Barrie Virtue OBE was born at Lismore, NSW, in 1932. Between 1964 and 1984 he served as Press Secretary, Private Secretary and Principal Private Secretary to the Rt. Hon. Doug Anthony. During the interview, Mr Virtue sings a song, the words of which he wrote, to a tune based on one by the English composer, Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame). The song begins: “I am the very model of a modern Trade Commissioner, with GATT and GATS and EIAs I’m more or less familiar…”
Interview with Barrie Virtue part 1
B York: This is an interview with Barrie Virtue who between 1964 and 1984 served as Press Secretary and Private Secretary and later Principle Private Secretary to the Right Honourable Doug Anthony here in this building which is the provisional Parliament House. Mr Virtue will be speaking with me Barry York for the Oral History Program conducted by the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. On behalf of the Director of the museum thank you very much for your cooperation.
B Virtue: Thank you it is a pleasure.
B York: Do you understand that the Commonwealth will hold copyright in the interview but disclosure is subject to the restrictions that you may impose through that rights agreement?
B Virtue: Yes I do.
B York: Also can we have permission, if our resources allow it, for us to make a transcript or a summary of the interview?
B Virtue: Yes.
B York: Thank you. The interview is taking place today, 1st May 2012 at the museum. Now can we begin at the beginning. Can you tell me about your family and personal background please?
B Virtue: Barry, I was born at Lismore up on the far north coast of New South Wales in 1932. My mum and dad had a small dairy farm, ninety seven acres as I recall, which was too small at Bexhill, which is a little place about twelve kilometres north-east of Lismore, on the road to Byron Bay. I went to primary school, Bexhill Public School, which was a little two roomed school, about thirty kids as I recall. The first, second and third class was in, what we called, the little room and fourth, fifth and sixth were in the big room. Then I went to High School in Lismore, Lismore High School.
I got the Intermediate Certificate but I went on to fourth and fifth year, but I have to confess I didn’t do too well and I didn’t get the Leaving Certificate. I went then and began working for the local newspaper, the Northern Star. I worked there in the office for about ten years doing general office work and looking after the advertising and so on, but I didn’t really enjoy that. So I switched over to journalism which you could do easily in those days. It’s not like today when people go to university and do journalism courses and so on. It was much less formal. So I became a D-grade reporter, starting at the bottom of the ladder. After five years had passed I was a B-grade reporter which is the second top and a sub-editor on the paper. So that’s what I was doing then.
B York: What attracted you to the idea of working in a newspaper office in the first place?
B Virtue: One thing I realized I could do was string a few words and sentences together. I enjoyed doing that. Actually I had written a few little bits and pieces for the paper while I was working in the general office. They seemed to be quite acceptable. When I asked the editor if he would give me a go at being a reporter he said, yes he would. I loved it.
B York: What was Lismore like back then?
B Virtue: It was a very big, thriving country town. The newspaper, I thought, was probably the best regional newspaper in Australia. I don’t think it is now. They ruined it when they turned it into — it used to be a broadsheet, a big paper. About thirty or so years ago they turned it into a tabloid, a small newspaper. We used to have a dozen stories on the front page. Now you’d be lucky if there was one story and a big photograph. I think they’ve ruined the newspaper, anyway that’s by the way.
Lismore then was situated in what was a big dairying district. Dairying has really died out, of course these days, it proved to be uneconomic in that area. People started growing macadamia nuts and raising beef cattle and so on, the nature of the district has changed. The nature of the whole north-east corner of New South Wales has changed. It’s become a very popular retirement place and a place for alternative life-style people. Of course Nimbin, the famous, hippy capital is in that area, was in Doug Anthony’s electorate in those days. So it’s changed a lot demographically, and as a result it’s changed politically.
B York: Yes, and your parents were they both workers on the farm, like farmers?
B Virtue: Yes, dad, he did most of the work, but I remember when we were little kids my mother did a lot of work too, milking the cows, helping with milking the cows. So they both worked very hard. They didn’t get much for it. I remember — about the biggest cheque, monthly cheque they ever got from Norco which was the big milk-butter company up there, was one hundred pounds, that was for a month’s work, two hundred dollars for a month. It seemed a lot in those days but of course these days it’s nothing very much, and for the rest of the year it was less than that. In the winter it was practically nothing. In some months they would find themselves owing Norco money for the butter that they bought and so on.
I remember Norco — in those days everybody ate a lot of butter. Norco would send the butter order out in the empty cream can when it came back in the afternoon. I don’t know how often, but they would send six pounds of butter. I remember you’d open the can up and there would be six pounds of melted butter in the can because it would be so hot in that climate.
B York: We’re talking now, what, post-war, late ‘40s?
B Virtue: Yes, the Second World War started when I was seven and finished when I was thirteen, so — the war years and afterwards, that I talk about up there.
B York: Yes, and with your parents did they instil any particular values or attitudes, outlook in you do you think?
B Virtue: I think they did. They were members of what was called the Methodist Church then, the values that were instilled into us there at Sunday School and church. I hope I still exhibit to some extent. I’m still a member of what is now the Uniting Church. In fact recently I’ve given up after several years of being an elder of the church, because I turned eighty the other day, getting on a bit.
I’ve been singing all my life too. My father was a very good singer. I began singing when I was a teenager, in the church choir. About eighteen months ago I realised that my wife has been sitting on her own in church for fifty-eight years so we thought, well that was long enough, so I gave up singing in the choir, but I’ve been singing all my life, and still do a little bit as opportunities arise.
B York: Now that’s religious type of values, what about politics, were they political?
B Virtue: No, they weren’t political. I wasn’t political either. They voted for the Country Party. They were dairy famers’ and everybody voted for the Country Party, but it really didn’t go much further than that. I imagine my sympathies leaned towards the Country Party. They certainly were great admirers of Doug Anthony when he became a Member. It’s interesting, Doug’s father, Larry Anthony, senior, not the young Larry who became a minister later on.
B York: No.
B Virtue: When he was the Post Master General, I remember when I was a little kid, I was quite young. My father was laughing about the fact that Larry Anthony had been asked a question in the House about the truncation of Advance Australia Fair which was — the ABC in those days used as its news theme. More recently it used this thing called Majestic Fanfare and now they’ve got all sorts of fancy things. What happened was that the military band version of Advance Australia Fair that they used as a theme, they truncated it to make it shorter. It went [hums the tune] they finished it off. Somebody asked Larry Anthony about this terrible thing they were doing to the national anthem and he said, he didn’t notice anything wrong with it. My father thought that was quite amusing.
B York: So, after school you get a job with the local paper, in the office, and start writing a bit.
B Virtue: Yes.
B York: What kind of things did you write?
B Virtue: I remember writing reviews of concerts and things like that. They used to have, every Monday they used to have a thing called From the Pulpit and they would report on somebodies sermon that had been preached the day before, usually the ministers would contribute this stuff. But occasionally I would make a note of what the minister was saying at our church and write a little story and give them that, but it was that sort of thing. I seem to remember that I took a few photographs that they published.
Our next door neighbour one day, his bull stuck his head through a wooden gate and got stuck in the gate and lifted the gate off the hinges and took off down the paddock. I got some nice pictures of that [laughs].
B York: Really.
B Virtue: Yes.
B York: When you started, decided to become a journalist, was that a career decision. Did you think this is something I will do long term?
B Virtue: It was sort of. It was really because I really hated the job I was doing and I knew I could do the journalism job. So it was really an escape for me from the job I didn’t like. I knew I was moving into something that I would like. It’s funny my kids have — well I’ve often said to my kids, even up into my later years. I still don’t what I want to do when I grow up. I’d never really had any ambitions. I never had any plan of what I wanted to do, but I’ve been very lucky that I’ve got into jobs where I was reasonably successful and could cope with them.
B York: As a young person were you — like I hear about young blokes who will grow up on a farm in the country environment and after a while they’re desperate to get out. They want to go to the city. Where you like that or were you content?
B Virtue: I was quite content. I wanted to get out of the farm. I didn’t want to milk cows but I didn’t want to go to the city. I was quite content to live in Lismore. When Claire and I were married in 1954 we built a little house in Lismore. We were settled there, we thought for the rest of our lives, until things changed.
B York: Let’s now talk about that. How did you end up in Canberra?
B Virtue: Well, we’d be to or through Canberra a few times over the years. We always thought it was a wonderful place. We really loved coming to Canberra and looking around and going to the War Memorial and so on. One Saturday afternoon, around about August or September in 1964, I walked up the street from our house, which was overlooking Lismore, just a few doors up the street my boss lived. He was the editor of the paper that I worked for. He was in his backyard gardening. We’d been away on holidays during which we’d come through Canberra. I just walked up the street and was yarning to him in the backyard and telling him about the holiday we’d had. He said ‘Do you like Canberra do you? Doug Anthony is looking for a Press Secretary’. It was as simple as that. It came completely out of the blue.
Doug had been appointed Minister for the Interior by Menzies. He succeeded Gordon Freeth. He inherited Freeth’s Press Secretary, Keith Darrow, but Keith wanted to leave and do something else. So Doug rang the editor of the paper that I was working for and asked him if there was anybody there who might be interested. The editor apparently said, I might be. He would know my feelings and leanings, that I wasn’t a Labor supporter, or whatever. So, he said, ‘Will I tell Doug you might be interested?’ and I said ‘Yes, tell him that’. A few days later Doug rang one afternoon from Murwillumbah where he lived and he said ‘Come over and we can have a yarn about it’. I said ‘Well, it’s my day off today’. I said ‘I’ll drive over to Murwillumbah if you like’. He said ‘Righto’. So my wife hopped in the car and went down town and bought me a new shirt and I drove over to Murwillumbah which was an hour and a half, and had a yarn to Doug. On the way home I stopped at a phone box at Brunswick Heads and rang my wife and said ‘You better start packing, we’re going to Canberra to live’, and it just all happened like that.
B York: What was your parents’ reaction?
B Virtue: Oh they were devastated, because we were a very close family. We talked every day. Claire and my mother would talk on the phone every day and we’d be there on weekends and so on, her parents too, of course. One unfortunate result of all this was that my mum and dad had a little cottage at Byron Bay, right on the beach, on the sand hills overlooking the beach, worth millions of dollars if they still owned it. When we came to Canberra they said, oh well it won’t be used now so they sold it. A great tragedy, we would have used it, still.
B York: So your wife was a local girl was she?
B Virtue: Yes, she came from a little place called Nashua which was between Lismore and Bangalow on the road to Byron Bay.
B York: And were her parents farmers too?
B Virtue: Yes, they were dairy farmers, yes. We met through church things, an organisation called Christen Endeavour. We were both in that and that’s how we met. We travelled to school, although we can’t remember each other at school, which was strange because we travelled on the same bus for years. Then after school when we were both going to work on the same bus we got to be aware of each other then, and that’s how it all started.
B York: Very good, a nice story. Can I ask about Canberra as you found it in 1964 when you made the move. What was it like as an environment and as a society?
