Donald Horne

Author of 'The Lucky Country'
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Donald Richmond Horne, historian, writer and journalist: born Muswellbrook, New South Wales 26 December 1921; editor, The Bulletin 1961-62, 1967-72; Research Fellow, University of New South Wales 1973-74, Senior Lecturer 1975-79, Associate Professor 1980-84, Professor 1984-86 (Emeritus); Chair, Australia Council 1985-90; Chancellor, University of Canberra 1992-94; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Sydney 8 September 2005.

Donald Horne earned many labels during his life - public intellectual, republican, rebel and campaigning editor and writer. But he was best known for coining the ironic phrase in the Sixties which described Australia as the "Lucky Country". It was meant to be an attack on the complacent and provincial mindset of the proudly white Australia which was still happy to "ride on the sheep's back" of wealth from wool and live blissfully off the fat of the land. But, mistakenly or not, it was widely interpreted to mean that the nation and its citizens were indeed blessed by abundance, good weather and easy living.

"I have had to sit through the most appalling rubbish as successive generations misapplied this phrase," Horne complained later. The full quotation from his collection of essays, The Lucky Country (1964), which became a runaway best-seller and started a new genre in analysing Australia, was the more stinging "Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share its luck."

The writer of 24 other books, Horne returned to the topic and the catchy title with The Lucky Country Revisited (1987) and The Death of the Lucky Country (1976), which he produced after the dismissal of the Labor government of Gough Whitlam in 1975. The event, in which the Queen's representative, the Governor-General John Kerr, sacked Whitlam on the instigation of the Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser, fired up the already committed republican. "Congratulations on beginning the destruction of the Australian monarchy," Horne wired to Kerr. "That will give you something to think about during your shameful retirement."

Horne was the face of republicanism for more than 20 years until the defeat of the 1999 referendum to replace the Queen as head of state. "His iconic publication The Lucky Country in 1964 opened up wide public discussion on an Australian republic for the first time," the chair of the Australian Republican Movement, Professor John Warhurst, said. "In his typical Australian way he bluntly asked the straightforward question: 'Is Australia alone in the world in being unable to rig up its own head of state? This is backwater colonialism, nervous of its final responsibilities.' "

Horne was born in the rural coal-mining town of Muswellbrook in 1921 and moved to Sydney after his schoolteacher father had a nervous breakdown. He had varied political views through his life, beginning at Sydney University, where he declared he was an anarchist. After a short spell in the army he became a journalist and later made the pilgrimage to London in 1950 where he became an Anglophile and monarchist. He joined the Conservative Party and fancied the idea of being an MP.

But he was brought back to Australia to edit two magazines owned by Frank Packer (father of Kerry Packer). Horne went on to edit and transform the venerable Bulletin magazine with his fight against racism and the White Australia policy which excluded non-white migrants. Underneath its masthead, the magazine's slogan was "Australia for the white man" and Horne, without reference to the bullish Packer, went to the composing room and removed the offending line of type. This was seen as a symbolic change in the way Australia saw itself.

He went on to write tirelessly on social history, biography and politics and in the 1980s became the influential chairman of the national arts board the Australia Council. He was proud of being given academic honours, despite never having graduated. "He loved it that he'd never completed a university degree and yet was made chancellor of a university," said the writer Frank Moorhouse.

In the Nineties Horne travelled widely with his second wife Myfanwy and remained prominent in public life as he took swipes at the right-wing firebrand Pauline Hanson and the Prime Minister John Howard, whom he accused of using racial policies to keep in power.

In 1998 he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. But he continued writing to the end and was working on a book called Aspects of a Terminal Illness which friends say is publishable, although unfinished. Recently he was deemed by the National Trust to be one of "Australia's living treasures".

His long-time friend the writer Edmund Campion said, "He was a true son of the enlightenment. He faced the question of what it meant to be an Australian citizen."

Christopher Zinn