Australian Biography

Franco Belgiorno-Nettis - full interview transcript

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Franco, do you like to be described as a modern Medici?

It is certainly tempting ... [laughing] ... I am fascinating ... literally fascinated by the artists and the art world. The creativity that come from that part of mankind is an incredible element of inspiration and in reality if you see other aspects — it could be science, technology — the art, in a way, is more easily touchable, you could feel the vibrating in immediately, instinctively so, from that point of view, that aspect of creativity of humankind is absolutely fantastic.

You have this great respect for discipline which comes from your military training and the way that you were brought up by your father, and yet you also have this great respect for the freedom of the spirit through creativity. Do you see any kind of tension between these two aspects of life that you admire?

Definitely, there is opposite ends. I think that wherever there is too much regulation, too much restriction, too much guidance, you can't imagine that creativity is possible to be allowed. So there is that kind of drama and I would say that the large creative spirit is ... [above] all control. So it is a fact, it could be probably a mystery, a mystery of life. In reality, I don't think that you could put the two things together — an artist must be totally free, sometime it must be rebellious, that's art.

In your own life, you've actually rather liked to control things. You liked to be your own boss, you liked to be in charge. Do you think this is why you've preferred to pursue a life in engineering and a life as an entrepreneur than the life of an artist, that also beckoned you?

I don't think that I am an artist, otherwise I should not become an engineer. I could see the dramatic opposite end of the system but, between the two, I am more keen toward the science and technology than I'm not toward to the art but, you never know, I could have probably started in a different direction, you never know.

So you've dedicated your life really to the building of Transfield. In making those sorts of decisions about which way your life would go, what has been your value system? How have you worked out that priority?

It's really hard to make a quick answer here. Sometime you don't have priority. I think you move by instinct, I don't think there are rules. I believe more in feeling than in regulation. I mean, I have to be compelled to do anything, particularly after the second period of my life. I felt almost sort of destiny, hanging on me, in moving in one direction, sometime even without seeing the end, and even now at my age, while I should be looking back, I'm still ... I'm certain ... I could make more contribution today if I could try to add to what I have done and I'm in contrast occasionally with my children, particularly, I can't give them much instruction or guidance to them because they pretend that they know more than me.

You don't really believe them though, do you?

They can't believe me, any more.

Now you've worked tremendously hard to build up this company. Did you ever feel that you neglected your family for it?

I beg your pardon?

Did you ever feel that you neglected your family for the sake of the company? Did you ever feel that you were giving so much to the building of the company that sometimes your conscience twinged and you wondered if you were giving enough to the family?

Well, in looking to, retrospectively and all that, I'm sure that I've done it. I've done not enough for the family, probably, concentrating on the type of practical aspect of my everyday commitment. I should have given more attention but, if I see the result altogether, I can't complain. I mean, from the family side, my wife is still the same wife, that's already an advantage, I could see (I've found friends with the third marriage as I saw just a few weeks ago) and my children, they still respect me, they still work with me and for me and for them, incidentally. I can see the unity of the family pretty strong and, again, if I see comparison so much difference in many area, so that I think that altogether the result is pretty satisfactory.

All three sons have come into the business — that is remarkable, that all of them wanted to. Was any pressure put on them at all to do that?

No, no, no, quite frankly and I think that, in a way, this is the system of education, that, more from me but from [my] wife, has brought this kind of result. It means they not only could have chosen all type of other activities and they would be happy possibly to inherit the wealth that certainly they have, but the fact that they are not only working in the company, but they are very keen, occasionally, I could see, dramatically close to the system, I could see that I have been very lucky for this kind of a result.

In looking back at your life and the way you have lived it, do you see any particular theme or pattern, any idea that you have learned from the way that you have lived your life, that you can apply and that makes sense as a principle of living? For example, you have talked a little bit about the principle of change and movement, that things shouldn't be static, that they should be allowed to grow. Perhaps you could talk a little bit about that philosophy, of action and taking opportunities, could you tell us a little bit about that?

