|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: April 23, 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.
Now, you were given this job by Doctor Mannix. What did you actually have to do?
Well, the answer to that is that I didn't know what we had to do. My idea was that he and some of the other bishops were quite impressed with this idea of discussion groups, which examined political, economic and philosophic matters from a Catholic viewpoint and so that was a form of advanced adult education for Catholics who had none at that time. I thought that that's what we were supposed to do. But in fact, the situation changed that very quickly and we ... somebody made a suggestion. It was the deputy leader of the Labor Party in Victoria whose name was Bert Cremean, who was a very good Catholic fellow. He said it was very important for the Australian bishops to come out decisively on what we called the side of social justice, examining Australian problems in the light of the Depression, which was still there, even at the beginning of the war. And so the idea of a social justice statement, technically issued by the bishops every year, developed and I think the first one was '39. Well, with the exception of the one that was issued in '39, which was written by Dr. Mannix's coadjutant archbishop, Justin Simmons, I drafted all but about two, or three at the very outside, so I had to gradually familiarise myself with a lot of Catholic social doctrine, with a lot of economics and politics that I wasn't ... I was only broadly familiar with. And then somebody had the bright idea that if these Campion discussion groups went on in the vicinity of universities, because they were the people in Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane and Adelaide, who were most closely affected by that concept, what about the people in the country, weren't they entitled too? So out of that developed a thing that was called the National Catholic Rural Movement. Now if ever there was a Collins Street farmer, I was it. I couldn't grow a lettuce. But they said, 'You organise it', and I thought, you know, if there was ever a lunatic, the person who said that was it. But anyway, I think started to organise the Catholic Rural Movement and I think that was the happiest thing I ever did in the whole of my life. So I was working along both of those lines and then, in 1941, Cremean again, but representing some of the leaders of the Labor movement, including Percy Cleary, who was president of the ACTU, the secretary, Broadby, and a few others, then said that the Communist problem needed to be dealt with, and they looked to the churches to do something about it and I was asked would I do something in that field. I thought to myself that was almost as crazy as getting me to do something with farmers. So that's how it developed.
Why didn't you go to the war?
Simply because ... I was called up, I got my uniform and I got my gun, and then the Department of Labour and National Service seconded me, because of my Rural Movement connections, to help with the formation of what were known as the War Agricultural Committees. These were bodies that developed cooperatives in country areas, so that farmers could pool their labour and their machinery and we'd already been doing this before then. So I was seconded to do that.
What were the objectives of the ... What were the objectives of the Catholic Rural Movement, and why did you say that you enjoyed it more than almost anything you've ever done?
Because I thought that ... I had never met farmers before. I thought that the farmers that I met, and I ... you know, we had something over 270 branches of that in all the eastern states, and South Australia and Western Australia too. I thought that they were the finest people I've ever met and I've never lost my affection for them, although there are far fewer today. And the purpose of that was to apply the same: to form branches, to form study groups within the branches, and to adapt the principles of social justice, which we were trying to adapt to industrial life, because of the Depression and so on, to the rural situation: problems of rural debt, problems of erosion and so on, a totally different set of problems, but the principles were perfectly capable of adaptation, and so gradually your mind, your conscientiousness, developed along those lines.
And what did you see as being the really important objectives for rural reform in Australia?
Well, I thought then that the problem of rural debt needed to be tackled. I thought rural debt was too onerous and that there should be writing down of debts. There was the old Judaic business that every ten years - was it every ten years? - was a year when debts were written off. I thought that the system, the level of interest rates for farmers on the land ... for farmers, should be founded on entirely different principles, from interest rates to industrial activities and industrial production. And I had my authorities for that. There was a very good report from the League of Nations on that. I thought that if those things weren't done, the problem of soil erosion would become - which was becoming extremely urgent at that time - would simply grow out of control.
Because the farmers really couldn't afford to take of it?
They couldn't afford to take care of it, and they were being driven by the banks to produce the maximum on the farm and not to have the rotations and so on that they should have. And I've never ... I've never changed my views about that.
Were banks foreclosing?
Yes, they were. Yes, they were.
So what's changed?
