Australian Biography

H C "Nugget" Coombs - full interview transcript

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You said that you felt that your time at the Council for Aboriginal Affairs was not as productive as you'd hoped. Could you tell us a little bit about whether you felt you achieved anything there at all in that period?

Oh, well I don't mean - I don't know whether I achieved, but I think there have been changes which reflect in part what I and others in the Council that they were associated with the movement for support for Aboriginal change which are ... reflects some of the activities that we did and some of them were good. But I think what has happened is that attitudes have become polarised. I think there are very many more people now in Australia who are aware of Aborigines and aware of their problems and are concerned about our treatment of them and so on. I think there are very many more people who share that - those kind of views. But on the other hand, at the other extreme I feel that there - the people who are hostile, who fear Aborigines or distrust them or hate them, I believe that their attitudes are more intense and actually the numbers of them who take that kind of hostile attitude towards the issues, may very well be greater too. In other words you've got the people, who either were just not interested or hadn't made their minds up or hadn't even thought about it, who probably were the great majority when we began. And you had a small group who thought it was important and we ought to be doing more about it; the other end you had the racist red necks who just saw Aborigines as a barrier to the things they wanted to do: both were fairly small groups. I think we greatly expanded the group who are concerned, who are beginning to understand and who would like something to be done. Not very powerfully but there is - certainly would be a willingness to accept substantial change and many who would feel happier that it had happened. On the other hand, I think largely because the people who make money out of economic development, the people who want access to Aboriginal land who see Aborigines as a barrier to their profitability, I think they are devoting more resources to that kind of - expressing those kind of fears and hostility than they were before. So you've got, as I say, a polarisation, which at present, seems to me to have produced a position in which no government really has the guts to put forward a constructive policy, because they see more important the loss of support from those people who are hostile, than they see benefit from those who would welcome change favourable to Aborigines. Now that's as I see it at the moment.

But of course, you can't tell very much about these positions, these attitude changes as, I mean, as we were talking earlier about the remarkable attitude change in relation to the environment generally. I mean I think when I, it was certainly well within my lifetime when people, who talked the sort of thing which is now taken for granted, about the need to protect the environment, [were regarded] as a bunch of cranks. Of whom I was one you see. But, okay now they are probably the majority, you see. And it's the government, I think the members of the government, the members of the parties probably too are, a majority of them are feel that way, but they still don't like to do things which lose the support of the monied groups, the conservatives, who their opposition is more powerful than the support on the other end of the spectrum hmm.

Do you see the main impediment to major reform in relation to Aborigines coming from those who have an economic stake and are concerned about losing certain rights, that is business, mining interests and so on, or from racists. Who is the biggest threat?

Well I think to some degree racism is a product of the others, of the activities of the economically motivated ones. But certainly that's where I think the critical opposition is coming from. But it's hard to tell about racism, it ... Europe I mean. human beings, particularly Europeans I think are very very conscious, conscious of differences and suspect people who are different or situations which are different, or changes which look as being significant in which altering things to which they're accustomed. But in relation to the environment, I think the changes are accumulating, you know, the ...

Does that ...

... the drive is there and it's as I say. But there is no comparable emotional involvement in the in the desire for change in relation to Aborigines.

What changes do you want to see?

Well it's very difficult to be, be precise it's - there are there are so many things. But my own feeling is that what we have tried to do from the beginning, is to offer Aborigines some kind of role in our society, a role which they are unwilling to accept. We want them to be an unpaid or a poorly paid proletariat working for our industries in our enterprises. They have never been willing to accept that. They will starve rather than do that. So that, if we want anything to come out of this, what we have to do is to accept the fact that Aborigines are different. They do have a different way of seeing the world and understanding it, they have a different vision of what the place should be like. They are autonomous their - by their nature yes a fundamental thing in Aboriginal society that what Judge Blackburn described it as a society which is run by laws not by men - or women. And I think that's important, they - nobody, no Aboriginal has the right to tell any other Aboriginal what he must do, or should do. Autonomy's - autonomy is fundamental to their ways of thinking now, I think we have, we might have prepared to spend money on them, we're prepared to offer them this and that and educate them and so on, but what we won't do is allow them to be different. To make ... And that's what I think is sad, that's why it's, you see the ... mind you I know I've been involved to some degree in this making the wrong choice in these things. When I was involved in the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, I put ... facilities for education, money for vent ... for enterprises - not access to land, which is different, but you know we were, we were all and I did put spending money to offer them some of the benefits of our society as a - a high priority. Now I don't think it's as high a priority as ...

But you have dedicated yourself to trying to get a Treaty.

