Obituary: Sir Paul Hasluck

Geoffrey Bolton
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:09

Paul Meernaa Caedwalla Hasluck, politician, born Perth Western Australia 1 April 1905, MP for Curtin 1949-69, Minister for Territories 1951-63, Minister for Defence 1963- 64, Minister for External Affairs 1964-69, PC 1966, Governor-General of Australia 1969-74, GCMG 1969, GCVO 1970, KG 1979, married 1932 Alexandra Darker (one son, and one son deceased), died Subiaco Western Australia 9 January 1993.

SOMETIMES described as 'the best prime minister Australia never had', Paul Hasluck nevertheless achieved as administrator, diplomat, historian, poet, and social critic a career more distinguished and fulfilling than those of many holders of the office.

Born in Perth in 1905, the son of Salvation Army officers in very modest circumstances, Hasluck benefited from a Western Australian state education system giving access not only to Perth Modern School for the intellectually able but later to the small but respectable University of Western Australia, then unique in the British Commonwealth for charging no fees. On leaving school in 1922, however, Hasluck became for 16 years a journalist on the local daily, the West Australian, an experience about which he wrote engagingly in his autobiography Mucking About (1977). During this period he made a name as a drama critic, wrote enough poetry to fill a collection in 1939, and pioneered the systematic collection of oral history.

In 1934 he accompanied a royal commission into the condition of Aborigines in Western Australia. This was a seminal experience. At that time Aborigines were widely thought 'a dying race'; official policy favoured their enforced segregation into reserves and missions. Hasluck became one of the most articulate critics of this policy, arguing for Aboriginal access to the rights and opportunities of Australian citizenship. A quiet moral passion informed his writings, culminating in Black Australians (1942), originally his MA thesis for the University of Western Australia. This history of Aboriginal-white relations was by Australian standards a pioneering work of unprecedented candour.

Briefly a lecturer in history at the university, Hasluck was recruited in 1941 into Australia's fledgling Department of External Affairs, serving nearly all his time under the very able, demanding, and often impossible ministry of Dr HV Evatt. A prodigiously hard worker, Hasluck advanced in the service, and was much involved in the genesis of the United Nations, about which he wrote a contemporary account, Workshop of Security (1948), and later reminiscences, Diplomatic Witness (1980). Temperamental incompatibility with Evatt combined with policy disagreements to prompt Hasluck's resignation in 1947; he considered Australian policy too diffuse. He returned to the University of Western Australia as reader in 1948-49, having been commissioned to write two volumes of the official history of Australia in the 1939-45 war. The Government and the People (volume one, 1952; volume two, 1970) provides a magisterial survey of the Australian home front, lucid, balanced, and still indispensable. However, its completion was delayed for many years by Hasluck's diversion into politics.

Hasluck was attracted to the renascent Liberal Party led by Robert Menzies, and at the 1949 federal election which brought the Liberals to power for 23 years Hasluck became MP for the safe seat of Curtin. From 1951 to 1963 he was Minister for Territories, with responsibility for the Northern Territory and Papua New Guinea. Within Australia this enabled him to promote the change in Aboriginal policy towards assimilation, under which the barriers against Aboriginal participation in citizen rights were gradually removed. Restrictions on movement were abandoned, and educational opportunities improved. At the time assimilation was seen as a welcome advance on the blinkered policies of the past. Subsequently it was seen as leading to the loss of Aboriginal cultural identity, and has been abandoned in favour of a more diversified approach. In his last book, Shades of Darkness (1986), Hasluck defended his policies against critics with characteristic crispness and vigour.

In Papua New Guinea, aided by a competent administrator, Donald Cleland, Hasluck saw his goals as the restraint of settler capitalism, the promotion of indigenous agriculture, and the widespread provision of primary education, which he saw as a priority ahead of advanced education for an elite. Critics thought him paternalistic, and it is probably a fair comment that because of his capacity for hard work, his administrative style was over-centralised and at times over-meticulous; nor was he justified in 1960 in banning the eminent anthropoloigist Max Gluckman from entering Papua New Guinea. On the other hand it would have been easy to mishandle the formidable problems of welding the numerous clans of Papua New Guinea into a workable polity, building up an administration of sound calibre, and paving the way to self-rule, a goal which Menzies and Hasluck first thought would take decades to achieve. Prompted by a UN mission under Sir Hugh Foot (later Lord Caradon), they revised their timetable so that the first legislature with substantial indigenous membership appeared in 1964.

Briefly minister for defence, Hasluck moved in 1964 to the Department of External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs and Trade). His five years in office were dominated by Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war. This is the most controversial aspect of his career, about which more light may be shed during the next few years as archives are released under the 30-year rule. From his public statements he emerged as an unabashed and hawkish supporter of Australian participation in the Vietnam intervention, a convinced believer in the 'domino theory', and a sceptic about attempts at mediation. He was a very able parliamentary exponent of foreign policy, and took part in 'teach-ins' where the bulk of the large audience opposed him; probably the unpopularity of his cause fortified him. Towards Indonesia he was alert to the opportunities of improving relations after the aborted coup of September 1966 brought Suharto to power.

In January 1968, after the death of the prime minister, Harold Holt, Hasluck was a candidate for the Liberal Party leadership and prime ministership. Temperamentally averse to self-promotion, he was unable to break the monopoly of Victorian and New South Wales politicians on the top job, and was narrowly defeated by John Gorton. In April 1969 he was appointed governor-general for a five-year term. Concern at the appointment of a serving party politician to the vice-regal post was allayed in Hasluck's case by his reputation for integrity. The Labor Party leader, Gough Whitlam, who had once thrown a glass of water over Hasluck in the heat of debate, came as prime minister to appreciate the governor-general, and now believes that if Hasluck had been in office in November 1976 he would have averted the constitutional crisis ending in Whitlam's dismissal. A careful president of the executive council, Hasluck with his wife performed their public duties successfully, but he refused Whitlam's offer of an extended term because of his wife's health.

Retiring to Perth, Hasluck resumed a notable career of writing and scholarship already recognised by his election to fellowships of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia and the Australian Academy of Humanities. Compactly built (he was a keen horseman), with a neat moustache and dark hair retained long into old age, Hasluck was sometime thought stuffy by those who did not know him; in fact he was a witty raconteur with talent as a mimic and down-to-earth Australian streak seldom far from the surface. He was also an unobtrusive, discerning, but strikingly effective supporter of heritage and the arts. He is survived by his wife, Alexandra, herself a productive historian, and his younger son, Nicholas, a lawyer and novelist.

(Photograph omitted)

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