B Virtue: I think the — I’ve got an idea the population was around eighty thousand, seventy or eighty thousand, something like that. You’d go into Civic on a Saturday morning and see quite a few people that you knew or recognised. It doesn’t seem to be like that now, it’s got much bigger. But it’s interesting. When we told our friends and all sorts of people we were moving to Canberra they said ‘What on earth do you want to go down there for?’. They said ‘It’s freezing cold and nobody will speak to you’. Well we were just killed with kindness when we got here. Including when we went to the church, it’s Wesley Church in Forrest we go to. We were just very warmly received and welcomed. This anti-Canberra feeling exists still as we know from recent events. But, I can’t really say much more about the environment, yes.
B York: What about around Old Parliament House, or provisional Parliament House, as it was then. What was it like if you stood on the front steps there and looked out?
B Virtue: Well, the first thing you saw was a huge statue of King George the Fifth, right in front of Parliament House. When Doug was Minister for the Interior and they were developing Anzac Parade. There was always some, I can’t remember, there was some road up to the War Memorial but it wasn’t like it is now, where it is a very formal sort of thing. It was felt that the statue of King George the Fifth was spoiling the view from Parliament House up to Anzac Parade, so the National Capital Development Commission wanted to move it. Doug told this story at his farewell dinner from when he was leaving the governing council. He said ‘He thought he’d better go and ask Menzies what he thought’ the Prime Minister. I think he was a bit nervous about asking Menzies because Menzies was a great royalist, as you know. So he said, he went along to Menzies and explained that people felt that this statue was blocking the view up to Anzac Parade and he said, Menzies got up and went over and stood looking out the window for a while and he said ‘Oh I suppose you’re right’ so they moved it [laughs]. I remember when this was happening. One night we were going home for dinner and he walked out of the front door and he said ‘Look, the old bugger’s gone’ [laughs] and of course he’s over at the side there now.
B York: Yes, and the lake wasn’t …
B Virtue: No, the lake — Menzies inaugurated the lake about a week after I got here. It was a week after I got here. I got here on the 12th October, 1964 and I think it was the 19th or something of October when Menzies inaugurated the lake. They had a ceremony over there where the big flag pole is, on the other side of the lake. Doug made a bit of a speech which Keith Darrow wrote for him, and Menzies spoke. But we’d been — on previous visits here they were working on the lake, they were building the walls and excavating it and doing all that sort of thing. I remember on one of those previous visits I took a photograph, a colour slide, out here in this valley, which is the Woden valley. There was big sign up at Leighton. When I put all these slides together in a little show and put a commentary, I said this is the new suburb of Leighton, well it wasn’t Leighton. I didn’t know but Leighton were the contractors and they were building Curtin at the time.
B York: To what extent was Canberra still a farming place, or a rural …
B Virtue: It was still a rural place because of the flies. There were millions of flies. The flies came in from the sheep properties which were quite close all around, as I understand it, that’s where they originated. I’ve got some old home movies at home of McEwen standing on the front steps welcoming somebody or other, it might have been Johnson, I forget who it was, and McEwen was going like this all the time, waving his hand to brush the flies away. That was a very typical mannerism in Canberra in those years because the flies were so bad.
B York: I’m wondering would you see sheep around, the paddocks around?
B Virtue: No, not in Canberra itself, but not very far away, of course in those days. I’ve recently put together — I’m a voluntary guide at the War Memorial. I also give a lot of talks to Probus Clubs and U3A and all sorts of groups. I recently put together a PowerPoint presentation about the history of the War Memorial and tell some stories from the War Memorial. I got off the internet a photograph of St Andrew’s Church, the Presbyterian Church in 1934 with sheep all around it. So I use that as part of the thing. I start off talking about the first meeting of the Cabinet in Canberra in 1924, I think it was. They met out at Yarralumla, and I’ve got a picture of Yarralumla as it was then. The decisions they made at that meeting were to allocate land for a university, and to allocate five hundred blocks of land for housing, to arrange an international competition for a design of a War Memorial. They also reached agreement with the major religious denominations on where their churches were to be sited in Canberra, that gave me an excuse to use this old picture of St Andrews with the sheep around it.
B York: Yes. I’m wondering about the formal, you’ve mentioned how the opportunity to work for Doug Anthony came up informally, was there a formal interview at any point?
B Virtue: No, as I mentioned I drove across to Murwillumbah we had a cup of tea. In fact Doug wasn’t there when I got there, he was in Murwillumbah somewhere and Margo made me a cup of tea and we were just yarning and then he came home. It wasn’t really formal at all. I can’t remember him asking me anything at all. He certainly didn’t raise the issue of whether I was a Country Party supporter, or what my political views were, he didn’t mention that. I think I probably asked him more questions than he asked me. One question I asked him. I said, ‘I don’t drink’, I said, ‘Will that make things difficult for me in dealing with the media and so on?’. I was just a boy from the bush and didn’t know how these things worked. He said ‘I don’t know’. So he got on the phone and rang Keith Darrow, his then Press Secretary, Keith said ‘No, it wouldn’t matter at all’. So we got rid of that problem [laughs].
B York: But when you actually came here and met Doug in his office and was shown where you would work from, at what point where you told what you would be doing, what your duties where and how the office was meant to function?
B Virtue: I don’t think anybody told me. I think we just did it. Well, of course, Keith was still here for a few weeks …
B York: Okay.
B Virtue: … I just sat beside him and got the hang of things from him. He took me around and introduced me to everybody in the Press Gallery. A fellow named Wal Brooks who has died since, but Wal was the Public Relations Officer for the Department of the Interior. He very kindly took me around the Interior offices and introduced me to the people there so that was good. But, I just worked into it, you know.
B York: So there was no formal induction type process where you …
B Virtue: No there wasn’t.
B York: Was there any kind of intelligence clearance required?
B Virtue: I think there was something. I can’t remember really what happened. I don’t know whether it involved ASIO or who did it. I rang one of my colleagues from the years in Doug’s office, she wasn’t there at the beginning, but her name is Pattie Daly and she was with us in later years. I said ‘What happened about security clearances?’. So said ‘Well you had the highest security clearance but I can’t remember how it was done’.
B York: What were the basic duties as Press Secretary?
B Virtue: Well obviously they were to deal with the press and to liaise with the people in the press gallery, to keep an eye on what was happening in the media, read the newspapers every day, and watch all the news and so on. It used to drive my wife made, watching all the television news and so on. She still complains about the people who used to ring up all the time. Even when I was home, you weren’t off duty because you’d have journalists ringing up at all hours of the day and night, particularly Michelle Grattan who tended to ring at twelve o’clock, one o’clock in the morning. I did a lot of speech writing. I kept an index, or somebody, one of the girls in the office drew up an index for me of the speeches and press releases that we did for about half of that period. I think it was the second half of the, almost twenty, nineteen years, and there were three-and-a-half thousand speeches and media releases and articles and so on that I did, all together, over the period of the nineteen years there would have been about that many.
B York: Yes, you were very busy.
B Virtue: Oh yes. I was lucky in a way because unlike quite a few people, Doug was very good at speaking off the cuff and not a lot of people can do that. It’s funny you know. Having been a speech writer for thirty-three years, or whatever, I’ve run courses on speech writing and talked about it and talked about famous speeches. Everybody admires, or used to admire Churchill for the way he spoke. Churchill was one of those people who couldn’t speak off the cuff. He could if he had to, but all of his major speeches, he worked on them, and worked on them, as he said, he polished them until the words glittered. But he really needed to have a text in front of him to make all those speeches. But Doug could get up at the drop of a hat and off he’d go.
B York: I’ve often wondered why don’t Ministers write their own speeches?
B Virtue: They haven’t got time. People don’t realize what an enormous administrative burden we place on Ministers. A huge amount of paperwork. I image that a lot of people think that Ministers time is taken up by politics, and that’s the impression that they would get from the media at the moment, but all of these Ministers who are talking about the current situation, they are also carrying a huge administrative burden at the same time. They’re working with their departments. They’re writing letters and signing letters and preparing Cabinet submissions and so on. People outside really don’t understand what it’s like. I think that Ministers just haven’t got the time. If they had the skills. Perhaps some of them aren’t really cut out to prepare speeches, but even if they did, they haven’t got the time to do it. I used to think that was — that’s a great shame because Ministers, they haven’t got time to think about the future, where we should be going as a country, and what we should be doing. What policies we should be developing because they’re just so bogged down in just the day-to-day administrative work.
B York: Did you ever prepare a draft of a speech that Mr Anthony didn’t like or rejected?
B Virtue: No, I don’t think so [laughs] I can’t remember him knocking anything back. Of course, as time went on you get to think like each other. I thought I knew what he would want to say about various things. Fortunately he usually agreed. He would make minor changes and suggestions and so on, but I think basically he pretty much left it to me. Although, as I said, on many occasions he could just get up and make a speech off the cuff, and he was very good at that.
B York: Were there times that you were asked to write a speech that expressed a view that you disagreed with?
B Virtue: No, I don’t think so. I think — the only time that I felt a little bit uncomfortable was during the Vietnam War, and I would write speeches then, of course, defending Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and I was a bit worried about that. I still did it, but — I hope they were good speeches. I felt just a little bit uneasy about that, as I would about our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan or anywhere else. Working at the War Memorial I am very conscious of the terrible cost that war has imposed on this country in human terms and other terms. The whole idea of trying to solve our problems through war just worries me.
B York: There was a big protest movement here, were you influenced by that at all, the fact that it was a divisive war?
B Virtue: I don’t think so. There certainly was a huge protest movement but I think it became all the more necessary, in my position to write speeches trying to explain why we were there.
B York: I’d like to ask about the role as Private Secretary as well, just to try and understand what the transition — you start as Press Secretary, then you become Private Secretary and Principle Private Secretary, is there a very clear separation of tasks?
B Virtue: I don’t there was in my case. I seemed to just keep on doing the same things for the whole period I was with Doug, similar things, but of course, when I became Private Secretary we then appointed a Press Secretary. In fact we appointed quite a few, some of whom didn’t work out so well, and had to be replaced and so on. But they then took over dealing with the media and drafting press releases and that sort of thing. I think I really continued writing most of the speeches. I did that throughout. Yes, so the lines were blurred between the different things.
B York: I think of a Private Secretary as having a significant role in organising the office, is that right?
B Virtue: Well, no, the Private Secretary, well go right back to the beginning. The Private Secretary, when I arrived in 1964 there were four staff. There was the Private Secretary who was a fellow called Jim Lane from the Interior Department, they sent him over, and he was the Minister’s Private Secretary. He looked after Cabinet submissions and all that sort of thing. There was me as the Press Secretary and then there was an Electorate Secretary, Jess Hale who worked for Doug’s father and then for Doug, twenty-seven years she worked in total she worked for them. A girl named Barbara Hurst who was the Assistant, I forget what she was called, but anyway there were only the four of us. A very small staff compared with what I understand Ministers have these days. Then later on, as Doug, he became Deputy Leader of his Party and then he became Leader of the Party, of course, and took over from McEwen. He was leader for longer than McEwen was actually, six weeks longer than McEwen was. By the time we got right up to the end of the period, and he was, he really had four roles I suppose. He was the Member for Richmond. He was Leader of the Country Party. He was Deputy National Party. He was Deputy Prime Minister and quite often Acting Prime Minister. He had eight staff in the office in Canberra and two in the electorate office in Murwillumbah.
