|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: April 24, 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.
Given that Dr. Mannix was so right about so many things, how come that he thought that you wouldn't be successful on television?
No, I'm not saying that he thought I wouldn't be successful, he had very grave doubts. And he had good reason for that. One, I had no experience, and it is a technique of its own, and the other one is that the three or four people whom he'd had before me hadn't succeeded so he had no reason to believe that I'd be any better.
I thought also that perhaps, because your interests were quite intellectual, your analysis quite detailed and rigorous, that the feeling that a popular audience, such as a television audience is, might have difficulty relating to what you were talking about.
Well, it could. But in self defence, I did have an eleven per cent rating in Canberra, which was better than the ABC's.
Yes, that's what I'm saying. I mean, it was interesting, wasn't it, that it was effective despite the fact that really you did ask your audience to concentrate.
Yes, but I think that in the community, and I don't know if it's the same in every community, I think that in the community there are ten per cent of people who feel very strongly that they're treated like dogs intellectually and if you talk to them in their own language, you'll get their respect, if not their support. I'm sure of that.
So you think that the underestimation of the intelligence of an audience is fairly characteristic of television programmes generally.
Not of ninety per cent of the audience, I don't think it underestimates them at all, but ten per cent it does. I'm not a great believer in vox populi where television is concerned.
Did you find that having that weekly spot was very important to your success in spreading the information you wanted to spread?
Quite critically important, because well, I don't think it changed sentiment in any way. I think that even the opposition had to come to terms with the arguments and no longer felt that they could override you by main force. So I think it had that importance.
What did you try to do with the spot? What were your objectives?
My objectives were, to present on the one hand a critique, but always to accompany the critique with practical proposals. I don't believe that criticism qua criticism ought ever be left there. You ought to be able to say, to give the answer to Lenin's question: what is to be done? And to cover the areas of main concern, which would have been what was happening to the political parties here in Australia, what was happening to the struggle in the unions, what was happening economically, what was happening in terms of foreign affairs, what was happening in the churches. And I sort of moved over all of those fronts, over all of that period, and there was long enough to do that, because as I say, it lasted thirty years every Sunday.
What was the effect on the National Civil Council, as it was called by then, of the formation of the DLP?
Well the DLP could never have succeeded in so far as it did succeed without the core of the Movement and later NCC members. There were always say ten per cent who weren't, but I would say that ninety per cent of the people who handed out tickets, who collected money, who did all the work that the DLP had to do in the locality, would be Movement members.
Why was it important to have them clearly separate organisations?
Well, basically because the objectives of the Movement, which later became the NCC, were wider than the purely political objectives of the DLP. The DLP was a political party with a purely political objective, but there was work in the unions, there were issues arising in relation to the church after the Second Vatican Council and so on. And you always had to have the understanding that history changed, epochs changed, and the epoch that had bred the DLP might one day bury the DLP. But the question of handling the new problems that were going to arise, as they did arise in the sixties, still required some body, so it was necessity to keep a distinction.
What led to the demise of the DLP?
Well, I think a number of things. It's a fairly complicated question. One is that the DLP was always in a comfortable position while Menzies was there. Menzies had considerable intellectual and political powers, and he understood very well that to a large extent he depended on the DLP. In fact, he told me later on - because I only met him after he'd ceased to be prime minister - that he'd twice voted DLP. He said, 'That's the party I thought I founded'. They're the words that he said. [Laughs] Now ...
When did he vote for the DLP?
He would have voted for the DLP in 1969 and in 1972. I think, he might have also voted in '74, I don't know. I'm pretty sure he voted for Fraser in '75. But that's what he said to me and his family confirmed it to me.
Did he support the NCC?
