Morrie Adamson (1926-2013)
Morrie Adamson, born 1926 in Queanbeyan, NSW, worked at Old Parliament House between 1964 and 1986, initially as Secretary to the Public Works Committee and subsequently as Secretary to a number of HOR standing and select committees. He became Senior Parliamentary Officer supervising HOR Committee Secretariats in 1977 and then Secretary of the Sub-committee of the Joint Standing Committee on the New Parliament House which considered the future use of Provisional Parliament House during 1983-84. From 1984 to 1986 he was Senior Private Secretary to the Speaker, Dr Harry Jenkins. He retired in January 1986.
Interview with Morrie Adamson, part 1
E Helgeby: This is an interview with Morrie Adamson. Morrie will be speaking with me, Edward Helgeby, for the Oral History Program conducted by Old Parliament House. On behalf of the chief general manager of Old Parliament House, I would like to thank you for agreeing to participate in this program. Do you understand that the Commonwealth owns copyright in the interview material, that disclosure will be subject to any disclosure restrictions you impose in completing the formal consent?
M Adamson: Yes, I understand that.
E Helgeby: This being so, may we have your permission to make a transcript of this recording should Old Parliament House decide to make one?
M Adamson: Yes, certainly.
E Helgeby: We hope you will speak as frankly as possible, knowing that neither the tapes nor any transcript produced from them will be released without your authority. This interview is taking place today, Tuesday 23 September 2008. Can we begin with: when and where were you born?
M Adamson: I was born in Queanbeyan, my parents lived in Canberra at that particular time. There was a birthing centre in Rutley [?] Street in Queanbeyan where quite a number of Canberra mothers had their children. We lived in Jardine Street, in Kingston, where the Canberra Tower is now situated.
E Helgeby: Where did you attend school?
M Adamson: I attended school — primary school and infant school at Telopea Park Primary School, as it was then. Later at the Canberra High School which was initially established on the Telopea Park site, but then moved to the new building in Acton, in September 1933.
E Helgeby: Perhaps before I gone on that line, what were your parents — can you tell me a little bit about your parents.
M Adamson: Well my father was born in Maldon, a gold mining town in Victoria — he was brought up in the gold mining industry, but in his late teens and early twenties saw the futility of continuing in that. He sat for the public service — Commonwealth public service examination, passed it, and was appointed to a job in Sydney at the time, in the late 1918, 1919. He worked in Sydney for a couple of years, and when the Department of Home Affairs was established here in the early ’20s, he was transferred to Canberra for that purpose. My mother was born in Canberra, she comes from a long line of Canberra residents, and my great grandfather came to Canberra first in 1849 as a stonemason working for Campbell.
He lived initially at Duntroon, and later at Acton. My grandfather was born here at Acton in 1854, married another local lady of the Kay family — which is well known — my grandfather’s family name was Rottenverry. My mother was the last of six children born to my grandfather, George Henry Rottenverry, and she was born at Acton. Worked in Canberra, in the very early days in the Canberra co-operative store. Met my father in the early 1920s, and lived in Kingston when they were first married.
E Helgeby: Did you have any siblings?
M Adamson: I had one sister, who was younger than me. She’s no longer with us.
E Helgeby: You lived in Kingston — what’s it like growing up in Kingston?
M Adamson: Well I enjoyed it. There was quite a number of children of my age around. A very friendly place. I enjoyed my early days there. We lived in Kingston until 1936 when my father had built another house in — it was technically in Griffith, but very close to the Kingston shops, on the western side. It was a very friendly place in those days. The place was just being established, there were lots of people coming in from out of town, but there were also a lot of people who had been here for a considerable time. Concerned with the establishment of Canberra as the national capital, people who had been here since before World War One. I had some relations who had been in that category.
E Helgeby: When you finished at Telopea, where did you go after that?
M Adamson: Well I was working — sorry, when I finished at Telopea we went to the Canberra High School as I mentioned. When I finished at the Canberra High School I had my leaving certificate and matriculation. I did twelve months study at the Canberra University College, which was established in Acton at the time — mostly in the old Hotel Acton premises. I then, in 1944 I was — I was going to say conscripted — I volunteered, I joined the Navy, and I was in the Navy for two years in that time. When I came back after my naval experience, I continued at the Canberra University College — not with a great deal of success, but…
E Helgeby: In the Navy, what — can you tell me a little bit about your naval service?
M Adamson: Well I trained as a — I joined as a seaman, I finished my seaman’s training towards the end of 1944, and at that time, I was aware that the forces were — the Air Force had established a linguist school, this was during my high school days, Japanese was one of the subjects that I studied. I’d had five years study of Japanese, up to my matriculation, so I made the Navy aware that I had had some Japanese language training, and I wondered whether that be of use to the services. And they eventually recruited me to attend the Air Force language school, which was first established at the Coogee Bay Hotel in Sydney of all places, with connections to Sydney University, at the language school there. And it later — the school was re-established, relocated at the showground in Melbourne, at Ascot Vale, and I finished my training as a linguist there.
At the end of the war, I ended my training, and when I became available as an interpreter, the Navy decided that they really didn’t want to know too much about me, said to me ‘if you want to continue your Japanese experience, then perhaps you ought to join the Army,’ which was being established as a British Commonwealth occupation force in Japan, and they said ‘alternatively, you can get your discharge if you want.’ The Department of Territories which I had worked for in the 18 months or so after I matriculated, were anxious to get me back because clerical staff with experience were not readily available, and they pressed for me to be released. So I was discharged from the Navy at that time. So I came back to Canberra, to the Department of Territories, which I’d first joined as a permanent officer in early 1943.
E Helgeby: Okay, so you were actually a permanent office by the time when you signed up for the Navy?
M Adamson: Oh yes, I was, I was. E Helgeby: And what was your job in Territories?
AM: Well initially I started as records officer — it was a very small department at that stage because various territories were occupied by the Japanese: Papua New Guinea, Nauru — the only free territory was Norfolk Island at that stage. But after the war, and as the territories became available, as it were, and there was a reestablishment of the administrations, the Department of Territories was very active.
E Helgeby: Did you have any postings away from Canberra?
M Adamson: I was in — in 1951 to 1953 I accepted a job on transfer to Nauru in the Central Pacific. Nauru was a United Nations trust territory, and it was in the process of recovering from the war because Nauru and the Nauruans had taken quite a beating during the war, they lost a lot of their population — had been killed, they were transferred to the American territories across the Equator, truck, and that area. And the phosphate industry was being re-established too, because of the damage to the resources which had been an essential part of their operation up to that time.
E Helgeby: What was your role at Nauru?
M Adamson: I was the — nominally I was secretary to the administrator. The administrator at that time was the Honourable Robert Richards, from South Australia. His claim to fame was that he’d been the leader of the opposition in South Australia for a record term, so his administrative capacity wasn’t very well developed, you might say. He was an appointee appointed by Ben Chiefly at that time. But as I say, I was secretary to the administrator, but in many ways I was the government secretary. It was a very interesting time in Nauru’s history, because being a trust territory of the United Nations, there was a constant I suppose, scrutiny of what was going on in the trust territory from the United Nations point of view.
And in fact while I was there, a visiting mission from the United Nations came to Nauru — and it would in the normal course of its scrutiny of trust territories across the world. The other interesting thing at that particular time was that the administration of the Nauruan population up to that time had been carried out by a traditional group called the Council of Chiefs, but as part of the United Nations’ scrutiny, a local government council was established. And I happened to be the returning officer for that first election, which was a very interesting and a rather different arrangement than the Council of Chiefs.
E Helgeby: And were you single at the time?
M Adamson: No, I was married. We had one child at that time, a very young child, she was just 18 months old I think when we arrived at Nauru, but we enjoyed the experience there, it was a — the phosphate industry was starting to — not starting, but returning to what it was pre-war, and the Phosphate Commission employees were a very friendly group, and I got along extremely well with them.
E Helgeby: So 1953 you came back — did you come back to Canberra?
M Adamson: I came back to Canberra, to the Department of Territories, I was in effect only on loan to the Nauruan administration during that particular period. I went — came back to the Department of Territories, mainly in the recruitment area — recruiting staff for Papua New Guinea, and I was reminded by a session on Canberra Radio this morning about the cadetships and at that time we were particularly recruiting patrol officers, education officers — teachers — and there were a number of categories where staff were very difficult to recruit, like medical people, agricultural people, and veterinary people. And as part of the cadetships we were offering bonds to take people through perhaps the last two or three years of their university training, subject to their signing of a bond to guarantee that they would continue their employment for a specified period. Doctors in particular were very difficult to get, we were recruiting cadet medical officers from the universities where the applicants had completed three years of their basic medical training.
E Helgeby: You mentioned university, you said you had continued at Canberra University College after your first stint there, but not successfully — did you graduate — did you complete a degree course?
M Adamson: No I didn’t, no. It was just becoming very difficult. The interruption of the Nauruan experience really put a paid to that.
E Helgeby: What subjects had you focused on?
M Adamson: Well I — I was looking at a commerce degree, economics, accounting, and that sort of thing. Commercial law. I completed some of those, but not completely. I was finding all of them difficult at that time.
E Helgeby: So you continued in Territories from ’53 onwards, and did you stay with them right through until you applied to come to Old Parliament House?
M Adamson: No, I stayed at the Department of Territories until 1960 when there was a very interesting offer of a job in the newly established National Capital Development Commission, and I had — the job was called a programs’ officer. Really dealing with the formation of the construction program and the finance for that sort of thing that was going on in Canberra at the time. The NCDC had been — was only two years old at the time that I joined them, but it was a very interesting and different employment situation. That was at the end of 1960 I joined them. The last — some nine months later I became involved as a project manager within the architectural division, and in particular initially recruited to do the spade work for the building of the new parliamentary library. And I was a project manager for that until I left the Commission in 1964 to come here to Parliament House.
Among the work that was involved at that particular time, were all the projects being carried on in the parliamentary triangle, and among the other works that I was involved in, were the Anzac Parade East building, on Parkes Way, which was being constructed for the Bureau of Mineral Resources, the concept of the building itself had been established before I became involved, but I was involved with the Bureau in sorting out what their accommodation arrangements and requirements within that building would be. I was also the project manager — projects officer, for the National Mint. The government had decided, I suspect in 1960 or ’61, that the National Mint which was then established in Melbourne, should be transferred to the national capital. The concept had been well — the architectural concept had been well and worthily developed between the Mint building and the people in the Department of Treasury who were responsible for the continued existence of the Mint.
The concept of the building had been well and worthily worked over, and when it first came onto the plate of the National Capital Development Commission the first site proposed was where the government printing offices was being transferred to in Kingston near the Causeway. A decision was then made that it was important that the government printing offices should be placed there, and so another site was looked for, for the Mint, and would you believe, the site was the land immediately behind Old Parliament House on the hill up here.
E Helgeby: On Camp Hill?
M Adamson: On Camp Hill. It was tentatively arranged that it would be there, because you might remember that the time we’re talking about, the new Parliament House was to be on the lakeside. But all of a sudden, I think the Commission decided — well found, that it was going to be a manufacturing process and the discharges from the manufacturing process weren’t exactly the sort of thing that — within the parliamentary triangle. So they looked for another site for it, and eventually found the site at Deakin where the…
E Helgeby: Were you involved in the actual process of selecting a site or not selecting a particular site?
M Adamson: No, that aspect of the project was handled by the town planners in consultation with the architects. The design proposed I think was consistently pretty much as it is, the design of the building as it is now. The job that I really became involved in was the National Library. I had a lot to do with the national librarian, or the acting national librarian at the time. I had a hand in writing the architectural brief. And immediately after the architects were selected, I became involved in the management of the planning and leading up to the letting of the contract in May, 1964.
From that time on, I had relatively little to do with it, but it was a period of intense activity, because of the nature of the building, and because it was — as you would be aware from the design plans for the National — for the parliamentary triangle, that it was right next to Parliament House — the new Parliament House. So it was important that it be a notable building, a building well designed in a town planning — in a design sense, quite apart from bringing together all the disparate storages of the National Library, as they were at that time. Sped around Canberra.
E Helgeby: It’s an interesting story, I mean you seemed to have had no previous background in either the building industry or anything to do with town planning, and yet you were involved in working as project manager on large projects of national importance.
M Adamson: It was all a rapid learning process, yes. I found the National Library a very interesting project. I got on particularly well with the architects, and the NCDC regarded it as being the premier building in Canberra at that particular time. And they were looking for a building pretty much as was produced eventually, classical lines — the building of course, or the design, arranged for two wing buildings, smaller buildings, to be constructed as a storage — as requirements increased. It hasn’t happened quite that way, I notice that the National Library has quite a substantial storage building at Hume these days. Obviating the need for the wing buildings. In my own view, the building itself stands on its own, and ought to continue to stand on its own.
E Helgeby: Did you ever meet Harold White?
M Adamson: [laughs] could I avoid him? I first met Harold White when I was a boy. Harold White and his family used to go swimming at the Canberra Swimming Pool at Manuka before breakfast. As did I and my family, and he was there. He wasn’t a great swimmer, but gee his wife was a very interesting person, and she used to bring the family there, and yes. I knew Harold White, yes. But I subsequently became, not involved with him, but fortunately from the Commission’s point of view, in some ways it was a critical time, we were getting the project underway and the design accepted in Cabinet, and Harold White was apparently on a six month project overseas and I think some people thought that that was probably to the benefit of the National Library. His replacement, Courtney Key, was a delightful man, and did his job extremely well.
E Helgeby: So 1964, that’s the year when you also applied or came across to Old Parliament House?
M Adamson: Yes, I…
E Helgeby: Did you apply, or were you approached to…
M Adamson: Oh no, no. I applied. The job was advertised in the gazette, as most public service jobs were at that time. I knew very well the fellow who was the secretary of the Public Works Committee at that time, Jack Marshall, and I enquired of him what it was about. He was wanting to get back to the Department of Interior, whence he’d come prior to that — prior to me coming to the Public Works Committee, he’d been private secretary to Allan Fairhill, I think that’s the name of the Minister for the Interior at that time — and he took on the job at the Public Works Committee as taking up the time that he needed from the end of his association with the minister until he got back into the Department.
E Helgeby: So you applied for a job as what? To be in the secretariat? As committee secretary or…
M Adamson: Oh yes, I was the committee secretary. That’s the — there were two jobs in the secretariat: there was the stenographer and there was the secretary.
E Helgeby: So a very small support group.
M Adamson: Yes it was.
E Helgeby: And so were you interviewed for the job?
M Adamson: Yes, I was interviewed. As I recall it, the secretary of the Department of — the Joint House Department, Ian Emerton, was one of the interviewees — interviewers. And I think the other was Dick Hillier who was the CEO I suppose of the Joint House Department — the administrative officer.
E Helgeby: What sort of particular skills do you think you brought to the job, which from the sounds of it was rather different to any you had done before?
M Adamson: Well I had an interest in public works for a start. And I’d in effect been secretary of — during my NCDC days, secretary to various building groups within the Department — within the organisation, as well as associations with the Department of Works, and the contractors, the architects, and particularly in the case of the National Library building I’d had a long and close association with the architects. And the NCDC formed a loose arrangement of a committee to oversee the ongoing construction of the — design and constructions of the National Library building, and I’d been involved in that right from the word ‘go.’
E Helgeby: Was the job a promotion for you in financial terms?
M Adamson: I’ve been trying to think about this, but I think it was in a minor way, yes.
E Helgeby: So what actually made you decide that this is where you wanted to go, rather than to stay where you were?
M Adamson: Oh it was a different life. As a youngster I was always fascinated by parliament, I visited this building as a youngster on a number of occasions. And I talked to Jack Marshall about the job, and he convinced me that it was probably a very interesting and different avenue from that which I’d experienced at the NCDC. Not that I had any regrets at all about that, but I’d had a very interesting time with the NCDC and they’d treated me well. I’d had a period from occasions — from time to time, I was a PA to the commissioner, John Overall, later Sir John. And I just enjoyed that. No, it was not exactly with regret that I applied for the job, but it was a promotion, and…
E Helgeby: Can you recall what sort of salary you were paid at the time?
M Adamson: I couldn’t. In those — in terms of those days, I think it was a class 8.
E Helgeby: What was your first impression of Old Parliament House? I understand that in one sense it goes back to 1927 when you told me you had visited Old Parliament House in a pram.
M Adamson: Yes.
E Helgeby: But you mentioned that you’d been to the place a number of times since over the years. What sort of feelings did you have about the House and before you actually became a member of staff here?
M Adamson: I thought it was a very comfortable place. The whole parliamentary process fascinated me, and I — that I suppose governed what I thought about the place. I didn’t know any members of parliament, I knew quite a number of the staff that were working here, and they all seemed to enjoy their experience here, and so it was that that I, among other things, that attracted me to the place. As for working in the building, it was a completely new experience. I found the conditions of what I had to do as secretary of the Public Works Committee was something that would need some coping with, for a while, until I became used to the routine.
But the people that I spoke to, and particularly people like Dick Hillier and Joint House. And the people that I knew in — particularly in the Reps, oh and in the Senate too. People like Roy Bullock, who eventually became clerk I think, of the Senate. They were all people I knew and recognised as good citizens, and obviously good public servants. The Public Works Committee is a — and the Public Accounts Committee, two statutory committees, at that time were completely different to the committees as they are at the moment.
E Helgeby: So you were attached to — you were specifically appointed to one of them, to the Public Works Committee?
M Adamson: Oh yes, that was the job I applied for. I wouldn’t have wanted to go to the Public Accounts Committee.
E Helgeby: So who — that was a joint committee in those days — a joint committee of both houses?
M Adamson: Yes it was, it was a joint committee, it was just called — it was a statutory committee, both established under their own acts of parliament.
E Helgeby: So who did you actually — who were you responsible to for your work as secretary to that committee?
M Adamson: Well I was responsible to myself, or the committee. I wasn’t responsible to any officer of Joint House, I had to run the committee. The relationship between the committee and Joint House — Joint House was there in effect as the provider for the committee, provided the staff and the accommodation and any financial requirements that became apparent. I’ve been trying to think about the answer to this question for some time, but it was really that both of those two committees were attached to Joint House merely for provisioning. We were on their estimates and all our financial needs were met by them, as required. You were in effect responsible to yourself, but also to the committee, and the committee would soon know if you weren’t doing your job as you should. But I don’t think that situation ever arose that I’m aware of.
E Helgeby: Your job, can you describe a typical day with the Public Works Committee now, and in the early days.
M Adamson: There was no typical day. There was no typical day. Every day is different. It depended first of all if the House was sitting, or whether you were travelling, taking evidence on a particular project, or whether you were here writing the results of — writing up the committee’s report, and the minutes, all that sort of thing. It was — the job as — the requirements of the job changed almost daily. When the House was sitting, you were almost certain to be having meetings of the committee, when the House was not sitting, there might be two or three projects that might be as widely dispersed as Queensland and Western Australia, where you needed to travel to take evidence from local people, or the Department of Works state offices, or whatever. And it was like that.
E Helgeby: So did you just in [INAUDIBLE] in the nature of duties as required?
M Adamson: Yes, that’s right. It was duties as required. I mean once you — once a project was referred to the committee for its consideration, you then sat down with the committee and worked out the…
Interview with Morrie Adamson, part 2
M Adamson: … how to go about doing it, you would talk to the Department of Works, and — because they were virtually all associated with the Commonwealth Department of Works. You’d work out with them what you ought to do in terms of site inspection, or when their office might be required to guide people around the site, need to talk to the people — the department for whom the work was being performed. You’d need to talk to them about how to go about it, where you would go, and how you’d get there, and that sort of thing.
E Helgeby: So you really — you were based here in Canberra during when parliament sat and at other periods you might be anywhere.
M Adamson: Well there was one year when a lot of travelling. And I reckon that I travelled something between 20 and 25,000 miles by air during that time. But that was an exception. I suppose I spent more than three quarters of my time here in Canberra, and probably 80% 85% of my time here.
E Helgeby: So during a normal working day — mundane things as perhaps having lunch breaks and cups of tea or whatever, where did you have that? Was it on the job, or did you use the parliamentary facilities for that?
M Adamson: Well if the committee was sitting, and we were just considering a project for example, I might get the refreshment rooms to bring in tea and biscuits for say morning tea or whatever, like that. Ordinarily I’d just have a cup of tea at the desk, something of that sort.
E Helgeby: So you were a one man band within the secretariat effectively for the committee, did you associate with other members of — other members of staff that worked in the building?
M Adamson: I’ll just go back to that initial point, as the project — the number of projects increased, I had to make arrangements from time to time for supplementary staff, and in this respect the House of Reps was very useful, and it provided first of all Don Piper, who had been Sergeant-at-arms I think at one stage, to help particularly during the period when the new terminal buildings and the expansion of the terminals at Sydney and Melbourne were being considered. And particularly in Melbourne when Essendon became — was over — particularly when Tullamarine was being developed, that was a completely new project. There were other times when Sydney was being increased in size, and the new international terminal was being built. And the main runway was being extended into Botany Bay.
