|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.
The title The Lucky Country has really been one of those that's utterly entered the language, and been used very widely. In relation to your book, though, it's been widely misinterpreted.
Well you're allowed to raise that question with me. I sometimes really get extremely angry with silly people on the radio who ring me up and say, 'My first question is, is it still the lucky country?' and I say, you know, 'I've heard that question 250 times', and then tell them off about it. I think something should be recorded: is that hundreds of thousands of Australians knew what I meant by des ... describing Australia as a lucky country. They read the book. [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]
The title The Lucky Country is one that's entered the language and people use it very widely. It was a very successful title, but widely misunderstood.
Well, you know, I get asked this question sometimes people ring up on radio and their first question is, 'Is still the lucky country?' and I tell them off. I say, 'You know, I've heard that question asked 250 times and if you don't know the answer ...', or whatever it might be and so forth, but what I would like to say, now, is that a great number of Australians, tens of thousands - for all I know hundreds of thousands - knew what I meant. At the time there was no doubt about it. All the reviewers, everybody knew that I was being ironic. It was quite clear. What I'd said in the book itself was that Australia was a lucky country run by second rate people who share it's luck. That was the ... and throughout there was absolutely no difficulty in people understanding that I was being ironic. A couple of years after that there was that now forgotten minerals boom, and a whole great deal of flatulent overpraise of Australia for being so clever as to have minerals, and it was at that stage that people, who very largely hadn't read the book, began to speak of Australia being the lucky country as if it was a gift from God, or as if the Australians were particularly clever at being lucky, and at the same time there was a new lot of lecturers coming out of the universities wanting to push old rubbish like me away, and they misrepresented the book too, and used the expression as if I'd meant, somehow or other, that luckiness was the greatest thing that a country should be. The ... the perpetuation of the misinterpretation of the phrase, came almost entirely from lazy sub-editors on newspapers, who slotted it into all kinds of headings: 'We are indeed a lucky country for surfboards', I remember being one of them. And I ... I'm sorry that that happened because my ... our fellow citizens had enough sense to know what I meant in the book, but as, you know, the years went by, of course, obviously fewer people read it, and it was constantly misrepresented almost entirely by lazy sub-editors who were using it, and misusing it, as a phrase. They should have instructed all people who entered journalism what I'd meant by the expression, 'the lucky country', but I think that there are still a lot of people around who understood what I meant, and that the very use of the expression made a lot of people think - even if they misinterpreted what I meant - you know, can the luck last and so forth? It went by way of a useful range of discussion. Academic reactions to it at times were disappointing. Sociologists didn't like it because none of them, at that stage, had been able to produce a sociology of Australia. But I think, myself, outrageous statement make ... It would have been quite good if a great deal of research programmes in economics, sociology and politics in Australia had been based on the premises of The Lucky Country - popularisation as it might have been, but we would have had a better run, I think, from academic research than we have had.
Irony is something that you've used quite a lot in your writing, in your speech and ... and general conversation, and in public life generally. It's a characteristic of Australian humour that's often been commented on, that we're an ironical lot. But it also has been a basis of quite a lot of misinterpretation, perhaps by a minority, but often do you feel that your use of irony has got you into difficulty or led to your being misunderstood?
I think that if my use of irony has got me into difficulties that's bad luck for the people, finally, who got me into difficulties. One can't, I think, deny a style. And I think that in some ways I have a kind of intellectualised version of an Australian style, which is intended to be ironic and laconic. I wish that more people would join me in that. For example, I really think that Frank Moorhouse's little book Conferenceville is more use to me, anyway, than say Patrick White's The Solid Mandala. I think a lot of Australian writing - fiction writing - has become over portentous, [and] that Australians can be really remarkable, when they're writing, when they're adopting a laconic and ironic style, or sometimes a light realist style. And that can also apply to a lot of academic discourse. We're drowned [in] the, at times in fact, what one might describe as imported jargon, or jargon of our own, whereas our great talent for superficiality and irony, I think, could provide a quite distinctive Australian sociology. We shouldn't have just sociology about Australia but an Australian style in sociology. Lamentably, although we did have an Australian style in economics, it's been pushed aside, although perhaps it will come back again. And in all of these things we ... we shouldn't deny the kind of intellectual benefits that might be obtained by raising to a higher intellectual level, characteristics of our citizens, [although] not themselves necessarily professional intellectuals.