He, on one occasion ... we'd run an annual fighting fund - he sent us 150 pounds so he supported us, yes. But he understood the significance of the DLP and he was very sympathetic to its objectives, quite apart from its usefulness to him. But after his resignation, I knew Holt and Holt understood the significance, but he wasn't the same as Menzies, and he was only there for a year anyway - a year, that's about all. But Gorton wasn't like that at all. Gorton believed that - and MacMahon I think believed - Gorton believed that if the DLP went out of existence, all of its members would vote Liberal. And I remember saying to him on one occasion how mistaken he was. They ... two-thirds of them were Labor people, and that has been borne out. But in the last analysis, I think that the reason that the DLP had to be terminated, which was a decision taken to do that, was on the one hand, that you didn't have people in the Liberal Party that you could comfortably work with any longer, in Gorton or Sneddon or MacMahon, whereas with Menzies you did. But secondly, in so far as the DLP depended on the Catholic vote, and I think that about two-thirds of its voting supporters would be Catholic, the transformation that came across the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council, which began to represent the fragmentation of its old formation, I could see that that was sapping up. It was not only destroying the church in itself, but destroying the electoral base of the DLP, and so when you got down to about five per cent of the vote, instead of the ten per cent that you were more or less used to, and seven to eight per cent Australia wide, you could have either have let it fritter on, or you could impose a limit. And I thought, with my colleagues, that in the interests of its historical report, it was better to impose the limit.
And so what year was it wound up?
I think it was wound up in '75 or '76 - '75, I think. You must always give me a leeway of one or two years, but I think it was '75.
From your point of view, looking back over the history of what was the Movement and then became the NCC, if you had to say what its mission statement was, how would you characterise it?
Well, I would say that the Movement initially began exclusively to fight the Communist penetration of the Labor movement. That it was diverted into political, as well as trade union channels, as a result of the split, but that was purely accidental. It would not have happened otherwise. And that as it helped to maintain the DLP, the Movement - or some people in the Movement - gradually became aware of the fact that there were profound transformations in Australian society during the sixties and that the question with these profound transformations, which you noticed at the time of the Vietnam War, in university life then, which you noticed with the rise of the feminist movement, which you knew with the growth of all the minority movements that grew up at that time, that you had to make up your mind whether there was any point in trying to meet those problems in so far as one could, or whether it's best to say that now that the trade union fight and the DLP fight is over, and Communism is no longer a major problem in Australia, whether you shouldn't wind up. That would have been a perfectly proper decision to take. But, of course, the reason that we didn't take it was this: it was all very well to say that with these new problems arising in the structures of Australian society, they weren't our particular baby. But whose baby were they? And you could never get to the point of conscientiously taking the decision to pull down quite a strong structure for nothing.
Did you feel that there was a continuity in the values of the organisation in wanting to shift from what was an industrial political focus, to a more cultural sociological focus?
Oh yes, yes I suppose. You know, these are drawing distinctions that you're not very well aware of at the time but the social base of the Movement was quite strongly religious. It was quite strongly family, even before the family issue arose. And those values were defended, even if they didn't become specific. But then, in the beginning of the sixties, they started to become quite specific. So the philosophy was exactly the same. The problems were different.
Throughout the sixties, though, it was still an organisation that was fairly well oriented towards the unions, and that went into the seventies too.
Yes it did, yes it did.
At ... at what point did you feel that there really needed to be a genuine full-scale change of direction?
I believed that there should be an extension of objective, and I really began to believe that at the beginning of the sixties. The Vietnam thing told me that something new was happening. Then I remember it was in the middle of the sixties, I had a friend who was an economist, Colin Clarke, and Colin said to me, 'Look, something which I can't explain is happening', and he pointed out that it was a quite catastrophic decline in the birth rate throughout the whole of western society, which was not only due to the introduction of the Pill in 1959, because it had in fact started just before then. He said - and he acquainted me with the works of a French demographer called Chanoux, whose writing in the middle, or the end, of the sixties said that the population loss from the decline in birth rate had exceeded the population loss at the time of the Black Death. So, you knew, there was something fundamental happening. Then in 1962-65 you had the Second Vatican Council and the turmoil that this introduced into the Catholic Church showed that what I regarded as a broad cultural crisis, had extended to the field of religion. And then it entered into the area of the family. Germaine Greer had written The Female Eunuch in 1963, and the other stuff came out in '69 and this began to transform consciousness about the family radically, with the whole of the sexual revolution and so on. To me, at least, it became perfectly obvious that we were going through a period that strangely enough I thought was very similar to the fifth century of our era, which witnessed the internal disintegration of the Roman Empire, and I'm quite convinced that that is right. So it was something big and different. And again, the question was, is this our business or not? And ... because it seemed to be nobody else's business.
