|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: April 25, 1997
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.
When Bolte said to Sir Michael Chamberlain that the thing had to be fixed in twenty-four hours, Sir Michael Chamberlain said, 'Well, we'll meet at my home in Kew at eight o'clock that night, and I was to be there. The knock duly came on the door at about eight o'clock, and Sir Michael went to the door, opened the door, and I was behind him. And Bolte, who was rough, but polite, just ignored Sir Michael Chamberlain and he looked at me and he said, 'Do you think you can blackmail me?' and I said, 'Yes, I do', and he said - he didn't bat an eyelid - he said, 'All right, how much?' and we had a friendly discussion afterwards. [Laughs] And it wasn't very much, but at least the principle was conceded and per capita payments came in in that election and then were spread to other states. So really, that's how it sort of ... It's all told in Tom Prior's book called Bolte On Bolte.
Now, those who opposed the principle of state aid were committed to the concept of a free, secular, public education, available to all, and one of their reasons for that was that they saw schools as a nationally binding institution, where people, [coughs] whatever their backgrounds - religious, race, whatever, could in fact receive a certain standard of education, and their great fear was that the diversion of funds away from the state system, which was available to all, to systems that were based on creed, would in fact, in some way, subvert this objective. I ... were you ... how did you feel about that argument?
I could understand their argument, but I didn't agree with it, because in the first place I didn't think it would subvert the system at all. The people who had been in the Catholic school system in the First World War enlisted in as many numbers as anybody else. Their attitude to the country was the same as anybody else, and while I think that their argument was sincerely meant in many cases, I think it was also a discriminatory argument, because in the last analysis, it's a philosophic matter. And the question goes to who shall make the final decision as to the sort of education that a child shall get. Shall it be the state, or shall it be the parent? And I believe it's got to be the parent. You cannot say that a completely secularist system, which is what was envisaged, is not based on a philosophy. It is based on a philosophy. It may aim at national unity, but the philosophy is secularist, and, of course, from the viewpoint of the Catholic, it's an inadequate philosophy. So while I could understand their viewpoint, although I didn't think it would work out that way, I fundamentally opposed the philosophy on the basis that it was not the right of the state to determine the form of education given to the child. And I would hold that. If you had a Catholic state tomorrow morning, and the Catholic state tried to tell Protestant or agnostic or atheist parents that they had to have a system of education, which a Catholic majority had ultimately dictated, I would be on their side.
Given that parents have to decide, what would be your ideal system for funding education?
Well, my ideal system really is the system that really used to operate before the days of Medicare in the field of hospital benefits. If you went to the Melbourne hospital or went to St. Vincent's hospital, nobody said, 'If you go to the Melbourne hospital you can have vouchers, but you can't have them if you go to St. Vincent's'. What you did was, there was an equal medical benefit for everybody, and all you did when you went to the hospital was you signed a form indicating to whom ... who should collect the money. And that's my ideal, the ideal system, that there should be an equal entitlement in social benefits to everybody. But how it's spent and through whom, is at the indication of the beneficiary.
I want to turn now and go back to the whole time of the split, and what was happening inside the Catholic Church at that time, and just to pick up on some things that we didn't get as clear as we might have yesterday. [Santamaria: Yes, sure] Within the Catholic church itself, there were people who were opposed to the Movement.
I wonder if you could talk about them, about their motivation, where they were situated, and in a broad sense, where they were coming from.
Well, I suppose that there were many sources of opposition. I have no doubt that at every relevant stage, until the divisions in the church itself basically founded on the opposition of Bishop Carroll and Cardinal Gilroy, which was, as I indicated, for totally different reasons. But there were people who were opposed, who didn't belong to the Movement in the first place. We didn't take everybody. We only took those who were ready to work. And these were generally, although not always, people of very strong Labor background, as we were. And I know very good Catholic people, who when the division came and the DLP was giving its preferences against the ALP, were simply outraged by that, because it was against all of their traditions. And I think that that was quite a significant factor among a minority. And I think in Victoria it was a small minority. And originally I think it was a small minority in other states as well. So I could understand that their opposition was due to the fact of their Irish Catholic Labor tradition, and it's something that I can understand very well.
