Australian Biography: James McClelland
Born into a working class Catholic family in 1915, 'Diamond' Jim McClelland (1915–1999) worked as a lawyer, specialising in industrial relations, after serving in the army during the Second World War.
He went on to play an important part in Australian politics during the 1970s. He was elected to the Senate in 1971 and the following year became a Cabinet minister in the Whitlam Labor Government.
He retired after 7 years in parliament and was appointed to the bench of the NSW Industrial Commission.
He later became Chief Justice of the NSW Land and Environment Court and headed the Royal Commission into British atomic tests at Maralinga.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
Jim, when and where were you born?
In Melbourne, on June the third, 1915, about five weeks after Anzac Day, after Gallipoli.
And what kind of a household were you born into?
Well, I suppose you'd call it a ... not exactly working-class, but a lower middle-class house in the suburb of Glen Iris, which the Sydney equivalent would be, say, Chatswood. My parents had been born in the inner suburb of Richmond, which has been gentrified in recent years, but was then considered a sort of slum. And it was a bit of upward mobility on their part to have moved to Glen Iris, which was a thinly settled area in those days. It's since, of course, become quite a populous place. But it was a typical lower middle-class household.
What was your father like, what work did he do?
He was a tradesman painter in the Victorian Railways. It was a different thing to a painter today. They did an apprenticeship. He could not only paint houses, but he was an expert paperhanger and sign writer, you know, that gold lettering sign writing they used to do. He was an expert at that. Quite a tradesman.
I remember him with great fondness. He was a rather fussy sort of a bloke in some ways, you know, he was over worried about us. And they were very, very different times to the one ... well, not now, not since we've had the recession, but there was none of that sort of security which we later felt in Australia, say in the '50s and '60s. In those days there was always a danger of losing your job. Of course, he, working for the Victorian Railways, was much more secure than somebody out in the, you know, competitive capitalist world. He felt reasonably secure, except I remember during the Depression, which of course is one of the great — what do they call it today — defining times of my life, he was put on ration time. He was never out of work, but he only worked say three days a week and I remember his wages were reduced at one stage to two pounds and eight shillings per week, which I suppose in modern purchasing power would be something like 150 dollars for a family of, you know, wife and four children. We were never actually, we were never actually penurious, but there was nothing to spare. We used to eat modestly. My ... I remember, you know, rabbit was one of the typical items of our diet. My mother was a good, modest, sort of cook. And we lived modestly, but not in poverty.
Did you think of yourself as a poor family?
Well, relatively poor. Compared to, I suppose, to most of the people we knew I thought of myself as poor.
How many children were in the family?
Four children, and I was the second eldest.
Well, elder sister was 18 months older than me. She was a lively, rambunctious sort of a girl. Intelligent, pretty. We were good friends. And then I had a younger brother, a brother who was two years younger than me. We were good friends, too. And a younger sister who was, I suppose, a bit of an afterthought. It has to be remembered that it was a Catholic family. My father was not a Catholic. My father, in fact, was the son of what used to be called in those years, an Orangeman. What we'd call an Ulsterman today. And he was a ... his father, my father's father, whom I never met by the way, was by repute a typical Ulsterman. He'd go out, go into the streets of Melbourne on St Patrick's Day to get himself a Mick, you know, I mean to pick a fight with a Catholic. And then he'd come home with a bloodied nose that would be an honourable wound earned on the field of battle.
But my father displayed no sectarian feelings at all. He married my mother, who supplied the Catholic side, behind the altar, as they used to call it, at St Ignatius Catholic Church in Richmond. And as they always did in those days, if the priests agreed to marry them in a Catholic Church, a non-Catholic, he gave an undertaking that any children of the marriage would be brought up as Catholics. And he honoured his promise, although I've always suspected that he was probably a closet atheist. But his attitude really was, ‘Well, if my wife and my kids can fall for all that, well that's their business.’
So what did he do on Sunday, when you all went off to church?
Well, his religion was his garden. And that's the lasting bequest that he's made to me, really. He'd be out there mowing his lawn and the front garden, and the family would go out the back gate and up the hill to the little Catholic church. And I remember, finally, when I was about 16 or 17, I decided one morning that I wasn't going to church any more. It was sort of St Paul on the road to Damascus in reverse. And I came out the front door and there was Dad down in the garden working away. And he looked up at me and he said, with sort of mock sternness, ‘Why aren't you at Church with the others?’ And I said, ‘I'm not going any more, Dad.’ And he tried to appear as though he was about to read me a sermon and a great grin spread over his face, and he said, ‘Good on you, son. Go and get the mower.’ So I got the mower and I adopted his religion on the spot.
Before you got to that point, though, Catholicism had played a big part in your life?
Oh, an enormous part, because I was ... it dominated my life. As a matter of fact, it made my childhood miserable. There were, in those days, as I suppose there are today, Catholics of various degrees of piety. There were the daily communicants, of which I was one for a short period. The ones whose whole life was contemplating God and the hereafter and also the heinous sins they might be committing by thinking of things of the flesh. Dangerous occasions of sin, all these expressions come back to me now. And I, for a while, was an extremely pious boy. And so much so that I developed what we called then, I don't know what they're called now, scruples. That means that I constantly thought I was committing sins. Which I wasn't committing. I was just imagining sins for myself, of rushing in and out of confession. And it cast quite a blight over several years of my life when I should have been a joyous, carefree kid. I had this consciousness of my guilt before God.
I don't know, I suppose it came from the indoctrination of the Christian Brothers. I remember every year we'd have what they called a retreat when we'd, you know, cease all activity except going to church and singing hymns and going to confession. All this stuff. And they used to send out an expert on — a sin expert — our sin expert one year I remember, well, I suppose every year, was a Redemptorist priest. They, they're specialists in fire and brimstone stuff. And I'd come out of one of those sessions trembling with terror in immediate fear of fire and damnation.
Oh, well I was ... at this period of my life lasted from about 10 to 15. I was an altar boy, the whole bit. You couldn't have got a more pious child.
Well, I went to ... the family was ... my father was transferred in the Railway Department from Melbourne to Ballarat, a lovely provincial town in Victoria, when I was about nine. And my brother and I went to a local Christian Brothers school called St Patrick's. It was not notable for scholastic achievements but it always won the football. Didn't lose a football game for about 40 years. It was full of these bog Irish, rough and tumble — the school was attended mostly by the children of the ... the Irish who were sort of getting a bit socially mobile, you know, country pub keepers and that sort of thing. Their kids. It was a morning school and a day school.
I was a day scholar and we were sort of the ... the proletariat of the ... of the school because we were day boys and the boarders were the aristocracy. I went there for all the time that my father was working in Ballarat, and then he was transferred back to Sydney — I'm sorry — to Melbourne. And I went to what was then a sort of an elite school, not in the social sense, but in the intellectual sense. The boys who were considered most promising from the various suburban Christian Brothers' schools were sort of culled and encouraged to go on and do an extra couple of years after ... well there used to be an Intermediate and then a School Leaving Certificate and after that they had what was called Leaving Honours. And I got my Leaving in Ballarat at St Patrick's. And then I did two years of Leaving Honours with the intention of going to the university. And I ... well I did well at school. One of my fellow students was Bob Santamaria.
Before we get to St Kevin's, back at St Pat's, were there any other of the boys that took the religious teaching as seriously as you did?
I can't remember any who took it as seriously as me. I was ... it was because I was described as sensitive, you know.
I don't know how it would be described in current psychological terms, but it meant, I suppose, that I was, I took, I took ideas seriously, I was susceptible to a sort of apocalyptic view of the world, and I suppose I fell for this idea, this fundamentalism religious idea, that we're only here in preparation for an afterlife. And as a susceptible boy in that atmosphere I developed this totally unhealthy excessive religiosity.
What kind of form did your scruples take? What are some of the sins you did confess to?
Oh, I confessed to having unclean thoughts.
Oh no, no, that'd be a bit later, you know, sort of pre-pubescent times. It didn't really develop to its full horror, I suppose, until I was about 14 or 15. One of my favourite sins when I couldn't think of any other was judging others harshly. You know, it's funny in retrospect to think that somebody who later was considered a little acerbic, that I could have considered it a sin in those years.
It was one you didn't get rid of?
Well, anyhow, finally, you know, as I say, it was ... this state of mind was still present with me when I went to St Kevin's, and they were all very holy, very religious boys, at St Kevin's. I mean Santamaria, who's remained in that state of grace to this day, was typical of the sort of fellow students that I had there. And I remember, we didn't move around much in those days, we weren't as physically mobile. Nobody except the rich had motor cars. And the St Kevin's boys were from various suburbs, as I say, they were culled from the suburban Christian Brothers' schools that were dotted around Melbourne. And in the holidays we didn't see each other. It was ... you didn't make a journey say from Chatswood to Sutherland, the equivalent of that in Melbourne in those days, you stayed in a very small physical environment.
And I remember one year on holidays, it must have been when I was about 16, I went back to do Leaving Honours twice, because I was too young to go to university, I remember writing to Santamaria and telling him that I'd been reading HG Wells and Bernard Shaw. And this was the first real chink I think in my religiosity, that I suddenly saw that there were ideas that clashed with those that had been my constant daily fear. And I suppose intellectual doubts began. And I was a slow developer, but I was, I suspect, beginning to develop sexually as well. And I remember writing to Santamaria and saying that I was impressed with what I'd been reading in Wells and Bernard Shaw. And he wrote back to me and — greatly disturbed that this should be happening to me — and suggested there was an antidote to that sort of infection, the works of Chesterton and Belloc. They, of course, were great Catholic propagandists. So he could see that my soul was in peril and he recommended that I, you know, take this medicine and in the hope that I'd recover. But it didn't. I developed more and more doubts. And I got over my scruples. I began to notice that there were girls in the world. And then all of a sudden I made a decision — yeah, it was St Paul on the road to Damascus — that Sunday morning I decided I wouldn't have any more of it. That I'd shaken God out of my life forever. And I had. And I never went back.
How did your mother react to that?
Well, it was curious. I had always thought of her as the ... well she was not a terribly religious woman. She was an habitual Catholic, like most Catholics, they're branded at birth. They come into the world marked as Catholics. Suppose the same goes for Presbyterians. And they just take it for granted that once a Catholic, always a Catholic. But I began to propagandise a little bit. I couldn't see why the others in my family should be victims of an incapacity which I had shaken off, and I began to talk a little openly about what nonsense it all was. And gradually they all deserted it. My brothers and sisters and my mother. She even stopped going to church. But there was one thing, there was one residual trace of Catholicism she never lost. She would never serve meat on Good Friday.
Looking back at that period of your life with this intense all-consuming religion and then the total abandonment of it, do you see that as a sort of emotional development or an intellectual development?
Well, a mixture of both, both intellectual and emotional. There was quite a ... I think my emerging interest in sexual matters probably triggered it. I'd begun to question the dogma. But I think what probably stuck in my craw more than anything else was the sudden realisation that if I stuck with this Catholicism, the bans on things for the flesh and everything like that, that that would clash with what I wanted to do. But it was a combination of that and the increasing widening of my intellectual horizons. I was reading, not only Wells and Shaw, but Schopenhauer with the scorn he poured on all such things. And suddenly it struck me as being totally contrary to the way I wanted to live my life.
What did the local priest think of losing a whole family?
Well, he didn't look kindly on it. I remember him as a great big, bog Irish fool of a man, really. His sermons were the most jejune that you could possibly imagine. And he came around to the house looking for the flock that had strayed. And we had a ... we had steps leading up to the house from the front garden, and anybody who was coming could be clearly, was clearly visible from inside the house. And when he'd turn up ... [interruption] ...
... [question repeated] ... What did the local priest think of losing a whole family?
Well, he was very disturbed. And he took measures to try and bring back the flock that had strayed. He came around to our house and there were steps in the front of our house and there were various vantage points inside from which you could see somebody coming up the steps. And somebody would go and have a look out and when they saw him they would depute me to go to the front door and answer him. And he was no sort of an opponent, you know. He was a very crude, primitive sort of a Catholic. And he came with the usual stuff about the soul being blackened, the dangers of damnation, all that sort of stuff. And I just said to him, ‘Well, I don't believe in that any more, Father.’ I was polite but I'm afraid I couldn't forebear from pouring a little bit of youthful derision on these antiquated ideas. And he'd froth at the mouth and he came about two or three times. But finally they gave up.
During the time that you were being educated by the Christian Brothers, did you ever come across any sinning on their part ... some of the things that have been coming out recently about what went on at Christian Brothers' schools ...
Well, I had a personal experience of one of the Brothers. He was — he took a particular interest in me, and every now and then, not terribly often, but I suppose half a dozen times, he would just tell the class that I was in to go on with their work and call me out. And he'd take me up to the adjoining presbytery and he'd tell me of our great ... I remember his expression, he was Irish and very, very, very Irish, in the most attractive way, buttery Irish. And he'd tell me of the great heart love that we had for each other. I found this very embarrassing, but I didn't know why. I can't — and he was sweating profusely, I can remember that. And I was too ignorant of such matters to understand what was going on in the man. But that went on several times. And he must have, after a while, sensed my embarrassment. It never got any further. He didn't touch me as I recall, although he may have. I think he may have kissed me. But I remember later in life that, you know, it was a case of a sort of a homosexual approach. After a while it ceased because I think he could see that I was not responding in any way. And he wasn't a brutal type. He wasn't the sort to force himself on a boy. To me it was just embarrassing.
And I saw him much later, later in life, I remember when I moved to Sydney, and I was on a bus and I got into the bus and I saw this rather small, crumpled figure sitting down at the back of the bus. And I went up and spoke to him. And he was ... I told him that he'd once teached me — taught me — and he was charming and polite, but showed absolutely no sign of recognition. Mind you, this was perhaps 30 years on. I was not recognisable as the boy who'd attracted his attention. And probably there'd been so many like me that I'd passed from his recollection. In any event he showed no sign of recognition. I remember he got off the bus and walked towards St Mary's Cathedral. I felt just a pang of pity for the poor old man. And I didn't feel any anger or anything like that. But I realised gradually how much of that must go on, or has emerged in recent years that it's been common all over the world.
Did you ever encounter it in any other member of the clergy?
Sexual repression or problems with their sexuality?
Well, not personally. I suppose if I'd stuck around a bit longer I would have, but you know, I'd have been more knowledgeable about such things. But I can't say that I had any other personal experience.
No. Oh, yes. I remember my sister — this was earlier — I remember when we were living in Ballarat and my sister was just blossoming. She, I suppose she was about 17, and one of the Brothers from St Pat's came to visit us, just on a fraternal visit. And he got overcome and he asked my sister to sit on his lap. And he fondled her breasts. And she was in ... she was a humorous sort of a girl, she raised her eyes to the ceiling, but didn't smack his hands away or anything like that. And then my mother came into the room and he desisted then, of course. But I could see that he was quite worked up.
And he did this in front of you?
In front of me, yes, couldn't contain himself. I suppose he thought, oh, I suppose at the time I was only about 13, and he thought I wouldn't notice anything untoward.
You're in the middle of the period that you were having scruples. What did you think of a Brother doing this?
Well, it didn't really click with me. I was — as I say — I was a late developer. And it didn't really have the significance to me that it should have had.
Now, at St Kevin's you had very bright boys in the class with you.
Did you interact very much with them in an intellectual way?
No, I can't say that I did. We had a debating team, which consisted of Santamaria, me — I was the leader of the debating team — and one other. And we used to debate against other schools, including, I remember, the final of the debating contest was against an elite Melbourne girls' school, I think it was called Mandeville Hall [Loreto]. It was in Punt Road, South Yarra, and it was a very upmarket school. And we were adjudged to have just defeated them. We won the debating prize. But I can't remember really much intellectual interaction. The only contact I had with Santamaria, [who] turned out to be the leading Catholic spokesman of all that lot, was my letter. I never had any arguments with him about religion. My abandonment of religion came really after I'd left school.
What was Santamaria like as a boy?
Well, lively, always gave the impression of always walking on his tiptoes. He was a chubby sort of a fellow.
Yes. Levitating I suppose. He, his parents were, I think they ran an Italian greengrocers shop in a suburb called Brunswick, which would be about the equivalent of Sydney's Newtown or somewhere like that. He's since recounted that his father didn't go to church every Sunday, but he still never abandoned the church. He was a very religious boy, even then.
How important was education to your parents?
Oh, very important. They had high hopes of me as soon as it became apparent that I was what they called a bright boy. And I won a scholarship to the University of Melbourne.
Did you ever think of becoming a priest?
Yes, sure I did, during my scruples period. I can remember they were always on the lookout for recruits for the seminaries. And I remember during one of these retreats that I mentioned, when the Redemptorist hot gospeller was there, he came around to our house and he told my parents that he believed that I had the call of God, that I had a vocation. And that I was officer material in a way, you know, he wasn't thinking of me as just your ordinary little suburban priest. The suggestion was that I should go to Louvain University in Belgium, I think it is, which is, you know, training ground for archbishops and cardinals and that sort of thing. And that, of course, was tempting to me, for reasons other than religion, my horizons were, you know, very limited. I never imagined that I would ever leave Australia. It wasn't like it's been since where every kid of about 16 or 17 is packing his or her bags for the mandatory trip to England. And the idea of ever leaving the shores of Australia was something you didn't aspire to in those days. And that tempted me. And I'd have signed on the dotted line. I suppose I was about 14, disgraceful they'd be recruiting people at that age. They would inevitably have lost me in due course, but in any event that’s where the old man showed his mettle. He ... it was one thing for him to go along with his kids going to church. It was another one to be dragooned into ...
