Australian Biography

Anne Deveson - full interview transcript

Tape of 15

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Did Joshua turn out okay in the end?

... [laughs] ... Yes he did. I was just thinking about that ... that what happens when you have this kind of struggle earlier in life, particularly if you're the mother, that what actually happens is a very special bond you have with that child because it's one you've really had to work at because you've wanted to work at it. And ... I was very conscious of that so I didn't feel guilty in other words. In the end I kind of worked out what had happened and that we had come through it very strongly together.

And this whole period when your career was burgeoning, you were terrifically in demand, you were obviously doing a very great deal — even though as you say you had flexibility. You had three children, three difficult births and other difficult pregnancies during this time. And yet you seemed surprised that when Joshua was born you'd run out of puff. Do you think in retrospect that it was a period in which you were asking too much of yourself?

I think I ran out of puff because I'd had an ectopic pregnancy and I'd had a miscarriage with septicaemia ... I think that's what happened with Joshua and ... I didn't mean to get pregnant with Joshua, you know, but having become pregnant, at that stage I wanted a third child ... I wanted to go ahead with it. And so I think that was why there was that extreme depletion then ... whether I was asking too much of myself, quite likely. I think I probably always have. I think it's the nature of the beast. But I do know that I had an abundance of energy then and kind of joie de vivre. Now I still have the joie de vivre, but I have less energy. So ... I don't remember feeling exhausted and ... the way I sometimes feel now. You know, I have to ... I get more tired now. I don't like it but I do. But I don't remember that then.

You'd said the other day that when ... you said that when you came from Tasmania to Sydney things weren't so good with Ellis. This was the period when your career was blossoming, when you were making a family, when you'd bought a beautiful house. But you said things weren't so good with Ellis. In what way were they not so good?

I think it's very hard talking about the complexities of any ... [interruption] ... Do you mind if I stop, I'm still very croaky.

Would you like something hot to drink?

I think it's very hard talking about the complexities of any relationship ... especially when there's children as well, because you've got a whole system that's sort of tied up in this. I was difficult in that I think I was somebody who was on the crest of a wave. I probably didn't listen as much as I might have done, and Ellis was somebody who certainly did not cope with stress at all well and who when he was in one of those states, he would have kind of mood swings, could become very volatile and he was also somebody who when he was very stressed, became quite obsessional. So he was somebody that couldn't have any dirt in the house. That ... that, you know, he used to have to make sure the windows were clean and the books were straight and the cushions were straight. It was ... kind of obsessive compulsive behaviour that I now recognise, but in those days didn't, so I would get kind of angry and we'd have fights over this and I'd do childish things like removing the books or make them crooked to see if he'd make them straight.

So there was a kind of war going on ... and when we did try to get help, the help wasn't particularly helpful, in that I remember we went to ... a psychiatrist, a father of nine ... who ended up telling me that ‘your husband is a very creative man, Mrs Blain, and every time he gets into a storm, you must just take the children and leave the house.’ And I said, ‘Well, what am I going to do? What do you mean, leave the house with three small children?’ And he said, ‘Well you can sit by the side of the road until it has passed over.’ So that it was ... psychiatry and the kind of help that was available ... tended to be very much male-oriented and it didn't have any awareness really of ... of the woman's point of view, or of how you actually managed that kind of complex situation. It didn't suggest strategies for coping ... for him to have strategies for coping with his stress, or me with his anger — and he would get sometimes very angry — in the way that is now much more available. Although it's quite expensive and if it's not expensive then there's long waiting lists. It's like we know now much more about what to do but we don't have the resources to do it.

You say he got angry, did he ever get violent?

Um ... yeah. I mean, how do you ... you know you can have verbal abuse that's violent. He'd get very angry, and you learnt to get out of the way ... I think it must have been very distressful for him ... distressing for him as well ... he would then go and be on air and absolutely calm and together. I'd be a kind of wreck afterwards. And he'd be ... he'd go and do a broadcast and be absolutely totally calm. I think it was quite difficult for him that I was successful. And I was not more successful than him, in that he was also very well-known for his broadcasting and his interviewing. He was an extremely good interviewer. But I was on commercial television. I was the commercial animal who got ... who was much more in the public eye. And I think what you had was probably a very dysfunctional ... it's a horrible word actually. But you had a family that was in turmoil.