Given that you were a good Catholic who respected the hierarchy of the church, did the opposition of the Cardinal, who after all, was the supreme authority in Australia at the time ...
Well, there's a correction there. He wasn't the supreme authority. Every bishop, canonically speaking, in terms of canon law, is master in his own diocese. There is no primacy in Australia, as there is in the Anglican Church, or was in the Anglican Church, and as there is with the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. But nevertheless, he had a prestige due to the fact that he had the red hat. Well, of course, it always worried me greatly. But there was a problem. We had been given a sort of a commission to do a particular job. We had been told that, as far as the bishops were concerned, they did not wish to exercise any jurisdiction as to the policies, and suddenly, the law was being changed, now, or the understandings were being changed. They did want, or the Cardinal - and I think much more Bishop Carroll, his Auxiliary was driving - and his attitude was that in all trade union matters, the authority of the national conference of the Movement would be binding. There would be national uniformity. In political matters, no, the Bishop should be the final judge. Now, of course, if you followed that logically, there would be as many political policies as there were bishops. And that was a nonsense. Secondly, in the Labour Movement, you cannot dissociate the policies you pursue in the unions and the policies you pursue in the Labor Party, when one is affiliated to the other, and so I took my stand on the basis that I don't deny your right to withdraw from the agreement that you made at the beginning so many years ago, in 1945. You've got the right to do that as long as you give me time to disengage from the obligations I've entered into on the basis of your support, which you promised. And this was a very practical question. In the end, sixty-odd members of parliament lost their seats, because they supported the DLP. Sixty. Now that's a tremendous loss. And a lot of those had nothing but their ordinary pensions, not parliamentary pensions. Now very many of those had taken their stand on the basis of the fact that I had indicated there were certain supports behind them. And my view was, well you can withdraw your support, nevertheless you must discuss it and you must give me time to disengage. Well nothing like that ever happened. So while it was very unpleasant, as far as I was concerned, there was no doubt as to what should be done.
And that remained when the matter was taken to the Vatican ...
... and the Vatican ...The matter was taken to the Vatican, and the Vatican came down on the side of the Cardinal. How did you feel when you heard that news?
Well, it came down on his side up to a point. Oh well, first of all, I understood it. I am, as a Catholic, and as long as I remain a Catholic, obliged to believe that the Pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals. I'm not demanded to believe that he's infallible in matters of political judgement. So my attitude was, I looked at the decision, which in form seemed to very much against us, and was intended to be against us. And there is no doubt at all that Bishop Carroll was trying to get the Vatican to suppress us. There were five points of principle, which I won't bore you with now but the last ... and basically two were important. What the Vatican was saying was, that bishops should not be engaged in party politics. Organisations that were dependent on bishops and simply an extension of the bishops' authority, should not be engaged in politics, but could be engaged in educational things. They said that the Movement was fundamentally dependent on bishops and therefore that should operate. But the fifth clause was interesting, and it said, 'Nevertheless, Catholics are free, and will feel obliged ...' - and I'm quoting it exactly, because I learnt - ' ... to continue the struggle against atheistic Communism'. Fullstop. And so I thought to myself, well as long as we are legally connected in any way at all with the hierarchy, while I think that they're wrong, that we were ... it was indicated that we were free, nevertheless it's a waste ... a waste of time to argue this question, so if we want to continue our work, we simply have to break from the hierarchy altogether, and transform the nature of the organisation into a purely civic organisation, like the army or RSL or something like that. I must say that when I mentioned that to Archbishop Mannix, he hadn't thought about that, and I don't think he'd really believed that we could succeed. But he ... and I remember Archbishop Young was there, and Bishop Henschke was there - they ... they were diffident about it, but they said, 'If you have made up your mind about it and are ready to do it, it's up to you'. So I went back to the national conference of the Movement, which was meeting in a different place, and put it to them, and of course, they were pretty worried because it meant an entirely different basis. But overwhelmingly, with two exceptions, they agreed, and so from that ... it was then that the Movement became the National Civic Council.
