Australian Biography

James McClelland - full interview transcript

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The case in which you acted as solicitor for the Ironworkers Union, or for Laurie Short, was a real turning point in your legal career and established you, put you on the map ...

Yes.

Did you have to work very hard at it?

Oh yes, I've never worked harder in my life than during his contest. It was really a 16-hour day every day for a period of about six months or so. Not that I liked working as hard as that, but I could see it was a turning point, that a lot depended on it in every way.

And so you didn't enjoy the hard work?

Well I was ... the adrenalin was pumping so hard that, during that contest, that I didn't notice it. I became totally single-minded and I can work very hard in short bursts. But I've never liked the long, hard, grind of toil. I've never shown any signs of workaholism.

How do you then manage yourself when you've got a lot on?

Well, I never had all that much on my plate. I did I suppose when I was a Minister in the Whitlam Government. But I've managed most of the time to keep my work within reasonable bounds. Save time for the really important things, like listening to music, reading, talking, drinking.

Now, when your life as a lawyer took off, what did you do, where were you practicing from, and what was your practice like?

Well, I started practice in a little office in Young Street in an old 1820s terrace. I think it was called Raphael Place. It's long since been demolished. And during the war it was a brothel. As a matter of fact, when I hung out my shingle, one of the girls was still plying her trade from a backroom in the building. It was a very unimpressive beginning. A very, very far cry from the modern spit and polish of solicitors' offices. I moved then, I moved uptown to somewhere in Pitt Street, and then I moved again on to the corner of Rowe Street — remember Rowe Street — it was a beautiful little street that's been, more or less, obliterated by the great tower developments. I was there for some time, right next door to the Australia Hotel. And then I moved to a bigger, much bigger, office in Bathurst Street. And that's where I was when I ... when I left the practice.

Did you always practice alone?

Oh no, I had a couple of partners in the end, I had Paul Landa. As a matter of fact it's an odd thing, the two partners I had were both 20 or more years younger than me ... [interruption] ...

... [question repeated] ... When you were practicing as a lawyer, did you have partners?

Well, I started off with a partner, a man called Courtney Boyland. Very nice man, we functioned together for a couple of years, but he was a hopeless drunk and as a result of it he died shortly afterwards, after we dissolved the partnership. Then, as I grew larger, I took on a couple more partners. Ironically, these two young men who were 20 or more years, more years, younger than me, both died quite young. Paul Landa, who later became quite well-known in state politics, he died of a heart attack on the tennis court when he was about 43 or something like that. And another young man named Brian Wallace who died last year, in his 50s. So I've outlived them all. Genetic lottery.

Were they good partners?

Oh yes, they were, yeah. And finally I handed the practice over to them when I went into parliament.

Now, what made you decide to leave the law and go into politics?

Well, I'd never lost my interest in politics. And I got bored with the law.

Why?

Oh, whatever people may tell you the law, it is not all that enthralling. It has its tedium, and its tedious people. I'm a bit anti-lawyer. I find them single-minded, boring people in the main. There are great exceptions of course. I've had a few close friends among lawyers. But mostly they were people I can do without.

Do you think it's the nature of law itself that encourages people to be narrow?

I think the people who take law on are mostly people who want to be high-achievers, and it's a very, very hard taskmaster. I would think that the successful barrister, the man who's in court every day and, of course, working ‘til late at night, getting up his brief for the next day, would hardly find time to read the newspapers. They'd never read a book, you'd never run into them in the theatre. Well, what have they got to talk about? Their own dreary cases. And it makes them awful bores.

The barrister you used to brief most was John Kerr?

Yes.

Why was that?

Well, he was an exception. He was a man of far broader interests, although he was a brilliant lawyer. He'd won the university medal and he was a brilliant advocate and as good a lawyer as any of them when he applied his mind to it. He was really bored with the law, too. He saw, he had much broader horizons. As a matter of fact, Kerr really wanted to be Prime Minister, but he didn't have the application. He, you know, what you go through to become Prime Minister, the awful boredom of branch meetings and pressing the flesh and cultivating people that you've got no time for. That wasn't for him. Nor was it for me. I went about it a different way. But Kerr was a man of considerable erudition, imagination, and at his best he was a very interesting man.