Did everybody agree with you?
No. There were people in the NCC and they were friends - they'd been close friends and collaborators of mine for thirty years - who felt very strongly that I was leading the thing along the wrong lines. That it was still important to concentrate absolutely on the unions and on the Labor Party. My argument was that the unions were going to cease to be critical to anything that we were interested in. As long as we could ... had enough strength to hold Communism, or a revival of Communism, at bay, I thought that the union movement would decline in importance, and it has in fact. When today you've only got - what is it? - about twenty-five per cent of the workforce who are members. And I think that that will inevitably happen, although I'm opposed to it happening. I believe in the union movement. So that was ... and they left us. And it was a very bad blow to me. That was about 1978 to 1980.
In 1982, there were even court cases over it, weren't there?
Yes, that was the end of that, when the thing got to quite an extreme situation and there were questions of who owned the property and so on. It was very distressing, because the people concerned had been my friends for many years. I respected them and still respect them but they had a different idea, and what could you do about it?
So you had another little mini split.
Yeah. Yes we did. It was a mini one though, it was not to be compared with the one in the fifties, but it was much more distressing because of the personal identities involved.
Could you sum up in a few sentences what was really the heart of the thing that made this division occur.
Well, as far ... I really can't understand, even today. I can't understand why what eventuated did eventuate. But in so far as I can rationalise it, and putting the best colour I can upon those who naturally opposed what my general line, because my general line was strongly supported right through by the majority on the national conference and so on, but looking at the best, they believed that the really practically work was still to be done in the union movement in so far as you could be an influence in the union movement, you would be an influence, politically, in the Labor Party. They were dealing with Hawke, and since then I've discovered that they were dealing with Richardson. You find that in Richardson's memoirs. But that was their honest and conscientious conviction. I believe that history had passed that by. I believed that you had to keep an eye on the unions and the political parties but ultimately it was the cultural cleavage that was the problem. Now, I could have been wrong.
Did the majority come with you?
Oh yes, overwhelmingly.
Did you have a little bit of a sense that while you'd been doing all of this, and while the attention had been focused on those political and industrial issues, that this enormous change that had occurred in the Catholic Church had, in a sense ... and in society generally, had in a sense, sort of crept up on you, that it took everybody a moment to realise what was happening?
No, I think I should say this - I was aware of it from the beginning. I knew that something was happening. I might not have been able to identify what was happening until about '63 or '64, but it didn't creep up on us, but I knew that we couldn't handle the consequences very easily, because if our recruitment came very largely from the Catholic community, and if the Catholic community was fragmenting, where did you go for the people that you were hoping to work with in the future? That was the practical issue and I saw that as early as the middle of the sixties.
As a result of the different objectives that you now have, has that changed your methods?