That was a very busy time, but later on I succeeded in having a position created of clerk I suppose, as to assist, and the management of the committee was increased to include him. But we — that was about the extent of the staffing arrangements. The Department of Works was able to help at one stage, the post office was also of assistance at one stage, provided a man to help write a report, or reports. I’m remembering that in 1972 we tabled a record number of reports, it was some 35 reports dealt with in that year, and that was an election year which was only ten months long, so…
E Helgeby: What sort of — were your working hours when you were — was your day — when did you start, normally start your work day?
M Adamson: On a non-sitting day it would be 9 o’clock to 4 o’clock, provided you had completed your day’s work in that time. Other days, on sitting days the hours might extend to — you might start a bit earlier, and also depending on whether the chairman wanted a game of golf before we started [laughs]. But I generally worked ‘til 9 o’clock at night.
E Helgeby: Were you paid overtime?
M Adamson: No, no. The arrangements for my particular position, and salary level, I had six weeks leave a year, had a bonus of three weeks in those days, and later on when I — later committees was four weeks. So I had six weeks leave a year, or eight weeks leave a year in the later days. But the hours were quite flexible.
E Helgeby: Where was your office?
M Adamson: The office initially was in room 11, on the lower floor on the Senate side on the front of the building. And that was to me a bonus, because there were times at weekends when you were wanting to get work completed to enable a report to be tabled in the next week or thereabouts, or something of that sort, I had outside access to my office, off the veranda just in front of that big Polly bush.
E Helgeby: From your description of the working hours, there must have been some impact on your social and family life with so much travel and irregular hours.
M Adamson: Oh yes, it varied of course. In non-sitting weeks I didn’t hesitate about taking an hour or two off if the family required it. By and large the family were most cooperative, but remember that in those days sitting days were only three days a week as a rule, in sitting weeks. Didn’t often happen that the parliament sat on Friday or Mondays.
E Helgeby: What parts of the building did you usually use on an everyday basis?
M Adamson: Well by and large the building was — the whole of the building was accessible to me, except the members’ dining room, the member’s bar, or the area around the Cabinet room and the prime minister’s office, I wouldn’t come down that corridor as a rule. If I needed access to the staff dining room, I’d go around on the opposition side corridors. I used the library quite frequently, I used the non-members’ bar occasionally, and certainly the non-members’ dining room, and I needed from time to time to liaise with House of Reps table office staff about the tabling reports. And those people were accessible to me quite reasonably. Not that I needed to very much, but I had access to King’s Hall, and all of that area, it’s…
E Helgeby: Where did the actual committee have its meetings?
M Adamson: Well L11 was the committee room. It had a table for a dozen people, it was a large round table which we later disposed of and bought a rectangular table which was a little bit more economical in its use of the space that was available. My desk was in the corner of the room, and the stenographer was in a very small room which you came through as you came off the corridor. Later on, in 1971 and ’72, when the Senate side of the building was being redeveloped to provide the large committee room on the corner, and I was moved to an office along the new wing on the Senate side, and we used the committee — the new committee room set up on the back of the building, on the lower floor, I couldn’t tell you the number of the room but we used that for committee purposes. We also used some of the Senate committee room space too.
E Helgeby: What sort of interaction did you have with staff from other sections of Old Parliament House?
M Adamson: Well I needed to, from time to time, talk to particularly — the House of Reps table staff, and that was always a cordial arrangement, they were most cooperative. Had less to do with the Senate staff, although I knew most of them very well anyway from days before I came here. I had a lot to do with the parliamentary reporting staff, Hansard, because when we were holding public hearings outside of Canberra they needed to be in attendance to take the minutes — take the transcript of the public hearings. They always produced that in a very willing way, and they always seemed to be glad to travel outside of Canberra. A different experience.
E Helgeby: Yes, that’s a point I’d like to come back to later on, that particular area there. Did you have any contact with your colleagues outside work? Colleagues or people you had dealings with, perhaps that you knew from the past?
M Adamson: Not a great deal. Although, as I said earlier, I had quite a lot to do with the Department of Works. The liaison there initially — I don’t recall his name — probably from about 1965 on my main contact in the Department of Works was a fellow by the name John Gunn. Now John Gunn, he was initially located in Melbourne in the head office of the Department of Works in Hawthorn, and when the head office was transferred to Canberra in the middle ’70s, he came up here with them, and in the retirement village that I’m in at the moment, he occupies the next unit but one, on the top floor at Farrer, yes.
He’s a good friend, yeah. And you couldn’t make any enemies in my job, because you needed cooperation all the way around for the system to work. And by and large those arrangements worked extremely well. I had some very good friends in the post office, every time we had to go to the Northern Territory, they turned it on for us, they made all the arrangements that were required. No, I had a most cooperative experience with the Department of Works on the one hand, particular. Department of Civil Aviation, the post office, the Northern Territory administration — they all seemed to work very well from my point of view, and yeah I was sad in many ways that I left the DPWC but I did have eight years, so…
E Helgeby: So your contacts were really mainly with departments and areas outside Old Parliament House, not so much the people within the house?
M Adamson: Well the associations I had with Hansard for example worked extremely well. And they had to, I mean it’s a — I couldn’t have been better served by Hansard, they were always cooperative.
E Helgeby: Any people that stand — any of them that stood out, sort of people that you might have gotten on socially as well, or…
M Adamson: Ah yes, Bernie Harris was one who became — in his post-retirement days became president of the Royal Canberra Golf Club, which I was a member. That sort of thing. No, it’s a — and I see Bob Thompson from time to time, he lived very close to us when I was married. We lived in Griffith, and his family attended the same school as my children. See them from time to time. I see Don Piper whose name I mentioned earlier, at the gym every now and again, he was there yesterday. No I’ve had a — I think a very happy association with those people. And you see some of them from time to time. Yeah.
E Helgeby: Was there ever a social club operating within Old Parliament House that you were aware of, or associated with?
M Adamson: Not that I’m aware of — I think they had — various departments, House of Reps for example, I think they had social occasions from time to time, but it wasn’t an association that I seem to remember a great deal about. And certainly in my — in PWC I was just a force from that because in those days we were part of Joint House Department which was largely concerned with servicing the building, the refreshment rooms, the engineering services, and that sort of thing.
E Helgeby: Were you ever a member of a union?
M Adamson: Yeah I belonged to the Administrative and Clerical Offices Association from the time I joined the public service until I had a disagreement with them at one stage in the 1970s I suppose it was, about some of their social policies — what a union would have to do with the rights and wrongs of abortion I’ll never know, but I didn’t want to find out, so I resigned.
E Helgeby: So were you ever — while you were a member, were you ever part of any industrial campaign?
M Adamson: No, no. They weren’t that — it wasn’t that sort of an organisation.
E Helgeby: Now you’ve already mentioned that when parliament wasn’t sitting the committee often spent a lot of time travelling around the country and doing — on various enquiries — what sort of proportion of your time would have you spent away from Canberra on — with the committee?
M Adamson: Oh well if it was — depended on the nature of the beast, if it was a fairly simple — say telephone exchange, it might just be a couple of days away. But if it was a large project like an international aviation terminal it might be two or three or four. You might take it in two steps, depended on the nature of the witnesses and so on. And if you were going to the Northern Territory, in my early days there it was a full day’s travel to get there and it was a full day’s travel to get back, so it might be four days. My first trip to Darwin was a day, I had to go to Sydney the day before, picked up an early plane from Sydney to Brisbane, then Brisbane to Mount Isa, and then arrived in Darwin about 4 o’clock. It was that sort of experience.
E Helgeby: So from the sound of it you must have spent several months of the year perhaps in total away from Canberra or…
M Adamson: Oh, certainly a month. Certainly a month. And it depended on the intensity of the work, too. Not as all years were as intensive as the last, 1972 experience was largely a product of a bit of legislation that needed changing to obviate the reference of minor jobs to the committee.
E Helgeby: So when the Public Works Committee was not sitting, and parliament wasn’t sitting, what were you — what did you do here mainly?
M Adamson: I was in the business of writing reports.
E Helgeby: So you took the break — were in fact your report writing time?
M Adamson: Yes, but I can remember being here on Sunday writing reports, so — some of the reports were simple, some of them were quite complicated. You couldn’t predict from one year’s end down to the other, what your work would be during that year. I enjoyed the travelling part of it, at times it became a bit trying, particularly from a family point of view. But by and large they — can’t just say suffered it — they put up with it, and my wife was most cooperative. I mean she — from her point of view, our association with the Public Works Committee could be quite social. I had them to a social occasion at home from time to time, and we enjoyed that. No, it’s a — it became a full life experience, it was — yes.
E Helgeby: Okay, we might take perhaps a short break here before we go onto the next series of matters, if you don’t mind?
M Adamson: Not at all.
E Helgeby: So we might take a short break.
Well I’d now like to ask you to tell us a little bit about the committee structure as it was here at Old Parliament House when you arrived in 1964, and later, and any increase in numbers and functions of committees over the years that you were here.
M Adamson: When I first arrived there was no such thing as a committee structure, there were the two statutory committees who were administered — serviced by the Joint House Department. There were the regulation committees within each of the two houses dealing with orders and their own internal affairs. Occasionally one of the houses would appoint a special committee following pressure from whomever. Maybe from the bureaucracy, or maybe within the party itself, but they were the exception.
There weren’t very many of those at all. The one committee that I do remember had some continuity was the Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, but that really was to deal with the matter that might have arisen during the days when there was no — there was only an advisory council to advice a minister for the interior on the administration of the territory. And it was a means by which the Canberra populace could raise matters. They weren’t particularly active. There were those special committees, like for example in 1963 I think it was, there was a special committee appointed within the House of Representatives to deal with the conditions of the Yirrkala people.
The Yirrkala people were an aboriginal community on the — in Arnhem Land which apparently the conditions there had been brought to the notice of the parliament, and they appointed a special committee then to examine those conditions. I knew about it because later on when I became secretary of the Aboriginal Affairs Committee in the early ’70s, one of our projects was to examine the present conditions then, of the Yirrkala people, to see whether there was any change between the earlier report in 1963 and ten years later.
E Helgeby: So there were only the statutory committees that were really continuing committees at the time when you arrived in 1964?
M Adamson: No — yes, that’s right. They were established by acts of parliament, and their method of operation was really governed by each of their legislation. In the case of the Public Works Committees, the requirement for the Commonwealth was to have referred to the committee works which were below a certain financial sum of money. And in 1964 when I arrived, I think the sum was £750. We had that change I think by legislation, in 1968 or 1969 to upgrade it to take account of the increase in values, and the report — the general report of the committee in 1960 — tabled in 1963 dealing with the activity of the committee in 1960 — start again: the report of the committee in 1973, which was tabled in the early days of the Whitlam government, dealt with the matters which were considered by the committee during 1972, and during that year, a record number of references were made to the committee, 35 in all, and they were reported on in that year. Now that was a massive effort on the part of the committee and the secretariat. I believe that in 1973 the sum provided in the Public Works Committee Act was changed to take account of that.
E Helgeby: So did I understand it correctly, the committee had to consider all public works with a value less than…
M Adamson: No, more than, more than [laughs].
E Helgeby: I thought that was — so more than a certain amount of pounds or dollar value.
M Adamson: There was no committee structure as such until — really until the early days of the Whitlam government and the actions of Lionel Murphy — Senator Lionel Murphy setting up a committee — giving committees and their establishment a very important focus. He believed very much in the worth of committees to the parliament, and he was instrumental in creating — in 1973 there was an Aboriginal Affairs Committee, there was an Environment Committee, and I think later on there was a Road Safety Committee, there was an Expenditure Committee, which supplemented the work of the Public Accounts Committee — they worked down a different track. And there were — those were in the Department of the House of Representatives, and there were similar committees set up within the Senate at the same — pretty much at the same time. E Helgeby: So were they set up as statutory committees, or ad hoc committees?
M Adamson: No, they were set up as ad hoc committees, but they were all subject to the approval of course of various houses.
E Helgeby: So between, or up until that time, there were basically just the two main statutory committees, and occasionally ad hoc committees operating within the…
M Adamson: Yeah, up until 1972, yes, yes.
E Helgeby: What was the — this must have impact on work in many ways, perhaps also on the work of the Public Works Committee and other committees that you were associated with, what — did you have reflections did you make over this expansion, was it supported or did — were there other issues that came up that you had reservations about what was happening?
M Adamson: I think the members themselves supported the idea. It gave them an avenue to — other than sitting as a parliament in Canberra, to participate in the activities of parliament, and I think they embraced the idea of the extended committee structure very willingly.
E Helgeby: What about you?
M Adamson: Well staff were employed to — outside staff were employed to service the committees. At a later time I became involved, as I said, in the Aboriginal Affairs Committee, I was secretary of that initially. ’73 to ’74, and ’74 to ’77 I was secretary of the Environment Conservation Committee. It was different role, and subsequent to that, I was appointed to the senior parliamentary officer of the committees, supervising the work of all the House of Reps committees. That was a fairly busy job, but — because there were four or five committees, there was the Aboriginal Affairs, Environment, Road Safety, Environment and Conservation, Expenditure Committee — I think that’s about it.
But just keeping them under — oh, and there was the ACT Committee, which was a joint committee, that continued, and that was — that was a fairly busy committee on way or the other — dealing with matters — approaching self-government. Self-government was ten years away, but nonetheless there were a lot of matter on which there were quite vocal views expressed in the Canberra community, and raised through the committee, and chair-people like John — Senator, the Senator who died, Senator John — Margaret Reid — Margaret Reid was chair when — I serviced the committee on a part-time basis at one time, and Margaret Reid was chairman.
E Helgeby: So when you started out — in 1964 you were attached specifically to, and only to the Public Works Committee.
M Adamson: Oh yes.
E Helgeby: And later with the large expansion of committees, was there a difference in that — were staff appointed to individual committees, or to a committee secretariat?
M Adamson: Ah I finished my — go back a step — I finished my association with the Public Works Committee at the end of 1972, and I accepted a promotion in the prime minister’s department, and I was there during the first nine months of the Whitlam era. And that was a very busy area that I was working in, because of the innovations of the Whitlam government. I had to deal with the correction, if you like, of the administrative arrangements orders, by which the various departments operated. It was a very busy time because you will remember that initially the Whitlam Cabinet had two members. Subsequently it was gradually extended until it reached its ultimate form at about the middle of 1973.
And every time there was a change in the prime minister’s department were I was, we had to arrange the acceptance of a different set of arrangements — administrative arrangements orders. It was a very busy time. I applied for a promotion back in the House of Reps, they wanted committee staff to service the new committees, and I applied for a job back in the department, and was accepted. And my first promotion — my first appointment was as secretary of the Aboriginal Affairs Committee. It’s interesting perhaps just mentioning that at that particular time the committee staff were located outside of Parliament House. Initially we occupied available space in West Block, and the Aboriginal Affairs Committee was located there for three or four months. Probably towards the end of 1973, the old Hotel Canberra — leased to the brewer, might have been Tooheys or Tooth’s, I’m not sure, they relinquished that, and the parliament took over the old Hotel Canberra as an outpost of parliament. In that building as it was then, was located the House of Reps committee staff, the Senate committee staff, an outreach of the library, and in effect the whole of the building was used by the expanded…
Interview with Morrie Adamson, part 3
E Helgeby: So by that period of time then, if I understand you correctly, on both Senate and Reps side there were committee secretariat, rather than individuals appointed like you had been originally to a single committee?
M Adamson: That’s right. You were appointed to the House of Reps committee staff, and you were allocated to a committee, depending on — or not depending on, I suppose you would be appointed to a committee — allocated to a committee, and the committee staff would probably comprise of a committee secretary, a research officer, and a stenographer. And they were all located in the old Hotel Canberra.
E Helgeby: Back from — from ’64 to ’72 while you were in the Public Works Committee you were there — arrangements also had been from the beginning of your period…
M Adamson: Oh yes.
E Helgeby: So you originally only you and a stenographer, and later you an assistant plus a stenographer.
M Adamson: Yeah.
E Helgeby: How did the committee — tell me a little bit more about how the committees worked in — as a system, how did it work, how did they work?
M Adamson: Well the committee — the Aboriginal Affairs Committee for example met, it was appointed, members were appointed to it and the committee met. And they appointed a chairman and a vice-chairman. I think the members — it was either seven or nine members on a committee, and then they would decide what work they would undertake, and in the case of the Aboriginal Affairs Committee, they undertook to do a review of the present condition of the 1973 condition of the Yirrkala people. And use that as a base for a report which had been presented ten years previously. Now what other committees did, I’m not sure, but they would have had a number of matters referred to them by their respective houses.
For example on Road Safety I’m sure there would have been matters that would have been raised within the house, and because it was a road safety committee, one of the members of the House, one of the members could say ‘isn’t that a matter which should be reviewed by the Road Safety Committee?’ And they, the House, would then agree and the committee would then undertake a review of that particular matter and report back after the review had been completed. Now how they would go about that work would rather depend on the nature of the matter, you would — I think in the case of the Road Safety Committee, they would publicate a road transport matter — organisations within the state, and say ‘we’ve got this matter referred to us, would you like to make a submission to us about it?’
You would advertise the matter in the press, and invite submissions from the social — the groups within society who are interested in that particular matter. You would hold a public hearing, committee would consider the evidence that they’ve got, and how it related to the matter. If they wanted more information they’d go back again to whoever, to get further information and views on a particular matter. And they would then sit down and say ‘well these are the — they would then decide what their conclusions were about a particular matter, and ask the staff to get on with preparing a report that encompassed the evidence that was taken, and the views of the committee and the recommendations, if any.
E Helgeby: Going back to the Public Works Committee again, it operated — its brief was rather more general, did it get referrals from parliament, or was it actually simply because it had to examine all projects over a certain size, they would come to be automatically referred to the committee by the Public Works Department?
M Adamson: The formality required was for the Minister for Works, whoever he was, whether he was a Senator or a member of the House of Reps, to refer to the committee for examination and report this particular matter, and report back to the parliament. And its conclusion, that was the requirement of the law. And when that happened, from that point on, the committee would then take the matter in hand. Now the general approach would be to invite submissions from the sponsoring department and from the Department of Works if they were involved, but also to advertise in the local paper about — for submissions from interested groups, you’d have some knowledge beforehand from just talking to say the Postmaster-General’s Department about whether that particular mail exchange was adequate or not, and ‘who have you been talking to? Who’s spoken to you about it?’ and you would get their details, you’d write to them and invite them to make a submission to the committee. You’d get the responses from the advertisement — we did quite a lot of advertising — in effect, that was almost routine that we would advertise in the local paper about the committee’s enquires and invite applications — invite submissions.
E Helgeby: Were there any ad hoc type of enquiries referred to Public Works? Other than those which feel clearly within the scope of a project of a certain value…
M Adamson: No, they had enough work to do as it was [laughs]. No there weren’t any ad hoc — in fact, I think I’d really need to look at the legislation, but I think it wouldn’t allow that.
E Helgeby: Did you have any sort of knowledge of the operation of the Public Audit Committee — what do you call it?
M Adamson: Public Accounts Committee. E Helgeby: Accounts Committee, sorry.
M Adamson: No, I didn’t really. They — I think they relied on matters being referred to them by ministers. I don’t really know, Edward. I think they perhaps had ideas within the committee structure of the routine things that they would need to look at. They operated on a far more liberal, I suppose, agenda. If you like — than did the Public Works Committee. I don’t think their legislation required them to do this particularly, I think they had — they generated in effect their own work.
E Helgeby: Did you have any dealings with the secretary to that committee?
M Adamson: Oh I knew him well. I mean we expressed views about staffing requirements from time to time, and where we were — where we found accommodation in the states if we needed to move around. No, I knew David Reid well, but…
E Helgeby: So you didn’t actually cooperate ever or help…?
M Adamson: Oh we didn’t need to, we didn’t need to. Our paths, administratively, our paths never crossed. No, he was a good friend and we faced similar logistics problems from time to time, and we talked about those. But as for being aware of what the complexities of the tasks, it really wasn’t a subject we talked about.
E Helgeby: In this — you have alluded to it already, but could you perhaps describe a bit more exactly how you yourself worked with the committee? Say you’ve had an inquiry has been referred to the committee, what happens then?
M Adamson: Well let’s go back a step to the beginning of the parliament. At the beginning of the parliament, it would be my duty after the nominations for the committee were determined by the parties, because the parties were — there were nine members of the committee, there were three senators and six members. And the general — in the Menzies and Gorton days there would be requirements for the ruling party to nominate two senators and three members, and for the Labor Party to nominate the remainder. And once those names were determined, the obvious chairman was always apparent from the nominations. But I sort of talked to him and would say ‘look, we’ve got to have a meeting, is it convenient for you to meet on such and such a day, at such and such a time and place?’ And I’d get in touch with the rest of the members, and we’d have a meeting, and they would select a chairman and a vice-chairman.