What prevented you from going overseas to study to be a priest?
I think it appealed to me greatly of course, the opportunity to travel, go to a centre of higher learning.
... [question repeated] ...What prevented you from taking up the opportunity to go away to study to be a priest?
In a word, I think my father. His attitude had always been that if we wanted to be little Catholics, it was alright by him, but it was another matter when it came to losing his clever son to the priesthood, putting pay to any other ambitions he may have had for me.
Well, he just thought that I would do well in something or other, he didn't know what it was, but ... [interruption] ...
... [question repeated again] ... What prevented you from going overseas to study to be a priest?
Oh, in a word, my father. As I've said, he, in accordance with the promise he'd made when he was married behind the altar, he didn't mind his children, you know, going through the harmless antics of youthful Catholicism, but it was another matter to lose his clever son to holy orders, and to see him disappear from the possibilities that he held out for him, of achieving in some field or other.
Did it matter to him a lot that you should not be a tradesman, that you should become a professional?
Oh no, he wanted ... didn't want me to become a tradesman. He had higher notions than that for me.
What was life like in Ballarat, where you spent most of your childhood, in an everyday sense? Could you describe what it was like in that household, in that environment, the life of your mother and your father and the interaction with the neighbours and the people around?
What I remember chiefly about Ballarat was the cold. For some reason that I've never worked out it's a very cold place. I remember having chilblains on my ears. I was, I suppose I enjoyed the sporting activities of the school, although I was never really a sportsman. We went to the pictures occasionally. I don't know whether my memory is correct but I think I saw Fred Astaire in Top Hat when I lived in Ballarat. That could be checked on. That was, that would have been about 1930 — no, I'm wrong, it couldn't have been then. That wouldn't have been where I saw it. I don't ... I do remember going to the films occasionally there. And we had a football team that we used to follow in the ... in the football competition there. There were half a dozen teams and we barracked for South Ballarat, which was, for some reason or other, the Catholic team, it was full of big hearty Irishmen. And that was a regular feature on Saturday afternoon. We mostly stayed home. We didn't have much money for ... to be spent on activities outside the house. We talked.
Not that I can remember, but I suppose I did. It was, it was the time when ... there was of course no television, but radio was just commencing. I remember we had one of those cat's whisker radios. I can remember listening in to the cricket in England, in the year that Bradman took the world by storm. I used to sit up late at night, because of the difference in the times, and I can remember listening to that. We ... the old man had a sort of a musical bent. He taught himself to play the piano, and he'd bought, despite his, you know, straightened financial circumstances, he'd bought a piano. And he used to have what used to be known as singsongs. We'd sit around the piano. My sister learnt to play a little. And the old man, who had a light baritone, as he used to describe it, would sing songs, such as The Floral Dance or Drake is Going West. And that was the staple fare for people who didn't have money to splash around in those days. That's as I recall life in Ballarat.
Was your big sister good at school as you were?
No, she wasn't as studious as I was. I think she was as bright, but she wasn't, she wasn't a natural student. She was a reader all her life and she was quite a bright woman. But she really, she was a woman of her age. It didn't occur to her when she left school that she shouldn't follow the pattern of two or three years as a typist, and then meet Mr Right and then settle down and have children. I think that she really showed signs later in life of being conscious of having wasted opportunities that could have come away if she had more of a modern woman's outlook.
Despite the misery that it sometimes caused you, looking back at your Catholic upbringing, do you think you got anything positive out of it?
I ... well I ... I suppose in a sense I've been a moralist all my life. Part of my revolt against Catholicism was based on the idea, the sort of philosophical stance, that to be ... to act well, to be good, as the religious world put it, primarily because of a fear of eternal damnation, or the hope of eternal reward, was not really a very moral stance at all. I emerged from my Catholic faith, not thinking that because there was no God anything goes, you know the Nietzschean expression, but there were still values, there were still things that you should do. I don't know whether I can really say that I owe that to my Catholic upbringing. But I certainly did not emerge morally nihilistic.
And did it concentrate your mind on thinking about some of these moral and philosophical views?
Yes, I suppose it did. I mean my next religion was Marxism. The notion that the Marxists used to — well, they probably still do if there are any of them left — that Marxism was a scientifically based philosophy is of course rubbish. It's just another religion. It requires ... well it's got several articles of faith which can be disproved by a process of reason. But I always think the reason why I was a sitting duck for Marxism, pure Marxism, not Stalinism, Trotskyism, was because I was looking for a substitute for the absolute basis of morality that I'd had in the Catholic church.
Now, did you find this when you went to university?
Well, when I went to university I was only about 17. I was much too young. I was like a duck out of water at university. Everybody was two or three years older than me and you know how much that is when you're young. The difference between being 15 and being 16 was an almost unbridgeable chasm. I was out of my depth there and I was very conscious of the fact that I was a burden on my parents. They didn't have to pay any fees, but they had to keep me. So after I'd been there for a year I got a job and finished my arts course part-time, you know, night-time.
What was it about being young, what did you miss out on at university?
... [question repeated] ... What did you miss out on at university as a result of being young?
I felt out of my depth, and I was also conscious of being financially broke. I didn't have the resources that kids would have today; no matter how impoverished their background, they'd have a little bit of money to spend. Well, I can remember going for weeks without, literally without, having any money in my pocket. I would get a monthly rail fare and I'd get off at Flinders Street and then I'd walk to the university, a distance of whatever is the kilometrage of two miles. And I'd walk back from the university to the station and walk home from the station. And I literally couldn't afford to catch a bus. And I could see that other young people at the university, and almost by definition, if you're at the university you weren't among the impoverished, had a few bob to spend and I missed that. I felt out of things.
But more than that I was, I thought I was, just too much of a burden on my family. Everybody, you know, in those days, kids stayed home and ... well often until they got married. Especially women, but it was quite common for a man in his early 20s still to be living with his parents. So I thought I should get a job and I got a job, in the railways, as a matter of fact, a clerical job in the railways. Largely through my father's, my father's brother's influence. He was a bit of a big shot in the Railway Department, he was head of a department.
What were you studying at university?
Oh well, English literature, history, French.
... [question repeated] ... What did you study at university, Jim?
Oh, English literature, French, a bit of history.
Why did you choose to do an arts degree rather than any of the other things you might have done?
Well, I was oriented towards the humanities. I had some vague literary ambitions. A lot of my contemporaries would do law, but they would do arts first, and it seemed to me ... I contemplated it, I thought of doing law ... but I thought I'd be much too young to graduate as a lawyer, about the age of 19. So I decided to do arts first.
And always in your mind was the thought of possibly doing law later?
Well, it really disappeared after a while. I, even though I finished up as a lawyer, I was never one who had a reverence for the law. The law never had much of a mystique for me. I finished up in law, more or less by accident.
So how long were you at university?
Well, full-time only for a year. Melbourne University. And then a couple of years I finished it while at work.
What did your father say when you decided not to continue full-time?
Well, he understood and, you know, he didn't want me to give it up altogether, but he understood that I would continue to study, even though I was working as well.
Ah, well, I would have gone to the university I suppose in 1932 ... at the very depths of the Depression. Thirty-three percent of people out of work. People of today who talk about hard times have never seen them the way they were then. You could absolutely see misery on the streets.
Oh, gaunt men sitting on benches in the park, people coming to your house asking if they could chop a bit of wood, people actually asking for handouts, people looking hungry.
Now, this made you feel that you needed to get a job, rather than you needed to get a qualification?
Yes it did. Well I knew that I needed to get a qualification, but I was more conscious of needing to earn some money.
So tell me about your first job.
Well, the railways I found ... well I don't suppose I was cut out for the public service. I found most of my fellow workers stodgy, conformist ... little suburban boys like John Howard.
What were you doing in the railways?
Oh, because of my comparative literacy, they gave me a job in the publicity department, writing about Mt Buffalo and the wonderful new train, the Spirit of Progress, and all the wonders of Victoria.
... Places that I'd never been to.
I never got to them. They didn't tell me, I had to just work on my imagination.
I did, I think. But I enjoyed it for a time, and then the war was looming, and round about 1938 to ’39, most people of my generation, people who follow events at all, felt the inevitability of war looming up on them. And I became obsessed with the idea of if there was a war that it was going to be another futile war, like the First World War, an unnecessary war. I realise now that it had to be fought. Fascism was something that had to be resisted. But it struck me then, because I'd caught the Marxist bug by then, that it was a war in which the working class of the world had no real interest and what was required was an uprising against the capitalist system, which I saw as being responsible for the war situation.
Well, by reading, by meeting various people who were, you know, who'd seen the light. There was one man in particular that I ran into, a man named Moroney. He was a medical student. A very ... fundamentally a very religious type. He was, what I would call a religious Marxist. I don't mean in the sense that he had any belief in God but Marxism to him was the way and the light. It was the only way out of mankind's desperate situation. He was a highly intelligent bloke, and he lent me some of his books.
I can't quite remember. I think I just met him through some friends on some social occasion. And we had a tiny little Marxist cell, Trotskyists, and we used to meet in a little room above a shop in Bourke Street, one of the main streets of Melbourne. And we became obsessed with this conspiratorial feeling that the police were watching us. You know, it was a vast overestimate of our importance. Although I've heard since that ASIO was vaguely interested in us. So we decided that we'd stop meeting there. In other words, in the romantic parlance of the Marxists, go underground. Sounds wonderful and Dostoyevskian. And we decided not to go to the room any more. And I remember one day this intense young man, Les Moroney, asking me to have a cup of coffee at a little cafe shop in the city. And he brought all of his Marxist books, a little case. And he told me he was going away for a while. Didn't specify where he was going. And he entrusted his books to me. But he was away for weeks unsighted. He'd given me the number of an uncle to ring in some sort of emergency. I could see he intended that I should ring his uncle very early.
And he went back to the room and killed himself. He was, he had this intensity, and he got depression about the state of the world. And when he'd seen me and given me the books, he'd obviously gone straight back to the room and killed himself, took some sort of lethal dose. He was, you know, he was a sixth-year medical student. He knew how to kill himself. And after he was found I remember his uncle rang me up and abused me for not having told him about this room in the city. Of course I had no ... not the vaguest notion that was what he was going to do.
What effect did this have on you?
Well, I suppose it really intensified my devotion to the cause. He was, to me, almost a martyr. A man who believed so intensely in his principles that he'd reached a stage of despair over the state of the world.
Did it make you feel despairing at all?
Well, we were all, all Marxists were a mixture of despair and rabid optimism. The ... there's no doubt that an intelligent young person looking at the state of the world where there was this immense destruction going on, and the possibility of it escalating into, as it did ultimately, into nuclear war, we took it all very seriously. And we believed, or the Marxists believed, or the pure Marxists, that the only way to put an end to the war was for the masses everywhere to rise up and throw off their chains. That was of course the great delusion of the Marxist faith. That the oppression of the masses all over the world would reach a stage where they would rise and overthrow their tyrannical masters ... [interruption] ...
Sometimes when somebody very close to you commits suicide, the person left behind feels very guilty. Did you feel at all responsible?
Yes, I did. I felt guilty. But more bewildered. He was older than me, he was several years older than me, and I thought he was a very wise and balanced man. I didn't realise that he was ... he was obviously a manic depressive, and he was a charming, highly intelligent man.
Well, I was really saved from Stalinism by my reading. It's ... it wasn't commonly known at the time, but at the time of the Moscow trials, the great frame-up trials that started in about 1936, went on ‘til about 1938, when all of the old leading Bolsheviks, the people who'd made the 1917 Revolution, were eliminated by Stalin. Now all over the world the leading Stalinists believed in the guilt of these people, who confessed to their crimes. A commission was held at the behest of a few leftist intellectuals in America, which was called the Dewey Commission. It was headed by a prominent American philosopher, John Dewey. I suppose he's America's most famous philosopher. And he and a few other independent, mostly leftward looking people held this commission. They got the transcripts of the Moscow trials and various witnesses gave evidence. And they came up with an absolutely convincing, damning conclusion that the trials were a frame-up. Now if you're a Stalinist you didn't believe that. You've no idea just the depth of the gullibility of the believing communists in those days. And of course they were all Stalinists. There was no alternative, they thought. And Trotskyists were regarded as traitors, as being actually in the pay of the imperialist enemy. That's how gullible they were. Well, I suppose what saved me from becoming just an orthodox Stalinist was reading the account of the Dewey Commission. It did strike me at the time, when the trials were on, that it was inherently implausible that people who had worked for the overthrow of the capitalist system would then become traitors to their cause.
I was incredulous about that. But the Dewey Commission confirmed my suspicions that communism under Stalin had become a real threat to the world's masses rather than their salvation. And of course, what I should have seen, if I'd carried my thinking right through, was that the whole Marxist philosophy was actually a fraud. Well, not a fraud. Marx, of course, believed what he taught. So did Lenin. But that it was fundamentally flawed. And that Stalin, far from being just an aberration, was a natural result of the beliefs of the Marxist Leninists. I didn't draw that conclusion, because I also got on to the works of Trotsky at the time. And Trotsky of course was a very charismatic figure. He was — well he was really the leader of the actual 1917 Revolution in many senses. Lenin was the ideologue but Trotsky formed the Red Army and he was a wonderful writer, very, very ... and that's what conned me in a way. I read his history of the Russian Revolution, a massive tome. And it was so beautifully persuasively written that I really fell for it. And there were a few Trotskyists worldwide. There was a strong party in France, there was the beginnings of a party in the United States. They actually won some governmental office in, I think, Sri Lanka of all places. It wasn't a total joke. But in retrospect it was a totally unreal, fanciful notion, based on a sort of purist interpretation of Marxism.
In Australia, apart from this little group that met around Les Moroney, were there any other Trotskyists?
Oh, there was this small group in Melbourne that I belonged to. And a larger group in Sydney. But they were so pure that every time they reached double figures they'd split on some question of doctrinal purity. It was a ratbag sect basically.
Now, during the time that you were going along to these meetings, did you continue to work in the railways?
Oh yes, but at a certain time ... this is another...
Jim, what was the essence of the appeal of Marxism and the particular form of Trotskyism for you?
... [question repeated] ... If you had to sum up, looking back now with a bit of distance to the young man you were, what do you think was the essence of the appeal of Marxism for you?
I think it offered an explanation of the ... of the sort of impasse that humanity seemed to have reached. First of all we had the First World War, which of course was a totally pointless war, which was just an immoral war, no side deserved to win. It was a sordid trade war. And it was after that, that you know, 10 or 20 years after the end of that, that I saw the light, the Marxist light. It offered an explanation and, don't forget, there was also the Depression. We were just emerging from the Depression. As a matter of fact, the Depression did not definitively end until the war broke out. I think there were probably about 15 percent unemployed right up to the outbreak of war. It was slowly improving, the position, but it was still bad. Well there we were, the young thinkers of that day, what was recent history to us. It was a wicked First World War in which a lot of Australians had been killed. It wasn't just something that happened outside Australia.
Then there was the cataclysmic Depression and we'd come on the labour market at that time. It seemed that the prevailing economic philosophy, capitalism, was basically flawed, and it was a short step from that with a brilliant mind, like Marx and those around him claiming to have a total answer to the problem. It was a short step to embrace the new religion. And that's what it was for me. It was, it offered salvation where I saw, and my generation saw, almost no solution. I suppose you could say, well, the natural question that flows from that is, well, why didn't everybody become a Marxist? And I would agree that you had to be, you had to be a certain type of what I would call a religious person, a person who believed in miracles, in order to fall for Marxism. I know that the intellectuals who embraced Marxism were basically almost entirely religious sceptics. They were atheists, agnostics, and they saw religion as an impediment to the solution of the problems of the world. What was the old Marxist expression — 'Religion is the opium of the masses.' But nonetheless, those who fell for Marxism had, what I call, the religious temperament. It was religion, it wasn't even religion without God. Marx was their God.
Did you feel that it was inevitable that revolution would come?
Oh, absolutely. It was something that was waiting to happen. It was historically inevitable. I think it was Lenin who coined the phrase, 'Revolution is the midwife of the old society, which is pregnant with the new,’ meaning that revolution was something which the capitalist system inevitably nurtured to the point where there would be a social explosion, the old tyranny would disappear and we'd have the bright new dawn of socialism. We literally believed that rubbish.
Did you believe that there'd be a revolution in Australia?
Oh, certainly. When you see the apathy, the inertia of the Australian working class today, it's almost impossible to believe that anybody would have thought that they'd do the equivalent of storming the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. It was different in those days because a lot of workers had been radicalised by the Depression. There was much more natural material for a revolutionary stratum in society in those years. Nonetheless it was always fanciful to think that the Australian working class were going to take up arms — and that's what we believed, and storm the barricades and throw off their masters.
Now by this stage you had a university degree and you were working in a white collar job as a ...
Oh, if you come to that, there came a stage when I believed it disgraceful not to be out there with the revolutionary masses. If I was going to play any real role in the impending revolution, which was going to happen in a few years time, it was my duty to join the masses, to go and work with the proletarians. So that's exactly what I did. I resigned from the Railway Department, and went and got a job in a steelworks in Melbourne. There was a small steelworks called Australian Iron & Steel. And I did various jobs, proletariat jobs, and I was a member of the Ironworkers Union, which in those days was totally dominated by the Stalinists. Every official of the union was a card carrying member of the Stalinists. And I used to speak at meetings and be super-militant and, you know, 'what's it matter about the war, the only thing that matters is the interests of the working classes’, you know. Well naturally this got up the nose of the Stalinist officials of the union because after Russia was invaded ... by the way that had been their line also until Russia was invaded. They then became the super-patriots.
