Helen Hughes and the girls from Arnhem Land

Since the death of one of Australia’s most distinguished economists, Helen Hughes, at age 84 on June 15, there have been a number of fine obituaries published online, in particular by Julie Novak at Catallaxy Files and Greg Lindsay in Spectator Australia. The list was, however, marred by an especially nasty and wildly inaccurate little piece by Guy Rundle of Crikey.

Leftists like Rundle were afraid of Helen(left) because she not only had the intelligence to reject her own youthful radicalism but over recent years dedicated her formidable talents almost entirely to a field where they brook no opposition, Aboriginal policy. In doing so, she made a number of illuminating observations in Quadrant, arguing in particular against the prevailing policy paradigm that denied private property rights to Aborigines living on traditional land in remote communities. She insisted that the denial of such rights was one of the chief causes of the poverty and social dysfunction rife throughout those communities, and for which the Left had no answer. She also campaigned against the appalling standards of education doled out to remote Aborigines in the name of preserving traditional culture.

Helen Hughes‘Strangers in their own country

But unlike most non-Aborigines who have entered this debate, she was not simply a merchant of talk. She made sure she knew remote Australia and its people at first hand by her visits and she focused on solutions that were practical. She supported the burgeoning movement to rescue young Aborigines from dysfunctional communities by offering them boarding school places in mainstream secondary schools. In February 2010, at the launch of my book on the Stolen Generations, she said it was a pity there were not more “stolen” children. She urged each of us to go out and “steal” an Aboriginal child, to liberate them from the “Lands of Shame”, the title she gave to her book on remote Australia.

She not only gave this advice to others but took it herself. Indeed, she continued a process she had begun decades before when, as Professor of Economics at the ANU, she provided board in her own home for students from poor, developing countries while they undertook their studies. One of her best and most moving pieces of writing was published in Quadrant in March, 2008, a diary recounting the ten-week stay at her home in Sydney’s Double Bay by two teenage girls from Arnhem Land. Helen titled it “Strangers in Their Own Country”, and we are proud to reproduce it here once more.

Keith Windschuttle is the editor of Quadrant

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