Australian Biography: HC 'Nugget' Coombs
'Nugget' Coombs (1906–1997) was Kalamunda, Western Australia.
He was one of Australia's most outstanding and influential public servants, serving and advising seven prime ministers over a 30-year period.
Coombs had a profound influence behind the scenes in business and politics and worked hard to achieve a distinctive social, economic and cultural place for all Australians, particularly Aboriginal Australians.
He was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1992.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
Well my father was a country station master and we moved around a good deal, so that it was a household which was fairly close to being transient from time to time, but my father was ... well, he was born in England, came out to ... he was the son of a marine engineer. I don't know quite what a marine engineer was, whether that was a stoker or whether it meant someone who you know, did ... although he did have some kind of professional-technical qualifications, he was drowned at ... in a river in India and as a result, my father was educated at a school that was a kind of charity. It was established for the sons of Officers of the Merchant Marine, so that he got a fairly good education, and he came to Australia when he was about 19, I think, and - or just when the railways were being established and stuff and so on - that's how he came to be there. My mother was Irish, born in Ireland, the daughter of a very well-educated man, he was a scholar of Trinity College Dublin, and he came to Australia. I don't know if - the gossip was that he got into trouble at the University and, so to speak, was sent off to the colonies - and he became the Town Clerk of York, a country town in Western Australia where my mother grew up. As a result she was - although she had a fairly normal Australian country education - she had the benefit of growing up in the company of her father who was a very well-educated man, and a great reader, and his ... had a cultivated mind, and she, you know, acquired a great deal of quality, in a way, from which I benefited. So it was a household where the books were part of life, where conversation about intellectual and cultural things was normal. And I think that had an influence on the way I grew up.
Well I don't know whether they really had any. I went to school but the fact that I ... it was not so much pressure from the family, as pressure from one of the headmasters in the school, who for some reason - he was a very good teacher, and he was very ambitious, and he ... There were a set of scholarships set up by the government; 50 scholarships to get into a secondary school and perhaps a whole lot of access to education in Western Australia at that time, and he was very anxious that the school should get some, and he picked me out and made me step out and miss a year of one class to move up one, so that I could sit for this examination and, well, give the right age. And he bullied me and incited me and stimulated me so I got the 49th out of the 50 scholarships.
Well I just made it, yes.
Well he thought I had potential, you know, rather than that I did. I was never very interested in school, even right through to secondary school when I was at Modern School, I was more interested in cricket ... games, than I was in - but I had continued to be a reader and to be interested in those things. But the first time I became interested in the education that was being provided was when I went to teachers college, where they suddenly were running the training course rather like what we would now call a university college. You know, the subject matter, and we did, oh, logic and psychology and philosophy and these things as well as educational theory and so on, so that and I got - and also economics - I got interested in those things because the subject matter was interesting. It wasn't just doing this to pass the examination on the top - that was quite an important thing - so I had good reason to be grateful to that particular headmaster at ... as I say who decided that I was going to confer credit on his school you see. Actually he did too, because we got several of those scholarships from the school while he was there, and it had never had done before, and, in fact, most of the scholarships used to go to the - the children from Perth of the big, you know, private schools and from the bigger state schools too.
Well I began to connect them with ideas when I got into the teachers college, and then after that when I went out teaching I did my university course part time, you know by correspondence.
I did ... that change of the subject of it you know, made a tremendous difference to the quality of my performance. I mean our primary school and secondary school, oh, I was a pretty ordinary scholar - I always passed but ...
Never came top, but once I got into teachers college, I did come top for a number of things, and at the university, particularly in economics and philosophy and things like that I began to get occasional distinctions and credits and so on. So that I got a First Class Honours Degree from there and, on the basis of that, won the Hackett Scholarship to do postgraduate studies in England. There was nowhere in Australia where you could do postgraduate work in economics in those days.
Well as I was saying, it was a home in which - it was a pretty happy home, my father and mother were very affectionate, affectionate towards one another and towards the children and ...
There were five all together. I had an elder brother who died when he was about six, and I had four sisters all younger than me, so that for most of my life I was the eldest in the family, and ...
And the only son. Yes that ... And consequently I had fairly considerable domestic responsibilities, you know, I looked after the girls and nursed the babies and I learnt to be a good cook. At the age of about 11, I think it was, my mother had to go to hospital for an operation, the nature of which I don't - I don't think I've ever known, and she was in hospital for some weeks, and I kept house, did all the cooking, cleaned the house and all that - did the washing and all those things because my father was - he was a kindly man, but he thought that a husband was doing his performing properly if he stayed out of the kitchen, didn't interfere. 'I never interfere in the kitchen', he used to say, and so - so I interfered in the kitchen.
I suppose not, but I think it was much more common in the country and, yeah well - I don't remember feeling that it was unusual, or - I think in the country all children, if they were on a farm, they had jobs to do: they did the milking, or they brought the cows in and that kind of thing, but if they didn't do those things, they had regular routine jobs and so on. I think every boy or girl that I knew at school, they all did those ... things like that, that was normal, and part of growing up.
Well, many of them were the daughters and children of people who ran farms in the area. The majority I think - well I could you know - [were] like us, my family, people who had functions in the town. They work you know, and their parents - fathers work in the post office, or the railway or they ... oh shire council or ... that and there were the butcher and the baker and that and those sort of things, so that and ... the policeman and ...
Yeah, there were a few in Bridgetown, not very many. The main thing I remember about them was that they were very good at football. But I didn't become aware of them in school really, until I became a teacher when I taught, in particular the first - when I started as a kind of pupil teacher, a monitor they used to call us and I was given a small group of students to teach myself, and the headmaster coming in from time to time to keep me on the right lines and so on, and there were a couple of Aboriginal children, brother and sister in that group, so I did see a bit of them but mostly the first real experience was in two places, Katanning and Pingelly, where I taught after I came out of teachers college, where there was quite a significant proportion of the children who were Aboriginal and I was horrified by the experience which they were subjected to. They didn't get any attention, educationally, they were usually thrust up the back of the class and ignored and they always passed at the end of the year because every teacher was determined to move them on out of their area of concern. So that that - and I became concerned about that - and it was during that time that I taught for a while on an emergency basis in a one-teacher school out of Katanning, where there were about, oh, nearly half the children in that school - the school only had about somewhere between twenty and thirty - but there were one or two Aboriginal families. And that was a very interesting experience because one, a girl I remember was really very able. She was a very good student and she mothered the brothers, bullied them into doing things but I was aware very much of the kind of handicaps that educationally, that Aboriginal children were suffering under, and also I became aware of the really bad racial antagonism that there was towards them in some of the country towns.
Well, my, both my parents would have been - not that they knew much about Aborigines - but they certainly would have been kindly and tolerant towards them. That kind of almost intuitive antagonism which seemed to be characteristic of country people wasn't characteristic of them. And certainly my mother was a very ... oh, I was going to say very religious; I mean religion was important to her, and well, we were a churchgoing family.
Ah, it was an Anglican Church, although my father had been brought up in a nonconformist ... you know. But he, under my mother's influence, I think by the time I came around, we were going to the Church of England and I was in the choir and I went to Sunday School, all those things. But my mother had a very ... oh, I suppose our mother was ... can call her a kind of Christian Socialist. I mean, she believed that Christianity meant what it said about sharing and ... being - having care for other people and things like that, and that certainly influenced in my ways of thinking and was perhaps the reason why I was shocked by what seemed to me to be indifference and antagonism.
No, oh I mean ah! Ah, no, I didn't think of it really in that way, I don't remember I - some of it of course was ... oh, I remember saying to a woman one of the things that puzzled me was that people, particularly women in this town, who were really very generous, kindly people in my relationships with them, still shared this hostility, this antagonism. And I said to one woman with whom I'd become friendly, not - she was a much older woman - but I knew her children and so on, and I asked her why, and I always remember what she said. She looked at me and said, 'Well I'll tell you. If you were a woman and you went down the street on shopping night, and you saw children whom you knew were your husband's children, how would you feel?'. I thought - I didn't think - I said, 'I might hate my husband, but I wouldn't hate the kids'. But that was a real factor in the little community in a kind of reserve I suppose, and many of the children who were black were the ones who were half-castes in that town. So that was part of this background to that hostility. It was very strange experience, but one of the things this has always struck me about that country life was the degree to which certain antagonisms were normal or expected. For instance in Bridgetown, the country town that I may have spent most of my formative years of childhood, the religious antagonisms were very very strong. It was proper to hate Catholics. Oh, I don't ... well we didn't have very many other varieties but they went to a different school, they went to a different church, and you didn't talk to them, you know. At least if you did you felt a bit guilty about it so ... and the stories would be you know; we used to go around about the terrible things that they did, so that - you grew up, if you were just responding to the kind of talk and so on that you heard, you grew up with [an] almost instinctive antagonism towards Catholics.
No I don't think I shared it because my mother didn't share it you see, and she was -
She was Irish yes, but she was not a Catholic, she was - her father was a Protestant.
Hmm? Yes I thought so. Still think so. Yeah, but so in a way I think the kind of atmosphere of the home and the sort of books that were lying around for me to read and so on, and conversations that took place over dinner were of a kind which ran counter to prejudicial kind of attitudes.
Yeah I think so.
Christian kind of ... say justification.
(intake of breath) Well it's very mixed. I was, in a way I was very disappointed. I went having ... with a passionately concerned about economics. It was the time of the Great Depression and the things that were brooded about when I was at the university in Perth and which were the motivation for my going to doing economics and I'd been really, so to speak, educated or brought up on the teachings of the Cambridge University teachers which included people like Keynes and so on, although he was just on his way up then. And I found when I got to the London School of Economics that the teachers of economics were very conservative. They were very much influenced by monetary kind of policy, theory based upon the teachings of Austrian economists and so on, with which I didn't feel much sympathy. But [the] main task of the PhD degree was, of course, the preparation of a thesis, and I had an idea when I went of what I wanted to do, you know, to write the thesis. So that was the major thing, and so far as the learning aspects of attending the lectures and participating in seminars and so on, that was very flexible. You could really plan your own course and I did that. I attended lectures to fill in gaps in my - what I felt to be gaps in my training and my experience, and I went to listen to people that I thought were interesting and one quite interesting thing was that it was the London School of Economics and Political Science, and these two parts of the University of the economists and the political scientists were really at daggers drawn. The political scientists were headed by Professor Laski who was a ... I don't know he - but I think he must have been European in origin or family was. He was Professor of Law really, oh, but he was a Marxist, and so were all the students in political science there, and so the university was a kind of hotbed of dispute between the conservative economists and the Marxist political scientists as they called themselves. And they used to run quite separate seminars, you know the whole course was ... where you either went to the economists' ones or you went to the whatyacalls, but Laski, who was a very interesting man, he used to have a seminar which you only got into by invitation and they didn't appear in the calendar, where he invited people who he thought were good students from economics and from political science to meet in his room and to argue with, to debate. And he used to lie back on a sofa you know, and just throw in a word when this argument seemed to be flagging see. So, it was great fun at any rate, and he invited me to go to one of these. And from then on I went regularly to this. So that was a very intellectually very stimulating thing because they read very widely and I was interested in politics, and well you can't be an economist if you're not. So that was amongst the most stimulating aspects of my period there. But I found doing the whole thing really quite a burden. See, I got married the day we left Perth to go to London. Our first baby was born nine months later so to speak, and well, as I say, I had the thesis to do, I had the work to do, I had to be quite a lot in the household with my wife pregnant and the rest of it. And also ... a whole lot of things we wanted to do to do. To go to theatre and to travel a bit here and there, and to visit relatives of my wife and myself and so on, so that I found the whole thing, while it was stimulating and I got great benefit from it, but I can't say that I enjoyed it, you know I found it a burden.
Well it was an examination of the policies adopted by the governments and central banks of the four British Dominions as we called them then - you know, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia - during the Depression, looking at the theoretical basis of the decisions that they made and working towards ... oh well, a kind of theory which linked trade cycle theory and but also ...
That was 1931, '32 and a bit of '33.
Many people have remarked on the fact that when you wrote Trial Balance, instead of beginning it in 1906 'Herbert Cole Coombs was born in Western Australia', you begin in 1936. 'John Maynard Keynes published his General Theory and this was the seminal event in the life of ...'
Yeah, well it was you see, because by that time, the reason that in a sense I was being bullied into writing Trial Balance was that people wanted to know, to hear about the things that I had done during the War and then in [the] Post-War Reconstruction period and so they were ... they were looking for information about government and government policy I think, but also, of course, I think you know that all the best epics begin in the middle. Isn't that right?
Well, it could also have reflected the fact that your intellectual life seems to have been very central, and very important to you. And I suppose in some ways that was reflected in that that was where you began with what really had led you to form a lot of your own views, about what should be done in the world.
Oh yes, that's, yes, certainly true, but also I think even from the point of view of wanting to know about what happened - my childhood and education - in a sense you understand them better, I think, if you know something about where it's going.
You said that the importance of economics had become clear to you because of living through the Depression and, of course obviously, it was the Depression that pushed and forced the school of thought that finally gave rise to Keynes' General Theory to develop. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about the Depression as you experienced it in in Western Australia, and in London.
Well, personally, I was one of the very lucky ones that it, the Depression in Western Australia, imposed no personal hardship on me. I was by that time in the process of becoming a qualified teacher, I had a job and while I think I earned 78 pounds a year as a pupil-teacher, monitor or whatever, and I felt I contributed a pound a week of that to my units of the ... maintaining the household and so on, and thought I was maintaining it all really you see, but it was surprisingly adequate. But on the other hand my sisters, who did just as well and indeed better than I did at school, well one of them found that she qualified as a teacher but when she - her training course was over - there was no job for her in the school and she had a period of unemployment, or at least of employment other than as a teacher until the position changed a bit and they were recruiting teachers again. So that there was some degree of hardship in the family but it wasn't really serious. But I was aware of it as affecting other people and situations. But London was different from that because while London was spared the worst of the impact of the Depression in England, it was nevertheless much more obvious ... particularly to me than its effects in Western Australia had been. That was partly because one of the things that I did or had to do while I was in London, in addition to doing the thesis and the rest of these things, I registered myself at the London County Council School as a qualified teacher, which meant that they could offer me short-term employment. Now they'd ring me up or send a message saying there's someone away from Hammerstead High, or someone from Shoreditch Primary or something or other, would you be interested in a week's work or three weeks' work or such? Well I've - this was against the rules of the University to do that in term time - so I began by saying only to accepting it only during vacation times. But the vacations were quite a lot and you know I was supposed to be, I mean was working on my thesis but I did teach and after a while as things got on, and money became scarcer oh, you know, I used to take them for particularly the shorter term ones during term time too or see - not reporting this to the London School of Economics. As a result of which I taught in the slums of London, I taught in the middleclass - Highgate and Kensington and so on - but also in Shoreditch and all sorts of places so that I saw a cross-section of London life, kids, and it was not a very pleasant experience because the kids suffered very badly in the Depression. They were short of food, they - and they - rickets were common amongst the kids and, you know, they were pasty faced and skinny and miserable looking. And that was a distressing kind of experience and there must have been much, much worse in Wales and Yorkshire and the places where unemployment had hit the factories and so on. London - well, it was mainly at a town and government and the offices and shops and all - so that, you know, they didn't ... were not quite so badly off - but it was enough any rate to intensify my concern about the economic system and my, I think, conviction that - it wasn't operating either. Certainly not operating fairly but it was not even operating efficiently. So that it was - it intensified my anxiety to understand it.
Well as I think I said earlier, in the literary - from the literary point of view it - well we were certainly a literate family, but books were part of life and important - so that was my mother's influence particularly, she read everything. And she talked to me, she saw that I had books and so on, and we talked about them, so that that was important. But apart from that, a major source of what you might call that artistic or cultural influence was the church. As I said, I went to church regularly, I went to Sunday School, I sang in the choir but as a result you see the - I was very interested in that program that the ABC had on the other night about the English language and the influence of the St James, ah King James version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer and also that the readings from the Bible which were part of the church service and so on and the bits I had to memorise for the Sunday School you know, all that. That kind of thing, but also, it introduced me to well, to music. Not that I ... I wasn't musical although one of the things which was characteristic of the time was that I was not allowed to learn music because my sisters had to learn music and they had to have some privileges see so I didn't learn music, but as I say I didn't really acquire any significant expertise in music, but at any rate, I was fed music by my sisters. One of my sisters proved to be a very good pianist and played the organ, you know the organ for church - and consequently that kind of music - church music and well - some basic classical music was part of the family life and so that goes. But I think the ... see I think of, in a way, poetry was very badly taught in schools and so on, but those sources, the religious sources you know, the Anglican Liturgy and the readings from the Bible and those things, they were a kind of introduction to poetry of ... and that has stayed with ... that interest in words and their arrangement and so on, it's been a factor in my life all through. But I, apart from that, well I think the kind of introduction that you get to art in schools, in those days at any rate, and I think it doesn't [get] much better now, was probably my - better without it rather than those but still some of the wife of the teacher who bullied me into taking some academic success was a very good pianist and she was ... oh, I mean, played for the dances and - but also did play classical music which ... and I used to hear this when I ... So those were things which I acquired without having, being consciously taught about them or anything.
Oh, I acted in some plays at teachers college as a ... Bernard Shaw and James Barry and people like that went a little so, but that's ... and I went, oh, to concerts, I heard Madame Melba sing one of her farewells. So, but no I ... but I don't remember being particularly interested in - oh, I went to art galleries and so on, but that was pretty much a matter of choosing a night out - I remember being very impressed with that experience, but I didn't really become interested in the theatre until I became involved in the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, I suppose.
No, no, they are, as I say, except ... my only real artistic experience, that I had as a child and as a young man, a teenager and so on, was literary.