So you think the recognition of bullshit might be useful in academe, as well as in the pub?
Oh, well, you see, you find [when] academics are talking amongst themselves they say, 'That's bullshit', in conversation, but when they write, of course, they ... they won't speak in that kind of way. I thought the ... that publication Nation Review, now deceased, I thought had a splendid way of bringing into words, intellectual conversation around dinner tables. You know, it used the swear words. It used the put down words. It ... it used irony and it had some enormously talented performers. It reached its height at the time when Bill McMahon was Prime Minister and, indeed, one of his then ministers told me that half the Cabinet used to buy Nation Review each week so that they could laugh at their ... their Prime Minister's latest funny episodes, but that was a great achievement to put into intellectual language a ... a kind of vernacular wit and insight.
e Lucky Country was a book of social analysis and economic analysis and also in the broad sense political analysis.
And cultural analysis.
Yes. In ... in relation to the political aspects of it, it was a ... it was a broad scope. You looked in the round at Australia. How do you sit, in the political sense, in the way you look at your country?
Well, The Lucky Country is entirely out of date, thank God, in regard to its political analysis. That was the age of Menzies and I got stuck into him. I got stuck into the Labor Party too and the place has improved very considerably since then. I think I would apply to an analysis of Australia, also some of these kind of Australianised characteristics. I would like to see some kind of ... of a revival of the idea of a fair go, except that I would like to see it expressing what I think is the ... the great contribution ... The greatest political contributions in politics are those of liberalism I think and ... and by the fair go I would imagine the idea of equal rights, of toleration, of a pluralist society, of a society in which the government was not making all of the decisions. You could build up a whole fair go ideology in Australia that was expressing the finest expressions, I think, of European liberalism, and I think in Australia also, a quite natural style is that not only of liberalism but of liberal humanism. I don't think we're much good at being Bible bashers and so forth. I think that we could be quite good at assuming that although the human condition contains great disasters - fifty or sixty million people for example killed in Europe this century through political disasters - that ... but nevertheless our ... oh my God ... my God it's gone ... so ...
Yeah, that's all ... that's all right. You were ... you were ... you were wanting to see us as liberal humanists with some ...
Oh that's right. Can I come back to the ... is it possible to ... [pick up] ... the ... the humanist thing, that's right, yes.
Oh, I think that another useful Australian characteristic is that of humanism. By that I don't mean that we denied the existence of evil in the human potential in a century in which fifty or sixty million Europeans and others were killed through the actions of governments. We could certainly see it as a highly evil century. But there are also potentials for what I would describe as good in human beings. I think the human beings have co-operative qualities, as well as the opposite. And I think that human beings have a great talent for curiosity, which is their distinguishing characteristic from the other animals, and a little bit of that kind of humanism associated also for Australia with the kind of laconicism and irony, summed up in the idea 'give it a go', you know, which I think makes the only sensible basis for action. You can never be sure about what you're going to do, but you can give it a go. When John Kerin had his brief, unfortunate period as ah Treasurer, to begin with somebody asked you know some silly bloody question, he said, 'Your guess is as good as mine'. Now if the press gallery had understood - if they were true Australians - laconic and ironic - they would have praised him for that: best answer given by a Treasurer in the whole history of Treasurers because most of what people say about all these things is, to use a technical term, bullshit, instead of which they attacked him for it. But the idea that you don't know everything, but you try things out, you give them a go and then react to them is a true pragmatism. So in that was also I think we could be developing a more Australian political approach.
