Hasluck Too Serious For Politics

1 December 2015
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Very few individuals with the intellectual depth of Paul Hasluck have reached the highest levels of Australian politics, writes Dr Richard Allsop.

There are two major ‘what ifs’ in Australian political history which relate to Paul Hasluck. What if Hasluck, rather than John Gorton, had emerged the victor from the January 1968 Liberal leadership ballot to replace the recently drowned Prime Minister Harold Holt? And what if, in 1974, Hasluck had accepted an extension of his term as governor-general and thus had been the man making the decisions in the constitutional crisis of 1975?

Yet, despite the fact that Hasluck did not become prime minister and did not have a viceregal crisis thrust upon him, he remains one of the most interesting public figures in twentieth century Australia. He is eminently worthy of this substantial new biography by leading Australian historian Geoffrey Bolton (who unfortunately died a few months aft er the publication of this work at the age of 83).

In recent decades, the most debated aspect of Hasluck’s career has been his twelve years (1951 to 1963) as Minister for Territories in the Menzies government— largely because in this role he was responsible for Aboriginal policy in the Northern Territory. Indeed, the strong focus on Aboriginal history amongst the nation’s historians has seen Hasluck’s actions in the Territories’ portfolio be the subject of far more discussion within academia than anything done, for instance, by the Treasurers of that same period.

Hasluck’s name is commonly associated with the policy of assimilation, which he applied to Aboriginals in the Northern Territory, and was similarly implemented by state governments of the period. Subsequent generations of activists in Aboriginal aff airs rejected assimilation and favoured a policy of self-determination. Their criticism of Hasluck’s position was often unfair for, as Bolton argues, when Hasluck became the Minister for Territories, the alternative to assimilation was not selfdetermination, but ‘the old policies of segregation and neglect’.

Critics have also tried to make Hasluck one of the villains in the story of the Stolen Generation. Bolton makes the point that while in the 1930s the eugenics movement played a part in the motivation of the forcible removal of children with European background fathers from their Aboriginal mothers, by the 1950s the policy was that children were only meant to be removed on the grounds of the welfare of the child, not on the basis of race. Modern day critics may still believe it was the wrong policy but at the time ‘it was accepted practice and seen as the  best option’.

The other key area of responsibility for the Territories Minister in the 1950s and 1960s was Papua New Guinea (PNG). Hasluck has sometimes been painted as an exponent of colonialism seeking to delay PNG’s path to independence. However, even his contemporary political opponents, who disagreed with aspects of his approach, acknowledged that he was ‘remarkably humanitarian’.

One particular issue which he had to consider was whether to allow non-Indigenous people, such as Australian ex-servicemen, to settle in significant numbers. He was instinctively against it, fearing it could become a problem as PNG moved towards independence. When he did allow an ex-servicemen’s credit scheme, he insisted that there be no discrimination against Indigenous ex-servicemen.

It was in the context of dealing with these issues in PNG that Hasluck delivered the ‘most explicit statement of political philosophy he ever made’, a statement which included the assertion that ‘the private enterprise of every native villager is just as sacred to liberalism as is the private enterprise of any European who may have established a business there’.

Hasluck brought unusually deep intellectual roots to his ministerial responsibilities. Before entering parliament as the Member for Curtin in 1949, Hasluck had worked as a journalist at the West Australian, lectured at university, started a publishing company, written poetry and been active in Perth’s local drama scene. He also began his involvement in Aboriginal affairs by accompanying around Western Australia a Royal Commission into the condition of Aboriginals, and writing a well-received book called Black Australians.

In the Second World War, Hasluck came to the east coast to take up a role in the Department of External Affairs, which led to his working on the formation of the United Nations with Minister H.V. ‘Doc’ Evatt. Hasluck found Evatt a difficult boss as he was prone to erratic decision-making and public grandstanding. This experience with Evatt was to have a big impact on Hasluck’s own political career for, as Bolton comments, ‘as an officer of the department he had suffered too much from Evatt’s capricious and personalized style of leadership … In reaction he went to the opposite extreme of insisting too rigidly on formal procedures.’