Now, this was when you knew him in the law, but you yourself left the law. What precipitated it?

Ah well, as a matter of fact, I remember one night we were having a little dinner party at my house and among the guests were John Kerr and his wife, and Donald Horne and his wife. And we got to talking about politics and what was wrong with the country, etc. And I think the question of the inadequacy of the existing politicians got a guernsey. And the fact that politics didn't appeal to the best minds in the country and, you know, that line of talk that you get into on about the third bottle of claret. And all of a sudden both of them, Donald and Kerr, looked at me and said, ‘Well, why don't you have a go?’ The question didn't arise about why shouldn't they have a go, but they had other preoccupations. And I thought, ‘Yes, why shouldn't I have a go?’

And I took steps as from the next day to get preselected for the Senate election that was coming up. That's much less painful than going through the chores that I was talking about of political life. I had to get ... there was an electoral college of about 75 people, representatives of Labor branches dotted all over the country. And I just dropped my practice. The preselection was on about a month after that conversation with Kerr and Horne. So I dropped my practice and went barnstorming all around the country. And I got enough votes at the electoral college to get a winnable ticket, winnable place on the Senate ticket.

So you deliberately chose the Senate?

Yes. I thought I could play as big a role there as the, you know, it would be up to me when I got there. And I did, it didn't matter that I was in the Senate. Of course, if I'd wanted to be Prime Minister, which I never did, I would have had to transfer into the House of Reps.

Why didn't you want to be Prime Minister?

I don't know. I was asked that recently by a young man who was studying my career. I wouldn't say that it never occurred to me, but I don't think I have the killer instinct necessary to go around getting the numbers and stabbing people in the back. Not that I was above that in terms of morality, but I was fundamentally a bit too lazy. I never had that absolute compulsion to get to the top that you have to have if you want to become Prime Minister.

You were satisfied with something that gave you intellectual stimulation and a box seat?

That's right, I had a feeling of being in the action. Of course, I was frustrated for the first couple of years I was there. I didn't have the seniority to get elected to the cabinet. It's very conservative in many ways, the Labor Party. You've got to serve your apprenticeship where I, as a matter fact, it was a very short apprenticeship in my case, I got into the ministry after I'd been there a couple of years. First of all, I was Minister for Manufacturing Industry, about which I knew absolutely nothing. That I was able to get on top of fairly quickly because I had a very able department. I'm no despiser of bureaucrats as some politicians pretend to be. I saw enough of the time that I was theirs and the bureaucrats really run the show. Yes Minister is almost literally correct.

Anyhow, I wasn't in that job long because Whitlam decided that he needed a new Minister for Labour and Clyde Cameron, the old veteran who'd, you know, lived his life in the trade union movement, was forced to give way to me. And that was a key job. In many ways for a while it was the most important job in the cabinet. Because one of the things that brought the Labor Government down was that Gough, for all of his qualities, considerable qualities, was not interested in some of the aspects of government that are the most important. For instance, the economy, that bored him. And industrial relations. He wasn't interested in either of those.

What was he interested in?

Well, the arts, education, sewerage. In curing the manifest ills that he'd seen building up during the Menzies era, of complacency.

The manifest ills of the ordinary people.

Yes, that's right. And of little elite pockets. He was not uninterested in the intelligentsia and the arts. He was interested in that. But, as I say, as a result, the country got into a bit of a mess economically. When I was made Minister for Labour, the inflation rate was something like 17.6 percent. Outrageous. It was due largely to a wage explosion that had occurred over the last 12 months, that had been allowed to happen by Cameron, who could have stopped it if he'd wanted to. It was a matter of ‘ask and ye shall receive’ as far as the unions were concerned, in his case. And I perceived immediately that that had to be brought to an end, this wage explosion. Every time the unions demanded, say, another outrageous increases, 25 dollars a week increase. In 1972-74 that was a lot of money.

