Parting shots, scandal and laughter from the grave

If ever there were parting shots from the grave, the Cameron tapes released by the National Library of Australia in 2010 fit the bill...

Recorded some quarter century ago, they are the uninhibited reminiscences of former Liberal Minister and Governor General, Sir Paul Hasluck, former Liberal Prime Minister, Sir John Gorton and their wily interviewer, Clyde Cameron, a former leftist Labor minister.

The tape two transcripts were released by the National Library of Australia at the start of 2010. Bob Wurth researched the content of the tapes for articles published in part in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newsspapers in early January. These essays reveal the full extent of Wurth's research...

 

           THE CAMERON TAPES

 

The separate interviews with Hasluck and Gorton are politically revealing, at times rib-tickling and often somewhat scandalous.

Gorton reveals that as prime minister he would have used his concealed pistol to shoot rampaging Tolais when visiting Rabaul in 1970 if they had threatened his wife as he feared. And, yes, fleetingly, he really did want to toss Queen Elizabeth into the sea on the Great Barrier Reef.

Gorton admits that a drank a lot as Prime Minister to unwind a bit and that it blurred his judgement and he’d get physically very tired. He didn’t really enjoy being PM, but he enjoyed getting things done.

Hasluck initially states that he certainly won’t be commenting on Governor General Sir John Kerr’s sacking of Gough Whitlam in 1975 “in fairness to my successor.” But before long he does, explaining for the first time how he would have done things differently.

After sitting down for a good chat, he probably wouldn’t have sacked Whitlam in 1975 or even bothered talking with Opposition leader Malcolm Fraser, as it really wasn’t Fraser’s business.

Hasluck reveals his discovery that some state governors and vice regal staff allegedly abused their perks at times.

Cameron the interviewer often becomes the story-teller too. He was present as a union leader when acting Prime Minister Arthur Fadden back in 1941 had to be carried from Parliament House after demolishing the supply of “the fat bastard’s whisky”, as Fadden called it, in the office of absent Prime Minister, Robert Menzies.

Hasluck, Gorton and interviewer Cameron are uninhibited in their discussions 25 years ago knowing they will be long dead by the time the interviews become public.

Until today the tapes have been locked away in the highest-level security vault in the National Library in Canberra at Cameron’s insistence.

Both Hasluck and Gorton are wary and coy initially in talking so freely with their former political adversary. From the outset they make it clear they don’t want to be interviewed. Talked into it, they insist they won’t be saying much. Before long crafty old Cameron has them singing like canaries, dropping steamy behind-the-scenes bon mots and revealing outrageous goings on.

Hasluck, a serious conservative and self-admitted “stickler for doing what I’d regard myself as the decent thing”, asks Cameron to put a ban on the tape transcripts being released until 2010. “I’m quite sure I won’t be here in 2010” he adds. But by page 495 of the transcript, Hasluck is egging Cameron on with “…if you want a little bit of scandal … seeing that these tapes are not going to be made available for a number of years….” and proceeds to castigate a former Liberal colleague, one of many lashed by Hasluck’s acerbic tongue.

Into the swing of things Hasluck offers tit-bits of insider scandal about minister Black Jack McEwen and a certain secretary he allegedly wanted to have her own room while they were overseas. Hasluck too is unrestrained in criticising people, calling some High court judges ‘pretty dim’ in their understanding of government.

The interviews are excessively long. The transcripts of the series of interviews with Gorton alone run to four great bound red leather tomes.

Cameron leads the interviewees with bold questions and at times he cuts across his hapless subjects like an interrogator. At other times he rambles hopelessly with his own subjective recollections, often amusing and insightful. He sometimes disagrees with his subject or alternatively lavishes him with excessive praise. He goes to lunch with them and clearly enjoys a few evening snifters with them too. But overwhelmingly the former opponent gets the goods.

Cameron did everything an oral historian wouldn't do...

Clyde Cameron does everything an oral historian wouldn’t do, according to Kevin Bradley (pictured), curator of oral history at the National Library in Canberra:

 "The oral historian should know when to listen, when to keep quiet, not to ask leading questions and approach the subject very carefully. Clyde Cameron asked leading questions, often engaged the interviewees in robust debate and put his own views.

 "But the reason why his oral histories have worked so well is that he and his interviewees were both strongly opinionated and well informed people who knew the value of historical accuracy and were not afraid to defend their view of it”, Bradley says.

Cameron, the son of a shearer, left school at 14 for the shearing sheds himself but was unemployed during the worst of the Great Depression.

He took a keen interest in unionism and in 1941 became South Australian state president of the Australian Workers’ Union and the union’s federal vice president. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1949, serving a remarkable 31 years.

In June 1975, with the government in crisis, to put it rather mildly, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam wanted to demote Cameron as Minister for Labor and Immigration in a reshuffle. Cameron simply refused to stand aside, so Whitlam had him removed from office by Governor-General Kerr. Whitlam then appointed Cameron to a lesser portfolio.

Cameron enjoys the ‘reminiscential conversations’ as he terms them, immensely. Chatting with Hasluck, he takes any opportunity to bag his former leader Whitlam, saying “I’m convinced that he (Whitlam) wasn’t surprised” by his sacking by Kerr in 1975, believing Whitlam knew Kerr’s thinking months earlier.

Cameron as interviewer enthuses as Hasluck suggests that Harold Holt entered the wild sea at Portsea, possibly under the influence of “pep pills”. Cameron goes overboard leaping in with supposed knowledge of a link between Holt, a young lover at the beach, LSD and a death wish. Hasluck, taken aback, is forced to hose Cameron down and he withdraws.

If there is a common enemy in the Cameron tapes it is former PM Billy McMahon whom they all love to hate. Gorton, Hasluck and even the interviewer Cameron condemn McMahon’s political underhandedness in the most vehement language - so strident that it tops previous public attacks on the former Prime Minister’s behaviour by his declared enemy, Hasluck.

Hasluck’s distain for his former colleague is well known, but in the Cameron tapes he uses language probably rarely heard in Government House, calling McMahon variously “a contemptible little creature, a perpetual liar, a sneak, a tick, an unreliably treacherous fellow” and, for good measure, “a dirty little bastard”.

When they hesitate to reveal all, Cameron urges his interviewees on, assuring them that they’d all be dead, himself included, when the tapes are released, so what the hell.

Clyde Cameron has conducted 12 oral history interviews for the National Library in 382 hours of taped recordings. Most have already been released. But there are a few more surprises in store for the future. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s interview is scheduled for release in 2012 and the tapes featuring Ingrid Murphy, wife of controversial Attorney-General and High Court judge Lionel Murphy, will be released in 2019.

Clyde Cameron once said his oral history recordings for the National Library will be more important in history than anything he ever said in Parliament and he doesn’t disappoint.

The Cameron tapes are unconventional but, from the Australian historical viewpoint, important. Cameron died in 2008 at the age of 95. Shearers know about oral history. Is that a chuckle we hear?

Read further historical essays by Bob Wurth from the Cameron tapes on this site.

 

Historian and former Whitlam minister Clyde Cameron.

Governor General Sir Paul Hasluck

Prime Minister Sir John Gorton.

Prime Minister Sir William McMahon.