Australian Biography

James McClelland - full interview transcript

Tape of 9

Tape 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

... [question repeated] ... Given your view of public servants, what do you think you, as a minister, were able to accomplish?

Well, as Minister for Labour, I make an exception of my generalisation about public servants. Because really among ministers I was an expert in the field that I took on as Minister for Labour. So I didn't really need much advice and I certainly didn't get much. But observing the way other ministers functioned, I could see that, you know, when they were pressed for detail on the causes they were espousing or the bills that they were introducing, their knowledge of what they were doing was paper thin. There was no depth to their mastery of their briefs. And it dawned on me that they were really being manipulated to a large extent. The ... I'll say this for the bureaucrats ... they recognise the existence of the party system and they give their point of view and they give their advice and their expert knowledge. But they bend to the political tendencies of those that they're serving. But in the process they are really in the box seat because they know what they're talking about and the minister doesn't. And without realising it, the ministers are unconsciously manipulated by the bureaucrats. Even the Keatings, and — oh, especially the Hawkes — Keating's emergence as an economic rationalist for most of his term, until 1993, was due almost entirely to the influence the treasury and the Reserve Bank had on him.

With the people that you were sharing cabinet responsibility, you've told us the ones that you didn't admire. Did you admire any of your colleagues?

Yes, I admired Murphy. I must say that up to a point I admired Hayden.

What did you admire Murphy for?

Well, Murphy was a brilliant, he was a scintillating, fellow, Murphy. In a way he was the most attractive of the Labor people. I don't mean this in any hagiographic sense, there's nothing bores me more than the 'ensaintment' of Lionel. He was anything but saintly, I can assure you. But, and he was anything but a believing leftie, for all of the tag that was put on him, he realised, I realised, that if he wanted to get into parliament at all, you had to pick a side, even though he didn't agree with much of what ... of the nonsense that the left believed in. But he was a radical in the sense that he wanted to change society.

For instance, the Family Law Act, that was really a revolutionary act. But I don't mean that he dreamed it up in the first place. There was a Family Law Act that had been introduced by Barwick in the previous regime, but Murphy turned it into a real Act with real teeth, for all its shortcomings. Trade practices ... in all these spheres where, sort of, unrestrained capitalism had been getting away with murder for years, Murphy saw that government should step in and more or less put them in their place. But not only that, he was an entertaining man, he was a charming, very attractive to women. I remember my previous wife saying of him, I said, you know, I said, ‘Well, what is it that women find so attractive about Murphy?’ She said, ‘Well, he makes a woman feel as though she's the only other person in the room with him.’ And that wasn't far, he was that sort of man. Immensely clever, the cleverest man in the parliament he was. Well, we hit it off wonderfully. We were kindred spirits. He was the ablest bloke in the ministry.

You spent a lot of time with him?

Oh yes, a good bit, sure. And I helped him a bit, too. I was ... before I got into the ministry I was the Chairman of the Industrial and Legal Committee, which had a lot of work to do on the Family Law Act, you know, hammering out the detail of it. And I worked closely with him. And I continued to see him after he left the parliament and went on the High Court, where he was a great success by the way. He was received with considerable suspicion by the black-and-white lawyers, the people who think that law is value free, which of course is the greatest furphy ever. And he, although he was in a minority in his judgements for the first, first year or two that he was on the bench, ultimately, without their admitting it, persuaded the other judges to his point of view, on all sorts of things, especially on Section 92.

Did you have any reservations about him? Was there anything about him you didn't admire?

Well, I thought he was a terribly incautious man. He associated with people that he shouldn't of associated with.

Like who?

Like Morgan Ryan, you know, the real thing that ultimately brought him down — Morgan Ryan was a ... he was just a dirty little spiv — out of a sort of a primitive loyalty. He'd briefed Murphy when he was at that bar, Murphy sort of stuck to him through thick and thin. I thought he was very incautious ...