In the party political sense, where would you place yourself?
Oh, I try to avoid all discussion about party politics in Australia because I feel that everybody else in public life is busy doing that and I don't have to do it. I have occupied various kinds of positions ...
Including conservative, which ...
[Interrupting] That's right.
... surprises many people.
Yes. Yes, well I ... I've been ... At the university I passed from Trotskyism to anarchism, and then subsequently I became a conservative, although a liberal conservative and then I began to disband that in two ways: one was that the social movements of the 1960s finally were saying what I'd always believed, that when God created human beings she created women and men. And that ... In fact I started writing a book about Australia in the 1940s in which I attacked the ... what we would now describe as the racism and sexism of the Australian Labor Party. But in the 1960s, with those various liberal movements that developed, I could feel associated with those, and at the same time I gave up my ... what ... what I felt was a great problem of a lot of progressive doctrine. People had all these damned policies and unlike our Australian wisdom that you give it a go, that it may not work out, they made that it would work out, so why do anything? Then it occurred to me, of course, that not doing anything is equally risky. So I moved around to a position which ... in which I could finally end up voting Labor again, which I did, I think, in the 1949 election. I ... I remember I was editing The Bulletin at that stage and I didn't say, 'Vote Labor'. I rather despised publications that tell people how to vote, but we gave them quite a decent run, and in 1972, which was my last year in The Bulletin, everybody was getting so much onto the Whitlam bandwagon at that stage that I put in a little bit of irony about it too, but I certainly was very pleased to see Whitlam win that election.
But when you saw a whole lot of other people on that bandwagon it made it less attractive to you.
Just a little bit yes, although when I thought ...
[Interrupting] You don't really like being with the majority, do you?
I don't know that I ... I which ... I feel that if there's a majority they don't need me, do they? I mean it's there. I certainly jumped ... I jumped onto the Whitlam bandwagon on November 11, 1975. I mean, obviously when somebody like Whitlam gets in - there are thousands of people whose careers are going on - all kinds of people I knew - I didn't see them for three years, they were so busy making careers out of Gough Whitlam, and of course you saw ... that one saw them a fair bit in 1975, so I became a Whitlamite on November 11, 1975, and subsequently wrote a book, Death of the Lucky Country that I think sold a great number of copies and had the extraordinary result that if I was walking down the street, people would come up to me. This was for months afterwards, and say, 'Do you know where I was at the time?' because they'd read the book, they recognised me from television, and they wanted to share their experiences. I wrote it as a way of recovering from an attached - a retinal detachment - a detachment of my retina. It ... I thought it up when this retinal detachment occurred after Whitlam was sacked. There was no connection and ...
Maybe a symbolic one.
Yes that's ... well I used actually in writing the book my retinal detachment as one of the metaphors of the book. It was an unusually written book, in the sense that I thought it up while my eyes were bandaged and then I ... I was ... I couldn't bend over so I lay on my back and wrote this book at the rate of three thousand words every three days, and I'd be correcting the proofs of one chapter and revising another chapter, and starting another chapter. It was a kind of workshop. I took Christmas Day off.
When you say you thought it out in your head, do you mean you thought up the words?
I thought up the overall structure of it entirely. What are you going to do when your eyes are bandaged? You can listen to music, which I also did. It was in fact ... The Death of the Lucky Country was thought up to a background of baroque music. And then when Mifanwe, my wife, came in, I kind of a said, that you know, dic ... dictated the overall structure of it.
What was the thing that you most wanted people to carry away from that book?
Well several different things in fact but most of all I don't trust the Labor Party much at that stage. I thought they'd all blame themselves, and I was just trying to point out = one hesitates to take ... you know, take this all this up again, but what happened was quite against the rules as they had previously been understood.
