Peter Coleman

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.
--Austen Chamberlain

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.
---George  Orwell

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.                                                      

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