E Helgeby: Could I — now the system is that the secretary actually chairs the meeting until a chairperson has been elected, was that the case…
M Adamson: Oh yes, that was the case. But it was obvious from the — that from local knowledge, who was likely to be chairman. You would chair the committee until the selection was made. But having — that having been done, the committee might have a matter or matters referred to them hanging over from the previous parliament that needed to be attended to, and would be referred to the committee by the Minister for Works as soon as he had the opportunity. I’d then get the committee together to talk about how we would handle the matter, and I’d have some suggestions to make about advertising, calling evidence from interested parties, and then sort out with them how they would fit in to our meetings, and you’d take it from there. I’d go to the committee, talk to the chairman beforehand and sort out pretty much a program and we’d talk to the committee about it…
E Helgeby: During meetings, did you take notes or did you have a stenographer or someone to actually record proceedings of the meetings? M Adamson: No, I just took notes. That was all that was required at that point, different at a public hearing.
E Helgeby: For that you would call Hansard to provide staff?
M Adamson: Oh yes, provide a service, yes.
E Helgeby: And for that — and they would provide you with transcripts of proceedings, and evidence presented?
M Adamson: Oh yes. Well the evidence — we always tried to get written evidence from interested parties. You certainly would from the sponsoring department and the Department of Works. Others you’d try to get — well you’d ask them to make a written submission anyway, and that was the basis of the evidence that they would give. But that’s the way — and we’d finished up with a transcript, and from that you would get the committee to review the transcript if they needed to. Not always willing to go back and read it, but — and then you would ask them ‘well what are your conclusions on this? Do you agree that the work ought to go ahead? Do you think there ought to be some reservations expressed about what’s done, and the way it’s gone about?’ On the odd occasions they rejected a proposal and said ‘go back to square one.’ But by and large…
E Helgeby: Before you went to — before the committee got to that stage, did you have discussions with the chair to in a sense talk through the issues and perhaps agree on what was going to be put to the committee?
M Adamson: Not really. I guess there were occasions when that happened. I think probably by the time all the evidence had been taken, the attitudes of the members themselves would be pretty well known, and you would be prepared if there were going to be dissenting views expressed. You’d probably know from the nature of the evidence that had been taken and the views expressed by members during the cross-examination of the witnesses where they were placed. I’d probably would want to get together with the chairman at one stage before the report was finalised to talk to him about any particular matter that he ought to raise, or reservations expressed by members and how they ought to be handled.
E Helgeby: Were there any chairmen who were — let’s say operated differently during your time with the Public Works Committee? Or were they all basically easy to work with?
M Adamson: I was blessed. Except perhaps the first chairman, Bill Brimble was the member for Maranoa. He was a grazier, he’d been a member for a couple of terms I think, he wasn’t a well-known member of parliament. But I came in on — my first inquiry, my first task was to finish off an inquiry the committee had handled prior to me becoming secretary. And there were some difficult matters associated with it that needed some pretty delicate handling. It was referred to a beef road in the Northern Territory. A beef road from Katherine to Top Springs. I forget now what the problems were, but it in a sense hadn’t been handled particularly well by the committee, and the secretary was in a difficult position with it.
Anyway, we settled — the matter was eventually settled I suppose. A report was partly written when I came, but it needed a little bit more work on it, which I really wasn’t able to contribute very much to, because I wasn’t at the public hearings and knew a great deal about the committee’s attitude, but after that my — the next election was held pretty shortly after that, when Bob Menzies was still prime minister when I first joined the committee, and I’ll tell you about an experience with him later, the next committee — the next chairman was Fred Chaney, the member for Perth, father of the senator, Fred Chaney, and he was tremendous. He was a wonderful chairman, he really was. We got on extremely well together, we became very close personal friends. Played the odd game of golf on sitting days when the committee wasn’t working, get in nine holes at Royal Canberra. And his successor as chairman was Bert Kelly, and precisely the same arrangement as there was with Fred. A good personal friend, and just got to know both of them extremely well.
E Helgeby: Committees must have had some difficulty with dealing with issues that were hanging over from a previous set of members, or a previous sessions. If the membership changed, and the committee — and the report was not repeated, how did you deal with that?
M Adamson: Well first of all, from parliament to parliament there weren’t very many changes in membership. Within that parliament. And I don’t — there might have been the odd occasion where there’s been a change of membership within that parliament, wouldn’t have been very many of them. No, by and large I found committee members pretty agreeable, relatively easy to deal with, one or two exceptions to that. Of course, you’d expect that with a membership of nine, and changes of membership. But you know, that’s the way it was. By and large they worked extremely well together. There were some committees which I was subsequently associated with, where they were members of a committee, but members written in name only, made no contribution at all. But they put their name up so that they would be remembered as a member of such and such a committee. But with Public Works I was blessed there, because by and large they were very agreeable and hardworking people.
E Helgeby: When the committee had sort of finished most of its deliberations, and it got to the stage where you were drafting a report, you did that all by yourself? Or was there any consultative process with the chairman or other members of the committee in writing the — preparing the drafts?
M Adamson: Generally what I’d do was write a report based on the evidence that we’d taken, and the views expressed by the committee in considering that evidence. And by and large — and I’d present it — if I had any issues on which I needed clarification, then I’d speak to the chairman and say ‘how do you think we ought to express this particular point of view?’ Rarely — by and large the reports that I prepared were accepted without too much alteration. They’d look at them — by and large — I think probably 90% of the references that were received, reports on them were for acceptance without any alteration to the proposals as put to us. Occasionally there’d be a requirement to express and opinion about this matter or that matter. There was one matter, I haven’t got the documents here, which in 1972 was rejected, but that was the exception rather than the rule. Very rarely did that happen.
E Helgeby: What about minority views, were they something that happened from time to time?
M Adamson: Happened from time to time, not frequently. Was the exception rather than the rule. You would allow that view to influence what you said in the report, rather than the — and I don’t ever remember presenting a report in which there was an open dissent.
E Helgeby: This is Public Works…
M Adamson: Yes, that’s right.
E Helgeby: In terms of — not specific committees, but generally, did the way operated as a committee secretary change with the committees you worked with later, or was it much the same as it had been when you worked with Public Works? M Adamson: Pretty much the same. It depended on how the reference came to the committee in the first place. If it came through a motion of the House, then you would be very mindful of the views expressed during the debate. And yeah, just very mindful of that, and then when you got the committee going, they were generally — go back a step: they were generally matters which would take somewhat longer than you would with the Public Works Committee reports because they were fairly concise matters. Generally not matters on which views needed — particularly needed views to be expressed.
The reports were generally — just going back to the Public Works Committee, the reports generally discussed the nature of the work, and a lot of that information would come from the presentations from the sponsoring department, and or the Department of Works, and within that you would perhaps express if needed some of the views expressed to you by eye witnesses, just to — but whether with other matters like the Aboriginal Affairs for example, you would need to, and want to, to make some reference — considerable reference to the views expressed by interested parties. And you would form your own views — for example, my first reference by the Aboriginal Affairs Committee was about the Yirrkala situation, you’d want to express views about the influence of things like the work at the bauxite mine at Gove, and all that sort of thing, I mean it’s far more open in terms of the views that needed to be reported on.
E Helgeby: So broadly, those sort of enquiries would take a lot longer than perhaps some of those ones you did for Public Works?
M Adamson: Oh yes, yes. And they would take a lot longer to write, too.
E Helgeby: On average, how long did you normal inquiry for Public Works — how long would that take, from when you get the referral until you have written the report?
M Adamson: There’s no clear answer to that. It would take as long as it took. When projects like the Black Mountain tower, for example, it took four months from beginning to end, but that was a relatively complicated matter, because of the community interest in it. They weren’t — that wasn’t very common. I can think of some reports which I wrote in which I was involved, where we’d probably finish it in two months, given a reasonable time. As I said earlier, 1972 was just unusual those 35 reports in the one year. That was exceptional. But it didn’t — because of the number, it didn’t really affect the quality of the committee’s work.
E Helgeby: The committee would be dealing with a large number of matters at the same time?
M Adamson: Well yes and no. It depended on the number of references to the committee, obviously. Yes, a certain — probably two or three was the usual thing, the average.
E Helgeby: What was the case with the committees that you worked with later? Did they deal with large numbers of enquiries, or large enquiries?
M Adamson: Some of them were large enquiries. The Aboriginal Affairs for example, I think that probably took the best part of nine months to deal with, I’d need to look at the figures to know that, but then with the environment committee, they did a lot of travelling and inspections, places they wanted to look at, like Ayers Rock before it became Uluru. It rather depended on the nature of the inquiry, and the interest of the members, and how deeply they became involved in the examination of the evidence that you took from — every one of those enquiries was different from the one before. It depended on the circumstances, the nature of the inquiry, where it was, who you took evidence from, if evidence was available. Sometimes you had to prompt evidence, to get evidence relating to it from people.
E Helgeby: Did you ever, in a sense, take the initiative to go and say ‘you need to hear evidence from this group and that group, or that group.’ Or was that something that was really determined by the chairman?
M Adamson: No, no, I certainly did. You had to develop an intellectual interest in it, and it just wasn’t a matter of sitting back and waiting for things to happen. I can remember writing to people saying, or to groups, saying ‘we’ve got this inquiry, I believe your interest in this might be relevant to what we want to know, and can you help us please?’
E Helgeby: Would you do that without referring to the chairman first, or would you…
M Adamson: Oh, I’d talk to the chairman, yes. In fact, all the chairman I’ve been involved with have all been positively interested in what — the committee’s inquiry, and you just need to take that in mind, bear that in mind, and just say ‘how about we talk to Joe about this particular matter, I believe he and his group have got an interest in it.’ Sometimes the advertisements that you’d place in the paper and the press were particularly productive, yeah.
E Helgeby: Did you ever get unsolicited submissions from — maybe even before you had advertised, or the inquiry had got underway? People wanting to…
M Adamson: No, I don’t remember having received anything like that. Not submissions as such, you might have heard about, or had given to you correspondence perhaps, or reports, from particular groups. Which prompted your interest in enquiring into participants to give evidence, yeah.
E Helgeby: Any other general points that you’d like to make about the broad, the big picture?
M Adamson: The Activities Committee, in the post — from the Whitlam days on, I think made a totally different task for the parliament, and I think it was an excellent thing that he did, and I think we’re still feeling the benefits of that. Prior to his day it was just the odd committees being set up beside the two statutory committees. Member interests were really confined to what happened in the chambers, and I think the establishment of committees — select committees, outside of the normal operating committees within the parliament, I think has been an excellent move, and I think they’ve shown in the days since Whitlam, a very productive part of the parliament. And I think they’ve involved the members themselves, given them a new interest, a different interest as well. Expanded their knowledge.
E Helgeby: You mentioned — some of the committees you referred to, the select committees, relate to the House of Reps entities — was there the same impact on the Senate side?
M Adamson: It was like an infection. Yes. It certainly had its influence, and with the strength of the Labor Party in the House in ’73 to ’75, I think it just — it was a repercussive effect if you like, from the views expressed by Lionel at that stage.
E Helgeby: Where there any changes — anything change after the Whitlam government was dismissed and the conservative government came into power? Were there any changes in the committee numbers, structures, the way they operated? M Adamson: No. It just continued.
E Helgeby: A change which became permanently effectively?
M Adamson: Oh there were other sorts of committees as well, there was a — my experience with committees finished in 1982, twelve months away on that inquiry that the government set up on the NCDC, but I don’t think the general policy has changed…
Interview with Morrie Adamson, part 4
M Adamson: I think the fact that there were more committees now, as I read from the publication that the House of Reps has put out, that there’s quite a large committee structure, whether it uses the same number of members, I don’t know, and that varies from time to time too of course.
E Helgeby: Shall we break for today?
M Adamson: Okay, right.
E Helgeby: And come back to more detailed issues on the next occasion.
M Adamson: Okay, righto.
Interview with Morrie Adamson, part 5
E Helgeby: This is 2 October, 2008, and I’m continuing the interview with Morrie Adamson.
Morrie, you told me that you’ve listened to the copies of the recordings of the last session, are there any matters that you’d like to expand on, correct, or add?
M Adamson: A couple of corrections I’d like to make. I believe that I said that the Canberra High School was opened in 1983. It should have been 1939, a simple mistake. I also suggested that the project that I was handling on behalf of the National Capital Development Commission as project manager was the Parliamentary Library, in fact it was the National Library Project, the contract for which was let in May of 1964. And I just wanted to explain that the Public Works Committee Act has a provision in it that requires the Commonwealth to refer to the committee works in excess of a value of $750,000 that figure was at 1972, prior to that the figure had been $250,000 and that was changed by an amendment to the act in I believe 1967.
The other matter that I spoke about was the Top Springs to Katherine road, beef road in the Northern Territory, in fact it was Top Springs to Wave Hill which was a road which almost got to the West Australian border. But I’d like also to talk later about the procedure which committees followed in setting up their work when reference was made to them in the House of Representatives.
E Helgeby: Good. Well perhaps we might start with just that point, because I’d like to now work chronologically through the committees that you worked with, and perhaps beginning with the Public Works Committee, you can explain how such enquiries that were referred to the committee get set up, and what happened, what procedural steps were involved that you were involved in.
M Adamson: Well the procedure required the minister to have a motion passed in the House of Representatives requiring the committee to enquire into and report on a reference. The requirement was that for, as I’ve said, for works in the 1972 period — for works valued in excess of $750,000 to be referred to the committee for inquiry and report. When the motion was carried in the House, the procedure then on the part of the secretariat was to place an advertisement in the local press where the work was located, in inviting comment by interested people who might want to give evidence to the committee, but prior to that of course both the Department of Works and the client department if it was Post-Master General’s or Civil Aviation, would have prepared submissions to the committee which on the part of the client explained why the work was required, how it was to be financed, and on the part of the Department of Works, it would be a brief on the construction method and all the implications of that, in terms of land availability and all that sort of thing.
When the — the committee would set a date for the closing of public submissions, and when that had occurred, the committee would know approximately how long the inquiry would take in terms of the public hearings. And if the public hearing was in say Sydney, we’d make arrangements for accommodation there to hold the public hearings. From that point on the committee would then meet, we’d make a program — sort out a program for the witnesses to be heard, we would start — the first witness would be the representative of the client department, and then the Department of Works’ engineers or architects, as the case may be, would present their evidence, and we would take evidence from the other interested parties. That might take a day, two days, or three days, depending on the nature of the inquiry.
We would then come back to a private meeting of the committee to discuss the evidence which had been taken, and of course in collecting the evidence Hansard would be at the table to record all of the evidence, including the submissions from the client department and the Department of Works and any other interested people. Of course it meant that no only when the committee travelled to hold a hearing, they were accompanied by Hansard people who would be — they would make a tape of it, but would generally be two or three Hansard reporters there to assist in recording the proceedings. The committee would, after it had — after the hearings and after they had considered the Hansard reports of the evidence, they would then sit down and discuss their conclusions on the particular matter. If they needed further evidence then we’d hold a further public hearing or public hearings as required. But once the evidence — once the committee was satisfied that the evidence had been taken and had reached a conclusion, it would then be up to the staff of the committee to prepare a draft report. That might take whatever time was required depending on the complexity of the inquiry.
E Helgeby: You mentioned staff of the committee — staff of one, yourself?
M Adamson: Initially it was a staff of one, probably through the latter ’60s I had a so-called research officer attached to me. We made a case to the Public Service Board for the creation of the position. Prior to that we were able to, with the help of the Department of — House of Representatives Department, they loaned us a staff member at particularly busy times. I remember in particular Don Piper was loaned to the committee as a — in effect as a research officer. While we were getting on prior to 1966 with the very large works involved in the creation of the Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne, and the downgrading of Essendon of course, and the building of the international terminal in Sydney. There was a lot of work involved in both of those projects, and we needed — I needed all the help that I could get.
E Helgeby: Taking it back one step, you mentioned that the referrals came from the House of Representatives, were there any referrals from the Senate? Or does the Senate not play a role in…
M Adamson: No, as I recall it the Act required the referral to come from the House of Representatives. If the Minister for Works wasn’t a member, then a representative of his would carry out the formal work involved.
E Helgeby: Through the House of Representatives.
M Adamson: Through the House of Representatives, yes.
E Helgeby: Can you describe your own role in the normal committee work with the Department of Public Works — what was your role?
M Adamson: Well I kept the minutes of private meetings. Just hand-written. And generally there was not much difficulty about that. With more complex matter it just took a little bit more time, but that was the easiest way to go. So far as the public hearings are concerned of course, it was all virtually recorded there, and it was in Hansard’s record.
E Helgeby: Did the Hansard work — were they responsible to you for the production of transcripts of the evidence?
M Adamson: Oh yes, they were. And they were very, very good. I worked very well with Hansard, they were most obliging. They travelled extensively with us if we were on — say in the Northern Territory on a beef road, there was absolutely no problem about them. In fact I think they rather had a contest about who was coming.
E Helgeby: What sort of technology did they use for the recordings in those days?
M Adamson: Well they’d use a tape, but they’d also take Hansard short-hand notes to support that. We couldn’t — in isolated places of course it was impossible to get the sort of support you get in the House itself. Generally we would be accompanied by two Hansard reporters, and that was generally fairly sufficient.
E Helgeby: And how long would it take for — after say you’ve taken evidence one afternoon, by when would the committee members have transcripts of that so they could consider…
M Adamson: In 36 to 48 hours. They were very good. They needed to be in Canberra of course to be able to do that. If they weren’t in Canberra they’d need to then travel back to Canberra and then sit down and do what they had to do, but once they did that, depending on the length of the evidence, the complexity of it, it would generally be between a day or two. But in most cases if the committee wanted to consider its conclusions, it would proceed without the evidence, without the Hansard report, but if we needed to refer to it, we would do that with the — currently with the draft report.
E Helgeby: So did you too assist the committee with its deliberations, say after they’d taken evidence, while they were considering what view to take — did you have notes as well which you could sort of refresh the committee’s minds about the nature of the evidence that they’d heard?
M Adamson: Oh yes I would. Just hand-written notes. I’d generally liaise with the chairman at the time, we’d talk about contentious matters and discuss what conclusions the committee might come to and what help they might need in reaching those conclusions.
E Helgeby: Would you have described yourself as a very active committee secretary, or one who was more sit back and take a more reserved role?
M Adamson: Well I didn’t have any option. There was only one of me, generally, in that role. You had to take a very positive attitude. I regarded it as in effect a project that had to be handled from beginning to end, and by and large my role I found personally satisfying and I think it probably suited the committee too.
E Helgeby: With the Public Works Committee, how many enquiries would they say deal with within an average year?
M Adamson: There was no average year, Eddie. The first year that I was associated with the committee I think that the count was three or four, maybe five. It rather depended on the level of expenditure that needed to — would cause a matter to be referred to the committee in the first place. Also the complexity of it, and also the geographical location of it. If it needed an inspection, say of a beef road, then that might take a day or two. In the Northern Territory we were able to have access to the RAAF VIP aircraft, which was a DC-3, if we needed an inspection on the ground then the Northern Territory administration would turn on vehicular access. It rather depended on the nature of the job, but that might take a day or two. To answer your first question, the extreme was in 1972 when we tabled 35 reports, a rather exceptional year, some of them quite simple, one or two of them quite complicated, such as the Black Mountain Tower here in Canberra.
E Helgeby: Yes there was a obviously a large number of enquiries you dealt with in those eight years you worked with the Public Works Committee — do any of them stand out as either particularly challenging or interesting from your perspective as well?
M Adamson: Well very early — in my early years the airport work at Sydney and at Tullamarine provided a challenge, but at the same time they were very interesting. I was fairly new in the job at that time, and there was a lot of money involved, but particularly with Tullamarine. There were town planning meetings that needed to be considered, and as I recall, the local governments were interested in what was going to happen at Tullamarine, and not only at Tullamarine itself but around Tullamarine — whether there’d be housing there, and that sort of thing. And what the airlines themselves would be establishing there, quite apart from the need to use the terminal and the runways, they need to set up maintenance facilities and that sort of thing.
E Helgeby: In a complex inquiry like that did the — would the committee be expanded to deal with that sort of inquiry, perhaps add members who were perhaps a bit more knowledgeable in the field, or get experts as advisers to the committee?
M Adamson: No the committee was generally able to handle the administration of it. If it became complex they would seek further advice from knowledgeable people. The committee itself was not expanded, they occasionally used a sub-committee on the other hand, to deal with perhaps simple matters or the continuation of an inquiry that had reached a point where it needed committee’s presence but not their academic presence, as it were.
E Helgeby: And inquiry like about — Tullamarine for example, how long would that have taken?