And yet the public appearance was always that we were, you know, we were absolutely beautiful. We lived in this charming house with these three beautiful blond children, and a Saluki dog that was always being arrested by the police because it dug up the bowling ground. And this quite stormy relationship ... that kind of shifted. In the beginning, I remember thinking it's all my fault. And undoubtedly ... I mean, fault doesn't really come into relationships. It's the dynamic between two people. But I think ... you know, if only I love him strong enough and long enough and well enough, it will all be better. Poor man, it will all be better. And ... that's kind of condescending as well because you have to ... you have to look at that interaction between two people. And then it kind of moved into cold war and then into guerrilla war and then we left, we parted ... and at that stage it was probably too late to do anything about it.

And the times they were a-changing then, and there was a very strong feminist movement that you were associated with. Ellis was quite a lot older. He belonged to a generation that might have had very different expectations of women. Do you think that that broader social change played any part in the difficulties you were having at home?

I think it played a part in adding to his stress, but I think in all honesty, if it hadn't been that happening, there might have been another stress in its place because there was quite a long period when I wasn't working when the children were small, or working very little, and not being in the public eye ... and the stress then was there was no money coming in. Do you see what I mean? And there was stress ... there was stress in his earlier marriage I think. So that I think this was somebody who found ... he was quite easily disturbed. But I think this was a disturbing factor. I'm not minimising that. And as you asked that question, I come back to memories. These terrible sort of dinner parties with um ... angry husband and ... [laugh] ... and indignant wife who weren't going to give in ... and where, you know, I would certainly pick him up on anything that I thought was putting me back in my box. And I think, to give Ellis credit, he did try and understand the changes.

There's an interview that's become quite well-known that he did with Germaine Greer at the very beginning of these shifts. We'd been ... after we had been away in Italy for this year and we came back, everything had shifted. I felt like Rip Van Winkle. And Ellis, around that time, interviewed Greer and you could see that he was trying to understand it, but at that stage he simply couldn't. And he ... and as a result he sounded terribly patronising and he'd say things like, you know, ‘Tell me Doctor Greer ... do you actually hate men?’ And she'd say, ‘What a ridiculous question.’ And she said ... she said something to him and he said, ‘Ouch, that's a bit below the belt, isn't it.’ And she said, ‘If you think I'm the slightest bit interested in what's pattering around beneath your belt, Mr Blain, you're very much mistaken.’ So she gave him a hard time. Um ... I think he did try ... probably more than a lot of men of his generation.

For example, in the beginning when he was teaching me, when I was learning about broadcasting, I couldn't have had anyone more supportive or more proud of me. He was trying then. He was very generous in teaching me ... as a broadcaster, in giving me that kind of support. He was also very good around the house. I mean he always did his share, but I ... but part of that was because he was obsessive compulsive and he did it better than anyone ... but I think it was ... I just think a whole lot of things got out of skew. And that was a part of it.

Did you earn more than he did?

Yes I did, yeah. And that probably was a factor ... and he was also then supporting his other family. So I think that was difficult for him.

And did you ever find out what happened over the woman, the other woman that he had asked to marry him at the same time he asked you?

Well ... well, she turned up in Australia ... around about the same time that I did, with her two sons, and I could never work out why she was always so frosty to Ellis. She was charming to me. She was older. She was about the same age as Ellis. And she was a most charming, attractive, vivacious, rather glamorous woman. And she was very sour with him. And it wasn't until years later I found out, partly from him and later with some letters, I think I said, after he died, I remember reading these letters, why she was so frosty. That he'd had these kind of two strings going at the same time. So yes, she stayed on in Australia for quite a while and then she went back to Europe, and married a very rich Turkish potentate. And I think she was quite happy.

Now after you were sacked so spectacularly, in terms of its end, from 2GB, what was next for you?

