Australian Biography

James McClelland - full interview transcript

Tape of 9

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Looking back at a life in which you've had, well, three or possibly even four careers, what would you see as your most satisfying achievement?

Well, I was quite pleased with the work I did on the Land and Environment Court. I think when I was a minister, my activities to achieve a wage pause with its consequential influence on the rate of inflation, I was quite proud of that, and I've enjoyed writing. I think probably I've enjoyed that most of all.

In politics you say you never really wanted to be top dog. What do you think it is in your character that made you not want something that all those around you were after?

I suppose nothing seemed to me to be important enough to warrant extending myself to the full. Now, that may be just an elaborate name for laziness, and I wouldn't deny that I've got a lazy streak. Sort of an Irish, hedonist streak. I could work flat-out for short periods, but I could never really see the worthwhileness of the endeavour that goes into top achievement. I'm not proud of it, it's just my assessment of why I've never really scaled the heights. They didn't seem important enough to me.

Even when you did work flat-out, did you ever feel fully stretched?

No, not really. I don't think I've ever been fully stretched.

And so looking back, do you feel that actually nature gave you quite a hefty endowment and at times, there were times when you used it, but perhaps not to the full?

Yes, I think there's been a certain facility about everything I've done, I've never really had to stretch myself.

What do you think have been your greatest assets in life?

I would say a certain facility with the language.

Is intelligence important to you?

Yes, it is.

In other people?

Yes, I wouldn't say that I'm the greatest sufferer of fools.

What would you say were your worst faults?

Well, I suppose the one that I just adverted to, the fact that I could never really be bothered to take the trouble to realise my full potential.

Do you think that that would have happened if you'd been a writer?

Yes, I do. Yes, basically, I suppose it's that I was not doing, for most of my life, what I should have been doing.

What have been the things in your life that you've just enjoyed most, as a hedonist?

Well, I've enjoyed companionship, you know, conviviality, conversation, I've enjoyed travelling. You know, the sight of a beautiful city like Prague, Paris, fills me with delight. Women, I've loved women. That's not a bad list, is it?

Have you been surprised at what's happened to communism in your lifetime?

Oh well, I've long got over that, but I must say that the sudden collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and the eastern European countries did take me by surprise. I could see with Gorbachev's ascendancy that there was going to be a modification of the dogma. But its sudden total collapse did take me by surprise. As I think it took everybody by surprise.

What do you think it was that was the flaw that you detected from your reading way back then, and that finally brought the whole thing tumbling down?

I think it was really an exaggeration of human potential. The idea that the great majority of humanity would suddenly be converted to selflessness and to acceptance of what was the old Marxist dogma, from each according to his capacity, to each according to his needs. Now that involved a belief in a level of altruism which I think is just not in the nature of people. There's also, of course, an underestimate of the evil involved in the exercise of power. I think that, you know, I used to believe that the whole trouble was that the wrong man had got control of the first socialist state in history — Stalin. And that if Trotsky had got it, everything would have been alright. I now see that that was a fallacy. I think that absolute power, the old Lord Acton dictum — absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. They were the fundamental flaws in the Marxist dogma I believe.

So really it is, was, your view of human nature and what human beings were, or were not capable of, that made you see the problems with the doctrine?

Yes, I suppose so. I saw that it was imposing an extravagant optimism about what was humanly possible. Not only that, I saw that it was, there were all sorts of economic flaws in the argument.

Now, you started out in life believing that ahead of you was a heaven that if you lived a good life on this earth you would one day inherit?


And then you moved to a position where heaven could be created on earth in a communist paradise?

Yes, that's right.

What do you think about heaven now?

Well, I have absolutely no expectations of an afterlife. I believe that death is the end. There's no such thing as heaven ... on earth or wherever the believers think it is.

What do you think's going to happen to you when you die?

I'll just cease to exist. There'll be no soul floating around up there on its way to the eternal — what is it — the beatific vision.

Does that bother you?

No, not at all.

Why not?

Well, I accept the fact that we all die, and that it is the end of it, and if we have wasted our lives, well, that's our fault or the fault of our fate or circumstances and that's all there is to it.

What do you think of the life you've had?

I think I've had a good life. I think I've had a fortunate life. I've had a good bit of good luck. I've had a certain amount of achievement. I've had a lot of fun, and on the whole, I don't have much quarrel with the hand that fate dealt me.

One element of your personality which everybody around you is very aware of is your great sense of humour and your ability to see the ridiculous in things. When you were in politics, did that ever come close to deserting you?

Ah, no, as a matter of fact, it was fatal to my ambitions. I think my delay in getting into the ministry wasn't really long by ordinary standards, but I think I'd have been there earlier if it hadn't been for the fact that a few people suspected that I was laughing at them.

Were you?


Do you laugh at yourself too?

Yes sure, I can see how absurd I am.

Could you tell me about the very beginning?

I was born in Melbourne on June the 3rd, 1915, that's about five weeks after Gallipoli, into a working-class, or lower middle-class family. My father was a tradesman painter in the Victorian Railways, that is, he'd done a six-year apprenticeship. He not only ... he mixed his own paints, they weren't ready-made in those days, he was an expert paper hanger and a sign writer. And he was very good at his trade, and remained in the railways throughout his working life.

While you were minister you did a trip overseas, didn't you, to the United Nations?

No, I made no overseas trips at all when I was a minister.