M Adamson: Well that would have taken — from beginning to end it would have been three to four months I suppose. That was exceptional because it was a completely new project on a completely new piece of ground, and that meant of course that Essendon was no longer the main airport for Melbourne at that time. It rather depended on the nature of the project, where it was, and how many local people were involved in the matter. If it was contentious, like the Black Mountain Tower, then — that only took two months as I recall it, but that was fairly exceptional. It depended where it was, of course. Out of Canberra it may have meant a bit more effort on the part of the committee and the staff getting it going and getting the right people to give evidence.
E Helgeby: When you refer to staff you’re still referring to yourself?
M Adamson: Oh yes, well we borrowed staff from time to time, and later on I had some help, yes.
E Helgeby: How many meetings would the committee have had, for example, on Tullamarine? All up in a three, four month period?
M Adamson: Oh taking evidence, probably that would run over a month perhaps. I mean we designed the attack on the project to get the evidence out of the way when it was possible to do so. So we didn’t want to have the repeat visits to Tullamarine or repeat public hearings. We liked to get it all tidy — that part of it tidied up, and then if we needed further advice, written advice from say the Department of Civil Aviation, or supplementary evidence from the Department of Works, then that would be handled at that time, but we’d endeavour to get the public hearing part of it, the presentation from the client and the department, and the private submissions out of the way, and then deal with the conclusions from that point. And if that meant a further public hearing with perhaps Civil Aviation, then that’s what would happen then.
E Helgeby: When you mentioned one month roughly for the intense part, taking evidence, how often did you meet? Every working hour of the week?
M Adamson: Oh no, no. It depended on whether the House was sitting. I’d endeavour to, if we had a matter that we needed to deal with, I’d endeavour to get the meeting of the committee over on Tuesday morning, because Tuesday mornings were free. Party meetings and that sort of thing, but Wednesdays were generally taken up with matters or sitting of the House, as was Thursday, but Tuesday presented a good opportunity. If it was a contentious matter I’d endeavour to get the committee here on the Monday or on the Friday when the House wasn’t sitting to deal with those matters then.
E Helgeby: You mentioned last time that the committees did most of the intense work, in particular the inspections and perhaps enquiries, hearing evidence, during the non-sitting weeks and during the parliamentary breaks.
M Adamson: That’s right. We occasionally did, if it was a fairly simple — not that there were very many simple matters — if it was a relatively simple matter then we might use the Friday, leave here on Friday morning, go to say Sydney or Melbourne to inspect something or perhaps take some supplementary evidence. We used the beginning and ends of sitting weeks in that way. We’d never do that to Western Australia or Northern Territory of course, or the more complicated ones we’d just set aside a longer time, never quite a week but yes.
E Helgeby: The more complicated ones? Can you mention some?
M Adamson: Well a more complicated one might have been the establishment of the naval depot on Garden Island of Freemantle. That took a little bit of time, partly because it was in Western Australia for a start, and as I recall it, the local government people were interested in maintaining Garden Island as accessible to the public, so there were views expressed on that sort of thing. Perhaps a project like the Katherine to Boroloola beef road where you needed to be in the Northern Territory, you needed to travel on part of the road to see what it was like. But Northern Territory of course necessitated a day each way travel, so that expanded the time you needed to set aside for it to be handled.
E Helgeby: There must have been times when the people giving evidence to the committee would have, perhaps get a bit hot under the collar when they presented evidence, or the committee might have taken not offense, but at least had some views on what was said. Can you recall any such enquiries?
M Adamson: It was fairly rare for that to happen, I think the committee were fairly calm about these sorts of things, allowed people to express their views without provoking them. No, it was a fairly rare occurrence for that to happen.
E Helgeby: Were all the members of the committee of the same ilk, or were there perhaps some that stood out more and were more individuals that you would remember for a long time because of the personality or otherwise?
M Adamson: Yes, on the Sydney Airport proposal, particularly the extension of the runway and partly in relation to the building of the international airport, Len Bosman, who was the member for St George took a very close interest in the matter, and he, as I recall, did some fairly extensive questioning, but in a calm way. I’ve met him since then, yes. Since those days. He was at — a public hearing really is in effect a fact-finding mission.
E Helgeby: That’s an interesting point, because aircraft noise and anything to do with the expansion of airports these days is a major issue. Was it the same in those days?
M Adamson: The present situation is not new. It was always a question of aircraft noise, and particularly the extension of the main runway at Sydney into Botany Bay, that came quite a bit later, yes.
E Helgeby: You have mentioned the Black Mountain Tower inquiry on a number of occasions, can you walks us through that? It was rather a controversial one, certainly in the Canberra environment.
M Adamson: Yes, well of course the green lobby lobbied extensively against anything remaining permanently on Black Mountain. You’ll recall at the time there were two television towers there at the time, temporary ones, which were not very elegant. There was also a facility on Red Hill which was associated with the proposal to get rid of those two towers on Black Mountain as well. To me there didn’t seem to be much argument against the proposal because the facility on Black Mountain in those days was guaranteed to provide the transmission facilities, telephone and television for a long, long time. There was no other site which was equally suitable. The green lobby lobbied very hard, and also the National Capital Development Commission also was against it because it rather spoiled the Walter Burley Griffin vision of Canberra with the hills enfolding the city.
From my point of view, I was at odds with some of my former colleagues in the National Capital Development Commission but I think they quietened down later on. It was a complex issue, but because of the technical results that would come from it, it didn’t really seem to be any other option of handling the transmission problems that would follow from the demolition of the two towers that were already there, the two temporary towers.
E Helgeby: There must have been quite a number of submissions made to the committee, you mentioned the Greens, can you recall anything about the way the evidence went, the presentation of — how the committee reacted to what it was being told?
M Adamson: No, I can’t really remember but — no, it was — as I say, it was a complex issue, it needed to be dealt with in quite a hurry because it was referred to the committee as I recall very early — about May of 1972, we got the report in May ’72, the report was quite a complex report because of the nature of what was going on there, and the report was tabled in July. So it was just a matter of two months.
E Helgeby: How many meetings would you have had in that period of time? It must have been a very intense period for you as well.
M Adamson: Well my guess is that — I really need to look at the minute book, but my guess is that we would have had half a dozen meetings of one sort or another to deal with the matter, I don’t have any immediate recall of the number of occasions that we took evidence, but just looking at the list of witnesses, it would have to have been two, three, four — perhaps four days. Not all fulltime perhaps, but nonetheless it would have been of that order.
E Helgeby: This was also in the year that you had 35 enquiries?
M Adamson: Yes, right.
E Helgeby: Did the committee focus on one — given the intensity of that particular one, and also the high public profile it had, did it concentrate on that one specifically for a couple of months and then come back to the others later, or was it trying to run a large number of enquiries in parallel?
M Adamson: Well the first report tabled that year was a hangover from the year before. In fact there were five enquiries on which we reported early in the year, which were a carry-over from the year before. But the remaining thirty would have been dealt with fairly shortly. Some of them would have been dealt with by a sub-committee I guess, just without having the records to check on, but they would have been dealt with fairly shortly. Maybe a visit to Sydney might have dealt with two or three in the one week, that was pretty rare I’ve got to say, remember that in some eight years before when I first joined the committee we were very busy just dealing with five matters.
E Helgeby: You were — obviously you must have got some extra assistance to deal with, in a year like ’72, you can’t be involved with all 35 enquiries.
M Adamson: No, no. The report on the communications tower, the Black Mountain Tower, I think we had, I believe — recalling we borrowed some staff from Post-Master General’s Department to write the part of the report that described the work that was needed, and the technical involvement — the technical aspects of the inquiry. We would have — our own staff would have just adjusted that to cope with what the committee wanted to say.
E Helgeby: Your own staff — how many people were assisting or you had with you?
M Adamson: We had two at that stage.
E Helgeby: So there was you and one other?
M Adamson: No, there may have been two others, yes. But my recollection is that we borrowed staff from the post office to do the essential drafting, describing what the project was, and how it would work.
E Helgeby: The final drafts of the reports, they were your responsibility were they?
M Adamson: Yes, oh yes.
E Helgeby: So the two people you had working with you, and any others from Post-Master General’s for example, they would submit drafts to you and you would re-work them and clear them with the chairman before they were…
M Adamson: Oh yes I’d probably work with the staff when they were drafting to avoid unnecessary subsequent work, yeah.
E Helgeby: What was your relationship like with the chairman during that sort of period, when you were writing up a draft and you were finalising the committee’s — effectively — the report?
M Adamson: I was blessed with the chairmen that I had. The chairman at that stage was Bert Kelly, member for Wakefield, South Australia. And well known in political circles. He and I got on famously and I never had any problems with — any personal problems with him. Or work problems, I think he was very sympathetic to the pace at which we were required to move, particularly in 1972, he was most cooperative and he would make his time available almost at any time of the day or night as it was. He was excellent to work with, and on the committee at that particular time we had some very good members and senators, by and large they were fairly cooperative. And I do remember that in 1972 for one reason or another there were one or two changes in the membership of the committee, but that didn’t detract from the way the committee wanted to work in the first place, and where they wanted to work, and when. They were very cooperative.
E Helgeby: In those eight years that you were with Public Works, did its methods of working — its approach to the work, did it change at all or was it the same under different chairman over that period of time?
M Adamson: I think I coached them well [laughs]. No, I really didn’t have any problem at all. Committee members weren’t always available when required, but the committee was able to work without a full quota of members, there were times when we might be reduced to — nine members might be reduced to say seven, or six. But I think — I forget for a moment what a quorum was, but no, we rarely had any difficulty in getting members to attend once we’d decided on the time.
E Helgeby: So you trained them well?
M Adamson: [laughs] you might say. No, it’s a matter of…
Interview with Morrie Adamson, part 6
M Adamson: To me it was a matter of making a happy working situation, and if you didn’t do that, you would have a very difficult life.
E Helgeby: Did you actually brief new members of the committee when they first came on, about what had happened in the past and the way the committee had operated, and so forth and so on?
M Adamson: Oh yes. Most members would have been aware anyway, just by talking to other members, but if they needed information then I’d be — yes, certainly.
E Helgeby: Of the members that were on that committee over the eight years, any that stand out as individuals, some that you particularly perhaps — their efforts were exceptional in one way or other?
M Adamson: Well Len Bosman, as I said, was very interested in the Sydney Airport, but he was interested in civil aviation matters generally, and he took a very close interest. He was one whose contribution was always welcome, not always down the same track as the way I would have looked at it, but that wasn’t the point. He was most cooperative. Senator Edgar Prowse, West Australian senator. He was very, very useful too. Particularly in the early days. He was a farmer, but very interested and contributed well to the committee’s work. The chairman of course, I’d been blessed with — well Bill Brimble I think I’ve mentioned to you already. He was only — I was only with the committee two years under his chairmanship, but we handled Mascot and Tullamarine largely during his time, and I got on pretty well with him.
He wasn’t an intellectually gifted person, but he contributed — Country Party member — no he was most cooperative. Not always easy to suit his travel arrangements — he was a member for Maranoa, a western Queensland seat, but he contributed. And both Fred Chaney who was the chairman between ’66 and ’69, and Bert Kelly from ’70 to ’72 were excellent chairmen to work with. Fred Chaney I think had — we caught him on the bounce after the Voyager affair, and I think he — when he was Minister for the Navy, but he was enthusiastic about what the committee did, and was very, cooperative. And I suspect the second Fred Chaney, who became a senator, was of the same ilk from what I hear.
E Helgeby: Where there every any divisions on political lines?
M Adamson: I don’t really think so. I think any divisions would have been settled before they came to the committee. The projects that we handled by and large didn’t lend themselves to political division. Perhaps the Black Mountain Tower might have come the closest to it. Not that I recall. We talked matters through, and I think if a member had a particularly strong point of view he’d put it, and if it was obvious to him that he wasn’t going to get his way, then I think — I can’t remember very many occasions where we actually took a vote, for example.
E Helgeby: You can’t remember very many — can you remember any where they came to a vote?
M Adamson: I’m just trying to think, but I don’t think there were any.
E Helgeby: So that — one example of where you might well have someone with a local interest and perhaps might have a differing view would be the Sydney Airport extension — a local member there — these days that’s an explosive issue to support runway extensions or otherwise.
M Adamson: Yeah it was a pretty hot issue in those days, but no, I’m sure we — in fact I remember we had evidence then from one of the local members about the matter, and as did from time to time on local matters. No on the Sydney Airport I don’t think there were any divisions among them. I think they acknowledged that what was happening was inevitable by and large. Whether it was quite in that form or not was another matter. E Helgeby: So how would you overall view your period with the Public Works Committee, what sort of an experience was it for you?
M Adamson: To me it was an educative experience, it was also a very — from my own point of view it was a very satisfying time because the committee was most cooperative and in most of the things that I had to do, and they were helpful. And from my own personal point of view, working in the parliament was a different experience to my public service experience, but at the same time it was very satisfying. The memories I have were of achievement, perhaps at my level, but also I think the committee worked pretty cooperatively. No I left parliament feeling very satisfied with the eight years with the Public Works Committee and very happy with the way things had gone.
E Helgeby: I think you mentioned that when you began with the Public Works Committee with the secretariat there, that was a promotion from you previous job.
M Adamson: Yes it was.
E Helgeby: And you were appointed at what level?
M Adamson: I think it was at level eight.
E Helgeby: Were there any promotions or reclassifications during your time that you were with Public Works?
M Adamson: No, no.
E Helgeby: So then in 1972 you then moved to Prime Minister’s Department for nine months as I understand.
M Adamson: No, well I applied for a vacancy that was advertised in the gazette, in the Prime Minister’s Department. I’d been with the Public Works Committee for eight years, as you say, and at that time there didn’t seem to be any prospect of getting any further in the committee area. There were only the two statutory committee and the odd select committee, and whilst my Public Works Committee time was a very satisfying time, I needed just to have a look somewhere else, so I applied for this. And I think it was a transfer.
E Helgeby: What was the job?
M Adamson: Well it was in the parliamentary and government division. Incidentally I was interviewed by later, Sir David Smith, and Ian Greg for the job. And it was essentially in the parliamentary area, and I suppose because of my parliamentary background, it happened that at the beginning of the — immediately after the Whitlam government was elected, and I spent the best part of six months working on the changes to the administrative arrangements orders to satisfy the many changes made in the appointment of Cabinet ministers — ministers to portfolios. It was a — we started off you remember with two ministers, and finally got on to 20 or 25, something of that sort, and there were dozens — quite literally dozens of changes in the portfolios in the period from then, for the next six months.
E Helgeby: Can you describe that work in a little bit more detail?
M Adamson: Well the Constitution requires the administrative arrangements orders to specific which legislation is the responsibility of a minister, and lists all of the legislation for which he is responsible, so that if there is a minor change in responsibility which involves losing some responsibilities and gaining others, you need another minister arrangement order amendment, and these were of necessity, as I recall, and it’s over 30 years ago now, the approval of the executive council.
E Helgeby: And did you work as part of a team, or that was your job, you were appointed to…
M Adamson: I was a part of a team, yes. Part of a team in the PM’s — Raymond Court [?] was my superior officer, he was right across all of this. It was a very time, yes.
E Helgeby: How did you find the work?
M Adamson: Well it was different. I hadn’t really known what to expect when I went there. As I saw it, having been there for three months I didn’t see any great future for me there because the avenues for promotion were fairly well clogged up, and I think it was in July of that year the work which Senator Murphy was doing setting up the committee system was starting to show its face and the House of Reps advertised for committee clerks — committee secretaries, so I applied. And came back here. So that was nearly nine months away.
E Helgeby: If I remember correctly, you didn’t have a legal background or…
M Adamson: Oh no, no.
E Helgeby: Was that — when you were working on these administrative orders, was that a handicap?
M Adamson: Not it wasn’t no. The procedure was fairly clear, just had to sort out what the orders would say, and then prepare the document and get it approved.
E Helgeby: And special events or episodes from that period of time that stand out?
M Adamson: No not really, Edward, no. It was a busy time. Prime Minister’s Department was also very busy generally because of the change in government, and particularly I think the new prime minister kept them on their toes. Lots and lots of things were happening, he had many ideas — none of which came in my area except for this work in the parliamentary division.
E Helgeby: And so you decided that you’d better wait in the world was to go back to parliament, to the committee secretariat?
M Adamson: Well there was an opportunity there, and not only that but the vision that I saw was of quite a different role for committees in the parliament as it turned out.
E Helgeby: You said that you applied to the House of Representatives for the — that they were seeking committee staff.
M Adamson: Yes.
E Helgeby: Was this — this was entirely separate from the Senate committee structure?
M Adamson: That’s right. There were some joint committees, but the committees set up in the House of Representatives were strictly House of Reps committees. I think the only joint committee that I remember was the ACT Committee, besides the Public Works and Public Accounts Committee.
E Helgeby: And so you came back here. Was that a promotion for you or…
M Adamson: I don’t recall. I don’t think it was, I don’t think it was. A lot of people transferred from job to job in those days.
E Helgeby: The committee staff, how many had there — how many such staff had there been in the House of Representatives before this 1972 — was it similar to your setup — a committee of staff or one?
M Adamson: They generally staffed the select committees from within their own resources, and from time to time I guess — I don’t really know the answer to that question, but they generally staffed the select committees from within their own staff. I remember the Sergeant-at-arms staffed that first 1963 committee on the Yirrkala people, but they had a number of House committees which they staffed themselves, on the standing orders and that sort of thing — procedural committees.
E Helgeby: But in 1972 from what you were saying, I get the impression that there was a large expansion of committee staff.
M Adamson: Yeah I’d say that, there was an explosion, yeah.
E Helgeby: So how many — so you came back to a group of how many?
M Adamson: Well as I recall it at the moment, there was the Aboriginal Affairs Committee, which I went to, there was the Environment and Conservation, there was Road Safety — these may not have all been set up at the same time, but time between them wasn’t very great. There was an Expenditure Committee I think which first started off as a Prices Committee. And later on there was the New and Permanent Parliament House Committee, but that was towards the end of the ’70s.
E Helgeby: But did each of these committee have their own staff, so were you appointed specifically to Aboriginal Affairs Committee, or were you part of a secretariat group?
M Adamson: I was part of a secretariat group, and they moved people around as necessary.
E Helgeby: You can’t recall how large that group was?
M Adamson: Well I think it grew as the need grew, as the committees were established.
E Helgeby: And so you started out with Aboriginal Affairs?
M Adamson: Yes.
E Helgeby: Can you tell us what that was like, and what was its brief?
M Adamson: Well its brief was to — [reading] ‘by resolution in the House of Representatives, standing committee on Aboriginal Affairs was appointed to enquire into and to report on matters referred to it by resolution of the House. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs or by motion of the committee within the following terms: A) to consult with aboriginal and island people on policies and programs for their advancement, to examine the present situation of aboriginal and island people, recommend policies and improvements, and C) evaluate the effects of policies and programs on aboriginal and island people.’ That was the — those were the terms of reference when the committee was first established in 1973, and by resolution it was the same terms when they were reappointed in 1974 after that election in 1974. So they had no specific matters referred to them at that time, what they chose to do was their affair, other than any matters which might subsequently — any specific matters which might be referred to them by the House.
E Helgeby: So when you say specific — they could do what they basically wanted within those broad terms.
M Adamson: That’s right.
E Helgeby: So when you joined them, what tasks, or what sort of enquiries were they dealing with?
M Adamson: They were just starting, but they — the chairman was Manfred Cross, member for Brisbane, who had quite an interest in aboriginal affairs, and their — in 1974 they continued an inquiry that was started in the previous parliament, virtually the same committee, and the reference was that having regard for the recommendations of the House of Representatives select committee on grievances in Yirrkala — aboriginals’ Arnhem Land reserve — made in the report of 29 October 1969 this committee examined the present condition of the Yirrkala people and the carrying out of those recommendations.
E Helgeby: Was that the first substantive inquiry that you were involved in with the committee?
M Adamson: Yes it was. It was the only one I was involved in. The only inquiry, I did a number of inspections with them at various places, but that was the only inquiry in my time with them.
E Helgeby: Can you tell us a bit about that particular inquiry, it sounds like a challenging one.
M Adamson: Well it was — we took very close notice of what had been mentioned in the 1963 report, it followed on from that, but the thing that — the particular thing that interested us was that since 1963 and almost coincidentally with the establishment of this committee, Gove Alumina was set up at Nhulunbuy and the mining company was proceeding — just starting to set up the extraction of bauxite, and there was quite a town being established at Nhulunbuy, which was 10 miles I suppose from Yirrkala. And very accessible to the Yirrkala people, so their environment was changing — the Yirrkala people.
