Leaves from the Diary of a Madman
Families, when a child is born,
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.
---Su Tung-p’o, translated by Arthur Waley
Though [John] Morley declared that he would sooner have been the author of the Decline and Fall than Mr Pitt, he had a craving for public life, the limelight, the perils and the triumphs of the platform.
A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.
I cannot not recall the exact day I picked up the political virus. You can carry it for years without fully realising it. It is not the same as adopting a political philosophy or becoming a Member of Parliament. By February 1968 I had done both of those, but the virus had barely infected me. It takes you over slowly. There are also remissions and plateaux when you think you may have returned to civilized life. But it is hard to shake off entirely.
You know you have it when every detail of life becomes political. Every breakfast becomes a political breakfast, every dinner a conference. In a bad case, your family will also be politicized, your wife and children exploited as campaign fodder. Even your dreams and nightmares are political. The noise, the drama, the headlines -- forget about policy -- become everything.
For the victim, winning becomes more important than civility, fame than integrity, the necessary lie than the truth.
You console yourself with all sorts of saws-- that evil triumphs when good men do nothing, that the best is the enemy of the good. There is truth in these sayings. Without obsessiveness you will not climb the greasy pole. You will not do the things you want to see done. But you pay a price.
If you believe, as I do, that the world is a conflict between the will to power and the will to truth, between egoism and imagination, the political life belongs to the former. Living in it for too long can destroy you. The paradox is that a civilized society needs pushy politicians as much as contemplative poets.
I was 38 when I became a Parliamentary candidate. It was in a State election in New South Wales. I believed then that I had at last found the answer to most political questions. In my prolonged adolescence I had passed from idealism to revolution and on to the “silence, exile and cunning” of the Joycean artist. I had even written a dreadful novel about my ideological adventures, in which the idealist ends up being eaten by baboons in Africa, the revolutionary goes underground, and the artist burns his paintings. (The novel did not find a publisher.) But that was long ago. Now I knew where I stood: conservative enough to oppose the totalitarianism of the Left , progressive enough to liberalise the conservatives. In the slogans of the day, I was for small government, low taxation, States Rights, and the American alliance. It all seemed easy at the time.
In an entry at this time in one of Henry Mayer’s text books, I was able to declare, without self-doubt or irony: “I believe that our political system is a good one; that with the right leadership it is capable of dealing with any of the problems, however fundamental, that face us or are likely to face us… I believe in the maximum possible extension of civil liberties… I give a high priority to anti-communism…I am a Liberal Party liberal.” I recall confidently mocking Manning Clark’s idea of Australian history as a pitiful parade of misfits and failures.
We were Australia Unlimited. The economy was booming. .Our population reached 12 million! We were the most free and prosperous land in the history of the world. Prime Minister John Gorton declared we would also be “the most successful multi-racial society in history.” We dropped the word “British” from our passports.
But the year 1968 was also the beginning of the Age of Aquarius. The “student revolution” was exploding everywhere. There were riots in Melbourne and Paris, and at the Cannes Film Festival.. We were losing the Vietnam War. Don’s Party was upon us. So was the Bulgarian artist Christo who wrapped up Little Bay and a mile of the NSW coast with 750,00 square feet of plastic sheeting-- to the intoxication of the avant-garde (and the rage of environmentalists). I looked forward to the skirmishes to come
You quickly learn how little interest Parliament has in your philosophic ideas. Your heart-felt speeches will be delivered to an empty chamber or to a handful of dozing or chattering Members. Your insights may provoke roof-raising laughter from your opponent. The Minister may brush aside with a joke your most telling Question without Notice.
After one of my weighty speeches on constitutional reform, someone from the other side
demanded of the Premier : what was the Government going to do about the filthy words in a recent book of mine? It was the symposium Australian Civilization. The filthy word was “bullshit” in a chapter by Max Harris who analysed its vernacular usage. The tabloids had a good time.
On another occasion, after one of my blasts against falling standards in schools, an Opposition Member sprang to his feet to quote some of my speeches at Sydney University Union Night debates during my misspent youth. What steps, he wanted to know in apparent outrage, would the Minister for Education take to stop me spreading my communist ideas in the schools of my electorate?
I soon became involved in the rumpus around the play America Hurrah!, a now forgotten piece of Viet Cong agitprop which the leftists of Sydney, and most critics, were promoting as the last word in advanced theatre. It had been banned around the world for its obscenity, although in London the traditional device of free shows in private clubs allowed it to be performed. The Sydney production had a good cast and director but it was to be performed in a theatre that charged for tickets, not a club.