But well, well, but I did all of that you know. We went regularly to the Old Vic you know, both all the Shakespearean plays and all the contemporary plays and to the ballet and to the opera. Opera was quite a long time before I could take an interest in opera. In fact I don't think I ever got any real pleasure out of it until I became involved in that - in the formation of the Opera Company in the ...
Ah, well I ... my response to it was, it was so artificial, you know the ... it was a long time, it took actually a long time to realise that that doesn't matter, that the idea that you would make love to a girl by standing about like this and, beefing it out ha, ah.
It wasn't the way I did it or the way - even the way I thought about doing it. So I think that's probably what it was, but well the - I've become really very ... I took to ballet very very quickly. I can remember getting very great pleasure. I saw Pavlova dance the Dying Swan you know, in the theatre in Perth. And, oh, later on we saw ... but that was like football you know, it was movement and I had to ... and I got the thrill of, you know, of movement and bodies in motion, which I think - well it's a very natural kind of thing to get pleasure from, I think. So, but apart from that and the business of performing in plays, I didn't really - haven't got much from my childhood or ... apart from as I say from going to the theatre in London, but that was, so to speak, was London, it was England, it was, you know, Europe that I was interested in I suppose really.
Oh, well, mainly I got lots of things that I remember with Shakespeare really, it was ...
That's right yes.
I don't think that was why I - you know I liked it but it's - but I think I ... well, you know [it] was in my program. Why it was in my program, that while I was there I didn't know whether I'd ever get back to it - Europe - and there I felt that I had to combine experience in those aspects of European life as a part of the purpose of being there. So that it was neither of the factors which made it a really jammed up sort of set of experiences.
When you came back to Australia, with a PhD under your belt, and some awareness of the latest economic trends that were happening overseas, what did you think you'd do? Did it ever occur to you that you might move into the private sector and make a lot of money, or what was in your mind?
Well I don't think that was. No I always had the idea that I wanted to be involved in some way in economic - you know I mean economic management. That was the reason why I chose the topic for my thesis and I had made contact [with] the Professor I worked with in Perth, Professor Shan. He was really an economic historian, but he was the Professor of both economics and economic history. He was not a good ... he was not a great economist but he was a very good teacher, and also he was a man that liked argument, and we became very good friends because he was ... as an economist, he was very conservative, and whereas I was, by that time, very critical of the way the economic system was working. So the classes were very small, the seminars were half a dozen people, so that there was a great opportunity to discuss issues, and I ... so that that was really very, a very important part of my education as an economist, that half the time I decided while I thought about things, by disagreeing with what he said he thought. Yeah, but he had that gift of seeing debate as a pedagogic instrument, this teaching, so that was, that was really quite important. Ah, while I was doing my ... I did [an] MA thesis before I went to England and while I was doing that, he was invited by the Bank of New South Wales to act as a kind of adviser to them on economic policy during the Depression, and as a result of the ... he and the university asked me whether I would take some of the courses, teach some of the courses which he had been teaching before. So that I did that and that was quite a constructive exercise. But the point that I wanted to make was that as a result of this very close relationship with him, when he went to work in the Bank of New South Wales on a term of two years I think it was, as an economic adviser, he became friendly and involved with Melville who was the economist at the Commonwealth Bank at that time, and they worked together on some of the issues about policy for the Depression and things of that kind, and he talked to Melville about me, suggesting that, you know, a valuable field for me to work in might be to work for the Commonwealth Bank in their economist department. So I had that possibility in my mind from before I went to London, and it was always, in a way, part of my agenda, that I was going to try and do it that way and that it ... While I was in London, Melville and Shan both came to London to an economic conference, you know, an Empire conference, conference of the British Commonwealth about economic matters, just after that conference in Ottawa at that trade thing, and I met Melville and we had various discussions and the possibility of my going to work for him or work in his department at the bank was mentioned as a possibility. Ah no commitments were made or anything you know, but he just said, well it might even be nice if something like that could happen so that that was there for the way my career, so to speak, began to be mapped out. To go into that kind of work.
No. I went ... oh, when I came back I went back to teaching in a school in Perth, but by this time the university asked me to do some lecturing, and also there was a technical college which ran, amongst other things, some courses in economics and I gave lectures at the university and at the technical college while I was teaching during the day - but in evening lectures, things like that so that - but all were during that time, I was about 18 months in Perth I think after I came back. When I was back in the Education Department, then I got the offer to join the Commonwealth Bank. Well at least the issue was raised and there was apparently a ... must have been quite high level discussion about it, not so much about me but about whether the Commonwealth Bank should have such a thing as a ...
Banking that's - I was interviewed by Casey who was ... he was the Treasurer, I think, at the time, and I was very flattered by this. To think that I - just I - should be interviewed by the ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well I wasn't the Economic Adviser, I was just an offsider to Melville. I was called an Assistant Economi[st] ... the Assistant Economist. There was only one economist and one assistant and to some degree I did kind of statistical work. I can remember trying to compile an index relating to the structure of the manufacturing industry in Australia, classifying companies and things. So that some of it was more semi-mechanical like that. But of course it was also about government policy of the time and there were enquiries, and very shortly after I got there, when it became evident that - when we were heading for trouble in Europe with the war coming up and things like that - well it became a possibility, the government in Canberra set up two committees in a way to prepare for the war. One was called the Economic and Finance Committee, which consisted of three or four of the leading academic economists together with Roland Wilson who was the statistician, the only qualified economist in the Commonwealth Public Service at that time, as a committee looking at economic and financial policy for wartime activities. And the other one was an examination of our international trade to identify problems of what could occur if we went to war and lines of communication were interrupted and we found difficulty in selling our exports and things like that. And I was appointed to that committee but also Melville was appointed to the one about the - at least worked with the one about economic and financial policy. So we really worked on both of them together. He went to one of them and I went to the other. Also I was anxious to continue contact with the university and I used to attend seminars, staff seminars run by Professor Mills, who was the Professor of Economics, at which the various teaching staff used to discuss contemporary literature including Keynes and some of those - some of the other people who were writing at that time. And arising out of that, they asked a friend of mine who had been at university in Perth with me [who] was teaching economic history at Sydney and he wanted to ... he had study leave due to him, but he was told he could only have the study leave if he could find someone who would take his courses including one on the history of economic thought. And he asked me whether I would take this class for him and I said, 'But I don't know anything about it, I never even, have never look really studied the history of economic thought'. 'Oh', he says, 'You could read it up you know'. Anyway finally I was persuaded and I accepted that, which was really a very enlightening experience because it was my real introduction to the classics, economic classics, to Adam Smith and to John Stewart Mill and to Marx and to the really great men of the origins of economics: and since I had to teach it, I really had to read it.
Well that's right, my acquaintance with them up to that time had been entirely that they were mentioned in textbooks, and I had read bits about them. I could quote from them, but the quotes were all second-hand too. But that was a very, very valuable experience for me because I gained a tremendous amount from that and those original writings have influenced me very profoundly in my thinking ever since.
Keynes, that's right.
Were you able to apply any of the new ideas you'd been developing and acquiring overseas to actual practical problems that existed in Australia or in these problems that you were looking at in preparation for war?
Well it was. I mean Melville and I argue[d] - you continue the kind of education by argument - because we too had a different kind of general approach, in that sense, to the subject matter, but I don't really remember having been influenced so much by Keynesian and similar things in practical problems, except second-hand through Melville for that Finance and Economic Committee where we discussed the kind of financial and other aspects of policy which would be required if the Government went to war, so to speak. You know, how you would shift resources towards those things, and a whole lot of theoretical questions, so that to some extent it influenced me there, not so much on the trade issue. But really those things only came alive in the sense of - when I went to work in Canberra, which I did in - just after the outbreak of war. I was lent by the bank to the Treasury to act as Economist to the Treasury, the only economist on the Treasury staff at that time. Now they've got hundreds of them, but at any rate, so that was a ... but then, of course, these issues about financial policy and the kind of theory that Keynes was advocating, you know the idea of working towards a level of expenditure which got - produced full employment, things like that became practical issues, when you had to find resources out of the total to put into this aspect of the war effort and that aspect of the war efforts. Where did they come from, what was the effect of them - that taking those out on the civilian population and so on. Or the Keynesian theory, the whole structure on which his work was based became bread and butter, in the working out of economic and financial policy once we were involved in the war.
Oh it was. It was tremendously exciting, yes. I mean in a way it was ... I think it was in terms of my attitude towards military issues. I was a pacifist and indeed you know the question of whether I should enlist was an issue that every man of that age group had to think about and I was concerned about this or I didn't know, quite know how I was going to manage it, but I remained a pacifist and opposed to the war on political grounds and so on. But the idea of being working on how you sought to manage the war so that the impact of it on people was minimi[sed], adverse effect was minimised. That sort of gave me a kind of intellectual escape from the dilemma of how a pacifist could work in you know, and this became a very alive issue. It's when I was put in charge of rationing, because for the first time what I was doing was protecting the civilian population's share of the resources. Seeing that they got a fair crack of the whip and individual people got a fair deal and so on. And it was very interesting because it meant when I came to recruit staff for the rationing, I got a very able staff, very highly motivated because it was a job that appealed to people who had that kind of motivation. So that - but that was, you know, the conduct of the war, particularly in Australia, more so than anywhere else, was, it seemed to me at the time and has always seemed to me so ever since, was an exercise in Keynesian economics. How do you manage this in terms of Keynesian theory? And that was partly because I was involved and was committed on this, but also because there were people from Sydney University, teachers from there who also came into the bureaucracy to manage different aspects of the war and we shared this common intellectual approach to these problems. We were all Keynesians, so see ...
Well I think it did. Certainly it made trying to understand the problems very much easier when you had a framework which was applicable and which led to answers. In fact, you know, I still believe that as a kind of working framework for thinking about economic policy issues, Keynesian theory, you know, with a Keynesian framework the model, is still one of the best working tools.
Ah, well I think it assumed that the purpose of economic management was ... to use all the resources - including human resources - to use them in a way which was approaching a more equitable use than previously existed. So in a way, Keynesian theory was a theory which was sympathetic to what you might call small 'l' liberal thinking about the way - it was not socialist, it wasn't - it didn't say well we must destroy the existing system, but we must manage it so that there are jobs for everybody. There are the things that are produced [which] are the things that people need and oh, so that you have ... But then if you - when you had people whose mind, whose concern was much more in quantitative terms in the way - how much good they had [to] measure the total output and also prosperity of industry and commerce becoming a criteria of policy rather than equity or them.
Well at any rate it led itself to thinking in those kind of terms - but certainly I think the big change was well - see, as Keynesian stuff was pushed on one side, it was followed by monetarism, that the most important thing was the money supply and who had it, and the price you paid for it, and all those sort of things, which was quite a different kind of model and it was of interest to different kinds - people who thought in different kinds of ways.
Do you think it would have been possible for some of the new ideas, about money management as being the prime factor in managing the economy, do you think that might have been able to be adapted into a Keynesian model?
Oh, well certainly I think that the period when I was at the Commonwealth and Reserve Bank was a period - I saw it as a period which was a continuation of the war-time policy of using the Keynesian model as the instrument for analysis and exposition of what monetary policy [was] at the time. Most of the stuff that was written at that time of course was internal, but I did a series of lectures which were published subsequently as Other People's Money. Of course, that's what I thought we were doing, managing other people's money. But that was Keynesian, there's no doubt about that but it was; well and I think so. Until I left the bank, the intellectual thinking in the bank, in the economist department and in the managerial section of the top management, the debate was conducted essentially in Keynesian terms.
Oh. Well I mean, the main Keynesian aspect of it was that you looked at the total resources available and argued that a certain amount of those resources had to be reserved for the maintenance of economic activity in the civil sector. If you put it all into the war, you'd lose the war because your population would starve and you wouldn't even be able to feed, feed and clothe and so on, your armies. So that in that sense it was fairly simply economic theory then and it's still there. My role there was still part of the conduct of the war. The rationing part of it was simply a distributional exercise; it was establishing a system by which there was equality of access to the goods available. What there was available was a question of how much you could produce with that section of the resources reserved for the civilian population, less what you wanted to send overseas to other ... you know to Britain and so on.
Ahhh. Oh well I think not so much. Well the decisions about what should be rationed were based upon two things. One, that when the resources got down to the level where they - you know, people couldn't walk into shops and buy them - that they weren't, things weren't on the shelves, then that they had to be rationed or [you'd] have chaos. In the period where ... leading up to the actual start of rationing, there was a period where the clothing ... or shops selling all those kind of things used to open at nine o'clock and close at five past, because there was just not enough production to satisfy possible demand and once people realised that things were getting scarce of course, they grabbed everything they could get. So that there was that period of about six weeks while we worked out a system of rationing but there was absolute chaos. And if it hadn't been for that chaos I suppose it might have been much more difficult to introduce rationing, but people realised straight away that okay, there weren't going to be dresses and socks and that on the shelves, and if you were going to get some, there had to be some way in which you got your fair share. And that was the motto, we had this all around the country - fair shares. Fair shares, fair shares - heading at every press statement, every advertisement, everything coming from the rationing commission was headed fair shares, and it - that's what it was. It was [the] introduction of a second form of currency which allocated the goods not merely to the people who could pay for them, but to the people of - a quantitative fair share. Now of course ... calculating fair shares is pretty arbitrary and therefore people were dissatisfied. They felt that - well there ought to be more; but even apart from that, they should get more than they were getting and so on. And when restraints were put upon the degree to which they could borrow somebody else's or they could give some of theirs to somebody else and constraints on those things, there was resentment about that. And, of course, there was resentment about the whole business of having to have coupons and on the things that were rationed by - in ways other than coupons - the antagonisms coming from people who couldn't buy beer and couldn't buy cigarettes and all these things, because they were simply rationed by cutting down the supply that the retailers got, and it was left to the retailers to decide who got it. Well, believe me, the antagonisms that were generated by the people who didn't want to crawl to the tobacconists to get a packet of cigarettes was pretty bitter. Believe me. So that it was a very interesting exercise. We had a Complaints Department and I can remember on one occasion having and they ... I had a complaint from the church about how my staff had been rude to ... rude to the Archbishop.
Oh yes, there was a steady stream of them I suppose. I think we felt at the time that on the whole the community accepted it very well, but that didn't mean there weren't any complaints and it ... Mind we did have quite an elaborate set up for receiving complaints and making sure that they were dealt with if possible, and answered in any case. It was in correlation to one of those letters that a rather amusing incident arose. We had a letter from the Archbishop of Melbourne, saying - complaining that he didn't have enough tea and he had to entertain visiting clergy and things like that, and he wanted a special allowance and - but he, as he could - fashion required of Archbishops in those days - he signed himself John, or whatever his Christian name was, Melbourne. And so the girl who was doing the work on this, who was a girl from the ... working in the university who - she was very efficient and blunt, and she wrote back, Dear Mr Melbourne, you can't have any more tea you see, and if you have guests coming you'd better ask them to bring their own coupons or something of that kind of ... yes. Oh, another one that I found quite amusing at the time was that one of the things we had to do, apart from the rationing through the coupons, was to persuade people to use less materials and things which were pretty scarce and this was particularly important for uniforms and I had some bother with the the Nurses Association or whatever they called it, because they were really, in those times, very extravagant in the use of material for nurses' uniforms including great veils and dresses that came right down to their sleeves [sic] and all that sort of thing. And so I went to consult with the Head of the Nursing Service about this and, oh, she was most dismissive, she just wasn't prepared to contemplate any change at all. So I went on with my usual spiel about how important it was and I said, 'You know you don't really need the veils that come right down to there, below their waist and if you want a veil well you could have it up to here. You don't really need to have skirts that cover their ankles so they ...' So she said, 'Dr Coombs, I will not have my male patients disturbed by the sight of naked female flesh!'. And I thought, and I said, 'I think you underestimate your patients' imagination'. So I didn't get anywhere, but I sure I - actually they did make some changes finally but it was a very reluctant exercise. I liked this business about protecting the males from the sight of female flesh lest it should disturb them.
Oh there were quite a lot of things like that that, you know, caused some entertainment. We had quite an interesting group you see that by the time all the rationing became necessary, nearly everybody was in war work, so either in the forces or in the services and so I recruited people from universities, some of them teachers and really actually teaching and doing postgraduate work and so on like that and so that we had a very - particularly in the central administrative ... We had a very bright and intelligent group of people you know, really very high, highly qualified and which made the whole thing a very pleasant ex - ex and we it was very hard work, and but it was good to be able to do it in the company of really very interesting people and who know much. They were young and lively and on the whole they came to it because many of them were opposed, in a way, emotionally to the war and to wars generally. And they saw this as a way of satisfying the social demand that they should be involved, but being concerned with a job which we saw and presented as a protection of equality and the ... It was a way of guaranteeing that everybody got a fair share and fair shares became a kind of motto, and of course they composed limericks about it and all sorts of things like that which I can't remember at the moment, but it was somewhat hilarious meetings we used to go on with. So a very young bureaucratic bureaucracy it was at the Central Bank.