The South Australian Film Corporation picked me up and asked if I would work on a film called Who Killed Jenny Langby? and that was the first of its ... it was kind of groundbreaking in terms of Australian documentaries. It was ... it was half scripted and it had a ... it was like a Loach film really. It had a ... it was ad-libbed a lot. And they picked the cast from people in the community. And so they weren't professional actors. It took a long time. It had a lot of resources and I think was a terrific film ... so that ... that kind of helped my feeling of futility because I had no work. And then ... then this extraordinary thing happened. I got rung by a man on Australia Day, in the evening about 7 o'clock at night when we were having a barbeque outside, and he said, ‘Oh Miss Deveson, you won't know me, but I know you, haw, haw, haw, haw. And I'm ringing to ask you to do a little job for the government.’ And I said, ‘What sort of job?’ And he said, ‘Well I'm afraid I can't tell you at this stage because it's all rather hush-hush.’ I mean it was the most extraordinary conversation. It was like a Graham Greene novel.

And I said, ‘Well ...’ and he said, ‘I just want to know if you're interested?’ And I said, ‘Well, I can't tell you until I know what it is.’ And ah ... he said, ‘Well you know, it could be a sort of inquiry’ and so ... The Whitlam Government had just come in and there were all these ideas and new commissions and committees being floated. And so I started guessing and I said, is it this or is it that, and ... ‘No, no. Wrong, dear lady, wrong.’ Until I finally said, ‘Is it the Royal Commission on Human Relationships?’ And he said, ‘Well, very warm, shall I say, very warm indeed.’ And then his parting words were ... and I said, ‘Well yes, that would be wonderful,’ was he said, ‘But meanwhile, of course, unless you hear of anything from us, we don't want you to do any broadcasts or any programs or write anything that's at all controversial. Absolutely nothing about abortion, nothing about family life, nothing about, you know, discrimination.’ And so I said, ‘Well how long is this going to take?’ ‘Oh very soon, very soon’, he said. And then of course there was an absolute silence and nothing happened and nothing happened, and the months went by and nothing happened.

And finally ... I think it came out in the papers then, and they had my name as a possible. It was a leak. It was obviously a deliberate leak that came out. And then nothing happened. And meanwhile, I was going broke because people were asking me to do work. And nothing had happened. So eventually I rang Elizabeth Reid, who was then the Prime Minister's ... Gough Whitlam's advisor on women's affairs, and she got cracking on it and then I got asked if I would send [my credentials] up to Canberra ... and they came by motorbike in the middle of the night. It was again like a film scenario. This motorbike rider turned up to take my credentials back to Canberra as if there was huge urgency. And ... and of course they wanted my academic qualifications, and my ... the articles and stuff that I had written. And I had none. So I thought, well, that's ditched that one. So I made up a long ... all my filmography and everything else I had done and sent it off without much hope. And then there was another silence, and then Elizabeth made encouraging noises and then more silence.

And then I wrote to Gough Whitlam and said ... because there was something in the paper about the government being broke, and I said, ‘You know, your government may be broke, but so am I. And this has really gone on a long time and I have been asked not to work, and I really would appreciate either knowing if it still will to go ahead, or relinquishing me so I can get on with life.’ And the next thing that happened, and I think this is right. It's all a bit hazy ... was it appeared as a fait accompli, and I think Elizabeth wasn't told ‘til it was in the papers, and Felix Arnott was abroad in Venice somewhere, and it was sort of there in the papers that we were all appointed.

So there was ... there was a fairly kind of rough and tumble quality about the way government was being conducted in those days, although with enormous excitement. And I think it was just that everything was so new. There was so much that needed to be done. Everybody was learning, that it was part of that. And then I was ... we were all three appointed but the commission didn't start until 1975, in the beginning of 1975, and I actually went on the payroll [in 1974]. Elizabeth was with the Industrial Commission, I think. I went on the payroll in about October or something like that. And so I started doing preliminary familiarisation. I went to women's health centres and various places, and went to Canberra to find out what was happening.

Could I ask you, why did you decide you wanted to do this, which took you away from what you were expert in and well-known in at that time. Why did you want to take on this job?