They were urging people to work overtime and strikes were evil, all that sort of thing. So I naturally clashed with them. Their leader, the leader of the Ironworkers Union, was a charismatic figure named Ernie Thornton. He was a spellbinder. And with Ernie and me it was loathing at first sight. And he — it'll show you the fanaticism of the Communist Party of that period, that they even considered me anything to worry about. There I was, a member of a small ratbag seat, I had no chance of penetrating their iron grip on the union.
You were very young still too ...
You were still quite young ...
Oh yes, I was about 22, 24. And they set out to expel me from the union. And that's what happened to me. I was expelled from the Ironworkers Union. And then I had no alternative but to go to the capitalist war.
Because you didn't have a job?
No. I ... well ... there was ... what they called protected occupations during the war. If you were involved in work which was connected with the war effort, as it was called, as I was, you were exempt from call-up. But the moment I was, didn't have that protection, I was susceptible to being called up.
Tell me what your parents had thought when you decided to go ...
I was ... we were living separate lives then. Both in so far as [while] they knew what I was up to, I think they were totally bewildered by it. But it was a cataclysmic period where all standards were in a state of upheaval at that time. Ordinary life seemed to be unreal because, you know, we were bombarded on the radio, day and night, by the press with these awful bloody battles, Stalingrad, and all those things, the Battle of Britain. It was hard to take ordinary, mundane life as being all that important. What was happening out there on the big arena, well at least to people like me, was what mattered.
How did you feel going off to war then, at this point?
Well, I still believed that out of the war we would gradually emerge the ... what we used to call a revolutionary situation. On the basis of what happened in Russia in 1917. Their armies had been defeated, they were being pushed back and there was chaos in the economy. There'd been never any equivalent situation in Australia or in England to that. But we believed that that's what would happen, there would be this upheaval. And so my participation was just an interlude until that happened. And I went to the war with the three volumes of Marx in my kit bag.
The three volumes of Marx came to more than 2,000 pages. And I had one of these airforce blue kit bags, which was heavier than anybody else's, because in the bottom of my kit bags there were these three volumes of Marx. The bible. I hadn't read them, like many Christians who've never read the bible, especially Catholics, they're not encouraged to read the bible. I became a Marxist without having read the Marxist bible. I thought this was a golden opportunity, I knew I'd be facing an awful lot of spare time and boredom. I was a radar operator, you know, I had to sit in front of a screen and watch for planes attacking Australia. I was in Darwin, New Guinea, Solomon Islands, various places like that. And of course, apart from the horror of war, one of the worst aspects of war is the boredom of war. I wasn't in very active zones, and there was nothing else to do. So I used my time, the spare time that I had, while I was at the war, reading the three volumes of Marx.
And I claim, and I'm sure I'd be right, that I am the only man who's ever existed in Australia who read the three volumes of Marx twice. Unfortunately, I was a little bit, I had too much of a naturally sceptical strain in me, despite this religiosity. And I kept doubting, as I read this almost mathematical proof of the inevitability of revolution. I began to see flaws in the argument. If anything, Marx was the biggest influence in converting me from Marxism. So I came back from the war and during the war, during posting to various parts in the north, Darwin, New Guinea, Solomon Islands, I'd passed through Sydney for the first time. And I was absolutely bewitched by Sydney. And I decided that if I survived the war, Sydney was the place to be.
During the war did you see any really active service?
Well, I didn't see any shots fired in anger. And a lot of people at the war didn't see any shots fired in anger, but I was in Darwin shortly after the raid on Darwin and ... but no, I didn't see any active service.
Did you lose anybody close to you?
My brother was killed in Bougainville in the last few months of the war. He was in Intelligence, he was a Japanese linguist. He'd taught himself Japanese, and he was killed at Bougainville in the last few weeks of the war.
Oh yes, very.
Had you seen him during the war?
No, I hadn't. Oh yes, I had. I'd seen him once in New Guinea, our paths had crossed in New Guinea.
How did you hear about his death?
Oh, a telegram from home, from my old folks at home.
Well, that's what we thought at the time. It ultimately turned out, I think he must have been trapped somewhere, and was in imminent danger of being taken prisoner. And he actually shot himself. I didn't find that out until later. I met one of his superior officers, who assumed that I knew and he let it out, and immediately tried to correct himself, but I picked up on it. It was confirmed later that he'd actually killed himself in despair and I suppose fear of what would happen to him, because of ... there were horrendous stories then. You can imagine what the Japanese would have done to an Intelligence officer in an attempt to get information from him.
What was he like, your brother?
Oh, he was a very attractive character. Well, as you can see, intelligent. He'd become fluent in Japanese. He'd only ... he started very late in life, but he went to schools and became very fluent in Japanese. He was a very attractive character. Charming, handsome young man.
So what did you get out of the war yourself, apart from the fact that you read the three volumes?
Well, probably nothing. It was a period of ... the people that I was mixing with, I remember one camp when I'd be buried in my Marx, they all knew that I, you know, that I was a bit of a peculiar figure, that I ... they used to call me Karl. They were a pretty dull lot, a pretty conformist bunch of, oh, young accountants and that sort of people. They weren't fervent patriots, but they were getting through the war as best they could. There were none of them who really became friends. A few years ago I got a Christmas card from one them, I remembered he was an economics student at Melbourne University, under the notorious capitalist authority of Professor Copland [Sir Douglas Berry], who had played an infamous role as far as lefties were concerned during the Depression. He'd been a sort of a mastermind of the Premiers’ Plan — it was something they'd introduced to drastic cut in wages throughout the country. And he was generally concerned by us lefties to be a real reactionary. Well, this young man, who was on the unit with me, was one of his students, and he used to argue with me. He used to prove that it was economic nonsense that they were talking. Anyhow, I saw him once after the war and then our paths diverged. Didn't hear from him. And then a couple of years ago I got this Christmas card from him. He'd read my book, I'd published a book. And he'd read it, and I'd made a reference to him in the book. And he must have been then, nearly my age. And he sent me this Christmas card, and I sent him one back, and we exchanged cards for a couple years, but I haven't heard from him for a few years, so I've assumed that he must have fallen off the twig. But none of the others made any impact on me.
What was it about Sydney that was so alluring?
Oh, it struck me as a gorgeous, hedonistic, wonderful place. Well, everything it's got now, only more. I mean, I think that they've made a mess of Sydney, but such, it's so gifted by nature, it's, they can't make a total mess of it. But it was a lovely place then, you know.
Was it, physically ... was it the physical setting of Sydney that appealed to you?
Or was it something about the life here?
Yes, and of course that it was the Trotskyist centre. That's where our gurus lived. People like old Nick Origlass who, from an ambition to be the Marxist dictator of the world, finally settled for Mayor of Leichhardt. Have you heard of him? Yeah. Well that was the Trotskyist centre, Sydney was. And I wanted to be there where the action was.
So you emerged from the war having reading Marx and developed some scepticism ...
But nevertheless still a committed communist?
Still a committed Trotskyist. I arrived in Sydney ... as soon as I was demobilised in Melbourne I set out for Sydney. And I arrived in Sydney in 1946, and in ... so I thought, ‘Well, here I am, I've got no trade, what can I do? I've got to earn a living while I'm waiting for the revolution.’ And I began to have little niggling doubts that perhaps that would be a long wait. So I decided I had to equip myself to earn a living. So I did the post-war servicemen's ... you know, there was a scheme under which post-war university courses were open to ex-servicemen, financed by the government, small allowance. So I decided to do law. And I enrolled in the Sydney law course. After a while I became articled to a firm of solicitors. I got married in 1947. And then I did another of my St Paul acts.
Can you describe exactly how that happened?
Well, I used to go across to these meetings at our little Trotskyist cell, which were held mostly at Origlass's house over at Balmain. And I remember, I used to get the ferry, get off at Long Nose Point and walk along to these places that are now very fashionable, since they've been gentrified. Well, I knew Balmain when it was mostly populated by dockworkers and us revolutionaries. And we used to meet there, on a Friday night, and I can remember one Friday night, Origlass was droning on in his dogmatic, doctrinaire way about something or other. And suddenly in a blinding flash I thought, ‘This is all bullshit.’ And I didn't go again.
Like the way I ceased to be a Catholic. I ceased to be a Marxist overnight.
Oh yes, sure ... a long correspondence ensued in which, you know, it became a doctrinal brawl. What was, you know, what was the basis of my disbelief, etc. And I spelt that out in considerable detail. I think I won the argument hands down, but nothing ... Origlass was one of those impervious Marxists. He probably still is. He's probably still a Trotskyist. And he's about 90 now. And finally I was free of them. And I graduated in law, and that opened up another chapter in my life.
Now, you'd had Catholicism, and then you'd had Marxism to believe in ...
... [question repeated] ... You'd had Catholicism in your youth, and then you'd had Marxism to provide you with a sort of philosophical framework ...
... What took their place in your life now?
Well, no all-embracing world view. I suppose you could say I was still on the left. I ... it would never have occurred to me to vote anything but Labor. And I suppose I settled for a less cataclysmic view of the possibilities of human amelioration. I thought it could be done, not in a ... I didn't believe in the bright new dawn, but I believed that things could be made better and I became a member of the Labor Party. I had been for a while, even while I was a Trotskyist. But I ... well I suppose I cut my sights down. I no longer believed in saving humanity. But in just making things a little bit more civilised.
How active a member of the Labor Party were you at the beginning?
Well, I used to go to branch meetings, I suppose like your ordinary Catholic goes to church on Sunday. It was funny, for a while I was in the Double Bay branch, imagine a Labor branch ... and along with a couple of other Labor people who were to become famous, Neville Wran and Lionel Murphy.
A small branch, and there were the three of us, with a few other wealthy kids from the eastern suburbs who used to roll up in the old man's Mercedes to the branch meetings. It was a really funny little branch.
Did you maintain any connections during this time with working people, with the union movement or any other aspects of the labour movement?
Well, that happened a little later in my legal practice. I had a period of relative passivity politically, where I've always dropped out, I was on the periphery. And what livened my interest again was the brawl that erupted in the union movement at the time that the industrial groups were making their run against the communists.
The industrial groups being the Catholic groups?
Yes, it was. It was actually inspired by Santamaria, who I hadn't seen all those years. Might have just heard he was a vague, shadowy, éminence grise, behind some deep right-wing Catholic movement.
Could you tell us what was the idea behind the industrial groups themselves?
Well, the industrial groups were composed of a variety of elements. First of all, the communists in the period immediately after the war, really did loom large in the union movement. They got control of a lot of major unions. They even had a majority, I think, at one annual meeting of the ACTU, that is a meeting of all the unions. They were to be taken seriously, and they, of course, even though they didn't have the view that the Trotskyists did of a sudden uprising, they still did aim to become the rulers of this country. As the Cold War developed they were seen by many people as being almost traitorous, this working in the Russian interest against the Western interests. And there was some truth in that. And they got control of these major unions. And at this time I'd become a solicitor. And I had links with some unions, especially with Laurie Short, whom I had known in my Trotskyist days.
He'd been a Trotskyist, yes. I deserted them a little while before he did. But he'd long got over that. And he got locked in a mortal combat with the Stalinists, who were running the union. They expelled him, they did all the silly things, they overplayed their hand, or they were, apart from being doctrinally wrong they were also a bit stupid. Anyhow, they made a mortal enemy of him and a martyr of him, and at this stage there was a great movement in the unions against the sort of pushbutton industrial warfare that the communist union leaders were sponsoring. You know, getting them to stop work over non-industrial matters, you know — I'm trying to think of an example — there'd be some political issue of the day which'd get the coms all worked up and they'd declare a strike in the union that they controlled. And of course the old masses, you know, these people who were supposed to be the edge-in of revolutionary change, couldn't have cared less about the things that they were all steamed up about.
And there gradually was a ferment in the unions to get rid of the communist officials. Now Santamaria and his mob, the movement, decided to capitalise on this because they saw the coms literally as anti-Christs. They had ... Santamaria especially ... there was great divisions in the Catholic church about this I discovered later. And Santamaria, who had the backing of the Melbourne Pope, Archbishop Mannix, ultimately found that his [ideas] did not run in Sydney. This bloke who died a week or two ago, Archbishop Carroll, put pay to Santamaria's attempt to move into New South Wales. But I'll come to that. But I ... Short consulted me about his contest to stay in the union, the Ironworkers Union, and ultimately he aimed to supplant the communists, to cash in on this anti-communist movement that was developing in the union movement in general. And there were, there was a series of cases in which I acted for Short in the Arbitration Commission, and I used Kerr ... that's when I met Kerr.
John Kerr. He was a brilliant barrister. And we had a series of victories which ultimately resulted in Short taking over the Ironworkers Union. Well that was a ... at the time that was a major event, 1951. And at the height of the contest we'd made contact with Santamaria. See what Short ... in a contest, in a union election, the advantage that the communists had was that they had foot soldiers. They had people who could go out knocking on doors, persuading the apathetic masses to cast a vote. I mean a union election's something like an American election. About 40 percent vote. And the question of getting the vote out required getting foot soldiers. Well, Santamaria supplied them. He had all these zealots, these sort of Christian Democrat types. People who wanted to turn Australia into ... wanted to turn the Labor Party into a party like the Christian Democrats in Italy or Germany. And they were motivated by this zealous loathing for the anti-Christ, communism. And we formed an alliance with them, Short and I, and they were a great help.
Did you feel strange about forming an alliance ...
Yes I did, I did, but I thought that I ... don't forget that I had maintained my loathing for Stalinists for what they had done to me.
Well, you'd been thrown out of this very same union.
I'd been thrown out. Sure. And I didn't take much persuasion to join in an anti-communist crusade. Because I did seriously regard them as an enemy of democracy and a real menace.
Was there also a little element of personal revenge in it?
Yes, there was. Sure there was. I enjoyed ... I had a hell of a lot of fun. I remember sitting in a court, a few seats away from Thornton, who'd expelled me from the union, and seeing him lose the case in which I was acting for his enemy. I certainly got a little fun out of that. And of course, in a purely commercial sense, it really made my fortune, because I became the ... I became the man that people went to who were involved in any union in contest with the coms. I became the sort of official expert on how to do the coms. And I had success in several other unions as well.
It sounds as if, in acting as the solicitor to Laurie Short, you were offering a little bit more than legal advice?
Oh, I held his hand, I was his guide, philosopher and friend, I more or less took over his life for a few years.
Well, he's still ...
The case in which you acted as solicitor for the Ironworkers Union, or for Laurie Short, was a real turning point in your legal career and established you, put you on the map ...
Did you have to work very hard at it?
Oh yes, I've never worked harder in my life than during his contest. It was really a 16-hour day every day for a period of about six months or so. Not that I liked working as hard as that, but I could see it was a turning point, that a lot depended on it in every way.
And so you didn't enjoy the hard work?
Well I was ... the adrenalin was pumping so hard that, during that contest, that I didn't notice it. I became totally single-minded and I can work very hard in short bursts. But I've never liked the long, hard, grind of toil. I've never shown any signs of workaholism.
How do you then manage yourself when you've got a lot on?
Well, I never had all that much on my plate. I did I suppose when I was a Minister in the Whitlam Government. But I've managed most of the time to keep my work within reasonable bounds. Save time for the really important things, like listening to music, reading, talking, drinking.
Now, when your life as a lawyer took off, what did you do, where were you practicing from, and what was your practice like?
Well, I started practice in a little office in Young Street in an old 1820s terrace. I think it was called Raphael Place. It's long since been demolished. And during the war it was a brothel. As a matter of fact, when I hung out my shingle, one of the girls was still plying her trade from a backroom in the building. It was a very unimpressive beginning. A very, very far cry from the modern spit and polish of solicitors' offices. I moved then, I moved uptown to somewhere in Pitt Street, and then I moved again on to the corner of Rowe Street — remember Rowe Street — it was a beautiful little street that's been, more or less, obliterated by the great tower developments. I was there for some time, right next door to the Australia Hotel. And then I moved to a bigger, much bigger, office in Bathurst Street. And that's where I was when I ... when I left the practice.
Did you always practice alone?
Oh no, I had a couple of partners in the end, I had Paul Landa. As a matter of fact it's an odd thing, the two partners I had were both 20 or more years younger than me ... [interruption] ...
... [question repeated] ... When you were practicing as a lawyer, did you have partners?
Well, I started off with a partner, a man called Courtney Boyland. Very nice man, we functioned together for a couple of years, but he was a hopeless drunk and as a result of it he died shortly afterwards, after we dissolved the partnership. Then, as I grew larger, I took on a couple more partners. Ironically, these two young men who were 20 or more years, more years, younger than me, both died quite young. Paul Landa, who later became quite well-known in state politics, he died of a heart attack on the tennis court when he was about 43 or something like that. And another young man named Brian Wallace who died last year, in his 50s. So I've outlived them all. Genetic lottery.
Oh yes, they were, yeah. And finally I handed the practice over to them when I went into parliament.
Now, what made you decide to leave the law and go into politics?
Well, I'd never lost my interest in politics. And I got bored with the law.
Oh, whatever people may tell you the law, it is not all that enthralling. It has its tedium, and its tedious people. I'm a bit anti-lawyer. I find them single-minded, boring people in the main. There are great exceptions of course. I've had a few close friends among lawyers. But mostly they were people I can do without.
