this meant the values, mythologies and shared assumptions that supported local social and political life.

Though appointed as a research fellow, from 1974 Horne began to lecture in first-year Australian politics. His staff seminars on contemporary issues drew interest across the campus, while his undergraduate courses included lectures with titles such as ‘the coercive and conspiratorial apparatus of the state'. Some years before the rise of cultural studies in universities, Horne developed semester-long courses on ‘Power and Democracy in Australia', ‘Politics and Mass Culture' and ‘Dominant Culture in Australia'. He could find few textbooks to cover the content, so he included in course guides the readings he discovered at the Pocket Bookshop and his own writing.

Horne looked for scholars interested in the same subjects. He found some in nearby departments such as History, others away from campus through his friendship with the film critic and later academic Meaghan Morris, who recounted how she was ‘impressed by his natural energy'.[lxxi] An important friendship began when Political Science hired a new doctoral graduate, Elaine Thompson. She and Horne turned up to a departmental meeting with rival proposals for a new course, only to discover each had independently designed much the same curriculum.[lxxii] They would team-teach for years to follow, and publish together on shared projects after 1976.

When Horne began teaching a popular course on ‘Politics and the Media' – then still a novelty in universities – he was made a senior lecturer with tenure. He would stay for the rest of his professional career, promoted first to associate professor and then to a personal chair, rising to be chairman of the faculty and a member of the UNSW Council before retiring as professor emeritus, aged sixty-five, at the close of 1986.

Teachers illuminate a subject but provide only partial glimpses of themselves. The pathway of his thinking was not immediately apparent to students who knew little of the earlier Donald Horne, the radical conservative. We could discern only someone discovering new fields rapidly, and communicating his enjoyment at the journey. There were gatherings for honours students at the family's terrace house in Woollahra, and occasional restaurant outings to welcome visitors or celebrate the safe delivery of a thesis. In the classroom we noted an optimistic reading of Gramsci (prevailing values can be subverted), harnessed to an interest in the concept of a national culture. In Money Made Us, published in 1976, Horne argued that by ‘nation-building', he did not mean discovering rivers or building powerlines ‘but only the true nation-building: the ways people see themselves as a nation. Nations exist in the mind.'

In the courses he offered by the start of the 1980s, Horne focused on the mechanisms which build a culture. Whether discussing political parties or the mass media, he proved less interested in institutions than in the technology and operation of hegemony. He wanted to understand how ideas, conscious and unexamined alike, work through language to shape our view of the world. Often a new course was the first indication of a book project about to begin; themes and arguments would be developed in seminars and lectures, then flow through to his writing. Like many academics Horne used teaching to think through new concepts, explore examples for argument and develop a structure for the text to follow.

Books from his UNSW years, such as Time of Hope, published in 1980, describe social change in Australia through the popular media. A reflection on William Morris Hughes was written for a wide audience, as were the autobiographical volumes. Others books, such as the internationally acclaimed The Great Museum (1984) and, even more so, The Public Culture (1986), were rendered in formal academic style.


YET SOCIAL OBSERVATION was not enough after the events of 11 November 1975, which became a central concern for Horne, who had known Whitlam distantly at Sydney University. Horne welcomed many Whitlam government initiatives, though neither aligned to the Labor Party nor unwilling to criticise specific government actions; the old suspicion of the state ran deep. But Horne was profoundly angered by Sir John Kerr's decision to dismiss a democratically elected government that had done nothing illegal. His opposition to the Governor-General, and to the subsequent Fraser government, inspired some of his most popular polemics.

On the day of the Dismissal, Horne was lunching with Frank Moorhouse and a number of political scientists at the UNSW staff club.[lxxiii] A young woman waiting on the table, and listening to ABC Radio in the kitchen, relayed reports that the Governor-General had sacked the Prime Minister. The political scientists at the table carefully pointed out that such things could not happen in this nation – the ABC must have ‘got it wrong'.

