MA (New England), PhD (ANU), Hon DUniv (Canberra), Hon DLitt (UNE)
(Deceased), 2022-04-12
Political science

Professor Don Aitkin was Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Canberra from 1991 to 2002 and had a long-standing interest in policy studies and practice relevant to higher education and research. His intellectual interests centred on history, political science, music and literature.

Excerpt from Don’s Memorial Service - University of Canberra, 3 June 2022 - by John Warhurst

Don Aitkin made an outstanding mark on political science studies in Australia. He took the discipline in new directions and generously influenced many of those who followed.

Yet, in 2015, when he was a Jubilee Fellow for the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, with typical modesty he downplayed that impact:

If the social sciences can be thought of as a game of cricket, and one is picking a team, I am best seen as a useful all-rounder, rather than a top order batsman or strike bowler. In political science you could pick a good team for the last forty years that wouldn’t include me, without any sadness on my part.

Don was an extremely well-rounded and all-round political scientist in several ways. He occupied that position for thirty years or more before moving into university administration and research management. In political science, as in other aspects of life, Don was always ‘growing’.

The first ‘Don, the political scientist’, was as a political historian and ‘academic authority’ on farmers and their politics and the Country Party. He was the national ‘expert’ on the Country Party at a time when the profession was very small and was always called upon for commentary. In my very first political science student text book when I stated university in 1968 (Australian Politics: A Reader, edited by the renowned Henry Mayer), he wrote the chapter on “The Australian Country Party”. It still resonates today in the notion of ‘countrymindedness’, which Don saw as the glue which held that party together. Don was always interested in big ideas, and one of them was what explained what he saw as the relatively unchanged shape of Australian party politics since 1910.

This early work began with his studies in the department of history at the University of New England at a time when there was no political science as such at that and many other universities. But his instincts were already taking him towards political science and quantitative studies; and he produced two major works which cemented his reputation, The Colonel: A Political Biography of Sir Michael Bruxner (ANU Press, 1969) and The Country Party in New South Wales: A Study of Organisation and Support (ANU Press, 1972).

The second way of being a political scientist followed his deliberate re-invention of himself as a student of political attitudes and behaviour. Through Oxford and the University of Michigan he ‘quickly became absorbed in survey research’. This lead Don from doing isolated individual research to team research, including the large fund-raising necessary for big quantitative research projects. In 1977 and 1984 he published the first and second editions of his third major work, Stability and Change in Australian Politics. As Don later wrote, ‘If I brought out a major work, that is it’.

Don definitely ‘opened the batting’ in Australia in this field of political science. I was proud many years later, after he had become a Vice-Chancellor, to welcome Don back to ANU to speak on his ‘Stability and Change’ book to my fourth Years Honours course which I called “The Ten Best Books on Australian Politics”. That’s how highly I rated the book and I observed then his enthusiasm for discussion and his engaging style of teaching in action.

The third demonstration of his all-round abilities came as a political science teacher and ‘explainer’. It followed his decision, after a decade teaching first year Politics students in the 1970s at Macquarie University, with Brian Jinks, who co-taught the course for three years, to write a text book called, Australian Political Institutions. This book was such a success that many editions followed with new co-authors, including myself and, most notably, Gwyn Singleton. (2015-10th edition).

In the preface to the first edition Don and Brian wrote: 

The teaching problem is obvious: too much basic instruction and part of the class dozes off; too much assumed knowledge and the rest of the class is lost. We have tried to strike a balance.

It should be a wake-up call to us today that they sought to challenge what they described, more than forty years ago, as “the bombast, empty rhetoric and search for scapegoats that so often pass for political debate in this country”!  

Finally, reflecting his life-long vocation as a communicator and commentator, Don was one of a handful of political scientists who made a parallel career in the media and in the world of magazine and newspaper writing. It is not just science that needs communicators; all the social sciences, including political science needs them too and Don was a prime example of an excellent communicator who was always driven by exciting new opportunities. He always took them on and he always made time in a busy life. He writes about these developments in the early chapters of his 2017 memoir, Critical Mass: How the Commonwealth got into funding research in universities. He reckons that from 1966 onwards he wrote over two million words for newspapers, magazines and on his own website.

Not all of this was political science narrowly defined, but a lot was. It ranged from the Australian Quarterly’s “Political Review”, the National Times magazine (eleven years as a weekly columnist), the Canberra Times (several years as the Monday morning leader-writer) and much more. That is an amazing output.

There was also much that was difficult to categorize, including editing The Howson Diaries (the voluminous diaries of the former Liberal minister, Peter Howson) during the 1980s, when Don was my head of department and mentor, not long after he had examined my PhD thesis. 

As an all-rounder he made many friends and colleagues at different stages of his political science journey. He wrote in Critical Mass in memory of Donald Stokes of the University of Michigan, who he called “a fine scholar, a great mentor and a dear friend”. David Butler from Oxford days was a life-long friend and enthusiastic supporter who often visited ANU and who was for many years a feature of Australian federal election campaigns. Don Rawson was always a close colleague from the very early days.  

To many younger political scientists like me he was in turn a mentor, colleague, and friend. He encouraged us all along the path towards being all-rounders rather than narrow specialists. There can be no prouder description and there should be more of them in all walks of life.

Thanks again Don for all you did for me and for the political science discipline.

  • Member, Australian Research Grants Committee, 1981-1985
  • Chairman, Australian Research Grants Committee, 1986-1987
  • Foundation Chair, Australian Research Council 1988-1990
  • Member, Australian Science & Technology Council 1986-1992
  • Deputy Chair, ACT Science & Technology Council 1998-current
  • Councillor, Canberra Business Council 1992-2002
  • Chairman, Australian Mathematics Trust 1994-current
  • Chairman, National Olympiad Council 1995-2002
  • Member, Multi-disciplinary Assessment Committee, Canada Foundation for Innovation, 2001-2010.

Fellow of Australian College of Educators

(Honorary) Fellow of Planning Institute Australia

  • Don Aitkin (2005), 'Return to Countrymindedness', in Struggle Country. The Rutral Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia. Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie (eds.). Melbourne: Monash University ePress.
  • Don Aitkin (2005), What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia . Sydney: Allen and Unwin.
  • Don Aitkin (2004) 'What do I dissent about?', in Dissent, 14, 2004.
  • Don Aitkin (2002), 'Education and Change', in Urban Renaissance: Glasgow - Lessons for Innovation and Implementation. Josef Konvitz (eds.). Paris: OECD.
  • Don Aitkin (2002), 'Reinventing Universities in Australia', in The University: International Expectations. F. King Alexander and Kern Alexander (eds.). Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.
  • Don Aitkin (2002), 'Dumbing Down: Some Thoughts on a Phrase of our Time', in Agenda Volume 9 No.1.