Do you think it's the nature of law itself that encourages people to be narrow?
I think the people who take law on are mostly people who want to be high-achievers, and it's a very, very hard taskmaster. I would think that the successful barrister, the man who's in court every day and, of course, working ‘til late at night, getting up his brief for the next day, would hardly find time to read the newspapers. They'd never read a book, you'd never run into them in the theatre. Well, what have they got to talk about? Their own dreary cases. And it makes them awful bores.
The barrister you used to brief most was John Kerr?
Well, he was an exception. He was a man of far broader interests, although he was a brilliant lawyer. He'd won the university medal and he was a brilliant advocate and as good a lawyer as any of them when he applied his mind to it. He was really bored with the law, too. He saw, he had much broader horizons. As a matter of fact, Kerr really wanted to be Prime Minister, but he didn't have the application. He, you know, what you go through to become Prime Minister, the awful boredom of branch meetings and pressing the flesh and cultivating people that you've got no time for. That wasn't for him. Nor was it for me. I went about it a different way. But Kerr was a man of considerable erudition, imagination, and at his best he was a very interesting man.
Now, this was when you knew him in the law, but you yourself left the law. What precipitated it?
Ah well, as a matter of fact, I remember one night we were having a little dinner party at my house and among the guests were John Kerr and his wife, and Donald Horne and his wife. And we got to talking about politics and what was wrong with the country, etc. And I think the question of the inadequacy of the existing politicians got a guernsey. And the fact that politics didn't appeal to the best minds in the country and, you know, that line of talk that you get into on about the third bottle of claret. And all of a sudden both of them, Donald and Kerr, looked at me and said, ‘Well, why don't you have a go?’ The question didn't arise about why shouldn't they have a go, but they had other preoccupations. And I thought, ‘Yes, why shouldn't I have a go?’
And I took steps as from the next day to get preselected for the Senate election that was coming up. That's much less painful than going through the chores that I was talking about of political life. I had to get ... there was an electoral college of about 75 people, representatives of Labor branches dotted all over the country. And I just dropped my practice. The preselection was on about a month after that conversation with Kerr and Horne. So I dropped my practice and went barnstorming all around the country. And I got enough votes at the electoral college to get a winnable ticket, winnable place on the Senate ticket.
So you deliberately chose the Senate?
Yes. I thought I could play as big a role there as the, you know, it would be up to me when I got there. And I did, it didn't matter that I was in the Senate. Of course, if I'd wanted to be Prime Minister, which I never did, I would have had to transfer into the House of Reps.
Why didn't you want to be Prime Minister?
I don't know. I was asked that recently by a young man who was studying my career. I wouldn't say that it never occurred to me, but I don't think I have the killer instinct necessary to go around getting the numbers and stabbing people in the back. Not that I was above that in terms of morality, but I was fundamentally a bit too lazy. I never had that absolute compulsion to get to the top that you have to have if you want to become Prime Minister.
You were satisfied with something that gave you intellectual stimulation and a box seat?
That's right, I had a feeling of being in the action. Of course, I was frustrated for the first couple of years I was there. I didn't have the seniority to get elected to the cabinet. It's very conservative in many ways, the Labor Party. You've got to serve your apprenticeship where I, as a matter fact, it was a very short apprenticeship in my case, I got into the ministry after I'd been there a couple of years. First of all, I was Minister for Manufacturing Industry, about which I knew absolutely nothing. That I was able to get on top of fairly quickly because I had a very able department. I'm no despiser of bureaucrats as some politicians pretend to be. I saw enough of the time that I was theirs and the bureaucrats really run the show. Yes Minister is almost literally correct.
Anyhow, I wasn't in that job long because Whitlam decided that he needed a new Minister for Labour and Clyde Cameron, the old veteran who'd, you know, lived his life in the trade union movement, was forced to give way to me. And that was a key job. In many ways for a while it was the most important job in the cabinet. Because one of the things that brought the Labor Government down was that Gough, for all of his qualities, considerable qualities, was not interested in some of the aspects of government that are the most important. For instance, the economy, that bored him. And industrial relations. He wasn't interested in either of those.
Well, the arts, education, sewerage. In curing the manifest ills that he'd seen building up during the Menzies era, of complacency.
The manifest ills of the ordinary people.
Yes, that's right. And of little elite pockets. He was not uninterested in the intelligentsia and the arts. He was interested in that. But, as I say, as a result, the country got into a bit of a mess economically. When I was made Minister for Labour, the inflation rate was something like 17.6 percent. Outrageous. It was due largely to a wage explosion that had occurred over the last 12 months, that had been allowed to happen by Cameron, who could have stopped it if he'd wanted to. It was a matter of ‘ask and ye shall receive’ as far as the unions were concerned, in his case. And I perceived immediately that that had to be brought to an end, this wage explosion. Every time the unions demanded, say, another outrageous increases, 25 dollars a week increase. In 1972-74 that was a lot of money.
So I took on the job of barnstorming the union gatherings, the Labour Councils, in the various states, and telling them there had to be a wage pause. It wasn't a pleasant job. I was nearly lynched in Melbourne, which was the sort of centre of the socialist left. And in any event it worked, and inflation was coming down by the time we were thrown out at the end of the year. But I enjoyed that, I enjoyed that six months or so that I was Minister for Labour immensely. I felt that I was doing something relevant, I was right in the centre of the action. Then of course, the rug was pulled out from beneath.
Going back to your motivation for going in, was there still some strong idealism?
Oh yes, certainly.
What did you think ... what were you thinking about what you could do from that position?
Well, I didn't actually specify, but I thought that there were all sorts of social shortcomings that could be corrected by a rational government. By a mild, left-oriented government. And I didn't think I could perform any miracles. I had lost my faith in miracles by then. But I thought an intelligent government could improve the lot of ordinary people and I wanted to have some part in it.
You decided, you were very much associated with the right-wing of the party?
Well, that's not really correct. I ... that was because of my association with the industrial groups during the, my anti-communist period. But I was really not a man of the right at all. I, my association with Santamaria was a purely temporary alliance. I had no sympathy with his general social philosophy. And the sort of bog Irish Catholic element that was dominant in the right-wing was very far off my wavelength. I was associated with them and I was endorsed by them for the Senate, largely as a pay-off for what I had done in downing communists in the trade union movement. They thought that they owed it to me. But I wasn't in parliament long before they began to think that they'd made a mistake in me. That I was not really one of their boys.
So in political, philosophical terms, how did you differ from them?
Well, largely on social matters, on their, well, their attitude to things like divorce, contraception, their idealisation of an unreal view of the family, the sort of thing you still get from politicians. Their general conservative stance was not mine at all.
In relation to economic matters, where did you stand?
Well, I was unaligned really, I didn't belong to either the left or the right. The left still retained certain socialist illusions on the matter of, say, nationalisation, the sacrosanctity of state instrumentalities like TAA [Trans-Australia Airlines], that sort of thing. I saw through all that and, of course, so have they mostly today. But, well, I suppose I was ... I'd never call myself an economic rationalist. That's a dirty phrase to me, but I was somewhere in the centre of, I would say, economically.
Not wanting public ownership of things that didn't have to be publicly owned?
No, and I could see no virtue in public ownership for its own sake.
But wanting fairly strict economic management?
And if I could describe my view economically, then and now, as against the economic rationalists who believe that you leave everything to market forces and everything will miraculously come good, I'm very much opposed to that view, and I was then. I'm a, what I would call an interventionist. I believe that the government has a role to play in managing economic forces, and not just letting the market rip.
Now, the Whitlam Government that you entered, first of all as Minister for Manufacturing Industry, did you, could you characterise that whole atmosphere at the time, when it first, when you were first swept into power, and you were part of that Whitlam Government on which so many hopes were pinned? What was the feeling of being there?
Well, there was a feeling of euphoria to start off with, and an unreal feeling. I think that the great fault of the Whitlam Government was caused by the very fact that a Labor Government had been out, had not been in office for 23 years. Now the main effect of that was there'd been no opportunity to separate the sheep from the goats, I mean, in terms of the talent in the party. They had never been tested by office. See, the way you find out if anybody's any good or not is by throwing them into a job and seeing what he does with it. That had never happened to all these old Labor stalwarts. And several of them, to whom Gough entrusted the most important jobs, fell by the wayside.
Well, Cairns was the most spectacular one. The idea of him being treasurer was absolutely fantastic. He was an economic ignoramus. And a starry-eyed, unreal thinker. A nice man, but didn't belong in the real world.
Why do you think Gough made him treasurer?
Well, this is Gough's fault, that he was, he regarded economics as unimportant. Then there was that absurd loans affair where they believed some little pedlar from the back alleys of international finance could lay his hands on untold billions outside the ordinary sources of finance. Don't remind me, that built up into a loans affair that had a big part in Labor's overthrow.
But that had to do with Rex Connor.
... Had to do, and I regard Connor also, although a man of towering ability, as being a totally unreal figure. A bit mad in the end. Honestly, you know, sleeping beside his fax machine waiting for gold that never came in. He, for all of his achievements, the pipeline and all that sort of thing, was really a disastrous figure.
And Clyde Cameron, who was Minister for Labour for most of the period, I think had, well, blinkers, as a man whose whole culture had been in the union movement. Also a very able man, but living in the past. Frank Crean, who was treasurer before Cairns got the job, he was just a little accountant who was really not up to the job. I can't think of the others.
Did you have this view at the time?
Yes, sure I did.
Oh well, not openly. I liked them personally, I didn't want to offend them.
Well then, how did you come to take over Clyde's job?
Well, there was a debate in the cabinet one day over an outrageous demand that one of the metal workers unions had made for a 25 dollar a week increase. And of course, that wasn't for the government to give or deny, it was a matter for the arbitration court, the precursor to the present Industrial Relations Commission, or whatever it's called. But it was customary for the government to appear in the hearings of such claims and put the government's view, whether a rise should be given or not, and how much it should be. And the question came up in the cabinet as to what the government should, what stance it should, take on this matter. And Clyde, you know, was the one who was considered in the cabinet to be the authority on industrial matters, spoke up and said, ‘Well, we have to support it. They're entitled to it and they'll get it anyway so we should support it.’ And I weighed in very heavily against this proposition. And well, everybody there was astonished because he'd got away with this sort of thing throughout his time as Minister for Labour, and I worsted him in debate.
He finally climbed down knowing that the headline would be 'Cameron done in cabinet' or something like that. Because there were no secrets about what happened in cabinet. Everything was leaked. So finally, seeing the writing on the wall, he climbed down and agreed that the government should go to the court and oppose it. And the next day, the scales fell from Whitlam's eyes. It occurred to him that I was more in touch with reality in that field than Cameron was. And he came round and asked me if I'd take Cameron's job. And I said, gladly. And at the swearing in of the new cabinet, Clyde didn't turn up. The swearing in ceremony was delayed for about an hour while somebody persuaded him that he should show up. He was given what he considered the contemptible post of Minister for Science, of which, of course, he knew nothing.
So that's how I got into the ... [interruption] ...
Now, you say that you have a very high regard for the public service and senior public servants, but did you ever, as a minister, find them a problem to you?
Well, when I was Minister for Manufacturing Industry, I was totally out of my depth. And the bureaucrats that I dealt with were able, helpful, they could see that I was a novice in the matter but you know, they didn't patronise me. They helped me and I quickly caught up, not to their level, but I knew my way around the job. When I was Minister for Labour I was really in my own field. After all I'd been an industrial lawyer for years, and I knew more that the bureaucrats on that. And I can't say that I relied on them at all. But my observation of the way the government functioned was that the ministers were really a bunch of amateurs who didn't know much, or in many cases knew nothing about the fields in which they were operating as minister. And the way government staggered on at all was because of the able bureaucrats who guided the politicians on what to do. And the initiative for a lot of the legislation came from the bureaucracy.
Now even today, Paul Keating and his leading ministers may give the impression that everything emanates from their heads. And that is not so. Keating has been listening to the treasury and to the Reserve Bank all the time he was there. He came into the parliament totally ignorant on economic matters and he learnt — he's a fast learner, and a very, very able man — but the idea that he is single-handedly running the show is rubbish. We should be grateful that we have an able public service. Should I stop there a minute ... [interruption] ...
... [question repeated] ... Given your view of public servants, what do you think you, as a minister, were able to accomplish?
Well, as Minister for Labour, I make an exception of my generalisation about public servants. Because really among ministers I was an expert in the field that I took on as Minister for Labour. So I didn't really need much advice and I certainly didn't get much. But observing the way other ministers functioned, I could see that, you know, when they were pressed for detail on the causes they were espousing or the bills that they were introducing, their knowledge of what they were doing was paper thin. There was no depth to their mastery of their briefs. And it dawned on me that they were really being manipulated to a large extent. The ... I'll say this for the bureaucrats ... they recognise the existence of the party system and they give their point of view and they give their advice and their expert knowledge. But they bend to the political tendencies of those that they're serving. But in the process they are really in the box seat because they know what they're talking about and the minister doesn't. And without realising it, the ministers are unconsciously manipulated by the bureaucrats. Even the Keatings, and — oh, especially the Hawkes — Keating's emergence as an economic rationalist for most of his term, until 1993, was due almost entirely to the influence the treasury and the Reserve Bank had on him.
With the people that you were sharing cabinet responsibility, you've told us the ones that you didn't admire. Did you admire any of your colleagues?
Yes, I admired Murphy. I must say that up to a point I admired Hayden.
What did you admire Murphy for?
Well, Murphy was a brilliant, he was a scintillating, fellow, Murphy. In a way he was the most attractive of the Labor people. I don't mean this in any hagiographic sense, there's nothing bores me more than the 'ensaintment' of Lionel. He was anything but saintly, I can assure you. But, and he was anything but a believing leftie, for all of the tag that was put on him, he realised, I realised, that if he wanted to get into parliament at all, you had to pick a side, even though he didn't agree with much of what ... of the nonsense that the left believed in. But he was a radical in the sense that he wanted to change society.
For instance, the Family Law Act, that was really a revolutionary act. But I don't mean that he dreamed it up in the first place. There was a Family Law Act that had been introduced by Barwick in the previous regime, but Murphy turned it into a real Act with real teeth, for all its shortcomings. Trade practices ... in all these spheres where, sort of, unrestrained capitalism had been getting away with murder for years, Murphy saw that government should step in and more or less put them in their place. But not only that, he was an entertaining man, he was a charming, very attractive to women. I remember my previous wife saying of him, I said, you know, I said, ‘Well, what is it that women find so attractive about Murphy?’ She said, ‘Well, he makes a woman feel as though she's the only other person in the room with him.’ And that wasn't far, he was that sort of man. Immensely clever, the cleverest man in the parliament he was. Well, we hit it off wonderfully. We were kindred spirits. He was the ablest bloke in the ministry.
You spent a lot of time with him?
Oh yes, a good bit, sure. And I helped him a bit, too. I was ... before I got into the ministry I was the Chairman of the Industrial and Legal Committee, which had a lot of work to do on the Family Law Act, you know, hammering out the detail of it. And I worked closely with him. And I continued to see him after he left the parliament and went on the High Court, where he was a great success by the way. He was received with considerable suspicion by the black-and-white lawyers, the people who think that law is value free, which of course is the greatest furphy ever. And he, although he was in a minority in his judgements for the first, first year or two that he was on the bench, ultimately, without their admitting it, persuaded the other judges to his point of view, on all sorts of things, especially on Section 92.
Did you have any reservations about him? Was there anything about him you didn't admire?
Well, I thought he was a terribly incautious man. He associated with people that he shouldn't of associated with.
Like Morgan Ryan, you know, the real thing that ultimately brought him down — Morgan Ryan was a ... he was just a dirty little spiv — out of a sort of a primitive loyalty. He'd briefed Murphy when he was at that bar, Murphy sort of stuck to him through thick and thin. I thought he was very incautious ...
He stuck to him in the sense of doing things that he requested, which weren't really quite right, do you think?
Yes, yes. There was ... I mean, it's fashionable now to say that Murphy was completely cleared of that inquiry because ultimately a court reversed the decision against him. But the facts were that Murphy did try to intervene to save Ryan's hide, when Ryan was on a charge. He did, I believe, speak to the magistrate as was alleged.
And you think he did that out of a misguided loyalty?
Yes, certainly, there was nothing in it for him. Absolute recklessness it was.
Was this kind of automatic loyalty to your mates something that was as endemic as we're led to believe in the Labor Party?
Well, it's primarily a feature of the right-wing. A sort of Irish clannishness, you see, in Keating sticking to that awful incompetent woman Ros Kelly, long after she'd shown her ineptitude. And then his loyalty to this built-in disaster, a minister, Brereton, of monorail fame. It's a sort of an Irish thing.
That's right. And not only that, a sort of a ... the world's against us and we've got to stick together. The Labor Party were, as you know, began as an Irish party, more or less. It's largely shaken it off today, but it's still strongly influenced by those clannish habits.
Now, Bill Hayden was another one that you admired, you said, up to a point. What point was that?
Well, I thought he introduced an element of commonsense and rationality into the treasury that had hitherto been mauled by Jim Cairns. Bill introduced a sensible budget in 1975 and he was an honest man. And I liked him personally. I don't any more. But we got along well together. And he was competent as distinct from the hopeless amateurishness of a lot of them.
Did you have a feeling in 1975 that things were getting together?
