Australian Biography

H C "Nugget" Coombs - full interview transcript

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You were made Governor of the Commonwealth Bank, and shortly after that Chifley lost office, and Menzies came in as Prime Minister, did that affect your position in the Bank?

The change of government?

Yes.

Ahh, not in - not inside the bank I don't think, well it may have, ah, I hadn't thought, thought of it in that way, but it was a change in my relationship with the Prime Minister because it was a different Prime Minister, and of course it indicated other changes. I think I've - for instance the Country Party particularly - the other party in the Menzies-Fadden coalition - was pretty conservative and fairly hostile to some of the things that I'd been associated with when I worked for the - with Chifley and Curtin and so on, so they - they were having meetings, passing resolutions that I should be dismissed and things like that, and so on. Aah but ...

Why didn't Menzies listen to them? Why did he keep ....

Oh, I think he listened to them, but he explained to me afterwards why he didn't accept that advice. It was quite interesting because he said, 'I spoke to two people about it, one was Ben Chifley', and he said Ben told me that he didn't believe that I had ever given a ... [INTERRUPTION]

In 1949 there was a change of government, Chifley lost the election and Menzies became the new Prime Minister. How did that affect your relationship as Governor of the Commonwealth Bank, with the Prime Minister?

Well it certainly made it different, because my relationship with Menzies was worse than ever - the same as it - my relationship with Chifley had been because ... certainly not for quite a long time anyrate. I had been a friend as well as an adviser towards ... as far as Ben Chifley was concerned and that gave it a special kind of quality. Menzies however rejected advice which he was getting from - particularly from Country Party branches and so on - that I should be dismissed, and some years afterwards he talked to me about it and told me why he hadn't, because he had considered it. And he said that ... first of all he said, 'I had a brother, who was a businessman and who worked on one of the wartime committees on which you' - that's me - 'was [sic] also a member and he once said to me during the war, "All this stuff criticising Coombs, don't take any notice of it', he said, "He sits on that committee with me and I've watched him at work and he's okay"'. Ah, so he said, 'I take notice of that brother'. But he said, 'Also', he said, 'I - I asked Ben Chifley what he thought of you and he said that he didn't believe that ah ...

He also asked Ben Chifley what he thought of you?

Yeah. And Ben said that ... well, he praised me, but also he said that he didn't believe that I had ever given him politically motivated advice. And, well, I thought that was stretching it a bit but still, it was - it was welcome in the ... and it influenced Menzies. It was inter ... that was quite an interesting thing about - they had a quite a friendly relationship. On quite other issues, once I'd expressed some - he said - I speaking to Menzies, he had commented that he'd been to talk to Chifley about an issue of policy, and I expressed some surprise, and he said, 'Well you may be surprised, but let me tell you that I never make a major decision, particularly of an international kind, without talking to Ben'. He says, 'My party doesn't know'.

And this was just because he respected the man.

Yeah. Yes, they had quite a degree of respect for one another. I think it was, the relationship was pretty, pretty badly damaged by the Menzies involvement with the anticommunist campaign and the proposed legislation and constitutional amendment and so on - but because that was very hard for Chifley to tolerate. But none-the-less, right through they - there was certainly a relationship where to a degree they worked - they ... they accepted mutual responsibilities.

What did you think of Menzies yourself?

Well, he was a very interesting man, he was the first real professional politician I'd ever worked with. He - ah, politics to him was a career, he wanted to be prime minister, and that was really what it was about. He didn't come in with a program, he hadn't ... no ambitions. He once said when I was talking to him about universities, he said, 'I'm not a Prime Minister who wants to leave monuments to my Prime Ministership'. He went on to say, 'But if I'm to be remembered I would like to be remembered as the Prime Minister who gave opportunities to Australian Universities'. As he did of course. I like to remind some of his successors of that one. So no I ah, - therefore he was - his whole approach to politics was pragmatic, he - he didn't have a ideological point of view. I mean he was a conservative but he did - he didn't have built-in programs. He used to say that when he was preparing for the next election, he had a careful look at the Labor Party's program, picked out of it what he thought he could do, and he did say in some of his speeches, 'Now, I know you want this but wouldn't it be better to get it from us rather than from the Labor Party?' So I - so he had that pragmatic, professional kind of quality in his approach to being prime minister, he wasn't - he was lazy. He didn't want to run the whole business, he left - provided the ministers didn't get into trouble or were reasonably competent, he was happy to leave them alone - but he was ruthless at getting rid of them, if he thought they were unduly ambitious or if they didn't do a reasonable job.