Well, certainly the aspiration of manager or business people is the continuity of what they are doing, and they would like all the time to create or to find the rules to ensure that kind of thing. In reality, we are confronted with a constant stream of changes and this dynamic of changes, that we see in the wider world around us, is the element that [is] really characterising everyday living. It is in this kind of change that I have been always, all the time, trying to get the right direction. By chance I find, you find the right ... I'm probably the result of these chaotic disturbance around me, that I'm where I am. If I didn't, if I was not prepared to take the opportunity to every corner, as I've done, then probably the result would have been completely different. So this dynamic of change that has been, at least, the constant around us, is the element that you should not be surprised that it is, and we should continue to maintain that kind of being prepared for the changes, and utilise the changes that come.

When you were taken prisoner of war, you described your captives as very civilised and it didn't seem to me that you were entirely admiring of that, that there is an element of you that perhaps feels a little critical of a totally civilised approach to life. Was I right in suspecting that you think that in some ways, very, very formally civilised behaviour is not the way to go?

Well the reality, I think, that confrontation between tribes is far to be civilisation — possibly the result of this kind of confrontation that civilisation is developed around the millennium or centuries. I have been surprised by civilisation and civility of the people that I met, I told you, even in the battling, particular when we were very close to the same danger. It is incredible how the people of different origin confront the same kind of odds, they become rather friendly. And the first contact I had with enemy forces in North Africa, that we could look in the face of each other, as if we were friendly, almost subject to the same destiny.

In living out your life, what do you think has been your major personal strengths that you've brought to life that were perhaps special, or particularly well developed in you, that have stood you in good stead?

Well, I don't think that I had any special characteristics that has emerged all during these years. I still think that the result has been mainly a problematic or statistical behaviour of event from which I am what I am, what is the result of what I have done. I have not really been able to plan every detail. As a matter of fact, while I insist as a manager for the planning for everyone, in reality I found out that the great happening are just not unplanned and even when I came to Australia, I didn't have any plan, nor I knew where I would come. In reality, the philosophy that has pushed me constantly, and I tried to suggest it to other people, if you do properly today what you are doing, this is the best gift for success for tomorrow.

And do you think you have any particularly weakness of character. Is there any characteristic that you wish you didn't have?

To be self-critical. Oh yes, of course. I'm certainly impulsive, I don't have much patience, I do not dedicate myself completely to what I am doing now, I'm capable of starting many things not finished. While I pretend to people that I do things in order, I do in tremendous disorder. I live in chaotic surrounding in my workshop or my desk. I like beautiful things, not necessarily in a particular type of order. I'm in love with mechanics, with science, with technology, and I'm in love with art, that's completely opposite. I'm a little bit of a contrasting — a happy contrast if I might say so.

What is it you love about science and technology?

If we like or not, the standard of living we are enjoying today is mainly the result of science and technology. The standard of living of mankind, particularly the last 200 years, we have today goods that kings ... ordinary man could not have, would have, suspected. Probably the kings of 200 years ago, didn't have what ordinary man has today and all that is due to the capacity of science and technology. This is changing the world and we are in a competitive world and there are problem and the problem is that we give certain emphasis in area, not to others. Australia particularly must chase some way of becoming more effective, more competitive and we are complaining that lack of technology or scientific preparation in the school for the generation to come. Unfortunately, I must say that we are too many lawyers, too many regulations, too many restrictions that are preventing things to happen. I didn't know, for instance, that we have in school today more law students than all the numbers of solicitors that are existing in the nation. Just unbelievable. Now we should try to balance the system. We need people to take less soft option and remind them that we are living in a competitive world. People around us are doing much better, much faster, the fact that Australia — in 19 ... at the beginning of this century, I talk about 1900 — was the first standard of living in the world today; today is the fourteenth. So we are slipping, we are still in very good condition, if you consider at least 300 or 400 nations we are compared with, but we are surrounded by very competitive forces and Australian needs to realise that, to wake up to reality.

You started life very poor and you've now ended up very wealthy. What do you like about being rich? Do you like your wealth?

Certainly, the question that there is no limitation of what you can spend is a tremendous amount of freedom. I mean, I don't use money as I could possibly do. I don't count the things I could buy, but in theory, I like little things. Recently we were overseas and I bought a dozen of very few ... watches, just toys, little things like that. They are expensive and they are extravagant but just little toys that make life much easier.