So I took on the job of barnstorming the union gatherings, the Labour Councils, in the various states, and telling them there had to be a wage pause. It wasn't a pleasant job. I was nearly lynched in Melbourne, which was the sort of centre of the socialist left. And in any event it worked, and inflation was coming down by the time we were thrown out at the end of the year. But I enjoyed that, I enjoyed that six months or so that I was Minister for Labour immensely. I felt that I was doing something relevant, I was right in the centre of the action. Then of course, the rug was pulled out from beneath.

Going back to your motivation for going in, was there still some strong idealism?

Oh yes, certainly.

What did you think ... what were you thinking about what you could do from that position?

Well, I didn't actually specify, but I thought that there were all sorts of social shortcomings that could be corrected by a rational government. By a mild, left-oriented government. And I didn't think I could perform any miracles. I had lost my faith in miracles by then. But I thought an intelligent government could improve the lot of ordinary people and I wanted to have some part in it.

You decided, you were very much associated with the right-wing of the party?

Well, that's not really correct. I ... that was because of my association with the industrial groups during the, my anti-communist period. But I was really not a man of the right at all. I, my association with Santamaria was a purely temporary alliance. I had no sympathy with his general social philosophy. And the sort of bog Irish Catholic element that was dominant in the right-wing was very far off my wavelength. I was associated with them and I was endorsed by them for the Senate, largely as a pay-off for what I had done in downing communists in the trade union movement. They thought that they owed it to me. But I wasn't in parliament long before they began to think that they'd made a mistake in me. That I was not really one of their boys.

So in political, philosophical terms, how did you differ from them?

Well, largely on social matters, on their, well, their attitude to things like divorce, contraception, their idealisation of an unreal view of the family, the sort of thing you still get from politicians. Their general conservative stance was not mine at all.

In relation to economic matters, where did you stand?

Well, I was unaligned really, I didn't belong to either the left or the right. The left still retained certain socialist illusions on the matter of, say, nationalisation, the sacrosanctity of state instrumentalities like TAA [Trans-Australia Airlines], that sort of thing. I saw through all that and, of course, so have they mostly today. But, well, I suppose I was ... I'd never call myself an economic rationalist. That's a dirty phrase to me, but I was somewhere in the centre of, I would say, economically.

Not wanting public ownership of things that didn't have to be publicly owned?

No, and I could see no virtue in public ownership for its own sake.

But wanting fairly strict economic management?

And if I could describe my view economically, then and now, as against the economic rationalists who believe that you leave everything to market forces and everything will miraculously come good, I'm very much opposed to that view, and I was then. I'm a, what I would call an interventionist. I believe that the government has a role to play in managing economic forces, and not just letting the market rip.

Now, the Whitlam Government that you entered, first of all as Minister for Manufacturing Industry, did you, could you characterise that whole atmosphere at the time, when it first, when you were first swept into power, and you were part of that Whitlam Government on which so many hopes were pinned? What was the feeling of being there?

Well, there was a feeling of euphoria to start off with, and an unreal feeling. I think that the great fault of the Whitlam Government was caused by the very fact that a Labor Government had been out, had not been in office for 23 years. Now the main effect of that was there'd been no opportunity to separate the sheep from the goats, I mean, in terms of the talent in the party. They had never been tested by office. See, the way you find out if anybody's any good or not is by throwing them into a job and seeing what he does with it. That had never happened to all these old Labor stalwarts. And several of them, to whom Gough entrusted the most important jobs, fell by the wayside.

Who were they?

Well, Cairns was the most spectacular one. The idea of him being treasurer was absolutely fantastic. He was an economic ignoramus. And a starry-eyed, unreal thinker. A nice man, but didn't belong in the real world.

Why do you think Gough made him treasurer?

