City defender led battle against 'white elephant tower'
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City defender led battle against 'white elephant tower'

Bruce Eric Kent, February 15, 1932 – September 28, 2018

"One of the most important necessities that a city must have before it can claim to be a good town," Bruce Kent wrote in a primary school essay, "is plenty of parks and open spaces". He held to this belief all his life. He was a champion of Canberra’s public amenities, a defender of its Burley Griffin plan, a formidable critic of small-minded development.

Dr Bruce Kent, who led opposition to the construction of Black Mountain Tower.

Dr Bruce Kent, who led opposition to the construction of Black Mountain Tower.

He helped defend the Aboriginal Tent Embassy when the police were told to pull it down, with his wife Ann was a founding member of the Guardians of Lake Burley Griffin and the Canberra Chapter of the Walter Burley Griffin Society, a member of the Friends of Albert Hall and the National Trust, first treasurer of Manning Clark House, and most famously and resolutely, secretary/treasurer of the Committee of Citizens to Save Black Mountain.

In March 1973 over 700 people formed the Committee to stop a ‘concrete and steel monster’, a 195 metre Post Office tower, ‘technologically bogus’ as Bruce called it on advice from expert Stephen Kaneff, being built on Black Mountain nature reserve. Their campaign was later judged ‘by far the most remarkable and historically important crusade by the men and women of Canberra in the 1970s’.

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Advised by solicitor Pamela Coward (now Burton), crowd funded but at great financial risk, fourteen Committee members took a public interest case, Bruce Kent and Others, to the ACT Supreme Court seeking an injunction to stop the tower. This was granted and subsequently upheld by the High Court. The Post Office kept building, provoking an angry demonstration at the site and a union ban. The Commonwealth Government responded with an Executive Council Minute forcing work to proceed, and the tower was completed in 1980. By then a ‘white elephant’, it is now mainly a tourist lookout, its chief legacy the strong spur the anti-campaign gave to Canberra’s environmental conscience.

Bruce’s determined civic commitment to such causes was masked by great personal charm, a quizzical and unassuming manner, an almost permanent smile, a mischievous sense of fun, and widely diverse interests. He played second violin for the fledgling Canberra Symphony Orchestra, acted at the Riverside Theatre, and helped found what became the ANU Rugby Club in 1960, becoming club captain in 1962. As lock and lineout specialist, in 1961 he captained the ACT representative side while completing his doctorate under Sir Keith Hancock.

He enjoyed surfing and once rescued a child from drowning at Rosedale Beach, was a good cricketer, from 1962 a careful lecturer, a tolerant supervisor, and a thorough researcher. A strong supporter of student participation in course design and assessment, he nonetheless thought students generally passive and conservative. Son of an Anglican clergyman, student at Geelong Grammar from 1943-9, he thought university denominational colleges elitist havens for the rich, but in 1963-5 was a famously tolerant and lively tutor then deputy warden at non-denominational Bruce Hall.

He was born on 15 February 1932 in Brighton, Melbourne, son of Beatrice Maude and Reverend Eric Deacon Kent. From school he went to Melbourne University in 1950, graduating in 1953 in History and Greek (BA). In 1954-5 he was a captain in the Melbourne University Regiment and a tutor in Australian and British History, publishing an article, ‘Agitations on the Victorian Gold Fields, 1851-4: An interpretation’, in 1954, Eureka’s centenary year.

In September 1955 he sailed as Rhodes Scholar for Victoria to Magdalen College Oxford, played for Oxford’s Greyhounds Rugby team, and graduated BPhil in 1958. Late that year he arrived at the ANU to begin his doctorate on ‘Reparation and the German Financial System, 1919-24’. He remained attached to the ANU almost all his life, a remarkable 55 years to 2013, probably longer than anyone then living.

In 1962 Dr Kent made the short but significant shift from the Institute of Advanced Studies to the School of General Studies to teach Modern History B, a course on Europe since the French Revolution, which he continued for several years. In December 1966 he married Ann Garland, a China scholar, his intellectual equal, and his partner in supporting civic-minded causes. In 1966-7 the couple lived in Garran Hall while Bruce was acting warden, and soon after Bruce began pioneering interdisciplinary teaching, notably a popular course on the French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions.

In 1970 Bruce began a series of international fellowships and exchanges as Fulbright Visiting Fellow at Stanford and Princeton. In 1975-6 he was Australia’s inaugural lecturer for the Australia-China Cultural Exchange Program, at East China Normal University in Shanghai. There he and Ann made lifelong friends, and Bruce returned to teach courses on Maoism and the Chinese revolution. In the 1980s courses with colleagues in Politics and Economics led to a BA in European Studies, and in 1984-6 Bruce was elected president of the Australian Association of European Historians.

In 1989 Oxford published his The Spoils of War: The Politics, Economics, and Diplomacy of Reparations, 1918-32, an expansion and invigoration of his doctorate, and a skilful and lucid analysis of complex, technical and often turgid material. With that powerful sense of social justice which marked his civic life, Bruce concluded Spoils of War, ‘conservative political leaders... pursued polices of hyperinflation and ruthless deflation which transferred a disproportionate share of their country’s burdens on to the shoulders of the masses of consumers and workers’. The book ‘remains the leading modern work on reparations’.

In 1990 Bruce was Academic Visitor at the London School of Economics and in 1996 Visiting Fellow at the Center of International Studies at Princeton, researching the origins of the Cold War. He retired as Reader in History in 1997, after 36 years in the department, but not before leading a campaign to slow the ANU’s corporatisation as its focus moved from teaching to burdensome and pointless form filling.

He continued his Cold War research as a Fellow in the Department of Economic History in 1998-2000, the National Europe Centre in 2001-11, the Research School of Humanities in 2012, and as a familiar figure in the Petherick Room of the National Library almost until his death. Still cheery and witty despite ill health, he died of a cardiac arrest on 28 September, leaving Ann and his sons Rohan and Cris to mourn a loving family man and a model citizen.

PS: In 1967 I needed a supervisor for a thesis on Australian soldiers in the Great War. This was thought military history, and no-one was keen until I asked Bruce as a rugby and Bruce Hall friend. He stood at his desk, serious, then nodded and said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it’. Life-changing. Thank you mate.

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