|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.
People have said, about you, that you're somebody who sees everything in black and white and doesn't see the grey. Do you think that's fair?
Well, it doesn't matter whether it's fair or unfair, but it's not true. You can't examine the points that I've felt called upon to examine in the course of my life and believe that you can see everything in terms of black and white. After all, take the situation today for the Catholic in the terms of the conflict in the church at the present moment. I understand the viewpoint of those who might oppose very much because having asked for independence of judgement, and the right to independence of judgement in my own secular and civic life, in other areas I can understand that those, with whom I don't agree, demand the exactly the same thing in the moral and religious area. I'd be a fool if I didn't see that. But on the other hand, I have said that when you join or belong to a society, you are subject to its fundamental rules. If you don't believe they're right or if you don't want to live by them, well you leave. And I would do that. But, although I don't agree with my opposition, I can see the argument, and I do in most things. You're a fool if you don't see the greys.
And so it's not a question of 'if you're not for me, you're against me'. You don't see things that way?
Not at all. Not at all. I mean you apply that judgement in the course of a major conflict, whether it's political or religious, only in the last analysis, when there is no alternative, when your back's to the wall and you've got to fight. That's ... But you, if you have any sense, you do your level best to avoid a struggle always.
Now, talking of struggles, would you sum up for me, what for you was essentially the crucial things that happened during the period of the split between the ALP and the formation of the DLP? Could you give me a summary, really, of what happened as a result of the evolution of the Movement and its impact on the ALP, and then the subsequent division of the ALP into the DLP and the ALP.
Well, I suppose that to a greater or lesser degree, I was conscious of the fact - I'm not quite sure of the various years, but they took place roughly at the same time - at roughly the same time, three Labor Parties throughout the world split. It wasn't that there was only a split in Australia. The Italian Socialist Party split into two. The Japanese Socialist Party split into two. The Australian Labor Party split into two. And in Britain, in the end, the Labor Party split there. On a different issue. But of the three Labor Parties that split at the same time, the question which faced them all was Communism, and the relationship to the Communist Party, and the relationship of that party to the Soviet Union's political, industrial and other ambitions. So whereas everybody who seemed to me to be engaged in the struggle here in Australia, regarded what was happening in Australia as unique, uniquely great or uniquely terrible, I knew that it was a general phenomenon, and, therefore, while the Labor Party did split, and the issue was Communism and Communist influence, it was really a worldwide phenomenon that we were dealing with. Now, the ... a number of people have said that the tensions between the anti-Communist group, which was largely, but not exclusively Catholic, and the pro-Communist group, were so great that regardless of Evatt, the party would have split. I don't believe that. I believe that if as a result of the enormous embarrassment that Evatt was thrust into as a result of the Petrov Commission, in which his leadership was at stake, and he was going to be removed from the leadership, I believe that if he had not that sort of brilliant madness from which he suffered, decided to seek a totally new alliance, to go back to the Communists, to use the sectarian weapon, which he'd seen working so effectively at the time of conscription, I don't believe that there would have been a split. Because in the last analysis, there were profound personal antipathies, but the philosophies of the Industrial Group ... Groupers were the traditional Labor philosophies. So the second point that I'd like to make is that the split happened as a result of one man's determination to preserve his leadership. And that's no my judgement only. You may have read in Hayden's biography that he entered the Labor Party slightly after that, but entirely from Evatt's viewpoint, believing that Evatt was absolutely right, and believing, I think he said, that we were fascists. And he's come to entirely the different conclusion, to say that the responsibility for the split was the result of the decision taken by Evatt. Thirdly, the form which the split took would have depended entirely ... would have happened entirely differently if there had been no DLP. And there was a very good chance that there would have been no DLP in Australia, if the federal conference of the Labor Party at Hobart, in 1955, [coughs] had been run fairly and not rigged, and we had been defeated, there would have been no DLP, simply because we would have kept a defeat. But when, as Clyde Cameron points out, it wasn't run like that, then you had to make a decision, and it could easily have been the other decision, because you had no idea as to whether you'd succeed or fail in establishing an alternative party with sufficient strength to matter. But that was the third point, we made the decision. Those I think where the essential elements. In other words, we were dealing with a worldwide problem, which faced every Labor Party in the world, including the British Labor Party: that splits had already taken place, that the issue was exactly the same, and that whereas in Italy you had the development of a new socialist party that was anti-Communist under Saragat, and you had a socialist party that was anti-Communist in Japan, we didn't set out to establish a party, we set out to establish a blocking apparatus, in the end to bring about Labor unity again. I think that's about all that I can say about it in a short compass.