He stuck to him in the sense of doing things that he requested, which weren't really quite right, do you think?

Yes, yes. There was ... I mean, it's fashionable now to say that Murphy was completely cleared of that inquiry because ultimately a court reversed the decision against him. But the facts were that Murphy did try to intervene to save Ryan's hide, when Ryan was on a charge. He did, I believe, speak to the magistrate as was alleged.

And you think he did that out of a misguided loyalty?

Yes, certainly, there was nothing in it for him. Absolute recklessness it was.

Was this kind of automatic loyalty to your mates something that was as endemic as we're led to believe in the Labor Party?

Well, it's primarily a feature of the right-wing. A sort of Irish clannishness, you see, in Keating sticking to that awful incompetent woman Ros Kelly, long after she'd shown her ineptitude. And then his loyalty to this built-in disaster, a minister, Brereton, of monorail fame. It's a sort of an Irish thing.

My brother, right or wrong?

That's right. And not only that, a sort of a ... the world's against us and we've got to stick together. The Labor Party were, as you know, began as an Irish party, more or less. It's largely shaken it off today, but it's still strongly influenced by those clannish habits.

Now, Bill Hayden was another one that you admired, you said, up to a point. What point was that?

Well, I thought he introduced an element of commonsense and rationality into the treasury that had hitherto been mauled by Jim Cairns. Bill introduced a sensible budget in 1975 and he was an honest man. And I liked him personally. I don't any more. But we got along well together. And he was competent as distinct from the hopeless amateurishness of a lot of them.

Did you have a feeling in 1975 that things were getting together?

Yes, towards the end, as a matter of fact, in the last six months, when inflation was coming down and we had a sensible budget. And Gough was learning a few of the facts of life.

About people that he thought ...

About people and about what government amounts to. That it wasn't just a matter of fulfilling a lot of idealistic dreams. it was also a practical thing of running a country. I remember one of the Liberals saying to me, oh, a month or two before they refused supply, ‘You blokes are beginning to look too good, we'll have to get rid of you.’ And the story, of course, was that they got rid of us because we were making a mess of the country. What provoked them to do what they did was a feeling that we could even recover to a point of winning the next election. And I think that could have happened. In other words, we were improving. We were learning a little bit about how to run the country. Gough was becoming more realistic. And we would have turned the inflation thing around, I think, got onto an even keel in time.

How shocked were you by the dismissal?

Oh, absolutely astonished. See, I'd spoken to Kerr several times during the supply crisis.

Could you explain exactly what the situation was?

Well, the Liberals decided that they, they would not ... they had a majority in the Senate ... they decided that they would not pass the Appropriation Bills until, or unless, Labor agreed to call an election. They, their justification or self-justification of that was that Labor had lost the confidence of the community and it should go to the public to test whether they still wanted them in office. And they would grant us supply if we did that, but of course that was asking us to cut our own throats. We knew that we were down in the popularity polls of the moment. If you had to go to an election every time your opponents wanted it, well, you know, there'd be a change of government every year. So they didn't vote against supply but they delayed it. They neither voted for it nor against it. And that lasted for about a month, and that was leading to a crisis and the money running out. In order to spend money the government has to be ... pass legislation entitling it to spend the money.

And I'd spoken to Kerr a few times and he referred to these two prima donnas, meaning Fraser and Whitlam, and he said to me once, ‘Well, I don't consider that I have any function at all, until the money actually runs out.’ Well, when he did pull the rug from beneath us, that was a month away. There was still all sorts of things could have happened. There was all sorts of pressure within the Opposition to give in. They were, they weren't enthusiastic about the act that they were involved in, that after all was unprecedented and there was a general feeling that it was undemocratic for the non-representative House to deny finances to the representatives, the elected representatives in the lower house.

So in telling you that he wouldn't intervene until the money had actually run out, do you think that he subsequently changed his mind, or was he lying directly to you?

