|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: January 17, 1992
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
You came back from England in the mid fifties ... early fifties and joined an Australian society that was a little bit different from the one you left, and where there were a lot of possibilities for participation and development of ideas. Could you tell us a little bit about how your career shaped itself and how you related and fitted into Australian society on your return.
Yes, well in the 1950s I was bringing out this ... primarily bringing out this rubbishy magazine that was the equivalent of a B-grade movie, which I didn't see. Sometimes people wonder about, you know, who they are. What I knew fundamentally was I wasn't quite sure who I was, but I knew I wasn't that, and anyway it made me very unhappy and frustrated and so forth and I managed to then become ... launch this publication The Observer, but this was a period when the cultural desert was beginning to not bloom, you know, but was getting a few desert flowers. There were an increasing number of quarterly intellectual magazines developing. The theatre was developing, as what we now think of as a primitive form. At least there was something called the Phillip Street Review in Sydney and it was satirical and so forth. It was the period when Patrick White's books were getting praise and that cheered up other people, and in no time at all there was a line which began, 'We have writers like Patrick White, Hal Porter, Randolf Stow', and then people kind of look around thinking who else they might put in, and it was also the period when the universities were beginning to make some contributions to intellectual life. A lot of it was rather skimpy but it was a different kind of Australia from the one I'd been a student in, which I'd seen as almost entirely a cultural wilderness. And in starting The Observer we were one of the little flowers, or a cacti, perhaps, a little part of that movement in our previous cultural wilderness.
Why did you leave The Observer? What happened with The Observer?
What happened with The Observer was that it died of indigestion. It acquired The Bulletin. Frank Packer had been tipped off that Rupert Murdoch was going to buy a women's magazine they had called New Idea, so he went down to The Bulletin and bought New Idea, and then he rang me from a public telephone box for some reason, and said, 'I just bought New Idea', and he said, 'They own a paper called The Bulletin. He said, 'Do you want to decide: do you want to kill The Bulletin or kill The Observer?', and I said, 'I suppose we'll have to kill The Observer'. So The Observer took over The Bulletin, and incidentally not only did I take off its masthead, 'Australia for the White Man', but within about four or five weeks I think I just changed the magazine altogether. Rather risky because all of it's existing eighty-seven-year old racist readers might have stopped buying it without anybody else subscribing, and also the entire staff went. There were two or three of them. One. No two - I would have liked to have kept. The others had to go, partly because some of them were racists, but mainly because they'd been in captivity for so long, that they were so used to whingeing, so used to saying, 'Why can't we do this, that and the other', then we arrived and we said, 'What would you like to do?' and, of course, you know, they just wanted to go on whingeing.
Did you hesitate at all before you did all that big change?
It was obvious to you.
It was obvious to me. It was a bit like Whitlam crashing through when Hawke... you know... I had to do it quickly and it was an easy operation. I didn't really trust the ability of the Packers to support my changes. I knew there'd be complaints all over the place, and of course there was an enormous kind of gutter protest: carefully signed pieces of lavatory paper and that kind of thing that went on and all kinds of people trying to bring pressure on them, but I just had to change it irrevocably [loud thump] in no time at all.
And The Bulletin really had ... was ... had a label across it 'Australia for the White Man'?
Yes, there were whole ... a couple of generations of Australians now who don't realise that one of our really great and successful stories in Australia in the last few decades was that having ... from having been one of the most declaredly bigoted societies in the world - White Australia - that we've stopped doing that in about ten or fifteen years. But The Bulletin had 'Australia for the White Man'. When I took that off I didn't ask Packer or anything, I just took it off. I went down to the composing room, and I said to the head compositor, 'Would you take that off', and I can still remember seeing it, you know. It was in metal. He puts his tweezers down and he pulls it out: 'Australia for the White Man', and I said, 'Would you melt it down'. You know, of course, that's what they do with type, and then the managing director, who himself left a few weeks later, said, 'That's been The Bulletin's slogan ever since it started', and I said, 'No it hasn't. To begin with it wasn't there and then they had one called 'Australia for the White Men and China for the Chow', and of course, 'Australia for the White Man', was a somewhat a kinder way of putting it.
And how did you enjoy your stay at The Bulletin?