Nothing. Nothing, except that the rate of interest is much higher. Farmers today are paying fifteen per cent, and I regard that as theft, and Australian agriculture today has no prospects whatsoever unless that is changed. In 1960 - if you don't mind my statistics - there were over two hundred thousand agricultural holdings in Australia. We're down to a hundred thousand and thirty farmers leave the land every week. And I think that the two major political ... the three major political parties, including the National Party, who simply do nothing about that, have a lot and a good deal to answer for. But we've gone on too far, haven't we? This is 1997.
Well yes, but it's sort of part of the same evolution.
Yes, it is. Yes, it is.
So during that time that you were involved in that, and you got involved in the war effort, relating to rural activity, what again were you actually doing? Were you leading these discussion groups or were you organising them?
You were organising them, but you very quickly discovered that if you organised a group and you didn't have a trained leader who knew what the subject was about, knew how to conduct discussions, was respected and regarded as the natural leader, that the thing would fail. So the training of leaders was a key part of the formation of groups, and so you gradually grew to recognise those people who had leadership qualities in them, and to pick them out and to do some special work on them.
Were you working in these country areas in the same kind of way? When you were talking about the context in which you were doing it, with Catholic people working and living on farms, was this part of the sort of movement that was a kind of lay apostolate?
Yes, that's what it was regarded as. It was regarded as the rural part of that.
Now, before we go into detail and start on the long story of the way in which you were working in the cities, can I go back to you for a moment, and say, what was happening to you? Because here you were, really a very young man to be taking on these responsibilities. What was ...
Not taking them on - being conscripted.
... Being conscripted for these responsibilities and agreeing to take them on. What was happening in your personal life? Were you ... had you discovered girls yet? Where were you in the social scheme of things?
Well fortunately, everything was more or less unified geographically anyway. In the Campion Society, before we started The Catholic Worker, I was asked to produce their monthly bulletin and I did. It was pretty terrible, but I produced it. The difficulty was to get it typed and there was a girl at the Central Catholic Library who agreed to type it, and one thing developed into another.
And who was she?
Well, her name was Helen Power and she came from an Irish family who'd been hit very badly by the Depression. And oh well, we became friends and I married her. I was never able to work out why she married me, [laughs] but that's another question.
And why did you marry her?
Well, it's ... I can't answer that.
But I mean it's interesting, the reason that I'm asking you that question [laughs] ... I can see you're about to say that's a silly question, but I suppose because I'm trying to get a picture of the way you were making your choices, and who you were, what sort of a person would have attracted you, what you were looking for in a girl?
I wasn't looking for anything in a girl. I wasn't looking for a girl.
Right, okay, well that's interesting in itself. So let me ask you that question again. So when you married Helen Power, why did you decide to marry her at that time?
Well, it's very difficult. I would have married her two years before then if I could have. I ... it's very easy to say that I've always been a sucker for a pretty face, but there was much more to it than that. We had the same ideas, and she was by no means ... she was by no means as conscious of the things that I've been talking about in the past but she knew what we were doing because basically she was typing out our bulletin for us and so on. And I ... you can't ... you can't explain things more deeply than that. You know what I mean.
Yes, I do, except that it is also true that a lot of people ... I mean had you been out with other girls? Had you been ...
... Because one of the things that's often said, in the present context of today, is that, you know, it's important to choose a partner after you've had a lot of experience and moved about and I guess really you were coming from a completely different perspective on the way in which you went into marriage and with what sort of commitment, and I suppose that was really the sort of thing that I was wanting to ask you about.
Well, I think that you might have seen that in relation to other things it didn't take me long to make up my mind about things, rightly or wrongly. And it didn't take me very long to make up my mind about that thing. And there it was. I want to say about her that I don't think that many other girls would have entered into that sort of relationship at that time, because I was getting four pounds ten a week, which wasn't ... a lot today, but wasn't much then. It was a completely insecure existence, as was proved later on when I had to make a choice whether I continued to work with the bishops or not, and decided not to. So she was taking great risks, and I didn't realise the risks that she was taking, otherwise I don't think I would have asked her. But anyway, that's ... she decided to take them.
And how long were you married for?