Because it was the most exciting idea, I thought. It was an idea of great imagination to have a royal commission that needn't have been a royal commission, but that gave us powers of investigation ... into the changes that were affecting people's lives. So it was a chance to be a part of a major sociological government enquiry that ... that enabled me at that stage of my life to go much more deeply into issues. I had already had that frustration about skating on the surface which you tend to do as a journalist ... particularly as a broadcaster. Not if you're doing documentaries so much. But I had this intense frustration and I really did want to use my mind to go deeper into subjects.

And also I was caught up in the excitement of that time, and it was an extraordinary period in many people's lives. There was a sense after 25 years of a government ... of the Menzies government, however good bad or indifferent it might have been, 25 years is too long, and so that ... that slogan, 'It's time' was quite right, and then comes this ... comes Gough Whitlam and comes that vision that he had ... of the sense of possibility that ... we were going to look at inequalities in our society. That we were going to look at human rights. That we were going to look at what was happening to migrants. We were going to look at what was happening to women. We were going to be able to at least begin to redress some of those imbalances, and also to respond to the fact there had been these enormous social and technological changes, like the Pill, for example.

You know ... and yet what was happening in our policies, and our programs was not reflecting those changes. And this was really the brief of the commission. Although it began its genesis was ... as a commission to enquire into abortion. There was an attempt to have a Private Member’s Bill put through to investigate enquiry into abortion laws in the ACT and it was over-ruled, if that's the right expression, and then Race Matthews, in federal government, proposed that there be a royal commission into abortion. There were huge debates about that. It's interesting. There was a lot of anger. Two thousand protestors from the right to life movement were brought by bus to Canberra to protest against the fact that there might be any changes in the abortion laws, which were sort of complex. But abortions were still possible ... and there was a bomb exploded out near the cathedral, outside the cathedral. There was a huge ferment and so I think it was Malcolm Fraser suggested an amendment to this. And finally the idea of having the proposal meant that there'd would be a royal commission into the family legal, social, educational and sexual aspects of male and female relationships, which was an extraordinary brief because it really left nothing out ... [it] was passed in an all party, you know, a no party vote, a free vote. I think there were only 11 votes against that proposal. And so the commission came into being. And only then when we met, the three of us. There were three commissioners.

Who were they?

That was Elizabeth Evatt, um ...

Who was she?

She was a judge in the ... you'll have to check on this. I think she was in the Industrial Court or the Arbitration Commission [she was deputy president of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission from 1973 to 1976, before becoming the first chief justice of the Family Court of Australia, 1976 to 1988]. And she was the Chair of the commission, and here was this very bright woman who had already had a distinguished career, who had been given this role of Chair of this new commission. And Felix Arnott, who was the Archbishop of Brisbane, who was a most learned and witty and courageous man, because he went ... he really was prepared to stick his neck out on a number of issues. And met with a lot of hostility from within the church as a consequence of that. And there was me, the journalist. So there was the Judge, the Archbishop and the Journalist. I think I was a very left-of-field choice because all the rumours in the paper were that there was going to be a professor, and would it be a professor of gynaecology or history or sociology or medicine, and so on and so on.

And then I think somebody must have come up with the fact that this was a commission about people and that you needed somebody who had the ability to reach out to people and to hear from people, to play a role in the commission. And I think that's why I got that appointment. I had also done a series of long profile interviews on television and on radio with ... politicians, federal politicians of all parties. So I was sort of quite well-known. My name was up there. And my name was up there because of being sacked. So it was a propitious time for me.

What did you do on the commission?

The commission ... we originally thought we would start ... we would go on for three years, and what we did was to set up a research program into the various subjects we were investigating — the family, sexual assaults ... discrimination. It was a big agenda. And each commissioner took a particular responsibility but not exclusively, for different areas of the report. And what I actually did was to ... was to come up with programs that would reach out to people. So that we early on decided that we wouldn't confine ourselves to courtroom hearings because royal commissions then were quite sort of stuffy. And I remember ... there's a well-known saying of Winston Churchill's ... not well-known, but I remember coming across this saying of Winston Churchill's, that ‘royal commissions are like the ink in cuttlefish, they serve to conceal rather than reveal.’

And so there was this recognition that we had to get people coming ... not just coming to us but we had to set up a program that ensured that we went into schools, crisis centres, health centres, factories ... Aboriginal settlements, regional areas ... shopping centres. We went right around Australia.