It was interesting, we were all in the same room — go back when I first came, our first office, the office he was in when I arrived, you entered in the corridor that went down to the Members Dining Room. It was an area partitioned off from the Library.
B York: Yes.
B Virtue: We were all in there, very small it was. Then, what we call the new wing was built on the Reps side, we went around there. We were in the first office you came to when you’re in the new wing. When he succeeded McEwen of course we moved around to where McEwen had been on the front of the building. As I said, we finished up I think with eight or nine people in that office, which was — it was two rooms but they were opened up and it was really one big room. It was interesting, really working in a room with nine people, dictating letters, and doing all sorts, talking on telephones. It worked quite well because everybody knew what was happening. I used to get the feeling with some Ministers offices that people were very jealous of their area of responsibility and they — there was not a lot of interplay between various people, but we were all in together so it just happened. You heard what everybody said, what everybody said on the phone [laughs]. I remember once dictating a letter and I caused a bit of an uproar in the office, something I said, the others didn’t agree with what I was saying and they ridiculed me for saying that, but it was good discipline, you had to think what you were doing.
B York: Was it comfortable though as a working environment?
B Virtue: Yes, it was okay. It was crowded but we all got on very well. It worked very well.
B York: So, how would the Private Secretary and Principle Private Secretary differ from the Press Secretary?
B Virtue: Well the Press Secretary was, as I said at the beginning, when I was the Press Secretary I dealt with the media and wrote the speeches and so on. I also did, right from the beginning really, deal with a lot of the correspondence, especially the more complicated correspondence. I got the impression that a lot of Ministers, or perhaps most Ministers, they would refer virtually everything, correspondence, to their department and ask the department to prepare a reply for the Minister to sign. Well, we only referred to our departments things that we thought were in their baily wick other stuff, a lot of political stuff, and party stuff and so on, we would handle that ourselves in the office. If it got a bit complicated I would do it and that continued right through the whole period, especially towards the end.
I remember if somebody wrote to Doug, an individual, or an organisation wrote to him and he was away. He was overseas say. It was some fairly significant thing that they raised and it was obvious to me that they needed a fairly quick response. I would reply myself because if he’d been here I would have drafted the reply for him anyway, because I knew what he would say. These were quite complex things sometimes. I would reply myself and send the letter back to them and I would say at the end of it. I would say I am replying in Mr Anthony’s absence and so on. I would say, when Mr Anthony gets back I will show him your letter and my reply, and if he wants to add anything to what I …
Interview with Barrie Virtue part 2
B Virtue: … I said, ‘I’m sure he’ll write to you’. Then I would put that on his desk and then I’d prepare another letter to them for him to sign when he got back saying, I’ve read your letter, I’ve read Barrie’s reply. I agree with what he said and I’ve got nothing to add to it. As I say to people, that facilitated things wonderfully. I don’t think he ever knocked anything back, that I said.
B York: Again, because you knew how he thought …
B Virtue: Yes.
B York: … and you thought along similar lines.
B Virtue: Yes.
B York: I was going to ask about that I wondered what you would do in a situation like that.
B Virtue: Yes, but a lot — I can’t really think of examples but a lot of people would write in. One thing that caused a lot of trouble. I went on long service leave, after ten years I went on long service leave and my wife and I and the kids went around Europe in a caravan. While I was away an economist fellow from the Trade Department filled in for me. He was writing speeches for Doug. He wrote a speech in which he suggested that we should have a flat rate of taxation, everybody pays the same rate of tax. Doug said this in a speech somewhere, well it caused a terrific uproar, especially from an organisation called the League of Rights, which you’ve probably heard of.
B York: Yes.
B Virtue: They had this theory that you should print money. The banks could create as much money as they liked and so on, so on. So I spent months then replying to all these letters from people all over Australia, abusing Anthony for suggesting a flat rate of tax. I didn’t think we should expect the department to handle things like that.
B York: Were the occasions when in dealing with the media you were also in a situation where you weren’t able to consult Doug and you would then have to play the role of representing him, so to speak?
B Virtue: Yes there were. I think I was always very careful though in what I said. I did get into strife once. There was a fellow named Allan Barnes who represented The Age in the Press Gallery. I think Allan died afterwards. I was talking to him one day and I think it might have been during an election campaign. I don’t know why but I said something to the effect that, working in coalition is difficult, which it is. I thought that was obvious. It was something like that. Working in a coalition is difficult. Allan published this in his story and the next thing Fraser was on the phone, going mad, he’s saying, why on earth did you say that, going on and on. Anyway, that was one time I got into strife. He said ‘You better get them to do something about it’. So I went and said to Allan, I said, ‘Oh look I’m in trouble’. I said ‘Fraser’s been on to me’ so he pulled it out of the next edition of the paper, which I thought was very good of him, that he did that.
But well you are all the time talking to the media. They’d be ringing up at home and so on. Usually it was just factual stuff that I would give them. There was only one occasion that I can remember, when I put out a press statement without Doug having seen it. He was — I don’t know where he was, he was in Australia, but he wasn’t here. Paul Keating, we were in government, Paul Keating — Doug was in favour of import parity pricing of oil. Oil and petrol were very cheap in Australia and he was persuaded that we should pay the world price for oil. He thought that would encourage oil exploration in Australia. It might help change people’s consumption patterns. Motorists would be a bit more careful about using fuel and so on. This argument went on for a long time. Paul Keating said something, I can’t even remember what it was, but I took umbrage to it so I wrote a press statement refuting. I thought what Keating had said, and I couldn’t get in touch with Doug, so I just put it out. That was the only time I ever did that. When he did see it he said, that’s alright [laughs] but I think that was about the only time I ever did it.
B York: Now, you’ve mentioned the part of the building in which you were based, or different offices at different times. To what extent did you need to move around the entire building? Were there other spaces that were necessary for your work?
B Virtue: Well I go to the library quite often, obviously, just looking at newspapers or doing a bit of research, or things like that. I remember once — when we lived in Lismore we used to go up to Brisbane occasionally, just for the day. I remember we went to Brisbane once, just for the day — this was long before I worked for Doug and we went to the movies at the old Regent Theatre. There was a Wurlitzer Organ there and we were very keen on the Wurlitzer Organ. There was a newsreel on and it showed Churchill being given an honorary degree somewhere. I noticed that Churchill said, he said, ‘I’ve always been surprised at the number of honorary degrees I’ve received compared with the number of examinations I’ve passed’, because he was a very bad student, a poor student, but he had all these degrees. That struck me. Years and years later, it must have been in 19 — late ‘70s or early ‘80s. After Doug had been responsible for the development of CER, Closer Economic Relations with New Zealand. The Victoria University in Wellington, said they wanted to give him an honorary degree in recognition of the work that he’d done. So I thought of what Churchill had said and I went into the library and looked up the book of his speeches and found where he’d said it. It turns out that he’d said it at quite a few universities and I put that into Doug’s speech and quoted Churchill and so on, but I spent a bit of time in there. The dining rooms and so on that’s all.
B York: What about the Chambers, did you have occasion to go …
B Virtue: Didn’t go in there much. Occasionally I would go in and sit in the advisor’s seats. If he was putting a Bill through or something like that or he was Acting PM, which he did quite a lot, of course. But for really almost the whole period I would go and stand in the Press Gallery for Question Time, which a lot of Press Secretaries did, but that was about it.
B York: And the facilities available for staff, did you take advantage of them? And what were they?
B Virtue: We used to play tennis occasionally, over here in the Rep’s garden. We used to play squash. It might have been before your time but there were squash courts which I think Doug had a hand in having built in the Rep’s garden, near the tennis courts. We used to go down to Manuka and play squash down there at a private squash courts. I think he must have got sick of that so next thing some squash courts appeared in the Rep’s garden and we used to play there a lot. They were used a lot, but I don’t think they’re there now. I think they’ve gone.
B York: No, they’re not there now, tennis still.
B Virtue: Yes.
B York: Were there any areas in the building that were out of bounds?
B Virtue: I can’t remember whether there were. We didn’t go into the Members Dining Room or places like that. I don’t remember any areas specific that they said, don’t go there.
B York: I guess you wouldn’t have gone to the bar anyway being not drinking.
B Virtue: No. I used to go to the Non-Members Dining Room quite a bit.
B York: I’m interested in the office equipment and technology, what was it like in 1964, how did it change over twenty years?
B Virtue: Well, when I came we had telephones, of course, and typewriters, old manual typewriters. Then I think we got some electric typewriters. When Doug succeeded McEwen we inherited a typewriter from McEwen that had a big type face on it, which they used for his speeches. I thought that was a marvellous step forward in a technological sense. So I used that for years. Of course we didn’t have computers or email or mobile phones, faxes, anything like that. Let me think.
I remember when we got our first photocopier. It produced one page at a time, very slowly, you’d feed one page at a time. You’d lift the lid up and put the thing on you wanted to copy and copy that, then you’d have to lift it up, take that out and put the next thing in and so on. It produced copies on very smelly, slimy sort of paper [laughs].
B York: I remember, yes, a chemical type paper wasn’t it.
B Virtue: Yes.
B York: It would fade over time too if I remember rightly.
B Virtue: That’s right, oh yes. And then we got fax, facsimile machines and you’d remember them too. They were like an old Edison phonograph. They had a cylinder and there was a slot in the cylinder and you would slip the edge of the paper into the cylinder and it would wrap around the cylinder, the paper you wanted to transmit. You would switch it on. You would ring up and the people at the other end would switch their machine on and you’d switch yours on and a little light would travel along as this cylinder went along and it would scan the writing on the thing and send it over the phone to the other end.
B York: To be honest, I didn’t know about that type of fax machine.
B Virtue: Yes, you might remember that Doug used to — when he was Acting Prime Minister at Christmas time, he would hire an old caravan and put it beside his beach house up at New Brighton, up north of Brunswick Heads and he would run the country, so to speak, from there. Usually I would — see we came from up that area, so we would go home, stay with our parents, on both sides, over that period. Each day I would drive down to New Brighton and sit in the caravan all day and answer the phone and deal with all — they would send up bags of papers for him to deal with and that sort of thing. I’d tell people, I like to think that I was running the country while he was out fishing, but that’s not really true. But we had a fax there that we used to send a lot of stuff backwards and forwards.
He was very friendly with Harry Miller you know the theatrical entrepreneur, Harry M Miller.
B York: Yes, Harry M. Miller.
B Virtue: Harry used to be very helpful to us, especially around election time, because Harry knew everybody in the television industry and he would get people to help us record our policy speeches, all of which I wrote, for all those years. All the television commercials and so on. One day Harry said, he said, ‘Doug you ought to get a word processor’ well we’d never heard of a word processor, didn’t know what they were, but anyway we got one. But that’s how we first got a word processor, we got one shortly after that.
B York: And that would have been a big bulky thing, no doubt.
B Virtue: Oh yes, I recall.
B York: And very expensive I guess.