When the truth of the matter became clear, Horne the lifelong republican sent a telegram to the Governor-General at Yarralumla, caustically welcoming the Dismissal as the end of the Australian monarch; Horne later learned it was placed in the pile marked ‘congratulations'.[lxxiv] Kerr's decision became the core of Horne's critique of contemporary Australia, and the basis for a burst of political activism – Australia must be a republic, with a constitution to express the basic principles of democracy. In the weeks after 11 November, Horne spoke at rallies in support of Whitlam, wrote letters of protest and appeared in a television commercial with Patrick White. As Frank Moorhouse recounts, ‘he discovered something else there and that was himself as an orator.'[lxxv] Until 1975 Horne had prided himself on being a professional ‘independent', neither Liberal nor Labor, but he surrendered this identity in his passionate response to the Dismissal.[lxxvi]

After Labor's resounding defeat on 10 December, Horne sought to keep alive the issue of constitutional change. Working with Myfanwy, academic colleagues, friends and supporters, Horne was part of public meetings throughout 1976, culminating in a ‘Citizens for Democracy' rally at the Sydney Town Hall and the creation of a new movement to press for a democratic, republican constitution. Alongside his speeches Horne contributed a short polemic, Death of a Lucky Country, a satirical novel, His Excellency's Pleasure, and, with Sol Encel and Elaine Thompson, an edited volume titled Change the Rules! Towards a Democratic Constitution.

Through Citizens for Democracy, Horne enjoyed a new kind of political engagement: town hall meetings, pamphlets, banners, resolutions and, most importantly, people. The campaign allowed Horne to draw on contacts from his long life in Sydney – fellow republicans such as Warren Fahey, Faith Bandler, Les Murray, Fred Daly, Eva Cox and Don Chipp.[lxxvii] Yet the moment passed swiftly. Horne found himself, by default, the ‘principal media face of republicanism...while the idea of a new Constitution faded like invisible ink'.[lxxviii]

Horne would be similarly disappointed in his involvement with the Australian Republican Movement from 1991, under the leadership of first Thomas Keneally and then Malcolm Turnbull. He found the committee frustrating, with an ‘almost pathological sense of confusion and detachment'. So, apparently, did the second leader – arriving for one meeting, Horne found Turnbull ‘sitting despondently in an armchair, hands hanging down listlessly, brow furrowed with care'.[lxxix] The campaign ended in defeat at a referendum in November 1999.

Despite the failure to secure a republican Australia, this period of intense involvement in constitutional debate led Horne to see possibilities for public intellectuals in Australian life. Community-based politics showed that Horne could be a talented public orator, speaking in compelling phrases and commanding a large audience; the National Times even praised his ‘pleasing baritone' when leading the national anthem at the Sydney Town Hall. Horne, in turn, discovered a love of neighbourhood discussion. For decades to follow he would accept invitations to speak at clubs and societies, Rotary gatherings, Liberal and Labor party branch meetings, and other opportunities for civic debate. His later writing emphasised the importance of conversation and the necessity for democracy to be grounded in local, autonomous groups.

More broadly, the campaigns for constitutional reform affirmed in Horne an understanding of how to be a public intellectual in Australia. In his early years at UNSW, Horne had worried about whether his books were ‘academic' or ‘intellectual' – as though the only choice was to talk to other scholars or a popular audience. Involvement in public debate convinced Horne about the value of addressing both simultaneously. Donald Horne wrote admiringly of the ‘high popularisation' favoured in France, where new ideas are made accessible by talented writers who together create a shared intellectual life.[lxxx]

A public intellectual, by definition, requires an audience. To sustain a viable intellectual life needs an informed community, supported by numerous publications, essays and critics. Horne concluded that sustaining intellectual life requires ‘tens of thousands' of interested people, and a commitment by those in privileged places, such as universities and media, to be inclusive. Above all, intellectual life needs books that address contemporary issues for local audiences: such writing gives people ‘new things to think about – or new approaches to old ways'. Without such writing about Australian topics, Horne asked, ‘in what sense, as Australians, would we exist at all?'[lxxxi]

Horne would pursue his vision of a public conversation, conveyed through accessible writing, during the balance of a long and productive life. His search for a more inclusive agenda would find expression in a new role as chair of the Australia Council from January 1985. Horne championed supporting people to create their own art, and promoted the arts as a necessary broadening of a political culture relentlessly focused on economic questions.