I enjoyed my stay at The Bulletin. I got the sack at the end of it, which was inevitable, I think, because I really kicked up such a stir that I put myself at entire risk, but by that stage it was unreturnable. Nobody could put it back to where it was before. I ... I didn't enjoy the fact that I was also bringing out this rubbishy thing, Weekend, which was a great time of difficulty and strain I suppose, although it was helped by the fact that it was the period ... period over which I got married a second time, and that certainly provided a ... a great assistance, but I enjoyed, really, indeed, destroying what I think was one of the most evil publications in Australia, which is what The Bulletin had become by that stage, and trying to turn it into something that could encourage a bit of public intellectual life in Australia, at that period that included jokes and short stories, as well as the comment.
Why did you get sacked?
I never quite found out. I have some theories about it. I think it was simply, partly, Packer had been in a very expansionary mood. He had the tendency to put his money on the table and gamble, for lots of times and cut his losses. And he was going I think through a weekly or daily financeable paper, and his New I ... the New Idea would ... not New Idea, Women's Mirror, wasn't working very well. I think he decided just to cut everything down, and somewhere or other I think that was a ...
[Interrupting] But The Bulletin stayed without you.
That's right, yes.
So it was you that he wanted to get rid of.
Well yes in his own way. In a place like that there's no point being too paranoid or indeed inquiring too much. I thought a few people ... I had enemies and so on, you know, as people do and I thought they may have finally succeeded in having a go at me. I explained to Packer I therefore resigned, although I'd spent, oh, I think a year trying to fix up this other magazine, and then when my resignation time came, I got a long cable from him characteristically from Honolulu saying ... beginning, 'Dear Donald, after our long and fruitful association and so forth, I do wish you'd reconsider your decision to resign'. So I went to see him when he came back, and I said, 'What would you do with me?' and he'd put in Peter Hastings as the editor of The Bulletin and Peter had walked out as I walked in. I said, 'You haven't got any jobs for me anyway'. He said, 'Oh', pointing to Hastings's departing back, 'you can have his job'. He was suggesting I should go back to The Bulletin.
Right. Why ... and so you never knew why he reconsidered?
No, I have bits and clues and so forth, but as I say, really I think in those kind of sit ... Those places are a bit like a court, you know, with courtiers in and out and so on and I just assumed some people had niked me but it didn't matter much who did it, did it?
You've always had a pattern of articulating a certain suspicion and contempt for authority, and it would be difficult to think of a more absolute authority than Frank Packer in those ... in those circumstances. Do you think there'd been a bit of insubordination as well?
See, I had a very strange relationship with Packer. Packer, of course, saw himself in lots of ways as somebody who bucked authority. He had a ... he had a gentlemanly feel about himself, but also a larrikin feel and he wasn't ... fortunately he wasn't very interested in the things that I was doing. The Observer and The Bulletin were far from central to his concerns, and I'd maintained a kind of working distance from him, which I don't know, somehow it worked. It never stopped working.
Now you said at this time on on your ... in ... on the personal front, you married Mifanwe, your present wife. How did that come about?
Yes well the ... About a week after we started The Observer, Michael Baume, who was a member of its staff and is now a Liberal Senator, had a party connected with The Observer, and I met somebody called Mifanwe Gollin, at this party, and it just occurred to me ... I think a week later I proposed.
You make up your mind quickly.
Apparently yes, although successfully in this case. At that stage I wasn't divorced, so that produced a delay of a couple of years I think, one way and the other.
And what part has Mifanwe played in the rest of your life and ...
Well Mifanwe and subsequently our son and daughter, Nicholas and Julia, make up, for me, the essential part of my life.
When you say the essential part of your life, you mean by that the part about which you ... with which ... that you couldn't do without?
Yes, well I mean obviously if something happened ... I mean, I can't imagine their not being around. Yes.
Do they represent the main area of personal support and emotional connection for you in life?
I'm not quite sure about that. I ... actually I think I'm somebody who doesn't necessarily always require a great deal of emotional support, unlike lots of husbands and fathers. There've been all kinds of worries I have in the office that I don't bring home. I think other kinds of human support, I think ... I mean not ... not support in all this ... out ... outside stuff, that ... that's my ... my reason, I think, on a whole, apart from occasional ... not breakdown but shout. But human support. I think that the four of us are, on the whole, I think, very great companions. You know, we can still go away on holidays together and things like that.
So by human support you mean companionship.
I mean companionship and you know trust, familiarity, affection and so on.
So your family life has meant a lot to you?
Yes it has. Yes. Well it's been central to me in so far as human relationships are concerned.