B Virtue: Yes. I remember the first computer I bought after I left here cost me four thousand dollars. It took the old floppy, the really floppy disks. Every morning when you switched it on, you had to in two floppy disks that had all the software and the word processing software, four thousand dollars it cost.
B York: It was a lot back then.
B Virtue: It’s in the tip down at Dalmeny somewhere down the south coast now.
B York: Yes, I hope there’s a museum of all that technology somewhere.
B Virtue: Yes, you’d think so.
B York: You talked about the office and how at one point there were eight people working together.
B Virtue: Yes.
B York: What were the relationships like among the staff?
B Virtue: Oh they were very good, we all got on very well. I think that’s because of the — I hope it was because of the kind of people we were. We were all very friendly and got on well. I remember one of the Private Secretaries from the Primary Industry, when Doug was Minister for Primary Industry. They sent over Jon Christian and I remember some of the newspapers ran little stories about Mr Anthony having one of his staff as Mr Christian and one as Mr Virtue and they made something of that.
B York: The working hours, and the conditions of work, anything to say about that?
B Virtue: Well, the conditions, I mean they were good. Doug was a terrific fellow to work for, you were treated as one of the family, we really became one of the family. He was a wonderful fellow to work for. The hours were very long, of course. In those days I think they were longer than even they are now.
B York: Now is that because of Sittings going for a very long time?
B Virtue: Yes, especially during Sittings, the Parliament. I remember one night Doug was putting a Commonwealth Electoral Bill through I think when he was Minister for the Interior and I was sitting out in the Press Gallery and at four o’clock in the morning he indicated to me, go home, which I did, and he was still there. But it was just ridiculous the long hours they sat in those days. That raises the question, of course, of the effect on your family.
B York: That’s right, yes.
B Virtue: It was an extremely significant effect on the family, it was very hard for them. My wife still talks about it. Well she remembers that people were ringing — even when I was at home. I’d be in here all day. Say it was a Sitting week, I’d be in here all day, go home and have dinner, then come back until eleven o’clock or midnight. Often you’d get home and then the phone would ring. It would be a journalist wanting to check something, and of course, I was also involved in an enormous amount of travel. I was away from home a lot because, especially — well from the beginning and when he became Deputy Leader and then he became Leader, of course Doug was in demand from all his Party members to visit their electorates and he did that all the time. He had to do that as Leader. He was also involved in a lot — it got far worse of course during election campaigns, they were extremely demanding. He was also, of course, involved in quite a bit of overseas travel, particularly when he became Trade Minister. I went on quite a few of those trips. So my wife was at home on her own. She had no relations here, no family here. Fortunately we had some very good friends who lived just across the street, neighbours and they kept an eye on her. We met them through the church. So she got through alright but it’s terribly hard on families. Yes.
B York: Did you have children at that stage?
B Virtue: We didn’t have children at the beginning. In fact we were married for nineteen years before we had our first child. When we came here we’d been married for about ten years or so. Eventually my wife became pregnant. We were in the office around there, the Leader of the National Party’s office, around this corridor. This microphone can’t see where I’m pointing but you know where it is. When we discovered that Claire was pregnant. Doug was in Murwillumbah. One day, long before this, I was driving him somewhere in my car and we were driving along Kings Avenue and he suddenly said, he said ‘Barrie have you ever thought about adopting a baby?’ and I said ‘No’. I said ‘There is still a chance that we could have one of our own’. So we left it at that. Then sometime later I rang him in Murwillumbah and I said, ‘You remember that day we were driving along King’s Avenue and you asked me if we’d ever thought about adopting a baby and I said, no there’s still a chance we could have one of our own’ I said ‘Well we are’. He got terrifically excited. He thought it was marvellous. I think he nearly fell off his chair up in Murwillumbah. So it was great, but we really felt part of the Anthony family. We used to go out to the baths, the swimming pool at Deakin, of a morning in the summertime, all the Anthonys would be there and their kids would be there and we’d go for a swim with them and so on. But we spent a lot of time with them.
B York: Tell me, you mentioned Harry M. Miller.
B Virtue: Yes.
B York: Did Doug Anthony ever mention how that friendship had originated?
B Virtue: I can’t really think how it started. Harry had a farm somewhere, as well as his other things. I think he sort of somehow got interested in the Country Party. But I’m not sure how all that developed. An interesting thing you know. Harry got into some strife. He had some ticketing agency. He started some business that sold theatre tickets and he got charged with something or other. I can’t think what it was. I won’t try to guess. It was something like fraud or something like that I can’t remember and he finished up in Long Bay Gaol. He was there for some time. Doug had an office in Sydney. It was on top of the old, I think it was — I forget what it was but we had this office in Sydney. One day he came in and he said ‘I’ve just been out to see Harry Miller’. Well he’d gone out to Long Bay Gaol to visit him. He was the Deputy Prime Minister, I think, at the time and I thought that was — somebody wrote to Malcolm — he didn’t tell anybody. He didn’t tell us he was going. He just went and did it and told us afterwards. This got into the papers somehow or other, we didn’t do it, something appeared in the paper about Anthony going to visit Harry Miller. Somebody wrote to Fraser who was the Prime Minister at the time, complaining that Anthony had gone to visit this criminal in goal and he shouldn’t have done that. Fraser sent the letter up to Doug and said ‘What will I say?’ and Doug gave it to me and I drafted a reply for Fraser in which he said, he admired Doug Anthony for sticking to a friend who was in trouble. I presume Fraser sent that off, but that’s the way that Doug saw it. Harry had been very good to him and he was a friend and he was in trouble and so he went and had a yarn to him. He did that with a lot of people.
When Phillip Lynch got into trouble when he was Treasurer. I forget what all that was about but Lynch was stood down from his job, Doug went to see him in Melbourne. I don’t know whether any other Ministers did but Doug did. When Ian Sinclair was in strife over his father’s estate and he got into a lot of trouble, Doug ferociously defended him on television and in the House and so on. Peter Nixon got into strife over some meat export scandal and Doug defended him very strongly.
There was a journalist in Melbourne named Ronald Anderson who published a weekly newsletter thing which went out to a lot of rural people and organisations. We discovered he was dying of cancer. So when Doug was in Melbourne he went out to this fellow’s house out in the suburbs somewhere and called on him and had a yarn with him. I think that illustrates the kind of person he was. He stuck to his mates and so on. Fraser, I’ve heard Fraser say — I think they had — they gave Doug a big dinner in Lismore to mark his twenty-five years in Parliament and Fraser went up for it and he said ‘Doug Anthony is a very good fellow to have on your side in a fight’. I think he was right. Doug appeared to the public as laid back and a country bumpkin and all that but he was a very tough character. In negotiations around a table he could be extremely tough but most people didn’t see that side of him.
B York: A question I should have asked earlier on but I overlooked it, were you a bookish person? Did you read a lot?
B Virtue: No, not a lot. I don’t think.
B York: I was just wondering, as a speech writer, you know …
B Virtue: Yes, when I came here and started writing speeches and so on, it really became a fairly consuming sort of a thing. Now that I think back about it. Of course I did it for thirty-three years, both here and after I left here and went to work for the Law Council of Australia. I wrote a lot of speeches there for the President and there were thirteen different presidents in the thirteen years I was there and that speech was for them. Of course when you’re writing speeches here you haven’t got a lot of time to think about it.
I’ve run courses and workshops and so on, on speech writing and I say, you’ve got to have an introduction and you’ve got to do this and have arguments and so on, and conclusions. I never did that myself. I just used to have to put a bit of paper in the typewriter and just go at it hammer and tongs until it was finished because it was always required in a hurry, usually required in a hurry. There was very little time to do much research or to draw up a speech outline, which the text books tell you to do, but we really didn’t do that. You’d find yourself typing speeches in aeroplanes or hotel lobbies or rooms or in the back seats of cars and so on. So it all had to be done fairly quickly.
B York: None-the-less is there a particular speech that you’re proud of, that stands out among all the speeches?
B Virtue: I made a dreadful mistake a few years ago. I was contacted by a — somebody who said that they were working on a program that they hoped to sell to the ABC about the Country Party and the National Party. I arranged to meet this bloke in Canberra and I gave him a dozen or so of what I thought were important speeches that Doug had made. Foolishly I didn’t make copies of them and I haven’t seen them since, that was years ago. I’ve got a lot of his speeches at home. Well, they were all good [laughs].
B York: Yes, I’m sure they were but …
B Virtue: No, I just can’t think off hand of any that stand out. When he — one election campaign, Fraser was to open the election in Melbourne, open the campaign in Melbourne but he got sick, which meant Doug had to go first. He opened the campaign in Brisbane, so it was the National Party campaign but of course it was really for the whole of the coalition that he was speaking. It was a real rabble rouser. I thought that was a pretty good one. It was a real rabble rouser. He got a lot of comments afterwards, telegrams and things, people saying what a terrific speech it was and so on. I can’t remember what it was all about now, but it would have been the ’75 election I think, you know at the end of the Whitlam term.
B York: Were the staff unionised at all, the office staff?
B Virtue: No, I don’t think so. I had belonged, of course, to the Australian Journalists Association because I was a journalist, before I came here. I think I maintained that membership throughout. I didn’t have to but I thought it was just the right thing to do. I thought it might help my relations with the Press Gallery and so on, so I just kept that up. I think for the whole period. I also had belonged to the Journalists Association Superannuation Scheme. I’d started that in Lismore. I remember when I finally retired, or left here, and the time came to collect this superannuation money. I’d been to a financial advisor and she’d advised me to buy such and such shares and buy all these things. When I tried to get the money from the super fund it took months and months and months to get it. By that time the price of all these shares had gone up through the roof. I would have made fortune out of it. I complained bitterly to the AJA about this and argued that they should compensate me for the loss that they had caused me by the long delay, but they wouldn’t accept that argument. In the end they gave me compensation based on the interest I would have earned on the money, so I left it at that.
B York: Is it possible to describe a typical day, was there a typical day?
B Virtue: No, there weren’t any typical days, but if we were in the office the first thing I’d do in the morning would be to go through all the newspapers, scan all the newspapers, see if there anything there we should deal with or respond to, or comment on.
B York: What time of day would this be? What time did you come to work?
B Virtue: Nine o’clock, I think nine o’clock we came in. In the early days Doug would arrive on his bike. When he was appointed Minister for the Interior, of course, he decided it was a good idea to live in Canberra. He lived here except during the school holidays when they would all go home to Murwillumbah and live there. He bought this folding bike and he would ride it in from Hughes, where they lived in Kent Street. Then at night time they would fold it up and put it in the back of a Commonwealth car to go home.
When we first arrived he invited Claire my wife to come across one morning to have morning tea and to meet the other members of the staff. She was a bit nervous about finding her way and she found herself driving around State Circle twice and she said, each time she went around she overtook Doug on the bike. I said, why didn’t you stop and ask him the way, and she said, she was too shy to do that, she didn’t want to do that. I’d be working on a speech or writing press releases or, a lot of the time of course was involved in writing answers to correspondence, dealing with correspondence. We might have to hop in the car and go to the ABC and do an interview.
