Australian Biography

H C "Nugget" Coombs - full interview transcript

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Have you got any other ideas or schemes for the way in which Aborigines might be able to find the place in Australia that's suitable and they're happy with?

Ah, well I've always had the idea that the thing that we're - which we share with them, is an interest in setting aside land for collective purposes and for, particularly national park idea, is something that appeals to them as well as to environmentalists, and it - and also it seemed to me that it does offer a way in which they could have restored to them access to land which is important to them, and which could help them to preserve the continuity of the Aboriginal way of living and thinking even if it's, so to speak, at second hand or by converting it into a kind of ritual rather than a whole way of life. So that I, well, the idea that I've got is that one of the things that they're that I feel they miss when they're in connection with our society, is the loyalty to the local tribe you know? See Abori... even now Aborigines who live in Melbourne will tell you, 'You know I'm a Wiradjuri or a this or that. They think of themselves not as Aborigines but as Yolngu or Wiradjuri or Murrays or whatevers. They have the ... they have tribal groups, language groups and with which they still identify, even though they may have lost the language; they still have that. Now it does seem to me it would be something that would appeal to them if we had for everyone of those tribal language group areas, at least one area which we set aside as an Aboriginal national park, which - where they were, it was their park. It was used as a national park, but they were the managing people of it, and they could use it for traditional tribal things. They could have arrangements for their children to have holidays there in the school holidays from Melbourne or Sydney or wherever. Where they could learn about the plants and the animals of the country that they knew. Where their ancestors knew. They could be told the stories of the way in which the land came that - as it is and so on. It could become a part of their share of the education system where they taught the children from the very past, things about Aboriginal society which they wanted them to maintain contact with. Now I think if we had that, it wouldn't prevent those national parks serving our purposes, indeed it would add very greatly to their effectiveness from that point of view. One of the interesting things about ah Uluru that's you know, Ayers Rock the National Park there, a study carried out asking tourists why they came there. Why they wanted to come there, what was very interesting was, a very large proportion of the people said they came because they knew that this was Aboriginal country and they wanted to have some contact, some experience of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal ways of living. So and I think that's very important, and if they were consciously being used for the maintenance and the preservation of language and practices and traditional dances and groups, and if they were being used for that purpose, that would add very greatly to the interest of those national parks. And to Europe ... you know to European Australians and to people from overseas, very much so. So, you know I thought that one of the things that - and also of course it would fit in very much with the preservation of diversity, you know ... species diversity, but also cultural diversity. So that I think it would be particularly if we were generous enough, or you know to say it's an Aboriginal National Park first, or a - it's run by the Wiradjuri tribe or what's left of them or else. I think it could - it could become a very interesting aspect of Australian life so that wherever you were, there was always within a bus ride, an Aboriginal National Park where these things - the the ... the bark painting I mean the oh the rock paintings and engravings and things that were still left, were there to be looked at and all those kind of things. So that but where it was at least a - kind of a notional kind, of ritual contact with the land that was - was their land in that sense, even if their control of it was so limited.

It sounds like a very good idea - how could this idea actually happen, what do you think is needed for it to actually happen?

Well, you see it - I think what is important is not that they get this offered by us. It's something which I think you, to be really effective is something which the - should be part of their political program. They should ask for it - perhaps on a regional basis - that every tribal group should have in its demands - we want our National Park here. They would know the places that would be suitable for it, where the land was least, you know, damaged and so on, so that I think, and then if that was the extent - the degree which they got that would be a victory on the something which would be encouraging to them and help them maintain cultural things and so on. So that, to some extent this idea has grown in ... because I hear this kind of thing coming from Aborigines in the outstation communities, and others and also from rangers, Aboriginal rangers in National Parks. See there's a great deal of disappointment amongst Aborigines who've joined the, become rangers and trained in the - to become rangers in the present National Parks, that they still feel that that's not what they're doing. Well, I can remember one chap who actually resigned from - after having been through a course of training to become a ranger for - in Kakadu, and he said he was - well he was leaving, and I said, 'Why this, you know, - isn't there a job for you here?' He said, 'Yes there's a job', and I said, 'Well why aren't you staying on?' He said, 'Well, when I decided to take the course', he said, 'I thought I would be here, looking after the wildlife and seeing that the place was still somewhere where the wildlife could survive', and he said that, 'Now I'm trained, I realise that most of my time I will be looking after tourists, and perhaps cleaning up after them', and he said, 'That's not what I want to be a ranger for'. So, but still the idea of a National Park in which the Aborigines were in control, where the rangers were doing, looking after the land as their ancestors did and looking after the wildlife, teaching the children about their relationship with the wildlife and so on, that I think would be a different kind of kind of thing even better than Kakadu and Uluru - although good as those are.