The new Australia Council chair took particular pleasure in stressing his independence from government. When pressured by one government MP about disappointed grant applicants from his electorate, Horne responded, ‘Well, Minister, thank you for exercising your democratic right as a citizen to tell me your views.'[lxxxii] He delighted in the work of the council and of its talented staff such as Andrea Hull, the director of Policy and Planning, though his impatience with ‘bureaucratese' was widely understood. Many colleagues in the Australia Council appreciated the ‘plurality, eclecticism and boundless curiosity' of their chair. They found him the ‘ultimate humanist, with a fierce sense of nationalism', who championed the idea that ‘all Australians should have cultural rights.'[lxxxiii]

While at the Australia Council, Horne commissioned events such as the National Summit of Ideas at Old Parliament House in 1990 and encouraged the creation of a National Council for the Humanities. On stepping down as chair in 1991, aged seventy, Horne continued the conversation through his involvement in Ideas for Australia, Arts Action and programs for the Centenary of Federation. He remained, as Andrea Hull recalls, ‘intellectually curious, pixelated, curmudgeonly, charming, quick to laugh, and glorious luncheon company'.

Horne had established a role for himself as a public intellectual, and believed the model could work for others. The skill, he believed, is to influence debate ‘through language and discussion', alongside the quotidian tasks of writing and editing, sitting on committees and accepting invitations to converse, no matter how modest the occasion. A public intellectual, he observed, should coin a new phrase, set out the argument for change, develop rhetoric to support the ides, and create events and opportunities for conversation.[lxxxiv]

Though now a prominent advocate of government support for the arts, Horne was no fan of the major statement of cultural policy during the Keating era, Creative Nation. He saw the conceptual underpinnings as flawed, and it was the old Andersonian who raised his voice to ‘scorn not just the policy, but also its consequences – both intended and unintended – that affects arts, culture, politics, discourse and infrastructure'.[lxxxv] He appeared ambivalent about the fall of Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1996, though he soon despaired of the Howard government.


IN 1977, HORNE published his most ambitious book, The Avenue of the Fair Go. He would explain core political concepts to ordinary Australians through an imaginary theme park of ideas ‘visited by a small group tour seeking new ideals of public virtue'.[lxxxvi] The Avenue of the Fair Go employed the language of everyday life, and allowed Horne to distil a lifetime of thinking about Australian political culture.

Unfortunately, as John Button argued in his review, the ‘persistent, seemingly tireless' Donald Horne, successful polemicist and public intellectual of ‘a rare kind', struggled to capture the essence of an Australian identity. Instead, concluded Button, The Avenue of the Fair Go is ‘an omnibus of the things that Horne has believed in, and the things which he dislikes'. The presentation of the argument as a series of conversations undercut the serious attempt to ‘define and celebrate what makes Australia different'.[lxxxvii]

Button's assessment proved a reliable guide to the wider reception. The book has its supporters, and attracted some warm notices, but most reviewers were puzzled or hostile, and The Avenue of the Fair Gosold less than any of Horne's previous volumes. The aftermath of a particularly hostile assessment by Peter Coleman ended his friendship with the Hornes.[lxxxviii]

There were further publications after The Avenue of the Fair Go, but Horne was now speaking to a very different political moment. His themes of constitutional change, fairness and Australian character struggled to find an audience in the age of John Howard. As his public roles concluded, Horne had fewer opportunities to engage a wider audience. He remained an occasional columnist and opinion writer, and books such asLooking for Leadership, published in 2001, saw Horne still focused on contemporary issues, now seriously disturbed by the state of Australia during the Howard years.

Horne remained an optimist amid the challenges of old age. He completed his series of autobiographical books and enjoyed some recognition: an Order of Australia, inclusion in the National Trust's inaugural list of Living National Treasures and a Sydney book launch at which Noel Pearson acknowledged Horne as an ‘elder'.[lxxxix] Encouraged by Julianne Schultz, editor of the Griffith REVIEW, Horne began a new project writing about infirmity. Earlier work had described difficult operations on his eyes; now, in the remarkable essay ‘Mind, Body and Age', Horne described illness and decay with the same detachment he earlier reviewed his childhood homes or years as a student.[xc] Horne would chronicle his decline and terminal illness in Dying: A Memoir (2007), a work completed by his widow, Myfanwy.


THE GRIFFITH REVIEW essay was launched at the 2004 Sydney Writers' Festival. It was the first time this prolific author had been invited to speak at this festival in his home town, and he appeared deeply moved by the affection of the hundreds of people who packed the Sydney Dance Theatre rehearsal studio.