This whole period also fuelled your republicanism, which had always been there, but became much more overt and articulated at this time. Could you tell us a little bit about your republican position?
Yes, well my Republicanism wasn't always there. When I was a liberal Conservative in England, I was what you might describe as a Wig Royalist. I thought the Royal Family were a lot of German imports and not much good, but they performed a very useful functional role, which in Britain might still be an explanation of them. I never thought of being a Republican, but when I was a starting to write The Lucky Country, I was ticking all these things off: the White Australia Policy, Aborigines and so forth, and the author, Geoffrey Dutton, had written an interesting article in the journal, Nation, on Australia being a Republic, and I thought, oh God yes, why not? That's a good idea and ... and took it up as well. It's a ... it's a most embarrassing thing to still have to talk about it. It seems to me to be such an obvious thing to do but one's put into a false position of looking as if one is taking up an unimportant issue, but it was from then on that I adopted this, and I would continue to do so and do, because I still think we need quick starts to imagine that we are really an independent nation. I've given one example and that has been the failures of Australian businessmen to really act as if you can have innovation in Australia. Or not to act sufficiently to do that, but also the cold war's over, and what the hell's the use of our traditional foreign policy? Loyalty to great allies? Which great ally? Sending off expeditions, by all means, but now to the United Nations, and in a number of other ways, and this is why I would support the Republican thing. It might possibly prompt people to think more fully about what a much more independent Australian nation would do, which I think, you know, is something rather necessary now, because just as I provided a kind of reconceptualisation of Australia, I suppose, in The Lucky Country, I think it's time for us ... bad luck, you know, lazy minded people don't like to do it. We've got to have ... do some quick reconceptualising also, now: this year.
Because you've made us focus on the concept of Australia, a lot of people think of you as a nationalist. I don't think you like that term, do you?
No. Well I'm not a nationalist in the sense that I'm not a chauvinist. I don't ... Nationalist to my mind means that you're a patriotic chauvinist, which means that you believe that your country is superior to other countries. There's no harm in people thinking that we'll win the Admiral's Cup, we've got Ayers Rock and so forth. That doesn't do much harm but it be ... can become nasty and xenophobic and also aggressively trying to impose your order on others. I ... I think that that comes simply from our colonial position, and earlier Australia was above all an imperialist country. The big chauvinism in Australia was never, you know, Henry Lawson or gum trees and stuff. It was British Imperialism. To be a ...
Yes that's right. To the Empire Day which I gave my speech when I was at Muswellbrook. To be a chauvinist meant that you believed the British race - the expression that was used - were superior to everybody else, and had a right to rule the world. People often don't realise now that the kinds of imperial rhetoric that ... for example, Hitler was simply extending imperial rhetoric in a ... a ... some ways unexpectedly dreadful manner but that that was what he was doing - not thinking something up. And then when we have the United States we're modifying it a bit, but we're still imagining ... Lots of Australians are still imagining that there is some God-given divine mission to people, who speak English, who live up in the northern hemisphere.
Does this business though, or articulating or imagining or creating an idea of Australia, if it's not nationalism, what would you describe it as?
Well it's mainly getting rid of the rubbish of imperialism and getting rid of the rubbish of Australia not seeing itself an independent nation. And otherwise it's the question of saying to Australians, 'Look, you should consider who you are. You should cont ... you should have, above all, a deep interest in what this society is, and what it's national interests might be'. And that is in no way nationalist, it's simply accepting the fact that the ... in this funny looking thing on the map that looks like that, we have a society called Australia and that we are the people who are experts in that matter, and the people who should be - if we don't know, nobody else will - paying attention to it.
Some people think that that task of defining what Australia is, is a task of defining how its economy will operate, who it will be friends with internationally, what kind of defence arrangements it will have. You have a more abstract idea, don't you, of creating an idea, or a set of ideas, for Australia? Could you tell us what those are and where you see ... where you're coming from?