He sounds like an ideal person to be an adviser to.

Yes, he was very good to deal with, you didn't have you know, he didn't resent you saying things that weren't in a - which weren't in accordance with what he was doing or anything like that. Now the interesting experience - he had a nephew or some relative who was from England, a relative, Englishman, who came out to Australia to do some research in medicine, and I think he worked - he might have worked at the John Curtin School or somewhere like that. Menzies said to him, 'Why don't you think about staying in Australia?' and he said, 'Oh no', he said, 'I - I like Australia, I wouldn't mind living here', he said, 'But I wouldn't work here as a medical man'. Menzies said, 'Why not?' and he said, 'Because in England we have a decent system of publicly funded and controlled medicine', he said, 'You haven't here, and I don't want to work here'. Menzies not merely took it but he told me about it and commented on it so so - wasn't upset about it.

But didn't change his health policy.

Didn't change his health policy no, no.

But that meant that you had a great capacity to influence, because he was listening to you, and he didn't have an ideological agenda that was rigid so he was open to influence, that gave you quite a lot of power didn't it?

Well I don't ... ah I don't mind the word influence ha, but I don't, I have never thought of the work that I did as an exercise of power, I - perhaps it - you know perhaps that I was wrong - might have been wrong about that, but I don't think so. I, I think I had influence, I think I'm a competent persuader, and ah, you know, and I like persuading.

But you didn't experience that as power. What did you experience it as? What did it feel like to you - a lot of responsibility?

Yes, but and but it also it was a pleasurable thing. I felt it made the job worth doing. It made it worthwhile to put up with things, which in some ways I didn't like, but ah ... and I, I was lucky. All [of] them, key people that I worked with from Curtin you know, Chifley ... Menzies, Holt, Gorton, Fadden.

McMahon.

McMahon.

Whitlam.

Whitlam.

It's a bit of a list isn't it?

It's a list - they all had something, you know. Australia has been really very lucky are certainly as far down as Whitlam at any rate - but even - well, even Fraser. I didn't like Fraser, I disapproved of a lot of things he said but since, over recent years I have begun to feel that perhaps he was better than I judged him to be at the time. You know he'd, he, he did introduce the Land Rights legislation, carried it through the Parliament. He did protect the Barrier Reef, he did carry on the movement towards independence for Papua New Guinea, so and I, his attitude on South Africa is ... has been, I think, good. So he, well, he has in, I suppose apart from - it was the way that he achieved all that the change of government, the elimination of the, of the .... (pause) the Whitlam Government that made that the, the Dismissal such a stressful and, to me, something which made it impossible for me to continue to work for the government. That was when I resigned from government over the - not the fact that a conservative government had taken over, but that it was done in a way which seemed to me to be both unconstitutional but also immoral. Hmm? And therefore I felt that this was a government I couldn't work for.

With the passage of time do you still feel the same way about that, do you still feel it was an immoral thing?

Yes I do hmm.

So you've reassessed Fraser but not that event.

Hmm No not that I - no.

We did go through a fairly impressive list of the, of the Prime Ministers. I mean you've worked for all of them, and you said each of them had something. We've heard about your view of Chifley and of Menzies. When Menzies went, of course, there was a succession of - there was Holt and that was the point at which you actually left the Bank wasn't it?

Yes it was yes.

What - tell me about your relationship with Holt and what happened to you at that time.