And in a lot of your work as a writer, Mifanwe's played a supporting role, hasn't she?
Yes, well, Mifanwe's a very good critic, and so ... Nicholas and Julia have been quite good too. In fact Nic has a tendency to ... now to think of titles of books that's ... for the books that I write, and with some of them she's gone through them with a pretty fine tooth comb. Others not.
You have a reputation for not suffering fools very gladly, and sometimes being a little contemptuous of criticism that's offered you. Does that apply to your family's criticism as well?
I don't know. I mean like most people, I suppose, I explode now and again. I believe, I don't really apologise. I'd sooner have an exploder than a brooder, and I think [in] all human relationships people sometimes explode, and I would do that sometimes at home, even more when travelling, of course. I mean travelling is a great ... Somebody should write a book sometime about all the awful traumas of travel.
If you're good at exploding, are you also good at apologising? Sometimes there are necessary ...
I've got better at it. I've got better at it.
You've got better at apologising?
Yes I mean not to begin with. Not earlier in my life.
But you don't hold grudges?
I don't believe in holding grudges. There are one or two people I decided I'd never, you know, speak to again. One of them was John Kerr, whom I would now have a very small possibility of speaking to again. A couple of others, and that's it. But I ... I think, in a way, in relations with people, you know, you sometimes ... there may be some quite bitter relationship, and then later you've shuffled the cards again, you have different hands [and] you find other sides of people.
When you left The Bulletin, what did you do then?
I went into exile in advertising. The advertising agency, who handled The Bulletin was ... seemed to have developed some kind of regard for me. On the great occasion this rubbishy magazine Weekend ... we had to put the price up from threepence to fourpence, and I had evolved a heading saying, 'Here's wonderful news for you', and they liked the idea for price relations, and they watched me later and when I resigned from The Bulletin I had no idea what I was going to do, just as when I resigned from at ... again, in my second round I had no idea what I was going to do. On the second occasion the University of New South Wales offered me a position. On the first occasion this advertising agency offered me a position, and fairly soon afterwards ... It was at that stage called Jackson Wayne and [it was] at that stage the third largest advertising agency in Australia, and shortly afterwards I became its creative director, and operated in that role. I think my success was Leo Schofield I think. Media lord shortly after. I didn't like advertising because I didn't really care whether product A was better than product B. As everybody knows these differences are usually quite fictitious, and ...
Were you good at creating those fictions though?
I don't know. Well I was good, I think, at helping get new business, and I think I was also good at kind of conceptualising clients' problems, so they ended up appointing another creative director as well, and I was the one who worked with the managing director on trouble spots.
So you didn't like advertising much, but you were quite good at it?
Well in that analytical sense I was good at it I think, but really I found ... I mean, I was ... until I went to the University of New South Wales I really had very considerable problems with all of the jobs I had. They were all rather unsatisfactory. Even the editing jobs were great in certain ways but having to handle Packer was a continuing concern as well. Advertising I would have liked a great deal less than some of the others.
By this time ... [INTERRUPTION]
During this period of your life, you were observing and taking in and analysing the Australia you were finding around you. What expression did you finally give to this?
I ... I don't know that I've finally given it yet. But ah I'm told that ... Humphrey McQueen, for whom I have very great regard, read through all of the Bulletins and Observers that I edited and he tells me that I'd been working out that book The Lucky Country in the course of editing those. I actually wrote it in six weeks. It was when I was at this advertising agency. It was over the Christmas - New Year period, when all of the executives are off having ... they're playing golf and so forth, and I wrote a lot of it there, [and] the rest of it at home, and I was able to write it so quickly because I'd virtually thought it all out anyway.
The publication of The Lucky Country really brought you very much into prominence in the public eye as somebody who was interpreting Australia, analysing and really emerging as an intellectual leader. What do you think its primary significance was at the time?
I think the primary significance of The Lucky Country was that it articulated a number of things, which a number of people ah half believed or were ready to believe when I said them. For example, the criticisms of the White Australia Policy. For example, the criticism of our treatment of Aborigines. For example, the presence of people in this country who weren't of what we now describe as of English speaking background. For example, the inadequacies of political life. For example, the somewhat over subservient approaches we had to both the British and the United States and ... and all of that ... and also, for example, the fact that our traditional puritanism and oppressiveness was an undesirable characteristic. All of those things have actually changed. The ... the other example, unfortunately, is one which is still, I think, on the agenda, and that was the unsatisfactory and highly derivative and non-innovative nature of Australian businesses. So all of those things were kind of talking points for people, and they also had ... they were used in schools. One should remember that there wasn't a book ... a useful book on Australia then. The Lucky Country was a kind of very successful literary creation I think. It really is, in some ways, a series of essays held together by a last minute final thought about what it was all about. But it was photocopied in tens of thousands, and given to kids in classrooms, either as English expression, or as what we now describe as Australian Studies.