Yes, well that was a very interesting journey really because I had not really had anything to do with with Dr Evatt and I went on that journey which was a journey which arose out of his concerns in foreign affairs, and essentially it was to try and persuade the then President of the United States that General Macarthur, who was conducting the war in the Pacific, should get more resources because we in Australia thought that the Japanese part of the war was much more important than most Europeans did. We couldn't get any help out of Churchill for the or anything you like. He just thought that the main function of Australia in the war was to send forces over for him to send off somewhere in Europe. And so that was his purpose but I had nothing whatsoever to do with - had to have nothing to do with that part of the work, of the problem of the war at all. But it was at a time when the beginning of the negotiations leading up to the post-war settlement were beginning, and they had a first conference - post-war kind of a conference related to post-war things. It was a conference on food and agriculture. We set up the FAO, the international organisation, and it was, in an odd sort of way, an Australian initiative, because Lord Bruce who was our High Commissioner in London, had a very strange young chap who'd worked in Australia. He actually was English by origin, McDougall, and he had been a soldier-settler in Australia after the First World War, and he had grown dried fruits I think down the Murray Valley or something like that. But he wasn't really a good farmer, but he was a good writer in a kind of way, and he had a lively mind, and he generated this idea that the solution to the problems of the Depression in agriculture at that time, was to switch to combine to direct agricultures the dealing was the problems of food; feeding. That instead of growing simply for profits you know, that the agriculture should be planned so that it developed in the right places, the kind of products, which would facilitate, enable people to be fed better, and for poor people to get the basic requirements and so on. And he talked to Lord Bruce about this, and Bruce became quite interested in the idea, and it became the basis of the British food policy during the war, that they redirected the whole of British agriculture, and Irish agriculture too, so that it produced the essential - oh, things that ... locally for an adequate diet for people - and this was really very interesting, because it was so successful. It meant that, for instance, that British children, during the war, were for the first time decently fed, at least since the Industrial Revolution, and I think I mentioned to you how I saw a lot of English children in London during the ... when I was over there as a student, and how I did see them during the the war. So what was very interesting was that compared with the '30s when I was there as a student, that the time when I went there during the war there was an astonishing improvement of the health of the children, because this whole policy of basing agriculture in Britain had enabled them to produce milk and fruit, you know the things that were protective foodstuffs. And it also came into the transport question, that those things are very difficult to transport, you've gotta have ... so they concentrated the transport of things on wheat, you know bulk things, that were easy and cheap to transport, and so that. Anyrate that's all rather a long-winded story to explain how I came to be there because I attended that first conference and [it] was a very very interesting one because it was the last conference at which the Russians attended as our noble allies you see. Because very shortly after that they became the focus of the cold war, you know even before the war was over. And so I got to know some of the Russian delegates really quite well. So when we come to those funny stories, I'll tell you one about my introduction to vodka.
Yes it did you see.
Yes, well it was, it was my first introduction in international negotiations too. But I - amongst other things at that time, I was very - well I was interested in trade aspects - and I had an idea that there was ... that one of the problems of that war-time period was a problem about transport, and both for our products and others that we needed. And I had an idea that there was a basis for a shipping establishment with fish ... a service of boats and liners, between Vladivostok and Sydney, and that we could bring paper and timber and things that were plentiful in the Eastern Provinces of what was then Russia, and we could send them wheat. They - that time, the whole of those Eastern Provinces was dependent upon wheat grown in the Western part of ... right up in the Ukraine and places like that, and the transport was very, very expensive and very slow across the - along the trans - ah, what do they call it, the railway ...
Trans-Siberian Railway, so that I thought this was quite a good idea and I happened to meet the head of the Russian delegation and you know, by way of making conversation I told him that I, that I had this idea and he said, 'That's wonderful, that's a wonderful idea, you must come to have ... we'll have a party for you and your delegates must come to this party and we'll talk about that, this thing'. So I thought this was a good idea and I went along, and we all went and it was you know. So we started to talk about this but fairly early in the conversation a chap appears with a tray of drinks which was vodka in what looked to me and I still envisage it though, glasses that were like the size of a claret glass you see. Any rate I said, 'Look I've never drunk vodka and what - you know, what's the drill, how - what do you do?'. And so he said, 'Well, there's some caviar there', he says, 'You grab a handful of caviar and you put that into your mouth and then you toss the vodka down on top, you see in one fell swallow you see'. So I ... it was a bit of a jolt but I did that and we went on talking about this great idea of mine, but after a while - we were making really good progress - but the chap came around with the drinks again you see, so I repeated this drill, grabbing the caviar but within about oh, 30 seconds I suppose, I realised that I was not merely drunk but I was absolutely blotto; and it was as much as I had to excuse myself and get out before I collapsed on the floor or something like that. And it was fortunately that this particular party was being held in the hotel where we were all living, so I just had to get out the door and down the passage. And so I started to go out but I was very - went out the door laughing fit to kill myself, because as I passed near the door there was one of our delegates from the Department of Trade or whatever, who was one of these people who hated Russians you know, a real vitriolic and here he had some big Georgian up against the wall like this, explaining to him in words of one syllable why he hated the Russians. You see. Probably the Georgian did too, but he didn't understand a word of what was being said, but it was so funny to me with this. He - I think he'd had too many vodkas too. But at any rate, I rushed back to the room where I was and I collapsed onto the bed and I began, the bed began to go and sway like this you know, up and down and up and I felt as if I was a bit like Mohammed's coffin you know sort of suspended halfway between heaven and hell. But anyrate that was pretty nearly the end of that whole exercise although they were quite enthusiastic about the idea. By the time we got to the - after the conference and back home, the honeymoon of relationships between the Allies and Russia was coming to an end, and everybody here was hostile to the idea of having anything to do with a Russian, let alone wanting to trade with them.
A bomb yes. Well it certainly was absolutely explosive as far as I was concerned. Yeah.
Well, on the whole, finally we got on pretty well but we started off rather badly because he had - right through his life he was inclined to be a bit paranoid. He was very suspicious of what was going on if he didn't or he hadn't initiated it or he wasn't fully aware, and this was a bit of a problem for me because the work that I was sent to do by Chifley, involved all about these economic and other negotiations relating to the establishment of the monetary fund and things like that. So I had an agenda which was quite separate from Dr Evatt's you see and well - I used to tell him what I was doing and all that sort of ... keeping him informed - but on the day we arrived in Washington, he went off to talk to the Head of the State Department or something about his program, and I was sitting there wondering what the hell I would do, and the people from the United States Treasury who knew that I was coming and was going to talk about the mone... - what turned out to be the Monetary Fund, how to conduct the first phase of the negotiations of it - rang up, rang me up to make contact you see and said, 'Well look, why don't you come around straight away and we'll have a preliminary chat, you know, and have a ...' So I thought that was a good idea and I went off. But of course, and in the meantime while I was away he, Evatt, came back and he said to Burton who was his Private Secretary, a chap with us, 'Where's Nugget?' you see and so he said, 'Oh he's gone off to the Treasury'. 'He shouldn't go into these negotiations without me, and without consulting with me'. So after that we ...
I was in big trouble. However we survived that and, on the whole, we became quite good friends. I think one of the interesting things was he was accompanied by his wife, Mary Alice, who was amongst other things quite a good painter. And also he had as a kind of offsider, another painter, a chap who had escaped from occupied France. He was an Australian painter living in [the] South of France I think, growing wine and growing grapes and also painting, but he, Atio, Sam Atio, he was quite a good painter, but he was a very strange, a very strange bloke. He was a kind of - you know the traditional fool around who told stories and entertained Evatt - and so on sort of thing, when that used to lead to trouble from time to time, but it was very handy because when the Doc got upset and oh you know whatever, distressed about things, [the] way things were going and he used to get very difficult to live with, but Sam could always go and slap him on the back and say, you know, old bastard but he managed him really quite well so - but this led to the fact that because of Mrs ... Mary Alice and Sam Atio, we visited regularly every art gallery and every place of that kind of artistic importance in every town we went to, you see, so that - and it was really great fun, because although Sam was a a bit of a licensed fool he was a very, very good judge of a painting. And it was about the only thing I used to say, the only thing where you could take anything that he said seriously, because it was the only thing that mattered as far as he was concerned. He'd tell you anything on matters about economics or politics or anything else, but if it was a question of how good a painter is this bloke, or how good a painting is this, then he really regarded that as a matter of great importance to him.
So there you were dealing with very, very important matters of state, but you found some time to pursue your interest in the arts and to have some fun and relaxation. Is this something you've always been able to do in your public life?
Well ha, it's - I think I have managed fairly successfully till I ... well, yes, but also it was ... In a way it was a great opportunity, you see, because I find that on the whole going to museums and art galleries is a bit of a bore after a while, you know unless you go to see a particular thing like we ... oh, your feet get tired and so on. But going around with them, with those two, was quite different because I was listening to two perhaps of the best-informed people about contemporary art that I'd ever be likely to meet and they were, they were good conversationalists, they talked well, they disagreed about some things and had shared enthusiasms. So that just sitting at home or walking around listening to them was a very interesting experience for me, and certainly I profited very greatly from it. Indeed when I was at the bank and we were buying a few pictures for the bank, and we, in fact, I was very much influenced by the kind of judgement that I think I acquired during that time, and also I began to know who were Australian painters and things like that and what their work was like. And I think the collection of contemporary paintings that the Reserve Bank still holds as a result of that is probably the best financial investment that the Bank has ever had. At least so the Chief Accountant at the Bank assured me one time. We had these paintings amongst others; there was one by Drysdale which was, well, very well known although we bought it very cheaply. And the Government was sending an exhibition overseas around the various foreign affairs places; you know what they call them - embassies. And they asked whether they could borrow this and so they said, 'We'll insure it', and so I said, 'Oh well, seems a worthy purpose'. So I agreed to this and they said, 'We'll just arrange for it to be insured, valued and insured', so I said to the Chief Accountant that they were, [it] was going to be sent overseas and that it had to be insured and would he arrange this and get it valued you see. And I said as he was walking out, I thought well there aren't very many of them maybe - might have been thirty or forty at that time, of them all together - and I said, 'Well you might as well get them all valued', you see. So he came back after a week or so and he said, 'You know those paintings', and I said, 'Yes what about them?'. He said, 'I've just seen the valuations', he said, 'We haven't got any other assets in the bank like that. The capital appreciation is fantastic'. Anyrate so it'd be interesting to have them valued now. I think they would be colossal in value now, you know. There were Drysdales there, there were Clifton Pughs, there are Nolans there, they were - and these were bought for a few hundred pounds at the most. There was a ... and you know what's the name, ah, ... Margaret Preston.
Bought for forty pounds, and ...
Now being sold for eight thousand.
As I say it was one aspect of travelling with Doc Evatt which was interesting but also when we were in Europe you see, we managed somehow or other - he had an interest in Southern Italy and Sicily because he had some classic, he and his wife both had some background of classical knowledge of the Greek civilisation and the classical works that were done there. And that part of Italy is full of buildings and relics. It was a Greek settlement from the time of the great Pericles and all of the ...
Well, I think he was ... Well I think I liked him best when he was not being official, when he was ... We lived in the Embassy in Washington, Burton and I and the Evatts, because while we - our Ambassador at that time was ah Mr ... the Chief Justice Dixon, Dixon. Dixon very cunningly, I thought, decided that when Doctor Evatt was going to be in Washington as ... that Dixon ought to vacate the - go back to Australia for a while - and vacate the Embassy so that Doctor Evatt could occupy it and but he - because he was a difficult man because he had this bit of paranoia you know and also he could get angered, very angry and you could find yourself in quite difficult circumstances sometimes. But on the other hand he had a gift of being relaxing - very completely. He used to go off to meetings in the evening, mind you, official meetings and things, and he would come back and Burton and I would be perhaps having a last drink before we went to bed and the Doc would come in and sit on the bed and talk and he had, he really had an incredible range of knowledge. He had, I bet he had one of those photographic memories. He could remember - you couldn't begin a quotation without him, before you got to the end of it, cutting you off and providing the rest of it - and often if it was from poetry he would go on spouting the rest of the poem. But he was [a] very, very interesting conversationalist, and in that kind of atmosphere when he was relaxed he was very good fun.
Well I didn't ever see him in negotiations. He was very successful in the whole ... he was really very successful in the negotiations for the setting up of the United Nations. And he was. He was, of course, the first President of the United Nations which was - well, and he wangled that so that he worked very hard for that, you know, in with all the kind of diplomatic negotiating skills, but I, I ... the only place where I saw him in action in negotiation was in Japan. We came back, I think it was the same journey, came back through, through Japan when ... at the time of the occupation, you know when Macarthur would have Lord High something or other over the whole, over the whole of Japan, setting up the new regime, and ...
Oh well, I was trying to look at what was there, what was happening to the economy and things like that, but also I was involved in some discussions with McMahon, Ball and people like that who were attached to the Australian Embassy about the polit ... what Macarthur was trying to do to the political scene in setting up a kind of imitation of the American ah Presidential system with the ah Emperor nominally at the top of it. Well some of that was really was quite interesting, but really I can absolutely be fair to say that by that time I think my major work on that expedition over some months was finished really, I was just on the way home. But I was interested to spend the ah, whatever it was in ...
Yeah, well I thought he was. He negotiated with Macarthur, but my own feeling was that he gave in to Macarthur far too much but, but that, but that was perhaps an expression of my prejudices, rather than a reflection on his capacities as a negotiator.
Quite different, quite different.
Well I had both a tremendous respect for Chifley but also a very great affection. We - you see he was ... he was Treasurer right through the when ... when I was at the, at the Treasury and Curtin was Prime Minister.
And ... it was and I worked quite closely with Chifley, because he was interested in the Bank in a sense and it was his - him and Curtin that appointed me as a a member of the Bank Board, which was, oh, was an astonishing thing to do. Here I was a relatively junior officer of the bank, on loan to the Treasury, and they appointed me to the Board of the Bank you know which is well ... everybody's eyebrows went went up.
Well some of the people in the bank were ... some of the senior people in the bank were quite appalled by this. Here was the - I was in my late twenties I think, you know 29 or 30 something like that, and I ...
Well yes I think it was and the point was, of course - mind you the the Bank Board was abolished not long after - but still it was a time when the Board of the Bank was still basically conservative. Most of the members were people who had been appointed by Menzies or he - even by his predecessors. No, they weren't bad people, but they were very conservative.
Pre-war; pre-war in their thinking and I had been quite influential I think in - because of the Keynesian emphasis in the approach which I took to financial matters, both before the Labor people came in, through Spender who was acting Treasurer but who was interested in the theory or theoretical basis on which I was working, and that carried through even more strongly when Chifley came, because he understood - he'd read some of the material, he was a good reader, he read a lot, hmm and so that we had things in common, and I did work with him. And it was again him and Curtin, who appointed me to do, ah, run the rationing job which also I'd never done a major piece of administration, never headed any organisation bigger than a class of sch[ool] ... of teenagers in my life, and here I was put in charge of an organisation which see extended over the whole of the country, and had to create it. Oh it was, when I look back on it now I feel I ought to have been terrified. Hmm, and ...
Well in - at times I was, I ... ah, I suppose, but on the whole, particularly in the light of this group that we gathered together partly by accident, it was such a lively group, and they were so interested in how you do these things, how you could do these things, so that ah I don't remember feeling oppressed by it. The only time it really got me down was - see there was a really fundamental risk in the whole thing. Before the rationing was introduced, I think I mentioned to you that the shops selling clothing and things like that, they, they were, the shelves were almost empty, and they used to open the store at nine o'clock and close it at ten past you see, because they didn't want the shelves to be completely empty any time. And so over the period while we had to work all this out and while we were getting ready, and Curtin said to me, 'How long will it take before we can actually introduce rationing?'. And so I started to think about this - amongst other things, and I went to the Government Printer and asked him how long it would take him to print the coupon books, and to arrange for their distribution all over Australia. And he went away and he worked it all out in terms of processes, you know, and it came to five weeks or whatever it was - something like that. And so I went ...
You weren't the only person who worked with Ben Chifley who had a great admiration for his approach to leadership. Can you characterise what it was about the way that he went about his work that drew so much admiration?
Well, I think it was partly that he always worked with people you know they never worked - simply worked for him, or that's ... and also he had - he was a remarkably tolerant man, of course he led the Labor Party at a time when the divisions within the party were staggering. But he always used to talk about why they behaved and why they thought like this or like that, and he was never in terms of ... hostile in criticism, it was an attempt to understand what - all was was always that they were trying to achieve something good but it - but different you know, those differences of emphasis, so that the he and he was ...
And was, even when about the things that divided him. See his attitude about religion; you see he never talked about it, he was a practising Catholic, but you would never would know, you know, to talk to him. And when he talked about the DLP, he talked and like somebody who understood where their prejudices were leading them and was sad about it, and sad about the divisions but that kind of thing. His relationships with people were always pleasant. Sometimes he could be quite blunt. He was very blunt with Evatt from time to time because he thought that Evatt was arrogant, and often caused problems with other people and unnecessarily and you know, you know I can remember him saying when Doc asked him what impression he had of Doc's performance at the United Nations, and he said, 'Doc, it was excellent, but they tell me that you were the rudest bugger there'.
Thought. But it was not with animosity and he, he could do it, he could talk frankly because he felt that he was understood. So that I liked him, he was a - he always read what you wrote, yeah. He always ... he had the gift of picking the guts out of a document and concentrating on the issues on that way. Your work was never dismissed as not what he wanted. And also he welcomed disagreement. I don't mean complete disagreement, but he ran one of the great things that has always stuck in my mind because I've known no other government which did it. They used Cabinet subcommittees quite a lot as an instrument of government during the war. Now when they set up a subcommittee of the Cabinet, the Cabinet, the members of the Cabinet who are on it used to take, at Chifley's request, their Senior Departmental Officers. I always went to the meetings with this Cabinet subcommittees on economic matters. So did several other permanent Heads, and the meetings were conducted in two phases. The first phase was a kind of discussion of the issues that they had before them in which the Public Servants participated almost as freely as the Ministers, but as you got towards the stage where they were approaching decision there was a kind of, almost unnoticed, a withdrawal - not physical withdrawal - where the officials sort of stepped back or ...