And that title, which has always been a slightly mysterious title in a sense, that it didn't actually reflect the fact that it was a movement of lay Catholics in the title itself ...
Well, you see we were changing that basis, and [coughs] there were always people who weren't Catholic in the Movement, although fundamentally they were. But the title is ... I don't like the title National Civic Council and actually it's Jim McAuley's idea. He moved it. I thought it was terrible. I still think it's terrible.
I still call it the ... I don't like the title. But nevertheless ...
And you still call it the Movement in your mind.
Without any doubt at all, yes.
Why does that seem like a preferable word?
Oh, it's tradition, really. That's how we began. That's how I'd like us to end.
So you are a great respecter of tradition?
Oh, I wouldn't say that. But nevertheless, in this case I was. [INTERRUPTION]
Of course, many of the people who were sympathetic, not necessarily to Communism, but to some of its aims and objectives, felt that way because they saw that there were certain principles of Communism that seemed, to them, to be quite Christian. I would like you to tell me what it was about Communism that made you so hate and fear it as a force in the world, and what you'd have to say to those people who really saw in it a kind of form of politicised practical Christianity?
Well, I want to draw a distinction. You were talking a little while ago about the people, about Catholics who didn't agree with the Movement. And these were not Communists. These were Labor people. And I would not for a moment believe that they had any Communist sympathies. We're talking about other people now. I would simply believe that those who regarded Communism as a form of applied Christianity should have opened their eyes and began to understand what was happening in the Soviet Union. After all, you can excuse - I don't think you can excuse but you can understand - the Leninist excesses after 1917, from 1917 to 1921, in the period of war Communism. But by 1933, you had had the collectivisation of the peasantry, particularly in the Ukraine, and something between five and seven million people had been forcibly starved. In 1934 you had the show trials, when Bukharin and others were forced to condemn themselves, and to admit to things that they had never done as a result of totalitarian justice. And were foully attacked by Vishinski, the prosecutor. After the Second World War, or before the Second World War, you had the alliance between Stalin and Hitler, then in the Nazi-Soviet Pact. If later on, you took the question of Communism in China, which came to power in 1949, I think that the best estimates of the casualties in the period of the takeover of China by Communism, the period of the Great Leap Forward, the period of the Cultural Revolution, there are some estimates that up to 100 million people died. In other words, you've got to look at the facts. Looking at Das Kapital, which nobody ever read, or at the Communist Manifesto, you can say one thing. And I studied, not Das Kapital, I had better things to do with my time, but the Manifesto and a lot of the Leninist writings, [and] there was never any doubt about what they intended. Lenin I think said on one occasion, 'That a government which is prepared to use limitless terror can never be overthrown', and he meant it, because he did. So my argument was very simple. It's all very well for you, who have not studied what is happening in practice, to reach that conclusion but let's look at the facts.
Now, in terms of the philosophy of Marxism, are you totally out of sympathy with all of it?
Oh, there are things in the Marxist analysis of society that I'm not out of sympathy with, but not because they're Marxist. I think they ... existed and propagated before Marx. For instance - and this is a very abstract question - Marxist theory of the relationship between what, I think, he called the sub-structure, or the infrastructure, and the superstructure in society, which is simply this: that what really happens in the society is what happens at the grass roots. Who holds the power. That if the capitalist holds the power, he makes the final decisions, both politically and economically. And what a society tends to do, and perhaps it's done ... it's done deliberately, is to develop a whole ideology, a whole view of education, a whole view of philosophy, which is meant to justify what happens where the action really takes place. I think there's a lot of truth in that. I think you see that today. I think that the whole philosophy of economic rationalism is simply a justification for massive greed. The reality is the greed, the philosophy is simply the reflection of it. So in that sense, Marx said that. And I would have thought that was right anyway. It ... I didn't Marx to tell me that. So there are some things in the Marxist theory that I believe to be true.
Setting aside the terror, the practice of terror by Communist regimes, and just simply looking at the way in which the society was organised, what about it particularly struck you as un-Christian?
