|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.
Your work in the context of the Movement and also of the Rural Movement was all set against the background of the Second World War. What effect did that have on the way that you worked?
Well, the first thing of course was that there was a great depletion of available manpower, because the call-up, particularly in country areas, and what were regarded as non-essential industries, simply took hundreds of thousands of men out of currency. In addition, very many of their wives were engaged in war production and, of course, that had problems of physical tiredness, exhaustion and so on. So that the ... if you like to look at it inanimately, the human reservoir was greatly depleted and therefore it became much more difficult to engage the attention of the individuals to recruit them for work and so on, because they were working very hard already. That, I think, was the fundamental factor: the depletion of human capacity to respond to the challenge. Because you have to remember that by 1942-43, the Communist Party was already in possession of every major trade union in Australia, with the single exception of the Australian Workers' Union. So they were in possession. They didn't have to do much about it, whereas somehow we had to find the people who would work to dislodge them and there were far fewer people.
In the context of the war ... I mean you were in fact excused from military duty.
Well I was deferred, not because of the work in the unions, that was irrelevant to them, but fundamentally to do the work of trying to help to organise war agricultural committees. And the main official who was responsible for that originally was the secretary of the Department of Commerce, a man named Frank Murphy, whom I knew quite well, and it was through that actually that he recruited me to do that work.
And what in fact did you do that assisted? I mean what was the difference between what you were doing with the organisation of a buffer against Communism and the work that you were doing that was appreciated by the war effort?
Well, the work against Communism was totally irrelevant to the war effort, from any organisational or administrative viewpoint. What they were interested in was exclusively in the rural areas, because you had an enormous depletion of rural manpower, and you also had great difficulty in manufacturing agricultural machinery, basically because the factories were going to war production. Therefore they were interested one idea with two branches, that we had developed before the war. The Rural Movement had the idea that a great deal of wastage of capital, which was short in country areas, was going into the duplication of agricultural machinery and there were many things that could be done by cooperative effort, by pooling of machinery. With the call-up, that then also involved the pooling of manpower. We had some experience of that, and nobody else did. So Frank Murphy asked me whether we could see if we could this on a wider basis. We had previously only worked on that basis with our own members, but this involved dealing with communities as a whole.
Now, staying with your work in the rural area, at that time also you wrote some books which expressed the view, and I was interested to see that the title of one of them was The Earth, Our Mother, which is a phrase that we've heard in many other contexts since.
Yes, well I wrote that in, I think, it was published in '46 - '45 or '46, but I wrote it in about '43 or '44. That was during the war.
And what were the ideas that you were trying to express in that?
Well, fundamentally, although as I mentioned to you already, I regarded myself as a complete tyro in the field of agricultural matters, as I was. But if you studied it, what you noticed was the gradual and increasingly rapid depletion of the reservoir of agricultural holdings going on in Australia. Of course, I admit that the war was a main factor in that, but I saw it as a permanent factor and it struck me that there were a number of things that were wrong. One was the specialisation of agricultural production. In other words, if you had a wheat farm, you had a wheat farm and the pressure of finance was such that you had to produce as much wheat as possible, which mean that rotations were disrupted and so on. I had an idea, I don't know how I got it, of the European background. The European farm was a much more self-contained thing, a much more diversified thing. And the more I discussed it, the more it seemed to me that on the one hand that really was the only principle on which the fertility of the soil could ultimately be maintained. And secondly, it was economically, much more reliable because it didn't mean that you put all your eggs into the one basket. And that was one of the ideas expressed in that book. The other idea which was important, or a second idea which was important was that of course, the banks were always trying to funnel money out and I think that the indebtedness of the Australian agricultural industry has been the result of a deliberate policy. And already the problem of rural debt by 1940-41 was very grave indeed. A lot of farmers obviously couldn't ... couldn't survive. So we tried to import knowledge of the cooperative principle. Now a good deal of European farming was really based upon cooperative finance from the credit union movement. We picked up the same idea in studying of what was happening in Canada. There was a university in Nova Scotia, the University of Antigonish, that specialised on cooperative organisation, not only in the field of finance. So I imported that into the book. The third thing that seemed to me to be important was that the whole of Australian education was oriented toward city occupations, so that very many of the best people on the land, their children were going to leave them, simply because their mind was directed elsewhere. Therefore the importance of getting a rural orientation to some education was important. Those were the things and therefore, when you looked at it and you said, 'Well now, what philosophic principle is there, if there is one, that reconciles this?' Well, the earth, our mother, was the philosophic principle. So I maintain that historically I'm the first greenie in Australia. I don't mean that seriously.