Do you ever feel when you look around the world and you see people who are still very poor and people who are starving — does it ever make you feel uneasy about your wealth, your own wealth?

Well, certainly you could be uneasy, but you can't do a thing about it, personally. Unfortunately, there is this kind of gradient of wealth all over the world, but if you just distribute all the money you have to everybody, the balance will be that everybody will be miserable. So that is not a problem. Certainly it is essential to maintain a very compassionate attitude in the community where you are living and I think, from that point of view, Australia is in a very good position — we are not looking to beggars on the street, at least as yet, I hope not. We are certainly lucky as a community with a big high standard of living compared with the population around us, particularly on the low level, and if we see all over the world a lot of misery that, I would say, is more due to the government institution than to the technological era in which we are living.

What do you think it means to be an Australian today?

You want to talk about the Australian identity ... Well, first of all, what is my identity, if I am an Australian? I have been here now for 42 years and I don't feel Australian. Possibly my children, possibly the second or the third generation, they feel it, but this kind of ethnic — as I am more or less — they have one foot here, one foot somewhere else, they don't know. Sometime if I go back to Italy, I don't have much relative left, very few friends if any, and things are changing more rapidly there than here. So you feel a bit isolated even here, but the for the Australians, identity, they have been struggling for quite a while, even after 200 years to find their own identity. They haven't found yet.

So you don't feel yourself to be an Australian?

Well, honestly, I don't think I'm an Australian. Even if I have been living here.

So what would you need to feel, in order to feel Australian?

Well, the fact that you stay here, you belong here, you will be prepared to work here for the benefit of this country should be sufficient element to be defined Australian. But there are certain root links that are still connected, still alive, every time I go overseas, particularly if I go to Italy. I could see that the roots are moving and are growing, so it is a question of natural instinct, I would say. I don't believe that you could become overnight Australian. Certainly, the more you are here, the more you understand the people, the more you make friendly with your surrounding, and the benefit you are getting through this life here automatically — that will officially define you as Australian. But the fact remain for this people coming from overseas, they stay here for a certain period of time, they still have this remarkable, indestructible element of contacts with the rest of the world. And sooner or later, I think that people should realise that it is not to be necessarily a citizen of this land, they should be a citizen of a much wider land, why not a citizen of the world, for instance? What's happening in Europe and other — we talk about the European community — these people are gradually become citizens of a much greater number of nations. I'm not surprised that tomorrow this tribe, this white tribe of Australia, could become part of a tribe that is part of a much larger, for instance, could be New Zealand and Australia to start with. You have to think about that.

Do you think it is realistic for Australia to see itself as part of Asia?

Well, certainly Australia must justify first of all this proportionate ratio between the inhabitants and land, first. That means that the population here must grow at a much faster rate. Second factor is that we are seen as a sort of fragment of the old colonial empire. We should now gradually build more and more links with this part of the world. Sooner or later, 200 years of Australian history will fade against the future and we should more and more feel as if we are part — and vice versa, these people should feel that Australia is part of that world of the Pacific. This I think is an important, very important, aspect of the Australian today, what they look at.

Do you think we should become a republic?

Well it could be a symbolic element. Now the debate is still on and I'm one of the Australian Republican Movement founder. I believe that Australia, for the quest of self-respect, should show symbolic and naturally that they could relinquish contacts with the old world. I talk about the Queen and the monarchy and show that we could live on our own without being controlled, without these long links still existing. I'm not ... in the argument of the Constitution, I will leave the philosophers and law-makers, but from the instinctive point of view, I think Australia will gain tremendously internal morale and this internal respect and external relationship with the rest of the Pacific, if we could at least before the end of 2000, 2001, we become a republic. It is a great symbolic step and I could see that the percentage of the people being already persuaded is increasingly radically. By the 2000, I think that the conviction of Australia will be totally for a republic.

You said that when you go back to Italy, you feel the pull of those roots, those Italian roots. Could you imagine going back to Italy for your old age and perhaps to die there?

No, I don't think so. Not only because I have so many already existing link in Australia, but also the presence of my family here. I can't conceive going back as the Chinese do — they want to go back to their homeland to die — no I think that from that point of view then I should remain, or should become Australian.