Looking back over your life, what has been your biggest disappointment?

Well I should say certainly my biggest disappointment is that, well, we just have not been prepared to accept the right of Aborigines, to be different, to be part of our society and welcome in it, but to preserve differences, cultural and other, which are important to them.

And that matters more to you than the changing face of the economic theory that's prevailed in the world and the changes in all the other things that you've been interested in. It's the Aboriginal issue that you care most about.

Yes, emotionally that's certainly true, it's the thing that disappoints me most in which I ... Well, I remember Whitlam saying that, 'While - until we accept Aboriginal rights and act on that', he said, 'We are all demeaned'. And I feel that that's a truth, that the thing which demeans Australia and Australians more than anything, is their failure to act on that issue.

You feel a very great sadness about that don't you?

So looking at the time when you were - you mentioned Whitlam and that reminds me that we didn't - we were talking about your life with various Prime Ministers and we didn't - we didn't ah in fact get right through the list. We got as far I think as Gorton, and you were talking about what Gorton contributed - would you like a break before we change direction and go back to that? Are you right to keep going now while we ... fill in some of these gaps right. Ahhm if we - if we look after Gorton, you then had a period of dealing with - with McMahon, and was his attitude - during that period of - that McMahon was there and you had ah Hewson [sic] as the Minister for Aborigines and the Arts - that represented a fairly big change from Gorton didn't it?

Oh yes, ah, it was a very considerable drop down in the ... in the level of - oh, as I say I've felt that Gorton wasn't - he was a very characteristic Australian and he didn't - well he didn't have any hostility to Aborigines, but he didn't really see any reason why they ... Anything which opened the white doors to Aborigines, he was in favour of. He put up the money for the ... to be able to, you know, to educate their children - yeah, that was his initiative. He agreed that their [sic] money should be available to Aborigines to enable them to establish their own enterprises to run their own cattle stations and things like that. He set up a fund for that purpose and guaranteed while he was there that it would be renewed year by year, so that a fund was always there. Those, that was fine but that said okay their our - they're Australians and they should have all the opportunities that other Australians have got, but he didn't see - and I, and I understand it - he didn't see any reason why things should be made, ah, they should, that they should be helped to be different. They be helped to be the same generously, but not, I mean that had objected to them being different, but he saw no reason why that should be an objective policy and I think he was wrong, but still ... McMahon was a much more limited man. Indeed when I said that all our Prime Ministers had something, really in essence Billy had very little. I don't think he was ... he was thought to be a reasonably competent Treasurer, well for - some people thought he was, he - but I think he became Prime Minister because the business people thought he was - he'd been a successful Treasurer and ah, favourable to them. I don't ... It wasn't that there was hostility in him or anything like that he, he too I suppose was a bit of a professional politician that he was there - saw it as a personal career or something like that, but he never was a - he was never strong enough, he was never sufficiently in charge of his Cabinet, to be able to do things himself. He ... he - I - when I went - agreed to work with him, it was on a probably improper understanding that he would change things for Aborigines, and he made some quite good statements promising these things. I can remember a conference that - it was with the State Ministers and so on that was held in ah, in Cairns where he made a very good statement which was in a sense the - to accept differences, to not to go, to abandon the assimilation objective - but on the day following those, that Cairns statement, the Minister for the Interior made statements that in the Northern Territory it was not going to be like that at all. Ah, he was a weak man.

What was he like to deal with personally?

Well except for the fact that he had a very unpleasant habit of ringing me up at all hours of the night to ask me what I thought about something or other that, he was alright, he, but ah ...

You were in the interesting situation of being invited to be Adviser to Billy McMahon and, at the same time, you were approached by Whitlam about being an Adviser to him. That must have been a sort of interesting dilemma for you.

Yeah well it - it was you see, but it was because - I don't know what I would have done if circum[stances] had been different but when ah, McMahon asked me whether I would do it, I thought about it and I made this, well, what seemed to me to be kind of unofficial deal that I would do this, act as a kind of economic adviser for him and go on that awful trip to America with him, on the understanding that there would be a shift in the Aboriginal policy which, well, just didn't come out that ... didn't come out that way. I can't remember what the question was ...

What I was asking about ... [INTERRUPTION]

What were your feelings when Whitlam came to power?