Yes, towards the end, as a matter of fact, in the last six months, when inflation was coming down and we had a sensible budget. And Gough was learning a few of the facts of life.
About people that he thought ...
About people and about what government amounts to. That it wasn't just a matter of fulfilling a lot of idealistic dreams. it was also a practical thing of running a country. I remember one of the Liberals saying to me, oh, a month or two before they refused supply, ‘You blokes are beginning to look too good, we'll have to get rid of you.’ And the story, of course, was that they got rid of us because we were making a mess of the country. What provoked them to do what they did was a feeling that we could even recover to a point of winning the next election. And I think that could have happened. In other words, we were improving. We were learning a little bit about how to run the country. Gough was becoming more realistic. And we would have turned the inflation thing around, I think, got onto an even keel in time.
How shocked were you by the dismissal?
Oh, absolutely astonished. See, I'd spoken to Kerr several times during the supply crisis.
Could you explain exactly what the situation was?
Well, the Liberals decided that they, they would not ... they had a majority in the Senate ... they decided that they would not pass the Appropriation Bills until, or unless, Labor agreed to call an election. They, their justification or self-justification of that was that Labor had lost the confidence of the community and it should go to the public to test whether they still wanted them in office. And they would grant us supply if we did that, but of course that was asking us to cut our own throats. We knew that we were down in the popularity polls of the moment. If you had to go to an election every time your opponents wanted it, well, you know, there'd be a change of government every year. So they didn't vote against supply but they delayed it. They neither voted for it nor against it. And that lasted for about a month, and that was leading to a crisis and the money running out. In order to spend money the government has to be ... pass legislation entitling it to spend the money.
And I'd spoken to Kerr a few times and he referred to these two prima donnas, meaning Fraser and Whitlam, and he said to me once, ‘Well, I don't consider that I have any function at all, until the money actually runs out.’ Well, when he did pull the rug from beneath us, that was a month away. There was still all sorts of things could have happened. There was all sorts of pressure within the Opposition to give in. They were, they weren't enthusiastic about the act that they were involved in, that after all was unprecedented and there was a general feeling that it was undemocratic for the non-representative House to deny finances to the representatives, the elected representatives in the lower house.
So in telling you that he wouldn't intervene until the money had actually run out, do you think that he subsequently changed his mind, or was he lying directly to you?
Well, I think that he set out on a deliberate campaign to pull the wool over my eyes, so that I would carry that message to Whitlam. You see, what I criticise Kerr about is not, not for doing what he did, which I don't think he had a right to do anyway, but for being secretive about it. He's always alibied it by saying that, well, if Whitlam had got any inkling that he might do that, he'd have been on the phone to the Queen and would have had Kerr sacked. He shouldn't have given any thought to that. If he was contemplating such a drastic action as the dismissal of a democratically elected government, he should have been prepared to have his own job on the line as well. And he wouldn't have starved, he would have had a pension. And he was well-off anyway. But I think he set out on a deliberate campaign of fooling me and in the course of it, fooling the government.
Because, well, I think that he nurtured all his life this — as I mentioned earlier — this desire to be the top dog in Australia, who is, of course, historically, the Prime Minister. And he saw an opportunity to be king of the walk. And more than that, he'd been duchessed by whatever passes for an Australian establishment. I noticed that the company that he kept had changed from his old cronies, people who he regarded as his intellectual equals and simulating companions, to pallid sort of establishment figures. And they were cultivating him and he became, in a way, a sort of a pathetic prisoner of the big end of town. Barwick, for instance, was known to have said of him, ‘Oh, Jack Kerr (his old associates used to call him Jack, then it became John when he became respectable), Jack Kerr ought to sack Whitlam, but he'll never have the guts.’ It got through to him that it was a sort of a test for him to show that he had totally discarded his radical past and had really joined the big end of town. These were the pressures that were on him, and I despised him for that. And I also thought it was a gutless thing for him to use his longstanding friendship with me to throw this smokescreen up about what, I think, he contemplated doing almost from the outset of the supply crisis.
Many people thought that you had been influential in getting him that position?
I had nothing to do with him getting it. As a matter of fact, even though I was still a close friend of his, although not as close as I had been, at the time that Whitlam appointed him, if Whitlam had asked me, I would have expressed the sort of doubts that I'm expressing now about his character. I would have advised against it. But Whitlam didn't say anything to me about appointing him. And I was astonished when Kerr took it, because I always regarded the Governor-Generalship as a sort of a token, ceremonial thing. Not nearly as important a job as the job that Kerr stepped down from to take it, Chief Justice of New South Wales. I thought of the Governor-General as a sort of a cipher, and I remember he was at pains to explain to me what was a mystery to his close friends, why he'd taken the job on. He had some sort of a story about a change, being at the centre, that sort of thing. But ultimately it was due to the fact that he'd wanted to be Prime Minister, but he didn't have the guts or the energy or the application to do the things you have to do to become Prime Minister.
And so he needed to show that he was bigger than the Prime Minister?
That's right, that's right. He was able enough, easily able enough to be Prime Minister. If he'd set his mind to it, he could have become Prime Minister.
So your feeling was that Kerr had to do this out of some personal psychological need?
Yes, he was a highly complex character, Kerr. He had a side to him that very few people saw, I think. There was always ... [interruption] ...
... [question repeated] ... So it was your feeling that Kerr was acting out of some deep-seated personal psychological need?
Well, I didn't think [or] put it that way at the time, but on reflection I would agree with that. He was a highly complex figure, Kerr. All the time that I knew him I felt that there was some sexual ambiguity to him. He had a very pronounced feminine side to him. He had a high-pitched, feminine sort of voice. And I remember now, one occasion which occurred early on in his tenure of the Governor-General's job, long before the supply crisis. Shortly after he was appointed he came over to see me. I was living at the time in Point Piper and he, of course, was staying at Admiralty House over in Kirribilli. And he drove over, which of course he rarely did, because he had a car at his disposal. He drove over to my place and he arrived quite drunk. This was about the middle of the afternoon. Neville Wran was at my place at the time and we talked to him and of course, I suppose, I gave him another drink even though he wasn't in a fit state to have any more. And Neville said to him, ‘John, I don't think I would risk driving back over the bridge,’ he said, ‘well, to put it bluntly,’ he said, ‘you'll get picked up before you reach the end of the street.’ We persuaded him he shouldn't drive back. And Neville rang Admiralty House and told them to send over another car, and an extra driver, to get him home.
And the car arrived and somebody would drive his car back and somebody would drive Kerr back in another car. And I led him, you know, sort of hanging onto his arm, down a sort of a slope from my front door to my front gate. And we got about half-way down and he stopped and he said to me, ‘Give us a kiss.’ And I gave him a bit of a peck on the cheek, like I'd done to many men. I don't think anything of that. And then he puckered up and he said, ‘No, give us a real kiss,’ which of course I declined. But it was a real display, well I think it was latent homosexuality. I think that that may have had a lot to do with his behaviour, that he had all the tensions of a closet homosexual. And I'm convinced now, in retrospect, that that was part of his psychological problem. Had all these repressions. He would never have had the guts to come out. But, of course, it was a pretty daring thing to do in those days. I think that had something to do with his behaviour.
Do you think that also he had always been, to some extent, a snob?
Yes, oh yes, a real boy from the wrong side of the tracks who aspired to be one of the, you know, masters of creation.
Had you ever had any indications of ...
Oh yes, I had. I remember one day, he had a very nice old father who used to be a boilermaker in Balmain. And he'd retired, you know, he was a little over 70, and he'd got some sort of menial job as some messenger for some insurance company or something in the city. And Kerr and I ran into him one day. He introduced me to him and he was a very sweet old man, I thought. And I asked John about him. I said, ‘Well what's your father do?’ And he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘he's working as a messenger.’ He said, ‘It's a bit embarrassing really.’ And I understood that what he meant was that, well, he didn't mind me, because I wasn't exactly uppercrust, knowing that about his father but it would be embarrassing if that should occur to him when he was in the company of somebody who was a bit more upmarket. And in general he had a sort of a mixture of arrogance and deference towards people whom he thought amounted to something in the scheme of things. I know it's an odd mixture, arrogance and deference, but he managed it. He had the arrogance of a man who knew that he had a superior intellect and the deference of the boy from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to belong to the big end of town.
It's now well-known that after the dismissal you dropped all connections ...
Oh, and attacked him publicly. Never saw him again, never spoke to him again.
Was that to do with the dismissal or was it also ...
No, disgust with him as a human being. I could see that there was ... you could rationally justify the action of a Governor-General in asserting that he had reserve powers. But I couldn't forgive the sneakiness of his conduct in concealing that he was, not only concealing, but making positive moves that indicated that he would never do what he ultimately did.
It had nothing to do with the advance that he'd made to you, the sexual advance?
Oh no, no. I was not in any way disturbed by that. If I'd known he was a homosexual it wouldn't have affected my friendship with him. I wouldn't have thought any less of him. I only say what I said about the homosexual thing as a sort of an explanation or an attempted explanation for some of the tensions that were there in the man, that might do something to explain his conduct.
Returning to the dismissal itself, how did you hear about it?
Well, I was sitting in my office working and I got a phone call from Lionel Murphy, as a matter of fact, from the High Court. And he said that his daughter had just rung him and told him that Kerr had dismissed us. And I said, ‘Oh, there are all sorts of rumours going around, Lionel, forget about it.’ I just didn't believe it. Then about two minutes later, one of a member of my staff put his head around the door and he said, ‘There's no point in keeping on working, boss,’ he said, ‘you're sacked.’ Brutal as that, it was.
Was there any feeling at the time that there was any alternative but to accept the dismissal? Was there discussion, for example, about the possibility of challenging its legality?
No, there wasn't that I can remember.
Do you think there should have been?
Well I just ... I've often wondered, if Gough had just defied it, gone on, kept the parliament going and acted as though he had not been dismissed. I ... as a matter of fact, I think that several of the senators were about to crack. They wanted to vote for supply. They were a bit outraged by what ... their tactic. I've often wondered what would have happened if we'd just refused to accept the sack.
No, I haven't really. I don't think he ever contemplated it. I think he's too much of a constitutionalist. That would have struck him as an undemocratic thing to do, I think.
And yet you've questioned the legality of the act, of Kerr's act.
Yes, I questioned the existence of these so-called reserve powers.
Yes, and they're not in the constitution. They're something that are there, they're a gloss that lawyers have put on the constitution. There's no written reference to reserve powers in the constitution.
And yet it was Gough's respect for the constitution that made him accept the dismissal.
Well, yes, it didn't occur to him. I don't think it occurred to him to challenge the legality of it.
Now, what happened then to all of you? I mean, how did this affect your lives?
Well, we all got drunk that night. Or a lot of us did. We went to some ... I remember going to a wake in a well-known restaurant. What was it? Charlie's, I think it was. Then we assembled the next morning with sore heads. Not Gough. Gough of course would never relieve himself in that way. Very abstemious man, Gough. We gathered, a bunch of us gathered, the next morning over at The Lodge, to plot where we would go from there. We still believed we could win the ensuing election. Because the polls had shown a bit of a swing back to Labor as the crisis went on. That was really people saying, not that we'd won them back, but that they disapproved of the tactic that was being used to put an end to our reign. So we, you know, we plotted and we went about conducting a campaign and of course, the rest is history. We were well and truly done.
And there were you then back on the back bench?
Back on the back bench and could see realistically that we were there for a fair while. I was not getting any younger, and I decided that I'd get out.
And so what did you do to get out?
Well, Neville Wran had always promised me — he owed me a great gift, Neville Wran. And I'd done a great deal to give him a successful practice when he was at the Bar. And we'd become close friends. He'd always said to me, ‘Well, any time you want to get out and want to be appointed to the Bench, just let me know.’ So I let him know and he appointed me.
Before we leave politics, what was your relationship with Gough like?
Well, I was never close to Gough. I don't think anybody ever was. In many ways Gough is similar to Malcolm Fraser. What everybody took for arrogance was really shyness. They're both very awkward with people. Gough could never really let his hair down. He was always, you thought, he was posturing. He was very witty, he was a genuinely witty man. He did say some very funny things. But I wouldn't call him good company. You could never really think that you were on level terms with him. He was holding himself aloof. And I've maintained a friendship with him over the years where I think we like each other. But I've never got close to him and I don't know anybody who ever has.
At the end of day, summing up his leadership, how would you describe him as a leader?
He was a flawed leader. He was quite a spellbinder. He did play the leading role in getting Labor into office in 1972. I think he messed up the job a bit. He did some great things, there was a great feeling around when, you know, it was as though the old cultural cringe, the old Anglophilia that had been 'God bless the Queen and all her relations and keep us all at our proper stations', all that stuff that had been prevalent during the Menzies era was over. And that we were on our way to some sort of national self-respect. I think Gough deserves full marks for that, and for what he did for the arts, and for education and other things. But he didn't pay enough attention to a couple of the vital fields of government. The economic thing and the industrial relations thing. He entrusted those fields to people who were not really up to the job. And he paid the price.
Do you think that if there'd been another term, because even the term that you did have was quite fractured with ...
Yes, well, there was a double dissolution election in 1974.
If he'd had a bit longer, do you think that he would have emerged differently?
Yes, I think he would have, I think he was smart enough to learn. If we had ... we had another 18 months or so to go, if we hadn't been dismissed. If we'd served that 18 months I think we would have gradually clawed back support that we'd lost through economic ineptitude, the loans affair and all that. I think we'd have clawed back and could have survived the next election, and I think Gough in due course would have become the Prime Minister that he'd always hoped to be. He would have really put his mark on the country.
What did you think of Bill Hayden as a leader?
Well, as a matter of fact there was a contest and Bill didn't win the first time. There was ...
After the dismissal and the loss of the election following it, did you feel it was time for Gough to go?
I did, but I just couldn't bring myself to vote against him. It was an act of pure sentimentality. Hayden challenged, I think a year or so after the 1975 election. And I was quite friendly with Bill. I remember him coming around to my rooms, just before the ballot, and he said, ‘Jim, I've got an awful feeling that you're not going to vote for me.’ I said, ‘No, I'm not.’ He said, ‘Well, if it's only because of a sentimental attachment to Gough, I'll forgive you,’ he said, ‘but if it was because you thought I wasn't up to the job, I'd be offended.’ And I assured him that it was just that, that I just couldn't bring myself to wield the axe on the neck of such a figure as Gough.
And did you think that Bill Hayden was up to the job ...
... or were you one of those who thought he should be replaced by Hawke?
No, I thought he would be up to the job. When it came to the ... well, I thought he made a mess of the 1980 elections. I think if he'd been a bit better, he'd have won that. He was short on, well, for lack of a better word, charisma. He was an uninspiring sort of bloke, Bill. Intellectually he was better than average. But when it came to deposing Hayden and replacing him with Hawke, I was against that. I ... not out of any great faith in Hayden, whom I'd begun to think of as barely up to the job, but out of mistrust of Hawke whom I always regarded as a hollow man.
Have you changed your mind about that?
No, no, Hawke is a totally shallow creature, I think, who hardly wrote a page in the history books.
And you've also changed your mind a little about Bill Hayden, haven't you?
Yes, I have indeed. I thought it was a very, very poor thing for him to accept the Governor-Generalship. Primarily because of what I think of the Governor-Generalship. I think a man who's been an active politician, who's been near the centre of government in the country like Bill was, should be above taking such a sinecure. But I think Bill's fundamentally a mean man. He was notoriously mean and to him it was just a way of living tax free and for five years accumulating a few bob. He ... I saw somewhere that he gets a 15,000 dollar a year dress allowance. That would go straight into the bank. He's not a man to waste money on clothes. But I finished up not liking him really. He invited me a couple of times to Yarralumla and I knocked him back.
And returning to John Kerr, did you have any reason to believe, in the period that he was Governor-General, that in fact he had shifted his allegiance not just to the big end of town, but to the other side of politics?
Well, I would have thought he'd have done that a long while before he became Governor-General. I would have thought when he was Chief Justice of New South Wales he already would have been voting Liberal. And not only that, he had a sort of resentment of Gough. He considered himself Gough's intellectual superior, and of course, Gough's attitude towards him was not conducive to any sort of affection or desire to preserve him. On Kerr's part, Gough patronised him shamelessly, made it perfectly clear to him that he regarded him just as a cipher. And that got Kerr's back up, I think.
Do you think that Kerr ever actually had specific moves in the direction of the Liberal Party? Did he associate ...
Oh yes, I know he was. I remember Billy McMahon pulling me up one day, it was after the dismissal, and in his high-pitched, piping tones he called out to me in the corridors one day, and he said, ‘I'd like to tell you a Kerr story.’ He said, ‘Kerr came to me one time when Ming (he was referring to Menzies) ... when Ming was still in power and he said to me, “Bill, will you speak to Ming about getting me a safe Liberal seat?” And he said, “Not only that, would you make it clear to Menzies that I wouldn't contemplate going into the parliament unless I could be guaranteed an immediate place in the ministry.”’ And Bill said to me, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I put it to Ming and he said to me “Yes and no.” Meaning he would be glad to have Kerr in the parliament, but there'd be no guarantee of an immediate accession to the ministry.’ And Bill said, ‘That was the last I heard of it from Kerr.’ Because there was no doubt about where his heart was at that stage.
Before you go on, that would have meant that having sampled all that the law had to offer, and still harbouring these ambitions to be the top dog, he saw that Menzies was reaching the end of his reign, and that there was nothing conspicuous in the way of talent in the rest of the Liberal ranks. And it would have been to Kerr a way of getting the job he aspired to, through the Liberals. That's what he was after.