Well it - I think it's a thing that's changed really quite a lot, that the relationship between Ministers and their senior officials, certainly in my case at any rate, was always one of discussion. We talked about issues and, well sometimes ideas I put forward were dismissed, I remember one that during the - just after the war, the idea of reforming the calendar was quite a sort of - became one of the sort of popular issues of the day, you know they were going to fix the date of Easter and have thirteen months of the same size or things like that - all sorts of ideas were put forward, and because of that in post-war reconstruction we did a study of these various proposals which were coming from this community groups and so on. And so finally we produced a scheme which was influenced a bit by a proposal that Billy Wentworth put forward and Billy was a very ingenious bloke, he was frequently - his ideas were frequently quite mad but sometimes he - I think he hit real winners, and this wasn't a bad scheme. To me it really made sort of some kind of administrative and economic sense. But so I went to tell Chif about it you see, and he laughed and he said, 'Oh Doc, Doc break it down now, break it down', he said, 'Even the Pope couldn't do that'. Oh anyway, that was the end of that particular discussion. But generally speaking though you know, these ideas - we tossed ideas around we talked about them so - in that way I never felt as if I was just somebody producing things for him. I always felt that, that I was a participant in the - in the in the process and that I think is something which has, in a way, gone from the role ... [INTERRUPTION]
Ah, well I've - we've talked about the trade agreement you know ...
We actually didn't, we talked about that off camera. So ... but I wonder, if, if you had had a severe [dis]agreement with him - did you ever discuss whether or not in those circumstances you might resign?
Oh well we, we did have quite an extensive discussion about that issue, but it wasn't in relation to a problem I, at the time that I had. It was a provision, it was when they were talking about the Banking Act you know the - there was what the ... their post war, the preparation for the post-war legislation on banking and with the role of the Central Bank as the main - well, one of the government's main advisers on financial and economic policy and - but also with a considerable degree of autonomy. And it's always been felt and I felt that that autonomy was important. And so I said the, you know, with their, we ought to provide in the Act for a way of resolving the issue if such disagreement emerged. That it shouldn't just be left with no-one knowing quite what happened, I said, you know because, and I said that there would be, could conceivably be situations where the Governor of the Bank would feel that a very important principle was threatened by what the Government wanted to do, and that the only thing that was open to him would be to say, 'Well Prime Minister if you're going to do that, I must resign'. And Chifley broke in and said, 'Doc, never never resign'. And I said, 'Are you sure? What about this issue of principle problem?'. He said, 'Well if you have that situation, if you resign, you're finished. They do what they like. If you don't resign you stay in, you lose the battle - you're not finished. There will be other governments there will be other yeah - other ministers.... you're still capable of being effective. But once you resign you are finished.'
Well, I don't know that I ever reached a situation where I felt that there were ... there were issues between the Bank and the Government and particularly the Bank and the Treasury on economic policy which ran, well, almost a continuing theme in our relationship, where the issues were resolved and in a sense ... I certain ... the Bank certainly didn't get what it thought it ought to well - it didn't get the best. But it - they were always resolved by a kind of - some kind of compromise that we gave in one place and we gained something in another. And so that the disagreements that we had, were always in a way questions of degree rather than absolute principle. So I never felt myself faced with the need to resign, although I could envisage the possibility. But I don't remember ever having faced it myself.
This leads us into talking about your whole role as a public servant, some would say as the consummate public servant, as a sort of exemplary public servant in that you were there in rationing during the war, then headed up Post-war Reconstruction with all the complexities of that, and that in the course of your life you served many Prime Ministers, and many different governments of different complexions and yet you always stayed in it with a dedication to what you were doing, which was very clear to everybody around you. Were there any principles that you applied apart from the never resign one, to your whole public service career, that you feel stood you in good stead?
Well I think that the - I do think the circumstances are different that I - I never, I cannot remember any time when I was in the Public Service, when I felt futile. When I felt that I was wasting my time, so that ... and I think that's something which is different. In that time, certainly the people who were in Post-War Reconstruction and and in the Treasury and departments with which we were concerned, I think we all felt that we were a part of the team, that we all had the right to say - not simply oh, you know, what you thought, but to argue and to say to the Ministers, 'Look you're wrong about that'.
(interrupting) Well that's right, that's partly that in, you know, that I look back. But mind you the success is always relative in those things, you know, the - never get what you, you know, to ... and of course further more, I suppose you do acquire some skills in assessing what ... You don't put forward proposals to nationalise an industry to a very conservative government that is committed to private enterprise. I mean, that doesn't come into the, you know, into the area of the discourse. But it doesn't stop you putting forward proposals which would have some of the same effects, and I think that's the way in which I approached it, that you always wanted to work within limits of practicability, not to be beating your head against a wall which - and I think, I can't think of any of the governments that I worked for where I felt that ah - I mean they weren't fascist, they weren't communist, they weren't ... So that I suppose I always felt that there were things which they could be persuaded to do which would be beneficial, and in accordance with things which I valued, and which I thought they might value and to perhaps not the same degree but ... So I think that's, oh, it's one of the things which I feel sad about the public service, is that I do myself believe that many public servants feel that they are in a futile occupation, that they are not creative members of a policy team, that they're there to tell the Minister what they think he wants to hear. Now I think that's a tragedy, and I think it's one of the reasons why the bureaucracy is so cynical, why they ... when they meet together they very rarely meet officials talking about policy, they talk about salaries and working conditions, and you know. Particularly in relation to senior people in the private sector, well, there's much more of that than there used to be. Many public servants worked for less money - not merely willingly but preferred to work for less money because being in the bureaucracy in the public service was something that you wanted to do.
It certainly was true that for a very long while it was seen as the pinnacle of achievement for bright people working in administration, and that's shifted now. And of course we've all seen the portrait of the bureaucrat as portrayed by Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister - did - do you recognise any of those characteristics in your days?
Oh, yes. Yeah, oh yes certainly. I mean in many ways it's a very ... but mind you they most of the Yes Minister things present the public servants as the dominant figure in the Ministerial relationship. I mean Sir Humphrey always won, until the last - it's the changeover. The life of that series I think is very interesting because it was always - in the first part of the, of the series - it was always the public servant Sir Humphrey beguiling or baffling the Minister by not telling him all the things he ought to know or, but towards the end it's the Minister began to have a few victories ah .. and I think. That's my impression, I didn't see them all. But I do think there is a - there is, there is a difference and I've heard public servants complain about this to say, 'What's the good, all I'm allowed to do is to give the Minister reasons for doing what he wants to do'.
No no. I mean I dare say that it was, the element was there, but certainly in the the best ministers that I worked for and the best officials, I think they would have been appalled at the suggestion that that's what they were doing.
Oh, well, I don't know but there's I ... I dare say that ah, there was some degree of manipulation, those - you - well I - you always used arguments which you thought would appeal to this minister, that ... put your character assessment as - used that as an instrument to achieve your agenda I will say. But ah to some degree so, I mean I don't think it's not simply a question of discussion, it's a question of a working relationship between two people with overlapping agendas and, and hopefully overlapping skills.
Well it's ah - you see it was a progressive thing, I mean the Department was originally set up to prepare for the transition from war to peace, and a major part of our program therefore was the demobilisation, to get people out of the army and the navy and the airforce, and out of munitions factories, and that said - well, well you get them out, but where do they go? So that the other half of that program almost from the beginning began to be - if we're going to get people out of these things, we have to have jobs, we have to have places where they can earn a living, we have to have houses where they can live, you know, that you have to start to prepare for that - not simply in terms of sacking them or what do they? Ah, they call em, making ...
... them, making them redundant or so and that was the - there were. But from that you can see the way in which the responsibility of Post-War Reconstruction spread to become the department which planned the economic programmes for that post-war period. Attempted to anticipate what the difficulties were going to be, and to work out ways in which so that - to anticipate what kind of skills would be required and to set up training programmes for that, see. To enable people in the armed forces to go out prepared for doing the kind of things that they wanted to do or - and fulfilling the jobs that we could, we could reasonably anticipate would exist. So you know, where there was almost no part of government that wasn't involved in Post-War Reconstruction. We had big overlaps for the existing departments and, but was one of the reasons why in the - when it was being established and we were looking for staff, we drew staff from all well so like a lot almost all departments but we also brought in people from universities and you know, other people who had never been in the bureaucracy. And they worked on a lot of these things, but we had to promise all those departments that - give my personal guarantee that the Department of Post-War Reconstruction would be abolished in due course.
Right, and you were also interested during this period in international trade, and trying to get some rational arrangements working internationally in relation to trade. You were involved at that time in the GATT talks, which of course is currently of great interest in Australia, coming around full circle. Could you tell us a little bit about how you involved yourself in those? What happened from them and lessons that might be learned for people involved in current negotiation - negotiations internationally.
Yes well, I devoted quite a long period of my working life in bureaucracy to those issues. The discussions began quite early during the war when negotiations were in process, trying to persuade the Americans to enter the war on the Allied side and, and when they did enter, the - to the, negotiations were continuously going on about the terms on which America would assist. They wanted guarantees of benefits for American industry and American oh, to ... and also a great variety of things of that kind but ... So that there were agreements made which required countries to undertake to remove barriers to the United States trade, to try United States exports and all that kind of thing, and to commit themselves in a sense to substantially free trade kind of situation. To remove not merely, not merely to reduce tariffs but to also - remove - get rid of quotas, to get rid of exchange control or that kind of thing. Now this caused great difficulties, and that - all those things were combined with the proposal that there should be - while the war was still going on - negotiations that were specifically about tariffs; that the countries would during that time, enter into negotiations as a result of which they would reduce tariffs.
So the, oh the - these trade conferences were set up - were divided really into two parts. The first dealt specifically with tariffs and they were bilateral negotiations between one country and their major trading partner. Ah, seeking a reduction of both parties - reduction of the tariffs of both parties in that relationship. So that those negotiations went on you know, altogether in Geneva when we were - hundred and hundreds and hundreds of people there. there was ah, and ...
Nine months yeah - very appropriate gestation period for them - some people thought it was a bit of a miscarriage with it. But still it was a very interesting process, and I think you or it being being interested I think in a pattern of the way in which they were conducted, where the opening way in which those negotiations began, was with an exchange between each of these, the members of each of these pairs of countries who were conducting the bilateral discussions of things, concessions they were prepared to offer, and concessions which they wanted in return. So that the first phase was a swap of two pieces of paper, a list of concessions on the American tariffs in our case that we wanted and a list of concessions on the Australian tariffs that the Americans wanted, and those were swapped, and we went away and you studied the lists, and you looked at what the Americans wanted reduced in our tariffs, and we consulted with the trade people and with the industries concerned and decided well, we could, in return for something decent, we could give oh, a bit on this and a bit on that and not - and similarly on the other side where we were, you know, they were looking at what we were demanding in the way of reduction of wool duties and removal of protective quotas on meat and things like that but - sort of thing they're still doing - but ...
Certainly it does indeed. So and but out of that each step in the process usually led to some more concessions being offered, attached to requests for balancing concessions on the other side. Now I was very impressed with the effectiveness of this procedure, that it meant that everybody was forced into a position of having a careful look at how important the demands that you - we were - well I mean, they were making really were, you know ...
Well I've used you know, my own feeling is that it's a technique which is widely applicable in a great many fields, and while I've certainly thought about it, for instance, in relation to Aboriginal affairs and the possibility of a treaty. I tried to persuade the government of the time to put, to offer Aborigines, saying here is a possible treaty. We're prepared to offer a treaty which contains these. Now, you go away and you prepare a treaty, which you are prepared to enter into, and we can go on from there. And I think it would have been an exceedingly valuable exercise, but the government was not prepared to make any kind of starting offer. Always said to the Aborigines, 'You start, you put down what you - you think ought to be in the treaty see, and we'll tell you what we are prepared to give you out of those'.
Well, we had an interesting experience over that. We reached an agreement with the - at least the negotiators, reached a position in our discussions with the Americans whereby we thought that their - what they were prepared to offer and what they insisted upon getting, out of our offer - represented a fairly important improvement in Australian-American trade relationships, from an Australian point of view. So we sent off a telegram to the Australian Government giving the details of where we'd got to, and saying we think this is a pretty good deal, and we seek Cabinet's approval for telling the Americans that we're prepared to recommend this to the government. And so I, we, got a message back that cabinet was considering it and a decision was going to be reached on such and such a day, and that the Prime Minister would like me to be somewhere where he could talk to me on the telephone. And we couldn't talk from Geneva to Canberra at that time, but we could - you could talk from Paris, from the Embassy in Paris. And so I flew to Paris, in time for an appointment, a telephone appointment for seven o'clock in [the] evening. It was my first visit to Paris, and I thought this is going to be rather good because I was quite confident that the government would be pleased with this proposition that we'd put to them and, and that I'd get a nice and quick answer at seven o'clock in the evening and I might be able to go out on the town, celebrate you see so - however I got there and the telephone call didn't come and didn't come and didn't come, until the evening which I'd contemplated in riotous living was practically over, and when Chifley did come through he told me that the cabinet had decided against approving this and I don't quite know I suppose, I just said nothing for a moment. And he said, 'Are you disappointed?'. 'Oh', I said, 'Yes I am'. And he said, 'Well, particularly why?' And I said, 'Well I thought, we thought, that is the delegation thought, this was a pretty good deal'. I mentioned some of the what I thought were very substantial benefits and he said, 'Well Doc, we think it's a pretty good deal too, but we think you can do better'. And so that sort of set me back a bit and so I ... you know, we chatted a bit about it and I tried out a few ideas and oh, I went back to Geneva and the Americans were waiting for me because ours was one of the most advanced of the bilateral negotiations, and a whole lot of others were sort of hanging on this and when I told them that the government hadn't agreed, hadn't approved it, they were very - just about as disappointed as we were.
So ah, they said 'Oh well, perhaps we ought to have another talk, perhaps we ought to go through our lists together again.' So we sat down together with them, going through the offers.
Yes. We did quite a lot better. That was very interesting you see, because ... an illustration - we were quite confident that what we had produced was acceptable. And I think it would have been quite a good agreement but it also was true that their judgement that we could negotiate a better deal was also true. Ah, so we went in and but the interesting thing as I was telling you was that really, by that time, both the American negotiators and our negotiators were really working together because we both wanted a successful outcome. We wanted an agreement, and in due course I can remember a bit of what manipulation that you asked about, you see. One of the things that I said to the Americans, 'Well look, I'll go back home, I'll go back to Australia, I'll fly back - both ways to sit and talk to the Ministers about this, if we can get a few - we can get a few baits and I - I'll go back and persuade them'. So we did this, I flew out, and believe me the flight from Geneva to, ah, to Australia in those old Lancastrian Bombers was not fun, believe me.
Ah, about two days, flying all the way without, without any ... no breaks, just straight. Only refuelling at about three or four spots, and with the engine roaring in your ears, you know; all the, all the time smell of petrol in the - from the emergency petrol tanks and so on - it was pretty grim anyhow. But I did this, and I spent ... Oh, I got straight to Canberra - didn't even go home and so - flying over Sydney straight to Canberra and we sat with the people in the the Cabinet and finally we, you know, got at anyrate close enough to an agreement for me to go back and say, 'Well look, if you give us this we can go ...'
Well I think they were successful, but on the other hand, that was only half the deal, because, well, parallel with those tariff nego[tiations], bilateral negotiations, countries like Australia, like India, you know, like all the developing countries, or Saudi Arabia, all the ... China and Japan and Russia and all those, they were, many of them were interested in, not so much in tariffs, but as in things that they - where they needed to protect their industries for development purposes. New industries that were just starting, things which, where they had ambitions to do things, but where they had to get started, and that the ... So the question of a lot of these things, didn't come into the actual tariff negotiations. They set up the whole conference to develop a charter, a charter for international trade. All the possible difficulties that countries encounter when they enter into international trade. How would those difficulties be resolved?
Well actually it wasn't after that; they were going on parallel. Well, all through that Geneva period the content of the Charter was being debated just as passionately as the negotiations because after all the tariff negotiations were intermittent. You swapped your lists and you went away and studied them and sent telegrams back to your own country about what you could do and what you couldn't offer and so on. So that in between, the time was devoted to considering the problems for which the Charter was designed to deal with. How could developing countries protect their capacity to develop, against the kind of threat which a major established community like the United States, and, well, Germany if it hadn't been the enemy? All of those things had to be discussed. And how was it proper for a country to continue to maintain exchange control? Was it proper for a country in balance of payments difficulties to put on extra tariffs temporarily, to have import quotas and things? All these kind of issues which are ...
Still very relevant. All those were debated, and finally an agreement was reached about how they should be - what were the behavioural rules, what was it proper for you to do, and how did you resolve disputes if people were dissatisfied by the application of those rules. And that charter was very important to Australia because we said, 'Look, we have used the tariff as a way of protection [for] Australian industries, primary industries and secondary industries against positions in which our problems arise, because United States and other big industrial countries, do not maintain full employment for their people. Their people haven't got incomes, they can't buy our wool, they can't buy our wheat, so we have problems'. So the Charter set off by saying that the Charter is based upon the powerful industrial countries, the countries with capital who are lenders to the world, have an obligation, to maintain employment in their own country, and to have - where they have surpluses - to make them available for the developing countries so that they can carry through their development plans. So the Charter was, in a way, an expression of the conviction of Australia and developing countries, that they were entitled to things that made it possible for them to industrialise, if they wanted to industrialise, or to develop an economy which accorded with their ideas. So now, that was and ...
