Jubilee Fellow – 2016

Colin Hughes2

Emeritus Professor Colin Hughes

MA (Columbia), PhD (London), FASSA

Discipline: Political Science

Year Elected: 1976

2016 Reflections

When Australian political science began to coalesce in the 1950s and 1960s, one common concern was the paucity of reliable material on Australian politics and government. Anyone wanting to find out exactly what happened fifty years earlier in the federal sphere − the election dates, the votes cast for the parties and for those who were not party candidates, the formation of the resulting ministry, and the service of the various ministers − had a great deal of primary research to undertake. Colin Hughes, appointed to the ANU in 1961, took on a task for which he and his colleagues were well provided: the compilation, from 1890 onwards, of a reliable account of: changes in the laws governing elections in the Commonwealth and the states; election results, nationally and state by state; and ministries and portfolio lists for both the Commonwealth and the states. The appearance in 1968 of The Handbook of Australian Government and Politics 1890-1964 allowed generations of scholars to go on from there in the exploration of their own questions, the fundamental work having been done. Subsequent handbooks covered 1964-1974, 1975-1984 and (in Colin’s retirement) 1985-1999.

Colin and his original partner in this invaluable enterprise, the late Bruce Graham, also compiled the voting returns, electorate by electorate, in all the Australian elections from 1901 to 1964; Voting for the Australian House of Representatives, 1901-1964, published in 1974, was followed by a volume covering the period 1965-1984. Hughes and Graham would compile similar volumes covering every lower house election in each of the states from 1890 to 1964. These were followed by a volume covering the period 1965-1974 and a volume (with his colleague Don Aitkin) covering the period 1975-1984. The last of this series of volumes (again with Aitkin), covered Voting for the Australian State Upper Houses 1890-1984. Once again, scholars quickly came to value the accuracy and hard work that went into yet another fundamental resource for the discipline.

Colin came to Australia in 1956, to the University of Queensland, and was twice Professor Political Science there: from 1965 to 1974, following the separation in 1964 of Political Science from History; and from 1989 until his retirement in 1995. Educated initially in Nassau – his father was a District Commissioner in the British colonial service − Colin had arrived with an MA from Columbia and a PhD from the LSE; this, at a time when no Australian university had awarded a PhD in political science and few Australian political scientists had one.

His PhD, building on work he had done for his MA, was on the constitutional development of the West Indies, a far cry from the work in Australian political science for which he was to become known. An interest in colonialism, however, remained with him. Years later the University of Queensland Press would publish his book on Race and Politics in the Bahamas (1981).

As a lecturer at the University of Queensland − first in political science (1956-58), then in public administration (1958-59) in the Department of External Studies − Colin developed an interest in Queensland politics and administration. He also developed a flair for engaging colleagues in broader enterprises. In the late 1970s he edited a landmark series of books on State politics; Colin himself wrote the volume on The Government of Queensland (1980), one of a number of scholarly works he wrote on Queensland for the University of Queensland Press. He had already written Images and Issues: The Queensland State Elections of 1963 and 1966 (1969), the first book-length treatment of any state election, let alone two, and the first to include sample surveys. He had co-edited (with Denis Murphy and Roger Joyce) Prelude to Power: The Rise of the Labour Party in Queensland 1885-1915 (1970), a book that got a number of UQ’s labour history theses into print, and he was co-editing (with Murphy and Joyce) Labor In Power: The Labor Party and Government in Queensland 1915-57 (1980), another volume for which there is no equivalent in other states. He would go on to co-edit (with Rosemary Whip) another election book, Political Crossroads (1991), this one on the 1989 Queensland election.

Colin took an equally strong interest in national politics. Within a couple of years of arriving in Australia, he had written a review of the academic literature on Australian politics (with Rufus Davis, his Queensland colleague whose lectures he had attended at the LSE and who had attracted him to Queensland). The existing literature, they argued, focused on two things − the Australian Constitution and ‘the New Australia…born from the events of 1914-18’. It had little to say about the political parties, Cabinet, the electoral system or voting behaviour. Not only was it ‘narrow in its preoccupations’; it was ‘highly opinionated in style’.