The public has this impression, or are led to believe, that people enter politics because they believe in something. In your experience, do you think that's true of most politicians or are some of them just there for the career?
No, a lot of them are just time-servers, I think, on both sides. There were, you know, on the Liberal side, they're sort of failed estate agents and mediocre accountants, people who want to identify with the big end of town, but who are really nobodies and think that they'll get a little bit of status for themselves by getting into parliament. I think that's particularly true on the Liberal side.
And not so true on the Labor side?
Oh yes, sure, it's full of trade union hacks and people who could never really aspire to any paying job in the community that would have the status of a parliamentarian, even though I don't believe that status is all that high. But there are a lot of people to whom it would seem high.
Now, having decided to go to the Bench, you approached Neville Wran about it. And what were you offered?
Well, he was thinking then of setting up an administrative tribunal, which would have suited me fine. But for some reason or other he went cold on that job, and when I spoke to him he said, ‘Well, I've got a vacancy in the Industrial Commission,’ which of course was familiar territory to me. And I said, well, I'd take that. And I was on that. I was in that job for about 18 months, I think, and then Paul Landa, who was Minister for the Environment, had this project of setting up the Land and Environment Court. And he asked me if I would take on the Chief Judge of the Land and Environment Court. And first of all, I knocked him back. I looked at the new legislation and legislation affecting that field, and I decided it was ... that I couldn't be bothered, you know, just sheer laziness, that I couldn't be bothered mastering this new field of law, which was quite complex. But I found the Industrial Commission job so monotonous that I decided to give the other a go.
And when I got there I found that, you know, I set the court up, made all the rules, barred wigs and gowns, all that sort of nonsense. And I found the issues before the court were so large, you know, involving millions mostly, big developments, that the smartest barristers in town were appearing before me regularly. And I'd never considered myself much of a lawyer, I'd been more of a legal entrepreneur. I'd known how to get work in and superintend that. But for the first time in my life, really, I had to become a lawyer in the black-letter sense of mastering a certain sphere of the law. And that was quite an effort for me because I'd been out of it for so long. But just as a matter of vanity, in order not to appear a bit of an idiot in front of these high-powered barristers, I got on top of it. In the end I could handle it as well as the people appearing before me. And I don't think I made a fool of myself there.
Has this been a bit of a pattern with you in your life, that you find challenges to do something that you wonder whether you can be bothered with?
And then discover that in fact you can do things really easily?
Yes, yes I do. There's a certain fickleness to my life I suppose ... [interruption] ...
... [question repeated] ... Has that been a bit of a pattern, do you think, in your life, that you've avoided things that were ... looked like a big, big effort but when you actually take them on, you actually do them well and easily?
I suppose you could say that. I find it hard to be totally persuaded of the shattering importance, for instance, of being a parliamentarian or a minister or a judge. I lack that capacity to kid myself that I'm doing some earth-shattering job. As soon as I get into a job, and I decide that I've got to get on top of it, I'm inclined to get a bit bored with it. Great character weakness, but that's the way I am.
But the issues of the environment at that particular time in our history, as it was opening up [were] a monster political issue?
Oh yes, sure.
They were quite unboring really, weren't they?
Oh yes, sure. For the period that I was on the Land and Environment Court, I absorbed myself in the issues and in the law of the environment. And it was a fruitful period of my life. I enjoyed it.
I think I set the court on the right track. I gave a few key decisions that didn't please the government, as a matter of fact. One of the first decisions, big decisions that I made, was the Parramatta Park case. There was a move to build a football stadium where an old one had existed, which had been filched from Parramatta Park. And there was a local movement against building the stadium there, and I believed that it should go back to be just parkland, and I so found in my judgement. That displeased Neville Wran considerably.
For political reasons, the Parramatta Football Club was, at that time, a fashionable club. It had won the premiership I think the year before. And the Parramatta football fans were a solid voting block that wouldn't have liked the idea that they weren't having this big, spanking new stadium that they'd been promised. So Neville Wran introduced a special Act of Parliament overruling ... oh first of all they appealed against my finding. It went to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court upheld my ruling. Then he introduced a special Act of Parliament to override the court's decision.
Did he have to introduce any others during your time there?
Yes, he did, and it was dating from about then that my friendship with Neville cooled. We saw less and less of each other, and then one of the ... another case came before the court ... I didn't hear it myself, it came before one of the other judges, relating to a shopping centre at Eastgate. It's out Pagewood way. Now that development was strongly opposed by some other business interests out there, Grace Bros, Woolworths, etc, that didn't like the idea of the competition that they would get from a new supermarket. And they opposed the granting of this application, the development application. And it came into my court, before another judge. Ran for, off and on, for several weeks.
... [this section of the transcript has been deleted for legal reasons] ...
What made you leave the Land and Environment Court? Was it because they kept putting Acts of Parliaments that overturned your decisions?
No, not really. I would have seen out my time there. I was enjoying myself and I had about another, oh, less than a year to go, I think, when Peter Walsh, the minister in Hawke's government, got in touch with me and asked me if I would head up a royal commission into the nuclear tests of the 1950s. And I thought, ‘Well, here's something new, why not?’ And I took that on, and that saw out my judicial time and a little more. That was the Maralinga inquiry.
And was that ... did that turn out to be what you were expecting when you took it on?
Well, it was very interesting, but as I realised in the course of it, it was really a classic royal commission in this sense ... that when governments are confronted with a problem to which they don't know the answer, one of the ways of dealing with it is to set up a royal commission. That postpones the problem. And they're not bound by the findings of the royal commission. It sweeps it under the carpet for a while. And that's what the government was doing, because it was being pestered by people who at worked at Maralinga during the trials, and who were now claiming that they had various cancerous conditions due to having been exposed to radiation. And that was why they set up the royal commission. And of course, I think we found all sorts of ... we made a few findings that embarrassed them, especially about cleaning up the range.
It quickly became, for me ... early on I was confronted by some very arrogant treatment of the colonials, by the British authorities, who refused to cooperate at first. But I shamed them into appearing. And when we went to England we met all sorts of obstruction in the way of provision of documents and we were really treated like colonials. And of course, our findings were a bit of a shock. Our main finding was that the range should be cleaned up to a stage that it was in before the British fouled it up, and that they should meet the bill. There were long negotiations then between our government and theirs. Our government, I think, pussy-footed over it. They should have screamed from the house tops, if you lend somebody your house, you expect it to be tidy when you come back. They left plutonium lying all over the place, a danger to Aboriginal people wandering through, and had made a purely cosmetic clean up, and of course the supine Holt government had signed an agreement that that was all they needed. Then it emerged later, primarily from our investigation, that it was in an awful mess and it would cost a few hundred million to put it into the condition it was in before the tests. And I, and the rest, the other commissioners, recommended that they do the job properly and pay for it. But finally there was some sort of a pallid compromise. They agreed to put in $20 million or something like that, which would only scratch the surface.
No, I don't think so.
You also found that the safety of the people involved had not been looked after properly?
Yes, that's right.
How did that come about, that it had been so neglected?
They had what was called a safety committee, which was supposed to be totally independent of the nuclear taskforce that the British assembled for the job. And it was, consisted of, the safety committee consisted of Australian scientists. But was headed by an English scientist who had come to Australia and settled here, but who was an unreconstructed colonial despising, old-fashioned Pom. A bloke named Titterton, who's since died. And he brainwashed the safety committee into accepting less than perfect safety measures when the tests were held.
He gave evidence at the commission?
Oh yes, he was a ... we clashed repeatedly. He almost seemed to believe that a little bit of radiation was good for you. He'd become totally obsessed with nuclear physics. He'd taken part actually in the, in the ... in the American experiments before their bomb was made. He'd actually pulled the trigger, I think, on the first bomb. And that became the love of his life.
The Maralinga tests were British tests, so in order to do your inquiry properly, you must have needed the cooperation of the British government. Did you get good cooperation?
Oh, very reluctant cooperation. They dragged their feet. I remember one day, the first day we were there, we went along to the Foreign Office and we were met by a very off-hand, patronising chap who came out as though he could spare us about five minutes. And I told him what we wanted, and he gave me a rather dismissive reply. And I gave him a rather explosive Australian reaction, and he finally agreed that we could go out to the place where their records were stored, which was just outside Reading ... oh, it's a familiar place, the name escapes me at the moment, it's a familiar British defence establishment.
Aldermaston or some name like that.
It was bitterly cold, it was a very, very cold winter, January, and I and two or three others of the commission staff went out there about, oh, five or six days and sat there and made our way through a lot of archival material. And some little English typist sat there eyeing us suspiciously all the time, as though we were going to steal some of their precious secrets. Because that was the great mystery of the ... of the British attitude. Nothing was secret any more, there was nothing that the world didn't know about nuclear testing, but they acted as though they were guarding precious secrets from the Russians, the enemy Australians. It was a most foot-dragging exercise by the British all the way. Then, of course, we called a lot of British witnesses, including Lord Penney, who'd been control of the whole thing out here. He was a nice old man. I got the impression that he wasn't terribly proud of having used all his immense scientific skills on an exercise that was really an exercise in futility. I never understood why the British thought they needed a bomb.
Do you understand why anybody thinks they need a bomb?
Oh well, I can understand the Americans thought that that was their way of putting a quick end to the war. And I can understand that the Russians, especially under Stalin, who was a paranoid maniac, thought that the Americans would destroy the Soviet Union if they didn't have a means of retaliation. But I suppose historically, the whole nuclear age will be looked on as a monumental piece of human folly. I don't think we realise in retrospect how lucky we were that the world wasn't blown up.
At the end of Maralinga, what did you feel that you'd accomplished by doing that investigation?
Well, I emerged out of it with my anti-Pom attitude reinforced. And I thought that maybe our recommendations would achieve a proper clean-up, which they haven't.
So it was really, I suppose, a futile exercise.
What about compensation for the victims?
Well, that was something that we could not really determine, it was impossible to state with any certainty whether anybody had acquired a cancer due to radiation. We said that it was probable that there'd be a considerable increase in radiation all over Australia as a result of the tests. But it was impossible to say with certainty that anybody'd got a cancer as a result of the tests.
Looking back on your whole period as a judge, your period as a lawyer had not greatly increased your respect for the business of being a lawyer. Did your period as a judge ... what did you feel at the end of that about the system of justice in Australia?
Well, I suppose the system of justice is only as good as its practitioners. I've got a considerable respect for our present High Court. I haven't respected all High Courts. I think Barwick High Court was an incitement to tax evasion. His tax, the tax decisions of his court were really an invitation to the buccaneers to go for their life. I think the present High Court is high-quality and an enlightened court. The great illusion of lawyers is that it's just a matter of black words on white paper, that if you're a good enough lawyer you can infallibly reach the correct answer to the problem, that your politics, your religion, your moral viewpoint doesn't inform your judgement at all, which of course is nonsense. As has been proved in the recent change of mind of the High Court on such questions as Section 92, Mabo, and freedom of speech.
The view of the law changes with the composition of the court. Lawyers, well, I didn't emerge with an enhanced view of lawyers. I've retained my idea of them as narrow specialists who were basically, apart from the law, uneducated people. I think that the increasing number of women in the law will improve things, although of course, they're still second-rate citizens in the law. The practicing barrister women and solicitors there, for all of the appearance of equality, the traditional male lawyer does not accept that a woman lawyer can be as good as they are. They, I think most of them, accept Mary Gaudron ... accept Mary Gaudron as worthy of being on the High Court, because she's generally acknowledged to be a fine lawyer. I wouldn't like to be a woman practicing law, frankly, but it may change over the years. I still think ... and I think there are obviously sexist judges, as has been demonstrated in the last few years on their remarks in rape cases, etc. The law remains, to me, a rather obscurantist and socially backward field of human endeavour. I wouldn't choose to spend much of my spare time with lawyers.
Did you feel that the system of justice and the law had much to do with morality?
Ah, well, that again varies with the judges. The judges who think that they're just dispensing pure law would regard moral questions as an intrusion. That would be a reflection on their legal capacity. There would be other judges who have a humanitarian streak in them. It reflects itself, the difference in temperament of just judges reflects itself especially in the criminal law, in their attitude towards sentencing. There are hanging judges, and there are compassionate judges. I don't mean to suggest that lawyers are evil people. I'm just saying that they're very limited. It's in the nature of their calling. And of course, there are notable exceptions.
You do well in the law by seeing it really more as a technical matter ...
... than a matter that really affects human affairs?
That's right. But I think at the highest level, the High Court, our present High Court, they see more to it than just pure black-letter law.
Now, talking of women, as you just were in relation to the law, can I ask you now, can we turn now and can I ask you about the women in your life?
Well, a few of them.
Going right back to the beginning, can I ask you about your mother? What sort of a person was your mother and what was your relationship with her?
Well, I had good relations with both of my parents. There's been nothing in my life, nothing of my own inadequacies that I could feel that I could blame on my parents, or on my childhood, apart from the religious scruples I talked about. She was a gentle woman, unpretentious, bright without being over-intelligent, loving. I, you know, I remember her with nothing but fondness.
What did she think of you? Did she encourage you a lot?
Yes, she did ... [interruption] ...
... [question repeated] ... What did your mother think of you? Did she encourage you?
Yes, she did. I think she was proud of me. She thought I was a clever boy, and that I'd have a bright future.
What do you think she wanted most for you?
I don't think she had any set notion of what I should be, she just wanted me to be something of an achiever.
And there was no lack of any affection in your house?
Oh, no, none at all. Mind you, as I grew up, you know as I grew out of my teens and went out into the world, I didn't see much of them. I became self-propelling and didn't live at home and only saw them every now and then. I outgrew them, as I think most children do outgrow their parents. But I remained on good terms with them and later on, when I was going well up here in Sydney, they came and visited me and stayed with me.
What about your two sisters? Did they play an important part in your life?
Well, my older sister was, as I said, a very lively woman and she ... we didn't exactly have a falling out, but we grew apart as I grew older. She had a rather more conservative, conformist bent than I did. As a matter of fact she was a bit of a snob. She married upwards. She married a nice man but he was a Melbourne GPS [Great Public School, which actually means a major private school] man and it would have been considered an upward social move, her marriage. We didn't ... and of course I was in Sydney, she was in Melbourne and I didn't see much of her for years. I went down and saw her before she died, five years or so ago. And she died well, I must say that. She had lung cancer and she knew that her time was up and she took it very bravely.
What about your younger sister?
Well, I didn't have a great deal to do with her. She was, she was I suppose the ... well she was, I think she was an afterthought, you know. Don't forget that they were the years before contraception. I think my mother had probably had enough by the time she'd had three. I'm sure she put up the shutters after she had the fourth. But the younger sister was, in a way, less part of the family group than the rest of us.
Not a particularly good one. I think that she was a bit neurotic. I lost contact with her when I moved to Sydney. She married, and had a child, a nice child, who now lives up here and who we see occasionally. But I think she had a rather unhappy life. She died in her 50s. I don't know what of. But we were not on really familiar terms for many years. I totally lost contact with her.
Because you'd just moved generally away from the family at that stage?
Yes, I suppose so. They stayed more or less old Melburnians and a bit provincial. I'd moved into the big world and I found them a little bit provincial, frankly, in later years.
Do you remember when you first ... your first experience of being sexually attracted to girls?
Well, I was what you call a late developer. I suppose ‘round about 18, I know they all start when they're about 11 today, but I had my first sexual experience when I was 18 or 19.
And how was it for you? I mean, how was it regarded then? Was it an important thing that you felt that you needed to do, or could you tell us how you felt as an adolescent boy about sex?
Well, it was, of course ... a totally different world today ... I'm not suggesting that men and women, or boys and girls, felt any different then than they do today. But it was not nearly as sexually liberated. Virginities were prized. I would say that in those days easily the majority of women went to the marriage bed in a virginal state.
But male virginity wasn't prized.
Oh, no. Oh, no. It was a bit of a disgrace. You were, oh, you were a bit of a poofter, you know, to use the way they spoke of people who couldn't succeed in a little bit of penetration. The field was more limited of course, because ... I don't know whether it's realised just what a liberating thing The Pill was, for both men and women, because women were inhibited in those days by fear of pregnancy.
Now, with a large number of the girls that you knew inhibited in this way, or prizing their virginity, or for whatever reason being unavailable, how did the rest, how did the males who had to lose theirs, how did they find a partner to do it with?
Oh well, there were always a few. There was leavening of girls whose concupiscence outweighed their scruples or their fears. And there, as I said, the field was smaller but it was not non-existent.
Oh, I suppose I went looking for it.
Did you have anybody to help you?
I had a rather raunchy mate, named Don Sandy. He was a very funny man, and very successful with the girls. He claimed that he'd had a hundred girls by the time he was 21. If so, that would have been an exceptional, an Olympian, performance in those years.
Greatly admired and envied. I think he put ... yes, he put me on to my first girl.
Why do you think the girls cooperated?
Oh, I suppose they felt like it. You know, it's a mistake to think that The Pill was the beginning of female lust. It was the beginning of the loss of inhibition, but I have no doubt that the girls in those days felt just as sexually aroused as women do today.
So for you, during these early years, what you were looking for was to ... was to have some sexual experience. When did you have your first real romantic relationship with a woman?
Oh, I suppose when I was about 22 or 23. I thought I wanted to marry her, but that wore off. I think it coincided with my Trotskyist period when I came to regard a fixation on a woman as being unworthy of a revolutionary.