Well I think that, like many people, I felt that this could be a beginning of something that was really exceptional, because it was an exceptional opportunity. His entry into the political scene had been marked by [the] involvement of people, particularly creative people - oh, the intelligentsia, the artists the poets and so on - the people who were interested in a better quality of life and all those sort of - sort of things, he - there was ... All those little groups in towns and countries and you know, and in the country where people were beginning to get together to talk about these things, how life could be better. he came in with a wave behind him so to speak, sympathetic to change of that, that kind, and he had, he had, he was an orator, he was an impressive person. And I really did feel that for the first time since Ben Chifley we could, we would be having a Prime Minister who had a vision of Australia as a place in which you could be proud to live. So that I was pleased about that and when Whitlam asked me whether I would act as I had for McMahon in economic capacity, I agreed largely because I had done it for McMahon. Because otherwise I think I might well have preferred to stay out of it, but I - because I could see difficulties in it and they really were very real difficulties. One of the conditions I made was that if I was going to advise on economic matters, that that had to be with the knowledge and the consent of the Secretary to the Treasury and to my successor at the Bank, that I wouldn't do that unless they were happy for that arrangement. They both agreed, but the agreement of the Secretary to the Treasury didn't stand up you know, because he was not prepared to accept a situation in which I would give advice other than what advice compatible with Treasury view on whatever, and we did after, at one stage, have a real row about this. He accused me of breaking my agreement and I said, 'Well', I said, 'I, I don't believe I have but if that's what you feel I'm resigning'. And so I went to Whitlam and I said this, that Treasury was not happy about my acting as his Adviser and therefore I found, I said that I couldn't continue. And he said, 'Well last week or the week before I asked you whether you would be Chairman of the Royal Commission into Australian Government Administration. Would you be prepared now to do that since you're not doing the other?' I said 'Yeah', I thought about that for a moment and I said, 'Yes'. So that's how I came to be Chairman of the Royal Commission on Government Administration - Australian Government Administration, a mighty job but which unfortunately wasn't finished when Whitlam was dismissed, and when, at which point I resigned from all government offices except that one, which I didn't regard as a government thing because it was set up you know it was independently and I agreed to finish that enquir ... Royal Commission but I withdrew from all other government, work.

Did you through the course of your life as public servant, banker, intellectual, adviser - did you have any guiding principles that you feel were consistent there in the pattern of how you responded and how you made decisions?

You mean procedurally or ... principles and that.

I mean ethically - I mean did you have a way of looking at things that - that now looking back you see was there, as a sort of pattern of the way that you dealt with problems?

Well, I suppose I have a rather vague attitude towards moral issues which seems is in a way as religious ... sources you know, debts, how I think when I was talking about my childhood I mentioned that my family were churchgoing people and that my mother had, was very serious in her belief that the golden rule and oh, that care for your neighbour's welfare and so on were - are not merely nice ideas but they were things which we should act upon see. And I - in a way I continued to believe that ah, that society had a responsibility for other people in the society and you know I've always quoted, you know and been guided by Ben Chifley's statement that the light on the hill was that we've, well the government and the society believed, that it had an obligation to help people who were in difficulties, to ease their - and their problems and to have the standards you know where you protected the weak and the damaged. So that I don't know what you'd call that ah but in other words I believe that society has a responsibility for its members, particularly for those members who are unlucky, are you know weak or helpless in some way. Ah and who are in need of help so ... and I think that very general kind of philosophy is the reason why I've been an interventionist why I've felt that governments should do things about - about these things, and why I've been particularly concerned with ah ... well particularly with Aborigines but also with - ah for a while during the war there was - were ... and after the war I got very deeply involved with government activities associated with handicapped people and things like that and there were some - I talk a bit about this in Trial Balance about two people that were medical people who were very responsible for the development of services to rehabilitate wounded soldiers and so on, and the need to have comparable kind of services, not only for people who are damaged in war but for people who in some way were handicapped or damaged in the normal running of our society. So that or in these ways, a lot of, I think you know, a lot of the things that I did and in a way my concern about the economic system was that I felt that the economic system was society's attempt to provide some greater security, greater basis for a decent lifestyle for poor people generally. That is why I feel out of sympathy with contemporary economics which doesn't concern itself with the individuals or their needs but simply concerns itself with a system which operates, which functions like a machine, you know. Where you're not concerned with the purposes of the machine or the the results which have achieved your only concern with whether the wheels continued to turn and it functions.

Do you think very much these days at all about death and what that means?