Before he spoke, a small group of us took Donald and Myfanwy to lunch next door at Walsh Bay, with Sydney Harbour lapping below the window. Despite his frailty and failing voice, the 82-year-old Donald was sharp and engaged as he speculated on changes to the word ‘culture' in recent years, the need for more civic identity, prospects for the forthcoming federal election and the foibles of former academic colleagues. It was the last time I saw Donald Horne, this engaging companion who entertained thousands of tables through decades in journalism and academia, the historian, gossip, chronicler and speculator, the writer who asked endless questions and turned answers into the next stage of an endless conversation.

In late April 2005 Donald Horne, complete with oxygen mask, finally received a degree from the University of Sydney – not his abandoned Bachelor of Arts but an Honorary Doctor of Letters. His moving graduation speech praised the ‘marvels of the intellectual life', with its opportunities for imagination, wonder, inquiry and criticism. He recalled his training under John Anderson, who emphasised the ‘rich variety of approaches to ways of being human'.

Donald Horne died some months later, in September 2005. To celebrate his life, Myfanwy Horne organised a memorial service at the State Library of New South Wales. Family and friends shared memories and reflections. In the spirit of the man, spontaneous contributions were encouraged. Frank Moorhouse recalled the aphorisms of Donald Horne. Deborah Mills remembered the ‘cultural visionary, intellectual and enthusiast' who recognised the ‘importance of culture in the lives of ordinary people'. Diana Gribble evoked the image of the ‘clever little kid from Muswellbrook, the enfant terrible of Sydney University, the advertising man', and Chairman Donald of the Australia Council. Peter Manning spoke of Donald Horne as a fixture at the New Hellas restaurant beside Hyde Park, and Helen Irving later wrote of the man always interested in new ideas. Elaine Thompson remembered her university colleague with ‘no degree, nor formal background, no "academic" publications', whose ‘continued popular success and absolute refusal to use footnotes infuriated many academic colleagues'.[xci]

And Owen Harries, a friend of forty-eight years, observed: ‘Looking back, it seems to me that the strongest impulse in Donald's life was the impulse, indeed the compulsion, to inform, explain, persuade, convince, and, certainly not least, to correct and refute. In short, to teach...Donald had the qualities that make for a very good teacher: enthusiasm, intellectual energy, wide-ranging knowledge, presence, a mastery of language and presentation. But he also had some extra qualities that made him a great teacher: a strong sense of the dramatic; a sense of fun and a marvellous eye for the absurd; a creative imagination; and – perhaps most important of all – a capacity to convey a sense of the cosmic importance of whatever happened to be occupying his attention at the time.'

Donald Horne's intellectual curiosity ensured he engaged with most of the great questions facing Australia through the twentieth century: identity, character, values and place in the world. He explored these issues with same drive whether a student, soldier, diplomatic cadet, young journalist, editor, advertising executive or academic. He believed that life has no objective meaning, only the purpose we give our existence. This meant interrogating the moment – understanding the contemporary, and through it the broader patterns of history and culture. His thinking was original – often only after wrestling with a problem to his satisfaction would he search for academic literature in the field. His writing is always informed by experience, and therefore by the particular circumstances of being an Australian through most of the twentieth century.

In his early years, Donald Horne disdained political processes, while being fascinated by political questions. Later in life he came to embrace political work – never within a party structure, instead through writing and public meetings seeking a vigorous polity, filled with conversation. The scepticism – ‘question everything' – learned from John Anderson at Sydney University served him well through a long life, as did an emphasis on individual liberty and toleration, by providing a consistent intellectual stance. Anderson's hostility to the state proved less enduring, and Horne eventually broke with this part of the Andersonian program, at considerable personal cost to friendships and the settled patterns of his first half-century. But he found enjoyment in the unfamiliar challenges of academia, and a renewed sense of purpose through writing and political activism. As Dennis Altman observes, in moving to a university Donald Horne ‘continued the conversation with Australia he had started through his journalism'.[xcii] Late in life this critic of bureaucracy found satisfaction in leading organisations: his chairing of the Faculty of Arts at UNSW, his chancellorship of the University of Canberra, two terms as chair of the Australia Council.