The Chief Secretary banned it. There were demonstrations, petitions, illegal performances, police chases, television debates. My position was straight-forward. As I had shown some year earlier in Obscenity Blasphemy Sedition: A Hundred Years of Censorship in Australia, most censorship had been stupid, philistine and counter-productive. It should be liberalized, but not abolished entirely. Should any part of America Hurrah! be restricted or banned? Yes or No?
I decided it should. The daubing of fuck and cunt on a stage set is not artistic nor entertaining. But I convinced no one. Left liberals scorned my fastidious distinctions. Conservatives ignored them.
This was bagatelle. Just part of the rough and tumble. But I began to feel a touch of disgust -- symptoms of the spreading infection-- when the Parliamentary Labor Party was able to silence me entirely. I had ten minutes to speak on the politicization of schools, the use of students as demonstration fodder, the leftist control of teachers’ unions. No sooner did I begin a sentence than one Opposition Member after another took trivial points of order to use up my time. Each belonged to the Labor Right, only too willing to serve the pro-communist Left. It confirmed the advice of my friend Jim McAuley that the Labor Right in New South Wales, even including, he said, its Catholic component, is unprincipled and untrustworthy.
The experience prompted me to write a pamphlet against the leftist politicization of schools. I was all in favor of school students debating anything and everything. But I was against indoctrination. Parents, students and teachers welcomed the polemic but some journalists and shock jocks thought I must be mad. Did I want to re-introduce the cane? Was I a tool of the CIA or ASIO?
My Labor party friend, Syd Einfeld, had a word in my ear. I would soon be on the Left’s hate list, he said. They would put me through the mincing machine -- defame me relentlessly. Why not be more cautious? I asked him what was the point of being in Parliament if you could not say what you thought on important issues. Syd shrugged, smiled and moved on.
The Premier Bob Askin was my first real politician. He was a devious and popular vote-grubber, but he was much more. He had something of that “eerie intuition, subtlety, divination” attributed to the British Premier Lloyd George. He impressed and depressed me enormously. When it suited him, he could prolong a strike ( or end it), give aid to South Vietnam (or end it), get stuck into the Canberra centralists (or applaud them). He won four elections in a row and was in his time the longest serving Premier of New South Wales. Electorally I was often carried on his coat-tails.
He had no use for me. My ministerial career only began after he stepped down in 1975. The new Premier Tom Lewis made me his Parliamentary Secretary. The job involved signing hundreds of letters each day. Later in the year he made me Minister for Revenue -- to raise the taxes which he as Treasurer spent.
But he also asked me to set up a new Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Public
Service. The idea was that each department abandon its ancient practice of “caution, secrecy, and valiant lying” (as one historian characterized Queen Elizabeth’s statecraft.) and prepare a long-term Corporate Plan. The Annual Report would compare the year’s work with the Plan, and the Parliamentary Standing Committee would scrutinize the results. Many public servants were suspicious and resentful, although the policy had the enthusiastic backing of the Chairman of the Public Service Board whose idea it had been. Progress was slow but a start was made. I felt I was getting somewhere in Parliament after all.
Over Christmas 1975 Eric Willis, the Minister for Education, staged the coup that at last made him Premier. I became Chief Secretary responsible for Police, Prisons and a few odds and ends such as pornography, boxing and the Government Printer (not yet privatised.) Prisons took up most of my time. They were rarely out of the news. There were riots, action groups, plays, rallies, television debates. Actresses found it chic to marry prisoners. The Left considered all prisoners political, and many inmates agreed: when I visited Parramatta Gaol to look at its arts program (painting, playwriting, journalism), the prisoner Jim McNeil, author of the popular play, The Chocolate Frog, gave me a copy of the prisoners’ magazine Contact which expounded his debased Nietzscheanism: the criminal life of danger is superior to the suburban life of security.
In this period of new ideas on crime and punishment, I wanted to set up a Royal Commission into Prisons. Premier Willis agreed. We took great pains to get it right. The chairman was a Supreme Court judge (J.F.Nagle, selected by the Chief Justice) and the other Royal Commissioners were a humanist academic (A.G.Mitchell) and a public administrator (S.C.Derwent). The acclaimed British criminologist, Sir Leon Radzinowicz, agreed to be the Commission’s consultant. It was an opportunity to make the most thorough investigation and reform of the prison system not only in the history of Australia but perhaps in the world.