On that crucial night, where Archbishop Mannix left the decision to you about which way to go ...
When you say 'you,' we should say more correctly, 'youse', because I had consulted all of my colleagues and they could have decided differently.
On that crucial night, when Archbishop Mannix left to the Movement the decision about which way to go, what do you think would have happened, had you decided to stay within the ALP, to accept defeat in the short term, and to work to persuade your colleagues - still your colleagues - to take your point of view, rather than to split and make them your enemies? What do you think would have been the outcome?
Well you must remember that that didn't depend on us. If we had decided to bow the head, all of my closest colleagues would have been expelled. I wasn't a member of the party, but they were. Men like McManus, and Jack Cain in New South Wales, and ultimately, since it did spread to Queensland, Gair in Queensland, and all of his cabinet went with him, you know, with one exception. All of the leaders would have been expelled, and once those leaders would have been expelled, two things would have happened. On the one hand, you would have no possibility of fighting back successfully or not. Things in political parties never depend on the grass roots at all, they're manipulated, so that all of the figures who would have had a voice in decision would have gone. And secondly, you would have been responsible for their political execution by not putting up a fight for them. It's one thing: people will forgive you if you fight and are defeated. But if you don't fight because you're betraying, even if you think it's in the interests of the long term, they won't forgive you for that.
You decided not to be a lawyer, and to go the route that seemed to come to you ...
Can I interrupt you. No, I didn't. I didn't decide that. I was asked to take on a job for two years and that's what my contract was.
At a crucial point early on, your path to being a lawyer was interrupted by an offer you, sort of, couldn't refuse.
And you went into another path in which you've stayed. Looking back, and thinking about your own talents, the talents that you were given, do you feel that that was a fortuitous event in your life, that you were set on that path? Or do you ever regret that you didn't become a lawyer?
Well, I suppose when you're getting a thrashing you tend to regret a mistaken decision but I ... I never had the luxury of choice. You see, I took this on in 1938 and I should have finished in 1940, and that's all that I thought that I was doing. But by 1940 we ... I was in the middle of organising the Rural Movement, and we were just about to start doing something in the unions. I couldn't bail out then. Once you move into that field, you've got to see that through, and it takes five or six years of work and five or six years have gone. And you're down to the end of the forties. And there you're in the middle of the coal strike, which Chifley said was a pre-revolutionary struggle. Can't bail out then. Within a couple of years you're in the middle of the Labor split. [Laughs[ You can't bail out then. So in the end you discover that you really weren't making a sensible choice at all. You simply are predisposing the critical moments later on and you can't bail out. Now, am I sorry that I didn't bail out? Well, in the bad moments I suppose I am, but if I'd bailed out I ... for the rest of my life, I would have known I'd run away. It's not worth it.
You've had, in the course of your life, two major battles. One against Communism, and then the second phase, which was really as you say, about the results of the cultural revolution that took place in the sixties. Which do you feel has been the most important battle?
Well, they were both critically important in different fields. But if you ask me which has been the most important historical phenomenon, well again, it's very difficult to say. You see, if Communism had not been defeated, and I'm not saying that we defeated Communism. Gorbachev and those factors ultimately defeated it. But I think that we can claim to have played a part in defeating it in Australia. If Communism had not finally been defeated and self-destructed, I don't know what form it would have taken. But overall, in the way in which things fell out, I think that what I call the cultural revolution of the sixties, with those elements beginning in the Vietnam War and going right through down the line, to the feminist movement, and to the struggle within the Catholic Church and so on, I think that this is as important as the cultural break up of Rome in the Fifth Century. I'm sure of that. Because you see what has happened to marriage, to the family, to religion and so on. These are huge things. So you're really asking me to make an abstract judgement in a historical situation, which is difficult to evaluate. But the cultural revolution is very big indeed.
You've said that there's at least a possibility that you will, one day, meet God, and that you had some questions for him. What would be the crucial ones?
Well, I hope that I'm not misunderstood when I say this. I'm not blaspheming or anything like that. But as an academic question, I ... you see I happen to believe that on the balance of evidence, the only rational explanation for the existence and the maintenance of the universe, demands the existence of a deity. I don't see any rational way of avoiding that, although half the scientists say that there is. But against that, there then comes a huge question: the sort of world that has been created. There is the great struggle between good and evil in the dispositions of every individual person. And then you see the great historical tragedies today, in Central Africa, in Yugoslavia, this purposeless killing of human beings, men and women and little babies. I ... I would like to ask God, 'Why did you make that sort of a world?' Now, I am confident that there is an answer, but I don't know the answer.