We married in 1939, and she died on December 16, 1980.
And you had children?
Yes, we had eight. We had five girls and three boys.
And did you approach that marriage with a sort of sense of ... no, I'm not going to ask you that. I'm going to come back to that, because I got off on a bad foot with this. [Laughs] We'll leave it to one side and come back and talk about it. So we'll go back to the work that you were doing at that time. So it wasn't long really after you were married that you went to work with Mannix or had you already started?
What was the sequence of events?
I went to work at the beginning of 1938 ...
... although I had accepted the position in 1937 and we were married ... we were engaged in '38, and married in '39.
Now, how did you go about organising to do the work that you needed to do in opposing Communism? Where did you get your ideas from and how did you construct the work that you were doing at that time?
One point that I do want to make in relation to everything that I've said to you, you have asked me questions on a personal basis, and I answer, 'I did this' and 'I did that' basically because I'm answering your question. But in a sense, it wasn't ... it wasn't a personal thing. There were plenty of other people around me, and I wasn't even the sort of leading figure in them. I want to make that perfectly clear. They were as important as I was, which wasn't very important. And it is the same in relation to the fight against Communism. My interest in it - it was a rather remote sort of interest - developed, I think in '38 or '39 when the person whom I've mentioned to you already, Bert Cremean, who was deputy leader of the Labor Party, took me along to a meeting at the Trades Hall Council, which was being addressed by the former general secretary of the Communist Party in Victoria. His name was Dinny Lovegrove. And Dinny Lovegrove, who'd been known in the party as Jackson, had left the party. He'd been beaten up and tortured: not thumbscrews or anything like that, but with lighted cigarettes and so on. He gave the story of what his experience had been in the Communist Party and why he'd left it and so on, and he was a very good speaker, and a good leader, and I was very impressed. But I didn't do anything about that. But within two years - I can't work out the exact number of months - Bert Cremean came to me again, because we were friends, and he pointed out how a considerable section of the right-wing leadership of the Labor Party in Victoria were concerned that they were losing control of the Labor Party, because they'd lost control of the trade unions, which were affiliated with the party, and he said to me that unless we did something about it, they'd lose control and the Communist Party, through the popular front technique, would control the Labor Party in Victoria. And he thought that something ought to be done about it, and I said, 'Well you ought to go and talk to the Archbishop about it', which he did. And the Archbishop called me in and asked whether I could work with him to have a shot at handling this. I was as ignorant of that problem as I was of the rural problem. And so I said, 'Well, if you want me to', and that was the beginning of the work against Communism in Victoria. Later on I discovered that there were people working ... Catholics working against Communism in New South Wales, in a very different way from the way we'd started in Victoria, because what we did was to begin work in the trade union movement. The Liberals were ... the Liberal Party, then as now, were saying that you could handle Communism or unionism - they often found it difficult to work out the difference between the two - by government action. And I discovered that they didn't mean it. They didn't know what they were talking about. That there was only way, if you were going to take unions away from the Communist Party, and that was the critical issue, if you wanted to save the Labor Party, and that is that you had to go into the union movement. You had to organise ironworkers to meet the Communist cell in the ironworkers' union, railwaymen, engineers and so on. And that was the only effective way. So I've jumped a bit from the point where Archbishop Mannix and Cremean asked whether we could do something about it. I really didn't know very much what they were talking about, except from what I'd heard from that Lovegrove lecture and so on. Cremean, to increase my enthusiasm - I wasn't feeling very enthusiastic about it - introduced me to the president of the ACTU, Cleary, and the secretary, Broadby, to Calwell, to Pat Kennelly, who was assistant secretary of the Labor Party, and a few others, to show me that they wanted something done, so I felt that there was a necessity. And so the question then arose, how do you do it? What do you do? You had to analyse what the problem was. They controlled practically all of the unions in Victoria and how did you get them away from them? I thought to myself at the time, there's no better way of knowing how to fight the Communists than to have a look at the constitution of the Communist Party and I suddenly saw the way. In other words, we would mould our constitution on the model of theirs so that if they believed in training cadres, we believed in training cadres. If they believed in forming union sells, we'd form union sells. And if they believed that you needed central direction, we'd have central direction. It was a pretty good idea. I don't think that ... I don't think I could have done better than that. Anyway, that's how it began.