But Premier Willis then called a general election. The government was defeated. Neville Wran became Premier. One of the new government’s first decisions was to scrap the Royal Commission, sack almost everyone I had persuaded to serve on it -- two of the Commissioners, the consultant, and the lawyers representing the prison officers and the department of prisons. It then created a new Royal Commission as a vehicle for attacking the former government. It also destroyed the career of the chief commissioner of prisons, Walter McGeechan, a dedicated and reforming public servant.
In his account of this poor substitute inquiry in his memoir Walking on water: A life in the law,Chester Porter QC concluded that “an opportunity was missed that will probably never come again in my lifetime.” To complete the government’s imposture it appointed as Minister for prisons a man who was soon sentenced to gaol for taking bribes to release prisoners. My political sores began to suppurate.
On a wet May morning in 1976 the fleet of large, white, brutalist Ministerial LTDs dropped the old Cabinet off for the last time at J.J. Barnet’s classic pile in Macquarie street, the Colonial Secretary’s building . We sat tensely in the Executive Council Chamber waiting for His Excellency, the Governor of New South Wales, to sack us.
Everyone had his own ideas about whose gaffes had lost key votes in our narrow defeat. Some of the older ministers were disposed to be philosophic. The younger ones, chopped down in their prime, were sore as boils. Suddenly His Excellency appeared, with his Official Secretary. He was relaxed, as if he enjoyed our discomfiture. He briskly noted the “statistical returns”. As he submitted his resignation, Willis muttered “We’ll be back!”. His Excellency smiled skeptically. We all knew it would take at least ten years. A group of us returned immediately to Parliament House to brood about what was to be done. There was angry talk of dead wood, new blood, radical policies…
When I was elected Leader of the Opposition late in 1977, there was no shortage of advice. Clyde Packer rang from California to urge me to buy a greyhound. Rupert Henderson, the legendary director of John Fairfax & Sons, warned me to expect nothing from Fairfax (“They are weak!”) and to take no notice of journalists (“They are shit!”). The novelist Thomas Keneally advised the public that the thought of me becoming Premier terrified him. I would, he warned , prosecute republicans! (The basis of his terror was that I had published in Quadrant Clement Semmler’s documenting of the remarkable similarities between Keneally’s latest novel Season in Purgatory and Bill Strutton’s much earlier Island of Terrible Friends.)
We set about recruiting new candidates and developing new policies. But the key event was the Earlwood by-election made necessary by the resignation of Eric Willis. The Liberal candidate was Alan Jones, later a well-known radio talk jock. The problem was Kerry Packer.
Packer wanted the Sydney Cricket Ground for his television cricket and .the Wran Labor government eagerly agreed to amend the Sydney Cricket Ground Act to let him have it. But many Coalition members were skeptical. Some thought his “pyjama cricket” would degrade the game for the sake of television ratings. Others distrusted his Labor Party associations or despised his “sleazy” magazines and “foul” tongue. Most wanted time to consider the proposed transformation of the game. Since the Coalition controlled the Upper House, we decided to block the government’s amendments until the issues were worked out. The outraged Packer used his media, including the suburban paper which served the Earlwood electorate, to celebrate the Labor government and its candidate.
After examining the idea of World Series Cricket, especially the Packer plan to pay cricketers well, the Coalition reluctantly reconsidered its opposition. David McNicoll, the conservative former Editor in Chief of Australian Consolidated Press, invited me to drinks with Kerry Packer to discuss the stand-off. Don’t forget, he hissed conspiratorially, Packer’s intimacy with the government.
I told Packer we would pass the government’s bill but in return we expected his media, including his suburban newspapers, to give our by-election candidate a fair run. He agreed. We shook hands. The Coalition passed the bill. But his publications became even greater organs of the Labor party propaganda.
We lost the by-election. It was only a matter of time before we lost the general election in a landslide to the government. The defeat was mine and I had to take the blame for the catastrophe. One detail was that I also lost my own seat. I was now 49, unemployed, with three children to see through university. When a reporter asked me what I would do, I quoted Shakespeare : Áll the world’s a stage, and one man in his time plays many parts. I would , I said, find another part to play. But what?
