In Memoriam Professor Colin A Hughes: A Queensland perspective

* This is a transcript of a speech presented by Professor Graeme Orr at the 2017 ERRN Biennial Workshop held at the University of Western Australia Club in Perth in November 2017.

Colin Hughes was a gentleman and a scholar.

In a sense, nothing more I can say will add to that epitaph.  But let us see what words can do. 

Through his long stints at both ANU and UQ, it is fair to say that Colin was one of the founders of modern studies in electoral democracy in Australia.  As others will explain, as the first formal Australian Electoral Commissioner through the initial Hawke years, Colin helped reshape the administrative and policy landscape of how Australian elections were run.

What, however, of electoral law and regulation as an academic discipline, the reason we are gathered here?

Long before researchers like Iain McMenamin and Joo-Cheong Tham mapped the empirical and regulatory domains of electoral finance and donations in Australia, Colin had been there.  For example, with his 1963 survey of the funding of parties published The Journal of Politics and (if memory serves) a study of the Australian Country Party and its campaign finances.

Heck, even before I finished my PhD on electoral bribery as a regulatory concept, Colin left his mark on that area. With a wise article, simply titled ‘Electoral Bribery’.  It reflected his deep understanding of law, electoral history and the uniqueness of the political realm.

A gentleman and a scholar…  In 1997, I was barely 30, and scraping away at the coalface at Griffith University. Colin had notionally retired from his full time life as a professor and administrator. Yet not once, but twice, he cheerfully agreed to write research papers for collections I was editing. One on the institutional aspects of electoral administrations and their independence, for the 2003 Realising Democracy book that George Williams and I collated.  The other, on electoral bribery just mentioned, for a symposium in the Griffith Law Review. Although he was retired, although he crossing disciplines – remembering however that he had practised at the bar – he was more than willing to help out an unknown academic, from a less prestigious university, who was less than half his age.

After that, he would occasionally quote a line I’d written in the symposium introduction. The line was that the law of politics, as an academic discipline, was in a ‘Cinderella stage’. I now realise that line was a bit crude. If the study of electoral regulation was in a Cinderella stage in the late 1990s, that reflected the fact that lawyers and legal academics had ignored it, or treated it as a minor subset of constitutional law. For a long time prior, political scientists had been fascinated by the politics of electoral law reform, and by the administration and political consequences of electoral rules. Colin was foremost among them:  if there was a Cinderella he was its fairy godmother.

I’ll pause for a vignette. I ran into Colin at Sydney airport once: he was deep in Trollope. He expounded on Trollope, in that unique mix of dialects that was his voice, with echoes of Britain, the Americas and Australia. And he did so with the enthusiasm only encountered in someone who is scholastic enough to be a deep reader, yet humanistic enough to be a broad thinker.

A PDF version of the In Memoriam Professor Colin A Hughes: A Queensland Perspective is available here.