We developed this thing, when he had to go and do an interview, I’d say, ‘What’s the message?’. I said ‘Don’t worry too much about what they ask you. What is the point that you want to get across?’. So he’d sit there or stand there and he say, well the message is such-and-such and he’d get that into his head. When he did the interview. He would answer questions of course but he would make sure he got that point across because that was the central point of his message.
B York: What do you think of media performances now by politicians when they’re interviewed on 7.30 Report or whatever?
B Virtue: Well, they’re alright I suppose. One thing that I have noticed. Almost, well not on the 7.30 Report but almost every politician who is interviewed, standing out in the courtyard or wherever they stand up at Parliament House, their staff, somebody from their staff is standing behind them, nodding at everything they say. They agree and they would nod. We never did that. We were standing behind the camera, well out of range. It seems to be the thing these days, you’ve got to have somebody standing there nodding all the time. It’s only a little thing but it seems very strange to me.
B York: So when you mentioned being on message, like having that idea that there is a particular point to convey, that’s done today ad nauseam almost.
B Virtue: Oh yes.
B York: They are constantly getting back to the key point …
B Virtue: Yes, that’s right.
B York: … and not really responding to the interview.
B Virtue: My wife and I were watching, whatever it’s called on ABC 24 last night. They were interviewing a Labor Member and a Liberal Member about the current political situation with the Speaker and so on. Of course the Labor Member was asked a question he said ‘No, we’re not going to waste time talking about that, we want to talk about jobs and this and infrastructure’ and so on. Every time he was asked he hammered that thing in and Claire said, ‘He’s got the message’ or something or other.
B York: But in that typical day at work, while you were here in this building working, what would you do for morning tea, afternoon tea, lunchtime?
B Virtue: I think we just had a cup of tea in the office. I don’t ever remember going down to the Dining Room for morning or afternoon tea. I used to eat down there quite a bit but when I was talking to my colleague Pattie Daly the other night, she reminded me that I used to go home a lot at lunchtime. The first three years we lived at Northbourne Flats and then when it became obvious we were going to be here a bit longer, Doug became Deputy Leader and we knew he’d have some staff and I would probably have a job we built a house at Garran. We lived out there for over thirty years I think. We live at Jerrabomberra now, our kids live out there and we look after the grandkids a lot so we thought we might as well go out there and live too. We’ve got our own colony out there [laughs]. I did go home quite a bit and — but I’d eat down in the Dining Room just with a couple of the other staff members usually. It was called ‘hepatitis hall’ in those days.
B York: Really.
B Virtue: I didn’t call it that, of course, but I’ve heard other people call it that.
B York: How would you travel Barrie. If you went home at lunchtime?
B Virtue: In my car. I just used my car.
B York: In the evening would you still be here and eat, or go …
B Virtue: No, I always went home for dinner if I was here, no I always went home for dinner with Claire and the kids of course, but it was hard to having to come back at eight o’clock every night when the House was sitting, yes.
B York: What about social clubs?
B Virtue: I can’t remember any social clubs, there might have been something but because I had a wife and family at home I went home. I don’t think there was really any socializing among the staff. The people who were single and who were lived in Sydney normally and were living in hostels and things, I’m sure they socialized, but I really didn’t get involved in that very much.
B York: We’ve already talked about the impact of your work on your family life.
B Virtue: Yes.
B York: Is there anything else you want to say about that or elaborate in any way?
B Virtue: No, I think I’ve — as I said it was a very significant impact and it — at our place it’s still being felt.
B York: What about contact with parliamentarians other than Doug Anthony? Did you have opportunity to …
B Virtue: Yes, there was quite a lot especially when he was Party Leader and Deputy Leader, they were in and out all the time. Even if they didn’t want to see him they would drop in and talk to us and so on, mainly of course the Country Party members or the National Party members. There was Bob King from Wimmera and Mack Holten, Doug and Mack Holten were great mates. Bruce Lloyd who succeeded McEwen in Murray. Peter Nixon, he and Doug where very close throughout, Ian Sinclair of course. Ian Robinson was in the adjoining electorate of Cowper, it was called, it adjoined Richmond and they were involved a lot.
John England, Ralph Hunt, after Doug retired we — just before Christmas, it must have been 1983 Doug had all the staff over to their unit in Kingston for a Christmas dinner. That night when we were going home he walked out to the car with Claire and me and he said ‘Will you come back in tomorrow morning’. I said ‘Yes, alright’. I thought, what’s happening, we were awake all night wondering what he was going to tell us. It dawned on us what he was going to say. Anyway we came back in the next morning and he said ‘I want to hang my boots up’ that was when he decided to give up. He’d often said that his father, who was a Minister in the Menzies government, he said, he remembers seeing his father sitting on the back benches a sad, sick old man, and he said, he was always determined he wasn’t going to do that. He was going to get out at a younger age and he did.
B York: You mentioned being — we’ve talked about the Press Secretary years. I should have asked about your relationship with the Press Gallery, how much contact, physical contact would you have with the people in the gallery?
B Virtue: There was quite a bit. I think the relationship worked quite well. When I arrived and met various people I said, well, I’m from the bush. I haven’t had any experience at this kind of thing. I hope I can cope. They were all very good. They were all very good to me. So I think it worked alright.
B York: What was it like, I mean the place in which the journalists worked in the building, do you want to describe it for us?
B Virtue: Physically?
B York: Yes.
B Virtue: Oh it was a rabbit warren, yes, terrible, just unbelievable. People wouldn’t believe it if they saw what, if they realized that all the news that they read in the newspapers and saw on the television and so on, came from a rabbit warren…
Interview with Barrie Virtue part 3
B Virtue: … it was terribly poky and cramped and decrepit. Some of them were in offices over on the Senate side and of course to get there you would walk across the roof on a walkway thing that went across the roof, from the Press Gallery across to the other side. Things like that. But, oh no she was a real shocker [laughs].
B York: Any other examples of how it was as a working area?
B Virtue: I can’t think of anything else, yes.
B York: What you just said was what everyone else says about that. What about individual journalists, were there some that you developed a close relationship with than others?
B Virtue: Nor really, there were — when we went to China. We went to China once and we took quite a few journalists with us and developed, not close relations, but developed relations a little bit with them. One of them was Liam Bathgate who worked, I think, for AAP at the time. Then later on Liam came and worked as Doug’s Press Secretary. He was a very bright fellow. Liam then worked privately in Sydney and now I think he’s the Secretary, or the CEO of the National Party in Sydney, in New South Wales. Paul Davey of course, who you know, he worked for the ABC for many years then he was Peter Nixon’s Press Secretary, then he was the Director of the National Party Secretariat here in Canberra. Of course since he’s written various books about the Anthonys and the party and so on.
B York: Would you develop a sense of some journalists being more likely to be sympathetic and others hostile, like ones who you could rely on to be …
B Virtue: Oh yes. I’m sure that happened, that was the case. The thing that used to annoy me a bit was that when journalists wrote stories, they didn’t check with anybody first to make sure that they were right. When Doug, on one occasion was visiting Russia, I wasn’t there, but he was in Russia and he got very sick. The Russians, rushed him off to hospital and did all sorts of tests and things, but he eventually came home, but nobody knew what was wrong with him. It was a bit like hepatitis was as close as we could get. The doctors here couldn’t work it out. In the end I got onto the Russian Embassy and said, could we get copies of the medical reports of the tests they did on him when he was in Moscow. They arranged for them and they all came out. They were passed on to his GP in Lismore, or somewhere. They worked out it was some type of hepatitis thing but he was very sick for months, and months, and months and couldn’t work. He was just at home. Ian Sinclair would have been Deputy Leader. Bill D’Arcy wrote a piece in the Mirror which doesn’t exist now, on the front page. Nixon was poised to take over the leadership of the Party and this was news to us. I went down and saw Peter Nixon and he said, ‘No it’s all rubbish’ and he denied it and so on. It really was remarkable, I thought, for the whole of that period of three or four months, or something like that, when Doug was out of action there was not the slightest suggestion that anybody else would step in and take over. He was never once challenged in his own electorate for pre-selection or anything like that. I thought that showed his standing amongst all his colleagues. This story was completely wrong about Nixon being ready to take over. Nixon himself said there wasn’t the slightest suggestion, we’ll just wait until his well and he came back and take over.
B York: So, how can that happen among journalists. I mean is it mischievous or?
B Virtue: Well, I’ve got no idea how that happened, but of course, the Mirror and the Sun they used to write a lot of stuff that didn’t seem to be well based, let’s put it that way, yes. I wouldn’t say they made it up, but it didn’t seem to be well based.
B York: Barry I’m looking at the time, we’ve gone for …
B Virtue: What time is it, I haven’t got a watch?
B York: It’s eleven thirty, we’ve gone for ninety minutes, and I’m very keen to talk about more about Doug Anthony and former parliamentarians, but how do you feel if we pause now and have another session. Is that okay for you?
B Virtue: Yes.
B York: Alright.
B Virtue: I’m quite happy, whatever you like.
B York: Thanks very much for today.
B Virtue: That’s alright, it’s a pleasure.
B York: Much appreciated. Next time we’ll begin again fresh and …
B Virtue: Alright, yes.
B York: … perhaps we’ll complete the interview in the next session.
B Virtue: Right, thank you. Thanks Barry.
B York: Thanks again.
Interview with Barrie Virtue part 4
B York: This is a continuation of the interview with Barrie Virtue, taking place today, the 14th May 2012. We might begin with a song that you mentioned to me that you performed and wrote, I believe, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Trade Commissioner’s Office. When would that have been approximately?
B Virtue: I think it was about 2005. They arranged a lunch at the Royal Canberra Golf Club and one of the officers in Trade. I think he must have seen me sing at a concert somewhere, and he said could I come and sing a few songs this lunch. One of the advantages of working for Doug Anthony was that you had the services of Margot Anthony who was a wonderful pianist. Occasionally when I was asked to sing somewhere Margot would play the piano for me, which was great. So, we got together. We found one old song called Trade Winds, we were looking for things to do with trade. We found an old song called Trade Winds, we did that, and we did On the Road to Mandalay, the old song by Kipling, not really a trade song, but still it was alright. I thought, I’ll have a go at writing something. I borrowed a tune from Sullivan, Arthur Sullivan, and this is the little song that I put together.
[He sings the song] I am a very model of a modern trade commissioner, with GATT and GATTs and EIAs I’m more or less familiar with liberalization barriers or something similar. Discriminatory measure and agreements multilateral. The World Trade Organisation the Doha Round Cancun collapse, after epic export subsidies harmonization and there is that friend of ours the old most favoured nation. But what’s this controversial thing that’s called globalization. The Minister is coming through, what can we find for him to do. Free Trade and Tariff cuts might service to help him make a speech or two. I hope he’ll tell my AusTrade boss that I’m a good practitioner for I’m the very model of a modern trade commissioner.
B York: [Claps] Very good, very clever [laughs].
B Virtue: Thank you.
B York: Very nice.
B Virtue: I’ve put in all the trade type terms that I could remember from many years earlier.
B York: Yes, well done. How did it go down on the night?
B Virtue: It seemed to go down pretty well. In fact a former Secretary of the Department rang me up afterwards to say how much he enjoyed it, so that was nice.
