Helen Hughes

I spoke in parliament today about the passing of distinguished Australian economist Helen Hughes.
Helen Hughes, 17 June 2013

Economists have a tradition of paying tribute to colleagues of a different ideological view. Friedrich Hayek said of John Maynard Keynes, 'He was the one really great man I ever knew, and for whom I had unbounded admiration. The world will be a very much poorer place without him.'

Larry Summers said of Milton Friedman, 'He and I probably never voted the same way in any election. .... Nonetheless, like many others I feel that I have lost a hero, a man whose success demonstrates that great ideas convincingly advanced can change the lives of people around the world.'

I am far from that league, but it is in that same spirit that I rise to acknowledge the free-market economist Helen Hughes, who died on Saturday aged 85. Born in Prague, Professor Hughes emigrated to Australia in 1939. Educated in Melbourne, she did her PhD at the London School of Economics and then worked at the World Bank in Washington DC.

Returning to the ANU to work as a development economist, she was appointed in 1983 by Bill Hayden to be the deputy chair of the Jackson Committee on foreign aid. In 1985 she gave the ABC's Boyer Lecture and was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in the same year. She wrote, edited or co-authored an astonishing 18 books.

In recent years, Professor Hughes worked as an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University and as a senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. In 2004, she received the Economics Society of Australia's Distinguished Fellow Award.

In my ANU economics blog, I took issue in 2006 with her views that foreign aid did not boost growth in poor countries, and in 2009 with some of her arguments around the test score gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. She fired back both times, engaging on the detail with fierce enthusiasm that belied her octogenarian status. I disagreed with Professor Hughes' conclusions, but I was delighted she was working on such vital issues. Too few Australian economists devote their attention to Indigenous disadvantage and global poverty.

Professor Hughes not only wrote about these issues, she immersed herself in them. According to an obituary in today's Australian, as recently as two years ago, she was making four wheel drive trips to remote outstations in north-east Arnhem Land. Professor Hughes' approach to her life and work was a wonderfully no-nonsense one. Yesterday, I told her son Mark Hughes that I intended to say a few words about her in parliament. He responded:

‘What you do is your decision. I can tell you exactly what Helen would have said. She would have said, ‘Parliament's job is to pass good legislation. Only if that is complete should parliament waste time on trivialities.”

‘Regards, Mark’

It is for others to decide whether this speech is trivial, but the topics on which Professor Hughes worked clearly were not. Her provocative writings enriched Australian politics and economics, and Australia is poorer for her passing.

In closing, I acknowledge the bipartisan spirit with which Helen Hughes' goals were shared. She wrote in Lands of Shame that only when we have attained equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians ‘will Australia be able to hold up its head because a fair go will have become reality’.

Rest in peace, Helen Hughes.

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