Yeah.

What's your - what's the prac ... I mean you're a practical man, you're someone who's tried to find solutions. In what way is a Treaty a solution?

Well, the Treaty, Treaty is not - you know it depends what's in the Treaty. A treaty embodies an exposition of a relationship and what I say is that we need a relationship which says to Aborigine[s] yes, you are here, you're part of Australia, but you're different from us, we accept your right to be different, in fact we will put in the Treaty a guarantee of your right to be different. And, but we will can give you access to a fair share of the resources of the continent, so that you can be different. It [would] make your differences effective there. I don't think those - the differences are of a kind which really would divide Australians, most of the fears are without foundation, or if they're not without foundation they're much less significant. I don't see any reason why Austra - Aborigines cannot live in Australia at various levels of economic affluence in various relationships ... and for that not to impair our way of life which to the degree we want that to be different. I see no real problem in it except our unwillingness (a) to accept the fact that they have a right to be different and (b) to give them a fair share of the resources of the continent (whispers) or get back to the ...

What's your vision for how they might ... [INTERRUPTION]

What's your vision for how they might live if all of this came to pass. I mean some people fear a sort of apartheid arising if there is a separation. How would you see the Aborigines living? How would you see them surviving and working? What kind of a pattern of living can you see emerging?

Well it depends how the - it'll be lots of different patterns of Aboriginals well living. I think you have at the - at one - at the bottom level the sort of minimal level is one where they have their have their own land, and they have the right to use the resources of that land, and they get some share of the common resources of the community, particularly in enabling them to conduct their own services for education, for health you know and that kind, those kind of services which are provided in common for the communities, but that they should have their own institutions, their own organisations for those. I think the homeland movement is a clear demonstration. That is the basic thing that they want. They want the right to be on land which they believe is theirs, and to be able to conduct their society in accordance with their ways of thinking, educate their children in relation to that and conduct their ceremonies and all those things. But also they should and compatibly with that it's possible for them to have access to education and training, which doesn't mean that they wholly accept what we do but they learn how to live in our society, and still continue to think of themselves and act as if they're - as Aborigines. And you will see them, they were you know, you'll have - there were ... the pop band group ... you'll have ballet companies, you'll have theatre companies, you'll have all sorts of things, you'll have painters and and sculptors and all those things emerging from them because those are things which they're good at and where they have as - they can express the separateness of their view of the world in those ways. Those things are happening on a far greater scale than white people are aware of see? And you'll find they're turning up as lawyers and when they are - and in due course they'll even be turning up as doctors despite the hostility of doctors to such an idea. But they will make differences their medical programs will be different, their entertainment programs will be different, there is - this is one of those things we were talking about - the, the virtue of diversity. Because we are unwilling to allow them to be different, we are destroying a source of diversity upon which we may very well come to depend. So that, and that's why see, the idea of a treaty you see, and not over yet, in a way when I we were - I first started to work for this, I had a much more European idea of what would be in it than I have now. I have very few precise ideas. I think what we need most is a change of ah - a change of attitude but which - a change of attitude which isn't just the result of talking and so called reconciliation programs conducted by our governments but where we begin to do things to recognise, to allow diversity, to encourage diversity and to reward successful diversity.

Now - but I think it's, but this is, I do find in the midst of a great deal of pessimism about contemporary events in our society, I am impressed by the things that are happening in Aboriginal society, wherever they are in a position to make decisions for themselves. And one of the things, I'm going to spend this year, I hope to do to explore in much more detail what is happening to Aboriginal society, where it is Aboriginal society and not something which we are attempting to create for them. I - I think this - some of the ideas about education in it - some of the things about the philosophy of science, the way in which you come to understand it to change the world - I think they are in the forefront of intellectual thinking. Okay, but I would - I, I have to learn more about that and I have - well I won't have time I suppose, certainly to understand it fully but I'm going to spend this substantial part of this year in looking, but starting with the education of how they are changing the way in which children, from the very beginning, are introduced to the world and to the ... and learn how to be Aborigines or to ... and those are - those things are very important and I, yeah so that as I say this is one area where, not because of our - I think our policies are almost universally wrong in relation to Aborigines, and I tried to express that in the things I've said about that awful National Aboriginal Education Policy which is a straight statement of compulsory assimilation. There's nothing wrong with - the thing that's wrong with South African ah well ...

Apartheid.

Apartheid, is that it's compulsory. It's compulsory. There's nothing wrong with people becoming like us if that's what they want to do, and that option should always be open. We - they should have the right to the same privileges and to the same education and so on if that's what they want, but it should be an option which we - that we have and they have.