And, but you did have a woman at this time that you were really seriously interested in?
So how did you deal with that?
Well, we cohabited. Well, I don't mean that she left home but, you know, we got together in various places. And her father greatly disapproved of me. She was a ... she came from a rather rich family background. Her father disapproved of me on many, many grounds. That I was poor and that I ... she was a Catholic, they were a German family. But that didn't stop her eagerness. But he, the father, knew that I'd abandoned my faith and he disapproved greatly of that. I was regarded as not a desirable companion for his daughter.
And is that what brought it to an end?
No, it just faded out.
So when did you meet your first wife?
When I was doing my law course, in Sydney. She was also a lawyer. She'd just finished her course.
Well, she was of a Russian Jewish family. Her family had moved across Russia from, I think they were, I think her father was born in Omsk or Tomsk, I'm a bit confused. But gradually, in the revolutionary years, 1917 and following, there was a great civil war in Russia. You know, all the Western powers intervened and tried to crush the revolution. Her father, my wife Nora, her father was a lawyer, but he didn't really practice law much. He was basically a businessman, a small energetic, very likeable figure. They moved across gradually and they settled in Harbin in Manchuria, which was a great refugee city, full of refugee Russians and a lot of Russian Jews.
From there then, of course, there was the Chinese-Japanese War and he was actually taken prisoner during that and came within an inch of losing his life. Then moved on to Shanghai. And from there down to Australia. They'd really spent a life on the run. He was a very courageous, enterprising little chap. And he set up some sort of an export/import business in Sydney. He was always on the verge of ruin. Finally, towards the end of his life, he had a stroke of luck. He persuaded somebody to finance him in the purchase of ... the building of a building in North Sydney which, you know, he was a developer at the very end. And when he died, he'd lived to 83, 84, fortunately he bequeathed that to his daughter. So when our marriage broke up, I wasn't encumbered by any alimony payments or anything like that.
It was alright. I think I was happy enough in the marriage. But ...
Why did you get married? What were you expecting from marriage?
Well, that's a big question. I think ... I think I really, there was this business of settling down, of getting some order into my life, and getting on with the business of making up for the 10 years or so start that I'd given to my generation by my absorption in Trotskyism, and the years I was at the war, and the years I was a proletarian. Those who'd been my school mates were by then established in the law, medicine, or something like that. And I thought, really, I wouldn't say it was a great love match but it was a matter of stabilising my life and getting on with making something of myself.
She had a very different background from yours?
Did that open up new worlds to you?
Absolutely, oh yes, I was really introduced into the Jewish world. I lived for a while in the same house as her parents. I mixed largely in Jewish circles. I learnt to speak Russian, an odd sort of a Russian, but I picked up a lot of it. I'd started off as pro-Semitic. I don't know what it was caused by, because you know, most people were anti-Semites in those days. I think my admiration of Marx and Trotsky had a lot to do with it. They were Jewish. Well, though Marx, it's not commonly known, was an anti-Semitic Jew. They exist. Trotsky was my shining star and he was Jewish. So I didn't come to that new circle with any anti-Semitism or any inhibitions about mixing with people other than Australians.
And did you learn a lot from them?
Yes, I think I did. We used to go occasionally to the Russian Club, which was then in George Street, up towards Central railway station. And I didn't realise ... well I, at the time, one of the regular visitors was Bialoguski, the fellow who, the ASIO agent who was mixed up with Petrov. And I suppose on several occasions that I was there, Petrov was there with Bialoguski, but of course I didn't know that. And I developed a fondness for the vodka, which I've never lost. And Russian food. Russian literature, I already was familiar with, and the course of my general literary education I'd been a great admirer of the great Russian writers, Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev and the rest of them. And still I regard them as, you know, among the greatest of the fiction writers. I learnt a bit about the Yiddish theatre. And well, in a way, I lived as a non-Australian for a certain amount of my life, which did me no harm at all. I've never felt since, although I don't know whether I did before, I've never felt particularly Australian.
Well, we adopted a couple of children. For some reason or other my wife couldn't have children. We adopted a couple of children.
And do you think you're a good husband and father?
I don't suppose I'm a good judge of that. But I think I was, I think I was a reasonably good husband and father.
At that time were you, as a husband and father, expected to give a lot of time to the family? Or was your life really focused ...
I don't know, I spent a lot of time with the family, I enjoyed that.
So what brought the marriage to an end?
Well, we were married for about 16 years, which I think is a long while for a marriage to last. I can't imagine these life-long unions, although I know they still exist. And well, fundamentally, I fell for another woman. She was a woman in her mid-30s, who'd been married to a doctor who was turned out be schizophrenic, and he treated her and her three children very badly. He ultimately was locked up in Callan Park. I met her just at that time, and I fell for her, and I tried to resist breaking up my marriage, mostly because I was so fond of the kids. But it was not to be resisted and I, finally, my wife and I were divorced amicably, and we're still good friends. And this mad husband who was released from Callan Park and actually practiced medicine after that contested the divorce right up to the High Court, an absurd thing to do. You never hear ... well in those days it was a different divorce law, but anybody who was sane accepted the fact that when one of the partners sued for divorce that was an unsalvageable relationship. But he was so mad that he couldn't. So it took us about five years for her to be in position to marry me. And we married and I took over her three kids.
And what was it about her that made her so irresistible?
Oh, that's very had to describe, isn't it, emotional entanglements. I was, you know, deeply smitten by her. She was a beautiful woman, intelligent, a very good woman, compassionate, a sensible woman. She came from a country family and she'd had an affluent upbringing. She'd been a boarder because, you know, she lived in the country, Cowra, she'd been a boarder at an upmarket North Shore girls school, Abbotsleigh. And her friends were mostly very different to the sort of friends I had. North Shore people, country people. I mixed for a while in those circles, but reluctantly, and she grew out of them. And she was quite conservative when I met her. And I wouldn't say I turned her into a socialist, but I converted her from rural conservatism, and we were more or less on the same wavelength.
Was she helpful to you in your political career?
Yes, she was, she encouraged me to go into parliament. She knew all these political friends of mine. She knew Neville Wran, Neville Wran and his wife, his then wife, were on visiting terms. They often came to dinner. Knew Kerr well, he was a frequent dinner guest. Knew Gough. And was, I would say, finished up as a Labor voter. So there was no strife there, no contention on those grounds.
What do you think that she saw in you? What was it that she liked about you?
Well, it speaks for itself, doesn't it. I was such an immensely attractive man. I don't know what it was but, you know, it was a mutual infatuation.
How long did that marriage last?
Well, it was terminated by her death. At the age of 51 she developed cancer and she died within about a year of that.
It was after the dismissal ... 1976.
So that happened right after the dismissal? 1976.
[The year] 1976 was a dreadful year for me. She was sick all that time, and she died I think in November, almost a year after the dismissal.
So, with the sort of really depressed feeling that you must have all been having on the political front, and the loss of your wife, was there any danger that you yourself might fall into a proper depression?
Oh well, I more or less fell apart for while. I began to drink a bit too much, but I pulled out of that fairly rapidly and got on with my life again. Picked up the pieces.
When you retired as a judge, did you consider just putting your feet up and relaxing?
Yes, that's what I thought was ahead of me. I had no plans to do anything else. Sit and read, cultivate my garden.
And what happened to change that?
Well, shortly after I handed the Maralinga report to the Governor-General, I got a ring from Eric Beecher, the then editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, and he asked me if I'd write an occasional piece for the Herald. I agreed on the condition that I could write when I liked, about what I liked. I didn't tie myself down or anything. So I began sending in the odd piece, every two or three weeks. And that developed into a weekly column.
And do you enjoy doing the weekly column?
Oh yes, I do, I do. It's, I suppose, the most important aspect of it is it helps me to still feel a bit relevant instead of just vegetating, being put out to grass.
Have you ever wondered whether or not, with your particular abilities as an observer and especially as a critic, whether ... was there ever a conflict for you between the life of a writer, an observer, a critic, and the life of the man of action at the centre of things?
Yes, there was really. As a matter of fact, as I've told you, I came onto the labour market in the depths of the great Depression. If I'd had my own choice, if there'd been an opening for me, I would have gone into journalism. That was my ... and from there on to writing, not necessarily fiction. But I thought of myself primarily as a writer. And it's ironical that I should just get around to being something of a writer towards the end of my life. But that's really what I thought was my metier.
Why? What is it about being a writer that you feel appeals particularly to you?
Well, I love words to start off with. And well, I was really reared on the great literature of the world. And I developed an early reverence for writers. As I've said, one of the elements in my conversion to Trotskyism was his facility with words. I read his History of the Russian Revolution, a massive tome it was, brilliantly translated, and I was seduced by his words as much as by his arguments.
What are the great works of literature that were the most formative for you?
Well, I suppose all of the literatures of the great Russians, French, you know, Flaubert and later on Proust, who became one of my great favourites, Joyce, Ulysses, and all of Joyce. I had a Galsworthy period and most of the English writers, and of course, especially the greatest of them all, Shakespeare.
And what about contemporary writing, are you interested in that?
Oh, yes, I'm not so much. I've read the best Americans of recent years, Saul Bellow, Updike, people like that. But I've ... my interest in fiction has waned over the years. I'll start reading a book and get to about page 50 and think, ‘Oh, I've read all this before.’ I suppose, you know, all of the themes, and there are not all that many, have been more or less exhausted by my earlier reading. I still read prolifically, I read biography and that sort of thing.
If you had been a writer, what kind of a writer would you have been? Do you think you would have written fiction, or would you have been ideas interested, or a biographer?
I might have tried fiction, I don't know whether I had any gift for fiction. I did write a few short stories when I was younger, but I never tried to get them published. I think probably I would have been, written about current affairs, biographical works, things like that. That's, you know, commentating on the scene around me. Travel and everything like that.
Are you interested in other artforms?
Oh yes, I'm ... I like music. I don't know a great deal about it. I'm very interested in the theatre, painting, you know, not in any expert way, but I like painting very much.
You've been active too, in the theatre world?
Yes I was. I was mixed up with the old Phillip Street Theatre, which was the only live theatre that we had in Sydney at one stage. I actually became chairman of the board of the old Phillip Street Theatre. And then I was asked by Neville Wran to set up the Sydney Theatre Company when it opened up in the Opera House, the drama theatre in the Opera House. I was on a board of three that set that up and then we retired and there was a board was elected. I've also been associated with the birth of the Belvoir Street Theatre. I played an active role in the establishment of that, and of course, I'm a regular theatre-goer.
Now the arts community, during your lifetime, during your political life, have been very active at times in supporting the Labor side of politics. Have you had any role in that?
Well, I did in the 1974 election, it's been largely forgotten, it was a double dissolution election forced by Sneddon refusing supply. And at that stage Gough accepted the challenge and we had an election, and which he won, but more narrowly than in 1972. And in the course of that campaign it occurred to me that there was considerable support for the Labor government in the artistic community and a feeling of gratitude, for things that Whitlam's government had done for them.
So I conceived the idea of a meeting, a midday meeting in the Opera ... in and outside the Opera House. I thought if I could get the leading artistic figures along it'd be a great boost. So I ... the first one I tried was Patrick White. I rang him and after great hesitation he said, yes, he would appear at such a meeting. And then, I busily engaged in campaigning, going around the country, and I didn't actually get to the meeting itself. And my then wife, Freda, played a considerable role, so she rang Lloyd Rees and, you know, everybody who was anybody in the artistic world turned up on the stage. Gough turned up and, showing I thought a less than perspicacious view of the occasion, proceeded to give a speech on sewerage in the western suburbs, which was a rather discordant note. But the meeting itself was a great success. There was an overflow out onto the steps of the Opera, and it was a real boost to the campaign.
The beginning of 'Arts for Labor'.
Yes, I suppose it was.
Yeah. Why are you called Diamond Jim?
Well, I had a rather dandyish period. I was a sharp dresser, you know, something the way Keating is today. And somebody, I've never actually tracked it down, somebody hung that moniker on me and it gradually took hold. I didn't know for quite a while that behind my back people referred to me as Diamond Jim.
And it was because of your interest in nice clothes?
Because I was a snappy dresser, I suppose.
Why were you interested in dressing well?
I think it was really probably a reaction from my impecunious childhood and youth. For a long while, but of course I'm long past it now, but for a long while I was very interested in clothes, and when I had the money to indulge it, I dressed up a bit.
How important has money been to you in your life?
Not, not ... let me put it this way ... I was never concerned about becoming wealthy. All I really wanted to be was unpoor and when I achieved that I didn't set out to enrich myself with investments or anything like that. I was content all my life to be unpoor, which I've been, unpoor, for some 40 years now.
You lived in a certain amount of style ...
Yes I did, I lived, in my most affluent periods, I lived in a couple of rather grand houses.
Some people questioned your sincerity in supporting the working classes when you were living in that way ...
Oh yes, I was accused of being a Bollinger Bolshevik, but I didn't see any necessary clash between being well-off and still knowing there were problems for people less well-off than myself.
You didn't feel uneasy at all about having more than others?
Well, I think I would have been ashamed to be immensely rich knowing that there were people in need. But I was never as rich as that. I was never, I was never more than just moderately well-off.
Now, can we return to talking about the women in your life? We got, yesterday when we were talking about it, we got up to the point where I was about to ask you about your current marriage, so I'll do that now. When did you meet your present wife?
Ah, I think it was in 1978, a couple of years after Freda had died. I met her at a friend's party.Ah, I think it was in 1978, a couple of years after Freda had died. I met her at a friend's party.
And could you tell me a little bit about that relationship?
Oh well, I was very much taken by her. She was a very attractive woman and highly intelligent. I've always thought she's a bit brighter than me. And I suppose the debt I owe to her really is that she ... I was never what you'd call ... I don't think I was ever sexist in the sense of feeling a vast superiority to women and things, that women belonged in the kitchen and the bedroom. I think I shed those feelings, which were of course the common feelings of the men of my generation, fairly early in life. But of course, there was, I suppose, a residual hangover of those attitudes, and Gil more than anything else I think, introduced me to the modern woman. The woman who can combine an independent career, who can think independently, who can stand up to men in arguments, can earn her own living, and if she feels like it, live the traditional life of a married woman, but not as that dominating her life. Well, she typified that to me and, of course, another great service that she's done me is that I've tended to mix socially with her generation, rather than with my coevals, as I otherwise probably would. And ...
She's 27 years younger than me. And I would think that one of the most, one of the most important factors in the aging process is that old people tend to mix almost entirely with old people. And that's bad for you. You tend to ossify and live in the past. And I've never lived in the past, and I owe Gil a lot for that.
Would you call yourself a feminist now?
Yes, I would.
And what does that mean to you?
It means that women are men's equals in every way. And that there should be no discrimination against them. That, in fact, in order to help them to catch up, because of the disadvantages under which they've laboured for, traditionally, there should be positive discrimination in their favour. And I have learnt through her and her friends that women are just as good as men. In fact, in many ways, better. I prefer the company of women as a matter of fact.
Because of these qualities that I mentioned, they're ... well they're less vain to start off with. They're less inhibited. Men don't have close friends in the way that women do. When men are in some sort of crisis or in some sort of trouble, they tend to bottle it up. That's the manly thing to do. But women go and cry on each other's shoulder and there's a great ... I've seen there's a great fraternity of women that helps to sustain them in what has always really been a rather harsh world. I suppose it's because of that, it's because of the discrimination under which they've laboured in the past, that they've tended to form sort of a woman's club. Intellectually, well, there's no, just no case for the old proposition that men were brighter than women. You just have to look at the HSC results and the university results and, of course, when women venture into the professions or into the realms of higher learning, they hold their own with men. And that will increase. So I, yes, I'm a confirmed feminist.
Would the young Jim McClelland be surprised to hear you say that?
Yes, I think he would because, well, I was a man of my generation, and my generation thought themselves superior to women.
Well, I must have felt that to a certain extent. I was not, as I say, I was a man of my generation.
You've been part of the establishment of some very powerful groups in the community, politics and the law. Do you think that the men in those arenas will ever let women in right at the top?
Ah well, it won't be a matter of them letting them in. Women will force their way in. By sheer achievement. Well, take one field, the field of literature, not that women were ever totally excluded, but they were exceptions. You know, the Jane Austens and the George Eliot, I forget what her feminine name was. George Sand ...
Their names speak for how they got recognition, wasn't it, by calling themselves ...
... male names.
George Eliot, you know, arguably the best novelist in the English language. They were exceptions. Women achieve now, you could almost say that they dominate the field. Most of the best novelists around today I think are women.
And how do you feel about this, Jim?
Well, I feel delighted. I regard the men, mostly of my generation, who think otherwise as fossils.
Are friends very important to you?
Well, I wouldn't say that I've ever really depended on friends. If anything I would say I've been a bit of a loner.
But you have had some great friendships and some disappointing ones?
Oh yes. I've been a bad picker of friends.
Who would you say has been your closest friend in the course of your life ... who are you closest to as a friend?
I really find it hard to remember one. I was quite a close friend of John Kerr's, less so with Neville Wran but I was a friend of his. I was a friend, on a lesser plain, with Paul Keating when he was a young man in parliament. He'd just come in and Paul had a tendency to sit at the feet of older men. He started off with Jack Lang, Rex Connor, and then I was his father-figure for a while. You mightn't say I was in terribly good company, but we ...
What do you think of how he turned out?