Well, I think that he set out on a deliberate campaign to pull the wool over my eyes, so that I would carry that message to Whitlam. You see, what I criticise Kerr about is not, not for doing what he did, which I don't think he had a right to do anyway, but for being secretive about it. He's always alibied it by saying that, well, if Whitlam had got any inkling that he might do that, he'd have been on the phone to the Queen and would have had Kerr sacked. He shouldn't have given any thought to that. If he was contemplating such a drastic action as the dismissal of a democratically elected government, he should have been prepared to have his own job on the line as well. And he wouldn't have starved, he would have had a pension. And he was well-off anyway. But I think he set out on a deliberate campaign of fooling me and in the course of it, fooling the government.


Because, well, I think that he nurtured all his life this — as I mentioned earlier — this desire to be the top dog in Australia, who is, of course, historically, the Prime Minister. And he saw an opportunity to be king of the walk. And more than that, he'd been duchessed by whatever passes for an Australian establishment. I noticed that the company that he kept had changed from his old cronies, people who he regarded as his intellectual equals and simulating companions, to pallid sort of establishment figures. And they were cultivating him and he became, in a way, a sort of a pathetic prisoner of the big end of town. Barwick, for instance, was known to have said of him, ‘Oh, Jack Kerr (his old associates used to call him Jack, then it became John when he became respectable), Jack Kerr ought to sack Whitlam, but he'll never have the guts.’ It got through to him that it was a sort of a test for him to show that he had totally discarded his radical past and had really joined the big end of town. These were the pressures that were on him, and I despised him for that. And I also thought it was a gutless thing for him to use his longstanding friendship with me to throw this smokescreen up about what, I think, he contemplated doing almost from the outset of the supply crisis.

Many people thought that you had been influential in getting him that position?

I had nothing to do with him getting it. As a matter of fact, even though I was still a close friend of his, although not as close as I had been, at the time that Whitlam appointed him, if Whitlam had asked me, I would have expressed the sort of doubts that I'm expressing now about his character. I would have advised against it. But Whitlam didn't say anything to me about appointing him. And I was astonished when Kerr took it, because I always regarded the Governor-Generalship as a sort of a token, ceremonial thing. Not nearly as important a job as the job that Kerr stepped down from to take it, Chief Justice of New South Wales. I thought of the Governor-General as a sort of a cipher, and I remember he was at pains to explain to me what was a mystery to his close friends, why he'd taken the job on. He had some sort of a story about a change, being at the centre, that sort of thing. But ultimately it was due to the fact that he'd wanted to be Prime Minister, but he didn't have the guts or the energy or the application to do the things you have to do to become Prime Minister.

And so he needed to show that he was bigger than the Prime Minister?

That's right, that's right. He was able enough, easily able enough to be Prime Minister. If he'd set his mind to it, he could have become Prime Minister.

So your feeling was that Kerr had to do this out of some personal psychological need?

Yes, he was a highly complex character, Kerr. He had a side to him that very few people saw, I think. There was always ... [interruption] ...

... [question repeated] ... So it was your feeling that Kerr was acting out of some deep-seated personal psychological need?

Well, I didn't think [or] put it that way at the time, but on reflection I would agree with that. He was a highly complex figure, Kerr. All the time that I knew him I felt that there was some sexual ambiguity to him. He had a very pronounced feminine side to him. He had a high-pitched, feminine sort of voice. And I remember now, one occasion which occurred early on in his tenure of the Governor-General's job, long before the supply crisis. Shortly after he was appointed he came over to see me. I was living at the time in Point Piper and he, of course, was staying at Admiralty House over in Kirribilli. And he drove over, which of course he rarely did, because he had a car at his disposal. He drove over to my place and he arrived quite drunk. This was about the middle of the afternoon. Neville Wran was at my place at the time and we talked to him and of course, I suppose, I gave him another drink even though he wasn't in a fit state to have any more. And Neville said to him, ‘John, I don't think I would risk driving back over the bridge,’ he said, ‘well, to put it bluntly,’ he said, ‘you'll get picked up before you reach the end of the street.’ We persuaded him he shouldn't drive back. And Neville rang Admiralty House and told them to send over another car, and an extra driver, to get him home.