Yirrkala had originally been set up by the Methodist Overseas Mission, in aboriginal terms it was a relatively stable, well-behaved community. Not perfect by any means, but compared with others like it around the Northern Territory it was a fairly stable place. The creation of the township at Nhulunbuy and the actions in the bauxite mining had completely changed that, and was completely changing it, so that was the — I suppose the focus of the committee’s attention in 1974.
E Helgeby: You travelled to the territory to — up to north Queensland to get the information, to take evidence?
M Adamson: Or we visited Yirrkala, oh yes. We spent two or three days there. It was very interesting, the Northern Territory administration were most helpful to us, and we got our own advisor, Professor Bill Stanner from the ANU, who was very helpful to us, but also the Northern Territory administration gave us an additional staff member, if you like, Ted Egan, who later became administrator, and I heard him singing on the radio last weekend. Bill Stanner was really useful, very helpful.
E Helgeby: Did the committee’s way of operating differ from the Public Works Committee in dealing with an inquiry of this nature — rather different perhaps…
M Adamson: Oh we followed that same general track, but because of the confined nature of what we were doing, we sought information from — in a different way. We would write to people and say ‘we’re doing this, would you like to say something to us about it?’ And we took evidence of course from the Yirrkala people, in particular Gaechel Takura [*SP 24:56] whom I got to know quite well — he became a next door neighbour of mine here in Canberra, and he was attached to ASIC, he was chairman at one stage. We took evidence from the various aboriginal communities, the chairman and so on.
E Helgeby: What was the community membership like? And the chairman to work with?
M Adamson: Well the chairman was dedicated to this task, and he did very well, he was a very good chairman, one of our members was the former minister Bill Wentworth, and he contributed very noticeably to the deliberations of the committee, opposition member of course in those days, but yes — some of the members were more enthusiastic than other, I think in the original committee was Peacock who didn’t even attend a meeting…
E Helgeby: This is Andrew Peacock you’re talking about?
M Adamson: Yes. He was replaced when he — by and large the committee worked very well on that, and Manfred Cross was a very good leader, yes. Andrew Peacock was appointed to the first committee, and he was replaced by Mr Bonet [?] and he was replaced by Mr Phillip Ruddock, whom I got to know very well, and he made quite a substantial contribution to the committee’s work.
E Helgeby: Can you have — any recollection, can you remember what the nature of that contribution was?
M Adamson: Oh no, he was sympathetic to the plight — probably not the best way to put it, but the condition under which the Yirrkala people were then living, and he was attentive. And Ralph Hunt was another member who was most useful to the committee. He was a member from a northern New South Wales seat which included places like Moree, and he was well aware of aboriginal problems — not specific problems applying in Yirrkala, but nonetheless he had an understanding and a sympathy for the situation of aboriginal people in the particular predicament in which they were placed in the Northern Territory.
E Helgeby: In drafting the committee’s report, did you consult different to what you would have done for Public Works?
M Adamson: I think we consulted with Professor Stanner from time to time, I must say, I didn’t have a major role in drafting this report. Peter Reece was the research officer, and he did some very good work on this. I certainly contributed, don’t get me wrong, but he did most of the work — well, yeah most of the work. I had other things to do as well but no, the contribution that Bill Stanner made was very, very useful. Very delightful person to work with, yes.
E Helgeby: So this — you were only with that committee for a relatively short period of time? M Adamson: I was with that committee for almost — going on to two years, 18 months.
E Helgeby: So in 1975 you changed?
M Adamson: Yeah end of 1974, early 1975 I joined the Environment and Conservation Committee.
E Helgeby: And why did that come about? As a matter — you chose to do so, or…
M Adamson: No, they needed to shift people around, and I think the Environment was just set up at that point and it was a matter of getting the committee going on its first work. Their conditions of appointment would have been pretty much like those of the Aboriginal Affairs, they were appointed, and they were then licensed, as it were, to take up whatever projects they had in mind.
E Helgeby: And which did they actually take up?
M Adamson: That’s where I’d like to cut off.
E Helgeby: You’d like to stop here today?
M Adamson: Yeah, could we stop there today? For the moment.
E Helgeby: Yep, that’s not a problem.
Alright well we’ll come back to your work with the Environment Committee at a later session, and I was reminded that during the period from the mid-60s through to the late ’70s that not all the committees you worked with were located in Old Parliament House.
M Adamson: The committees were located in Parliament House virtually until 1972, but after 1972 when the standing committees started to be appointed they needed accommodation outside the building. Initially space was taken up in West Block, but not a great deal was available, and certainly not as much as was required. But around about that time the brewery’s lease on the old Hotel Canberra became available and the Hotel Canberra became a parliamentary annex. The House of Reps committee staff were located there, as was Senate committee staff, the library had space there as well, and it became, as I say, a parliamentary annex. And they remained there until I would believe until the new building was completed — except the New and Permanent Parliament House Committee which was established in the later ’70s, which was located on site, on the building site near the construction of the new building.
E Helgeby: The hotel ceased to be a hotel during that period of time, or was it still operating…
M Adamson: Oh no, it ceased to be a hotel. It was a parliamentary annex, the whole building. As much of the building as was required for staff to work.
E Helgeby: Were there committee meeting rooms there as well?
M Adamson: Not there weren’t. Committee space was provided in this building here. At that time the extensions on the Senate side provided two committee spaces, two committee rooms, and there were two committee rooms on the rear of the House of Reps in later extensions. Committee Room 1 and Committee Room 2, which were quite delightful, very good committee rooms which we’d never had before.
E Helgeby: What were your working conditions like in these accommodations you now had?
M Adamson: Oh quite luxurious. I had an en suite in my office, as I think quite a number of other people had too. It was — there was plenty of space, there was no problem. The main problem was getting to this building as required. And that could be frequent or infrequent, it depended on what you were doing, and what the committees were doing. But it was — from our point of view it was pretty good accommodation, the remoteness was the only downside.
E Helgeby: But there would have been some inconvenience in the fact that you had to keep moving.
M Adamson: Oh if we were holding a public hearing, you had to get all the things that you needed — Bibles and all that sort of thing, and your files and so on, up to the old building and you needed to allow time to do that. It wasn’t always easy, particularly in bad weather.
E Helgeby: You mentioned Bibles — come back to the — were all witnesses sworn in?
M Adamson: Yes they were, oh yes. Sworn in or made an affirmation, as required. Oh yes, that was the regular way of doing it.
E Helgeby: So in about 1977 you were promoted to senior parliamentary officer.
M Adamson: Yes.
E Helgeby: Can you tell us about that?
M Adamson: My role was in effect to supervise the conduct of various committees and to give them assistance as required, seek out — we had a monthly — a weekly meeting of committee secretaries where we discussed the work that various committees were doing, sorted out whether they needed any help. I remember on one or two occasions I acted as a committee secretary because the then secretary was either away on leave or unwell. That happened from time to time. I was also the ACT — the joint standing committee on the ACT had only a research officer working for him — for the committee, and I acted as secretary on an as required basis. Very interesting on that committee, Senator John Knight, who was the chairman at one stage I think from 1977 through to ’79, suddenly died and Margaret Reid was appointed — Margaret Reid had never worked on a committee before but she became chairman of the ACT committee and it was quite an educative process which she was very grateful for. We, the ACT committee as required needed help.
E Helgeby: But that was the only committee that you serviced directly?
M Adamson: No, I did a relief with the Road Safety Committee on either one or two occasions, I’ve forgotten which. It included going to Melbourne to take evidence, but that was about all. There was plenty of work to do in sorting out committees’ problems and helping them as required.
E Helgeby: You said your role was to supervise effectively, the committee secretaries, and did that include Senate…
M Adamson: No, no.
E Helgeby: It was only House of Reps’ secretaries…
M Adamson: They in effect had their own setup, pretty much like the House of Reps. E Helgeby: That’s an interesting point, what was the relationship between say yourself and your equivalent on the Senate side? Did you have any…
Interview with Morrie Adamson, part 7
E Helgeby: …did you deal with one another professionally at all?
M Adamson: He was a personal friend, and we’d worked together at the NCDC. When he was on leave I used to fill his position when he was at the NCDC, it was that sort of a relationship. We got on well with Senate committees. I don’t think there was any conflict, or duplication of inquiry subjects.
E Helgeby: Did you ever — was there ever any consultation between say the two of you and others about trying to avoid that kind of overlap of enquiries or duplication of enquiries?
M Adamson: Oh there might have been, I don’t recall. But no I don’t think — there probably was from time to time, just to let people know what we were doing and where we were going. No I don’t think so. We knew what they were doing and I’m sure they knew what we were doing.
E Helgeby: Were they also housed, incidentally, over in the old Hotel Canberra? Like did they also have accommodation…
M Adamson: Oh yes they did, oh yes. They were removed at the same time, or they were accommodated at the same time we were, yep.
E Helgeby: So during this period — so this was from 1977 onwards that you had that role?
M Adamson: Yes, yes.
E Helgeby: So between ’82 and ’83, I understand you were away from Old Parliament House, at least for a part of that time?
M Adamson: Yes, the Fraser government had set up an inquiry into the future — the role and functions of the National Capital Development Commission, set up under the enquiries ordinance of the ACT at that time, and the Department of Administrative Services, which was responsible for making arrangements for the committee’s operations approached the House of Reps to see whether there was someone here who might fit into that role. They were aware here that I’d worked for the NCDC in early — some 15 years earlier, 20 years earlier, and put my name forward and Admin Services said okay and so the arrangement was that I was loaned to the Department of Admin Services for that — secretary of that committee for the duration of its inquiry. We started the inquiry in — the committee was set up in June of 1982, and we finished our task in July the following year.
You might remember that there was an election held between that period when the Fraser government was beaten and the Hawke government took over, but nonetheless we reported as we were required to do, to the then Minister for the Capital Territory, Tom Uren, at the end of the inquiry. The inquiry was — the chairman of the inquiry appointed by the government was Mr George White, who was the architect of the Capitol in Washington, in the United States. And the two committee members were respectably Sir Rupert Myers who had previously been vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales, and Professor Max Neutze from the Australian National University. And I was the secretary, and we — Admin Service recruited the staff as required, once the committee met and determined what they were going to do about the inquiry and how they were going to go about it, we appointed staff from various places. I took with me from the House of Reps a typist and stenographer, and Admin Service provided other staff. We were able to attract research staff as required and appointed advisers from time to time to undertake the work.
E Helgeby: Sort of sounds like a rather different inquiry to the ones you…
M Adamson: Oh totally different.
E Helgeby: So what was it like from your perspective?
M Adamson: Well we were located in Construction House in Northbourne Avenue, we had our own accommodation there. Once we got started we received submissions from people like the NCDC and the Department of Admin Services. The inquiry developed as we had quite a number of professional planning organisations. The NCDC was very helpful to us in this of course, its very existence perhaps depended on it. And one of the very helpful people was the late Peter Leonard who I got to know very well during that time. We received submissions from groups like the Council of Social Service, the Real Estate Institute, various colleges around, the Institute of Valuers, Builders Owners and so on.
A lot of people were interested in the work that the NCDC had done. I think the general consensus was that they didn’t want to see the end of the NCDC. Because remember that the inquiry was set up mainly as a result of the efforts of the then treasurer, Phillip Lynch and I think both he and the then prime minister were of a mind to get rid of the NCDC because they felt it was a bit of an impost on the Australian tax payer. And that I — don’t know, I don’t know that for a fact, but I believe that was probably not far from the truth. So we took evidence, we used the facilities of Construction House for public hearings. We made two trips outside of Canberra — one to Sydney and one to Adelaide to look at refurbished accommodation and planning implications on those buildings and the nearby environment.
It took us probably until early in 1983 to really come to conclusions that we wanted to. One of the complicating factors was that around about that time Labor governments were talking about self-government for the ACT, and that was a complication. So we had — the recommendations of the committee took that into account, and they — I think they believed that they’d made adequate provision to cope for representation of the local community on the work of the commission, if that was the way to go. They didn’t envisage complete self-government and the creation of two planning committees — two planning organisations. One planning organisations was what was required, and there ought to be an interface between them — the ACT’s interests and the Commonwealth’s interests.
E Helgeby: What was your role like in this committee? Was it different to with the other committees?
M Adamson: Oh I got on extremely well with the members. We advertised the fact that it was an inquiry, and we sought submissions from interested people. There’s probably the best part of 60 groups mentioned who gave evidence — who made submissions. Not all had given evidence personally, but made submissions. Most of that was done in Canberra, and we worked pretty hard at it. We employed a couple of advisers on particular matters, and that part of it worked well as well.
E Helgeby: Did you have Hansard reporters to help you as well — taking evidence? Recording the evidence?
M Adamson: Yes we did. It wasn’t necessarily the Hansard workers from here, I think the — yes it was, yeah.
E Helgeby: And did — given perhaps the technical and detailed nature of the report, did you — in the writing of the report, was your role the same as it was with the other committees?
M Adamson: There was a lot of technical information that needed to be covered, and I was there in effect to make sure it coped with what the committee wanted. I wrote quite a part of it, but the technical material was done mostly by the advisers. I had — there were half a dozen staff who were well equipped to do that sort of thing. We had some very good staff and a couple on loan from the Department of Admin Services — and oh no, it was quite — it was a very interesting enterprise.
E Helgeby: So in terms of comparing your work with this committee with the other committees you worked with, was this one of the more interesting experiences you had?
M Adamson: Oh it was. The contribution made — because it was only three members — made by the members was very considerable. George White was quite interesting because of his American experience but he also took the opportunity when he was in America — I think it was early 1983 — while he was in Britain early in 1983 to have a look at some new town developments in Britain, and that made a reasonable contribution to the committee’s deliberations as well. There were nearly ten members of the staff at various stages. They came and went a bit, depending on what was required at the time.
E Helgeby: How did you find — in a sense with such a smaller group with a larger perhaps — greater use of experts and special advisers and others, compared to a normal parliamentary structure — how was that?
M Adamson: They had a very wide range of terms of reference, needed to cover a lot of ground and a lot of possibilities could arise from the committee’s conclusions, so it was necessary to explore those to agree or disagree, or whatever was required. No the contribution made by each of the members of the committee was remarkable. George White in particular.
E Helgeby: And probably — one would assume that they’d have to be rather more intensely involved than perhaps members of a larger committee of eight, nine — normal parliamentary committees.
M Adamson: Oh indeed. No doubt about that. They each made it a personal — not going to say vendetta — they became personally involved in a way that the politicians would never become involved, because there were only three of them. Yes.
E Helgeby: To whom did the committee submit its final report — to the minister?
M Adamson: To the minister, yes. Tom Uren was the minister at the time, yes. Oh no the results of the committee’s deliberations I think were — I think the deliberations in the event, looking back, were spot on, their advice was good, the government chose not to accept their advice regrettably, and I think the results around Canberra show it at the moment.
E Helgeby: Alright Morrie, I think this might be a good place to break because of your other commitments.
M Adamson: Time flies doesn’t it?
E Helgeby: Why don’t we stop here now and we’ll resume at a day to be agreed.
M Adamson: Okay.
Interview with Morrie Adamson, part 8
E Helgeby: It’s now 16 October, and I’m continuing my interview with Morrie Adamson.
Morrie I understand you’ve listened to the tapes of the last session, anything you’d like to add or amend?
M Adamson: No, there are a couple of gaps there but I think we’re going to cover some of that today.
E Helgeby: Okay, well where we left it last time, the next thing we were going to come to was your role with the Environment and Conservation Committee with the House of Representatives, which I understand was between 1975 and 1977.
M Adamson: That’s right, yes.
E Helgeby: Could you tell us a bit about your role there, and the committee itself? And any special tasks they had when you were working with them?
M Adamson: That committee — it was an environment and conservation committee, they had a number of tasks they wanted to get involved in, and during 1975 and up to 1977 when I completed my task with them, we tabled some five reports. The first one dealt with the Softwood and Forestry Agreement Acts and that involved not only taking evidence about that particular material, but inspections of softwood forests in places like the south coast near Eden in Victoria, and also in Queensland in the area between north of Brisbane before you got to the Sunshine Coast, it was a fairly extensive inspection program — facilitated by using RAAF aircraft, including the south coast inspection which originated here in Canberra at the airport. Also the committee was very interested in National Parks.
The committee back in 1975 tabled a report on the impact of the state highway on the Blackbutt Reserve near Newcastle. That report was tabled towards the end of 1974, it was an inquiry that generated quite a lot of interest from the Newcastle area because of the importance of the state highway which was proposed to go through what had been a fairly sacred area. After that the committee looked at the trafficking of fauna in Australia. I wasn’t particularly involved with that one myself — the staff at that time — I had a couple of research officers who undertook the minor tasks, the smaller enquiries, and took them through from almost the beginning of it to the advertisement of the inquiry in the newspaper, and the inspections and that sort of thing.
The speaker to come, Dr Jenkins was very involved in those enquiries in particular, and it’s where I first met him and became associated with him in a work sense. We set up a very close relationship in those days because of — he had a health problem and — motor neurone disease, and he needed some assistance, physical assistance during that time, and it was a — from my point of view it was a delight to be able to help him, he was such a pleasant man.
E Helgeby: Was he the chair of the committee?
M Adamson: No he wasn’t the chair — he might have been the chair during the 1975 period, but of course the election on the 11th of November 1975 saw the end of the Labor Party in government. I think he also became associated with the committee in the new parliament after the election. As I said, we dealt with the question of trafficking of fauna. We also had a visit to Ayers Rock — Uluru as it’s now called — in 1976 and early 1977. We tabled a report on that in March of 1977. The management of the Ayers Rock Mount Olga National Park. And it was at about that time that I ceased my association with the committee. I went on long-service leave anyway, and when I came back from leave the role of senior parliamentary officer in charge of committee was being advertised internally, and I applied and was successful in getting that job. The one very interesting recollection
I have of — particularly of the tabling of the report on land-use pressures on areas of scenic amenity, the case study of Dandenong and Macedon Ranges in Victoria, that report and the inquiry in fact was chaired by one Tony Lamb, a member for one of the northern Melbourne seats, a pharmacist. He subsequently lived in Canberra after he ceased his political career. But the interesting thing about it was that we attempted to table that report on the 11th of November 1975. The table office really wasn’t of very much assistance to us that particular day, they said ‘we’re not sure when the House is going to sit.’ I said ‘well could I speak to the speaker please?’ Gordon Scholes at the time, and they said ‘I think he’s out at Government House.’ And whether he was or not I don’t know, but his leader of course was, and he was talking about being kicked out of government and so on. It was a very interesting day. I spent quite a lot of time tramping the corridors here trying to find the people who — or a person who was going to ensure that the report was tabled.
In the event the House sat for a very short time at 2 o’clock as I recall, not with the idea of receiving an Environment and Conservation Committee report, but dealing with the dismissal of the Whitlam government, which was of course of nation-rocking importance. In the event, the report was held over and the new committee eventually tabled it in I believe May of 1976 by the new Environment and Conservation Committee, which was formed after the election.
E Helgeby: An interesting question — when reports were tabled, did you attend the Chamber?
M Adamson: Generally I did, yes. I’d go into the Public Gallery and just watch the chairman. I would have prepared a statement for him some times, not always, to which if I had prepared a statement he would probably add to it in a way that he personally would want to contribute. But I was generally there when reports were tabled. Every now and again there was a spare seat in the officer’s seats not far from the speaker’s chair on the government side. That was generally the way. And as soon as the report had been tabled of course, we distributed copies of it to the press in the Press Gallery, but never before it was actually tabled.
E Helgeby: Did you ever get approached while you were in the Chamber by the chairman or someone else for advice, while you were actually in the Chamber itself?
M Adamson: No I can’t recall that happening. No generally the chairman was well briefed enough to know about the report. They would have been involved in the preparation of it, and in the course of the inquiry they would have been right across what was happening, and the content of the report they would be aware of that.
E Helgeby: Were you present if there were substantive discussions about the content of the report?
M Adamson: Well no one would know about the content except the members. They might be debated at subsequent time, but no not really. On the tabling of it very rarely would there be much discussion. If there was a local member, or a member whose electorate embraced the area being discussed in a report, he might well be aware of what was happening and or maybe the Minister for Works or the minister for the subject matter being discussed in the report might make a comment, but I really never was required to contribute to a chairman’s knowledge of the content of a report while the report was being tabled.
E Helgeby: And in 1977 when you came back from long-service leave, you then took up the new role of senior parliamentary office. And you mentioned last time that you were responsible for supervising a committee secretariat, or secretaries on the House of Reps incentives committees. Is that right?
M Adamson: That’s right, yes.
E Helgeby: What exactly was your role in terms of that — what did you do?
M Adamson: Well it was a general supervisory role when committee secretariat’s wanted help for one purpose or another, might have that role, but I’d generally be aware of what committees themselves were doing. We had a meeting of committee secretaries every Monday, at which they reported progress on particular enquiries, matters which they believed they needed some help or guidance on. That certainly — that Monday meeting was a very good guide to how various reports were — various enquiries were coming on, and whether the committee secretariats were having any difficulties. I was there to ensure that they had sufficient staff, I had a role in interviewing staff when there were vacancies.