Yeah. Well Holt, oh, he was, before he became Prime Minister, he'd been Treasurer for quite a while, and so I had been dealing with him in relation to the Bank and financial, economic matters for quite some time. And I liked him, he was a very kindly, rather gentle sort of person, and eminently decent hmm, I don't think he was a great man, or great or - but he was reasonably intelligent and so he was quite a good Treasurer to work with. He was ah, ... surprised, very surprised by the referendum about, well, the power for the Commonwealth in relation to Aboriginal Affairs. And he was not only surprised - in fact he was astonished, so were a lot of people - ah, but he, he was puzzled ...

As to why Australians had voted for Aborigines to be ...

Yes that's right, but he, but he also was puzzled, he couldn't see what it meant for the Commonwealth, what should they do - he felt he did - was an indicator, that some substantial change in Commonwealth attitude should take place. But he didn't know what to do, and he talked to ah, ... the head of his department, ah, John ah, ... John ah, oh ...

It doesn't matter it was the Head of the Prime Minister's Department.

Yeah, who had worked with me in Post-War Reconstruction, and who was, and we were friends, and so this Head of his Department said, 'Well, it's a difficult question, you want, say you want some kind of an organisation', and the Prime Minister said, 'Yes'. He said, 'Well why don't you talk to Nugget he set-up, in Post-War Reconstruction he created a whole lot of organisations to do this or to do that and you know he has some experience', and he thought I was good at it you know. So he said, 'Why don't you ask him'. So he, ah, Holt came to see me at the bank, and we talked about the Referendum and what it meant for, for government, and finally I said, 'Well look, I don't think I can answer you. I'm not an anthropologist, I don't know enough about the problems reason [sic], but if I were you, what I would do is I would pick out two or three people, one of whom at least, should be an anthropologist, one of them should be someone who knows about the bureaucracy and government organisations and well, someone who has had some experience at dealing with racial type problems'. And I said, 'I would just say, "Look you know, you go away, I'll give you a year you know, walk - go around the country, go where you like, talk to people, listen to Aborigines and so on, and then come back and tell me what you feel then'". He said, 'That's a good idea'. (R 37 - 00:18:18) So he, and when he met me next time he said he was going to set up this Council of Aboriginal Affairs with Bill Stanner and Barry Dexter who'd worked in Foreign Affairs in a number of countries with racial and colour problem ah, differences and things of that kind, and, and he - then he said to me, 'And I want you to be the Chairman of it'. And I said, 'Well you know, that's really not a very good idea, I don't know enough about the stuff as an issue', and he said, 'Well you know you've been telling me that, since when I was Treasurer and Bob Menzies when he was Prime Minister, that you'd been Governor of the Bank too long, and that you wanted another job', as indeed I - I had said this to Menzies and they offered me various ambassadorial job - type jobs you know and, I said 'Oh no I want a job you know (chuckles) something that is a challenge'. So at any rate he said, 'Well, what's wrong with this, it's a challenge', and ah ...

Did you have any idea what a challenge it really was at that stage?

No. I certainly didn't know the magnitude or the difficulties of it. I really saw it as a an opportunity to do some things for ... for Aborigines which I felt ought to be done here as I. I had been involved a little with Aborigines when - when I was a teacher in the beginnings of my career and I'd never forgotten that, my, really quite horror at the way in which Aboriginal people were being treated and ashamed of ah, of it as a - as an Australian and so on, and so in a sense and after thinking about it I - I saw it as a challenge which I couldn't, you know, I'd respect myself less if I didn't accept it. But I did feel that perhaps I could do something about it.

And was that feeling vindicated - did you feel that during the time that you were on the Council that real progress was made?

Not very much while we were on the Council, because within oh, a month or two of the establishment of the Council, and before it had been given any terms of reference or anything, Holt died you see, he was you know had - he was drowned or whatever, and so there I - I was - found myself working for ah, for Gorton I think, who was - certainly wasn't very interested in Aborigines, and who didn't want to - he wouldn't give the Council any terms of reference, and I said, 'Well you know, I don't know what it - we don't know clearly what we're supposed to do, we don't know what relationship we have to anybody in the bureaucracy, we don't know what relationship we have with you, you know as Minister'. Hmm so at anyrate, but he ah, he said, 'Oh well, you know, you go ahead and do what you think and ah ...