Yes. The methods when you were fighting predominantly in the unions was to train people as what the Communists used to call cadres, you know, the self-starting individual; to build the organisation around cells; to have a strong centre of national unity in the policy decisions of the national conference. Now, you had to develop different organisations. If there was a family problem, and the family became a critical part of the whole of the problem, you ... we've had to develop a thing called the Australian Family Association. If the religious crisis became part of the problem you had to develop something that would defend the structures of orthodoxy within the Catholic religion - not only the Catholic, but the Christian religions in general. And we developed a thing there called the Thomas More Centre. We produced then a new magazine. We still had News Weekly. We produced a new magazine, AD 2000, to carry on the cudgels in ... or carry the cudgels in that. You had to develop an organisation for undergraduates and - well, during the Vietnam War - for academics. We called it Peace With Freedom, under the presidency of James McAuley, to handle the crisis in the universities, as far as we could. So instead of a structure that was based on the cadre, the cell, and national organisation, you can best envisage it as a wheel. The hub in the centre was the Movement, the NCC, the spokes were the Family Association, the Thomas Moore thing and so on, and the rim of the wheel was that part of public opinion that you could influence, so it's a different concept but it's an adaptation to a new problem.
And inspiring people to give of their time, their energies, and their capacity to influence others was still central to the whole ...
Oh, well yes. You ... I mean it's all very well to say you've got an organisation. If the organisation has got no people, you've got no organisation.
And this is what you're working at today.
Yes, that's right.
How hard are you working?
Pretty hard. Pretty hard. You see, at the peak of the Movement's powers, when the fight against Communism was on in the ... until the middle of the fifties, and until the secession in Sydney, you had about five or six thousand people who would give you three or four nights a week. That's a lot of hours. Now, I would say that in every state it would be approximately two to two and a half thousand. And that doesn't sound much, but if they're ready to make the same effort it's pretty formidable. But that means you've got to keep state offices going, you've got to keep your papers going, you've got to keep your finance going with much less potential for financial support that you had before. And it means that you've got to work hard. And very fortunately, you have seen this office here, you've seen some of the people walking around, you can still get people. I know that a friend of mine put on a stenographer in a law office last week for 36,000 dollars a year. Nobody here gets more than thirty. So you've got to get people who are ready to do that. Now, your basic ... your base is so greatly narrowed as a result of the general collapse in the Catholic Church, that you've got to work ten times as hard to get one person as you used to years ago. But still they're there. And the important thing is, I think two generations - those who went to the universities at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the centuries [seventies?] are lost. You couldn't talk the same language but the youngest generation is open, and it won't be easy, but we still get a quota.
I'd like to turn now and start talking about some of the people who've been an influence in your life. One person that you've mentioned in the course of our talk, was the poet, James McAuley. How did you meet him and what part has he played in the work that you've undertaken in the course of your life?
Well I naturally - at the beginning of the fifties - had heard of a poet called James McAuley. I'm not poetically inclined, so it didn't mean that much to me but I'd heard of him. When things became very nasty after Evatt attacked us, we had nobody defending us at all. Until one morning, in January or February 1955, there was a letter in the Sydney Morning Herald, which was an absolutely admirable defence of our position, signed by Jim McAuley. I'd never spoken to him and I was amazed that he knew so much about the essence of what the issue was about. So out of the blue I wrote to him, just to thank him. And I got a very nice letter from him saying that he would like to meet me. And we did meet, we met at a place called Belloch House in Sackville Street, Kew, which was run by the Jesuits. We spent two days together - only the two of us, nobody else - and we talked at length. And he was trying, really, to find out what we were really about. And I didn't know what he was going to do or if he was going to do anything. He went home and he hadn't committed himself to anything. He just said he wanted to think about it, but then he wrote back to me and said that he wanted to be in it. And we just developed our friendship from there, but it became a very close friendship. And I think - although I don't know what is good poetry and bad poetry - that some of his best poetry was written about that. He ... when he wrote the letter saying that he would like to help, he sent me a copy of a poem that he'd written called In A Late Hour and I think it's beautiful. And I don't ... I can't remember all of the words, so I won't mess it up. But there were two other things, but the best thing that he ever wrote was a thing called Retreat. I've got an idea it was 1968. We got into the habit of meeting a Christmas time and we'd go down to Mornington and spend a couple of days together. And in '68 I think he was feeling a bit down and I wasn't feeling too bright if it came to that, but I was trying to make plans for the following year. And he went home and he sent me this poem called Retreat and what he was saying was, 'Look, the whole of life isn't action. Step back and think before you take any further step'. He said it beautifully - I just said it terribly - and he sent this to me. Well, those three poems are really, I think, beautiful poems. He wrote an epic called Captain Quiros, and it was the story of the struggle between Quiros, who wanted to embark on the exploration of the Pacific, and the Cardinal of Seville, and his Auxiliary Bishop. And in two stanzas, the Cardinal of Seville was Cardinal Gilroy, and the Auxiliary Bishop was Bishop Carroll. And he said to me in the letter, he said, 'Only you and I will understand this', and I wrote back saying, 'Yes, and about five thousand others'. [Laughs] So that poetry was a small part of our ... but we were, he was my closest friend, and after the death of Archbishop Mannix in '63, he was very important to me to talk to. And he lived 'til '76, and so I had thirteen years of his friendship and since then I've had nobody like that.