No, because we'll come back to that, because subsequently the environmental movement took off and I'd like to talk about that later. But some of the ideas in the book were then taken up and put into practice after the war, weren't they? For example, the notion of cooperatives and a concept of closer settlement was one that you advocated later. So following through on your work in the rural area, could you tell us what happened with the idea of closer settlement and cooperation?
Well, the ... the ... One of the difficulties about the spread of the cooperative movement in states like Victoria was that there was no legislative framework into which you fit cooperatives. There was a Companies Act into which you could fit companies. On the other hand, in New South Wales, although not utilised, there was a Cooperation Act and this had a legislative and administrative structure for all types of cooperatives, and I did a bit of work on trying to get that introduced in Victoria, preliminary to having it introduced into other states. This became possible at the beginning of the fifties, when the Cain Government, Labor Government, came to power in victoria. Cain was the father of the later Cain who became Premier of Victoria in the seventies, I think. We had one or two members of the Movement in that Cabinet. The main one was a person named Frank Scully and I interested him and I got him to interest some members of the Cabinet in Victoria passing a Cooperation Act, to provide that framework for cooperatives. So a fair amount of work went into that.
And was a cooperative ever formed and started?
Oh yes, there were many cooperatives and the whole credit union movement in Victoria, which is very widespread today, depends upon the passage of that Act. Unfortunately the credit unions here in victoria now, which are numerous and profitable and prosperous, they have gone down the wrong line. They simply follow ... they have tried to transform themselves into normal banks, and they have the same sort of interest rates and so on as banks. They serve, to my mind, no particularly unique purpose. Whereas the purpose of the credit union movement proper was to have local control and low interest rates. So, unfortunately, that went along the wrong lines, like a lot of other things.
There was also a settlement set up set up at Maryknoll, wasn't there?
Yes, well that was a bit ... that was a bit, you can call it an eccentricity if you like. One of the things that I picked up in the course of reading ... There was a book called Rural Roads to Security, which was published in the United States and one of the parts of that was devoted to this: in the state of Iowa there was a coal mining district called Granger and Granger had been hit by the Depression and so unemployment among the miners was quite widespread. There was a Catholic parish priest there who was an Italian. He was Father Luigi Lagutti [?] and this book told, among other things, the story of what he'd done. And I got in touch with him. Basically what he did at Granger was this. He said there is a sufficient amount of activity in the mining industry left to provide half time work. There is a lot of land, and so instead of the miners working and living in tumbledown housing, as you would get in Cessnock and Currie and so on, he gradually developed cooperatively a home makers' scheme in which he put houses on about an average of five acres of land. The result was that the miners would spend half their time earning a money income in the mines and the remainder of their time developing local production in the rural areas. Well, I thought that ... in the rural holdings, well, I thought that was a pretty good idea and it remained abstract. There was a priest in Melbourne named Father Pooley, who became very enthusiastic about this. He was a very good parish priest with a prosperous parish. He asked Archbishop Mannix would he second him to start a settlement of that type. And so he did without any argument. And he started a settlement of that type forty miles from Melbourne, which they called Maryknoll, and it's still in existence. But it's different. The basic idea was that there would be these small holding, which were simply for home production. The men would also maintain a part time occupation in industry, which they did very largely in carpentry, in neighbouring Dandenong. The architectural plan of Maryknoll was very well conceived. They had the church and the recreation hall and the library in the centre, and the houses rotated around, and they built up a very strong community. It was excellent while it was in his hands, but then he died unexpectedly. Well, that continued and there are some of the same families still there. But two things happened. One thing was that he died and there was no successor and he was the inspiring figure, and you need them. But the second thing is that as Melbourne grew outwards into the direction of Dandenong, the value of that land went up and the children and grandchildren of the originals decided they'd be more prosperous if they sold the land. So it's still half there. But that was really simply an exception to what we were really trying to do. But it was a very nice exception.