Do you feel that on the whole your own life has been a success?
Oh, it's a question I don't ask really. If you ask me that in a different way: have I liked doing things? I'd say yes I do. I've been very lucky. Don't forget against the vicissitudes of public victories and defeats - many more defeats than victories - the fundamental thing that really matters to me is my family, and I have been more fortunate than any other human being I know in that regard. So I rather like it.
You have told us that you feel that there were quite a lot of things that you set out to do that never came to anything. Is there any that you particularly regret, that you feel you wished you'd been more successful in?
Well, there are a lot and we really wouldn't have the time for me to go an examine my conscience as to which ... one thing that I would like to have seen would have been the success of that land settlement movement in the fifties, so that we could have wedded some part of the migration programme to some part of the settlement programme so that we would have had an Australia that, in the end, became highly decentralised. And that would have had an impact upon our ultimate prospects of maintaining the sort of Australia that we've got, which I think is very much in doubt at the present moment, simply because you cannot - or it is very difficult - to solve the economic problems of a country so highly centralised as Australia. That's one thing I would like to have been able to do a little bit more about.
You dislike the term intellectual. Why's that?
Oh, I've met too many intellectuals to like it. [Laughingly] I think the word, you know, half the people who call themselves intellectuals are simply fatuous, that's all, and I don't want to be classified as that.
It's sometimes used to mean somebody who's interested in ideas, and you'd certainly be in that category, wouldn't you?
Yes, but I've been lucky that I was able to put the ideas that I believed to be important, to the test of action. Ideas qua ideas that are not subject to the test of action, in which generally I've been defeated, really you don't know what the validity of those ideas are, because ideas must relate to reality, mustn't they? So it's very lucky if you can put ideas to the test of action, and that's not the life of an intellectual.
You've had some very important friends who were ... who accompanied you through the exploration of your ideas, and not the least of them was James McAuley. Did he offer you a lot of support, in the course of your life, at a personal level?
I think have already said that I met James McAuley at the beginning of 1955, and I think we were each other's closest friend, after 1963 when Dr. Mannix died, until his death in 1976. In fact, the priest who was his confessor wrote me a letter some years after he died, saying that he had asked him who was his closest friend, and I must say I was delighted to see that he mentioned my name. So there have not been very many. The person to whom I must say that I owed most in the sense of closeness outside my own family - I reserved that all the time - was Archbishop Mannix. And the second, into which Jim McAuley grew, was Jim McAuley. And since then, that's 1976 and this is 1997, there has been nobody that is in the same position.
Did he ever give you advice?
Yes, he did. He used to tell me - not to be very elegant about it - to pull my head in really. He always believed that I was too strong on the necessity for action. And I see that you've picked up his ... I think he sent this poem to me in 1968, thereabouts, and he points in the first stanzas to the many failures and the impact that failure has on your own internal sentiments. It's going to be very difficult for me to read this without my glasses, but I'm going to say, this is the last stanza: Nor is failure our disgrace. By means we cannot know, He, God, keeps the... Oh no, I can't I'm sorry. Can we do that again? [INTERRUPTION]
Did he ever give you any advice?
Yes, on more than one occasion, he in effect in the vernacular, said, 'Pull your head in a bit'. He had the belief that I was too intent on action and that there was a role, a great role for reflection. It was easy for him, he was a poet, and he spent a lot of time reflecting, and then expressing. Well I was in a different position. But he epitomised that particular line of advice in a poem that he wrote, which he sent to me as his Christmas present, I think it was in '68, and I see that you've got it there in your hand. If I can just put my glasses on. The first four stanzas are really going over different parts of the human existence. And I thought he emphasised the failures and the defeats very adequately in the first four. But then he finished up and he said, Nor is failure our disgrace. By means we cannot know, He ... - that is God - ...keeps the merit in his hand. And suddenly, as no one planned, behold the kingdom grow. Now you look at that. What he's really saying is, that all those failures were failures. He doesn't say that they weren't. They were. But they're failures in the pursuit of a good, and God, who is there all the time, puts your failures as well as your successes in his hand, and then while you can't bring success out of the failure, he simply picks them up and transforms them into a sort of a symmetry, which is success. So when he wrote that to me, I wrote back and I said, 'I hope you know what you're talking about'.
[end of interview]