Australian Biography

Victor Smorgon - full interview transcript

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If money is the measure of success, is that the only way that success can be measured?

No, in business money is a measure of success. In any business that you do, any commercial activities that you are in. But you take scientists, they don't get much money but they become very famous and very respected, and have great success. Many doctors, many lawyers. And they're all very very successful but they don't earn the money the businessman does. I'm not talking about a businessman that works for another company, I'm talking about the businessman that creates his own business. A businessman that works for other companies, he's got to prove that he's good and then he gets sacked, like the chief of BHP got the sack because he made one mistake. I can't sack myself.

And so in relation to your personal life, how do you measure your success? [Smorgon: Pardon] In relation to your personal life, how do you measure your success?

Well, I don't really measure it. I'm not conscious of it. I'm not conscious of that success that you're talking about. It's not what you go for. You don't think in those terms of, 'Did I make it successful?' You think in terms of, 'Did I reach that point that I wanted to reach? And that's the aim, that dream: make your dream come true. And the dream has all sorts of meanings. It has ... but in business, obviously, if I'm not successful with my pallet, I lose money, and if I'm very successful with the pallets, I'm going to make a lot of money, and that lot of money then creates a lot of other things. It creates wealth for the country, wealth for the family, wealth for the community, because you always share some of it. Unfortunately not enough, but some of it.

And what was your dream for your life outside of business, for your personal life?

My personal life I've always enjoyed because of my ... probably my association with my wife and her interests, which I follow and which I enjoy very much, and encourage very much, and try to understand what any painting means. Everybody asks ... What I get annoyed about is when people say pay me the compliment of being the arts man in the family. I said, 'I'm not, my wife is'. They don't believe me. They say, 'Nonsense, you're the one. You have a good eye'. I say, 'I don't have an eye at all'. They don't believe you. I get annoyed about that, because I get a false ... I don't like getting false ...

Credit.

Credit. And Loti doesn't give a damn what other people think, she just loves doing what she's doing.

Victor, do you love life?

Yes, very much.

Why?

I always enjoy life, because it's exciting, it's your life. You're doing things and you're doing things that you want to do, and the people you're mixing with are doing things that they want to do, and you enjoy their success. And some people of my age, and some of my close friends, they are friends of seventy years. Most of them gave it up ten or fifteen years ago, and they just live a very, very dull life, and all they talk about is sicknesses. I talk about my new pallet, my new dream of pallets, not sicknesses. Sicknesses is a by-product of living. And as long as the head works, as long as from here up works, [POINTS TO HIS NECK] from here down it all can be repaired. This too [POINTS TO HIS HEART] can be repaired, the heart today, a few years ago. And a few years ago I wouldn't have reached eighty-five anyway, because nobody ... very, very few people reached that age. But today, with modern medication and new systems they have of controlling the body, you can live longer.

Were you ever a communist, living in Carlton among the Jewish community ...

Never!

... at that time? But weren't a lot of the Jews in Carlton ...

Oh yes, yes, the majority, the majority of Jews in Carlton in the 1920s, particularly the 1930s, a lot of them went back to Russia and ran back as quickly as they could, once they got there. But they are impractical dreamers. I used to tell them, 'You're dreaming something impossible. Human nature doesn't allow you to do that. Human nature does not share. Human nature does not allow you to share. That's only a dream'. I mean we do share a little bit, but not ... and there's a story about that, about two communists met. And they said, one to the other, 'If you had two cows, would you give one away?' He says, 'Of course I would'. 'If you had two motor cars would you give one?' 'Of course I would'. And so it went on until it came to, 'If you had two shirts would you give away? He said, 'No, I've got the shirts'. That's the explanation of communism. If you've got it, you don't give it away. See, if you haven't got it, it's very easy to give it away.

Why do you live in Australia? You could move. You could have chosen at any stage, as your empire expanded throughout the world, to go and live in another country. Why did you choose to be an Australian?

Because to me Australia is home. It's the country that I adopted when I was fourteen, the day we came here. It's the country that I found complete freedom against where I came from, and I guess what I read about other countries. It's the only country that has the nearest thing to - what's the word - can't think of the word ...

Leave it and go on.

Being equal.

Equality.

Equality.

Say that again then. Start that sentence again.

Democracy, that's the word I'm thinking of. It's the most democratic country that I know. Not perfect, but the nearest to democracy that is known in the world, in any countries that I've visited, including America and England. We don't have any snobbery like a whole lot of other countries have. You go to Germany or France or Italy or Spain or any of those countries, there's a structure of society, that you can break through but they still don't necessarily accept you. In Australia everybody's accepted, everybody's equal. If somebody kids themselves that they're better off, they're better than somebody else, they're only kidding themselves, because every human being in Australia has exactly the same opportunity to get to wherever they themselves want to get to. And not many countries ... America has part of that, but America gradually is getting into a position where they're becoming so rich that they think that they're the gods, like the English do. But the Americans are not old enough to think the same way. There's not enough generations. In England there's generations of wealth passed from one generation to the other, and they became the noblemen and they became the sirs, they became the people that everybody looked up to. But in Australia, who do we look up to, as people? There's nobody important, nobody so important in Australia, either in political life, social life or educational life. With all the professors I have no problem talking to any professor, to any educated person because he accepts me, and I accept him. I know that he know much more than I do in certain subjects, but there are other subjects that I know much more than he does, so I'm his equal. So I feel very comfortable living in a country like that. America doesn't quite have the same. America also has a problem with ... their own particular problem, with their native, or their ...

Black population.

Black people, the black population which were slaves, which really doesn't belong to America, but it belongs to Africa. And they were exploited and they were very cruel to them, but that's gradually going away and gradually the black man gets [the] same opportunities as a white man. But they need more education, same as the Aboriginal people need more education. But then Aboriginals have a different problem altogether, because they're not as advanced as the black man in Africa, or Red Indians, the American Indians. Not the Russian Red. So there's a big difference between those two cultures, but America's gradually evening up. I've been watching the last thirty or forty years.

Are you optimistic for the future of Australia?

Yes, I'm very optimistic. I'm optimistic in the sense the quicker you go out and live somewhere else the better off you'll be, unless you want to be an Asian. This is going to be an Asian country. You cannot help it. It might take a hundred years, but it has to be, it will be. We're surrounded by Asian people and they're very nice people, and they are all getting education in Australia, and they're going to come over and run Australia. And a lot of ... As you read in the paper, a lot of Australians say, 'Go and do business with Asian countries and establish factories there'. I'm completely against that, because in the ... The Asians want to exploit the Australians or English or Americans. They're not doing it because they want them there, they're doing it because they're bringing money in. And eventually they're going to take over Australia, because they invest so much in here that they become stayers. And there's nothing wrong with that, but they don't have the same culture as we have. Unless you are born into that culture, you wouldn't be comfortable with it. I'm not criticising the culture. Their culture's probably much better. In fact, I think Aboriginal culture is much better than the white man's culture, but we don't want to live the same style as they do. Our culture is different. And in Australia, black people are going to be worse [off] when Asians come, not better. They're better off with the white people. And my personal opinion is that that's not going to last. And I say to many people, 'Go to America, because there's so many people there they can't possibly do wrong'. America's a multicultural country too.

I think we've got enough.

[end of interview]