It became something of a stereotype that Hasluck was almost too serious a character for modern political life, something he did not help by actions such as objecting to the House adjourning to listen to the Melbourne Cup.

In this, he lacked the political touch of Menzies, who himself had no interest in horse racing, but realised that four million Australians listening on the radio might quite like their parliamentary representatives to be doing the same.


Hasluck’s career seemed marooned in Territories, but eventually after a short stint in Defence he got to the External Affairs portfolio, for which he was extremely well-qualified. It was a time of very serious foreign policy issues, with major instability in Indonesia and the escalation of the Australian involvement in the Vietnam War.

Given he now held a senior ministerial role, Hasluck was seen as a contender to be Holt’s deputy after Menzies’ retirement in 1966. However, the position went to Billy McMahon. Then, when Holt disappeared into the Cheviot Beach surf in late 1967, Country Party leader John McEwen vetoed McMahon as a prime ministerial option so Hasluck seemed the obvious candidate.

Yet, he lost the final ballot to the maverick John Gorton by just a handful of votes, despite the fact that Gorton was not even in the House of Representatives. What is most remarkable to modern eyes is that Hasluck did not undertake any lobbying on his own behalf, being of the belief that this was unseemly and his record should speak for itself. Even backbenchers who tried to drop by for a chat were turned away by his fearsome secretary, Miss Dusting, on the basis that they had not made an appointment. Speculating about alternative histories is a hazardous exercise, but it can be safely said that a Hasluck Prime Ministership would have been a far more dignified and cerebral affair than what transpired under Gorton and then McMahon.

Perhaps to remove a rival, Gorton appointed Hasluck as Governor-General in 1969, a role in which he continued following the election of the Labor government in 1972. Labor Prime Minister Whitlam so appreciated the capacity of his former political opponent to perform the vice-regal role that, in 1974, he proposed extending Hasluck’s term. For personal reasons, Hasluck declined and Whitlam appointed Sir John Kerr instead. As Bolton describes it, the events of October and November 1975 may well have been rather different if Hasluck, rather than Kerr, had been in Yarralumla.

As well as the counterfactuals of 1968 and 1975, there is also the question of what Hasluck’s life would have been like if he had not chosen a political career. Would Hasluck have been a major he had not gone into politics? It is clear from this biography that, while Hasluck derived some satisfaction from the authority and challenge of politics, he did not really enjoy his twenty-year political career.


Some of the most fascinating passages of the biography are when Bolton speculates about the impact which political life had upon Hasluck’s marriage. It seems possible that in becoming, in his own words, a ‘model prisoner’ in political life, Hasluck harboured resentment towards his wife Alexandra for encouraging him to stand for parliament.

Whereas previously the Haslucks had shared many of the same cultural interests and pursuits, once in politics, Paul’s dedication to his work meant he had little time to spare for his wife, a situation not helped by her being in Perth while he was in Canberra or visiting territories.

The Haslucks’ son and literary executor, Nicholas Hasluck, deserves much credit for allowing Bolton full access to the material which provides such a frank account of his parents’ relationship.

Despite his many achievements as a Minister, there is this sense of the flawed tragic hero about Hasluck, condemned to doing an excellent job in one area of endeavour, when the opportunity to make an even greater contribution elsewhere was denied him.

The poet and critic Max Harris perceptively observed that he did not know how Hasluck ‘came to fall into politics – he deserved better.

He was, and still is, essentially a writer, intellectual and poet.

The only way he knew how to be a politician was to adhere to all the rules and play it by the book.’

Very few individuals with the intellectual depth of Paul Hasluck have reached the highest levels of Australian politics. Anyone with an interest in the politics or intellectual life of this country should make sure they read this outstanding biography of him.

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