Finally after very great ... well, either the ... three years of negotiation, we reached a kind of agreement on the content of that Charter, and it was right at the end of that ah, that the final negotiations in Havana, which really was by that time - even the Charter was substantially finished - it really was a kind of wrap-up of the whole business, and was going on - going to be a great celebration. Now right in the final stages of that, the Americans came into the meet[ing], to a meeting and said that they wanted these two parts of this deal separated, they wanted the Agreement on Tariffs and Trade - the tariffs, they wanted that dealt with first, separately from the Charter see. And because they said that the President could approve an agreement negotiated about tariffs but he couldn't approve a decision to accept the Charter, that would have to go to Congress see. So anyway we had - this was quite a violent discussion, and I was being kind of ... I was old enough, even then, as a young man to remember that an agreement set up the League of Nations had been reached after the end of the First World War and despite the fact that it was an American idea, and put forward by President Wilson, after the war they repudiated that agreement and the League of Nations came into existence without American participation, and was weak and ineffective and failed. And so I drew attention to this risk and said that a lot ... from my point of view, as the leader of the Australian Delegation, I felt that the negotiations on tariffs had been made on the understanding that there would also be adopted, the content of the Charter, see. But what in fact, and this I ... The Leader of the American Delegation was outraged that I should suggest that they would go back, America would go back on this commitment see. But in fact of course when ah, election - the election to Congress was coming up President Truman, who was a bit worried about his own chances, just announced unilaterally without any discussion with the countries with [which] these negotiations had been conducted, that he was not going to put the Charter before Congress. So that the - what seemed to me to be an essential component in that settlement, that creditor countries, the big, wealthy, industrialised countries had obligations, they at least had obligations for their people to be fully employed, to have income to spend, and so that developing countries didn't have to resort to tariff protection and other things, to the same degree in order to make their economic and political ambitions effective.
Well as I say I've ... it's ah, always has seemed to me to be - that in effect the Americans went back on a commitment, which as far as the people ... which had been entered into with full knowledge of the President, it - he received exactly the same kind of communication from his negotiating team as Chifley did from me and the others so that ... Anyway it was a negotiated agreement, negotiated within the full knowledge of the President of the United States who repudiated it absolutely. Now I believe that ah, that it's taken a long time for the situation to emerge, but in the present circumstances, the United States has one of the highest levels of unemployment in their history, at the moment. If all those people had incomes to spend, they would want the things which we have to sell, see, and which other people have to sell see. The whole, you know, the fundamental proposition which really was the way in which the Labor Party was persuaded to adopt - go into these negotiations and to make the concessions on tariffs to give away the protective devices on which they had relied before, because they believed they were getting a commitment of the United States, the biggest ... but also other creditor nations, industrialised nations that they would perform their part of the function.
Yes I do. I have - certainly I've never seen anything. We had Mr Bush out here a few weeks ago, we were asking that he considers the problems created for Australian wheatgrowers, because they cannot get access to the American markets and that the Americans are taking away the markets which Australian wheat producers regard as traditionally theirs. And if they - if that level of unemployment could be abolished, this whole context would be different. So that, but what did he say? He said he refused to consider the problems of the Australian wheatgrowers, but said well, part of his purpose of his visit to Japan was to persuade the Japanese to make access to their markets [for] American goods, the primary purpose of his visit. Yeah so - and that I think is characteristic. He will never get countries of that kind to go back on what they believe to be - what they feel to be interests which are critical to their economy.
Oh, it was hard to have ... well I just - I did feel utterly and completely disillusioned. And that disillusionment in a sense you know continues. But I believe there was an opportunity to establish a pattern of international trade where the participants were conscious that they had to make concessions to [the] needs, particularly of the poorer and developing countries, and that is what is missing in the world at the present time, see. We go to - we still can sometimes negotiate things about tariffs, and the other mechanical things because sometimes those are mutually beneficial, even if the other aspects of the situation are harmful. But we lost an opportunity to establish - not exactly a model - because it was anticipated that there would be problems, that there would be disputes, but there was provision in the Charter for the way in which you behaved when you did have - when you felt that you couldn't observe the conditions of the Charter. You didn't just go off and repudiate it. You went to the Governing Body of the Tariff, the Organisation of International Trade. And you explain your problem and they say say, 'Well what do you want to do?' 'Well we want to have a temporary increase in our tariffs, or we want to put on an exchange control for a while, we want to do this or we want to do that.' And you sit down and negotiate about it, and [you] can't do that now.
It wasn't probably the only time in your career though that a far-sighted rational solution was beaten by short-term selfish goals. Do you, do you feel that this belief that just leave things alone, they'll all work out, that there's a natural sort of ... market forces and people acting in their own interests can eventually sort out some kind of way of operating. I mean you're taking the line of the planner, the person who integrates and has an overview. Were there other occasions when you found yourself up against a different point of view?
Oh yes, I suppose you could say that it's been that the whole ... all the ... see, that doctrine of full employment - that the government has an obligation to see that there is employment for to each person, for it's people and also that their - they have obligations to consider the problems of other countries. In a way the whole Post-War Reconstruction's domestic settlement was based upon that hypothesis see. It - and it ... but it was a thing that was unpopular with the powerful industrialists who saw, felt, themselves to be in a position where they could get the benefits of their negotiating power, without having to accept these other commitments. So, you know I - and progressively the Keynesian idea of running the economy on the basis primarily of full employment but of concern for its operation and implement and it's and was pro ...
... progressively replaced by a - leave it to the market which will give an outcome which is desired by the market; i.e. by the people who have the greatest clout in the market, the people who have most money to spend.
But after post-war reconstruction, you went to the Commonwealth Bank and it has, of course, been said I think by you ... You comment in Trial Balance about a banker's - a Central Banker's wife who said to you, 'What are Central Banks for, except to protect the wealth of the rich'. I suppose in moving into the Commonwealth Bank you were faced with the idea of putting some of these personal philosophies on the line in a banking context. Was this something new to the banking world in Australia?
Oh, by that time it was quite familiar to the Commonwealth Bank I think, and I think to ... also to be fair, I found that in the period during, after, the end of Post-War Reconstruction when as Head of the Central Bank and part of the Commonwealth Bank or of the Reserve Bank, I had a responsibility for dealing with the heads of the private banks. We had regular meetings with them, the discussions were about our policy - the Reserve Bank - or w[ere about] Commonwealth Bank policies which were explained in Keynesian terms. And their people, their research people, their economists, got the material on which our judgements were made, so that you know, I think there was a period when - well not when we were, you know, one happy family by any means - but where there was a sufficient consensus for the system to work, without ... I think that you know, a period from ... let me see, after the end of the Korean War fifty what was it? Ah, you know about '54, '55 after they ... through to when I left the Bank - '68, it's a period really of quite astonishing stability. General prosperity, occasional hiccups, but no major economic crises over that - despite very difficult things internationally.
Well I don't ... I think it would be arrogant to suggest that it happened because of what we did. Although I think that was a significant part of it. But it happened because - well the influences in operation in the economy, were compatible with that kind of arrangement and the constraints, which [it] was necessary to impose, were constraints which, taken by and large, were accepted by the financial system, and not as perfect, but there was sufficient agreement for that kind of approach to economic management to be regarded as acceptable. And I think people felt that overall there were times when they got sick of us and we were ... they lost opportunities, but on the whole I don't look back on those debates with the private banks and the people who ran the State banks and the people who ran finance companies and so on, I don't look back on them as periods of intense hostility and that, see. You know, on the whole there was a - a kind of consensus.
For most of the time you were at the Commonwealth Bank and then at the Reserve Bank, you had the one Prime Minister, Menzies, and so this has often been described as the stability of the Menzies era. What role do you think he played in that?
Well I think ...
... it's a very important distinction there. See, when he came to office, he and Fadden, they came to office promising ... some of them, some of them were promising to sack me, have me sacked, but some of the - but they were promising a lifting off of controls. See merely get rid of rationing no, not merely to have petrol freely available, but to get rid of controls altogether, particularly the ...
Deregulation to run - have the economic, the financial system released from the Central Bank controls. Now they started to do that and it - it was very unfortunate for them, but it happened to coincide with the period leading up to and the period of the Korean War and we had - it was the second or the third year of the Menzies period - inflation at the rate of 20% per annum for one year. That terrified them, and so that they looked with much less hostile eyes on ideas for constraint, in the use of controls when they were necessary, and so ... I had - in other words I think Fadden, Menzies and I and Roland had certainly different views about all of these things, but they were differences of degree, not of absolute terms. No one was suggesting that controls should be completely abolished. We argued about how intense they should be, and that it was desirable for them to be released, but you released them as and when you could. So that - and that I think was - so that in a sense it was a period of Menzies - Menzies stability was true, except that the beginning of it was a period of absolute inflation, initiated partly by Menzies' and Fadden's desire to get rid of rationing, to get rid of controls, to release the banking system and so ...
Let the market work yes.
The change of government?
Ahh, not in - not inside the bank I don't think, well it may have, ah, I hadn't thought, thought of it in that way, but it was a change in my relationship with the Prime Minister because it was a different Prime Minister, and of course it indicated other changes. I think I've - for instance the Country Party particularly - the other party in the Menzies-Fadden coalition - was pretty conservative and fairly hostile to some of the things that I'd been associated with when I worked for the - with Chifley and Curtin and so on, so they - they were having meetings, passing resolutions that I should be dismissed and things like that, and so on. Aah but ...
Oh, I think he listened to them, but he explained to me afterwards why he didn't accept that advice. It was quite interesting because he said, 'I spoke to two people about it, one was Ben Chifley', and he said Ben told me that he didn't believe that I had ever given a ... [INTERRUPTION]
In 1949 there was a change of government, Chifley lost the election and Menzies became the new Prime Minister. How did that affect your relationship as Governor of the Commonwealth Bank, with the Prime Minister?
Well it certainly made it different, because my relationship with Menzies was worse than ever - the same as it - my relationship with Chifley had been because ... certainly not for quite a long time anyrate. I had been a friend as well as an adviser towards ... as far as Ben Chifley was concerned and that gave it a special kind of quality. Menzies however rejected advice which he was getting from - particularly from Country Party branches and so on - that I should be dismissed, and some years afterwards he talked to me about it and told me why he hadn't, because he had considered it. And he said that ... first of all he said, 'I had a brother, who was a businessman and who worked on one of the wartime committees on which you' - that's me - 'was [sic] also a member and he once said to me during the war, "All this stuff criticising Coombs, don't take any notice of it', he said, "He sits on that committee with me and I've watched him at work and he's okay"'. Ah, so he said, 'I take notice of that brother'. But he said, 'Also', he said, 'I - I asked Ben Chifley what he thought of you and he said that he didn't believe that ah ...
Yeah. And Ben said that ... well, he praised me, but also he said that he didn't believe that I had ever given him politically motivated advice. And, well, I thought that was stretching it a bit but still, it was - it was welcome in the ... and it influenced Menzies. It was inter ... that was quite an interesting thing about - they had a quite a friendly relationship. On quite other issues, once I'd expressed some - he said - I speaking to Menzies, he had commented that he'd been to talk to Chifley about an issue of policy, and I expressed some surprise, and he said, 'Well you may be surprised, but let me tell you that I never make a major decision, particularly of an international kind, without talking to Ben'. He says, 'My party doesn't know'.
Yeah. Yes, they had quite a degree of respect for one another. I think it was, the relationship was pretty, pretty badly damaged by the Menzies involvement with the anticommunist campaign and the proposed legislation and constitutional amendment and so on - but because that was very hard for Chifley to tolerate. But none-the-less, right through they - there was certainly a relationship where to a degree they worked - they ... they accepted mutual responsibilities.
Well, he was a very interesting man, he was the first real professional politician I'd ever worked with. He - ah, politics to him was a career, he wanted to be prime minister, and that was really what it was about. He didn't come in with a program, he hadn't ... no ambitions. He once said when I was talking to him about universities, he said, 'I'm not a Prime Minister who wants to leave monuments to my Prime Ministership'. He went on to say, 'But if I'm to be remembered I would like to be remembered as the Prime Minister who gave opportunities to Australian Universities'. As he did of course. I like to remind some of his successors of that one. So no I ah, - therefore he was - his whole approach to politics was pragmatic, he - he didn't have a ideological point of view. I mean he was a conservative but he did - he didn't have built-in programs. He used to say that when he was preparing for the next election, he had a careful look at the Labor Party's program, picked out of it what he thought he could do, and he did say in some of his speeches, 'Now, I know you want this but wouldn't it be better to get it from us rather than from the Labor Party?' So I - so he had that pragmatic, professional kind of quality in his approach to being prime minister, he wasn't - he was lazy. He didn't want to run the whole business, he left - provided the ministers didn't get into trouble or were reasonably competent, he was happy to leave them alone - but he was ruthless at getting rid of them, if he thought they were unduly ambitious or if they didn't do a reasonable job.
Yes, he was very good to deal with, you didn't have you know, he didn't resent you saying things that weren't in a - which weren't in accordance with what he was doing or anything like that. Now the interesting experience - he had a nephew or some relative who was from England, a relative, Englishman, who came out to Australia to do some research in medicine, and I think he worked - he might have worked at the John Curtin School or somewhere like that. Menzies said to him, 'Why don't you think about staying in Australia?' and he said, 'Oh no', he said, 'I - I like Australia, I wouldn't mind living here', he said, 'But I wouldn't work here as a medical man'. Menzies said, 'Why not?' and he said, 'Because in England we have a decent system of publicly funded and controlled medicine', he said, 'You haven't here, and I don't want to work here'. Menzies not merely took it but he told me about it and commented on it so so - wasn't upset about it.
Didn't change his health policy no, no.
But that meant that you had a great capacity to influence, because he was listening to you, and he didn't have an ideological agenda that was rigid so he was open to influence, that gave you quite a lot of power didn't it?
Well I don't ... ah I don't mind the word influence ha, but I don't, I have never thought of the work that I did as an exercise of power, I - perhaps it - you know perhaps that I was wrong - might have been wrong about that, but I don't think so. I, I think I had influence, I think I'm a competent persuader, and ah, you know, and I like persuading.
Yes, but and but it also it was a pleasurable thing. I felt it made the job worth doing. It made it worthwhile to put up with things, which in some ways I didn't like, but ah ... and I, I was lucky. All [of] them, key people that I worked with from Curtin you know, Chifley ... Menzies, Holt, Gorton, Fadden.
It's a list - they all had something, you know. Australia has been really very lucky are certainly as far down as Whitlam at any rate - but even - well, even Fraser. I didn't like Fraser, I disapproved of a lot of things he said but since, over recent years I have begun to feel that perhaps he was better than I judged him to be at the time. You know he'd, he, he did introduce the Land Rights legislation, carried it through the Parliament. He did protect the Barrier Reef, he did carry on the movement towards independence for Papua New Guinea, so and I, his attitude on South Africa is ... has been, I think, good. So he, well, he has in, I suppose apart from - it was the way that he achieved all that the change of government, the elimination of the, of the .... (pause) the Whitlam Government that made that the, the Dismissal such a stressful and, to me, something which made it impossible for me to continue to work for the government. That was when I resigned from government over the - not the fact that a conservative government had taken over, but that it was done in a way which seemed to me to be both unconstitutional but also immoral. Hmm? And therefore I felt that this was a government I couldn't work for.
Yes I do hmm.
Hmm No not that I - no.
We did go through a fairly impressive list of the, of the Prime Ministers. I mean you've worked for all of them, and you said each of them had something. We've heard about your view of Chifley and of Menzies. When Menzies went, of course, there was a succession of - there was Holt and that was the point at which you actually left the Bank wasn't it?
Yes it was yes.
Yeah. Well Holt, oh, he was, before he became Prime Minister, he'd been Treasurer for quite a while, and so I had been dealing with him in relation to the Bank and financial, economic matters for quite some time. And I liked him, he was a very kindly, rather gentle sort of person, and eminently decent hmm, I don't think he was a great man, or great or - but he was reasonably intelligent and so he was quite a good Treasurer to work with. He was ah, ... surprised, very surprised by the referendum about, well, the power for the Commonwealth in relation to Aboriginal Affairs. And he was not only surprised - in fact he was astonished, so were a lot of people - ah, but he, he was puzzled ...
Yes that's right, but he, but he also was puzzled, he couldn't see what it meant for the Commonwealth, what should they do - he felt he did - was an indicator, that some substantial change in Commonwealth attitude should take place. But he didn't know what to do, and he talked to ah, ... the head of his department, ah, John ah, ... John ah, oh ...
Yeah, who had worked with me in Post-War Reconstruction, and who was, and we were friends, and so this Head of his Department said, 'Well, it's a difficult question, you want, say you want some kind of an organisation', and the Prime Minister said, 'Yes'. He said, 'Well why don't you talk to Nugget he set-up, in Post-War Reconstruction he created a whole lot of organisations to do this or to do that and you know he has some experience', and he thought I was good at it you know. So he said, 'Why don't you ask him'. So he, ah, Holt came to see me at the bank, and we talked about the Referendum and what it meant for, for government, and finally I said, 'Well look, I don't think I can answer you. I'm not an anthropologist, I don't know enough about the problems reason [sic], but if I were you, what I would do is I would pick out two or three people, one of whom at least, should be an anthropologist, one of them should be someone who knows about the bureaucracy and government organisations and well, someone who has had some experience at dealing with racial type problems'. And I said, 'I would just say, "Look you know, you go away, I'll give you a year you know, walk - go around the country, go where you like, talk to people, listen to Aborigines and so on, and then come back and tell me what you feel then'". He said, 'That's a good idea'. (R 37 - 00:18:18) So he, and when he met me next time he said he was going to set up this Council of Aboriginal Affairs with Bill Stanner and Barry Dexter who'd worked in Foreign Affairs in a number of countries with racial and colour problem ah, differences and things of that kind, and, and he - then he said to me, 'And I want you to be the Chairman of it'. And I said, 'Well you know, that's really not a very good idea, I don't know enough about the stuff as an issue', and he said, 'Well you know you've been telling me that, since when I was Treasurer and Bob Menzies when he was Prime Minister, that you'd been Governor of the Bank too long, and that you wanted another job', as indeed I - I had said this to Menzies and they offered me various ambassadorial job - type jobs you know and, I said 'Oh no I want a job you know (chuckles) something that is a challenge'. So at any rate he said, 'Well, what's wrong with this, it's a challenge', and ah ...