So his death was quite a blow to you.
It could have been catastrophic but it wasn't.
Malcolm Muggeridge had a very important influence with the book that he wrote, [Snatmaria: Yes] that really turned your mind to Communism. You subsequently met with him, and he wrote the introduction to your autobiography ...
Yes, he did.
Could you tell me about the history of that friendship?
Well, I read his book in '34 or '35. I think it was published in '34. I didn't meet him until '55. He was brought out to Australia, I think by the Sydney Morning Herald, to do a series of television interviews on Channel 7 and it was [during] the very heat of the split. And he interviewed me one night on Channel 7. We'd had lunch together and I found him very friendly. I'll never forget, as we were going into the studio at Channel 7, he turned round to me and he said, 'Don't mistake whatever friendship I feel for you for what I'm going to do now', and what he intended to do was carve me up. And for the first twenty minutes of that half hour session, I felt the water closing over my head. But then he made a mistake, and that saved me more or less. Anyway ...
Was it a factual mistake or a tactical mistake?
It was a tactical mistake. You see, what he'd been trying to say was this: what right had the Catholic Church got to intervene in politics? Isn't it an aggression against the democratic society, and all of that stuff. And then when we got to the about twenty minute mark - and of course it's a very difficult argument to have on television - he said, 'Look, where the Catholic Church intervenes in politics, as in Spain, look at the situation. Look at housing, look at the wages'. In other words, the Catholic Church is responsible for the poor social conditions. So I saw my chance and I said 'Well, no wait a moment, I really can't follow your argument. What do you want, do you want the Catholic Church to intervene, or not to intervene? When you answer that question, I'll answer'. And I think he faltered. It was a pure chance, and I think I saved myself. But other than that I was gone. Anyway, he came down to Melbourne and we had lunch together and he asked me what had influenced me in this line of fighting Communism, and I said, 'I blame you for finding myself where I am', and I told him about Winter in Moscow. He said, 'That's a strange thing'. He said, 'A book written by an agnostic could get you because you're a Catholic to put up an implacable opposition to Communism whereas the Communist goes through the agnostic like a knife through butter'. That's exactly his phrase. So, well, we laughed and then he went home. He came back to Australia, I think at the beginning of the sixties, or in the middle of the sixties. By this time he had met Mother Theresa in India, and she had a profound influence on him. We went for a walk one morning down at Albert Park, right along the waterfront here, and we were just talking, and he told me that he had become a Christian, which surprised me, because in that earlier lunch in 1955, he had said it was inconceivable that he could ever have any religious belief. So he mentioned this and I had an inkling of it, but I was surprised. And I said to him, 'Well look, I'm not likely to see you again, ever', although I did. I said, 'You've become a Christian, why don't you go the whole way, and become a Catholic?' and he looked at me, and his eyes were sparkling, and he said, 'Have you ever heard of a rat joining a sinking ship?' [laughs] and they were sort of his famous last words. But then I met him later on and the rat had joined the sinking ship by this time. So there we are.
[end of tape]