And the car arrived and somebody would drive his car back and somebody would drive Kerr back in another car. And I led him, you know, sort of hanging onto his arm, down a sort of a slope from my front door to my front gate. And we got about half-way down and he stopped and he said to me, ‘Give us a kiss.’ And I gave him a bit of a peck on the cheek, like I'd done to many men. I don't think anything of that. And then he puckered up and he said, ‘No, give us a real kiss,’ which of course I declined. But it was a real display, well I think it was latent homosexuality. I think that that may have had a lot to do with his behaviour, that he had all the tensions of a closet homosexual. And I'm convinced now, in retrospect, that that was part of his psychological problem. Had all these repressions. He would never have had the guts to come out. But, of course, it was a pretty daring thing to do in those days. I think that had something to do with his behaviour.

Do you think that also he had always been, to some extent, a snob?

Yes, oh yes, a real boy from the wrong side of the tracks who aspired to be one of the, you know, masters of creation.

Had you ever had any indications of ...

Oh yes, I had. I remember one day, he had a very nice old father who used to be a boilermaker in Balmain. And he'd retired, you know, he was a little over 70, and he'd got some sort of menial job as some messenger for some insurance company or something in the city. And Kerr and I ran into him one day. He introduced me to him and he was a very sweet old man, I thought. And I asked John about him. I said, ‘Well what's your father do?’ And he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘he's working as a messenger.’ He said, ‘It's a bit embarrassing really.’ And I understood that what he meant was that, well, he didn't mind me, because I wasn't exactly uppercrust, knowing that about his father but it would be embarrassing if that should occur to him when he was in the company of somebody who was a bit more upmarket. And in general he had a sort of a mixture of arrogance and deference towards people whom he thought amounted to something in the scheme of things. I know it's an odd mixture, arrogance and deference, but he managed it. He had the arrogance of a man who knew that he had a superior intellect and the deference of the boy from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to belong to the big end of town.

It's now well-known that after the dismissal you dropped all connections ...

Oh, and attacked him publicly. Never saw him again, never spoke to him again.

Was that to do with the dismissal or was it also ...

No, disgust with him as a human being. I could see that there was ... you could rationally justify the action of a Governor-General in asserting that he had reserve powers. But I couldn't forgive the sneakiness of his conduct in concealing that he was, not only concealing, but making positive moves that indicated that he would never do what he ultimately did.

It had nothing to do with the advance that he'd made to you, the sexual advance?

Oh no, no. I was not in any way disturbed by that. If I'd known he was a homosexual it wouldn't have affected my friendship with him. I wouldn't have thought any less of him. I only say what I said about the homosexual thing as a sort of an explanation or an attempted explanation for some of the tensions that were there in the man, that might do something to explain his conduct.

Returning to the dismissal itself, how did you hear about it?

Well, I was sitting in my office working and I got a phone call from Lionel Murphy, as a matter of fact, from the High Court. And he said that his daughter had just rung him and told him that Kerr had dismissed us. And I said, ‘Oh, there are all sorts of rumours going around, Lionel, forget about it.’ I just didn't believe it. Then about two minutes later, one of a member of my staff put his head around the door and he said, ‘There's no point in keeping on working, boss,’ he said, ‘you're sacked.’ Brutal as that, it was.

Was there any feeling at the time that there was any alternative but to accept the dismissal? Was there discussion, for example, about the possibility of challenging its legality?

No, there wasn't that I can remember.

Do you think there should have been?

Well I just ... I've often wondered, if Gough had just defied it, gone on, kept the parliament going and acted as though he had not been dismissed. I ... as a matter of fact, I think that several of the senators were about to crack. They wanted to vote for supply. They were a bit outraged by what ... their tactic. I've often wondered what would have happened if we'd just refused to accept the sack.