You care a great deal about choice and the idea of a very plural society, very diverse society is one that's always appealed to you, in almost every area of your activity: arts, Aborigines and so on. Let's talk a little bit about you though, as an individual in this society. Here you are aged ah 80 ...

86.

86 and you are working hard - as hard as you probably ever have at some of these causes that you care about like Aborigines, the environment and also bringing to bear some of your thoughts about the economic future, of the country. Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future generally?

Well, I think I feel fundamentally pessimistic because I think that we are not dealing with the fundamental problems of our society. I suppose in the most absolute form, you know that the difficulties are expressed best if you look at the population issue. You see the population is increasing at, continuing to increase at a fantastic rate, and it is just going to be impossible for the population, as forecast, to be fed, clothed and the rest of it. Certainly not well by the - it's it's impossible even if we transformed the way in which our society is run so that we too accepted a lower rate of consumption of resources, so that the rest of the world could come closer to the kind of lifestyle that we live, even if all those things were done. I see Malthus 180 or 200 years ago or whatever it was, said that unless we learn to control the growth of population, it will be imposed on us by famine, pestilence and war. Now we have 'em: famine in very many countries. There's food, they can't afford it; they are starving except for some internationally organised charity you see; pestilence, well AIDS is a pretty good form of pestilence; and we have wars all over the world. But even so, despite those things, the population continues to rise and I just don't see any way in which catastrophe can be avoided. When I was, well at one time when I was particularly interested in this population thing, I went to a friend of mine who was a biologist and I said, 'Is there any other species on the earth which has this population explosions of this where they have an exponentially rising population?' 'Oh', he said 'Yes, there are quite a lot of them particularly insect but others too'. And I said, 'Well what happens? They can't go on rising forever'. He said, 'No', he said, 'It goes you know, it goes slowly rising and then it becomes exponential and it goes up like that'. And I said, 'Well what happens when it gets up here - the top of the graph?' He said, 'Well it collapses' he said, 'It doesn't flatten out, it doesn't drift down, it collapses. Sometimes it collapses into extinction, but most frequently it collapses and they almost disappear, but in due course there are a few left and the rise starts again'. Now I don't see any reason to believe that human - human beings are going to be any different. I think our population will go on exploding and, but there will be point where it will collapse, for some reason, perhaps the ones that Malthus identified, but there are probably plenty of others.

But you can't be entirely without hope for the future because you keep on working hard at the causes that you care about.

Well, you know I don't - I - it's - work is a habit, you know, see, it's - what would I do if I stopped doing these things? The ah ... oh, I'm here, I've and ah ... but you see expectation - I've learnt to live with the conviction that a lot of your efforts are going to be unsuccessful, and to come to believe that's not a good reason for not trying. Hmm? So it's - it is partly habit, it's, as my wife said you know, that I can't leave things alone, if I think they should be different. Lots of people think the world should be different, but she said about me that I'm just conceited enough to think that I can do something about it, you see. That that, and that yes that's the truth in that your response to these things is, is a personal one, and it's not in working for causes is not solely arise - not - doesn't arise solely out of a conviction that you have answers to the problems or could develop them. It's - ah, partly habit and partly attitudes of mind.

Despite the frustrations that you do encounter whenever you try to do something, looking back over your long life and all the different things you've been involved in, what would you say was your greatest achievement? What is something that you feel really proud of?

Well it's - oh, somebody else asked me this sometime ago and I said, 'Well, ahh ... I have four children, they all have - all are doing interesting jobs. They are - none of them seriously take drugs other than alcohol and they all still talk to me. They don't approve of me but they still talk to me.' Now I think in a personal sense that's not a bad achievement.

So in looking at achievement you look in human terms rather than in terms of any of the jobs you've done?

Oh well those things - you, yes. I think about them, and I get pleasure from some recollections of them and I have disappointments and bitterness about others of them. But I think I've been very, very lucky to go through life and always have interesting things to do and to be paid to do them is miraculous isn't it? See. Now - or I've never ... I've never really been out of work. I've never, after the application I made to join the Education Department of Western Australia when I was 17 or whatever it was, I've never actually applied for a job. There's always been one waiting you know, this ah ...

Why do you think that was? What is it about you that has made you someone that Prime Ministers have sought the advice of, that people have offered jobs to? What distinguished you that made people see those possibilities in you?

Well it's partly lucky. I know that I'm lucky - starting plus these things ... well and maybe my wife's comment is - comment is not without some relevance - that I'm conceited enough to think that, you know, I can do things see. Or ...

But you persuaded others to think that too.