It appeals to you very much, doesn't it, the idea of the relationship with the land?
Where does that come from, and could you elaborate on why this concept appeals to you so much?
You've got to understand that I'm what they call a Collins Street farmer. I am no good at any of these things. If you ask me why I'm interested, I can't really answer the question, except that I suppose it goes back to my Italian background, which was in some senses a city that my father's family were fishermen, but my mother's family had [a] small, small vineyard. And I was broadly familiar with how those islanders lived, and I was always taken by it. I think it could be that. But this is trying to psychoanalyse yourself, which is no good.
Well analysing why you think something can be very useful, can't it?
Well, except that you can fall into a mass of illusions, you know.
I suppose too, there was an idea very much of the family owning the farm.
... And we're in a situation now where one of the reasons for the contraction of the number of farmers is because of big corporations buying up farms too.
Yes, I noticed yesterday that some of the ... four or five of the largest land holdings, grazing land holdings in Queensland were bought by Prudential Insurance Company yesterday, which I don't regard as a good thing.
And I guess that's what I really wanted to ask. Why is that not a good thing and why is having a family in charge so important to you?
Well, it's a mixture of a couple of ideas, isn't it? The family is important to me, psychologically and spiritually. The ... it is also, I think, the soundest way, if you can maintain it, of running economic enterprises. For instance, I think I mentioned to you, that only a few weeks ago I was in northern Italy, and I parked myself and the few people I had with me in Verona, and if you go from Verona to Venice and north to the Alps, you will find an enormous profusion - enormous, of, not only family farms, but family industrial enterprises - highly modern, modern technology and so on - but all based on family ownership. Ninety per cent of the economic enterprises of the Lombardy plain, or the eastern side of the Lombardy plain, are owned by family enterprises. And the result of that is, not merely has Italy got the best export market in new technology products in Europe, but the family was very strong in Italy. It is not as strong today. So I see the ... I see the spiritual and cohesive civilising influence of the family strong - resting on a strong economic base, where the economy doesn't pull the children away from the family, and at the same time, a strong base for economic development that is vastly superior to total industrialisation. So, those are the ideas that I had in my mind. I don't want to give you the impression that they were very successful. They weren't. I ... I never really achieved much in that area.
One of the arguments against that kind of farming in Australia has been the land itself, that unlike the land in Europe, the yields per acre are of a quantity and quality that makes such a concept much less viable here.
Well, there are large parts of Australia where it's inapplicable, basically for climatic reasons. But that disguises the fact that there are large parts where it's thoroughly applicable. And the fact that you've had extensive, rather than intensive agriculture in Australia is due to the historical developments from the first beginnings and then also to the financial policies that were adopted by the people who originally financed farming, which were the English banks. It needn't have been like that. And there is, I think in the end, you will find that in the north-west of Australia, around the Ord and the Fitzroy, we've got water resources that I think are about a third of all of Australia's water resources. If we don't develop agriculture along those lines, with markets just over the water in South East Asia, I think that one day an Asian power will do it for us.
That was a view that you had a long way back, wasn't it, because you did propose a plan, post-war, to bring out European migrants to settle the land. Could you explain how that arose, and what you did with that?
