BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The man who would not be prime minister
, May 23, 2015
PAUL HASLUCK: A life
by Geoffrey Bolton
(Perth, UWA Publishing)
Paperback: 573 pages
Reviewed by Hal G.P. Colebatch
Sir Paul Hasluck was a paradox and a unique one: a Bohemian intellectual, poet, historian, reformer and Liberal politician, he rose to near the top of the Canberra greasy pole.
Knight, with Churchill and Slim, of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George, Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, Governor-General, Privy Councillor, journalist, diplomat, senior public servant, ground-breaking minister, essayist, poet, playwright, theatre critic, official historian, constitutional expert, father of Nicholas Hasluck, himself a Supreme Court Judge and distinguished author, the roll-call of his honours and achievements leaves one breathless.
It speaks volumes of the respect in which he was held on both sides of politics that when he was translated from serving politician to Governor-General without the normal “decent interval”, the appointment brought virtually no complaints, only expressions of regret that he would not be prime minister. Probably no Australian has had a richer life, and this lengthy and detailed study by one of the country’s leading historians is a worthy commemoration of it.
Hasluck was not in the usual mould of Australian politicians, and not only because of his extraordinary versatility and intellectual prowess: he reached the top without ever giving the appearance of being driven by ambition or a killer instinct (he almost certainly could have been prime minister if he had been prepared to fight for the job).
Professor Bolton writes: “Precisely because he was a first-class historian who wrote extensively and perceptively on the public life of his time, he was unusually conscious that every minute and memorandum he drafted as a minister, every sentence he wrote in his memoirs, at some time in the future would be read by another historian. Few public figures can have been so conscious of the future looking over their shoulders.”
He followed in the tradition of Hubert Murray, in moving Papua New Guinea steadily and intelligently
towards independence. It was not his fault that Gough Whitlam granted it independence long before there was an educated class capable of running the country and brought the fruits of generations of devoted work to nothing.
He reached the top from humble beginnings and apparently with little effort, universally respected (even by his mental inferiors), without being touched by a breath of scandal, and with, as far as I know, no enemies on either side of politics, and without the slightest stain on his character.
Leaving journalism with The West Australian for the Commonwealth public service, he was tested in the fire by his service to the disloyal Doc Evatt as minister for external affairs, and Evatt’s strange (to put it mildly) appointment of Dr John Burton as secretary of the department (Dr Andrew Campbell’s excellent research has cast more, and direr, light on Evatt’s behaviour).
Hasluck wrote bitterly of the department under Evatt: “I have lost confidence in the administration itself when by Dr Burton’s appointment cabinet set its approval on a whole system of petty intrigue, tale-bearing, favouritism and personal attachments to the minister which as an Australian citizen I consider contrary to public service principles.”
He had known some literary communists in Perth but after his experiences with Evatt and the traitor and Soviet agent Ian Milner, he came to believe communists should not be admitted to the public service because their avowed aims included the overthrow of the government.
His only brush with the unseemly was not his fault: Gough Whitlam threw a glass of water over him in
Parliament. The altercation began when Whitlam taunted him over his father’s Salvation Army career. Whatever Hasluck said in reply it apparently touched a nerve.
Hasluck’s greatest success was probably his policy of Aboriginal assimilation, in contrast to the one-time fashionable policy associated with Dr Herbert “Nugget” Coombs of keeping Aborigines on reserves; which might also be termed human zoos or perhaps less-successful Bantustans.
Ironically, the successes of Aboriginal assimilation tended to be invisible as the Aborigines concerned simply joined the ordinary Australian community. Gruesome experience of the abuse of women and children on remote reserves, finally forcing federal government intervention, has shown how wise Hasluck’s policy was.
In a sense he resembled “the Modest Member”, Bert Kelly, another man of high intelligence and perception, in that his long political career was unquestionably devoted to the public good rather than personal advancement.
This is more than a meticulously researched biography of one of the most remarkable of Australians: it is also a snapshot of two decades of political history. The section on the dismissal of Whitlam deals with a complex issue clearly and comprehensively.
Though Hasluck was probably the most respected man in Australian public life, his elevation to the Garter, the highest of all orders of English Chivalry, higher than Menzies’ Thistle, and restricted to 24 living members, remains a minor mystery. Did he perform some service, in addition to all the rest, which remains a secret of Buckingham Palace?
This is an excellent and highly commended book by Western Australia’s leading historian.
Hal G.P. Colebatch is a Perth-based author and lawyer.