When did you go to the United Nations?


And what was that for?

Well, every year the parliament sends a couple of representatives to the United Nations. The Senate has a turn one year and the House of Reps the next. There's one from each side of politics. They go to attend the General Assembly of the United Nations, which is held from September to November every year. It's a junket really.

And what did you get out of it?

Oh, I enjoyed enormously living in New York for three months. It's the only junket I had. I knocked back several suggestions from my department when I was a minister that I should go overseas. But that was in a critical stage of the government's fate, the last six months of the Whitlam Government, and I believed that I should stay there. So I was not a junketeer by nature, but I'm afraid that I succumbed to the proposition, I was nearing the end of my parliamentary career, that I was entitled to at least one trip. And I did what was expected of me, I spoke at the United Nations, but to be perfectly honest, I don't think it's a practice that is justified, of sending a couple of members to New York for three months every year. I think their contribution is minimal and that the expense is not warranted.

Did you learn anything that would be useful to the Australian Government?

Well, I met a few representatives of other governments. As a matter of fact, I probably sat next to Pol Pot. The first thing that happened when the assembly opened was an argument about which delegation from Cambodia was entitled to be credentialled. One was from the Khmer Rouge and the others were from the other side. And finally they admitted the Khmer Rouge delegation, which almost certainly included Pol Pot. But I didn't know him, nobody had heard of him then.

So it didn't ... your experience with the United Nations didn't enlarge your view of the world very much?

Oh, of course it did, because I was ... I'd been to New York before but I'd never stayed there for a period like that and New York is the world in microcosm. It's a world, New York, and of course I learnt things. I learnt things about American society and I was enjoying myself. I was also informing myself.

So wouldn't you say that's valuable to a politician?

Oh yes, certainly. But hardly justified I think.

The Australia you were born into is a very, very different place from the one it is now. What sort of things have changed that you approve of?

Oh well, when I was born the population of Australia would have been barely seven million. The only non-Anglo-Celtic people were a few Italians, a few Chinese who ran restaurants, and a few Greeks, who ran restaurants in country towns. The White Australia Policy was still in force, women's place was in the kitchen and the bedroom, all of those things have changed since ... in the space of my life. It is a very, very different country. It looks different. There were none of these great glass towers that dominate the skyline in our cities. I don't think that has been an advance. Eating has improved, primarily because of the influx of the people from other countries. The position of women has improved. Poverty has not been eliminated but I think that the standard of living, on the whole, is higher. In fact it is obviously higher. We didn't have television. We were more British. All of these things have changed dramatically, and it is a totally different world.

And you approve of most of these changes?

I approve of the increase of the standard of living, although I think it could be more widely spread. I don't think the war on poverty is over by any means. I approve greatly of the influx of other Australians, other ethnic Australians.


Because I think the old Anglo-Celtic Australian was a bit pallid, not as interesting as it is now. I think there are more good looking people around, largely because of miscegenation. And there's greater variety in eating as I said. And I think the Australia of next century will be a far more interesting place than the Australia that I entered in 1915.

What would you hope for it?

Well, the outstanding weakness in the country at the present time is that even in periods of, what we might call relative prosperity, such as now, we still seem to be stuck with an unemployment rate oscillating between seven and 10 percent. And I think that's absolutely intolerable in a country with the resources that we have. And it should not be beyond the wit of the people who run our society to find an answer to that problem. That's the most pressing problem that I see.

Have you got any thoughts about how it might be solved, what direction it might move in?

Well, I don't think anybody should be unemployed. I think the work that is available should be shared among the workforce. Undoubtedly the structural changes that have happened throughout industry, that have made Australian industry more competitive, were necessary. But there just must be tasks to be fulfilled by those who are laying idle and wasting their lives.

Traditionally this has been something that's been done through public expenditure and the provision of publicly funded employment for people, for people to do useful things for the community.

Yes, I think that's one of the ... that's part of the answer. Another of course is the expansion of different industries to absorb the people who haven't got jobs. It just passes my comprehension that people as smart as the human species is, capable of all the enormous technological innovations that we've seen in my lifetime, can't find an answer to a problem like that. There has to be an answer.

Now I know you don't like to preach, but if you were talking to a young man such as you were years ago, but who was entering the workforce now, or really entering his adult life now, what kind of advice would you give him?

I would say that in order to have any sort of security of employment he needs to have some specialty. Of course, as happened in the Industrial Revolution, certain specialties become outdated. Well, I mean, in our time, remember when a linotype operator was one of the aristocrats of labour. Well, there's no such thing as linotype operators today. And that is a risk that would run anybody undertaking specialist training. In the high-tech field there seems to be a more assured future, in the computer world, and obviously in tourism. But there will inevitably be other technological changes which will make certain trained people redundant. Well, there has to be a system that retrains them and finds another place, somewhere else in society, for them.

Looking back at your life, do you have any regrets?

Yes, I suppose I regret that I didn't do, get into the writing field earlier in my life. That's what I was, that's what I should have been.

But then, isn't it a problem sometimes, that the people that we have doing things aren't really thinkers and the thinkers become just thinkers. I mean, you did think and do, didn't you, in your political life?

Oh yes, I'm not suggesting I've had a wasted life. I've done some useful things. I've been a modest achiever. I'm not expressing dissatisfaction with the life I've had. As I've said, I think fate dealt me a pretty good hand.

[end of interview]