... we'll work out some terms of reference later on', you see, And actually he, too, is one of the Prime Ministers who I think is very underrated. Very. He's very interesting if you go back and think about the things that he did and the views that he expressed when he was Prime Minister. He did, in a way, anticipate quite a lot of the Whitlam attitudes, you know his attitude towards Aborigines, his attitude on international affairs. He was the first conservative Prime Minister who had any sense of autonomy or ... as against the British or the Americans. He had a sense of Australian identity which was really ... so that in a way I felt he was - that's when I - I had in mind when I said that they all had something, and I think Gorton had very much. Also of course he established the ah - oh it's, you know, Film and Television School, and he really backed development of film in Australia and things like that, and he was capable of enthusiasm - picking up ideas and going and very good at getting action taken. So ...

So in relation to that, he was also very supportive wasn't he of your other hat that you'd acquired by this time, which was as Chair of the Australia Council and so there you had these twin things of being interested in doing something about Aborigines and the arts - both areas which really hadn't had much attention paid to them up till then.

No, well that's right and in a sense that happened because in talking with, with Holt about whether I would take the Aboriginal job, one of the things I said, 'Well you know I'm involved in the Elizabethan Theatre Trust and I, you know, and I think that that is important, that arts work'. And of course he personally, Holt, was interested in the arts himself. He was the son or the grandson of one of the theatrical entrepreneurs who sponsored Madame Melba amongst other things and so, and he had maintained an interest in theatre as - very much personally, but he also had this family link with the administration of theatre. So - but - so I - one of the conditions that I made was that I - it should be possible for me to maintain my interest in the arts, and it was then he had this idea that there, that rather than just being this interest of the government being in supporting a semi-autonomous kind of body like the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, that they should set up a government-sponsored body to advise them and to administer their patronage and so on, so that was - so that was how it ...

So that was actually Harold Holt's idea.

Harold Holt's idea.

The Australia Council - Australian Council for the Arts which later became the Australia Council. And did you think it was a good idea?

Yes I - I did but ah, - well he wanted a very comprehensive Council for the Arts, rather more like the Australia Council and I was opposed to that because there were several bodies which, some private like the Arts Councils, which were State bodies or privately established in various States, and there were theatre groups and ... and but also, there were the people who ran the art who were gallery - the National Gallery - and the, the people who ran the support for the for ... for literature through, through that Parliamentary Committee. And these were all very - people who were very involved, very conscious of their own personal role in these - and I didn't want to be involved with a kind of takeover bid which would, you know, be seen as a power-seizing thing over bodies who've, including people who'd devoted their - you know a large part of their lives to - to that. So I said, 'Well look why - let's stick just to the Performing Arts. There's nobody doing those things in any comprehensive sort of way and there's a big job to be done now that's - and that was when - how the ah, the Council for the Arts was set up. It was really a Council for the government policy in relation to the performing arts.

What did you see as your greatest achievement during the period that you were in charge of the Council for the Arts? I mean what do you think if you look back now, what do you think happened there in relation to the arts that wouldn't have happened without that?

Oh well I think the, well it is ah, say it was a combination of the Theatre Trust and the Council for the Arts because that - the fact that the Theatre Trust was not a government agency, although it was dependent on funds which it got from the various governments and from the private sector and so on, but it meant that - there was some protection against the Council becoming a - arts bureaucracy and that's really - and I was anxious to avoid that. Ah, but I .... I - it's very hard - I don't think I mean the achievements were not mine or they were ...

I once, somebody asked me what I thought was the function of a bureaucrat and I - in relation to the arts, and I said, 'Well bureaucrats - a good bureaucrat makes other people's dreams come true'. Hmmm and, and I think that's - so far as I have an achievement in relation to the arts, it was that, not that there was anything of the things that were done for which I was responsible, but there was a - the organisation and the way it worked was a way in which other people's dreams have - became a reality and the - that I think is, you know the ... if I have an achievement it's that I helped some people have their dreams come true.

But there was a big change as a result of the enabling sort of, if you like, intervention of the, of the Arts Council, suddenly ... [INTERRUPTION]

But as a result of the Arts Council's activities, a great many more dreams were coming true than had ever happened before in the history of Australian art. What do you think it was that really made the difference?