And was it clear from the beginning that it was going to be Catholic action?
No, it wasn't. The bishops made it very clear that it should not come within the framework of official Catholic action, basically because they were ultimately responsible for the conduct of Catholic action movements. They were part of the church and they realised, much better than I did, that what we were going to do in the union movement would have implications in the Labor Party, and therefore there'd be a political expression. They didn't want to be in that. So they said, 'You do it, with our blessing. We'll support you, but it's your baby'. And that became the issue at the time of the Labor split in the fifties, on which the split developed in the Catholic Church, as to who should run this movement, because Cardinal Gilroy and his Auxiliary Bishop Carroll believed that they should. And that wasn't part of my original bargain at all. So it wasn't meant to be part of Catholic action in an official sense, and ultimately it wasn't exclusively Catholic. You see, I knew that as long as it was exclusively Catholic, we'd be beaten, because the Communists could always use the sectarian issue against you. So what we wanted to do was to get the Labor Party involved officially and that's the how the ALP Industrial Groups developed.
Now, how many people who belonged to the ALP Industrial Groups weren't Catholic?
Well, I think, you know the Industrial Groups didn't have an official membership. The people were members of the Industrial Groups who, on the eve of a union election, would go out and put how to vote cards in postal boxes and so on. And in the big elections, like the Ironworkers' Federation election in '51, there would have been thousands who were doing that. Now I would say that it is true that about eighty-five to 90 per cent of those would have been Catholic. But the leadership of the Industrial Groups - men like Laurie Short of the Ironworkers', Lloyd Ross of the Railways Union, Arthur Horsborough of the Engineers, George Neale of the Miners, none of those were Catholics. So we in fact were the PBIs. Do you know what a PBI is?
The Poor Bloody Infantry. [Laughs] And they supplied the leadership. I worked with them, of course, very closely and so that we had this input. And I think that, to be fair, a lot of the contribution to strategy came from our Movement circles. But it is a mistake to say that the Industrial Groups were an exclusively Catholic sort of organisation.
They were predominantly Catholic, weren't they?
And there was ... I mean meetings were held sometimes in Catholic halls and so on.
Yes, yes, they were, certainly, but sometimes meetings were held in Catholic halls that were addressed by non-Catholic leaders. The issue of religion was not a point of division or anything like that. See, I can remember Lloyd Ross. Lloyd Ross had been a member of the Communist Party. He became the industrial group leader in the Railways Union. He addressed the people that I'm talking about at a Catholic social week, so that the fact that a meeting might be held under Catholic auspices didn't mean that the participants were all Catholics.
Was that important at that time when there was much more sectarian feeling than there is now?
It was absolutely vital. You see, I remember a person who was a director of one of the banks - I don't know many directors of banks - and he asked me once, he said, 'I want you to tell me the truth. Is this Catholicism versus Communism or is it Labor versus Communism?' And I said, 'Why are you asking me?' And he said, 'Because if it's Rome versus Moscow, I'll support Moscow rather than Rome'. Couldn't have been straighter. So I said, 'It isn't'. I said, 'The ...' - I didn't use the word infantry, but you know what I mean - '... maybe Catholic, but the leadership represents the whole of Australia'.
But you were the strategist for it, were you or where there others?
I wouldn't ... I wouldn't exaggerate that. Yes, I did a good deal in thinking out moves and so on but there were others who were just as much part of it as I was. There were men like Frank McManus, who later became a DLP senator, Jack Cain became a DLP senator, Lloyd Ross, former member of the Communist Party. Laurie Short was obviously the strategist in the Ironworkers' Federation elections. I think, unfortunately, one of the things that happened at the time of the split was that Evatt found it useful to use my name, because it was Italian and Catholic, and in addition to the general ignominy heaped on my head at the time, people developed the impression that I was the strategist. No, it was a collective effort.
And so with the way the ... that it was ... I suppose it would be interesting to have on record from you the details of how in fact the groups operated. They were matching the Communist groups. How did you marshal the forces? How were people recruited to help?