What was the real point of it, Anne?

Well, that's quite a good question in the sense that the real point was actually the process of that commission. Given that most of the recommendations were the province of state governments, rather than federal government ... our powers were ... actually in the sense of what we could specifically do ... were quite limited. We could recommend to government and hope that the state governments would pick up those recommendations. We were able to set up, really, a very strong research program, and we had assistance from some of the finest minds in Australia then, in those various areas that we were concerned with. So this was health research, medical research. We had to look at medical education, social research. A lot of research into areas that hadn't been looked at in Australia. We had a budget for that.

But what we found was that what was really important was this process of listening to people. And people came forth in their thousands and talked about issues that they had never talked about in public before. And we were able to get the media to come along to these hearings, and to report on them. So what you had was almost like a social revolution because suddenly people were talking about what it was like to be homosexual and to be bashed up, and to be vilified, and to be rejected by your families. People were able to talk about what it was like to try and have an abortion because it was the last resort, and yet to go to backroom abortionists who use bits of bed wire, rusty wire ... I mean, it probably wasn't rusty, but you know. What it was like to have a handicapped child and not to have any resources to help those children. Because this is what it was like.

And I remember women coming and travelling sometimes long distances, with their children. With autistic children, with children with cerebral palsy to give evidence to talk to us. And there was a whole range of areas of life that we looked into. We had no Aboriginal staff. We had an Aboriginal messenger boy and that was a huge lack. Nor did we have the resources, nor did we have the knowledge. So all that we could do there was to consult Aboriginal communities, and to get them to give evidence, to ask them to write it up, and this happened. And that process I think effected a huge social change in people. It brought about better health centres. It brought about better counselling for abortions, better abortion clinics. It brought about an understanding of the shifts that had occurred in people's lives, that might otherwise not have happened.

Every one of these areas that you were looking into, in this very broad brief, had individual government departments that were supposed to be responsible for it ... and yet it took this to bring about a consultation with the community in these area. Were you ... did you feel, or do you feel now, in retrospect, that the impact that you had, in that period that you were working in the commission, has had any sort of lasting effect?

Yes, I think it did ... I think there were changes to ... legislative changes and policy changes, say, in laws of rape and sexual violence, sexual assault. There were changes in ... laws ... it took time, laws affecting sexual preference ... there were a lot of changes. There were lots more resources put into ... services ... for immigrant services. There were no interpreter services. A whole lot of things like that shifted. It was the state governments that did most of that work. So I think it had specific legislative and policy and program changes, even that flowed out of that commission, some of which might have happened anyway, but it also integrated. It gave a much more integrated picture of what life was like in Australia.

So you didn't think that the brief was too broad?

Well, I think it probably was, but I think it was rather magnificent that it was so broad, because it did enable you not to have the simple tunnel vision of one subject. Because if you’re looking at something like abortion, for example, you have to look at what happens in medical education. You have to look at contraceptive services. You have to look at educational programs with young women. You have to look at community attitudes. It ... and it impinges on a whole lot of other areas of, you know, where people are housed, whether they're homeless and all this sort of thing.

What happened to the commission after the government changed?

It had all its money stopped. And ... the money was frozen and we were told to wind up the commission, and we hadn't finished our research, and we hadn't written up the results. We hadn't written the report. We had written ongoing research results as we went. I mean, we kept running briefs. Um ...

But it had bipartisan support?

Yes, but there was an election you know in the offing, and nobody wanted anything to do with it. So that when ... there was that interim period, do you remember? When the commission report first came out, it was absolutely vilified by both parties. I think Labor ... the Labor Party was ... they didn't vilify it, they were quiet about it. But they didn't support it. And there's some very terrific cartoons, a Molnar cartoon I remember, of showing politicians turning their backs on this little man who was clutching all these volumes of reports saying, 'No time for human relationships in an election,' or something like that ... and there were headlines in the Mirror, I think, that said ... or, no, in the tabloid press that said, 'Abortion for 13-year-olds recommended ... Whitlam Government recommends abortion for 13-year-olds’ ... or Whitlam Commission, something like that. So it was ... it was manipulated. It was very badly treated politically.