Ah, oh, I mean that that I can remember there was a time when I didn't really believe it. But you know the, the idea of my extinction was something that I couldn't really contemplate. But as you get older and so on, that idea is - you get accustomed to that idea and also not merely do you get accustomed to it, but in some ways ... oh it's your - become convinced that it's - death is a very convenient and necessary thing in the running of the universe. Of the - of that part of the universe or the earth at any rate and I - when I don't think - the only thing about death - I don't mind the idea of being dead if - but well, I ... It depends on what sort of death you know when I can remember we were at teachers college and where they used to say prayers in the evening before we were all sent off to bed and we used to pray for ah, what was is it? A quiet life and a peaceful end or something like - some phrase like that which sounded rather pleasant. But that's so that, you know, ah I ...

Did ...

Hope for a quiet - quiet and peaceful end hmm.

Do you think there'll be life after death?

Well I don't, there will be ... I don't think there'll be personal life. Oh, I think, well I like the Aboriginal idea that you join a spiritual world or something; I mean a world which you where - you're not in a body any more but you're not extinct hmmm. But my - but I don't think I have any conviction that there'll be a Herbert Coombs in after life, but I think there'll be life of some sort. Precisely what I don't know, but it - I suppose in a way I've always been a - in a sense a practical person, there are some questions which are by their nature, you can't find answers to, and however hard you think or however scientific you are - you are, and well I suppose death's one of those. But it's - doesn't worry me, and I don't want it to be unpleasant but it's okay.

Why are you called Nugget?

Well in Western Australia, in the country, Nugget was a kind of generic name for a creature, a person or a dog or a horse you know, which was short in the legs and stocky build and ah ... bullocks were called Nugget you know if they ... And associated with that image of shortness and stockiness was a certain character things that were supposed to go with being nuggetty. You know but they used to say every bullock team needs a nugget. Ah, they're a bit stupid but they work hard. Yes, you know nuggets are reported to be not necessarily terribly clever I think, but and so that right from when I was about this high, I was always short in the legs and stocky and active and so my father used to move from country railway station to another country railway station and the name followed me, I didn't have to be tell people that I was called Nugget, soon as they had one look at me - he's a Nugget. A very interesting ... I discovered that Aborigines in Central Australia at anyrate have a similar word, they call people who are built that way and I suppose they - I don't know whether they apply it to animals like we did but I think it's probably likely but they call it Tunku - is the Pitjinjintjara word for Nugget. I had a very interesting experience I was being introduced to a group of Aborigines, Pitjinjintjara people, out near Wingalleena which is just over the border at - into Western Australia from the South Australia border, and these people were taking me around and were being taken to see a kind of shelter which was traditional Aboriginal shelter which was made, looked a bit like a beehive, one of those curved ones - they made it by rolling up spinifex and jamming the rolled-up spinifex together and making a kind of circular space with a hole which you could crawl into and ah and get shelter from the sun or from the wind, and if you wanted to sleep at night you could get in there if you were in need of shelter - that kind of thing, and it was quite an interesting thing to see. But there were two Aborigines that I was me - being introduced to who had been making this shelter, and I said 'What are their names?' and they introduced me and they said 'This is Nugget so and so, and this is Nugget so and so' you see and they - both of them were you know like black versions of me you see - short and stocky and so. So in Pitjinjintjara land I'm a Tunku. So there - that's what that's ... so really it has nothing to do with gold or you know - just is.

You like the name though?

Yeah. Well I, it's just of course I didn't like them, my given names, at least ah, I really disliked the Herbert, it seems a very inappropriate name for me and I've never really liked it and the abbreviation of it are even worse. I can remember during the First World War there was a chap named Ian Fairweather or something like that - a cartoonist who used to do kind of cartoons about people their British - members of the British Army - and they were Bill, Alf and Bert, and they were all - they were cockneys you know, their stories were about the silly things that Bill, Alf or Bert did you see, and Bert was the stupidest of the bunch, so there. So I didn't like the idea of being called Bert and on the other hand my second name Cole was always regarded as a terrible joke you see, because the only thing, the context in which anybody in Australia had ever heard of it was Old King Cole see, and they used to hail me with this and I - I found that slightly embarrassing so I did - had two names that I was never inclined to accept or to use much, see. Although I quite like Cole actually, and I have a few ah a few friends who don't like to call me Nugget. Particularly Americans who regard it as - not - they have quite a different attitude towards nicknames than Australians do, and so I have one or two American friends who call me Cole - which is quite - that's okay. But I like being called Nugget.

Tell me what you thought was important when you set up the - you were instrumental in moving to see to it that the ANU was set up as a postgraduate research institute, what was in your mind? What did you think was the most important thing that you had to achieve with that?

Ah remember I said earlier that you know a function of a good bureaucrat is to make possible the realisation of other people's dreams?

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