Could I take off ... could I take five minutes off? [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]
You put forward the view that if we're to understand what Australia is, that's essentially a question of working out an idea or a set of ideas for Australia, that it is an ideas issue, the question of what is Australia. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Well I think it's really important that Australians should think about their economy and about their strategic relationship to other countries, about their politics, their society, all of those things, but I think they shouldn't think about them isolated, you know, because they're connected. In universities these days there's been this tragic specialisation of knowledge, which means you chop a country up under different headings as if it didn't exist as a whole, and I think what is of great importance to Australia is a thorough cultural analysis that offers the kinds of values and ideas that we have, the ways in which often you don't express values just in what you say, but in how you act. The values we express, for example, you know the way in which we move our bodies around. Now, for example, a country like Australia's different from, say, a country like the Soviet Union where half of them turned up to work drunk because we know how to arrive at work on time, and, roughly speaking, how to adjust ourselves to changing circumstances. These are also ... also values, and I don't think all this other stuff about economies and so forth is going to be quite successful unless we know a little bit more about the kinds of ... different kinds values and habits of Australians, and look in particular for those which seem to be common to a great number of them, and in that sense I'd use the word 'ideas'. Ideas can sometimes, to people, sound pretty waffly. They say, 'Oh let's be pragmatic', you know. Well being pragmatic is just one idea. Everything is an idea, so I've spent a fair bit of my writing life, some of it just writing novels and autobiographies and things, which haven't had much to do with Australia, or incidentally so. And ... but I've written more books about Australia than I ever intended to, because what interests me, above, all is that approach that in a society ... You can see the world quite differently from one society to the other. How do we see the world in Australia? And the ... the question about why Australian business management has performed so badly in terms of innovation, I think, can only be asked in the question about what kind of values and habits do they have? How do they see things? The kind of way in which foreign policy ... Why has it seemed so self evident to us - most of us - the way in which we conduct ourselves is almost maintaining loyalty to a great place up there that speaks English and so that what Australia needs, I think, is more overall theories about what Australians are, about what the world is, and that would be a much more realistic way of going about these practical problems.
You also seem ... [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]
How do we distinguish ourselves from other countries that superficially look rather similar to us? You've made a big point about the necessity to separate ourselves from Britain conceptually. The same thing might apply to the United States. Is there any way in which you would characterise us as unique, different, special?
I think, we've got to be very careful. We had to distinguish ourselves from being British, because it's just looney to imagine that we're the same as the people in what's left of the British Isles. But I think that another basic way of looking at Australia is to say how similar it is to a great number of other nations. It's an industrialised nation, it's a nation in which the economic is seen as fundamental, the work ethic's a principal way of getting dignity and labour, investment, economic growth is seen as important, it's kind of modern in the sense that it believes you take thought and you do things and so forth. It's liberal democratic like lots of these other societies. If an anthropologist came from Mars you would write down, first of all, how very like Australia was to ... for that matter, even some of the Eastern European countries. What we then looked for are what are the ranges of distinctiveness, despite those common characteristics? And some of them had questions of detail really except they happened to us to be extremely important details. For example, if people are talking about, as I just said, Australia's an industrialised society, if that happens to interest you, you ask yourself in ... in which way is ... is it similar to and in which ways is it different from other industrialised societies? Talk about its politics likewise, and don't, for God's sake, compare it to Britain and the United States, but compare it to countries that are, you know, kind of roughly similar size, something that practically nobody does. And then to take up questions about in what I would call Australia's public culture, what projections are there of the whole meaning of existence? Now people may sneer at soap operas say or the news, but those are out there. They're great projections of reality to most of our people, and how would they compare, how do we see ourselves there, to what extent do we get a chance to do that, and so that the only reason one has to exaggerate this need for us to look for our differences is because we have felt rather ashamed very often of our differences. There is a whole period when what was Australian was seen as necessarily rather comic. Now that was a period when there was scarcely ever a play put on - an Australian play. When there was what they would do would be they'd get an elocutionist to come along and teach the Australian actors how to project Australian talk to an audience so that it didn't sound funny. Well there is no particular reason to consider it to be comic, the peculiarities of Australia. They're part of our general human condition. It's part of our ... the cultural heritage and we should learn to not be self satisfied but to assume that we've got as much right as any other society to have some distinctive characteristics, and to think about what they are. At the same time we also obviously, in strategic senses, have particular relationships with the world in terms of trade, in the closeness to people in South East Asia and the South West Pacific, and we have to think: okay, that's wonderful that stuff they're saying over there, but how do we look, how do our interests look in regard to strategic matters because here we are in this place, what's its name? Australia.