Well, as a matter of fact, you see in my life a profusion of plans that never come to reality. It seemed to me that in the immediate aftermath of the war, of course, a very large number of Italians, Germans and ... Italians and Dutch in particular came out to Australia and immediately they could be employed in things like the Snowy Mountains Scheme. But ultimately it was obvious that they would be simply drawn as by a magnet into the cities. Now at that stage, quite a number of those came from a rural background and it struck me that the Italians and the Dutch, in particular, came from a rural background there, and we had tons of land here that was well-watered, why not try to marry it? And so I tried to get a pilot project going, which would really marry migration to land settlement. And the pilot project was to be here in Victoria in Gippsland. It was not a very good moment to do it, because soldier settlement was under way and, of course, the issue of foreign ownership of land was very strong. But I tried to make the point that all we wanted was third class land, which solider settlers wouldn't use. And finally I got agreement of the Victorian Government that they would make some land available. I got agreement from the Italian and the Dutch Governments that they would make finance available, and that was in the early fifties. And that plan turned out to be the spark that ultimately set off the split, because it was quite consciously used by elements opposed to my whole idea, to say that what I trying to do was to establish in Australia Italian colonies, based on three acres and the cow. It was quite ... if you look at the Victorian papers at the time you'll see that all over them ...
And to boost membership of the Catholic Church.
Oh yes, exactly, exactly. As a matter of fact I didn't give a damn whether they belonged to a Catholic Church or to the Buddhists, as long as we did what had to be done.
Is that correct? Wouldn't it have been desirable to ...
Oh, it would have been very desirable, but it was never a primary point in my mind. I will admit that in so far as they were Italians and Dutch they would inevitably be, very largely, Catholic, although from Holland they would be Protestant as well. But I never had any particular orientation in that direction. I'm not saying that my Catholic religion wasn't important to me in the private sense, and in what I was trying to do, but what I was trying to do in that field, which was a monumental fiasco, was really for the country.
And the fact that these people would have been natural recruits to the sort of work that you were doing in your fight against Communism ...
Oh, they wouldn't be natural recruits. No. You see they came from a totally different environment, with different problems and if they hadn't been successfully settled on the land, they would have ... they would have been intent on settling themselves. They wouldn't have been available for work. But in the end, of course, although I eventually did get the support of the Tasmanian Government, I couldn't get the support of the Queensland Government. Even a person who was a close friend of mine, Gair, who became Premier of Queensland, wouldn't make any land available. But nevertheless, the whole thing was directed really to show a different pattern of future development in Australia, which I think would have been better.
Was one of the reasons why they were sceptical about it because of the fact that the soldier settlers were, many of them, finding it extremely hard to make a go of it, even on land that was better than the land that you were asking for?
That was used as an argument. I don't think it was a reason. I think that the fundamental impetus for the opposition came from a section of the community that was opposed to Catholicism as such, and they believed that there were going to be Catholic colonies and all of this sort of stuff. And that was where the real opposition came from.
Did the failure of some of the soldier settlers worry you?
Oh, of course. Of course, because I always believed that the development of Australia should be on the basis of an agricultural hinterland and strong country towns. I believed in Ballarats and Tamworths and Dubbos and so on. I didn't believe that we should have what we've got today, ninety-five per cent of the people on the seaboard.
Yes, that concept of disbursement and decentralisation has been strong with you. But why do you think the soldier settlers failed, because some of them worked extremely hard and still couldn't yet make a go of it?
Well I ... really I ... I can't tell you about that any more than you can read in the papers. I mean there were failures of markets, difficulties of getting loan capital and so on. All of those things. One of the ... one of the real problems of rural settlement of any type in Australia is this - that with the centralisation of all facilities, especially educational facilities, schools and universities, in a few cities around the seaboard, when a family has children they've got to educate them, they've got to send the kids away. And that is sort of a magnetic pull away from the farm. That's very powerful too. And you notice it very much today as all of the facilities are drained out of country towns. Public service departments go, the banks go, the doctor goes. The town can't live. And I think that was also a factor.
Now back to the ... back to the city, and to the Industrial Groups. You've told us that in a sense you were recruited to that work, that you were conscripted, almost, to it.
I was told to do it.
... And that sort of makes your own motivation less clear, you know, because obviously if you're doing it because you were told to do it. But of course, your heart was also in it, wasn't it?
Oh, as soon as I ... as soon as I began to understand of course. And there was no question of being conscripted as I went along.
So can you talk about that process, because I'm quite interested that somebody can be asked to do something, not really being sure what it was, but then when they get into it, really get a concept of what it's all about and become committed. So after you were conscripted by Archbishop Mannix to do this work, what made you realise just how important it was going to be, and kept you with it?