No. I certainly didn't know the magnitude or the difficulties of it. I really saw it as a an opportunity to do some things for ... for Aborigines which I felt ought to be done here as I. I had been involved a little with Aborigines when - when I was a teacher in the beginnings of my career and I'd never forgotten that, my, really quite horror at the way in which Aboriginal people were being treated and ashamed of ah, of it as a - as an Australian and so on, and so in a sense and after thinking about it I - I saw it as a challenge which I couldn't, you know, I'd respect myself less if I didn't accept it. But I did feel that perhaps I could do something about it.
Not very much while we were on the Council, because within oh, a month or two of the establishment of the Council, and before it had been given any terms of reference or anything, Holt died you see, he was you know had - he was drowned or whatever, and so there I - I was - found myself working for ah, for Gorton I think, who was - certainly wasn't very interested in Aborigines, and who didn't want to - he wouldn't give the Council any terms of reference, and I said, 'Well you know, I don't know what it - we don't know clearly what we're supposed to do, we don't know what relationship we have to anybody in the bureaucracy, we don't know what relationship we have with you, you know as Minister'. Hmm so at anyrate, but he ah, he said, 'Oh well, you know, you go ahead and do what you think and ah ...
... we'll work out some terms of reference later on', you see, And actually he, too, is one of the Prime Ministers who I think is very underrated. Very. He's very interesting if you go back and think about the things that he did and the views that he expressed when he was Prime Minister. He did, in a way, anticipate quite a lot of the Whitlam attitudes, you know his attitude towards Aborigines, his attitude on international affairs. He was the first conservative Prime Minister who had any sense of autonomy or ... as against the British or the Americans. He had a sense of Australian identity which was really ... so that in a way I felt he was - that's when I - I had in mind when I said that they all had something, and I think Gorton had very much. Also of course he established the ah - oh it's, you know, Film and Television School, and he really backed development of film in Australia and things like that, and he was capable of enthusiasm - picking up ideas and going and very good at getting action taken. So ...
So in relation to that, he was also very supportive wasn't he of your other hat that you'd acquired by this time, which was as Chair of the Australia Council and so there you had these twin things of being interested in doing something about Aborigines and the arts - both areas which really hadn't had much attention paid to them up till then.
No, well that's right and in a sense that happened because in talking with, with Holt about whether I would take the Aboriginal job, one of the things I said, 'Well you know I'm involved in the Elizabethan Theatre Trust and I, you know, and I think that that is important, that arts work'. And of course he personally, Holt, was interested in the arts himself. He was the son or the grandson of one of the theatrical entrepreneurs who sponsored Madame Melba amongst other things and so, and he had maintained an interest in theatre as - very much personally, but he also had this family link with the administration of theatre. So - but - so I - one of the conditions that I made was that I - it should be possible for me to maintain my interest in the arts, and it was then he had this idea that there, that rather than just being this interest of the government being in supporting a semi-autonomous kind of body like the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, that they should set up a government-sponsored body to advise them and to administer their patronage and so on, so that was - so that was how it ...
Harold Holt's idea.
Yes I - I did but ah, - well he wanted a very comprehensive Council for the Arts, rather more like the Australia Council and I was opposed to that because there were several bodies which, some private like the Arts Councils, which were State bodies or privately established in various States, and there were theatre groups and ... and but also, there were the people who ran the art who were gallery - the National Gallery - and the, the people who ran the support for the for ... for literature through, through that Parliamentary Committee. And these were all very - people who were very involved, very conscious of their own personal role in these - and I didn't want to be involved with a kind of takeover bid which would, you know, be seen as a power-seizing thing over bodies who've, including people who'd devoted their - you know a large part of their lives to - to that. So I said, 'Well look why - let's stick just to the Performing Arts. There's nobody doing those things in any comprehensive sort of way and there's a big job to be done now that's - and that was when - how the ah, the Council for the Arts was set up. It was really a Council for the government policy in relation to the performing arts.
What did you see as your greatest achievement during the period that you were in charge of the Council for the Arts? I mean what do you think if you look back now, what do you think happened there in relation to the arts that wouldn't have happened without that?
Oh well I think the, well it is ah, say it was a combination of the Theatre Trust and the Council for the Arts because that - the fact that the Theatre Trust was not a government agency, although it was dependent on funds which it got from the various governments and from the private sector and so on, but it meant that - there was some protection against the Council becoming a - arts bureaucracy and that's really - and I was anxious to avoid that. Ah, but I .... I - it's very hard - I don't think I mean the achievements were not mine or they were ...
I once, somebody asked me what I thought was the function of a bureaucrat and I - in relation to the arts, and I said, 'Well bureaucrats - a good bureaucrat makes other people's dreams come true'. Hmmm and, and I think that's - so far as I have an achievement in relation to the arts, it was that, not that there was anything of the things that were done for which I was responsible, but there was a - the organisation and the way it worked was a way in which other people's dreams have - became a reality and the - that I think is, you know the ... if I have an achievement it's that I helped some people have their dreams come true.
But as a result of the Arts Council's activities, a great many more dreams were coming true than had ever happened before in the history of Australian art. What do you think it was that really made the difference?
No, I do think it was an organisational thing. See these things were happening. I mean - let's take a - a good example the, I think, Opera. You know? Now there was an opera group in Sydney, and there was a wonderful woman, Mrs Clarice Lorenz, who ran that. She was one of these ... you know bit of a socialite but she - she had been an Opera Singer and she was passionately involved in it and she gathered around her a group of enthusiasts for opera. Now down in Melbourne there was the same kind of situation, ah ... oh that was - I can't remember her name but a woman there who had been also had been an opera singer, a very good one too, who set up the Arts Council in Victoria, and they established a school for musicians and singers, established a small orchestra and ran periodical program, seasons of opera bringing people from overseas. Now, those ... in other States similar things were happening but not on the same scale. They were very ambitious, they gouged money out of businesses and governments and so on and they really fought for something, and had been fighting over years. Now I think the existence of the Council acted as an intermediary between them and the governments. I can remember when the, this began to happen the - the Secretary to the Treasury - that wasn't what they called him in Victoria like they had a a very hifaluten title but I can't remember, ah, and the - his opposite number in, in New South Wales, both had had some dealings with me when I was in Post-War Reconstruction, and they, and we were friends, and they used to come to me and tell me about their problems in helping the, these enterprises ah that, well they talked particularly about well this - one of these women who use to tur ... tur ... get some money from the government in advance when they to us for a season to be mounted, and then would come back to them if the - after the program was well on its way and on approaching its last legs and say, 'You know, we haven't got enough money even to pay the staff now, we can't let these people who work behind the stage, they belong to the union' ah, you know, and so she would gouge a bit extra money out of the - out of the governments and so on, and they used to come and talk to me about this kind of problem, and I felt that there is a need for intermediaries of that kind. People who understand the problems of the government people and but also are sympathetic with the ah ... And that's in a sense is, was my image of the role of the Council. And it was like that over the film thing, you know - there'd been all that ... there were people who'd been trying to get film things started, and various forms of training for people involved in films. But the fact that there was the council enabled us to get a - set-up that Committee consisting of Phillip Adams and ah ...
Barry Jones and ah ...
And ah ... Peter Coleman - Peter Coleman was there - they weren't a very happy team but they did work see. But it, also it meant that we could find out that the Prime Minister was interested. We could feed ideas to him. So that's, that's, that role as an intermediary is a very important one and it's one which in a way has been destroyed by the bureaucracy, the oh, unwillingness for administrative power to be exercised by somebody who is not a public servant, is not a bureaucrat, is always regarded with suspicion. Now a very good example of that was what - when I, when I was Chairman of the the Council, and I'd been involved with the Theatre Trust, one of the great problems in theatre business - this goes for opera and for ballet and for, you know, is that's it a high-risk business and even if over a period of time you run it profitably, there are always failures you know, always, so - and so I set up, through the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, an arrangement with the companies which ran the opera and the ballet and the drama programs that when they had a success, they would deposit a substantial share of those profits with the Elizabethan Theatre Trust on a basis where they got, they got interest on it, and understanding was that in return for the help of this, they would undertake when they, ah two things, the - through the the Council the Theatre Trust was able to say to them, 'Look, if you have a failure, we will carry the final risk. You must plan it so that there's not going to ... the risk [is] not going to be too big, but we will underwrite it, and we have kept those funds from the various successful enterprises as a backing to the, to that underwriting'.
A rainy day fund. Now it went very, went very well. There were occasions when we had to come in and support programs that had - where the ... but fortunately most of the losses were fairly moderate, and we did have some quite big successes. So that there was a fund built up. The day I left that, the Treasury set to work and they abolished that fund. And they abolished it not because it wasn't a good idea, but they abolished it because it was money out there which they thought was government money was under the control of non-public servants. And that was why it was a good thing, because it was outside that kind of government you see. If you - you can't keep money if you're part of the bureaucracy.
You said that you felt that your time at the Council for Aboriginal Affairs was not as productive as you'd hoped. Could you tell us a little bit about whether you felt you achieved anything there at all in that period?
Oh, well I don't mean - I don't know whether I achieved, but I think there have been changes which reflect in part what I and others in the Council that they were associated with the movement for support for Aboriginal change which are ... reflects some of the activities that we did and some of them were good. But I think what has happened is that attitudes have become polarised. I think there are very many more people now in Australia who are aware of Aborigines and aware of their problems and are concerned about our treatment of them and so on. I think there are very many more people who share that - those kind of views. But on the other hand, at the other extreme I feel that there - the people who are hostile, who fear Aborigines or distrust them or hate them, I believe that their attitudes are more intense and actually the numbers of them who take that kind of hostile attitude towards the issues, may very well be greater too. In other words you've got the people, who either were just not interested or hadn't made their minds up or hadn't even thought about it, who probably were the great majority when we began. And you had a small group who thought it was important and we ought to be doing more about it; the other end you had the racist red necks who just saw Aborigines as a barrier to the things they wanted to do: both were fairly small groups. I think we greatly expanded the group who are concerned, who are beginning to understand and who would like something to be done. Not very powerfully but there is - certainly would be a willingness to accept substantial change and many who would feel happier that it had happened. On the other hand, I think largely because the people who make money out of economic development, the people who want access to Aboriginal land who see Aborigines as a barrier to their profitability, I think they are devoting more resources to that kind of - expressing those kind of fears and hostility than they were before. So you've got, as I say, a polarisation, which at present, seems to me to have produced a position in which no government really has the guts to put forward a constructive policy, because they see more important the loss of support from those people who are hostile, than they see benefit from those who would welcome change favourable to Aborigines. Now that's as I see it at the moment.
But of course, you can't tell very much about these positions, these attitude changes as, I mean, as we were talking earlier about the remarkable attitude change in relation to the environment generally. I mean I think when I, it was certainly well within my lifetime when people, who talked the sort of thing which is now taken for granted, about the need to protect the environment, [were regarded] as a bunch of cranks. Of whom I was one you see. But, okay now they are probably the majority, you see. And it's the government, I think the members of the government, the members of the parties probably too are, a majority of them are feel that way, but they still don't like to do things which lose the support of the monied groups, the conservatives, who their opposition is more powerful than the support on the other end of the spectrum hmm.
Do you see the main impediment to major reform in relation to Aborigines coming from those who have an economic stake and are concerned about losing certain rights, that is business, mining interests and so on, or from racists. Who is the biggest threat?
Well I think to some degree racism is a product of the others, of the activities of the economically motivated ones. But certainly that's where I think the critical opposition is coming from. But it's hard to tell about racism, it ... Europe I mean. human beings, particularly Europeans I think are very very conscious, conscious of differences and suspect people who are different or situations which are different, or changes which look as being significant in which altering things to which they're accustomed. But in relation to the environment, I think the changes are accumulating, you know, the ...
... the drive is there and it's as I say. But there is no comparable emotional involvement in the in the desire for change in relation to Aborigines.
Well it's very difficult to be, be precise it's - there are there are so many things. But my own feeling is that what we have tried to do from the beginning, is to offer Aborigines some kind of role in our society, a role which they are unwilling to accept. We want them to be an unpaid or a poorly paid proletariat working for our industries in our enterprises. They have never been willing to accept that. They will starve rather than do that. So that, if we want anything to come out of this, what we have to do is to accept the fact that Aborigines are different. They do have a different way of seeing the world and understanding it, they have a different vision of what the place should be like. They are autonomous their - by their nature yes a fundamental thing in Aboriginal society that what Judge Blackburn described it as a society which is run by laws not by men - or women. And I think that's important, they - nobody, no Aboriginal has the right to tell any other Aboriginal what he must do, or should do. Autonomy's - autonomy is fundamental to their ways of thinking now, I think we have, we might have prepared to spend money on them, we're prepared to offer them this and that and educate them and so on, but what we won't do is allow them to be different. To make ... And that's what I think is sad, that's why it's, you see the ... mind you I know I've been involved to some degree in this making the wrong choice in these things. When I was involved in the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, I put ... facilities for education, money for vent ... for enterprises - not access to land, which is different, but you know we were, we were all and I did put spending money to offer them some of the benefits of our society as a - a high priority. Now I don't think it's as high a priority as ...
Well, the Treaty, Treaty is not - you know it depends what's in the Treaty. A treaty embodies an exposition of a relationship and what I say is that we need a relationship which says to Aborigine[s] yes, you are here, you're part of Australia, but you're different from us, we accept your right to be different, in fact we will put in the Treaty a guarantee of your right to be different. And, but we will can give you access to a fair share of the resources of the continent, so that you can be different. It [would] make your differences effective there. I don't think those - the differences are of a kind which really would divide Australians, most of the fears are without foundation, or if they're not without foundation they're much less significant. I don't see any reason why Austra - Aborigines cannot live in Australia at various levels of economic affluence in various relationships ... and for that not to impair our way of life which to the degree we want that to be different. I see no real problem in it except our unwillingness (a) to accept the fact that they have a right to be different and (b) to give them a fair share of the resources of the continent (whispers) or get back to the ...
What's your vision for how they might live if all of this came to pass. I mean some people fear a sort of apartheid arising if there is a separation. How would you see the Aborigines living? How would you see them surviving and working? What kind of a pattern of living can you see emerging?
Well it depends how the - it'll be lots of different patterns of Aboriginals well living. I think you have at the - at one - at the bottom level the sort of minimal level is one where they have their have their own land, and they have the right to use the resources of that land, and they get some share of the common resources of the community, particularly in enabling them to conduct their own services for education, for health you know and that kind, those kind of services which are provided in common for the communities, but that they should have their own institutions, their own organisations for those. I think the homeland movement is a clear demonstration. That is the basic thing that they want. They want the right to be on land which they believe is theirs, and to be able to conduct their society in accordance with their ways of thinking, educate their children in relation to that and conduct their ceremonies and all those things. But also they should and compatibly with that it's possible for them to have access to education and training, which doesn't mean that they wholly accept what we do but they learn how to live in our society, and still continue to think of themselves and act as if they're - as Aborigines. And you will see them, they were you know, you'll have - there were ... the pop band group ... you'll have ballet companies, you'll have theatre companies, you'll have all sorts of things, you'll have painters and and sculptors and all those things emerging from them because those are things which they're good at and where they have as - they can express the separateness of their view of the world in those ways. Those things are happening on a far greater scale than white people are aware of see? And you'll find they're turning up as lawyers and when they are - and in due course they'll even be turning up as doctors despite the hostility of doctors to such an idea. But they will make differences their medical programs will be different, their entertainment programs will be different, there is - this is one of those things we were talking about - the, the virtue of diversity. Because we are unwilling to allow them to be different, we are destroying a source of diversity upon which we may very well come to depend. So that, and that's why see, the idea of a treaty you see, and not over yet, in a way when I we were - I first started to work for this, I had a much more European idea of what would be in it than I have now. I have very few precise ideas. I think what we need most is a change of ah - a change of attitude but which - a change of attitude which isn't just the result of talking and so called reconciliation programs conducted by our governments but where we begin to do things to recognise, to allow diversity, to encourage diversity and to reward successful diversity.
Now - but I think it's, but this is, I do find in the midst of a great deal of pessimism about contemporary events in our society, I am impressed by the things that are happening in Aboriginal society, wherever they are in a position to make decisions for themselves. And one of the things, I'm going to spend this year, I hope to do to explore in much more detail what is happening to Aboriginal society, where it is Aboriginal society and not something which we are attempting to create for them. I - I think this - some of the ideas about education in it - some of the things about the philosophy of science, the way in which you come to understand it to change the world - I think they are in the forefront of intellectual thinking. Okay, but I would - I, I have to learn more about that and I have - well I won't have time I suppose, certainly to understand it fully but I'm going to spend this substantial part of this year in looking, but starting with the education of how they are changing the way in which children, from the very beginning, are introduced to the world and to the ... and learn how to be Aborigines or to ... and those are - those things are very important and I, yeah so that as I say this is one area where, not because of our - I think our policies are almost universally wrong in relation to Aborigines, and I tried to express that in the things I've said about that awful National Aboriginal Education Policy which is a straight statement of compulsory assimilation. There's nothing wrong with - the thing that's wrong with South African ah well ...
Apartheid, is that it's compulsory. It's compulsory. There's nothing wrong with people becoming like us if that's what they want to do, and that option should always be open. We - they should have the right to the same privileges and to the same education and so on if that's what they want, but it should be an option which we - that we have and they have.
You care a great deal about choice and the idea of a very plural society, very diverse society is one that's always appealed to you, in almost every area of your activity: arts, Aborigines and so on. Let's talk a little bit about you though, as an individual in this society. Here you are aged ah 80 ...
86 and you are working hard - as hard as you probably ever have at some of these causes that you care about like Aborigines, the environment and also bringing to bear some of your thoughts about the economic future, of the country. Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future generally?
