Inside Story

Man of the moment

Books | Donald Horne is a breezy, argumentative and sometimes wrong-headed guide to postwar Australia

James Walter 31 July 2017 985 words

Impressionistic and accessible: detail from A.T. Bolton’s 1987 portrait of writer Donald Horne. National Library of Australia/AP Photo

Donald Horne: Selected Writings
Edited by Nick Horne | La Trobe University Press/Black Inc. | $32.99 | 336 pp

In 1965, Allen Brown, who had been secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department throughout the 1950s, wrote to Robert Menzies from Oxford about a book he had been reading, Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country. “He doesn’t approve of you,” he told the prime minister. “In fact, on all matters [of] which I can claim to know anything at all, he is wrong-headed and ill-informed.”

Brown was no simple partisan: he had been appointed departmental secretary by the Chifley government in 1949, and was among that influential postwar group of mandarins dubbed “the seven dwarfs.” He had worked closely with Menzies in the years when his government was by no means, as Horne put it, “a complacent, lazy government which owes its success more to good luck than to good management.”

The Menzies government’s achievements — some of them built on foundations laid by the Curtin and Chifley Labor governments — in promoting industrialisation, managing mass immigration, strengthening defence alliances, trading with Asia, reforming education and increasing prosperity were significant. Amid all of this, and in turbulent circumstances, Menzies had maintained party and cabinet discipline and allowed a newly professional public service to do its job. Indeed, one of his ministers, Paul Hasluck, would later argue that ensuring “the Commonwealth Public Service was re-established after the war as an efficient, non-partisan and self-respecting institution… was among his major achievements.”

Yet Horne’s book took off, essentially because he had captured a shift in the zeitgeist. It would prove an enduring skill. By the mid 1960s, Menzies’s time had passed. His failure to adapt to the more progressive climate his own policies had produced — to tackle the White Australia policy, to modify a sentimental regard for the monarchy, to exercise restraint when responding to “great and powerful friends,” to remove the bar on married women in the public service, and much else — was easily represented as an inability to adapt. The more talented members of his early cabinets had gone, allowing Horne to assert that Menzies had surrounded himself with “a firebreak of mediocrity.” Even his closest colleagues saw the need for change, but the old man’s dominance could not be challenged: they would hold back until he went.

Horne’s book might have been an inadequate history, as Brown irritably noted, but it captured a mood that was difficult to deny. What escaped Brown’s notice was that Horne was dismissive of the past because he looked to the future. He articulated contemporary disquiet, related it to features he claimed to be characteristic of Australia, and foreshadowed what was to come if the policy stasis he identified was not addressed. It was a persuasive piece of writing and would have a lasting influence on how some saw the Menzies era.

The Lucky Country was easily the most successful of Horne’s many books, and is given its due weight in this collection. But it also foreshadows modes of thought central to his later work. Reading it again confirms the impression that it was based on hunches and personal observation as much as on empirical data, and on conversation, networking and reading rather than primary research. It was impressionistic, breezy, argumentative and accessible, engaging adroitly with ideas without over-intellectualising. But much was asserted rather than demonstrated.

As Donald Horne: Selected Writings makes manifest, these features would recur. There was a drift into polemics — first against the left, later against the right — and a penchant for creating straw men that he would then demolish with enormous gusto (see “The Metaphor of Leftness” in this collection). He was always in the moment, hoovering up ideas and taking them over, giving little recognition to where they came from. He briefly acknowledges John Douglas Pringle’s Australian Accent (1958) as the precursor to The Lucky Country, for instance. But he makes no mention at all of the collective endeavour of the government-funded Ideas for Australia program that he led in the 1990s, in which various academics were engaged and from which many of the issues advanced in Horne’s Ideas for a Nation, The Avenue of the Fair Go and (later) Looking for Leadership originated.

For all that, Horne was a great teacher, as this collection indicates. His capacity for capturing shifts in ideas, problems in orthodoxies and mood swings against what elites took for granted led to a stream of provocative books and articles on politics, the economy, tourism, popular history, the arts and more. These kept him constantly in the midst of debate and never far from public attention.

This collection can’t, of course, do full justice to his output, to all of those instances where he successfully caught the wave of what was to come, or else proved idiosyncratic and wrongheaded. But Selected Writings (and Glyn Davis’s adept introductory essay) provides a practical lesson in how the task of a public intellectual can be approached. Horne taught us always to pay attention to the cultural context from which all that comprises our social and political capital emerges, the cultural lens through which we interpret what matters and the way it changes, and the need for critical judgement.

One might — as I do — quibble over history, interpretation and detail, but Horne was always an engaging writer, at his best in illuminating periods and moods: his four-volume autobiography, commencing with The Education of Young Donald (and arguably extending to Dying: A Memoir) is one of the great Australian instances of the genre. We can forgive much in a writer so successful in translating ideas into common discourse, and one who continually leavened sardonic criticism with zest and optimism, as this collection reminds us. His irrepressible commitment to promoting secular humanism, unquenchable curiosity, willingness to change his mind and astonishing range are all captured in this book. There is much with which to argue — that was always the point. Whether or not one disagreed, Horne made you think. •