Of how he's turned out?
Oh, I think he's, for all his shortcomings I think he's turned out well. I ... he's certainly got very obvious shortcomings ...
Well, I suppose he's arrogant, but in personal encounter he isn't. He just doesn't come across as well as he ought to. He's a very, very likeable human being. Immensely intelligent, short on formal education, and I think that's possibly a part of his problem, part of his arrogance. It's a sort of over-compensation when he finds himself in the presence of people with high educational qualifications, he's inclined to be over-assertive. But he's brighter than most of the people with degrees that I've met.
Your friends that you've talked to us about — John Kerr and Neville Wran and Lionel Murphy even — in a way ended up disappointing you ...
Well, I wouldn't say Lionel did. I remained friendly with Lionel and an admirer of Lionel's right to the end. But certainly Kerr and Wran ceased to be friends of mine.
How did you deal with that? Did you, when you felt that they were doing the wrong thing, remonstrate with them, or did you cut them off?
I cut them off.
Why didn't you remonstrate with them?
Well, I've never been a preacher. I thought if they turned out to be not what I'd hoped that they would be, that was a reflection on me rather than on them. I'd overestimated them. And that is a ... it's been a chronic weakness with me all of my life. I do tend to overestimate people. And then I get disenchanted with them.
But you wouldn't feel that as a friend you should point out to them a way they might do things differently?
Well, no, that has not been my habit. My habit, when disenchanted with a friend, has been to terminate the relationship.
Does that leave them a bit puzzled?
Well, I think, I heard, but of course I never saw or spoke to Kerr again after the dismissal, but he made several overtures for a reconciliation through common friends, which I rejected.
Because I couldn't forgive him.
And you feel the same way about Neville Wran?
But part of this is because you feel bad that you overestimated them?
Well, I suppose that's a big element in it. I'm really reproaching myself.
And yet, a famous faller-outer with other people, Patrick White, was one person with whom you remained friendly for most of his life.
I sometimes wonder if Patrick had lived a little longer whether I could have survived the inevitable fate of most of his friends. Geoff Dutton, for instance, who was ... he'd been a close friend of Geoff's for more than 20 years. I didn't see him all that frequently. I did know him for 20 years, but that's a ... well, there were periods when he disapproved ... he almost severed his connection with me. Well, there was one, for example, he felt after the Kerr episode ... Kerr had persuaded him, for instance, to accept I think it was just about the first Order of Australia. Kerr was, had something to do with that. I think he was the one who actually awarded them after they'd been selected by the government. And at my place I can remember one night Patrick talking Kerr ... Kerr talking Patrick ... into accepting it. And of course, after the dismissal, Patrick sent it back. Sent his Order back. And he hated all Governors-General after that. If you became Governor-General you became an enemy of Patrick's. And after, after Kerr, the next Governor-General was Zelman Cowan. He invited me to Yarralumla several times, and I refused. I was still in the same mind as Patrick, Governor-Generalship was a disgraced occupation and we didn't have anything to do them.
Well, then Ninian Stephen came along and Gil and I met the Stephens, Ninian and his wife, at a friend’s house one night. And we were greatly taken by them. They were enormously intelligent, charming people. And shortly after that, Ninian invited us to Yarralumla for dinner. And I chewed it over, you know, I was in a great dilemma about it, and finally I decided that you could separate the man from the office and I would just treat him as a human being whom I liked. And so I accepted it. And of course, Patrick avidly read the vice-regal column every morning to see whom to add to his anathematised list, and there my name cropped up one day, and he didn't speak to me for a while, and then I ran into him one day and he raised it immediately. And I just put it the way I've put it to you, that I separated the man from the office and I liked him and his wife so much that we accepted. Well, he forgave me for that. But mostly that would have been a mortal sin, a case for excommunication. But I think, well, I think he was fond of me.
In judging your friends you applied much ... they had to do much worse things than Patrick's friends had to do?
And yet sometimes you've been bracketed with him as a rather famous hater. Do you hate the people that you've dropped?
No, I don't think I do. I wouldn't say hatred is the term. I know I've been called a famous hater, but no, I don't think I hated Kerr. I certainly don't hate Neville Wran. I just don't want to know them any more. If that's hatred, well, I'm a hater.
Did you feel acute disappointment at the time?
Over the loss of their friendship.
Oh yes, certainly. I was very fond of John Kerr. He was a very entertaining man, very nimble mind, very highly endowed intellectually, he was. Very lazy, and I found that rather attractive. I'm rather attracted to people of great gifts who don't fully extend themselves.
Now the standards that you apply to other people, have you always applied those same high standards to yourself?
Well, I can say there have been aspects of my own conduct for which I would have felt something akin to hatred.
I've done a few things that I'm not proud of.
Are you willing to tell us what they were?
No, I'd rather not.
Oh well, I've buried them long ago. They weren't all that atrocious, but enough to make me feel either ashamed or embarrassed.
What kinds of things do you think people ought to feel ashamed or embarrassed about?
Well, I haven't always treated people as well as I should have. I suppose in my earlier years I didn't treat all the women I knew as well as I should have. Things like that, that's all.
Where you feel, in retrospect, guilty about ...
Yes I do, sure. I think I acted unworthily.
And you can't think of an instance that we might all sympathise with?
No, I've buried them all.
Maybe that's wise. When you were in power with Labor you were critical of the mateship arrangements, where advancement was by connection with a particular group. And yet you were to some extent connected in with that as well, weren't you?
No I don't ... you mean the mates, the little Irish Mafia lot? No, I was never close to them. I would have been labelled as being of that faction, but that was a misconception of my political stance.
And so you kept yourself clear of that kind of method of advancement?
Oh yes, sure I did.
During the time that you were in office, were you ... I mean some of the people that you have criticised were involved in taking bribes or being in some way influenced and corrupted in their political positions. When you were in political power, were you ever in a position where you were tempted or where anyone attempted to bribe you?
There's very little corruption at the federal level. The opportunity is just not there. If I were somebody who was seeking a favour from government, at the federal level, I wouldn't bribe a politician. I'd attempt to suborn one of the people who I think are the real decision-makers, the bureaucrats. I would think that there's an almost total absence of corruption on the bribe-taking level in federal politics. The opportunities are really not there. But ... as they are at the state and municipal level. Anyhow, nobody ever offered me a bribe.
What would you have done if they had?
Oh well, I'd have, I'd have been very indignant that they considered me bribe-able, and I would have, I suppose I would have gone to Whitlam, told him about it.
On the subject of honesty, one of the things that people feel about politicians, and some politicians are now coming out and saying, that truth isn't something they feel the need to serve. And a notable thing about you, that's very striking to anybody who hears the story of your life and the way that you operate, is your extraordinary honesty, your willingness to speak out and say what you see to be the truth, even when it's against your own interests, seemingly. Where do you think you get this compulsive truth-telling from?
Well, even after I rejected God, I didn't discard the old Judeo-Christian ethic. I continued to believe in truth-telling and treating your fellows, you know, do unto others and you would have that they do to you. I continued to believe all those things. I suppose, in a sense, I've always been a moral man. I could give you no other reason for being honest. I suppose there was a certain, even a certain element of vanity that I think it was demeaning to dissemble.
You've been conscious from time to time though that it wasn't necessarily serving your own material and political ...
Oh yes, yes.
No, not at all.
Looking back at a life in which you've had, well, three or possibly even four careers, what would you see as your most satisfying achievement?
Well, I was quite pleased with the work I did on the Land and Environment Court. I think when I was a minister, my activities to achieve a wage pause with its consequential influence on the rate of inflation, I was quite proud of that, and I've enjoyed writing. I think probably I've enjoyed that most of all.
In politics you say you never really wanted to be top dog. What do you think it is in your character that made you not want something that all those around you were after?
I suppose nothing seemed to me to be important enough to warrant extending myself to the full. Now, that may be just an elaborate name for laziness, and I wouldn't deny that I've got a lazy streak. Sort of an Irish, hedonist streak. I could work flat-out for short periods, but I could never really see the worthwhileness of the endeavour that goes into top achievement. I'm not proud of it, it's just my assessment of why I've never really scaled the heights. They didn't seem important enough to me.
Even when you did work flat-out, did you ever feel fully stretched?
No, not really. I don't think I've ever been fully stretched.
And so looking back, do you feel that actually nature gave you quite a hefty endowment and at times, there were times when you used it, but perhaps not to the full?
Yes, I think there's been a certain facility about everything I've done, I've never really had to stretch myself.
What do you think have been your greatest assets in life?
I would say a certain facility with the language.
Is intelligence important to you?
Yes, it is.
Yes, I wouldn't say that I'm the greatest sufferer of fools.
What would you say were your worst faults?
Well, I suppose the one that I just adverted to, the fact that I could never really be bothered to take the trouble to realise my full potential.
Do you think that that would have happened if you'd been a writer?
Yes, I do. Yes, basically, I suppose it's that I was not doing, for most of my life, what I should have been doing.
What have been the things in your life that you've just enjoyed most, as a hedonist?
Well, I've enjoyed companionship, you know, conviviality, conversation, I've enjoyed travelling. You know, the sight of a beautiful city like Prague, Paris, fills me with delight. Women, I've loved women. That's not a bad list, is it?
Have you been surprised at what's happened to communism in your lifetime?
Oh well, I've long got over that, but I must say that the sudden collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and the eastern European countries did take me by surprise. I could see with Gorbachev's ascendancy that there was going to be a modification of the dogma. But its sudden total collapse did take me by surprise. As I think it took everybody by surprise.
What do you think it was that was the flaw that you detected from your reading way back then, and that finally brought the whole thing tumbling down?
I think it was really an exaggeration of human potential. The idea that the great majority of humanity would suddenly be converted to selflessness and to acceptance of what was the old Marxist dogma, from each according to his capacity, to each according to his needs. Now that involved a belief in a level of altruism which I think is just not in the nature of people. There's also, of course, an underestimate of the evil involved in the exercise of power. I think that, you know, I used to believe that the whole trouble was that the wrong man had got control of the first socialist state in history — Stalin. And that if Trotsky had got it, everything would have been alright. I now see that that was a fallacy. I think that absolute power, the old Lord Acton dictum — absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. They were the fundamental flaws in the Marxist dogma I believe.
So really it is, was, your view of human nature and what human beings were, or were not capable of, that made you see the problems with the doctrine?
Yes, I suppose so. I saw that it was imposing an extravagant optimism about what was humanly possible. Not only that, I saw that it was, there were all sorts of economic flaws in the argument.
Now, you started out in life believing that ahead of you was a heaven that if you lived a good life on this earth you would one day inherit?
And then you moved to a position where heaven could be created on earth in a communist paradise?
Yes, that's right.
What do you think about heaven now?
Well, I have absolutely no expectations of an afterlife. I believe that death is the end. There's no such thing as heaven ... on earth or wherever the believers think it is.
What do you think's going to happen to you when you die?
I'll just cease to exist. There'll be no soul floating around up there on its way to the eternal — what is it — the beatific vision.
No, not at all.
Well, I accept the fact that we all die, and that it is the end of it, and if we have wasted our lives, well, that's our fault or the fault of our fate or circumstances and that's all there is to it.
What do you think of the life you've had?
I think I've had a good life. I think I've had a fortunate life. I've had a good bit of good luck. I've had a certain amount of achievement. I've had a lot of fun, and on the whole, I don't have much quarrel with the hand that fate dealt me.
One element of your personality which everybody around you is very aware of is your great sense of humour and your ability to see the ridiculous in things. When you were in politics, did that ever come close to deserting you?
Ah, no, as a matter of fact, it was fatal to my ambitions. I think my delay in getting into the ministry wasn't really long by ordinary standards, but I think I'd have been there earlier if it hadn't been for the fact that a few people suspected that I was laughing at them.
Yes sure, I can see how absurd I am.
Could you tell me about the very beginning?
I was born in Melbourne on June the 3rd, 1915, that's about five weeks after Gallipoli, into a working-class, or lower middle-class family. My father was a tradesman painter in the Victorian Railways, that is, he'd done a six-year apprenticeship. He not only ... he mixed his own paints, they weren't ready-made in those days, he was an expert paper hanger and a sign writer. And he was very good at his trade, and remained in the railways throughout his working life.
While you were minister you did a trip overseas, didn't you, to the United Nations?
No, I made no overseas trips at all when I was a minister.
When did you go to the United Nations?
Well, every year the parliament sends a couple of representatives to the United Nations. The Senate has a turn one year and the House of Reps the next. There's one from each side of politics. They go to attend the General Assembly of the United Nations, which is held from September to November every year. It's a junket really.
And what did you get out of it?
Oh, I enjoyed enormously living in New York for three months. It's the only junket I had. I knocked back several suggestions from my department when I was a minister that I should go overseas. But that was in a critical stage of the government's fate, the last six months of the Whitlam Government, and I believed that I should stay there. So I was not a junketeer by nature, but I'm afraid that I succumbed to the proposition, I was nearing the end of my parliamentary career, that I was entitled to at least one trip. And I did what was expected of me, I spoke at the United Nations, but to be perfectly honest, I don't think it's a practice that is justified, of sending a couple of members to New York for three months every year. I think their contribution is minimal and that the expense is not warranted.
Did you learn anything that would be useful to the Australian Government?
Well, I met a few representatives of other governments. As a matter of fact, I probably sat next to Pol Pot. The first thing that happened when the assembly opened was an argument about which delegation from Cambodia was entitled to be credentialled. One was from the Khmer Rouge and the others were from the other side. And finally they admitted the Khmer Rouge delegation, which almost certainly included Pol Pot. But I didn't know him, nobody had heard of him then.
So it didn't ... your experience with the United Nations didn't enlarge your view of the world very much?
Oh, of course it did, because I was ... I'd been to New York before but I'd never stayed there for a period like that and New York is the world in microcosm. It's a world, New York, and of course I learnt things. I learnt things about American society and I was enjoying myself. I was also informing myself.
So wouldn't you say that's valuable to a politician?
Oh yes, certainly. But hardly justified I think.
The Australia you were born into is a very, very different place from the one it is now. What sort of things have changed that you approve of?
Oh well, when I was born the population of Australia would have been barely seven million. The only non-Anglo-Celtic people were a few Italians, a few Chinese who ran restaurants, and a few Greeks, who ran restaurants in country towns. The White Australia Policy was still in force, women's place was in the kitchen and the bedroom, all of those things have changed since ... in the space of my life. It is a very, very different country. It looks different. There were none of these great glass towers that dominate the skyline in our cities. I don't think that has been an advance. Eating has improved, primarily because of the influx of the people from other countries. The position of women has improved. Poverty has not been eliminated but I think that the standard of living, on the whole, is higher. In fact it is obviously higher. We didn't have television. We were more British. All of these things have changed dramatically, and it is a totally different world.
And you approve of most of these changes?
I approve of the increase of the standard of living, although I think it could be more widely spread. I don't think the war on poverty is over by any means. I approve greatly of the influx of other Australians, other ethnic Australians.
Because I think the old Anglo-Celtic Australian was a bit pallid, not as interesting as it is now. I think there are more good looking people around, largely because of miscegenation. And there's greater variety in eating as I said. And I think the Australia of next century will be a far more interesting place than the Australia that I entered in 1915.
Well, the outstanding weakness in the country at the present time is that even in periods of, what we might call relative prosperity, such as now, we still seem to be stuck with an unemployment rate oscillating between seven and 10 percent. And I think that's absolutely intolerable in a country with the resources that we have. And it should not be beyond the wit of the people who run our society to find an answer to that problem. That's the most pressing problem that I see.
Have you got any thoughts about how it might be solved, what direction it might move in?
Well, I don't think anybody should be unemployed. I think the work that is available should be shared among the workforce. Undoubtedly the structural changes that have happened throughout industry, that have made Australian industry more competitive, were necessary. But there just must be tasks to be fulfilled by those who are laying idle and wasting their lives.
Traditionally this has been something that's been done through public expenditure and the provision of publicly funded employment for people, for people to do useful things for the community.
Yes, I think that's one of the ... that's part of the answer. Another of course is the expansion of different industries to absorb the people who haven't got jobs. It just passes my comprehension that people as smart as the human species is, capable of all the enormous technological innovations that we've seen in my lifetime, can't find an answer to a problem like that. There has to be an answer.
Now I know you don't like to preach, but if you were talking to a young man such as you were years ago, but who was entering the workforce now, or really entering his adult life now, what kind of advice would you give him?
I would say that in order to have any sort of security of employment he needs to have some specialty. Of course, as happened in the Industrial Revolution, certain specialties become outdated. Well, I mean, in our time, remember when a linotype operator was one of the aristocrats of labour. Well, there's no such thing as linotype operators today. And that is a risk that would run anybody undertaking specialist training. In the high-tech field there seems to be a more assured future, in the computer world, and obviously in tourism. But there will inevitably be other technological changes which will make certain trained people redundant. Well, there has to be a system that retrains them and finds another place, somewhere else in society, for them.
Looking back at your life, do you have any regrets?
Yes, I suppose I regret that I didn't do, get into the writing field earlier in my life. That's what I was, that's what I should have been.
But then, isn't it a problem sometimes, that the people that we have doing things aren't really thinkers and the thinkers become just thinkers. I mean, you did think and do, didn't you, in your political life?
Oh yes, I'm not suggesting I've had a wasted life. I've done some useful things. I've been a modest achiever. I'm not expressing dissatisfaction with the life I've had. As I've said, I think fate dealt me a pretty good hand.