B York: Good. Thanks for that. Now, shall we proceed from where we left off last time.
B Virtue: Yes.
B York: I was actually going to ask you last time about Lobbyists, were there Lobbyists contacting Mr Anthony’s office in your time? If there were where would meetings with them take place?
B Virtue: Yes, well there were Lobbyists, not to nearly the extent that I understand they exist today, but there were Lobbyists. I think the people that wanted to see him were mainly from the industry organisations. The Farmer’s Federation, whatever it was called in those days, the Mining Industry Council and so on. I don’t think there was so much of other types of lobbying, if I put it that way. They would, just like anybody else, they would make an appointment and come and see him in his office at Parliament House.
B York: Can we talk now about Mr Anthony himself, Doug Anthony. We know what he’s contribution to parliament was because the Hansard records his speeches and so on, but I’m wondering about him as a person, his character and personality, and intellect, grasp of politics?
B Virtue: I remember once, somebody wrote an article. I think they were called profile pieces in the Sydney Morning Herald, it might have been Peter Bowers. He asked Doug — it was probably when he became Minister for Primary Industry, or Leader of the Party, or something like that. He asked Doug how he would rank himself in these areas that you were talking about. I remember Doug said, he thought he was FAQ which is a wheat growers’ term for Fair Average Quality. Well known to people in the wheat industry. That was how he regarded himself and I think that was pretty right. What you saw was what you got. People knew he was relaxed, laid back that was the impression they got of him and that was what he was like. He was a terrific fellow to work for. You were treated like one of the family. It was really a wonderful experience, the time that I spent with him.
B York: Can you provide examples of how, you say, that he was great to work with and part of the family …
B Virtue: Well, we spent a lot of time at his house in Hughes when they lived there. I was quite often at his home in Murwillumbah, ‘Sunnymeadows’, on the farm. They had a little beach house at New Brighton, which is a little place just north of Brunswick Heads. Each Christmas, when Doug was running the country, so to speak, while the PM was on holidays we were set up, an office in an old caravan that we used to hire and have it beside the beach house. My in-laws lived at Bangalow, and of course we would go up and my parents, when they were alive, lived at Bexhill which is not far from Lismore. We would go up there during the holidays but each day I would drive down to New Brighton and look after this little office. We had a set up with a phone and a fax machine in those days. There was a lot of paperwork coming through all the time. Sometimes offices coming up from Canberra to see him and bring stuff up, so it was quite busy. I tell people, I like to think I was running the country while Doug was off fishing, but that wasn’t strictly accurate of course, but there was a little bit of true in it but no, of course, he was in charge of things.
I remember, we’d go to — well we went to thousands I suppose of meetings, of all different kinds, all around the country, in country areas usually, farmers meetings, or political meetings, or party meetings, whatever they were. It always struck me that — I thought it was a sign of the kind of person he was, that he never once, in all those years that I was with him, express the view — for example, we’d be at a meeting. He would have been talking all day, at meetings of various kinds, there would be a dinner or something then another meeting at night time. The time would be getting on and people would want to talk to him and he’d stand there and he’d talk, and he’d talk, and he’d talk. I used to be sick to death of it and I thought, can’t we go and get into bed somewhere. When we finally left and got in the car. He never once said, well thank goodness that’s over. I would have said that, that’s the way I felt. I think that demonstrated what a genuine sort of person he was.
If I had to try and think of a word, one word that would sum him up, it would be loyalty. He was very loyal to people. He was loyal to his staff. He was loyal to his colleagues. I remember when Peter Nixon got into some strife. I think it was about milk products or meat exports or something like that. Ian Sinclair got into some trouble at one stage. Doug ferociously defended them. He defended a succession of Liberal Prime Ministers that he served under. When Phillip Lynch, I think when he was Treasurer, he got into some difficulty about financial matters. Doug went to see him in Melbourne. I don’t know whether any others did, they might of, but Doug certainly made a point of going to see Phillip Lynch. There was a journalist named Ron Anderson who produced, I think it was a weekly or a monthly newsletter for the primary industries. Doug had something to do with him, in that area, and when he heard that Ron Anderson was dying of cancer, he went to his home in Melbourne to see him. They’re the sort of things, I think, showed the kind of person he was.
B York: Is there anything else, in addition to loyalty, as far as character goes?
B Virtue: I’m not quite sure how to put it all. There was the genuineness, which I think I’ve already talked about. I’ll have to think about that one, let’s come back to that one, and I’ll have a bit of a think in the meantime.
B York: What about intellect, was he an intellectual type of person?
B Virtue: Well that’s a hard question to ask me Barry. He described himself as FAQ and I think what he had was common sense. He was very big on common sense. As Malcolm Fraser said once, goes back to the loyalty thing, he said, Doug Anthony was a very good bloke to have on your side in a fight. I think that sums him up.
B York: What about his grasp of politics and effectiveness as a Member and a Minister, are you able to comment on that?
B Virtue: I think he had an enormous grasp of politics, because he grew up in a political environment, as I’m sure you know. His father was a Minister in the Menzies government. Doug started coming to Canberra when he was seven and his father was a Minister. He told me once, he had very warm memories of John Curtin, who of course was a Labor Prime Minister, because he said, when they lived at the old Kurrajong Hotel when he was a little kid. He said every night after dinner Curtin would sit down on the lounge with him and tell him a bedtime story. He always remembered that. He had a warm feeling towards Curtin. But I think, he did have a very good grasp of politics. He had a knack of — if difficulties arose within his Party or anywhere else, he had a knack of dealing with them.
I remember once there was some problem that arose regarding one of his colleagues. I can’t think what it was now. That night the colleague found himself out at the house at Kent Street, having dinner with the family. Quite often overseas Ministers, Trade Ministers, or others visiting Australia, he would invite them home to have dinner with the family, little personal touches like that, I think, made a big difference.
B York: Yes, thanks for that. I’m wondering whether he ever — well first of all, how did you address him in the office?
B Virtue: Before I came to work for him, I knew him because I was a reporter on the newspaper at Lismore, the Northern Star and Doug would call in occasionally. Like everybody else I called him Doug. When I came to work for him, I said, what shall I call you? He said, ‘Well you better call me Minister in public, but you can call me whatever you like in private’ [laughs]. I don’t think I called him anything to tell you the truth.
B York: Did he ever speak with you about McMahon’s refusal to let him know the date of the election in 1970?
B Virtue: Oh yes he did, that was a very strange thing. McMahon was a strange person. As I recall it Doug went along to ask McMahon what the date of the 1972 election would be because Doug needed to start getting his Party ready for it. It’s an enormous task, of course, the logistics and everything else of organising an election campaign, writing policy speeches and all that sort of thing. As I recall Doug said that when he asked Sir William about the date of the election Sir William said something like, there are only three people who need to know what the date is and you’re not one of them. Which I thought was an astonishing thing for a Prime Minister to say to a Deputy Prime Minister and Doug told me that he thought, well Billy will know himself, perhaps the other one is Sonia, Mrs McMahon, Lady McMahon, and the third one he thought of would be the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Sir John Marshall, because in those days Australia and New Zealand were in the habit of holding their elections on the same day.
He told me that he rang Marshall who knew. He said, ‘G’day Jack’, he said, ‘When is your election on?’ and Marshall said ‘Hasn’t he told you yet?’ Doug said ‘No’ and anyway Marshall told him when the election was. Which, I think, it said a lot about — it said things about Anthony but it said a lot more about McMahon.
One of the other things that showed what a down to earth sort of bloke he was. I don’t know whether I mentioned this to you, when I first arrived here in 1964, and he was living out at Hughes he used to ride a bike into work every day. He bought a folding bicycle, one that would come bits. He would ride the bike in and then at night when he was going home, fold the bike up and put it in the boot of the Commonwealth car and take it home. Three of four days after we got here, Doug invited Claire, my wife, to come over to have morning tea here to meet the other members of the staff. Three of them there were, in those days, there were four of us all together. I think Claire must have dropped me over here and went home again and then she was driving over later on and she wasn’t terribly familiar with Canberra and she found herself going around State Circle twice. She said each time she went around she overtook Doug on his bike. I said ‘Why didn’t you stop and ask him the way?’ she said, ‘I was too shy to stop and talk to him’.
While I think of it I’ll tell these little stories.
B York: Yes please, go on.
B Virtue: On one occasion when he was Acting PM and Malcolm Fraser was in hospital in Melbourne. Fraser, I think, used to have trouble with his back and he spent a bit of time. One day Doug and Sir Geoffrey Yeend who was Secretary and PM&C at that time, they called into the hospital to see him. Doug said, that while the media people were waiting outside the hospital to find out what great matters of State had been discussed, he and Geoff Yeend and Malcolm Fraser were watching Yes Minister on the television. He said the interesting thing was they all laughed at different parts of it.
He acted as Prime Minister on twenty-six occasions that I recall. Well I don’t recall, we’ve got a note of it, I looked it up. Some of them were several months when Fraser was off sick, I know. Talking about people being off sick. Doug himself was off sick on one occasion, for several months. He got sick in Russia. He’d been, I forget where he’d been before, one of the Middle Eastern countries then he went to Russia and he got very sick. The Russians did all sorts of tests and so on. He came home. It was a hepatitis like thing, but nobody seemed to know what it was. Doctors here couldn’t work it out. In the end I got onto the Russian Embassy and asked if they could get the results of the tests they’d done in Moscow sent out to us, which they did. We gave them to the doctors and they finally worked out what it was. He was very sick for months and months and months and for the whole of that time there was no suggestion whatever that anybody else would become Leader of the Party. They were just prepared to wait until he came back. It was that kind of a Party.
B York: Were there any other points there from the notes?
B Virtue: I mentioned earlier that the caravan that we used to have at New Brighton. I don’t know whether it’s still there, I haven’t looked, but in the old Country Party, National Party room here at Old Parliament House there was a photograph on the wall, taken inside the caravan at New Brighton. The young bloke in it with the beard is me, but there is nothing on it to say that it’s me. It says that it’s Doug Anthony and so on. I’ve complained to Doug about that. I said, ‘You were Chairman of the Old Parliament House Governing Council for ten years, you should have been able to get that fixed’, but now he’s no longer the Chairman I suppose this grave historical deficiency will never be remedied.
B York: Okay, I’ll take a note about that.
B Virtue: Alright, you might be able to get it fixed. I don’t know whether that picture is still there I haven’t had a look.
B York: Well, I’ll check it out.
B Virtue: Yes.
B York: So you’re the young fellow with the beard.
B Virtue: Yes, the only other person in the picture, so you wouldn’t miss me.
B York: Okay.
B Virtue: I brought my little granddaughter here one day, one of my granddaughters, when she was four or five I think. Each place we went where I used to work. I said ‘There should be a plaque on the wall that says, grandpa used to sit here’.
B York: Now, you were in the service of Doug Anthony during a period when there were eight Prime Ministers.
B Virtue: Yes.
B York: Did you have any, much contact with individually, did you get to know any of them?