No, I do think it was an organisational thing. See these things were happening. I mean - let's take a - a good example the, I think, Opera. You know? Now there was an opera group in Sydney, and there was a wonderful woman, Mrs Clarice Lorenz, who ran that. She was one of these ... you know bit of a socialite but she - she had been an Opera Singer and she was passionately involved in it and she gathered around her a group of enthusiasts for opera. Now down in Melbourne there was the same kind of situation, ah ... oh that was - I can't remember her name but a woman there who had been also had been an opera singer, a very good one too, who set up the Arts Council in Victoria, and they established a school for musicians and singers, established a small orchestra and ran periodical program, seasons of opera bringing people from overseas. Now, those ... in other States similar things were happening but not on the same scale. They were very ambitious, they gouged money out of businesses and governments and so on and they really fought for something, and had been fighting over years. Now I think the existence of the Council acted as an intermediary between them and the governments. I can remember when the, this began to happen the - the Secretary to the Treasury - that wasn't what they called him in Victoria like they had a a very hifaluten title but I can't remember, ah, and the - his opposite number in, in New South Wales, both had had some dealings with me when I was in Post-War Reconstruction, and they, and we were friends, and they used to come to me and tell me about their problems in helping the, these enterprises ah that, well they talked particularly about well this - one of these women who use to tur ... tur ... get some money from the government in advance when they to us for a season to be mounted, and then would come back to them if the - after the program was well on its way and on approaching its last legs and say, 'You know, we haven't got enough money even to pay the staff now, we can't let these people who work behind the stage, they belong to the union' ah, you know, and so she would gouge a bit extra money out of the - out of the governments and so on, and they used to come and talk to me about this kind of problem, and I felt that there is a need for intermediaries of that kind. People who understand the problems of the government people and but also are sympathetic with the ah ... And that's in a sense is, was my image of the role of the Council. And it was like that over the film thing, you know - there'd been all that ... there were people who'd been trying to get film things started, and various forms of training for people involved in films. But the fact that there was the council enabled us to get a - set-up that Committee consisting of Phillip Adams and ah ...

Barry Jones.

Barry Jones and ah ...

The beginning of the film industry.

And ah ... Peter Coleman - Peter Coleman was there - they weren't a very happy team but they did work see. But it, also it meant that we could find out that the Prime Minister was interested. We could feed ideas to him. So that's, that's, that role as an intermediary is a very important one and it's one which in a way has been destroyed by the bureaucracy, the oh, unwillingness for administrative power to be exercised by somebody who is not a public servant, is not a bureaucrat, is always regarded with suspicion. Now a very good example of that was what - when I, when I was Chairman of the the Council, and I'd been involved with the Theatre Trust, one of the great problems in theatre business - this goes for opera and for ballet and for, you know, is that's it a high-risk business and even if over a period of time you run it profitably, there are always failures you know, always, so - and so I set up, through the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, an arrangement with the companies which ran the opera and the ballet and the drama programs that when they had a success, they would deposit a substantial share of those profits with the Elizabethan Theatre Trust on a basis where they got, they got interest on it, and understanding was that in return for the help of this, they would undertake when they, ah two things, the - through the the Council the Theatre Trust was able to say to them, 'Look, if you have a failure, we will carry the final risk. You must plan it so that there's not going to ... the risk [is] not going to be too big, but we will underwrite it, and we have kept those funds from the various successful enterprises as a backing to the, to that underwriting'.

A rainy day fund.

A rainy day fund. Now it went very, went very well. There were occasions when we had to come in and support programs that had - where the ... but fortunately most of the losses were fairly moderate, and we did have some quite big successes. So that there was a fund built up. The day I left that, the Treasury set to work and they abolished that fund. And they abolished it not because it wasn't a good idea, but they abolished it because it was money out there which they thought was government money was under the control of non-public servants. And that was why it was a good thing, because it was outside that kind of government you see. If you - you can't keep money if you're part of the bureaucracy.

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