Well, I think I feel fundamentally pessimistic because I think that we are not dealing with the fundamental problems of our society. I suppose in the most absolute form, you know that the difficulties are expressed best if you look at the population issue. You see the population is increasing at, continuing to increase at a fantastic rate, and it is just going to be impossible for the population, as forecast, to be fed, clothed and the rest of it. Certainly not well by the - it's it's impossible even if we transformed the way in which our society is run so that we too accepted a lower rate of consumption of resources, so that the rest of the world could come closer to the kind of lifestyle that we live, even if all those things were done. I see Malthus 180 or 200 years ago or whatever it was, said that unless we learn to control the growth of population, it will be imposed on us by famine, pestilence and war. Now we have 'em: famine in very many countries. There's food, they can't afford it; they are starving except for some internationally organised charity you see; pestilence, well AIDS is a pretty good form of pestilence; and we have wars all over the world. But even so, despite those things, the population continues to rise and I just don't see any way in which catastrophe can be avoided. When I was, well at one time when I was particularly interested in this population thing, I went to a friend of mine who was a biologist and I said, 'Is there any other species on the earth which has this population explosions of this where they have an exponentially rising population?' 'Oh', he said 'Yes, there are quite a lot of them particularly insect but others too'. And I said, 'Well what happens? They can't go on rising forever'. He said, 'No', he said, 'It goes you know, it goes slowly rising and then it becomes exponential and it goes up like that'. And I said, 'Well what happens when it gets up here - the top of the graph?' He said, 'Well it collapses' he said, 'It doesn't flatten out, it doesn't drift down, it collapses. Sometimes it collapses into extinction, but most frequently it collapses and they almost disappear, but in due course there are a few left and the rise starts again'. Now I don't see any reason to believe that human - human beings are going to be any different. I think our population will go on exploding and, but there will be point where it will collapse, for some reason, perhaps the ones that Malthus identified, but there are probably plenty of others.
Well, you know I don't - I - it's - work is a habit, you know, see, it's - what would I do if I stopped doing these things? The ah ... oh, I'm here, I've and ah ... but you see expectation - I've learnt to live with the conviction that a lot of your efforts are going to be unsuccessful, and to come to believe that's not a good reason for not trying. Hmm? So it's - it is partly habit, it's, as my wife said you know, that I can't leave things alone, if I think they should be different. Lots of people think the world should be different, but she said about me that I'm just conceited enough to think that I can do something about it, you see. That that, and that yes that's the truth in that your response to these things is, is a personal one, and it's not in working for causes is not solely arise - not - doesn't arise solely out of a conviction that you have answers to the problems or could develop them. It's - ah, partly habit and partly attitudes of mind.
Despite the frustrations that you do encounter whenever you try to do something, looking back over your long life and all the different things you've been involved in, what would you say was your greatest achievement? What is something that you feel really proud of?
Well it's - oh, somebody else asked me this sometime ago and I said, 'Well, ahh ... I have four children, they all have - all are doing interesting jobs. They are - none of them seriously take drugs other than alcohol and they all still talk to me. They don't approve of me but they still talk to me.' Now I think in a personal sense that's not a bad achievement.
Oh well those things - you, yes. I think about them, and I get pleasure from some recollections of them and I have disappointments and bitterness about others of them. But I think I've been very, very lucky to go through life and always have interesting things to do and to be paid to do them is miraculous isn't it? See. Now - or I've never ... I've never really been out of work. I've never, after the application I made to join the Education Department of Western Australia when I was 17 or whatever it was, I've never actually applied for a job. There's always been one waiting you know, this ah ...
Why do you think that was? What is it about you that has made you someone that Prime Ministers have sought the advice of, that people have offered jobs to? What distinguished you that made people see those possibilities in you?
Well it's partly lucky. I know that I'm lucky - starting plus these things ... well and maybe my wife's comment is - comment is not without some relevance - that I'm conceited enough to think that, you know, I can do things see. Or ...
Yeah. Well, but you see people go - you know, you don't look for advice. If you look for advice you look for it in, to someone who thinks he knows the answer or - or you believe he thinks he knows the answer so. So it's partly that, that it's ... I like trying to understand situations and I enjoy the process of trying to produce change which is humane and you know, moving in the right direction, so and I've - I think those are qualities which are ... well encourage people to, to, oh, ask you for advice and so on I think.
Ohh yes, there've been some exceedingly stressful times exceedingly yeah. Ah, yeah hmm.
I found the - that period of ah, I suppose you might call it the Cold War period - the period of when and there was the division inside Australian society where about fundamental political and religious attitudes that ah ... there was a period when I personally was affected - my relationship with other people was - was made more difficult because of those ah ...
Well that was part of it, but it was along me bearing ... right back really to ah, to the first, the Depression of the, you know, the, the twenties and thirties and so on. These kind of differences, but they became most dominant for me in a personal sense and in relation to my private life and my relationship with people, ah, in that particular period of ...
Yes she was and my - yes that's right.
Well I dare say that well, it's ah ... ah there were ... Certainly my wife's attitude to political matters is quite different from mine, but it's never been ... I don't feel that I ... I have never thought those were important in relation to personal relationships, and I don't - never have felt that those differences were - were a major factor that - accept as a - in indirect kind of ways.
Yeah. Oh Lord yes. Well I mean it posed problems as it - ahhh when ... critical time I suppose was when I was ... after I joined the Commonwealth Bank, and those issues arose which brought me up to Canberra where those committees that were concerned with looking forward to the, the impact of the war on Australian policies and things, and I started to travel to Canberra and then when the war came, and I was put on - lent to the Commonwealth to act as economist to the Treasury, I moved to Canberra. Now that had a very profound effect because it imposed on my wife the transformation of the lifestyle which she had - was building for herself - in Sydney. She was very interested in music and she enrolled at the Conservatorium and she was studying. She played the violin and she belonged to a chamber music group and she was interested in composition and things like that. We came to Canberra, it was 1939 and you have absolutely no idea what an appalling place Canberra was from the point of view of a woman who was interested in things other than domestic affairs and bringing up children and playing some cards and well ...
It was, it really was a cultural desert for women and ah, but ... And that continued see and then when I went to Melbourne to run rationing and then I had to come back to Canberra to do the Post-War Reconstruction job, and in the meantime this ah - these work commitments taking me away you know, I mean, were intensified. So when we came back to Canberra my wife said, 'Look you're away such a lot anyrate. Why can't I live somewhere where I like living? Where it's not a cultural desert', and it seemed a very reasonable proposition so I said, 'Yeah well okay', and we bought a house in Sydney and a house we still live in, and that has been the base for the family ever since I've gone - I've gone [to] work in Canberra, I work in the North, then when during my Government period I worked to - I went to conferences, overseas and oh I - all those things, but always the base was that house in Sydney. That was where the children were well ah, you know, came into existence and well grew up and went to University and found them - found themselves jobs and so on. So that ah, but that pattern of ...
Separation, not - it wasn't a separation. We still are a family and we still, you know, I still - my wife and I are not divorced or you know anything of that kind, but we did establish a pattern of life which accepted the fact that her pattern would not be the same as mine see?
Well such, when it was appropriate or was possible and she was interested, yes. While both in and when I was working for the government and when I was working for the Bank, there were occasions when it was appropriate, when my wife wanted to go travel with me and - where it offered her something which fitted in with her private pattern of life as well, ah when she came we - we travelled to America together, we travelled to England together, we travelled to Greece together, to Spain together to where else - ah, all - all of it so that - but the point that I'm making is that in a sense the base that ... pattern of life of separateness for a considerable part of our respective activities - was something which was imposed upon me by, you know, by the career that I had chosen. Now when this issue first arose, one while my - we were still in Sydney when I was still working for the Bank, my wife came to me once and said that she had been invited to, formally to join a chamber music group, and she would like to do it. And I said, 'Well you know what, what she's going to do?' What is more she said - Janet was my - our daughter was at kindergarten and she had to be picked up from kindergarten and on certain afternoons in the week this would have meant that I would have to pick Janet up see. Now that certainly was no problem as far as the doing of it was concerned...
Ah, well I've always had the idea that the thing that we're - which we share with them, is an interest in setting aside land for collective purposes and for, particularly national park idea, is something that appeals to them as well as to environmentalists, and it - and also it seemed to me that it does offer a way in which they could have restored to them access to land which is important to them, and which could help them to preserve the continuity of the Aboriginal way of living and thinking even if it's, so to speak, at second hand or by converting it into a kind of ritual rather than a whole way of life. So that I, well, the idea that I've got is that one of the things that they're that I feel they miss when they're in connection with our society, is the loyalty to the local tribe you know? See Abori... even now Aborigines who live in Melbourne will tell you, 'You know I'm a Wiradjuri or a this or that. They think of themselves not as Aborigines but as Yolngu or Wiradjuri or Murrays or whatevers. They have the ... they have tribal groups, language groups and with which they still identify, even though they may have lost the language; they still have that. Now it does seem to me it would be something that would appeal to them if we had for everyone of those tribal language group areas, at least one area which we set aside as an Aboriginal national park, which - where they were, it was their park. It was used as a national park, but they were the managing people of it, and they could use it for traditional tribal things. They could have arrangements for their children to have holidays there in the school holidays from Melbourne or Sydney or wherever. Where they could learn about the plants and the animals of the country that they knew. Where their ancestors knew. They could be told the stories of the way in which the land came that - as it is and so on. It could become a part of their share of the education system where they taught the children from the very past, things about Aboriginal society which they wanted them to maintain contact with. Now I think if we had that, it wouldn't prevent those national parks serving our purposes, indeed it would add very greatly to their effectiveness from that point of view. One of the interesting things about ah Uluru that's you know, Ayers Rock the National Park there, a study carried out asking tourists why they came there. Why they wanted to come there, what was very interesting was, a very large proportion of the people said they came because they knew that this was Aboriginal country and they wanted to have some contact, some experience of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal ways of living. So and I think that's very important, and if they were consciously being used for the maintenance and the preservation of language and practices and traditional dances and groups, and if they were being used for that purpose, that would add very greatly to the interest of those national parks. And to Europe ... you know to European Australians and to people from overseas, very much so. So, you know I thought that one of the things that - and also of course it would fit in very much with the preservation of diversity, you know ... species diversity, but also cultural diversity. So that I think it would be particularly if we were generous enough, or you know to say it's an Aboriginal National Park first, or a - it's run by the Wiradjuri tribe or what's left of them or else. I think it could - it could become a very interesting aspect of Australian life so that wherever you were, there was always within a bus ride, an Aboriginal National Park where these things - the the ... the bark painting I mean the oh the rock paintings and engravings and things that were still left, were there to be looked at and all those kind of things. So that but where it was at least a - kind of a notional kind, of ritual contact with the land that was - was their land in that sense, even if their control of it was so limited.
Well, you see it - I think what is important is not that they get this offered by us. It's something which I think you, to be really effective is something which the - should be part of their political program. They should ask for it - perhaps on a regional basis - that every tribal group should have in its demands - we want our National Park here. They would know the places that would be suitable for it, where the land was least, you know, damaged and so on, so that I think, and then if that was the extent - the degree which they got that would be a victory on the something which would be encouraging to them and help them maintain cultural things and so on. So that, to some extent this idea has grown in ... because I hear this kind of thing coming from Aborigines in the outstation communities, and others and also from rangers, Aboriginal rangers in National Parks. See there's a great deal of disappointment amongst Aborigines who've joined the, become rangers and trained in the - to become rangers in the present National Parks, that they still feel that that's not what they're doing. Well, I can remember one chap who actually resigned from - after having been through a course of training to become a ranger for - in Kakadu, and he said he was - well he was leaving, and I said, 'Why this, you know, - isn't there a job for you here?' He said, 'Yes there's a job', and I said, 'Well why aren't you staying on?' He said, 'Well, when I decided to take the course', he said, 'I thought I would be here, looking after the wildlife and seeing that the place was still somewhere where the wildlife could survive', and he said that, 'Now I'm trained, I realise that most of my time I will be looking after tourists, and perhaps cleaning up after them', and he said, 'That's not what I want to be a ranger for'. So, but still the idea of a National Park in which the Aborigines were in control, where the rangers were doing, looking after the land as their ancestors did and looking after the wildlife, teaching the children about their relationship with the wildlife and so on, that I think would be a different kind of kind of thing even better than Kakadu and Uluru - although good as those are.
Well I should say certainly my biggest disappointment is that, well, we just have not been prepared to accept the right of Aborigines, to be different, to be part of our society and welcome in it, but to preserve differences, cultural and other, which are important to them.
And that matters more to you than the changing face of the economic theory that's prevailed in the world and the changes in all the other things that you've been interested in. It's the Aboriginal issue that you care most about.
Yes, emotionally that's certainly true, it's the thing that disappoints me most in which I ... Well, I remember Whitlam saying that, 'While - until we accept Aboriginal rights and act on that', he said, 'We are all demeaned'. And I feel that that's a truth, that the thing which demeans Australia and Australians more than anything, is their failure to act on that issue.
So looking at the time when you were - you mentioned Whitlam and that reminds me that we didn't - we were talking about your life with various Prime Ministers and we didn't - we didn't ah in fact get right through the list. We got as far I think as Gorton, and you were talking about what Gorton contributed - would you like a break before we change direction and go back to that? Are you right to keep going now while we ... fill in some of these gaps right. Ahhm if we - if we look after Gorton, you then had a period of dealing with - with McMahon, and was his attitude - during that period of - that McMahon was there and you had ah Hewson [sic] as the Minister for Aborigines and the Arts - that represented a fairly big change from Gorton didn't it?
Oh yes, ah, it was a very considerable drop down in the ... in the level of - oh, as I say I've felt that Gorton wasn't - he was a very characteristic Australian and he didn't - well he didn't have any hostility to Aborigines, but he didn't really see any reason why they ... Anything which opened the white doors to Aborigines, he was in favour of. He put up the money for the ... to be able to, you know, to educate their children - yeah, that was his initiative. He agreed that their [sic] money should be available to Aborigines to enable them to establish their own enterprises to run their own cattle stations and things like that. He set up a fund for that purpose and guaranteed while he was there that it would be renewed year by year, so that a fund was always there. Those, that was fine but that said okay their our - they're Australians and they should have all the opportunities that other Australians have got, but he didn't see - and I, and I understand it - he didn't see any reason why things should be made, ah, they should, that they should be helped to be different. They be helped to be the same generously, but not, I mean that had objected to them being different, but he saw no reason why that should be an objective policy and I think he was wrong, but still ... McMahon was a much more limited man. Indeed when I said that all our Prime Ministers had something, really in essence Billy had very little. I don't think he was ... he was thought to be a reasonably competent Treasurer, well for - some people thought he was, he - but I think he became Prime Minister because the business people thought he was - he'd been a successful Treasurer and ah, favourable to them. I don't ... It wasn't that there was hostility in him or anything like that he, he too I suppose was a bit of a professional politician that he was there - saw it as a personal career or something like that, but he never was a - he was never strong enough, he was never sufficiently in charge of his Cabinet, to be able to do things himself. He ... he - I - when I went - agreed to work with him, it was on a probably improper understanding that he would change things for Aborigines, and he made some quite good statements promising these things. I can remember a conference that - it was with the State Ministers and so on that was held in ah, in Cairns where he made a very good statement which was in a sense the - to accept differences, to not to go, to abandon the assimilation objective - but on the day following those, that Cairns statement, the Minister for the Interior made statements that in the Northern Territory it was not going to be like that at all. Ah, he was a weak man.
Well except for the fact that he had a very unpleasant habit of ringing me up at all hours of the night to ask me what I thought about something or other that, he was alright, he, but ah ...
You were in the interesting situation of being invited to be Adviser to Billy McMahon and, at the same time, you were approached by Whitlam about being an Adviser to him. That must have been a sort of interesting dilemma for you.
Yeah well it - it was you see, but it was because - I don't know what I would have done if circum[stances] had been different but when ah, McMahon asked me whether I would do it, I thought about it and I made this, well, what seemed to me to be kind of unofficial deal that I would do this, act as a kind of economic adviser for him and go on that awful trip to America with him, on the understanding that there would be a shift in the Aboriginal policy which, well, just didn't come out that ... didn't come out that way. I can't remember what the question was ...
Well I think that, like many people, I felt that this could be a beginning of something that was really exceptional, because it was an exceptional opportunity. His entry into the political scene had been marked by [the] involvement of people, particularly creative people - oh, the intelligentsia, the artists the poets and so on - the people who were interested in a better quality of life and all those sort of - sort of things, he - there was ... All those little groups in towns and countries and you know, and in the country where people were beginning to get together to talk about these things, how life could be better. he came in with a wave behind him so to speak, sympathetic to change of that, that kind, and he had, he had, he was an orator, he was an impressive person. And I really did feel that for the first time since Ben Chifley we could, we would be having a Prime Minister who had a vision of Australia as a place in which you could be proud to live. So that I was pleased about that and when Whitlam asked me whether I would act as I had for McMahon in economic capacity, I agreed largely because I had done it for McMahon. Because otherwise I think I might well have preferred to stay out of it, but I - because I could see difficulties in it and they really were very real difficulties. One of the conditions I made was that if I was going to advise on economic matters, that that had to be with the knowledge and the consent of the Secretary to the Treasury and to my successor at the Bank, that I wouldn't do that unless they were happy for that arrangement. They both agreed, but the agreement of the Secretary to the Treasury didn't stand up you know, because he was not prepared to accept a situation in which I would give advice other than what advice compatible with Treasury view on whatever, and we did after, at one stage, have a real row about this. He accused me of breaking my agreement and I said, 'Well', I said, 'I, I don't believe I have but if that's what you feel I'm resigning'. And so I went to Whitlam and I said this, that Treasury was not happy about my acting as his Adviser and therefore I found, I said that I couldn't continue. And he said, 'Well last week or the week before I asked you whether you would be Chairman of the Royal Commission into Australian Government Administration. Would you be prepared now to do that since you're not doing the other?' I said 'Yeah', I thought about that for a moment and I said, 'Yes'. So that's how I came to be Chairman of the Royal Commission on Government Administration - Australian Government Administration, a mighty job but which unfortunately wasn't finished when Whitlam was dismissed, and when, at which point I resigned from all government offices except that one, which I didn't regard as a government thing because it was set up you know it was independently and I agreed to finish that enquir ... Royal Commission but I withdrew from all other government, work.