B Virtue: Not a lot. Menzies was the Prime Minister when I arrived. I really know more, he used to use the back entrance to the Prime Minister’s office. I used to see him walking in there each morning coming to work. Then Holt became Prime Minister, wasn’t much contact with Holt. I remember Holt gave us a lift to Brisbane once on his plane. He was going somewhere. But I can’t say there was any personal contact. McEwen of course I had more contact with because he was Leader of the Party when I arrived. A very tough character McEwen. He had a terrific relationship, as I understood it, with his staff certainly and with the officials in his department but at the same time he could be very hard on them. A former senior official, actually he was at the Bureau of Agricultural Economics but he is now a professor at the ANU but he told me that he wrote a speech for McEwen once. Brought it over and McEwen read it and ripped it up and threw it in the bin. You don’t do that to senior public servants I don’t think. This public servant said, ‘We took it back to the department and we changed one word in it and we printed it out again and brought it back over and McEwen was quite happy with it. It was good’. He could be very difficult, very tough on people like that.
Gorton, well he struck me as a bit of a larrikin. I think he was. I remember once the phone rang in the office and Jon Christian, who was the departmental representative at the time. He answered the phone and he said ‘I’ll put Mr Virtue on Prime Minister’. I thought what’s the Prime Minister want, anyway, it was Gorton. It was the time we were trying to export merino rams. The government had decided it was a good idea to export merino rams to try to lift the quality of wool production all around the world. They thought that would be a good thing for the whole international wool industry, including our own, but the unions thought that we were giving away our wool heritage and so on. They bitterly opposed this plan to export the merinos. I remember a charter flight came in. I think he landed at Coffs Harbour, somewhere like that. He was to pick up this merino ram and take it somewhere. Gorton was ringing up about that. He used to involve himself in the little details like that. He wanted to know, what’s happening, why hasn’t the plane left and so on. I said, ‘Well I think they’ve got the ram on board but the weather is too bad to take off’. That was just a little passing contact I had with Gorton.
The day that Holt disappeared, McEwen’s office rang me at home in Garran, we lived there, and said that McEwen wanted Anthony back in Canberra as soon as possible. He was in Murwillumbah somewhere. I tracked him down at his brother’s house, Bob’s house at Hastings Point, up near Tweed Heads. McEwen’s people had already arranged for VIP aircraft to be sent to Coolangatta to pick him up. I met him at the RAAF base about nine o’clock that night when he arrived. He said ‘We’ll go to the Kurrajong’ he wanted to see McEwen, McEwen lived there. I just waited in the car of course. He went in and he wasn’t there long and he came out and he said ‘I think I’ll go and see John Gorton’. So we drove up to Narrabundah, to Gorton’s house and Doug said ‘You might as well go home’ he said ‘I’ll get myself home later’. But just as he was walking up the path I heard him say, ‘Are you there John’ and Gorton said ‘Is that you Doug?’. Well that was all I heard but a couple of days later Gorton was the Prime Minister and McEwen, in their discussions at Kurrajong had given Anthony the job of persuading Gorton that he should be the next Prime Minister. It’s interesting, Doug says that he got the impression that Gorton hadn’t even thought of that. Of course Holt had only disappeared that day, but things do move very quickly in politics when things like that happen. But Dough said he went through with Gorton the idea of getting out of the Senate and into Holt’s seat, with the bi-election that would be held, if Holt wasn’t found, but he said he had the feeling that Gorton hadn’t thought about any of that, but anyway, very soon afterwards Gorton was Prime Minister.
B York: You mentioned the word larrikin in regards to Gorton, in what ways was he a larrikin?
B Virtue: It’s hard to put the finger on it. The fact that he rang up, talking about the sheep that day. It was — didn’t seem like a Prime Minister I was talking to. Of course there were various things that happened that are on the public record that portray him a little bit in that light.
B York: Certainly other interviewees who worked with him confirmed that.
B Virtue: I’m sure they would, yes. We were talking about McMahon earlier and the election date business. At the release of the Cabinet papers under the thirty year rule a few years ago. I can’t remember which year it was, they asked Doug to come and speak, as they do each year. I remember Ian, what’s his name, a historian fellow …
B York: Hancock
B Virtue: Ian Hancock described McMahon as Cabinet serial leaker when they released those papers and I think that was probably right. I remember the day, it was some hullabaloo was going on in the house regarding Gorton and he said something or other. Alan Ramsey from the Australian newspaper shouted ‘You liar’ from the Press Gallery which was fairly dramatic.
B York: Were you in the vicinity?
B Virtue: Yes, I was standing in the Press Gallery. I remember Tony Eggleton, who was working for Gorton, of course, at that time. He got up and wandered out and a few minutes later he came in and passed a note to somebody or other but Ramsey had apologised for what he said. Just as well to, it could have caused a lot of trouble if he hadn’t.
B York: How did you react when that happened?
B Virtue: I recall he didn’t react at all, he just ignored it.
B York: But you personally, you were up there, you’re there in the Press Gallery.
B Virtue: I was just shocked that anybody would do it because it seemed to me to be a most unusual and dangerous thing for a journalist standing in the Press Gallery to interject in a loud voice. I was shocked.
B York: Did other journalists in the Gallery feel that way?
B Virtue: I can’t remember. I just can’t remember what happened about that.
B York: Fair enough.
B Virtue: The thing that I remember about Whitlam, well Whitlam struck me as an arrogant sort of fellow and all that, but one incident that upset me at the time. He was speaking at a — this was when we were in Opposition of course and he Prime Minister and he was speaking at some function in South Australia. He said that he didn’t have any association with CIA money like Anthony does, or Anthony did, words to that — I don’t have any association with CIA money like Anthony does. Brian Toohey who worked with the Financial Review at that time rang me up and said ‘What do you say about this?’. I said ‘I’ve got no idea what he’s talking about’. I rang Doug, he was in Murwillumbah I think and he said ‘I’ve got no idea what he’s talking about. I don’t know what it means’. It turned out that, I think it was nine years earlier, Doug had decided to let his house at Hughes, over the Christmas holiday period and he put it in the hands of a real estate agent. The estate agent let the house to the American Embassy and the American Embassy put a fellow into it, with his family, who it turned out was a CIA person. Well Doug didn’t know, nobody knew. I think the real estate agent, was in fact a friend of mine and lived just across the street from us. He brought over the rent statement which — I think was something like five hundred and seventy dollars, was the total amount of rent that Doug had received for this house over a period of several months. He thought it might be useful this fellow. That was the basis for Whitlam saying that Anthony had this association with CIA money. I regarded that as a dreadful thing to say.
B York: Did you meet Whitlam personally at all?
B Virtue: No, I just said g’day to him a couple of times, that’s all, no. Fraser was a very demanding fellow. I think that is well known. He would demand this and this and this. He wanted things done and all this work would be done and he never really did anything with it, was the understanding that I had. I was talking one day to — I think it was Allan Barnes who was a journalist with — no it couldn’t have been Allan Barnes because it was the Melbourne Herald that we were talking about Allan Barnes was with The Age. I forget who it was, but for some reason, I forget how it came up, but I said, of course working in coalition was difficult. Which I thought was an obvious common sense thing to say and this fellow wrote a story in which he quoted me as saying that. Well the next thing I had Malcolm Fraser on the phone, he said ‘Why did you say that?’ and I said ‘Well it is difficult’ and he went crook. He said ‘You better try and fix it up’. So I went and saw the journalist, whoever it was, I forget now who it was. I said ‘I’m in trouble, Fraser is upset about this’. He very kindly pulled it out of the next edition of the newspaper, the remaining editions, which I thought was a very good thing for him to do just to help me out of a little spot. Of course I mentioned this to Doug sometime and my understanding is he rang Fraser and said, if you’ve got anything to say, say it to him, not to me or anybody else, say it to him. Which was another example of his loyalty and his support.
Bob Hawke, I always thought it was interesting. I thought he adapted very quickly to being Prime Minister. He came in from the union movement but he got the hang of how the place worked very quickly. The thing I remember most is — I think it was during what is known as the ‘David Combe affair’. Something to do with David Combe and an official from the Russian Embassy and it went on and on and on. I was writing a speech for Doug to make in a debate on this matter and I came up with a line — because Hawke would come in every day to the House and be questioned about this. He would go on and on and on. So there was to be an urgency motion, or something, so I wrote some lines which Doug would say at the beginning. ‘Mr Speaker the Prime Minister comes clanking into this House every day, his loins girt about with truth, wearing the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of integrity, carrying the shield of veracity and holding high the sword of probity’. I pinched these words obviously from the biblical passage which uses words like that. I elaborated on them a bit but I couldn’t think what to say next. Liam Bathgate who was Doug’s Press Secretary at the time, he suggested that Doug then say, but yesterday his pants fell down. Which I wouldn’t have said but it worked very well. Hawke enjoyed it and Pryor drew a cartoon of it, that’s my main memory of Hawke.
B York: Yes, a nice cartoon.
B Virtue: Yes, it is.
B York: Hawke [laughs]
B Virtue: Pryor was very good at that sort of thing.
B York: Did you have much to do with Hawke personally?
B Virtue: No, not really. I saw Hawke, I think, only once. After I left politics I was working at the Law Council and I was at a conference in Melbourne of an organisation called Law Asia, I think it was. Bob Hawke came along to speak at it. I had a few words with him then, but that was all, just passing contact. I think that’s all the Prime Ministers that I was involved with.
B York: And what about former Prime Ministers like Chifley or?
B Virtue: No, when did Chifley die?
B York: Forty, fifty I think it was 1950.
B Virtue: Yes, I didn’t come until ’64.
B York: Yes.
B Virtue: No, I didn’t really know any former Prime Ministers, except Earle Page. I didn’t know him at all, Earle Page but he was still around of course long before I came down here. I think my wife, she was the secretary to the Town Clerk of Lismore City Council and she remembers Earle Page coming there. I think that was when he was Prime Minister to see the Town Clerk.
B York: Any political events that stand out in your mind, to do with the Old Parliament House?
B Virtue: Well, the obvious one is the dismissal. Although we didn’t — Doug was extremely circumspect always. I’ve mentioned that Ian Hancock said that McMahon was Cabinet’s serial leaker. As far as I know Doug never leaked anything from Cabinet he didn’t even talk to his staff about it. I think a lot of Ministers did which is fair enough. Doug was very, very careful, all the time the dismissal build up was coming he didn’t really talk to us about it. He would go and talk to Fraser a lot and all that sort of thing. I’ve read since in the book that Paul Davey wrote about the Anthony family, he had some references there, the things Doug told him about things that were happening during that period about meetings they had with Whitlam and Lance Barnard and Fred Daly was at a meeting. I didn’t know anything about that. I didn’t realize that meeting had taken place because as I said he was very careful what he said and didn’t talk about these things. So I can’t really, apart from the Dismissal which everybody knows about.
The way I found out about what had happened was that he’d been around talking to Fraser, or someone, and he came back and he said ‘Well, the Governor General has sacked the Prime Minister’ and that was it. He hadn’t discussed anything before that.
B York: How did you react to that, when he came and told you that?