And generally in reporting to the clerk-assistant who was responsible for committees, on what was happening. I also had a role in filling in as a committee secretary in the event that one of the committee secretaries was absent for one reason or another. I did a bit of travelling with the Road Safety Committee, for example. I also had a role in the administration — secretariat administration of the Joint Standing Committee on the ACT. That was an interesting one. It wasn’t all that much work involved in it, but it met from time to time dealing with ACT matters. Some of them would involve an inquiry, otherwise they would be just catching up with matter which — or progress of matters involving the ACT and Canberra.
It was particularly interesting at that — in the 1978-79 period because John Knight, the local senator, who had been chairman suddenly died and his replacement as senator, Senator Margaret Reid was appointed and she, without any committee experience became chairman of the committee. And she needed a — with respect — a good deal of help understanding what committees did and how they went about their work. I formed a very close and friendly relationship with Margaret, she was a delightful person to deal with — very confident, a lawyer, but whenever I see Margaret now it’s like old home town week.
E Helgeby: In your supervisory role, did you have staffing resources that you could — you mentioned for example that if a committee secretary needed extra resources, did you have access to resources which you could then allocate to that committee? Or would you sort of try and negotiate with the other committee secretaries to see if you could borrow some of their staff?
M Adamson: Oh there would be some movement of staff as required. We were never forced into a desperate situation. We generally knew if something was going to happen that required additional resources one way or the other. No, it was — we rarely had a crisis situation I’ve got to say. We were located in the old Hotel Canberra at that time, of course. And generally under my supervision in those days, could have been up to half a dozen committees that were fairly active. Some — for example the Prices Committee, which later became the Expenditure Committee, the Road Safety Committee, Environment and Conservation, Aboriginal Affairs, Tourism, the ACT, and there were a couple of select committees dealing with particular matters referred to secretariat by the House. Things like Specific Learning and Family Law. And then later on there was the New and Permanent Parliament House Committee, which didn’t come under my supervision, but it was created after the site for the new building was finally selected.
E Helgeby: You were on the House of Representatives side, did you during this period — did you have someone on the Senate side who had the same kind of responsibilities with whom you had any dealings?
M Adamson: Yeah well there was one Arthur Higgins who filled a similar role in the Senate. He’d been an associate of mine in the National Capital Development Commission 15 years earlier than this. He had a very similar role — some of the joint committees he had under his surveillance. But the Joint Standing Committee on the ACT was the only one that I was particularly — the only joint committee that came under my surveillance, yeah.
E Helgeby: What was the relationship between your secretariat and his?
M Adamson: Oh there was no relationship as such. We each went about our job in a similar way, we didn’t really need to confer for work reasons. I knew Arthur Higgins very well, he was a very good family friend. And I suppose we talked generally about the way committees were working and what they were doing, and the resources they needed, but there was never any conflict, there was rarely ever need to discuss matters with them.
E Helgeby: So no sharing of resources or anything like that?
M Adamson: Oh no, no. That didn’t occur.
E Helgeby: Okay, we’re now moving in time, we’re now up to 1983-84 when you became secretary on that sub-committee on the joint standing committee on the new Parliament House, to deal with what was going to happen to Provisional Parliament House. How did that come about?
M Adamson: Well if you go back a step, dealing with the time that perhaps I was transferred to the Department of Administrative Services to deal with the special inquiry into the future role of the National Capital Development Commission, that arose because the department was approached by the Department of Administrative Services for help in finding a secretary to run that inquiry into that matter which was referred to — was set up by the Commonwealth — by the government, by the Federal government in 1982. I suspect — the legislation under which it was established was the ACT enquiries ordinance of 1938.
I suspect that it was established by the Fraser government and particularly the treasurer at the time to wondering about the long-term future of the National Capital Development Commission. It had been working since 1958, and I think perhaps as the treasurer was a bit worried about the extent of the resources needed by the Commission needed to get on with its work, and they thought ‘maybe now’s the time to enquire into its long-term future.’ The inquiry was set up, and as I say, the Department of Administrative Services, by virtue of its function was looking around for staff to man the — and they approached the House of Reps and I think Doug Blake, the clerk at the time, was aware that I had worked with the National Capital Development Commission in the early ’60s and maybe that might be an appropriate point from which to appoint me.
E Helgeby: We actually did cover this in some detail last time if I remember. Certainly the outcome of the proceedings, you were very unhappy about, you mentioned that they were not adopted by the parliament, and you thought that that was a great loss for the ACT.
M Adamson: Yes, well just very quickly, the secretariat was set up — the accommodation was found for us in Construction House, and that inquiry finished in July of 1983 when we reported to the minister, Tom Uren at the time. And so the inquiry, having been finished, I came back to the department here and there was — the New and Permanent Parliament House Committee was established in offices up on the site of the new building, this inquiry into the future of the old Parliament House arose from I suspect a matter which arose from a point raised by one of the members of the New and Permanent Parliament House Committee. And as I was at a loose end, I set up an office in the offices on the building site and the job was given to me to carry out the secretary’s responsibilities.
E Helgeby: Can you deal us about the work of that committee? That’s obviously of considerable interest to us here in Old Parliament House.
M Adamson: Well the committee itself was a committee of eight or ten — a fairly large committee — jointly chaired by the speaker and the president of the Senate. They appointed a sub-committee to deal with the matter of the old Parliament House. And both the speaker and the president were members of the committee, there were three or four other members, so it was a fairly small committee. We advertised the matter in the local press, in the normal way, and we met on a couple of occasions. There were submissions received from the Department of Capital Territory of course, the National Capital Development Commission, the Architects’ Institute, and we in fact had a couple of trips away. The first one was to have a look at the old Mint building in Sydney, to see what use they had made in 1983 terms of the accommodation that was — it was quite well set up and had a very historic background. It was a fairly short inquiry, I suspect the report might have been tabled early in 1984.
E Helgeby: May of 1984 I think.
M Adamson: Yeah, May of 1984. I was — the submissions — the proposals which the committee looked at — there were three propositions put to the committee: the first one was that the building should be demolished to make way, so that the visual scene in front of the new Parliament House wouldn’t be obscured by an unnecessary building. The second proposal was that the building should be retained as it was at the time, and as it still is. And the third proposal was that the additions which had been made to the building post-1927 should be demolished and in effect to restore the building to its original shape and form. I was a bit concerned about that, and had my own personal views. It was suggested one day, one of the morning meetings it was that the committee had, that it would be a good idea to have a look at the building with the construction behind it — going on behind it — from a distance. And I took them up to Mount Ainsley, and down to the War Memorial, and it was quite evident I think to all of them then that the new building would be very nicely placed on the white base provided by the old building. If you took the old building away, your views of the new building would be fairly obscure, you really wouldn’t see it in its proper form, because it rather blended into the environment, the landscaping and so on. But as I think the committee generally themselves agreed that it would be a mistake to either abolish the building — sorry, to demolish the building, or to reduce it to its 1927 form. So in effect that was the fairly quick conclusion that they reached, and the other matters which were dealt with in terms of the management of the building and how it all ought to be treated, got dealt with as incidental to the main conclusion that they came to that the building should remain in its present form.
E Helgeby: I’ve heard some folk-law that some of the considerations that were put forward — suggestions that were put forward included turning Old Parliament House into a hotel or into an artists’ studio — is that only folk-law or…
M Adamson: It is folk-law, yeah. Neither of those propositions were ever put to the committee. I think the — in terms of it becoming a hotel, the parliamentary triangle in those days was, and has been ever since, restricted to areas and buildings concerned with government one way or the other. Such as the National Library, the High Court.
E Helgeby: It was one of the suggestions before the committee though that this might end up as a conference centre to be used in one of our international organisations?
M Adamson: Yes, that’s right. That’s right. I can’t remember off-hand the one that you’re talking about, but yes there was. But it was never thought that it would bet a function that wasn’t related to government in one sense or another.
E Helgeby: One thing that I’ve heard said is that from — you played an important role in defending Old Parliament House. Care to comment on that?
M Adamson: [laughs] yes well I suppose my role with the committee was pretty much along those lines.
E Helgeby: In which way did you exert pressure or twist arms to get them to see it your way?
M Adamson: Well I think the viewing of the old building from Mount Ainsley and the War Memorial said all I would have needed to say in respect to the retention of it. I pointed out to them that it was just an enormous amount of history involved in the building. You know, just go back to 1975 for example, you don’t see David Smith standing on the front of a commercial building talking about sacking the prime minister, it’s a government building, and it’s a well-known government building. And it had a role to play in the future, it should be preserved. It was a heritage building and that was a point I think which the committee quite easily came to understand and to accept.
E Helgeby: And so those were views which you put to the committee in some form or another?
M Adamson: Yes, in some form or another. Committee secretaries needed to be fairly judicious in the way they expressed any views they had, yes.
E Helgeby: The impression I’ve had that in this particular committee you played a fairly — perhaps a more active role than you might have done with other committees.
M Adamson: Oh well I was a very good friend of Harry Jenkins, and I knew Doug McLellan pretty well. I don’t think I needed to make a statement other than just to express the views and say ‘could you have a look at this point of view, or that point of view?’ Oh no, I…
E Helgeby: Was the committee’s view unanimous in reaching a conclusion?
M Adamson: Yes it was. The pity was that the government accepted the point of view put forward by the committee’s report, the pity was that it felt after the building was vacated in 1988 it was three or four years before it was opened and it was given some attention. It was badly in need of maintenance by the time it was opened.
E Helgeby: So when you finished the work with this committee, was that when you moved on to become senior private secretary to the speaker?
M Adamson: Yes it was, yeah.
E Helgeby: How did that come about?
M Adamson: Well the speaker had two private secretaries: his principal private secretary, and his senior private secretary. The principal was Kerry Clancy, who dealt with his political and electorate matters, senior position which had been occupied by John Ferguson, a retired naval officer, for quite some time. He looked after the Commonwealth Parliament Association matters and matters dealing with the administration of the House of Representatives Department and the other departments in parliament for which he and the president had a joint responsibility.
John Ferguson suddenly died towards the middle of 1984 — or maybe a little bit earlier than that, and the speaker was looking around for someone to replace him, and just fortuitously I was at a loose end having just finished the report on the old Parliament House, and I was offered the position as his senior private secretary. Of course I knew Harry Jenkins well, had been associated with him at that time for over ten years, or about ten years, and I was delighted to be able to — to be offered the job. A very easy man to work with, and no we had a lot of mutual interests outside of the parliamentary interests, and so I was delighted to accept.
E Helgeby: Can you perhaps describe a bit more exactly what your job entailed?
M Adamson: Well the speaker was the ministerial head, if you like, for the administration of the House of Representatives Department, and jointly with the president for the Joint House Department, the Parliamentary Library, and the Hansard parliamentary reporting staff. And my concerns were in dealing with matter about those departments which came for the speaker’s consideration, one way or the other. And that was really my responsibility. Also dealing with matters relating to the Commonwealth Parliament Association in which the speaker had a leading role in Australia.
E Helgeby: The management of the administration of the House of Representatives Departments, that sounds like a fairly substantial task, how many sections or areas did you actually have to look after and deal with?
M Adamson: Well in effect three small departments. And each with their parliamentary — their departmental head, and matters dealing with the administration of those departments — Joint House, of course dealt with the maintenance of this building, also still in those days they were responsible for the administration of — or it was responsible for the administration of the Public Works and the Public Accounts committees. It was in effect the work of the permanent heads, it came to — was brought to the speaker in those days, which it needed decisions about various matters…
Interview with Morrie Adamson, part 9
M Adamson: …considering the administration of those departments.
E Helgeby: And your role was in relation to them — were you the intermediary between the heads of department and the speaker?
M Adamson: Yes I was, yes. As required. It wasn’t a terrible onerous task, but it needed to be — matters which needed to be dealt with without delay and with judgement.
E Helgeby: So were there any specific events during that period of time or matters that you dealt with that stand out?
M Adamson: Not really. They were both obviously concerned with the new building, through the New and Permanent Parliament House Committee. The new building was about half finished in those days, and they were concerned to see that the construction — it went ahead, as scheduled — I wasn’t here at the time, but they would be concerned that at the opening — when the building was ready for occupation, all the things that needed to be done for that to happen started to be put in place. Yes it was — there were a number of other matter which on a personal basis I dealt with on behalf of the speaker. He had a very close interest through his — Lions, through the Lions organisation. He was concerned with the control and maintenance of drugs of various sorts, and I dealt with the matters — those matters which needed to be handled within his office if he needed help. Had several visits with him, too. Functions associated with that. Launceston I recall, to Sydney, and to Melbourne I think at one stage, yes.
E Helgeby: Did you accompany him on his visits?
M Adamson: Yes.
E Helgeby: Was that because of his illness?
M Adamson: No, no, because he needed secretarial support to maintain his involvement and his interest. Yes. Oh no, not because of his illness, no. I also — he travelled interstate — overseas several times while I was there, through his involvement with the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and when that happened, his office in Melbourne would have been vacant, and I would go down to Melbourne and I’d sit in the office while he was away just to deal with matters that arose which needed his attention and to ensure that the matters which the office nearly dealt with were dealt with in the appropriate way.
E Helgeby: Was this the electorate office or another office as speaker?
M Adamson: He had a speaker in the Commonwealth Offices at Treasury Place.
E Helgeby: So you had no involvement in his electorate matters?
M Adamson: Oh only marginally. Most of those matters were dealt with by Kerry Clancy, his principal parliamentary secretary.
E Helgeby: So the more political side of running the office was run by him, rather by you — didn’t have a direct involvement with those…
M Adamson: Yes, that’s right. But we — I never sat in the same office as Kerry in Melbourne, but here in Canberra we both occupied the same office space, dealing with matters which needed the speaker’s attention at that time.
E Helgeby: Where exactly were you housed — this was in this building.
M Adamson: It was in the building — on the main floor, almost towards the back of the building, very close to the members’ dining room.
E Helgeby: Did you have any staff working for you?
M Adamson: Well he had three staff — he had a permanent attendant who looked after all his wants here in the House, but he had two office staff: a girl who ran the office, plus a stenographer, and they occupied the space immediately adjacent to the Speaker’s Office, which you know. I did one overseas trip with him, for meetings of the Commonwealth Parliament Association, it was in Kiribati in 1985, towards July-August. There was a meeting there of the Pacific arms of the CPA. People there from the peaks of the Australian states, also from Papua New Guinea, from Nauru, and I suspect New Zealand, Fiji.
E Helgeby: What was your role at that time?
M Adamson: Well I was there to provide him with secretarial assistance as required. Not a great deal of preparation was involved but I suppose in his particular case it was a matter of as much of making his presence felt, not that he had to do that particularly, but he had to ensure that Australia was represented and he was there to represent them.
E Helgeby: Did you sit on meetings?
M Adamson: Oh just general meetings, yes. It was about a week — we were away for about a week I suppose. Had to fly through Fiji and Tuvalu to get there. And Mrs Jenkins was there as well, supporting him.
E Helgeby: Any interesting things happen on that tour?
M Adamson: No, not really. It was a very — for me it was a very pleasant time. With the speaker as I’ve mentioned before, he had this motor neurone disability, and the flight particularly from Nadi to Tuvalu and Tuvalu to Kiribati was in a 748 aircraft and the speaker had a little bit of difficulty getting up steps, and it was my job to stand behind him and give him a little bit of a push up if he needed it. You can’t imagine that sort of thing in your duties statement.
E Helgeby: The duties as required.
M Adamson: Yes that’s right, the duties as required.
E Helgeby: Well I’d like now to move onto a slightly different — take a slightly different tack before we’ll come back and continue the story in a more chronological order, if I may. Were you interested in politics before you came here, or did you become interested by working in this building?
M Adamson: I think the latter is the case. I guess I was interested in politics, particularly — my interest in politics would have been generated initially by my experience in the Department of Territories, and particularly through the work of the United Nations and Trusteeship Council, and the involvement of the minister who was Paul Hasluck at the time. Paul Hasluck visited Nauru while I was there and it was really an interesting time. He was interested in certainly the politics of it, but he was also interested in the administration of the place, and I guess my interest in politics originated from that time. When he was there in 1953, he also had with him John Howes who was the departmental — ministerial secretariat — deputy minister if you like. And he was there for pretty much the same sorts of reasons, but at a much lower level than Paul Hasluck, as you can imagine.
E Helgeby: What was your impression of Paul Hasluck?
M Adamson: I was very impressed by Paul Hasluck, he was a very good minister. He certainly had his own ideas and didn’t always coincide with those put to him by the Department of Territories while I was there, but no, he was a very — I think — my experience of him, which was very limited of course, was of a very genuine, hardworking, knowledgeable minister, yes.
E Helgeby: You actually had the fortune, or misfortune, of experiencing parliament under as many as seven prime ministers.
M Adamson: [laughs].
E Helgeby: From Menzies through to Hawke. Now did you have any personal dealings with any of them?
M Adamson: Well yes and no. In 1965 I think it was, I was — while we were deeply involved with the Tullamarine and Mascot work for the Department of Civil Aviation, my office was in L11 on the lower floor here. I was working away one night on one of the reports and there was a knock on the door. I said ‘come in,’ and who should walk in but Sir Robert Menzies. And I said ‘good evening Prime Minister, can I help you?’ He said ‘oh I’m in the wrong office, I’m looking for Doug Anthony.’ Now the Country Party rooms at that stage were on the floor above, and back towards King’s Hall. I said ‘well you’re on the wrong floor Prime Minister, let me show you how to get to Doug Anthony’s office.’ I took him out of the office and showed him, ‘if you go up these steps and turn right, at the end of the corridor before you get to King’s Hall, on the left-hand side there’s the Country Party room and that’s where you’ll find Doug Anthony.’ And I doubt very much whether he — whether Bob Menzies had been down to the lower floor of Parliament House before, but yes, that was my experience of him.
E Helgeby: As a parliamentary operator, did you get an impression of him at all?
M Adamson: He said ‘oh look I’m sorry to have worried you.’ No, he was a very gentle man — well he was a very courteous man, let me put it that way. He recognised he was in the wrong place.
E Helgeby: Did you ever sit in the House, or listening to him during the time that he was still prime minister? M Adamson: Well he was — I was here only two years while he was prime minister, I didn’t really get too much time to be sitting in the House listening. No, he — I was always impressed by Bob Menzies, I regard him as one of the best prime ministers we’ve ever had. As an operator, he was well known for the very pleasant relationships that he apparently had with Arthur Calwell, I mean not very many people outside of parliament would know that. But I think it’s more than just hearsay.
E Helgeby: That was a clear impression that you had of him?
M Adamson: Yes, oh yes.
E Helgeby: What about Harold Holt?
M Adamson: I had nothing to do with Harold Holt. I mean I didn’t have any course to have any dealings with him. I remember at the time that he was lost there was mayhem in the Country Party room at that time, because the role of John McEwan, and that was a very busy place in that area of parliament.
E Helgeby: Were you actually in the building when this was going on?
M Adamson: For some of it yes. But it went over several days, I mean it just wasn’t something that happened overnight. But I just — I remember the comings and goings at the time, and the confusion that was caused. Yes.
E Helgeby: What about John Gorton?
M Adamson: Well he was prime minister for a fairly short period of time. I didn’t know John Gorton, I had nothing — really nothing to do with him. Or very much to do with his successor.
E Helgeby: Billy McMahon.
M Adamson: Billy McMahon. No really to my — my connections in those days, during the Public Works Committee days were really confined to members themselves, but occasionally I had a visit to see the Minister for Works, Reggie Wright at one stage, to dealing with matters affecting the committee and the need for change and legislation to reduce the number of projects that were coming to the committee for scrutiny.
E Helgeby: What about Gough Whitlam?
M Adamson: Well I remember well the 11th of November 1975, but no, I had very little — nothing to do with Gough Whitlam, just apart from observing him in action.
E Helgeby: And what observations did you make of that?
M Adamson: Well I think he was endeavouring to achieve an enormous amount of work, progress, in a very short time. He’d been sitting on the opposition benches for however long it was, probably ten years, and I think all these things must have built up in his mind as needing attention, and when he got there he was flat out to achieve as many of them as he could. And it was quite evident from my experience in Prime Minister’s Department of the way he formulated his Cabinet and changed them around to suit their abilities that he was wanting to make enormous progress in a short time, and it wasn’t always achievable, and in some ways I don’t think he was terribly well supported by some of his lieutenants.
E Helgeby: You mentioned specifically the 11th of November. You were in the building on that day.
M Adamson: Yes I certainly was, attempting…
E Helgeby: Tell us about — walk us through your experience of the day.