In Dying: A Memoir, Horne insisted on ‘a last look around', and tackled once again the big issues of criticism, conversation and belief.[xciii] His final essays could be followed by three questions in three hours, so familiar the range of concerns, so close the nexus between the practical problems of living and the intellectual interest in the culture that gives us meaning.

This journalist-turned-academic urged scholars to seek a popular audience, to see virtue in speaking plainly to create and sustain an intellectual community. His legacy is found in his writing, the institutions he shaped, the people he trained, his encouragement always to be part of the conversation. This was his vision of a public intellectual at work – a role he once doubted was possible in Australia, but eventually embraced with enthusiasm.

It seems impossible to avoid cliché when writing about favourite teachers. All professors become warmly remembered characters, subtly shaping the passing generation of undergraduates, friendly, lively, accessible and tolerant of the gauche. That they may also have been occasionally irritable or bored is forgotten. Yet Donald Horne was always an exceptional teacher, not only in the bare-brick classrooms of Sydney, but in suggesting how intellectuals can contribute to their times.



[i] Robert Dessaix, 1998, ‘Donald Horne' in R. Dessaix (ed.), Speaking Their Minds: Intellectuals and the Public Culture in Australia, ABC Books, Sydney, 217.

[ii] Stephen Garton, in a personal communication, reports Horne left 118 boxes of personal papers, now held at the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

[iii] In a speech at a November 2005 memorial service for Donald Horne: personal communication from Myfanwy Horne.

[iv] Donald Horne, 1967, The Education of Young Donald, Ringwood, Penguin Books, 77.

[v] Horne, The Education of Young Donald, 132-33.

[vi] Horne, The Education of Young Donald, 210, 334, 304.

[vii] Horne, The Education of Young Donald, 204-05.

[viii] Horne, The Education of Young Donald, 206.

[ix] With admirable understatement, Cole describes Anderson as an ‘iconoclast': CM Cole, 2009, ‘John Anderson's Political Thought Revisited', Australian Journal of Political Science, 44, 2, 229-43.

[x] For fascinating reflections from a number of Anderson's former colleagues and students, see Eugene Kamenka recalled, ‘if you were bright enough to pick up the felt you had a key to every door.'

[xi] Donald Horne, 2000, Into the Open, Sydney, HarperCollins, 4-5.

[xii] Horne, The Education of Young Donald, 239.

[xiii] Horne, The Education of Young Donald, 214.

[xiv] John Anderson, 1943, ‘The Servile State', republished in J Anderson, 1962, Studies in Empirical Philosophy, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 328-39; and Horne, An Interrupted Life, Sydney, HarperCollins, 428.

[xv] Horne, The Education of Young Donald, 292-93.

[xvi] Horne, The Education of Young Donald, 305.

[xvii] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 575.

[xviii] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 377.

[xix] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 406.

[xx] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 411.

[xxi] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 445.

[xxii] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 450.

[xxiii] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 458.

[xxiv] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 564.

[xxv] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 564.

[xxvi] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 586.

[xxvii] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 747.

[xxviii] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 752.

[xxix] Frank Moorhouse, personal communication.

[xxx] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 745-46.

[xxxi] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 777; 779.

[xxxii] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 776. For the genesis of ‘The Push' see AJ Baker, 1975, ‘Sydney Libertarianism and the Push', Broadsheet, 81, March, and reproduced in abridged form at

[xxxiii] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 776.

[xxxiv] Myfanwy Horne, personal communication.

[xxxv] Horne, Into the Open, 5.

[xxxvi] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 808.

[xxxvii] Horne, Into the Open, 23.

[xxxviii] Horne, Into the Open, 35.

[xxxix] Horne, Into the Open, 35.

[xl] Horne, Into the Open, 45.

[xli] Horne, Into the Open, 51.

[xlii] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 464-65.

[xliii] Horne, An Interrupted Life, 801.

[xliv] Horne, Into the Open, 128.

[xlv] In The Land of Plenty: Australia in the 2000s (Melbourne, Melbourne University Publishing, 2008), Mark Davis wittily mirrors this opening scene of The Lucky Country by exploring the social construction implicit in the design of Melbourne's Telstra Stadium.

[xlvi] Horne, Into the Open, 131; 129.