B Virtue: I was a big shocked like everybody else. Well as you know it was a very strange day, a frightening day really. Hugh crowds of people gathered outside Parliament House here and there was a terrible feeling of fury and so on. I remember they were collecting, I don’t know whether it was that day or later, they were collecting money in buckets from people, to help the Labor Party. Gough made his famous statement about nothing will save the Governor General. But, of course, eventually the government was swept out of office in a landslide, a huge landslide, which suggests that the people agreed that it should go.
B York: Any other events here at Old Parliament House that you’d like to refer to, political or other, like visiting dignitaries, or that kind of thing as well?
B Virtue: I just can’t think of anything specific that I could talk about. I was thinking in the car this morning, coming in, just a little incident, just a very minor thing. It must have been the week or a couple of weeks after I got here. In those days before local government in Canberra there was an ACT Advisory Council and one of the members of it was a Mrs Dalgarno. I remember when I arrived there was this controversy going on, somebody wanted to build a service station at Griffith, in the suburb of Griffith near the Griffith shops and Mrs Dalgarno said ‘They’ll build it over my dead body’. I remember all this because she came to see Doug and gave him a blast about …
Interview with Barrie Virtue part 5
B Virtue: … the service station was built eventually. I don’t think it was over Mrs Dalgarno’s dead body.
B York: When and why did you leave Doug Anthony?
B Virtue: He left me, really. He decided he was going to resign. I don’t know whether I mentioned before did I. We were at a — he invited all the staff to a Christmas function at their house, they were living at Kingston then. We all went along. Had this nice dinner and so on. He walked out to the car with Claire and I when we were going home and he said, ‘Will you come back in tomorrow morning and see me’ and I said, oh yes, we’ll come in. We were awake all night wondering what was going to happen although it was dawning on us what was going to happen. We came back in the next morning and he just said ‘I want to hang my boots up’ and that was it. So, I think I might have told you this before did I?
B York: I think in the first session you mentioned it.
B Virtue: Yes, but that was — he said he remember his father sitting on the back benches sick and, he said, he was determined he wasn’t going to do that himself. He was going to get out while he still had his health and so on.
B York: And then, was that a major …
B Virtue: I worked for two or three months for Ralph Hunt who was Minister at the time. Meanwhile I was looking around to see what else I could do. I finished up. I did a bit of work for, well it was called Eric White and Associates. It was a public relations firm. They’ve got a different name since, I forget, I did a little bit of casual work for them but then I went eventually to work for the Law Council of Australia and I was there for thirteen years, until I retired.
B York: Again, you wrote many speeches. That was part of the job?
B Virtue: Yes, had to write speeches for the President of the Council and there were thirteen of them while I was there. I wrote speeches for all of them. It was very nice. One lady who was President told my wife that when I wrote a speech for her, she just felt as if she had written it herself. She felt as if it was her words. So I was — I thought it was quite nice of her to say that.
B York: Yes. Did you keep in touch with Doug Anthony, or he keep in touch with you during those years?
B Virtue: Yes, we’ve always kept in touch, by phone or — these days emails occasionally. It was interesting, he rang up — he and Margo were in Canberra four or five months ago for a few days. So he rang up and he said, come and have lunch with us. So we had lunch at the National Library. I said, ‘I’ve got to talk to a Probus club in a couple of days time’. I said ‘I’m going to talk about the time I spent on your staff.’ I said ‘Do you want to come along and hear what I’m going to say about you’. I was hoping that he’d say no but he said ‘Oh yes I’ll come’ [laughs]. So I picked him up and took him to this meeting. It was a men’s Probus club. They were delighted, of course, that he turned up and three of his old Trade Department people were there. So they were pleased to see him and he was pleased to see them, so it was a lovely occasion. He hasn’t been well, of course. He had some electrical problem with his heart. The kind of thing where they put a thing in through your groin and put it up through the arteries or whatever and do some operation. He had that done and of course since then he’s had bowel cancer, but he had the operation and he was on chemo, that was four or five years ago. He says he’s fine and he seems fine, so that’s great.
B York: I’m going to ask about how you feel about this building, but is there anything else you’d like to reflect on to do with your time with Doug Anthony here?
B Virtue: There was one thing that I remember was an organisation called the League of Rights, which was reputed to be, well they seemed to have strange economic theories but they were also reputed to be anti-semitic, anti-Jewish, which they disputed. Somehow or other, they seemed to infiltrate the Country Party some years ago. There was a lot of League of Rights influence in the Country Party branches. They used to get stuck into him and took up a lot of our time responding to correspondence from League of Rights members and so on. They wanted the government to print money. They said that was the answer to all problems. The governments — Banks don’t provide the money, they should just print the money, as much as required.
He had a lot to do with developing closer economic relations with New Zealand and the negotiations went on for so many years and eventually there was an agreement between the two countries. It was ratified after Doug had gone into Opposition and Bob Hawke was the Prime Minister. I remember Bob Hawke, very graciously gave him the credit for it, when he talked about it in parliament, which was very nice of Hawke to do that.
There was a fellow named Neil Currie, I think Sir Neil Currie he might be these days. He was the Deputy Secretary in Trade and he was in New Zealand with Doug on one occasion, at one of these negotiations. Neil, I wasn’t there, but Neil told me at the press conference afterwards. Doug was asked a question. Neil said when I heard the answer I bit clean through the stem of my pipe, he got such a shock at what Doug had said [laughs]. I’ve used this story a lot to illustrate the fact that most politicians evade, they’ve got a reputation of evading questions, of not answering the questions. I said Doug didn’t do that. He would answer the question he was asked and sometimes he would answer questions he hadn’t even been asked. He used to get into all sorts of trouble as a result of that. He was a very frank sort of a fellow.
There was the — when they went into Opposition in ’72 there was a controversy developed, it became all very public, over which office Anthony was going to occupy in this building. He immediately moved into the office that was formerly occupied by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. I think it had been Artie Fadden’s office at one stage too. Doug argued that he believed he was the second most important person in the Opposition, as Leader of the Country Party, ahead of the formal Deputy Leader of the Opposition, who I think was Phil Lynch at the time. This became quite a thing in the media, they made a big fuss of this argument between Anthony and Lynch. It wasn’t much of an argument really, but I think the point they all missed was that what Doug was doing, by claiming he was the second most important person in the Opposition was staking out his claim to entitlements and staff, things like that. I think that is really what it was all about.
You were going to ask me about my feelings about this building?
B York: Yes, if you’ve got no further comments on the period with Doug Anthony, then …
B Virtue: I’ve got mixed feelings. Of course I’ve been here quite a lot since that time. When I was at the Law Council. I went to the Law Council in ’84. When was this building opened: ’88 was it?
B York: It closed in ’88.
B Virtue: The new building.
B York: The new building ’88.
B Virtue: ’88, well I would have been coming here for several years to see people and so on, on behalf of the Law Council, so I’ve been back quite a lot. As I’ve mentioned I told my little granddaughter once there should be plaque on the wall in various places saying that grandpa sat here at one stage. It’s funny, you know, whenever I visualise parliament, even if I’m watching it on television. I visualise it in the Chamber of the old House here, not in the new place, because I spent so long here I suppose it’s ingrained in my brain and that’s the way I always imagine it.
B York: But what words come to mind to sum up how you feel about your time here, your work here?
B Virtue: Well I suppose, opportunity, it was a wonderful opportunity that suddenly came my way out of the blue. It really changed our lives. We were expecting to spend the rest of our lives in Lismore, just living quietly there and working for the local newspaper and so on and we suddenly found ourselves here in parliament house. It was an enormous change for us and quite scary for a young bloke from the bush. I wondered whether what I’d learnt at Bexhill Primary School, just a little two roomed school, and then at Lismore High School, would be sufficient to get me through this sort of work. But I seemed to have survived somehow and finished up spent more than well over nineteen years working with Doug.
B York: It’s unfortunate, we don’t really have time to talk about your extensive travels which could …
B Virtue: Yes, they were very extensive.
B York: … we could spend hours, I’m sure, talking about the travel you did as part of the job.
B Virtue: Oh yes. I think I went to twenty-seven countries, some of them a number of times, like Japan and America and Britain and so on. The thing that always struck me about Doug and Margot was, I thought they were terrific ambassadors for Australia. I remember we went to Tokyo once. We were the for a few days. There was a young couple from the Foreign Ministry I think, who looked after them. As Doug and Margot said good-bye to them and were getting onto the plane this young couple were in tears. That says a lot about the Anthonys, the effect they had on people they met all around the world.
B York: When you come back to the building, like today, and last week, how do you feel about it? What is your emotional response to it?
B Virtue: I can’t say that I have much emotional response. As I said, I continue to come here quite a bit after I left, after I’d finished working for Doug. No it’s nice to come back and see the old place. I’ve been to a couple of things in the Chamber, one was when Bill, the Chairman of the Council now, Bill the actor …
B York: Yes, what’s it …
B Virtue: It doesn’t matter. He launched the book about Doug’s father, Doug’s father’s letters from Gallipoli and England and so on. I came on another night when a local historian fellow, can’t think of his name, but he was talking about the crash of the Hudson bomber out near Queanbeyan in 1940 when the three Ministers were killed and the Chief of the General Staff. Sir Richard Kingsland, who of course, was Secretary of the Department of Interior when I first arrived, he was there. I knew that he had trained with the pilot of the Hudson in the 1930s at Point Cook in Victoria. I said ‘Why don’t you get up and tell us about that?’. He said ‘Oh no I don’t want to do that’ I said ‘Well I’ll dob you in’. He said ‘Well that will be the way to do it’. When question time came I said ‘We’re very fortunate to have Sir Richard Kingsland, who trained with the pilot and I’m sure he could tell us a few things’. So Kingsland got up and told us some interesting stories about Hitchcock the pilot of that plane.
B York: Would you like a closing word to finish off the interview?
B Virtue: Only to say that I think it’s a great thing that you are doing this. You sent me the other day a little extract from an earlier interview that had been done some years ago, Fred …
B York: Fred Johnson worked here in the mid-‘20s on the building site.
B Virtue: That’s right. I listened to that with great interest, made a little comment on it, as you suggested.
B York: Thank you.
B Virtue: I think it’s very important. I love all this sort of history. I spent a lot of my time going around talking to Probus clubs and USA and all sorts of charity groups and so on. I’ve got three, I think, talks this week. I’ve got the Probus club tomorrow, something on Wednesday and on Thursday I’m speaking at a thing over at the War Memorial. It’s a volunteers’ week function, they’ve asked me to speak at. A lot of the stuff is about political history and military history, of course, because I’m a guide at the War Memorial.
A lot of local, some local history. I’ve got two daughters who live at Jerrabomberra where we live in Halloran Circuit. One of the talks I give is about Henry Halloran who was a very interesting fellow, who set out in the 1920s to develop a new town at a place, which he called Environa, which is at the back of the Hume industrial area, along the Monaro Highway. It was killed off by the depression and so on. Halloran a fascinating fellow. Things like that I love talking about and putting all this stuff together, so I’ve really enjoyed come and talking to you Barry. Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to do that.
B York: Thank you very much for cooperating.
B Virtue: It’s a pleasure a great pleasure.
B York: Thank you very much Barrie.
B Virtue: Good.
This history has multiple parts.1 2 3 4 5
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