The press were wonderful. The press at the beginning of the commission had ... had trivialised it. They said we were like a giant talkback radio show, and then they had become enormously supportive. And they backed the report ... but it was leaked. This is a long answer, but still it's quite interesting. The commission report was leaked before it was handed over to the Governor-General, as was the protocol with a royal report. And this is when these headlines came out. Abortion for 13-year-olds. And I remember doing something, which I didn't ‘orter’. It was obviously leaked somewhere in Canberra, very effectively to all the media, who would be quite hostile and who might sensationalise it. So I decided there was no time to be wasted. I actually had to leak it to a media who I thought would deal with it more responsibly. And I couldn't tell my fellow commissioners because clearly I wasn't supposed to be doing this. And I made a decision that I would do it, and I remember taking copies of the report. It had come out and we had advanced copies. Taking them in the back of ... I had rather a little car at the time, and driving through Sydney and driving ... I think I drove up to Canberra, and feeling ... looking over my shoulder all the time, feeling that something terrible might happen to me ... and then we got very good, sensible, in-depth coverage of what we were recommending. But it was ... sorry. It was never, never debated in federal parliament, still hasn't been to this day.

For you, what were the key recommendations?

I think the ... I think the fact that abortion was addressed, acknowledging the seriousness of abortion. Acknowledging that ... that contraception was infinitely preferable. Abortion should not be treated as a form of contraception, but abortion would nevertheless still happen, even if there were the most effective contraceptive services in the world. And even if abortion was illegal, all the research showed that at least 50 percent of woman still had abortions ... found a way to have abortions. So I think discussion of that was very ... was very important in a ...

But in terms of policy recommendations, what for you were the things that were the most important in it? I mean, obviously there were a great number, as you've described different areas of human relationships discussed, but you were also making policy recommendations ... some of which have been fulfilled.

Well, I think the recommendations ... around families and child abuse services were very important. Child abuse, sexual abuse of children, was not even an issue then. It's interesting. It was just beginning to float to the surface ... so the fact that that was looked at and policy recommendations were made and taken up by state governments was very important. It was important to me particularly because this was an area I worked on ... human relationships, which is a kind of flimflammery word, but ... the fact that we needed to take note of this. We needed to put in programs in medical schools, in medical training, because doctors were not given any training in communicating with their patients and most of them ... a lot of them did so very badly. So that this was a very important area. I can't remember specific policies or programs. But I do remember another area was one of gender preference where there had been such stigma and such opprobrium, such hostility. I think the work we did there and the policy shifts and the legal shifts particularly that we proposed ... had an enormous interest in what followed afterwards.

From what you said about your motivation in taking it on, it sounded like you wanted to be stretched, but you wanted to put yourself in a position where you had to go deeper and think harder. Did that happen?

Yes. I think it was quite groundbreaking in my life. I think it changed my life. I think it changed me, in that it brought me into contact with a whole lot of people who believed passionately in what they were doing. Who were very ... we were working together, rightly or wrongly, in looking at issues that I thought profoundly affected people's lives. I had become ... quite passionate then about inequities, and I still am, in life. I'm not saying you'll never, you know. there will always be inequities of different kinds, but I think it's important we keep trying to redress those, and that we keep going to people themselves, as well as imposing decisions from above. Already it was apparent, when we were looking at issues affecting Aboriginal people, that one of the main faults ... failures of programs ... was that we were not consulting Aboriginal people, and we were not allowing them to ... conduct those programs themselves. It was very much imposed from above.

I think the whole area of discrimination against women was an important one. And I think for me it was like having a kind of crash course in sociology as well. In other words I think I got my opportunity that I missed out on by doing the wrong course at ... courses at university and school, and ... and not having studied at all. And I must say I got huge support from the research staff at the commission who were very supportive and helpful to me in what was then ... I had a lot of ignorance in a lot of areas and I never ... I didn't attempt to hide it. So they were kind of teaching me as well, you know it was ... it was ... and I've stayed, I've remained friends with a lot of the people ... a lot of the people that I worked with in those days. It was important. It was a great opportunity that I had.

[end of tape]

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