There was one redeeming moment in a bleak week. Peter Kocan sent me a vers d’occasion called “Election Night…”. Its concluding stanzas are:
And Mr Whatsisname, the one who lost,
is clearing his office
--clean stable for the Party’s next
performing horse—to descend
for the last time
the imposing steps
past the uniformed attendant
into the waiting car,
wearing the only honour
the People, nowdays, can bestow
--the landslide tribute
of their non-support.
Quadrant came to my rescue. One of the magazine’s contributors was Richard L..Walker, a sinologist who ran an institute of international affairs in the University of South Carolina. A French scholar had at the last minute backed out of a Visiting Professorship. At the urging of Quadrant’s publisher, Richard Krygier, Walker invited me to fill the vacancy for a semester while I sorted things out.
Had my defeat purged me of my infection? On a `plane somewhere in the American South, I realized that it had not. The conversational buzz of the passengers seized and held my attention. I knew I had heard it before, somewhere, some time. It had a noisy note of humour mixed with worldliness, a hint of idealism, an awareness of failure. I suddenly realized this was a group of congressmen, on their way back to the state capital. I could hardly stop myself joining in their conversation. It seemed then that the only way to deaden the ache of the infection was to return to Parliamentary life.
I was still in South Carolina when R.J.Ellicott, the Minister for Home Affairs, rang to invite me to be Administrator of Norfolk Island for a couple of years. The Island was then beginning its experiment in self-government with a Westminster-style Legislative Assembly and Executive Council. An Administrator -- a sort of Governor-- with Parliamentary experience would help the new system work. Ellicott saved my life.
Dealing daily with unruly (and sometimes megalomaniac) Island MLA’s nourished on anglo-Polynesian legends of the mutiny of the Bounty, the traditions of Pitcairn Island, and their independence of Australia -- as well as with Commonwealth public servants -- induced spasms of the old political fever. But I also began a return to literary life. On the Island I wrote The Heart of James McAuley, about my old Quadrant co-editor, and began a book on the Cold War and the intellectuals. (Verna, my wife, also wrote a biography, Miles Franklin in America.)
Late in 1980 Ellicott resigned from the Commonwealth Parliament and the seat of Wentworth. I flung myself into the pre-selection and by early 1981 I was back in Parliament, the federal Parliament.
But a strange thing happened. It was the dying days of the Fraser government. A loss of morale, a sense of aimless floundering between old and new ideas, was starkly evident. On the day I was sworn in, Andrew Peacock gave a fiery speech about why he had resigned from Cabinet. He denounced Fraser’s “manic determination to get his own way.” I had barely found my bearings in the House when the former Prime Minister Bill McMahon sat beside me to tell me that ours was the worst government in memory. “Man for man,” he said, “the Shadow Cabinet is superior in every way to the Government.”. My new colleagues called: “Welcome to Fawlty Towers!” I did my best in speeches to look on the bright side. The words turned to ashes in my mouth.
After the Fraser government’s defeat in the 1983 election, we returned to Canberra a demoralized rabble. The great preoccupation now was the leadership see-saw grimly played out by Andrew Peacock, John Howard and, later, Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Members deeply infected by the political virus relished the Chinese whispers, the plots and counter-plots. But although my spell of normal life outside Parliament had not killed the political virus in me, it had weakened it. In the policy wars I was on the side of the free traders and deregulators, but without their fervour. Was I a man of the past who should make place for a true believer? I obviously could no longer call up the old frenzy.
I became miserably aware of this new handicap when some Vietnamese friends invited me to be one of the speakers at their demonstration outside Parliament House. I gladly said yes. As one M.P. after another stepped up to the microphone to attack the communist government of Vietnam, I agreed with everything they said. But suddenly I could no longer bellow, rally, and shake my fist, even in a good cause. I wished the Vietnamese well, shook hands and turned away, leaving them to finish without me. I had let them down. I was ashamed. But the fever had gone.
My preoccupations had not changed, only my old enchantment with Parliament. For me it was now more important to finish my book on the Cold War and the intellectuals, The Liberal Conspiracy. The Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe. Quadrant also needed more time. But the idea of resignation worried some of the Coalition leaders, who thought it would add to the sense of an Opposition in disarray. The solution was not to contest the 1987 election. John Hewson was pre-selected as the next Member for Wentworth.
I left the great game with regret. Politicians are not exciting intellectuals, show-biz stars, or Napoleons of commerce. Their simple and essential role is to oil the machinery of a free country. But for me it was time to call it a day. I was in remission -- and this time it was permanent.