[xlvii] Horne, Into the Open, 128.

[xlviii] The original cover and price are depicted in Donald Horne, 1987, The Lucky Country Revisited, Dent, Melbourne, 201.

[xlix] Meaghan Morris, ‘Remembering Donald Horne', Gleaner zine, 2005, Gleebooks, Sydney.

[l] Horne, Into the Open, 58.

[li] Horne, Into the Open, 99. Premier Askin would be a controversial though long-enduring Premier of New South Wales, the only Liberal leader in the state to win four elections. Since his death in 1981 removed the threat of defamation proceedings, there have been frequent though untested claims of corrupt behaviour in office.

[lii] Horne, Into the Open, 103.

[liii] See Fay Anderson, An Historian's Life: Max Crawford and the Politics of Academic Freedom, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 2005.

[liv] Horne, Into the Open, 28.

[lv] Horne, Into the Open, 125-26. While Horne appeared angry about his treatment – ‘I was Trotskyed out of the Association's history' – in personal correspondence Myfanwy describes an atmosphere at one associated event that was ‘cordial though somewhat strained'.

[lvi] Peter Ryan, 1998, ‘Donald Horne: Self-Made Man', Quadrant, 42, 9, 28-33.

[lvii] Horne, Into the Open, 143.

[lviii] Horne, Into the Open, 159.

[lix] Elaine Thompson, personal communication.

[lx] Frank Moorhouse, personal communication.

[lxi] Frank Moorhouse, 1976, Conference-ville, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 21.

[lxii] Horne, Into the Open, 170-71; 175.

[lxiii] Morris, ‘Remembering Donald Horne', prepared for the November 2005 Memorial Service.

[lxiv] Frank Moorhouse, personal communication.

[lxv] Max Bourke, personal communication conveyed by Andrea Hull.

[lxvi] Myfanwy Horne, personal communication.

[lxvii] Horne, Into the Open, 197.

[lxviii] Horne, Into the Open, 196.

[lxix] Nonetheless, as Myfanwy Horne reports in a private communication, ‘Donald did most of his work at home, in his study or, before the computer, writing in longhand, in a favourite armchair in our sitting room...buying most of the books he needed. He had a couple of periods at the research his own papers which in 1977 had gone to the Mitchell Library for the second and third volumes of his autobiography.'

[lxx] Horne, Into the Open, 217; 205.

[lxxi] Meaghan Morris, personal communication.

[lxxii] Elaine Thompson, personal communication.

[lxxiii] Frank Moorhouse, 2005, ‘The Professors' Lunch', in S. Nolan (ed.) The Dismissal, Melbourne, Melbourne University, Press, 86-89. The precise cast at lunch remains hazy, though it was likely to include Elaine Thompson.

[lxxiv] Horne, Into the Open, 304.

[lxxv] Frank Moorhouse, personal communication.

[lxxvi] Horne, Into the Open, 302.

[lxxvii] Horne, Into the Open, 321.

[lxxviii] Horne, Into the Open, 322.

[lxxix] Horne, Into the Open, 326; 330.

[lxxx] Horne, Into the Open, 249.

[lxxxi] Horne, Into the Open, 250.

[lxxxii] Horne, Into the Open, 294.

[lxxxiii] Andrea Hull, personal communication.

[lxxxiv] Horne, Into the Open, 322-25.

[lxxxv] Ruth Bereson, 2005, ‘Advance Australia – Fair or Foul? Observing Australian Arts Policies', Journal of Arts Management, Law & Society, 35, 1, 56 from 49-59.

[lxxxvi] Horne, Into the Open, 325.

[lxxxvii] John Button, 1997, ‘Voices in the Park', Australian Book Review, October,

[lxxxviii] Myfanwy Horne, private communication.

[lxxxix] Horne, Into the Open, 337.

[xc] Donald Horne, 2004, ‘Mind, Body and Age', Griffith REVIEW Edition 4:Making Perfect Bodies, 4

[xci] For this small selection from the contributions to the service, remarkable for their number and quality, I am indebted to Myfanwy Horne. Thanks also to Owen Harries for permission to quote his contribution.

[xcii] Dennis Altman, personal correspondence.

[xciii] D Horne and M Horne, 2007, Dying: A Memoir, Melbourne, Viking Press.

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