Very much at one with what the article called ‘the new professionalism’, Colin set out to broaden the scope of political studies in Australia and to maintain a tone that was more ‘respectable’ and ‘academically prim’, to quote the article: ‘less vehement, less hortatory and less polemic’. As the number of political science departments expanded and the number of academic political scientists grew, Colin became part of a small but growing band across the universities – from law, sociology, history, economics as well as political science – bent on filling the gaps in our knowledge by pursuing analyses of a systematic kind, based on evidence and influenced by theory. Ten years later, Colin was able to put together a very ‘respectable’ set of first year Readings in Australian Government (1968) for UQP that covered political power, cabinet, parliament, elections, federal institutions, parties and pressure groups – all but 12 of the 29 articles published in the previous ten years. To the current generation of teachers, the idea of putting together a text consisting of academic articles and expecting first year students to comprehend it would be all but unimaginable.

From 1975 to 1984, Colin returned to the ANU as a Professorial Fellow in the Institute of Advanced Studies; from 1961 to 1965, he had worked in the Institute’s Department of Political Science as a Fellow, returning to Australia to take up the position after leaving the University of Queensland around 1959 and returning to Nassau. One of the first things he produced after taking up his professorial position was a book on Australian Prime Ministers from Barton to McMahon; a series of ‘potted biographies’, as he called it, but also a volume that included one of the earliest attempts to sketch the development of the office of prime minister.

It was on elections, however, that Colin’s interests centred. In 1966, in the first volume of Politics – a journal that would later become the Australian Journal of Political Science − he had written on compulsory voting. Earlier, he had written about electoral redistributions and campaign funding in Australia and contributed a chapter on Brisbane to a study of the 1958 election, the first book-length study of an Australian election. He had also co-edited a book on The Papua-New Guinea Elections 1964, the first direct elections for the Territorial legislature, and he had written about elections in other colonies. He would continue to write about electoral redistributions and campaign funding, and go on to write about Australian electoral systems, by-elections, electoral swings, changes in the number and kinds of marginal seats, and the advantage enjoyed by candidates for the House of Representatives with surnames early in the alphabet. In addition, he documented the two-party preferred vote, actual or estimated, electorate by electorate, election by election, from 1949 to 1982. Unstinting in his service to political historians, Colin found time to write the ‘political review’ for the Australian Quarterly from 1962 to 1965; and the ‘political chronicle’ for the Commonwealth Parliament for the Australian Journal of Politics and History in 1967-68 and in 1970-74.

Colin maintained an interest also in the mass media. His monograph (written with John Western) on The Prime Minister’s Policy Speech (1966) focused on the impact on a sample of voters in Canberra of the first televised policy speech delivered by Robert Menzies in 1963. His second (again with John Western) based on a national survey, again the first of its kind, looked at the uses voters made of newspapers, radio and television and at how they evaluated them. Reported in The Mass Media in Australia, this 1966 study was reprised in 1979. In addition to writing about the media, he made himself available to the media; in 1966 he and Aitkin were the election night commentators on ABC television.

Colin’s knowledge of electoral systems helped him to become the Australian Electoral Commissioner (1984-1989). So, too, did his background in law; after finishing his PhD he had qualified for the bar, been admitted as a barrister-at-law in Gray’s Inn, and later worked as a barrister in the Bahamas. His period as Electoral Commissioner is noteworthy, among other things, for the research the AEC not only undertook but also published. He is the only political scientist to have held the position of Electoral Commissioner. Asked by a colleague whether he might need an encouraging reference when he applied for the position, he replied that he probably had enough — the General Secretary of the ALP, the Director of the Liberal Party and the Director of the Nationals had already written in his favour!

Returning to Queensland in 1989, Colin was appointed a part-time commissioner to the EARC − the Electoral and Administrative Review Commission established in the wake of the Fitzgerald Report. He served until the EARC was disbanded in 1993. Apart from his work at the AEC, what qualified him for appointment, he later remarked, were his legal background, his knowledge of Queensland politics, and his experience of colonial administration.

In retirement Colin has enjoyed the freedom to be more outspoken on matters of electoral integrity, party finance and accusations of electoral fraud. He came out in defence of the Australian Electoral Commission from assaults launched by the far Right when Labor was in government and he was Commissioner. And in a book co-authored with Brian Costar, one of his former students, he attacked the Howard government for pushing through legislation that eroded ‘the right to vote’ and that relaxed controls over political donations − all in the name of ‘electoral integrity’. He had come to accept, it seems, that political science could be both ‘respectable’ and ‘polemical’.

Prepared by Professor Don Aitkin AO FASSA and Professor Murray Goot FASSA