What sort of things do you ... would you list if you had to give words to what you think are distinctive, or the most distinctive things that we ought to be conscious of?
I'm see ... I see ... how much more time have we got? I seem to be stalling on that one.
Have we? Okay right. I'll give it a go. Some of them are ... some of the things of which we ... we have to consider ours ... distinctive of ourselves are so obvious that it's, you know, astonishing that we haven't thought about them. And I can become rather boring on this but the peculiarities of the way in which our businesses are run, our banking system, our geographical situation, the people we trade with, all of our hard talk. We should have much better representations in the media of how we compare in that with other countries: their similarities, their differences, in the relations that there are between people. Everybody knows that there are different relations between Australians compared with, say, there are different relations between Japanese. In fact I live in a place near Bondi Junction in which there are a lot of young backpacking Japanese, and you can see they come here partly to look at Australians. And they don't necessarily dislike ... there's a noodle shop up there. I go up and talk to some of them. They see us as interesting matters of observation and some of them think how much better we are at our relations with each other, than the Japanese are. And when we talk about ... I think an enormously important thing for Australians is to get rid of all this claptrap about rating ourselves, our living standards, in terms of something called 'per capita GDP', which just means ... if it was put in terms of United States dollars, it just means what's the exchange rate this week. We should learn ways of measuring - maybe you can't do it in arithmetic exactly, but of estimating what it is we've got going for us. What things are there about Australian life, with our things that we like? Do we want to have gardens? Do we want to have relaxed manners? Are we interested in holidays? Do we want more libraries? Things of this kind can provide a much better vital basis for economic policy than looking at all these damned figures, which are infinitely reinterpretable. You ... you ... you can't ... you can't base a whole policy on a society's future by looking up its so called per capita gross domestic product, because especially since you can reinterpret the figures in ... in several different kinds of ways according to what measure you use. Why don't we think more about who we are, what we think is good about ourselves, and how that might be strengthened.
So from your perspective, what qualities in your life, do you see as being good for you and for Australia?
Well I think that part of the potential of Australians still is in the kind of overall humanist approach that human beings are significant and important, that there should be some attempt for them at least to have equality of rights and equality of access, and that they should be in a sense experimental in what they do. And with no understanding you can't get quite by on that, you've got to have a few educated people knowing some things as well. But we should begin with those, and see them as important cultural resources.
Would clever Donald Horne, the cleverest boy in Muswellbrook, [Donald laughs] like to see Australia become the clever country?
I thought it was quite good that Hawke used the expression 'the clever country', but I thought it was unfortunate and characteristic that he forgot he'd used it the minute after he'd used it. But, of course, one makes the point that cleverness is essential but not sufficient. One can't have a ... After all the opposite of clever country is stupid country, and one can't really base a successful modern society on stupidity, but cleverness is the ... a basic need. Also needed, I think, is capability, which is a slightly different thing. And also needed is imagination. Primarily wisdom I suppose. Somebody criticised, 'You can't say we should be the wise country'. I rather didn't like that. It sounds a bit like the thought police you know. Tell me what wisdom is. But cleverness is ... is the entry key, and then after that you're imaginative, you're capable.
[end of tape]