M Adamson: Well the report we were talking about earlier had been cleared by the committee, and we had it printed in roneoed form ready for tabling, and I went to the committee office that morning and said ‘can we put this matter on the notice paper for consideration today?’ And ‘oh yes, that’s fine,’ but I subsequently found out that the notice paper hadn’t been — start again: I found out that the item on the notice paper wasn’t likely to come up because the House had adjourned. And I asked why the House had adjourned, well ‘the prime minister had gone up to Government House.’ And Tony Lamb as I said earlier was chairman of the committee and he would have been — he had a tabling speech ready to go when it was tabled, and I needed to tell him what was happening. And of course nothing was happening. The House was adjourned.
E Helgeby: You hadn’t heard any rumours or anything at all?
M Adamson: No, no. I was probably in King’s Hall when Sir David Smith was delivering the message from the Governor-General out on the front steps, I don’t know whether I was or not, but it was like that, yes. It was a very busy day, but no-one was getting anywhere. Lots and lots of people were just confused about what was happening, and how it was happening, except that the House then sat at I think 2 o’clock in the afternoon to get through the business of a change of government and an election.
E Helgeby: And Malcolm Fraser came in.
M Adamson: One memory of Malcolm Fraser. It would have been 1970 odd, during the latter days of the Liberal government when he was out of office and Bert Kelly was the chairman of the Public Works Committee. I was in Bert Kelly’s office talking to him about a matter, and the door opened and in came Malcolm Fraser. There wasn’t a knock on the door, no, he just came in. And he stood just inside the door, didn’t say anything, just stood there. I was sitting down, so was Bert Kelly. It was quite obvious that I was intruding on his day so I said ‘see you later Bert,’ and I left.
E Helgeby: Is that the sum total of your dealings with him?
M Adamson: Yes. That was enough [laughs].
E Helgeby: So what was your impression of him as a parliamentarian? M Adamson: I think he did pretty well. During the early days of his prime ministership after 1975, I don’t know what sort of a minister he was before then, but he was a — he was overtaken by Bob Hawke’s government later on.
E Helgeby: And what about Bob Hawke?
M Adamson: My first impressions of Bob Hawke were when I was a senior parliamentary officer. One of my jobs was when the new members all got together, they had briefings of them. I delivered a paper on the work of the committee secretariat, and Bob Hawke was in the audience. That was his first — the first time he came as a member. He’d obviously been here numerous times before, but yes. I didn’t really have any dealings with him except after I retired he used to get up a fairly frequent game of golf at the golf club, the Royal Canberra, he’d arrive there at about the same time I would for an early morning game before he attended to his parliamentary duties, with his security staff and so on. If I happened to be on the course playing with some of my partners, and he was coming up behind us and it was a matter of standing aside and letting him go through.
E Helgeby: So you never played him?
M Adamson: [laughs] no I’ve never played him. But that was after I’d retired.
E Helgeby: What about leaders of the opposition, or members in the opposition, any that you specifically remember?
M Adamson: No I don’t, not leaders of the opposition. I had a lot to do with members of the opposition with various committees, but none really in a leadership capacity. Except I think in other circumstances Harry Jenkins might well have been a minister, and I think when the Hawke government was elected, and he was selecting his ministry, so the tale goes, he was on the short-list but the numbers of left and right and state by state rather precluded him from a ministry. And so speakership was the only way that he could be rewarded for the part he’d played. Because he had been a member since 1973, and prior to that he’d been a member of parliament in Victoria for some ten years I believe.
E Helgeby: So I mean your dealings clearly with members of committees, and also you had some direct dealings with the ministers themselves while you were working here?
M Adamson: Oh occasionally. As I said, I had an interview with Reggie Wright at one stage when we were dealing with amendments to the Public Works Committee Act. I had dealings with John Button at one stage. During the Whitlam times when he was Minister for Industry or whatever it was. I was a JP and he wanted some signatures witnessed and I got the call, said ‘John Button needs your services,’ so I went along and provided my services as a JP and yes. He’s a delightful fellow, funny man.
E Helgeby: Funny in which way? Did he have any episodes, anything…
M Adamson: No, that was my only experience with John Button. He said — I know when I knocked on his door and went in, was introduced, said ‘very grateful, I’m glad we can find a JP in this building.’ And we sat down and talked about who we were and what we were, and what I was doing here.
E Helgeby: Did you have much contact with parliamentarians beyond those who were members of committees on which you served?
M Adamson: Beyond? E Helgeby: Beyond those who served on the committees that you actually worked with.
M Adamson: Oh yes, I knew Ken Fry for example, very well. We had a mutual Masonic interest. I also had quite a bit to do with John Langmore, later, after I’d retired. Those are two examples, I can’t think of any others off the cuff.
E Helgeby: Where your contacts with particularly — you mentioned Ken Fry, you must have got to know him while you were still working here.
M Adamson: Yes, oh yes.
E Helgeby: What were your dealings? Were they social or…
M Adamson: No they were entirely social. He was a member for Canberra, or one of the members in Canberra electorate. We had a number of — well I say social interests and used to seem him occasionally.
E Helgeby: Going back to your interest in politics, did you ever join a political party?
M Adamson: No, no. Excuse me, I was tempted to join the Liberal Party at one stage, not as an active member, just as a supporting member, but it never eventuated.
E Helgeby: Over the years you must have witnessed some major events happening here at Old Parliament House. Can you remember any such event?
M Adamson: Well I’ve mentioned two of them already, the November ’75 event was just forever engraved in my mind, and also the events surrounding the Holt disappearance, that sort of thing. Yeah those are two of the events that I really do remember.
E Helgeby: There were some very large demonstrations out in front of Parliament House during these years from time to time. Any of those that you can remember? Your office was not — I don’t believe you were in L11 at that point in time, but you may have been over in the Hyatt or old Hotel Canberra.
M Adamson: Well except that LBJ came in 1966 or 7, I had a ringside view of LBJ’s cortege, I just went out on the veranda outside my office and there he was getting out of the car and going up to meet Harold Holt at the top of the steps. That sort of thing. The Aboriginal Affairs demonstrations which resulted in movement of the KG5 Memorial, they would have occurred in the early 1970s, that sort of thing, but in those days there wasn’t quite the security measures in place that there are now to deal with those, and so that the crowds that were around were not exactly precluded, or — as they are these days. Yes I will never forget LBJ getting out of his car.
E Helgeby: And there was no security inside the building, keeping you away from…
M Adamson: Not where I was, no. I think there might have been some of the other staff there who were watching, because the parliamentary draftsmen’s office was immediately next door, and further on there were Country Party room, yep.
E Helgeby: Time for a little break?
M Adamson: It’s time, yep.
E Helgeby: Morrie over the years that you were here, you must have had close dealings with a significant number of staff in Old Parliament House. Any that particularly stand out for you?
M Adamson: Well when I first arrived here, as I said earlier, one of the interviews when I got the job at the Public Works Committee was Ian Emerton who had been a family friend of my — particularly of my fathers from the early 1930s I suppose. I saw quite a bit of him before he retired. Roy Bullock who subsequently became clerk of the Senate, I knew very well from my hockey days. We lived very close to them in Barton at one stage.
And I also knew Doug Blake very well, partly through his naval experience — our naval common experience — he was clerk of the House. And I knew Allan Browning well who then became clerk of the House. I knew him when he was a student at the Canberra High School, it goes back that far. I knew his family quite well, one of his brothers was about the same time at school as I was, got to know him extremely well, he died during the war unfortunately. But those are probably the most prominent ones that come to mind, but there was a lot of people here that I got to know well. Working with them of course, and bear in mind that in my days, and particularly the early days, the number of staff working here was only a fraction of the staff that is about these days.
There were no — members didn’t have office staff here, and they generally were self — in effect self-supporting, although parties had resources which were available, but never on a personal — well, there were no personal staff of ordinary members and senators, it was only the ministerial staff who had staff here, their own staff.
E Helgeby: What about Hansard staff? I know they travelled with you whenever you went out of town.
M Adamson: Yes, I had very — many, many experiences with Hansard staff who I found exceptionally good. They were — I guess they wouldn’t have remained here had they not been good at what they did. Bernie Harris was one that comes to mind, because I’ve seen him in more recent times, but Bob Thompson is another that comes to mind. There was another Harris whose Christian name I can’t bring to mind, but we travelled many times with Hansard staff going interstate and particularly into the Northern Territory where they travelled with us in planes and cars. No, they were excellent I’ve got to say. It’s a service that the parliament ought to be very proud of.
E Helgeby: Some of the committee enquiries that travelled far and wide, the Hansard staff came with you, what were working conditions like for them?
M Adamson: Well pretty much the same as working conditions for me. They were — in the city areas they worked pretty good, if travelling in the country, as I think I’ve said before and I’ve shown you a photograph of the Hansard staff who — had the same sorts of accommodation experiences as I did. Oh no it was — I think generally the Hansard — particularly out of session, out of sitting times, the Hansard staff were delighted to get away and do what they had to do. When the House was sitting, and we didn’t often have public hearings during those times, we certainly couldn’t have a sitting here in Canberra while the House was actually sitting, we could have a Monday or Friday public hearing if necessary. But they were excellent, worked long hours, wouldn’t always be easy to do what they were doing.
E Helgeby: When you travelled, those staff and the committee members, were you accommodated at the same hotels or in the same way?
M Adamson: Oh yes, generally. Generally the same.
E Helgeby: So you would share meals together or…
M Adamson: Oh yes. E Helgeby: And socialise in that sense?
M Adamson: Yes, I remember the first trip we ever did to Darwin, we stayed at the Fannie Bay Hotel, and there was one member of the committee whose name I can’t remember, he like barramundi, and he had barramundi three meals a day. He liked to go to Darwin so that he could eat barramundi, but in those days barramundi was never heard of in retail fish shops down here.
E Helgeby: Were all the committee members and the staff that travelled with them always equally sober and correct in their — or did you have any experience of people who had maybe a bit too much fun?
M Adamson: No, by and large they were all well behaved. If that’s the term [laughs]. No, one or two of them were perhaps not as friendly as others, but by and large they behaved themselves. They were there to do a job, and they were the public face of their electorates of course, so that’s the way it was.
E Helgeby: Certainly the photos you showed me, all very sober looking, all wearing white shirts and ties.
M Adamson: [laughs]…
Interview with Morrie Adamson, part 10
M Adamson: Yes. Oh they enjoyed a drink, don’t get me wrong, and I’ll never forget the day that we had — or two days I think it was, the Aboriginal Affairs Committee was in Darwin, I think we were staying at the Hotel Darwin, and Billy Wentworth insisted on shouting us to dinner in the main dining room. A wonderful man he was, most delightful fellow. But I’m pretty sure he paid for everyone’s meal and all that they drank, but I don’t recall anyone misbehaving in an unparliamentary way [laughs].
E Helgeby: Well that brings us readily onto the next question, which was are there any parliamentarians or staff that you had dealings with that you particularly admired as individuals, or as parliamentary operators?
M Adamson: Well I had the greatest respect for both Fred Chaney and Bert Kelly. They were unbelievably easy to deal with, and enthusiastic and hardworking. They were, most greatest admiration for them. And Harry Jenkins also, for very much the same sorts of reasons. No, they — by and large the members that I dealt with worked hard, they worked very well, every now and again they’d be upset for one reason or another, or they wouldn’t be able to perform as perhaps I expected them to perform, but by and large, in all the experiences I had, I never had — had very rare reasons for doubting their ability or their wish to get on with the job. No, I really had — I think I started off by saying what a wonderful experience with my connections with the parliament, one way or another. Every now and again you wonder whether they were contributing, but by and large I had no reason to complain. Every now and again there’d be an exception to the rule I suppose, but no…
E Helgeby: Well conversely, any that you came not to admire or respect because of the way they operated?
M Adamson: Not really, it’s not that I don’t want to divulge things, but by and large I had a very happy and satisfying experience in this area. Every now and again someone would get onto a bandwagon that really had nothing to do with the matter, and people like Len Bosman, from St George electorate in Sydney, had a pretty blinkered vision about what was required in terms of aircraft, and aircraft matters, and aerodromes and so on. But he was there to represent his electorate, and he pursue that sort of case, and I mean I just admire him for doing what he did, but you know, some of us like aircraft noise as a very touchy matter, particularly around Sydney, but he was very knowledgeable about it.
E Helgeby: During your time working with the committees, were there any times that you were asked to keep information secret or not talk to anybody about it?
M Adamson: No. No, certainly not, no.
E Helgeby: By definition, once they got to a committee they were public?
M Adamson: That’s right.
E Helgeby: Did you ever seek — there were never any closed hearings or meetings of the committee…
M Adamson: No, I don’t know that we were entitled to hold meetings that weren’t — well they had their own private meetings of committees, but public hearings — we never had any hearings that were private, never.
E Helgeby: So evidence was not taken…
M Adamson: In private, no.
E Helgeby: At all…
M Adamson: No.
E Helgeby: In your time, all your years here, did you witness any disturbing incidents, yourself?
M Adamson: No, not that I can recall. I guess there were incidents from time to time that you didn’t expect to happen, or — like the 11th of November 1975. No, I think the answer to that is no, Edward. Maybe if there have been I’ve just dismissed them and forgotten about them. So no, I think that’s the case.
E Helgeby: What about any funny incidents, anything that you can laugh when you think about now?
M Adamson: Yes, well we were doing a — it was a reference about the extension of the accommodation facilities at HMAS Cerberus down on the Port Phillip — Western Port, and we’d gone down there to do an inspection, and we were accommodated — we were in the officer’s mess for lunch, and we’d finished what he had to do, and the cars that — the Commonwealth cars that had taken us down there were still there, and they were ready to take us back to Essendon it was, in those days, and I said ‘well come on fellows, we’ve got to catch this plane,’ or that plane or whatever it was, and I got the drivers to bring the cars up to the front of the officer’s mess there, and we all piled in, and got back to Essendon, and we were one member short. And it was [laughs] Bob Fulton — not Bob Fulton — Fulton he was the member for Leichhardt, and at the time that we were getting in the cars, he was in the toilet. So after we got back to Essendon and found that we were one short, he pulled up — a car pulled up, the navy had turned on a car for him, and brought him up. Yes well that sort of thing didn’t happen very often.
E Helgeby: So you hadn’t done what they do with the school excursions, count heads before you put them all in the car.
M Adamson: Well he didn’t tell me ‘just going to the toilet, wait for me.’ Delightful man, and I got to know him extremely well too. Visited him in Cairns at one stage. Anyway. There was another occasion when we were flying from — going to Alice Springs, and it was at night, and we got a plane which was going to drop us at Alice Springs and then go on to Darwin, and we got out of it at Alice Springs, and went to get our baggage and I picked up my bag, and Senator Dittmer said ‘hey that’s not — that’s my bag,’ and I said ‘no, this is the label on it,’ showed him, and ‘so it is.’ And he said ‘well my bag’s just the same, exactly the same as yours.’ And it was in the plane just going overhead on its way to Darwin.
That’s where his bag was. So for the next two days he just — he stayed pretty much in the clothes that he was standing up in. Yes, it was unfortunate. Yeah there was a couple of other occasions when we were flying in the Norther Territory on RAAF aircraft doing inspections, and Fred Chaney who had been a pilot during the war would every now and again take over the controls of the aircraft, we were generally in a DC-3 — he’d never land it, but he’d just like to get behind the wheel.
E Helgeby: What sort of a pilot was he?
M Adamson: I think he was a very good pilot, he got an Air Force Cross and yeah. One of the very interesting things about the Darwin projects, particularly having had my NCDC experiences, quite a number of the projects that we were involved in, getting services into new suburbs, the new hospital in Darwin, I found very interesting having had that town planning experience here in Canberra beforehand. It was pretty much the same sorts of community interest in what was going on — in particular was the occasion when we were renewing and improving the sewage system for Darwin. Many of the urban problems associated with that, that were much the same sorts of concerns as we had here in Canberra. The extension of the Darwin Dam was also one that came to mind. And I’ll never forget the experience of the Old Parliament House inspections from Mount Ainsley, that was really an eye-opener for some of the members who had never thought of the new building in that context.
E Helgeby: So you drove them up — just took them up there?
M Adamson: Oh we got government cars and just — yeah.
E Helgeby: So none of them had been there before?
M Adamson: Well if they had, they hadn’t admitted it. But they’d never thought about it in quite that context. Yes, it’s a — and I was also — the Black Mountain Tower project was also of great interest to me because a number of the witnesses who were expressing contrary views to the proposal, I’d worked with the NCDC and I could quite understand their point of view. They were opposed to it, but the technical aspect of it overcame any real problem. And I think in the event the Black Mountain Tower is a bit of heritage almost. The other — the one other experience that I really enjoyed was one of the members of the Public Works Committee early on was Billy O’Connor who was member for one of the inner Sydney suburbs, and he’d had — in his youth he’d had a polio experience and was in some ways quite disabled.
And every now and again, and particularly if we were going to the Northern Territory, the departmental transport officer, one Gordon Pike, would come along to provide manual support to him — physical support to help him over this that and the other thing. And Billy O’Connor was a delightful fellow, always very helpful. At one stage he was vice-chairman in the days when the Liberal Party was in the chair. But — and the deputy was always a Labour man, and he quite often was the deputy. I don’t recall him ever having to fulfil the chairman’s job, but he was — I found him a very pleasant man, and he was very inquisitive about the things that he was knowledgeable about. But the experiences in the Northern Territory, taking Gordon Pike with us, was — from Gordon’s point of view it was a, in effect, reward for the long hours of work that he’d done in arranging our transport, because it was often fairly complicated, members coming from different parts of the country to a common place or for public hearings and that sort of thing, but he was a wonderful support to Mr O’Connor, Billy O’Connor.
E Helgeby: In all your dealings with these individuals, can you remember — would any one of them be described as a good yarn teller, or story teller?
M Adamson: [laughs] yes it’s a good question. George Branson, senator from Western Australia, was always a good conversationalist, I got to know him pretty well. He — when he came to Canberra he rented a unit at Pearce, would you believe, not far from where I was living. I used to see him leave, every now and again. He had a delightful girlfriend. I suspect he was Japanese POW during the war, but I don’t know now whether that’s true or not. He’s in that photograph taken at the old Canberra Hospital. Just to go back a step, the story about the hospital in Darwin, it followed on from the reference on the Woden Valley Hospital here, and it was the same floor plan, the same architectural engineering services — precisely the same. It save the Department of Works a mint of money being able to do that. If you go to Darwin and see the hospital there it’s like the original Woden Valley Hospital, and that’s the reason.
E Helgeby: And the committee was happy with that?
M Adamson: Oh yes, yes. It was a brick building, and the old Darwin Hospital was an old weatherboard place. Yes.
E Helgeby: What would you say would be your fondest memory of your time at Old Parliament House?
M Adamson: Taken over a period, I suspect that one, my experiences with the Public Works Committee, I found it fascinating. It was with great reluctance that I sought this job in PM&C at the time. I’d had eight years and a promotion since, I wasn’t going anywhere. The other time was my experiences working with the speaker. It was a wonderful experience, working for, I think one of the best speakers we’ve ever had. That’s quite apart from dealing with the administrative matters that I was dealing with on his behalf, but he was very easy to deal with. As I say, I got to know him very well, I got to know his family well, and in fact in recent times I visited the new speaker here, just to say hello and to enquire about how his mother is. Oh no it’s a — in fact I’ve visited them in Melbourne, and they visited us here in Canberra at other times. I don’t know, those sorts of relationships have come out of my work experience here, and I can’t imagine them happening quite like that in any other public service area.
E Helgeby: And the personal contact, and the personal relationships that evolved over time with the various people that you met.
M Adamson: Yes, oh yes.
E Helgeby: If we then go to the other extreme, what would you regard as your worst experience, or your worst memory of the years you spent here?
M Adamson: It’s hard to recall those experiences. I guess in many ways, 20 or 30 or 40 years, you tend to put them to one side and forget about them. There wouldn’t be too many Edward that I’d — in a functional sense I suppose the difficult of getting a report tabled in 1975 was one of the most difficult experiences I had. I can’t really recall any particular matters that are worthy of mention in that category.
E Helgeby: You had a charmed life in this building.
M Adamson: In a sense, I have. And looking back on it, it’s a work experience that — you couldn’t expect to have anywhere else. Working in the public service generally. And at the time, working in Prime Minister and Cabinet, dealing with all the fuss about administrative arrangements orders, it was a frustrating time, we just — the effort seemed so pointless at the time, and you’d come into work the next morning and yeah ‘well we’ve got to fix this up,’ there was always something that needed to be adjusted. I suppose that it was just one of those things, that because of the political turmoil at the time, or the aftermath of it, yeah.
E Helgeby: Morrie, can we break here?
M Adamson: Yeah.
E Helgeby: The remaining things that I want to talk to you about relate to retirement and leaving, and the aftermath of that. Which I would prefer to leave to another session.
M Adamson: Alright, it’s fine.
E Helgeby: Thanks.