Well, there was the ... Just to take one thing, there was the outright persecution of all religious beliefs. And whether it was the Russian Orthodox Church or the Catholic Church, there was the massacre of the bishops and a very large number of the priests of both churches, at the very beginning of the regime. There was no doubt that Marx said, 'Religion is the opium of the people', and Lenin set out to destroy religion. Well, that's all right if you can get away with it, but you can't expect my support.
Among Communists in Australia, did you feel that ... particularly those that were your direct opponents in the Australian context, did you feel that they were operating out of ignorance, out of idealism, out of ... how did you see them? Where did you see them as coming from?
Well, I think that a lot came out of the Depression. I mean I saw them physically to begin with, in my home suburb in Brunswick. The main street in Brunswick is a thing called Sydney Road that goes right through to Sydney. On one side, close to the Town Hall, there is St. Ambrose's Church. On the opposite side of Sydney Road, there is the Mechanics' Institute and in front of the Mechanics' Institute, there's a small lawn, and Communist meetings used to take place on the lawn. Public meetings. And I used to wander over and have a look and I ... there were some of those people whom I knew quite well. And they were good people. I have no doubt at all that they were driven to Communism by the Depression. I think that was a main factor. Communism got its stimulus ... it was an abstract sort of a ... and a divided sort of organisation before then - but after 1929 it grew very rapidly. So I would say that was the main factor in the growth in Communism.
Can I talk to you about hatred? You were the object of quite a lot of hatred after the split. Did you feel any?
Oh, it took me a little while to get used to it, but after a while, you know, you've got to make up your mind whether you keep going or don't keep going. And I never let it worry me.
Did you feel any hatred towards your enemies?
Not really, I don't think so. As a matter of fact, my ... there were some of the Communist leaders who were extremely unpleasant men. One of them was Thornton. The best, still living, exponent of what Thornton was like, is Laurie Short of the Ironworkers. They didn't hesitate - people like Thornton - to beat you up, and a lot of my friends were beaten up in factories and workshops. Another who was like that was in the Seamen's Union, Elliot V. Elliott. One who was unlike that, but still quite ruthless, was Jim Healy, who was the secretary of the Watersiders, but he had a much more pleasant demeanour. No, for the majority, I didn't feel anything at all. We were just two armies in conflict, [laughs] and it's better to respect your enemies than to feel about them. I must say that I have much more feeling against what I [call] the masters of industry - not of industry, but of the financial system today, than I have against the Communist leadership.
Why is that?
Simply because they are quite ruthlessly determined to extract from society every financial and prestige advantage that they can get. They use political authority in order to impose systems like down-sizing, which has led to the disemployment of twenty million people in western Europe. And they know exactly what they're doing. They have no regard for what that means for the individuals who are concerned. I have quite a strong feeling about that. Mind you, when the Communists took power in Russia and in China they were much worse than that, but that was a long way away.
And you didn't have that kind of feeling about the Communists that you were ...
No, I think I can honestly say that I had quite a bit of personal feeling when I'd see friends of mine in the railway workshops being up for their opinions in their organisation, but that was more a natural reaction. It wasn't a class feeling, if you like.
Did you feel that in a broader sense, the Communists, unlike the present day masters of the financial system, were, in fact, ultimately, really wanting a better world?
No, I don't really. I didn't really feel that. I think they wanted to win, and winning meant the imposition of a system that would be utterly tyrannical, and in the end there was no doubt about that at all. After all, Gorbachev admitted it when he got rid of the Communist leadership in East Germany and so on. So there was no doubt about what would happen. But I didn't regard them as preferable, but I never had the feeling about them that I tend to have today.
Were you in support of those priests who sometimes, in the parish churches, would preach for example, that not to vote DLP, but to vote ALP, was a sin. Did you feel that was appropriate?
I thought that was nonsensical. But there weren't very many. At least, when I say there weren't very many, I heard that commonly alleged. A person who said that was Arthur Calwell, for instance. He said that he ceased to go to mass in his parish, which I think was Flemington in Melbourne, basically because the priests were strongly DLP. Other people who were there have said that, 'Well, there was no doubt at all about the priests' political sympathies, [but] he didn't intrude them'. I don't know what happened, I wasn't there. But I ... I simply feel that that was exaggerated, that that was commonly said in order much more widely than it was practised, in order to win support.
