MA (Melbourne), PhD (London), Hon LLD (La Trobe)
(Deceased), 2013-06-15

Czech-born Australian economist Helen Hughes, who died aged 85, had a passionate belief that clear thinking could illuminate the world and free human beings to reach their full potential.

It was a belief she pursued all through her distinguished career as an academic specialist in development economics, before applying it with spectacular gusto, late in her life, to the remote communities of Aboriginal Australia.

Hughes was born in 1928 in Prague, emigrated to this country with her parents in 1939 and was schooled in Melbourne, before embarking on a teaching and research career, which reached its crescendo with an appointment to the World Bank in Washington DC. There, her particular social vision was strengthened by her study of Pacific Island region states in their post-independence phase. A range of books and papers followed: she became prominent in her field, and her exceptionally acute understanding of the interplay between ideology and economics was honed. Along with other expatriate political scientists such as Owen Harries, Hughes was one of the small nexus of Australian academics engaged at a high level in international institutions and policy-making during the pivotal post-war year

In 1983 she took up an offer to return to Australia as director of the National Centre for Development Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Shortly afterwards she was appointed by then foreign minister Bill Hayden to a key committee reporting on Australia’s foreign aid program.

But her attention was drawn increasingly by the condition of remote and regional Aboriginal communities, and by the role that economists had played in the formation of the social policy settings guiding their evolution.

After her formal retirement, Hughes turned to the dilemmas of Australia’s own development crisis: she took up a post as senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and studied the state of remote Australia. What she studied, though, was not just the economics and the social condition of the Indigenous communities and townships, but the total picture they presented to the outside eye.

Across the continent, from Marble Bar to Mosman Gorge, development policies were failing. The scale of the disaster was becoming plain: Hughes began writing position papers, and they led inexorably, in 2007, to Lands of Shame, her broad-brush publication on the state of the ‘homelands’, the outstations and small communities of the centre and the north.

It was a book that took no prisoners, and no mercy was shown her in return, for she was attacking an interest group in Australian intellectual life, as much as a set of policy prescriptions.

This was an unusual battle for a cerebral woman on the verge of her 80th birthday to fight – but Hughes plunged in. The coda to Lands of Shame expresses her credo: ‘When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children sit side by side with other Australian children at school, when they take their places as doctors and scientists, when it is no longer remarked that members of parliament and cabinet ministers are indigenous, and above all when there is no social or economic indicator that shows a lower standard for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, only then will Australia be able to hold up its head because a ‘fair go’ will have become reality.’

Hughes did not live to see that day, but she helped transform the map of expectations: and it is very striking that the official blueprint for the commonwealth’s Closing the Gap project closely resembles her wish-list of basic reforms.

This late-life campaign stemmed from her early experiences: it thus gave her course through time a distinctive shape. Her own country had been occupied, and divided down racial lines: her life’s work after her childhood emigration was devoted to proving that human potential could flower in all countries, if the ground conditions for free expression were put in place.

What delighted her was progress on the ground, measurable outcomes. Even two years ago she was making four-wheel-drive field trips to remote outstations in northeast Arnhem Land. Australia had given her freedom, and the capacity to flourish. The source of her commitment to Aboriginal wellbeing was simple: she wanted to pass on that gift.

Nicolas Rothwell

This obituary was first published in The Australian on June 17, 2013.