Well, first of all, I hadn't understood what the problem really was. I told you that the ... the single excursion into studying the Communist problem in which I'd taken part before then, was that single lecture by Dinny Lovegrove, who had belonged to the Communist Party and then I more or less forgot about it, or put it on the back burner. But once I was given the job and I had to immediately to study what is the situation? Are these men, Cremean and Calwell and Cleary and Broadby, are they exaggerating? Is it only that their power position in the Labor Party is being threatened by the Communists and they're only interested in that, or is there a real problem? So I had to very carefully study the position in the trade union movement, the relationship of the trade unions to the Labor Party, where three quarters of the delegates to a state conference and federal conference of the Labor Party were union delegates. And I realised there is a very strong interconnection. Who runs the unions runs the party and the party becomes the government. And I could see that the problem was very much advanced. And, sort of, as I saw that the problem was very well developed, I mentioned already that the Communist Party ran every major union bar one, and all the attempts to disparage that comes from people who were never there. Then it sort of got hold of me and it was serious. And my real problem then was how do I keep the work in the Rural Movement, which I really loved, going, and at the same time do this? And you sort of acclimatised yourself. I was very fortunate in the sense that my secretary was a girl who had started to work for me, I think she would only have been about fifteen year of age. Her name was Noreen Minogue and she had no university education, which proves that university education is of very little importance. And as I moved over into the trade union thing, she knew the people in the Rural Movement very well and she really carried the whole burden of that. And I can't say how much she carried it. Ultimately she became assistant national secretary to the Red Cross. So she was pretty good.
Now that brings us to talking about the day to day nitty-gritty of, as it were, the hard yakka that had to go into this organisation. Many people appreciate that ideas have to be thought through and you have to come to grips with the philosophy behind things. But the actual organisation is something that they don't appreciate the necessity for in the kind of detail that you did. Two questions: how did you go about organising it, and I suppose at the same time, why did you make those choices? Where did it come to you that you had to do that kind of detailed organisation?
Well, you know, ideas without organisation don't get you very far, unless ... unless you're an intellectual who writes books and all of this sort of thing. But I've always believed, like Gentile did in Italy, that intellectualism is a disease of the intelligence. So I don't believe in intellectual installations on their own. What do you do about it? What ... Lenin asked the question in 1902: what is to be done? That's always the critical question. So, in the Rural Movement, if you wanted to spread those ideas about which we've spoken, you had to go physically into country districts. You had to organise what we used to call NCRM Branches, rural groups and so on. And gradually you simply built up the organisation. When the Catholic Church decided to support it very strongly, then of course bishops would appoint what they'd call a diocesan director and I'd work with them and they would go and do the grass roots work of rural groups and set things under way. That's the way in which your build any organisation. As far as the work against Communism was concerned, the key was who ran the unions? If the Communist Party ran the unions they would run the Labor Party and the Labor Party would one day become the government, as it was the government during the war of course. If, therefore, you intended to do something about taking Communist power out of the unions you had to go into the unions. Now I think I have already mentioned that you would use the Catholic parochial structure, where you had to get the support of the bishops, and that didn't always bring about the support of the priests. Quite a lot of them exercised their own private judgement. And you'd go into the parish and you'd ask the parish priest could he give you six men. He might call a meeting and you'd have to explain what you were about, and you either won them or you didn't win them, and very fortunately, with the support of the church, we did win them in the most cases. So you had that basic structure in largely metropolitan areas, although you had to go to country towns later as well. Out of that basic structure you then found out who in Brunswick, North Brunswick, North Melbourne, what was a list of good practical Catholics who were union members. Were they in the ironworkers', were they in the railways, and then you had a meticulous work of administration to put these together all over Melbourne and then later all over Australia. You see, there's a lot of detail in that. Then, in order to keep them informed - the daily press wouldn't tell them what was happening - we had to start a paper. We started a paper that we called Freedom, which later became News Weekly, and that kept them informed on what was happening in the trade union movement. You had to produce that. Then you had to get the money. All of those things you've got to do.
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