Analogies have been made between you and the Movement and McCarthyism in the United States during the Cold War. Do you accept that connection?
Well, it all depends what you mean by McCarthyism. McCarthyism was ... was a campaign built around the personality of Senator McCarthy, and a fair amount of recent writing about him says that he was misrepresented. I don't know whether that's true or not. But you've got to remember that there were at higher levels in the American administration, Alger Hiss and others, who were betraying their country. So if you take away the 'boom' words if you like, like McCarthyism and so on, and say what was actually happening, in Australia we kept our minds strictly on two things. One was we would oppose - had no sympathy for, and would oppose - anybody in government administration who was betraying secrets, Australia's state secrets to the Soviet Union, and there were. There's no question of that today, that's fully admitted. And secondly, those who tried to use union power in order to take control of the Labor Party. These were scientific propositions, if you like.
The problem with McCarthyism, though, was that people talked about guilt by association. And there were all kinds of people who were named as being Communists who weren't necessarily Communists at all. And the notion of fellow travellers and so on came up. In Australia too, there was a sense, during some periods, that people who were not necessarily Communists, but who had left-wing sympathies, were in fact targets for the anti-Communist forces. Could you comment on that?
Yes. Well, there were fellow travellers. I mean there were members of the Communist Party, who had signed their membership forms. And there were people who were very sympathetic to the Communist Party or to Communist policies and Communist causes, who didn't join the Communist Party, but who generally worked with them in trade unions. They'd be on the same tickets. They would be at Labor Party conferences. I mean, there were people like Brian Fitzpatrick, for instance. When ... Brian Fitzpatrick was a historian of the Labour Movement. I remember writing at the time, there were a lot of people who said that Brian Fitzpatrick was a Communist. I wouldn't say that, because I had no proof of that. But there was no doubt at all that he was a fellow traveller. But since then it has emerged that he was a Communist. There were many people who carried membership tickets in both parties. Now, I always believed that you had to be careful about that, not because I was very virtuous, but simply because if you were blown out on one vital fact, the authority of what you said in other fields tended to be sabotaged as well.
What did you think of the move to outlaw Communism?
I had always been opposed to banning the Communist Party by legislation, because - and that's a matter or record, you'll find that in News Weekly at all stages - basically because I believed that if you drove them underground they would be more difficult to defeat. If they proclaimed ... if Jim Healy proclaimed himself a member of the Communist Party, you didn't have to go and prove it. I changed from that on one instance in 1951, at the time of the anti-Communist referendum, when Menzies set out to ban the Communist Party. And my reason was simply this: it was in the middle of the Korean War. I had seen how, in 1939, the Communist Party in Australia went over to the side of Hitler, like the rest of the Communist movement, and sabotaged Australia's shipping to the Middle East. They believed in what they called revolutionary defeatism. In the middle of the Korean War, there was a quite serious danger that the Korean War would develop into a Third World War. And that has been proved from the Soviet archives that have been opened up, ever since the Gorbachev revolution. And in my judgement at that time, to go through another period in which - in the event of world war - there would be an attempt to sabotage the Australian war effort, was something that wasn't worth risking, and therefore, I said, 'Vote yes', in the referendum. The interesting thing about that was that Archbishop Mannix said, 'Vote no', and I had quite interesting contretemps with him on that. I had written an editorial for News Weekly in which I urged a yes vote, for what Menzies was proposing, which I emphasised was against the whole line of our tradition until that moment. And so I thought I should take this editorial to Archbishop Mannix and show it to him, because it represented a pretty drastic change in policy. So he read it. And then he produced a sheet of paper in which he had the notes of a talk that he was going to give on the following Sunday - he generally spoke to people at openings of churches and so on. Never from the pulpit - in which he said, 'Vote no', because he believed that the powers were unnecessary. So he looked at me and he said, 'What are you going to do?' and before I could give an answer - and I knew what answer I would give - before I would given an answer, he said, 'If you change what you've written in that editorial, because you know what I'm going to say, I'll have no respect for you'. So that's the answer to your question.
[end of tape]