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Political scientist who pioneered the field of Chinese studies




25-9-1934 7-5-2011


IAN Wilson, one of the earliest academic political scientists in Australia when he began his career at Melbourne University, the leading department in Australia in the 1950s, has died in a nursing home in Aranda, Canberra, following a series of strokes. He was 76.

Wilson was also a pioneer in Chinese political studies, based on a mastery of the language, at a time when the People's Republic was not recognised by the Australian government. His transfer to the Australian National University in 1961 began a long association that stretched to his retirement in 1997.

As an undergraduate activist, he was intimately involved in the sometimes violent politics of inner-city Richmond and the federal electorate of Yarra during the great Labor split.

One of three children born in Darwin to Helen and Eric Wilson, who was serving as the Melbourne Herald's northern correspondent, he returned with the family to its Melbourne home in Hawthorn in 1935.

He was educated first at Preshil in Kew, and then at Trinity Grammar School (1943 to 1952), where he was dux of his year in most years, and captain of both the preparatory school and the senior school. At Melbourne University his majors were political science and history and he completed his BA (Hons) in 1956.

His political activism was at the epicentre of the Labor split in Richmond, which was represented federally before 1955 by Stan Keon and at the state level by Frank Scully, both defectors to what later became the Democratic Labor Party. Wilson was only 24 years old when he was chosen as organiser for the late Dr Jim Cairns, indicating the extent to which the very tough local Labor machine trusted him. Cairns won by a large margin and the DLP disappeared from the House of Representatives.

Wilson described the local scene in his monograph The 1958 Federal Election in Yarra. This was the first publication of the newly founded Australian Political Studies Association, and unique among Australian electoral studies up to that time.

The triumph in Yarra led to him being an organiser in later elections for Kep Enderby and Susan Ryan. "Helpful, experienced and sane," was how former senator Ryan described her campaign manager.

He was also on friendly terms with a range of Labor leaders, including Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Jim Cairns, John Button, Barry Jones and Clyde Holding, who valued his experience in domestic affairs and his growing interest in China. His first visit there was in 1957 as part of a student delegation.

Wilson spent 1959 and 1960 as a senior fellow at Columbia University in New York learning Mandarin, gaining a master's in international affairs and, incidentally, visiting Cuba where he met Che Guevara in 1960.

He was appointed a lecturer in political science at ANU in 1961, and consolidated his knowledge with two years at the Chinese-language Nanyang University in Singapore between 1972 and 1974. In the process he missed the election of the Whitlam government Australia had recognised China and the Vietnam War was drawing to a close.

Between 1961 and 1996 he made more than 15 visits to China, three to North Korea and many others to Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia. Apart from expanding his knowledge, he took these opportunities to become a highly proficient photographer.

Wilson was head of the Contemporary China Centre at the ANU between 1978 and 1983. He published many articles on China and south-east Asia between 1963 and 1991, but a major funded research on the lands around the Mekong was abandoned on the death of fellow researcher Ted Chapman.

However, he found increasing strains between acting as departmental head, a university council member and president of the union. In an unpublished note he remarked that "the whole academic industry was faced with a systemic funding crisis and spending my final years unable to teach effectively and scratching for resources did not appeal".

Wilson took early retirement in 1997. Six years later he suffered the first of several strokes.

Wilson, a passionate supporter of Hawthorn Football Club, also had an excellent cricketing record, both at school and for the ANU Cricket Club.

In 1967, he married Vivian Oliphant their son, Michael was born in 1970, but they separated in 1974. His daughter, Petra, with Jennifer Jones, was born in 1983. Wilson is survived by Michael and Petra and his sister, Janet.

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