Have you ever asked Gough?

No, I haven't really. I don't think he ever contemplated it. I think he's too much of a constitutionalist. That would have struck him as an undemocratic thing to do, I think.

And yet you've questioned the legality of the act, of Kerr's act.

Yes, I questioned the existence of these so-called reserve powers.

In the constitution.

Yes, and they're not in the constitution. They're something that are there, they're a gloss that lawyers have put on the constitution. There's no written reference to reserve powers in the constitution.

And yet it was Gough's respect for the constitution that made him accept the dismissal.

Well, yes, it didn't occur to him. I don't think it occurred to him to challenge the legality of it.

Now, what happened then to all of you? I mean, how did this affect your lives?

Well, we all got drunk that night. Or a lot of us did. We went to some ... I remember going to a wake in a well-known restaurant. What was it? Charlie's, I think it was. Then we assembled the next morning with sore heads. Not Gough. Gough of course would never relieve himself in that way. Very abstemious man, Gough. We gathered, a bunch of us gathered, the next morning over at The Lodge, to plot where we would go from there. We still believed we could win the ensuing election. Because the polls had shown a bit of a swing back to Labor as the crisis went on. That was really people saying, not that we'd won them back, but that they disapproved of the tactic that was being used to put an end to our reign. So we, you know, we plotted and we went about conducting a campaign and of course, the rest is history. We were well and truly done.

And there were you then back on the back bench?

Back on the back bench and could see realistically that we were there for a fair while. I was not getting any younger, and I decided that I'd get out.

And so what did you do to get out?

Well, Neville Wran had always promised me — he owed me a great gift, Neville Wran. And I'd done a great deal to give him a successful practice when he was at the Bar. And we'd become close friends. He'd always said to me, ‘Well, any time you want to get out and want to be appointed to the Bench, just let me know.’ So I let him know and he appointed me.

Before we leave politics ...


Before we leave politics, what was your relationship with Gough like?

Well, I was never close to Gough. I don't think anybody ever was. In many ways Gough is similar to Malcolm Fraser. What everybody took for arrogance was really shyness. They're both very awkward with people. Gough could never really let his hair down. He was always, you thought, he was posturing. He was very witty, he was a genuinely witty man. He did say some very funny things. But I wouldn't call him good company. You could never really think that you were on level terms with him. He was holding himself aloof. And I've maintained a friendship with him over the years where I think we like each other. But I've never got close to him and I don't know anybody who ever has.

At the end of day, summing up his leadership, how would you describe him as a leader?

He was a flawed leader. He was quite a spellbinder. He did play the leading role in getting Labor into office in 1972. I think he messed up the job a bit. He did some great things, there was a great feeling around when, you know, it was as though the old cultural cringe, the old Anglophilia that had been 'God bless the Queen and all her relations and keep us all at our proper stations', all that stuff that had been prevalent during the Menzies era was over. And that we were on our way to some sort of national self-respect. I think Gough deserves full marks for that, and for what he did for the arts, and for education and other things. But he didn't pay enough attention to a couple of the vital fields of government. The economic thing and the industrial relations thing. He entrusted those fields to people who were not really up to the job. And he paid the price.

Do you think that if there'd been another term, because even the term that you did have was quite fractured with ...

Yes, well, there was a double dissolution election in 1974.

If he'd had a bit longer, do you think that he would have emerged differently?

Yes, I think he would have, I think he was smart enough to learn. If we had ... we had another 18 months or so to go, if we hadn't been dismissed. If we'd served that 18 months I think we would have gradually clawed back support that we'd lost through economic ineptitude, the loans affair and all that. I think we'd have clawed back and could have survived the next election, and I think Gough in due course would have become the Prime Minister that he'd always hoped to be. He would have really put his mark on the country.

What did you think of Bill Hayden as a leader?

Well, as a matter of fact there was a contest and Bill didn't win the first time. There was ...

[end of tape]

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