Yeah. Well, but you see people go - you know, you don't look for advice. If you look for advice you look for it in, to someone who thinks he knows the answer or - or you believe he thinks he knows the answer so. So it's partly that, that it's ... I like trying to understand situations and I enjoy the process of trying to produce change which is humane and you know, moving in the right direction, so and I've - I think those are qualities which are ... well encourage people to, to, oh, ask you for advice and so on I think.

Was there often a lot of stress in your life?

Ohh yes, there've been some exceedingly stressful times exceedingly yeah. Ah, yeah hmm.

Do you remember any particular time that you found really hard to get through?

I found the - that period of ah, I suppose you might call it the Cold War period - the period of when and there was the division inside Australian society where about fundamental political and religious attitudes that ah ... there was a period when I personally was affected - my relationship with other people was - was made more difficult because of those ah ...

This was during the ALP, DLP ...

Well that was part of it, but it was along me bearing ... right back really to ah, to the first, the Depression of the, you know, the, the twenties and thirties and so on. These kind of differences, but they became most dominant for me in a personal sense and in relation to my private life and my relationship with people, ah, in that particular period of ...

Your wife was a Catholic wasn't she?

Yes she was and my - yes that's right.

And did you have political differences over those ...

Well I dare say that well, it's ah ... ah there were ... Certainly my wife's attitude to political matters is quite different from mine, but it's never been ... I don't feel that I ... I have never thought those were important in relation to personal relationships, and I don't - never have felt that those differences were - were a major factor that - accept as a - in indirect kind of ways.

Did you feel ...

Hmm hmm.

Did you feel that your work ever took you too much away from your family?

Yeah. Oh Lord yes. Well I mean it posed problems as it - ahhh when ... critical time I suppose was when I was ... after I joined the Commonwealth Bank, and those issues arose which brought me up to Canberra where those committees that were concerned with looking forward to the, the impact of the war on Australian policies and things, and I started to travel to Canberra and then when the war came, and I was put on - lent to the Commonwealth to act as economist to the Treasury, I moved to Canberra. Now that had a very profound effect because it imposed on my wife the transformation of the lifestyle which she had - was building for herself - in Sydney. She was very interested in music and she enrolled at the Conservatorium and she was studying. She played the violin and she belonged to a chamber music group and she was interested in composition and things like that. We came to Canberra, it was 1939 and you have absolutely no idea what an appalling place Canberra was from the point of view of a woman who was interested in things other than domestic affairs and bringing up children and playing some cards and well ...

It was a bit of a cultural desert.

It was, it really was a cultural desert for women and ah, but ... And that continued see and then when I went to Melbourne to run rationing and then I had to come back to Canberra to do the Post-War Reconstruction job, and in the meantime this ah - these work commitments taking me away you know, I mean, were intensified. So when we came back to Canberra my wife said, 'Look you're away such a lot anyrate. Why can't I live somewhere where I like living? Where it's not a cultural desert', and it seemed a very reasonable proposition so I said, 'Yeah well okay', and we bought a house in Sydney and a house we still live in, and that has been the base for the family ever since I've gone - I've gone [to] work in Canberra, I work in the North, then when during my Government period I worked to - I went to conferences, overseas and oh I - all those things, but always the base was that house in Sydney. That was where the children were well ah, you know, came into existence and well grew up and went to University and found them - found themselves jobs and so on. So that ah, but that pattern of ...

Separation.

Separation, not - it wasn't a separation. We still are a family and we still, you know, I still - my wife and I are not divorced or you know anything of that kind, but we did establish a pattern of life which accepted the fact that her pattern would not be the same as mine see?

So she didn't accompany you on things?

Well such, when it was appropriate or was possible and she was interested, yes. While both in and when I was working for the government and when I was working for the Bank, there were occasions when it was appropriate, when my wife wanted to go travel with me and - where it offered her something which fitted in with her private pattern of life as well, ah when she came we - we travelled to America together, we travelled to England together, we travelled to Greece together, to Spain together to where else - ah, all - all of it so that - but the point that I'm making is that in a sense the base that ... pattern of life of separateness for a considerable part of our respective activities - was something which was imposed upon me by, you know, by the career that I had chosen. Now when this issue first arose, one while my - we were still in Sydney when I was still working for the Bank, my wife came to me once and said that she had been invited to, formally to join a chamber music group, and she would like to do it. And I said, 'Well you know what, what she's going to do?' What is more she said - Janet was my - our daughter was at kindergarten and she had to be picked up from kindergarten and on certain afternoons in the week this would have meant that I would have to pick Janet up see. Now that certainly was no problem as far as the doing of it was concerned...

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