Did you through the course of your life as public servant, banker, intellectual, adviser - did you have any guiding principles that you feel were consistent there in the pattern of how you responded and how you made decisions?
You mean procedurally or ... principles and that.
Well, I suppose I have a rather vague attitude towards moral issues which seems is in a way as religious ... sources you know, debts, how I think when I was talking about my childhood I mentioned that my family were churchgoing people and that my mother had, was very serious in her belief that the golden rule and oh, that care for your neighbour's welfare and so on were - are not merely nice ideas but they were things which we should act upon see. And I - in a way I continued to believe that ah, that society had a responsibility for other people in the society and you know I've always quoted, you know and been guided by Ben Chifley's statement that the light on the hill was that we've, well the government and the society believed, that it had an obligation to help people who were in difficulties, to ease their - and their problems and to have the standards you know where you protected the weak and the damaged. So that I don't know what you'd call that ah but in other words I believe that society has a responsibility for its members, particularly for those members who are unlucky, are you know weak or helpless in some way. Ah and who are in need of help so ... and I think that very general kind of philosophy is the reason why I've been an interventionist why I've felt that governments should do things about - about these things, and why I've been particularly concerned with ah ... well particularly with Aborigines but also with - ah for a while during the war there was - were ... and after the war I got very deeply involved with government activities associated with handicapped people and things like that and there were some - I talk a bit about this in Trial Balance about two people that were medical people who were very responsible for the development of services to rehabilitate wounded soldiers and so on, and the need to have comparable kind of services, not only for people who are damaged in war but for people who in some way were handicapped or damaged in the normal running of our society. So that or in these ways, a lot of, I think you know, a lot of the things that I did and in a way my concern about the economic system was that I felt that the economic system was society's attempt to provide some greater security, greater basis for a decent lifestyle for poor people generally. That is why I feel out of sympathy with contemporary economics which doesn't concern itself with the individuals or their needs but simply concerns itself with a system which operates, which functions like a machine, you know. Where you're not concerned with the purposes of the machine or the the results which have achieved your only concern with whether the wheels continued to turn and it functions.
Ah, oh, I mean that that I can remember there was a time when I didn't really believe it. But you know the, the idea of my extinction was something that I couldn't really contemplate. But as you get older and so on, that idea is - you get accustomed to that idea and also not merely do you get accustomed to it, but in some ways ... oh it's your - become convinced that it's - death is a very convenient and necessary thing in the running of the universe. Of the - of that part of the universe or the earth at any rate and I - when I don't think - the only thing about death - I don't mind the idea of being dead if - but well, I ... It depends on what sort of death you know when I can remember we were at teachers college and where they used to say prayers in the evening before we were all sent off to bed and we used to pray for ah, what was is it? A quiet life and a peaceful end or something like - some phrase like that which sounded rather pleasant. But that's so that, you know, ah I ...
Hope for a quiet - quiet and peaceful end hmm.
Well I don't, there will be ... I don't think there'll be personal life. Oh, I think, well I like the Aboriginal idea that you join a spiritual world or something; I mean a world which you where - you're not in a body any more but you're not extinct hmmm. But my - but I don't think I have any conviction that there'll be a Herbert Coombs in after life, but I think there'll be life of some sort. Precisely what I don't know, but it - I suppose in a way I've always been a - in a sense a practical person, there are some questions which are by their nature, you can't find answers to, and however hard you think or however scientific you are - you are, and well I suppose death's one of those. But it's - doesn't worry me, and I don't want it to be unpleasant but it's okay.
Well in Western Australia, in the country, Nugget was a kind of generic name for a creature, a person or a dog or a horse you know, which was short in the legs and stocky build and ah ... bullocks were called Nugget you know if they ... And associated with that image of shortness and stockiness was a certain character things that were supposed to go with being nuggetty. You know but they used to say every bullock team needs a nugget. Ah, they're a bit stupid but they work hard. Yes, you know nuggets are reported to be not necessarily terribly clever I think, but and so that right from when I was about this high, I was always short in the legs and stocky and active and so my father used to move from country railway station to another country railway station and the name followed me, I didn't have to be tell people that I was called Nugget, soon as they had one look at me - he's a Nugget. A very interesting ... I discovered that Aborigines in Central Australia at anyrate have a similar word, they call people who are built that way and I suppose they - I don't know whether they apply it to animals like we did but I think it's probably likely but they call it Tunku - is the Pitjinjintjara word for Nugget. I had a very interesting experience I was being introduced to a group of Aborigines, Pitjinjintjara people, out near Wingalleena which is just over the border at - into Western Australia from the South Australia border, and these people were taking me around and were being taken to see a kind of shelter which was traditional Aboriginal shelter which was made, looked a bit like a beehive, one of those curved ones - they made it by rolling up spinifex and jamming the rolled-up spinifex together and making a kind of circular space with a hole which you could crawl into and ah and get shelter from the sun or from the wind, and if you wanted to sleep at night you could get in there if you were in need of shelter - that kind of thing, and it was quite an interesting thing to see. But there were two Aborigines that I was me - being introduced to who had been making this shelter, and I said 'What are their names?' and they introduced me and they said 'This is Nugget so and so, and this is Nugget so and so' you see and they - both of them were you know like black versions of me you see - short and stocky and so. So in Pitjinjintjara land I'm a Tunku. So there - that's what that's ... so really it has nothing to do with gold or you know - just is.
Yeah. Well I, it's just of course I didn't like them, my given names, at least ah, I really disliked the Herbert, it seems a very inappropriate name for me and I've never really liked it and the abbreviation of it are even worse. I can remember during the First World War there was a chap named Ian Fairweather or something like that - a cartoonist who used to do kind of cartoons about people their British - members of the British Army - and they were Bill, Alf and Bert, and they were all - they were cockneys you know, their stories were about the silly things that Bill, Alf or Bert did you see, and Bert was the stupidest of the bunch, so there. So I didn't like the idea of being called Bert and on the other hand my second name Cole was always regarded as a terrible joke you see, because the only thing, the context in which anybody in Australia had ever heard of it was Old King Cole see, and they used to hail me with this and I - I found that slightly embarrassing so I did - had two names that I was never inclined to accept or to use much, see. Although I quite like Cole actually, and I have a few ah a few friends who don't like to call me Nugget. Particularly Americans who regard it as - not - they have quite a different attitude towards nicknames than Australians do, and so I have one or two American friends who call me Cole - which is quite - that's okay. But I like being called Nugget.
Tell me what you thought was important when you set up the - you were instrumental in moving to see to it that the ANU was set up as a postgraduate research institute, what was in your mind? What did you think was the most important thing that you had to achieve with that?
Ah remember I said earlier that you know a function of a good bureaucrat is to make possible the realisation of other people's dreams?
Ah, well as I think I said when we were talking about the function of bureaucrats oh, was I think that Administrators are people who, if they're lucky, make other people's dreams come true. And I think the ANU is very much, my role in that very much was in helping to enable the dreams of a National University [to] come true, to be realised. Only it was a dream that was shared to varying degrees by oh, quite a lot of people, and in a way what was achieved by Post-War Reconstruction and me was we brought a series of disparate ideas together, in a way which together they created the basis for a university of a particular kind. I suppose the real beginnings in my mind was associated with Howard Florey who came out to Australia during the war at Curtin's request to advise the government in relation to medical policies - medical problems relating to the Armed Forces in, particularly in New Guinea, and in relation to the whole of the Pacific war. And he worked here - he worked - he went up there and he made, wrote very interesting reports, and it was not long after the development of penicillin [with] which he was associated, and the use of penicillin became widely practised because of his involvement. But Curtin said to him, he would - talking to Curtin and he talked about the penicillin discoveries and so on, and the way in which research, academic kind of research had been the basis of that, it came out of fundamental research work which was being conducted at Cambridge, okay, Oxford sorry - or Cambridge and Oxford but so Curtin said him, 'Is there any reason why we couldn't do that kind of research in Australia?'. And then as an afterthought, since he was a bit of an advocate of Canberra, and he says 'And in particular is there any reason why we couldn't do that kind of work in Canberra?' and Florey took the question seriously and said, 'Look I'd like to think about that' and he came back in due course after he'd thought a lot about it and he said 'No, there's no reason why that kind of work couldn't be done. It would have to be limited because the facilities in Australia are inadequate for a lot of that kind of work, but there are plenty of fundamental issues in relation to science in relation to medicine, in relation to health which could be done wherever you want to do it. It might be easier to do it in a capital city like Melbourne or Perth, but it would make a fine foundation for a function for Canberra.' So that was the first thing. Now at the same time there were ideas being tossed around in other places. In Post-War Reconstruction itself, we were very interested in the way in which the social sciences - economics and other studies of the way society functions had provided us with answers to problems in the war, that we ran the war as an exercise in Keynesian economics. Other things were being done in the same way, things like the work that I mentioned in relation to disablement, and that you didn't have to accept you know to - accidents and so on as the end of useful life, that there were things that could be done. So there were studies done with which the Post-War Reconstruction was actively associated about what might be done about these things, and they all came back to the, 'Here is an area where we have to understand things better, we have to have more research if we want our society to be properly run we have to understand it, we have to know how we can - what we can use to change it and so on.' We - I no other contribution came in relation to Mount Stromloh which was the Observatory. They know - we had a quite an interesting astronomer there, he was a South African by origin, but he was very interested in the fact that astronomers in Australia viewing the universe got a view of the Milky Way - our galaxy, which you can't get from the Northern Hemisphere, and the fact that we have an astronomy department here had certain, quite a few telescopes and so on, and ideas about [how] these things could be done, was important because here was something Australia could do better than anywhere else in the world because of their physical location, that ... from here you could see the galaxy working, so to speak, or you couldn't from the other side of the Earth.
So that we had ideas about the need for research in medicine, ideas about research in the social sciences so that they could be applied to the conduct of our collective affairs. There was an opportunity from Australia to get a view of the universe and to come to understand it which was unique. So these things were going around and Post-war Reconstruction was in a way involved marginally into each of those. But they were initially all being looked at separately, but it came out of work that Post-War Reconstruction was doing that you could have those things being looked at separately but they could be grouped and combined into an institution which provided opportunities for those things. This ... and it was involved also with the whole question, the whole reorganisation of education of shifting our standards, so that education didn't stop at school, that there were ways which opened the doors and also there was this idea that we had - Australians had demonstrated during the war, and in Europe - we had distinguished scholars in the classics, we had distinguished scholars in physics, we had distinguished scholars in medicine, we had distin[guished scholars] working overseas, working overseas. They had left Australia because opportunity wasn't here for them, and the idea was in this new world of the post-war reconstructed world they would come back. Not because just out of homesickness, but because it would be possible. We had done these things during the war, we could do it in peace, and they would want to come back to take a part in it. And it was then the talk about Oliphant coming, Florey coming, Hancock coming, all of this the idea that not merely could these things be done, but it could be one way in which we could end this brain drain - the loss of our best people to other places, and to offer a chance for them to come back to share, we thought, in the - creation of the new, the new Jerusalem that ...
No no no certainly not no. Yeah.
Now you've expressed to us a few fairly pessimistic ideas about the future. You worried about overpopulation and you're concerned about our failure to recognise some of our obligations and about the environment and the trend in economics. Is your outlook universally overall so gloomy?
Well it is, it's pretty pessimistic. I feel into ... that the optimism which came out of that belief in knowledge and understanding, which marked that establishment of the university and so on, that in a sense we've lost faith in knowledge. At least it's not like it was and so I am pessimistic and also I believe that the magnitude of these problems are like the well the failure to have a civilised economic system and the failure to bring in, find some way of controlling the growth of population, these are so overwhelming in their magnitude, that it's hard not to be pessimistic. But I'm just - I don't think it's an absolute pessimism. Oh, let me tell you story about a discussion I had just quite recently with Philip Adams. Philip was a member of the old Council for the Arts, and then the Australia Council while I was Chairman of those, and he was a man whose company I always enjoyed and we had ... we were associated with some useful things I think. Particularly, he was very much involved in the development of the Film and Television School and the establishment of the film industry here, and was one of the persons who supported the original Experimental Film Fund and things which we thought sowed a lot of seeds. And he - we - I hadn't seen him for quite a while, and he rang me up a few weeks, oh, a few months ago now I suppose, and said we must meet and I haven't seen him for a long time, so I said, 'Oh, well look next time I'm in Sydney, I'll let you know, and we might have a meal together'. So I was going down and I rang him up and said I'd be down on such and such a date, and he said, 'Right I'll pick you up at eight o'clock and we'll go and have breakfast together'. So we did this and he took me off to some expensive hotel and we sat and talked you know very much in that vein about all the things we'd tried to do and how really none of them had really been completely successful that we - oh the film thing had got off the ground and then it had flagged and oh, the economic system was lousy and - all this the kind of ah swapping our miseries together you know and so - however finally we got up to go and Philip said, 'Well Nugget', he said, 'It's all true you know, we all - we failed again and again and again', he says 'But wasn't it fun?'. I think that's the reason why we're still going. Hmm.
No I haven't. The issue when I resigned from the Bank, the idea was - one of the options that the Government raised was the possibility of my doing something in management of some government aspect of business affairs, but - it wasn't a - and also I did have one approach from a commercial financial enterprise, and as a result of that, my answer in a way, which got around, that I was not available for that kind of work. And that was partly, in a sense, a kind of attitude towards working for the Government or working for a regulatory agency or something, that I don't think it is proper to move from a position in which you have knowledge arising from responsibility in relation to private industry and to accept a position within the private sector, in a way which exposes you to a risk that you are taking advantage, you are using knowledge and experience which you gained in the service of the community, for the benefit of commercial enterprise so - you know yeah so it was a decision that I would not move that way.
Well, I suppose in a sense, as I've said from time to time, running the Commonwealth Bank at that time, when the government of the day was anxious that the Commonwealth Bank would be an active competitor with the private banks. Indeed some of the private banks went so far as to say that the Commonwealth Bank was the government substitute for nationalisation, that we were trying to drive them out of business by competing them out of existence see. But - okay, but I accepted the role as a competitor for the Bank, and I cultivated my ... develop approaches to policy in relation to the Bank, so that it would be a successful competitor, and I believe it was. It doubled it's share of the banking business over the first ten years of operation. It - no I - No I was quite proud of that. I'm not hostile to the idea of private enterprise, but it's not what I think it's about and I - you know if that was my job I did it as well as I could see, but it wouldn't - it wasn't a job which I would have chosen.
No ah, well perhaps it depends on what your values are you see. Now I think the purpose of all institutions in our society essentially is to fulfil a function in the service of that society. Now I think the economic system is society's institution for the conduct of giving people access to a livelihood to enable them to feed themselves and their children, to clothe themselves and to find the material basis for a civilised, dignified human existence. That in my view is what the economic system is for. It is not for the purpose of enabling individuals to become wealthy, nor is it for the purpose of persuading people that happiness comes from possessions and from access to this or that service. On the contrary, I think those things are, from a fundamental point of view of civilised human life, those things are largely irrelevant. Some of the happiest people, some of the morally best people in the world - societies in the world, are ones which value poverty, which value doing without, particularly those which value using whatever you may have, and to assist - pinching Ben Chifley's word - those who are unlucky, those who are ill-informed or in other ways handicapped, that's what those are - those are the motivations which appeal to me and they were the kind of things where to the extent I had a choice, motivated the way I wanted myself and the institutions for which I was responsible to go.
Yes I do. I think in a way it's the ... It's one of the reasons why I regretted the passing of Keynesian economics, that either there are various approaches to economic systems and the various economic theories which go with those objectives, and Keynesian economics was a system of understanding an economic system based upon the belief that the purposes of the economic system were to provide that kind of service to the community, see? And Keynesian economics was a way of managing the economic aspects of our society so that it tended to produce those kind of purposes. But that's why I don't like economic rationalism. It is not a way in which people are enabled to live better, to be, you know, happier, to be more civilised. It's a way of enabling production to be maximised for wealth to be maximised, for property to be maximised. Well, I'm not interested in an economic system which, where - or in an economic theory which is geared solely to those kind of purposes. It's possible to have a[n] adaptation of a capitalist economic system which is subject to disciplines, which is subject to some degree of responsibility to the society and I think we had the beginnings of it here in Australia, and in England. But we could have done it very well here. But we can't do it on the basis of economic rationalism.
If you had to describe what it is that you've been trying to do during your life in the work and your contribution to things, how could you sum it up? Is there any way that you could sum up what you've been trying to do?
No, as I said, but (INTERRUPTION) Ahh well as I think I'd like to tie this back to the. what we've been talking about the role of the Administrator, the role of the bureaucrat or whatever no, where I said that I think a good Administrator makes ...
... other people's dreams practicable and then - and in a way that's - it could be expressing the same idea another way, that I did - I have a kind of vision of a society which is based upon mutual support for one another and for humane and affectionate relationship between people and I like to see things that are changing or things that are happening as moving in that direction, see. I too share that kind of vision of a[n] unaggressive, friendly group of people living - not necessarily always happily or always generously but with a society which looks on that kind of a relationship as the norm, as the objective. And it's partly because I feel that we're falling far short of that, that in my conversation with Philip I felt disappointed about things but, of course, if what he says is - still a fundamental thing that it's been fun to try.