Well, this is Gough's fault, that he was, he regarded economics as unimportant. Then there was that absurd loans affair where they believed some little pedlar from the back alleys of international finance could lay his hands on untold billions outside the ordinary sources of finance. Don't remind me, that built up into a loans affair that had a big part in Labor's overthrow.

But that had to do with Rex Connor.

Hmm?

That had to do with ...

... Had to do, and I regard Connor also, although a man of towering ability, as being a totally unreal figure. A bit mad in the end. Honestly, you know, sleeping beside his fax machine waiting for gold that never came in. He, for all of his achievements, the pipeline and all that sort of thing, was really a disastrous figure.

Were you ...

And Clyde Cameron, who was Minister for Labour for most of the period, I think had, well, blinkers, as a man whose whole culture had been in the union movement. Also a very able man, but living in the past. Frank Crean, who was treasurer before Cairns got the job, he was just a little accountant who was really not up to the job. I can't think of the others.

Did you have this view at the time?

Yes, sure I did.

Did you express it?

Oh well, not openly. I liked them personally, I didn't want to offend them.

Well then, how did you come to take over Clyde's job?

Well, there was a debate in the cabinet one day over an outrageous demand that one of the metal workers unions had made for a 25 dollar a week increase. And of course, that wasn't for the government to give or deny, it was a matter for the arbitration court, the precursor to the present Industrial Relations Commission, or whatever it's called. But it was customary for the government to appear in the hearings of such claims and put the government's view, whether a rise should be given or not, and how much it should be. And the question came up in the cabinet as to what the government should, what stance it should, take on this matter. And Clyde, you know, was the one who was considered in the cabinet to be the authority on industrial matters, spoke up and said, ‘Well, we have to support it. They're entitled to it and they'll get it anyway so we should support it.’ And I weighed in very heavily against this proposition. And well, everybody there was astonished because he'd got away with this sort of thing throughout his time as Minister for Labour, and I worsted him in debate.

He finally climbed down knowing that the headline would be 'Cameron done in cabinet' or something like that. Because there were no secrets about what happened in cabinet. Everything was leaked. So finally, seeing the writing on the wall, he climbed down and agreed that the government should go to the court and oppose it. And the next day, the scales fell from Whitlam's eyes. It occurred to him that I was more in touch with reality in that field than Cameron was. And he came round and asked me if I'd take Cameron's job. And I said, gladly. And at the swearing in of the new cabinet, Clyde didn't turn up. The swearing in ceremony was delayed for about an hour while somebody persuaded him that he should show up. He was given what he considered the contemptible post of Minister for Science, of which, of course, he knew nothing.

Now ...

So that's how I got into the ... [interruption] ...

Now, you say that you have a very high regard for the public service and senior public servants, but did you ever, as a minister, find them a problem to you?

Well, when I was Minister for Manufacturing Industry, I was totally out of my depth. And the bureaucrats that I dealt with were able, helpful, they could see that I was a novice in the matter but you know, they didn't patronise me. They helped me and I quickly caught up, not to their level, but I knew my way around the job. When I was Minister for Labour I was really in my own field. After all I'd been an industrial lawyer for years, and I knew more that the bureaucrats on that. And I can't say that I relied on them at all. But my observation of the way the government functioned was that the ministers were really a bunch of amateurs who didn't know much, or in many cases knew nothing about the fields in which they were operating as minister. And the way government staggered on at all was because of the able bureaucrats who guided the politicians on what to do. And the initiative for a lot of the legislation came from the bureaucracy.

Now even today, Paul Keating and his leading ministers may give the impression that everything emanates from their heads. And that is not so. Keating has been listening to the treasury and to the Reserve Bank all the time he was there. He came into the parliament totally ignorant on economic matters and he learnt — he's a fast learner, and a very, very able man — but the idea that he is single-handedly running the show is rubbish. We should be grateful that we have an able public service. Should I stop there a minute ... [interruption] ...

[end of tape]

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