Almost everything that it called for, analysed and criticised, has been responded to in the intervening period, until now, and as you say, one of the significant exceptions was the aspect of the critique of business. Why do you think there's been a lack of response in that area?
I think that the Australian business management had a colonial frame of mind, that the [most] important original thing Australia did was to bung commodities out into other countries and be very good at it, which Australians were, but they didn't really have to have a good banking system because the British provided that. The banks had to be good for farmers and miners - that was good enough. And also they didn't have to be all that good at manufacturing because in the first place the British were good at that and then, secondly, when we started having our own manufacturing, we just had other people's ideas and used them. That was what I meant by 'Lucky Country': a place which grabs other people's ideas and converts them and at a very considerable cost, so that the ... This is one of the reasons why I've taken symbolic representations of Australia's independence as being of enormous significance, because I think we still need to quick start Australian business managements - it's getting pretty late now - to the understanding that when you talk about the factors of production, you're not just talking about raw materials. That doesn't mean much. You're not just talking about labour, and you're not just talking about capital. You're also talking about knowledge, skills, ideas. This is one reason why I think that despite the many attacks on him, John Dawkins has been very useful because he has understood that much more important than macro-economic policy, whatever that is, is to have a highly educated and lively people, who can learn to do new things. And it's ... it's still a problem. It's a cultural problem. I mean the ... the ... the Australian banking system proved itself to be quite a disaster in the late 1980s. It was unregulated and they all went mad. They lent money to speculators and to property developers, and we now have this enormous debt with an enormous interest bill on it, so that somewhere or other we've got a much harder job in exporting more and impor ... and importing less than we would have had otherwise, and that was because it was simply a rather childish banking system.
But other areas of the community that were criticised in that book, and where other people criticise, there's been dramatic change, as you say. People ... we've changed from being a racist society into being a society that's recognised internationally as being remarkable tolerant, so why were the businessmen so slow to learn?
Well that's a question I would ... I think Australians should have spent more attention thinking about, or more important, how could they be quick started out of it?
There wasn't any lack, as you pointed out back then, of innovation in our scientific and intellectual areas, the lack was in applying it in a business sense.
Yes the ... you can't exp ... You can't expect scientists finally to take over business. If you do you could get the CSIRO, the great scientific organisation, to issue shares in itself, and it could run Australian business. It's up to business finally to sit there thinking about innovation, which is a different matter. To think about ... A lot of the scientific discoveries maybe we can't use but some of them we can use, and others ... You're thinking all the time, how can I make this a bit better? What kinds of markets can I find for this? And that that requires enterprise, knowledge, imagination and the kind of cleverness that Hawke called for rather than absentmindedly in the last election. I did ... Enormous harm is being done in Australia, throughout, by people talking about something called macro-economic policy, which nobody understands the meaning of, by talking about economics in a most narrow sense, which is one, of course, that mostly good economists don't share, and never looking at this great puzzle. Why generation after generation has Australian business management been one of the least innovative of the modern industrial societies? That is the basic problem. It's not trade unions, [although] there are things wrong with them of course. It's not banking policy. It's not interest rates for God's sake. It is ... what on earth is wrong with these people? Now there is evidence that something is going better there. A bit hard to find out though, because the people who control the media just don't seem to be able to go much beyond, you know, the latest economic indicator, the meaning of which they may not understand, to telling us what is actually happening in the good businesses. The ... I remember in the 1980s people were saying our role models should be Alan Bond and Elliott and all these people who went broke. Our role models should have been innovative business managements. At the time when the America's Cup was won by Australia II - a national disaster I think because it was interpreted as meaning that we were technologically a great society - we over did that. Later, a Tasmanian innovator produced a catamaran which made a record crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, and that's now turned into efficient production. He didn't become a hero. We are supposed to celebrate Bondy. I think that one of the most humiliating episodes which ever any Australian Prime Minister's ever participated in was Hawke sitting there in that souvenir shirt with the champagne corks popping, getting excited because we'd won the America's Cup.
[end of tape]