Well, in the first analysis, you've got to get an army. You can't be in a war without an army. And the agreement, the deal with the Catholic bishops was this: We said or implied, 'You want us to fight, now what are you going to do to help?' and they gave us a certain amount of financial help. It wasn't very great in relation to what we had to raise ourselves but their moral support and their organisational support was very strong, very important. And you'd build up your forces in this way. For instance, in Melbourne there would have been about - I'm guessing now - let's say there were a hundred and twenty Catholic parishes. We probably would organise in about ninety of those hundred and twenty. And what you would do, the parish priests knew that the archbishop wanted them to help. So you'd go and visit a parish priest. You'd say, 'Can you give us the names of half a dozen people who you think will be interested in this work in your parish', and they always could. And so you'd move among them and you'd form them into a group or a branch, and then their job was to get a census of all of the union members in that parish and out of that census you'd find out who were the ironworkers, who were the railwaymen, who were the tramway men and so on. And you'd be doing that on a city wide basis. So gradually your forces would become fairly clear. And then on top of that parochial organisation you'd build an industrial organisation. You'd have a group of ironworkers, a group of tramway men, and so on, and they'd carry out the election battle. Is that clear?
You say that it was important that the organisation wasn't seen to be Catholic, because it would have produced sectarian feeling.
No, I didn't say exactly that. It was similar to that. I would say this: if I had been on the other side, the first weapon I would have used was the sectarian ... would be the sectarian weapon. And that's what they used. They knew if they said this effort is Catholic, that they'd mobilise non-Catholic opinion in the support of Communism, normally a lot of non-Catholics would not support. So that's the first and obvious thing. It happened at the time of the conscription campaign. And it happened at the time of the split. So it was obvious. So the thing that had to be done was to convince the Labor leadership that if you want this done in your self-protection, which they did, you had better gradually make sure that the Labor name and Labor authority comes to the head of the party, as it were. And it took years to get that done. So it was absolutely indispensable.
Was there nevertheless real value in the fact that the foot soldiers were Catholic?
What was that value?
Well, the value was, the value was ... there were two or three aspects of the value. The first was that if you started to talk to them on the Communist issue, they knew what Communism was. They remembered Spain. So the community as a whole wouldn't know what you were talking about in the majority of cases. To them a Communist was an ordinary Labor man. Secondly, you ... if you indicated that Communism was anti-religious, they would believe that they had a religious duty to fight Communism, so that you would mobilise their deepest instincts. And thirdly, you had the normal structure of the parishes to act as the foundation stone on which to work in order to gradually build up your forces.
Do you think the commitment that you got from those people was crucial to the way in which the Movement grew?
Oh, there was nobody else. It was not only crucial, it was almost total until, in the middle of the forties, the Labor Party decided to lend its name officially to the fight and then you had men like Lloyd Ross and others who came into it. But before then there was nobody else.
So it was later, in fact, that once this work had commenced among Catholics that it was recognised to be useful to the non-Communist leaders of the Labor movement.
Well they had, in a sense, initially had the demand for something, and then I have to say that they leaned ... When we started to win, a few of the unions, small ones that nobody had ever heard of, blacksmiths, boilermakers and so on, they then started to sit back comfortably. Because the pressure on them was easing. But the pressure on us wasn't easing because, by this time, we were moving into the bigger unions, and it was realised that unless they leant the name of Labor to the effort, the whole effort would be frustrated in the end by the use of the sectarian weapon. And finally they came to the party.
Now, during the time that you were working this way, what ... did you have a lot of contact with Archbishop Mannix over what you were doing?
Oh yes. I ...
How did that, what form did that take?
It wasn't, in a sense it wasn't a ... it was official and non-official. And Archbishop Mannix lived at Raheen in Kew, and I lived in Kew, and on my way home at night, a couple of nights a week I'd drop in and talk to him. We could talk about anything, but I would always tell him how things were going. I wasn't reporting to him or anything. We were talking. And he never said, 'I think you're making a mistake on this, do it that way'. He knew that he ... he wouldn't have known enough about it. But he always wanted to know and his interest was intent, because, as you know, he always had a deep interest in public questions.
[end of tape]