Do you think about death at this stage of your life? Do you think about what death will mean to you? What do you think will happen when you die?

It is a very important question, but so far as I am concerned, that's my end. I don't believe in the world of ... the other world. Since I didn't possibly operate properly here, I don't expect that I'll suffer the other side of the world. Unfortunately it is part of the natural way of living, living creature, they stop. They live in this part of the great tree of mankind, of the natural world, so I think that is essential. And I would say, that I am not surprised, I have been already confronted with death a few times in my life and I'll be just facing, without any kind or terror or fear, that will just be it, as far as I am concerned, will be the end of it.

What will you leave behind that matters most to you?

Certainly I will leave my wife, she will survive me, no doubt about that. And the children. Apart [from] the children, my contribution to this continent, from that point of view, I think is more than adequate. My contribution to the development of the continent, so far as engineering, construction, in all sort of thousands of aspects of projects. Or initiatives, by contribution to the appreciation of the arts in the community, certainly will be lasting, particularly for the biennale, for my role in art prizes, initially. For the Gunnery [studios for artists], for the establishment of the Gunnery and for my presence in many institutions that I have been able to serve in one way or another. I think that I have been enjoying tremendously, and I enjoy tremendously being part of it, that live part, more alive than every day, I would say, routine work. Art to me is that kind of inspirational aspect of life that makes easy to forget failure, and you could relax.

In terms of an approach to living and in a way a philosophy of life, what kind of things would you have hoped to have passed on to your children?

Well, as I have, I'm convinced I received from my parents, directly and indirectly, willing or not, that type of character that has made me. Similarly, I think that my children, I could recognise they have gained from me and my wife that attitude to work, to make a conclusion, to be useful member of the community for years to come; this to me would probably be the biggest satisfaction that I could have achieved.

In relation to your personal ethics and the way that you have behaved in life and in business, are there any particular virtues that you particularly wanted to uphold and espouse?

Well, first, I would say in doing properly what you are doing. I mean, your example, is already a greater element for your children, for your family, I talk about that. The conclusion, the results of your work, is already in itself a demonstration of the fact of the contribution that you are making and this already is a good type of inspiration for your children. From that point of view, I could see that my successes, they could see the facts, the intentions and I can't blame away from that point of view.

In thinking about your grandchildren, do you have any fears or worries about the kind of world that they are going to inherit? What kind of a world do you think your grandchildren are going to come into?

Well, to forecast the future has been always a very great commitment, problem. Certainly the future for the children will not be easier. Things are getting more complicated but always the best people will gain, the best effort will always be rewarded. No question that you are just left behind if anything could happen, so provided these people be moved by the will to succeed, be aggressive (you might say), in whatever they are doing in, the attitude to face whatever adversity or otherwise with heart and try to win the battles. I think that this is the type of elements that I wish them to do. I got five boys and one girl, that's six altogether, all in good health, I do hope that they will take notice of what their grandfather has been doing.

Going back to your own childhood and remembering how that was, your own father's behaviour had a great influence on you. Could you describe to me in what way that worked, and what he was like as a man and how that affected you?

Well my father was a very simple man [but] probably was more complicated than I would imagine at the time. He had certainly a complex life, as I mentioned, he was an adopted child and he had to win [over] many adversity. He was a self-made man with elementary school. He succeeded only as his peers, at that time, I still remember he was a wealthy man, he was a very well articulated man with his own very tough character. We were educated with stiffness, with the modern kind of discipline — I would even go to dictatorial attitude. He might not have realised that that was the case of a dictator behaviour, but I am very grateful to him for the guidance he has given to me. I learned from the very, very beginning, because he was a good tradesman, the basics of what was my type of, say, the job, if I might put it that way, and I've, most, the greatest memory of his presence in my life.

And what about your mother, what did you get from her?

Well, my mother possibly had an education of the same level, possibly less. My mother was a simple woman of a country, even if they were proprietors, but still of country style. My mother was certainly an example of ... as working in the house, we didn't have any help, we had a very primitive type of arrangement, we certainly didn't buy many goods. She was great woman, not showing very much affection. We didn't felt very much affection from the parents, quite frankly.

[end of tape]

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