Interview with Morrie Adamson, part 11
E Helgeby: This is 28 October, and I’m continuing the interview with Morrie Adamson.
Morrie you mentioned that there were a few things that you wanted to add after the last session.
M Adamson: Yes, thankyou Edward. There were three things. The first one was that in my role as senior parliamentary officer to the committees, I made a small contribution to the architect’s brief for the new Parliament House. The competition of the architects, for the choice of the architects for the new building took place, I believe, 1979 or late 1980. And when the 300 odd entries had been reduced to five, they had a lock-up one weekend in the Senate committee room, where parliamentary officers were invited to — not only invited, but asked to contribute their views on their interests in the new building. It was quite an occasion, there must have been 20 to 30 officers there who viewed various plans for the new building, and I was one of those, looking particular at the House of Reps committee space. The second thing I wanted to mention was, that I believe it was in 1980 or ’81, the department had and O&M officer from I presume the Public Service Board going through the department and making recommendations about how the administration might be improved.
When he left — his name was Bryan Harvey — when he left, I filled the office of clerk administration I suppose, for want of a better term, for a matter of three or four months, during which time the House of Reps Estimates Committee was operating and I accompanied Mr Sneddon as I think he was then, to the committee, to help him answer questions on the operation of the House. The third thing was to mention that as an officer of the parliament I was privilege to be able to, in my time off, to be able to use the sporting facilities available. Including the tennis courts on the Senate side, the bowls squares on the House of Reps side, and in my particular case I made great use of the squash courts which were located in the corner of the House of Reps garden, closest to East Block. I made considerable use of those. I brought friends along to play squash against, but it was a great amenity from my point of view.
E Helgeby: When were those squash courts built — can you recall?
M Adamson: I would believe that they were built in the mid-1970s. They were demolished of course when the annex which was — the office annex which was in the House of Reps garden at one stage — were demolished to make way for — to completely get rid of other buildings in the House of Reps gardens.
E Helgeby: Some folk law says it was Billy McMahon who initiated the building of the squash courts since he was a very keen squash player.
M Adamson: I think that’s right, yes.
E Helgeby: Well we last — I think we had got up to early 1986 when at age 59 you decided to retire. What led you to that decision at that time?
M Adamson: Well the principal reason was that the speaker, Dr Harry Jenkins, was about to retire around about that time, and we had an agreement of sorts I suppose. When I first took up the job as his senior private secretary that I would serve at least 12 months with him to maximise the superannuation benefits from the fairly considerable allowance that I got, because I was in that position. At that time he didn’t really have a firm idea about when he was planning to retire, but towards the end of 1985 it became clear to him that he wanted to retire early in 1986, and we got together and in effect came to an agreement that about the time he’d retire, I’d retire also. It suited me down to the ground. I didn’t want particularly to come back into the committee office of the House of Reps, and so it was, they say, a convenient time for me to retire.
E Helgeby: How did you feel about your retirement?
M Adamson: Well I had quite a number of interests in the community that I was wanting to pursue, and I was quite happy to retire at that time.
E Helgeby: And some months after you retired an article appeared in the Canberra Times on the 16th of March 1986 to be precise, by Kerry Coyle the public service writer, in which you expressed some fairly strong views on various aspects on the administration of parliament. I wonder if I might quote from this article and ask you to comment, and expand, or perhaps explain the background of your views as we go on?
M Adamson: I might perhaps explain that the 16th of March was a couple of days before my wife and I went on a 4 months trip to the UK, and it was convenient from my point of view to not be in Canberra at the time. I came to an agreement of sorts with Kerry Coyle about when this article would appear in the Canberra Times and I was fortunate in that I was overseas.
E Helgeby: Well take the first statement in the article, you’re quoted as expressing the view that ‘the administration of the national parliament was inefficient and certainly wasteful.’
M Adamson: Well I think it became quite evident to me, working with the speaker, and then jointly with the speaker and the president that the three departments — the three service departments were overstaffed, to the extent that they had administrative staff there that had no functional position in their various departments. And all those three departments could well be administered by a permanent head with three branches in a department which would ensure that their functions would be provided for, and attended to, and the staffing of them would carried out as required. It seemed a nonsense to me, and I think I shared this view with one or two others that the best way of handling it would be to have a single departmental head with three — an administrative department with three branches.
E Helgeby: Yes, you’re quoted here as saying, ‘watertight case for joining the three service departments.’
M Adamson: Well I believe there was. One of the problems was of course that the heads of each of the groups had a leg-in, I suppose, in maintaining their single department arrangement. They had no-one breathing down their neck about what they should or shouldn’t do, except when they made submissions to the presiding officers. And if need be they could exercise a bit of political clout to ensure that they continued to operate that way. I believe that the future events which brought this about in 19 — 2003, just demonstrated the strength of the argument.
E Helgeby: So at the time, in 1986, you were also quoted as saying you ‘rather suspect the question of loyalty,’ you referred to ‘departmental loyalties,’ and of ‘protecting your own corner, your own little empire.’
M Adamson: That’s in effect what I’m saying. The heads of each of these departments at the time just wanted to protect their bailiwick. They were happy with the way they were able to do what they wanted to do, and with in effect no supervision. But it was wasteful to the extent that they had administrative staff to help them in the process, and administrative staff which if they were in one department they wouldn’t require.
E Helgeby: Who were these departments responsible to?
M Adamson: Well the Parliamentary Library was responsible to the parliamentary librarian, the services provided by Joint House were under the surveillance of the secretary of the Joint House Department, and the parliamentary reporting staff was supervised, in effect, by the principal parliamentary reporter.
E Helgeby: And they were, again, responsible to who within the parliamentary structure?
M Adamson: Individually they were responsible to the speaker and the president of the Senate.
E Helgeby: And did the speaker or the president, did they exercise any supervision over these departments? You mentioned loyalty and also departments being able to enlist the support of politicians to be able to exert pressure, on the maintenance of the existing structure.
M Adamson: I think the president and the speaker perhaps saw that sooner or later an amalgamation of the three of them into the one department would happen, but the three departments — the heads of the three departments were responsible to — for the actions of the departments, to jointly the speaker and the president.
E Helgeby: And there was no — in your time there was no pressure or views expressed by either the speaker or the president to rationalise…
M Adamson: I think the speaker had some sympathy with my point of view, but we didn’t talk to great length. It was something that was at the back of the speaker’s mind I know, but he wasn’t prepared to take it on at that stage.
E Helgeby: Then another issue that you raised was the parliamentary behaviour, or the behaviour of politicians within parliament.
M Adamson: Well it’s been like that for decades. The 1980s — ’70s and ’80s weren’t really any different to what’s been happening now, except that I’ve got to say that I think in those days, with a smaller building, and with members’ offices scattered through the building, some joint, next to members not of their own party, there was quite a bit more rapport between members of opposing parties than perhaps there is today in the new building. I think — for that reason I think this building works quite a bit better than the new building because of the separation that occurs there. People meet — in this building people met in the members’ dining room, the members’ bar, in the library which was fairly small. In King’s Hall, and in the corridors going to and from the Chamber. That doesn’t quite occur in quite the same way in the new building.
E Helgeby: You also expressed a view that, and I quote, ‘deplored the heated, personal exchanges on the floor of the House.’
M Adamson: Well the two members that I mentioned were renowned for their — the nature of their language, which I don’t think — I think the animosity which came through, and came through in their speeches and their comments on the other member were probably fairly genuine. But it’s quite deplorable. The members weren’t elected to this parliament for this purpose.
E Helgeby: Do you feel that the behaviour has changed much since then, or is it much the same?
M Adamson: I’m not really in a position to answer that question, but I suspect that it happens, perhaps in not quite such an open way as the case I’ve mentioned.
E Helgeby: Yes, you mentioned Mr Keating, who was the treasurer, and Wilson Tuckey, a Liberal backbencher.
M Adamson: Well Wilson Tuckey was well known for his heated language, which I deplored, it was quite unnecessary.
E Helgeby: Are you also — and I’d like to read this, and I quote, ‘abusing people, using questionable and in my view, unparliamentary language, calling people sleazebags, that sort of thing does nothing for the institution.’ M Adamson: Well I agree with that entirely, I mean I think it’s quite deplorable, and I think it offends people who are watching it, who are in the galleries watching it.
E Helgeby: Since you left parliament, have you ever sat in on a Question Time yourself?
M Adamson: Oh once or twice, yes.
E Helgeby: What was your impression, as a visitor?
M Adamson: I think that on the occasions I was here the language was quite moderate. No I think those two particular people had a relationship which probably brought that sort of language out. I don’t know that — I wouldn’t know if there were people in that situation in present day.
E Helgeby: Another point that you make very strongly is your concerns about the role of executive vis-à-vis the parliament.
M Adamson: Well I don’t believe the executive has a right to have accommodation in the parliamentary building. I believed that the Cabinet office ought to be in quite a separate building not connected with the parliament. The fact that in this building the Cabinet room is where it was, came about really as a product of World War Two. I’m not sure that I’m correct in saying this, but I believe that until the war, Cabinet met elsewhere than in Canberra. They would perhaps come here occasionally, but they wouldn’t meet in this building. And ministers’ offices, such as they were, were in the departments that were here. And one of the problems of World War Two of course was that War Cabinet had to be able to meet when they were required to meet, it might be in an emergency situation to make a decision about an event, and it was very convenient for them to meet in this building. And I think it was out of that, as much as anything, that the Cabinet office — that the Cabinet room was provided.
E Helgeby: Do you see the physical location or presence of ministers and Cabinet in this building as in a sense having a dominating effect on the operations of parliament?
M Adamson: Yes, I certainly do. And it certainly marked in the new building. The fact that there’s a Cabinet wing in the same building, I think is inexcusable. If you go to London for example, the Cabinet is accommodated outside of Westminster. If you go to Washington it’s locate outside of Congress. And one of the products of locating the executive in same building is that — in the same building as the parliament, is that the executive tends to run the parliament, whether you like it or not. The ministers are there, the program of the parliament is largely dictated to by the executive.
E Helgeby: You also mentioned that you believe, in a sense, that the will of the people is affected by the way parliament was operating. You talk about ‘the will of the elected representatives of the people are not always taken into account when a government makes a decision on a whole range of matters.’
M Adamson: Yes, that’s right. Because Cabinet is there, who make decisions on government actions, the rights of — not perhaps the rights, but the ability of members to convey to the parliament the views of their electors, is prejudiced.
E Helgeby: In which way? Can you give an example — through pressure, or simply through mere presence?
M Adamson: Well one of the things that — well for example, in the new building the original site for the new building was to be on the lake, between the library — where the National Library is now, and the High Court. But towards the end of the ’70s when the matter of the new building was being considered, as I understand it Malcolm Fraser, who was prime minister at the time is believed to have put forward the opinion that the lakeside wasn’t the place for the new Parliament House, it ought to be on the top of the hill. And the philosophy behind the choice of the lakeside was that the parliament building, because it’s a house of the people, should be down among the people, and Fraser’s decision — or influence to change the site, to put it on the top of the hill, changed that — his philosophy was that we should be looking down at the people, rather than being down among the people, that was the views of some of the people who didn’t agree with the change in location.
E Helgeby: So that was expressed by politicians that you came across?
M Adamson: By planners in particular, and I think one or two members expressed the same point of view. But there was no point in them differing with the decision, that decision was made in effect by the executive.
E Helgeby: So the actual location — you feel that it was the executive that made the decision to locate parliament where it is now?
M Adamson: Oh yes.
E Helgeby: Rather than a parliamentary decision.
M Adamson: Yes, I believe so. I believe that to be the case.
E Helgeby: Yet there was a committee recommending a different site, was there not?
M Adamson: Well the National Capital Development Commission which was in charge of planning in the parliamentary triangle, engaged Sir William Holford, later Lord Holford, to move the elementary planning of the parliamentary triangle. And his report, or his views made known in the paper early in the ’60s located the Parliament House on the lakeside. And his philosophy was quite clear: the parliament is a house of the people, and it ought to be down among the people. But that was changed, as I believe it, by the executive led by Malcolm Fraser in those days.
E Helgeby: Is that really — is that in any sense — another point you make in this article about the development of a broader committee system for parliament and a reassessment of their priorities and their roles, I suppose.
M Adamson: Well I’m not too sure quite what I meant by that, but I rather suspect that I wanted the parliament to have a greater say in the way that parliament was conducted. And perhaps have a look at the constitution of — and the way that the parliament is elected, and including things like fixed terms, four year terms, that sort of thing. Have a look at the question of states’ rights, how well various areas of the country are represented. The territories for example are poorly represented in relation to the states, but not only in the Senate but in the House of Reps. That sort of thing.
E Helgeby: Now I wonder, your comments relate to, in a sense, the Westminster model which is based on the principle of a government dominating parliament, simply through having a majority in the lower house.
M Adamson: Well I think that’s — that concept is set in concrete. By and large I think it’s working reasonably well.
E Helgeby: But the executive arm of government that comes out of that principle, you feel it’s taken that role, it’s become much stronger over time and it now dominates.
M Adamson: I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. And some people might say that it started from the time that they decided to put — allow Cabinet to meet in this building.
E Helgeby: Were there any other points in that article that you recall that you’d like to mention again today?
M Adamson: No, I don’t think so. No I think that’s about it.
E Helgeby: There have been — coming back to our issue of rationalisation of joining the departments — in 2003 there was again an article in the Canberra Times on the 14th of August which is headed ‘Fifth Time Lucky for Department Merger.’ By Veronica Burgess, the public service reporter, which reports that finally the departments were to be merged into three departments as you had mentioned in that article from ’86. The article also mentions that there had been attempts in 1977, 1980, 1988, and 1996, all of which had failed to achieve that goal.
M Adamson: Well I — there was no attempt in my time. I certainly raised the matter and discussed it with the speaker, he wasn’t prepared at that time to take it any further. I was unaware of the efforts in 1977 and 1980, but certainly the matter had been talked about from time to time.
E Helgeby: And the outcome of this final review in 2003, did it meet your expectations, and your hopes?
M Adamson: Oh yes it did, yes it did. I think the current arrangement with the Parliamentary Services Department is pretty much what I expected it would be. I think the comment about the way the library is handled, I think it’s a little different from what I had in mind. But I think all those departments have profited by what’s happened. They’re able to operate in a far more efficient way. They’ve got the access to the parliament, the speaker and the president, when they need, and I think the services that they provide, provided by the new department, meets their needs quite admirably.
E Helgeby: So your feelings when you read this article, or when you found out about this?
M Adamson: I said ‘hurray.’
E Helgeby: That was a long — obviously a long journey to get to this point.
M Adamson: Yes, it was.
E Helgeby: Did you get any sense of what had finally managed — how Andrew Podger who I understand was the one who conducted the review that led to this — how he finally managed to achieve this result.
M Adamson: I’ve got no idea, got no idea. I suspect that the functions of the Joint House Department as they were in this building, covering the servicing of the building — the engineering services — the catering services, all became a lot more than could be handled singly by one department, but I don’t know, it’s… E Helgeby: Well, anything else you’d like to add on this topic?
M Adamson: No, not on that particular topic. But I’d say my views on the role of the executive — I think they’re shared by quite a lot of parliamentary people. Because of the influence of the executive on their functions.
E Helgeby: And you hold the same views today as you did back then in 1986?
M Adamson: Oh indeed. In fact I think after the last government, the one before this, it showed me how sensible it would be if the executive could be run outside of this building, or these buildings, the parliamentary buildings.
E Helgeby: You’ve already mentioned some of this before, but I’d like to seek again your thoughts and feelings about your years at Old Parliament House.
M Adamson: I’ve had a wonderful time in this building. It was far more than what I expected when I came here in the first place. It was for me a very satisfying place to work. I’d never really thought a great deal about my relationship with politicians. I really — I think I’ve already said it, by and large I got on pretty well with politicians in the role I had to play. I had no, or very few occasions when I felt uncomfortable, and to be able to work with the speaker in the last 18 months or so of my time, working for the parliament, was one of the most satisfying periods of my employment. It was a very interesting life, it was pretty onerous at time, hard work. It had — I was going to say it had an effect on the family, it’s not true to say that, no, they cooperated very readily in what I was doing, but it was a very satisfying period and I couldn’t have had 22 years of that sort of work — couldn’t have thought of those years worked in quite such the same light as I had. It was a wonderful time, really it was.
E Helgeby: In that 1986 interview you’re quoting as saying that working with the speaker was the ‘high-note’ of your career.
M Adamson: I’d say that again, yes it was. He was a wonderful man to work for, we had — I said earlier, we had a number of personal interests which coincided. He was always pleasant to me, he was easy to work for, and I really couldn’t have asked for a more pleasant way to exit my working life. And as I said before, I established a relationship with — well my wife and I established a relationship with Dr Jenkins and his wife, and we found that a very enlightening experience too.
E Helgeby: Did you keep in touch with him after you retired?
M Adamson: Oh yes. He died four or five years ago, I was at his funeral. Oh yes. It was that sort of a relationship. And I suspect perhaps a little bit rare to be able to establish that sort of a relationship. Because we first got together in the middle ’70s when he was on the Environment Committee, so we had a fairly long acquaintance which just became so much more important and enlightening in my time on his staff. And I believe he was a very good speaker.
E Helgeby: And did you meet his son, who’s now the speaker?
M Adamson: Oh yes, I came here to Question Time with the retirement village group that I’m with three months ago. And I spoke to the clerk, and after that and said ‘could I come along and say hello to the new speaker?’ Mister Harry Jenkins, not Doctor. And ‘yes,’ so I came in one day and I met both of them, and I had half an hour. And I knew him before, he succeeded his father in the Scullin electorate when Dr Jenkins retired, and Harry had been there for, well 22 years. E Helgeby: Tell me, what role do you believe this building continues to have today?
M Adamson: I’m absolutely delighted that the report of the committee of the New Parliament House, or the sub-committee, has been adopted. First of all to maintain the building, it was unfortunate that it wasn’t particularly well maintained for a period of four of five years, until it was opened as, in effect, a museum, and I believe it has that role now, and I hope that it continues to have that role.
E Helgeby: The word ‘democracy,’ has different meanings for different people and different countries. What does the word mean for you today?
M Adamson: Well for me, ‘democracy,’ is…
Interview with Morrie Adamson, part 12
M Adamson: …the ideal of government by the people for the people. And for people who are represented by members whom they elect. It’s a form of society which ignores heraldry, class distinction, but tolerates minority views. To me that’s democracy, and I believe that in our expression of democracy in this country is, as I said earlier today, it’s somewhat prejudiced by the way the executive imposes itself on the people who elect it by virtue of the democratic process.
E Helgeby: Do you think your views on democracy changed over the years that you worked here? Or did you have the same views for example, about the role of the executive vis-à-vis parliament even before you started here?
M Adamson: I don’t think my views have changed very much, I accept that the position of the executive vis-à-vis the parliament has changed, particularly because of events in the last 20 odd years. And I think the new building has quite a bit to do with that. I think because of the size of the building, and the fact that the executive is well established there, and because it is, and imposes its will to an extent on the operations of the parliament. Which is the manifestation of the democratic process. Now for example, in the new building, the library was to be on the same floor as the chambers, in the original design. But the prime minister at the time, decided that it was more important for the ministers to have access to the cabinet room, and to the library, so — and the purpose of the library being on that same floor was to enable members, if they needed to bash into the library or establish a point, or get some information — it was accessible. Unfortunately the library finished up on the first floor, above the chambers. And that was a decision taken by the executive.
E Helgeby: So in light of your concerns about the role of the executive, do you think democracy as you defined it in this country is threatened in any way by the executive?
M Adamson: I wouldn’t say it’s threatened, but it’s certainly impaired. Yes. I really do, it’s unfortunate. The other point about the new building of course, is that all the members on one party have their offices in the one area, and they don’t interface with members on the other side, except perhaps when they meet them in the chamber, or I don’t know, maybe in the dining room. And that’s one of the unfortunate things about it. One of the best things about this building was, they were all mixed up, and whether they liked it or not. A Liberal member might have a Labor member in the next office. In fact there might be two or three Labor members around him, but he couldn’t do anything about it. So he had to make the most of it. The other thing is that ministers didn’t have their staff. They might have one staff member, maybe two staff members, but that was all. He wasn’t supported by departmental offices, except in a minor way. Where he is now, he’s got a whole set up, a whole office, research office, and assistants and advisers. It’s a small village.
E Helgeby: Some years after you retired you came back to Old Parliament House as a guide — what led you to take up that role?
M Adamson: Well having drafted the report on the use of this building, I couldn’t not come back here. I had an affection for the building, and it was as simple as that. When it first opened up I thought, ‘well why shouldn’t I?’ Yeah it was a rather enjoyable experience.
E Helgeby: How many years did you do that?
M Adamson: Well I had a medical problem which — about the end of the first year, and I didn’t ever come back. But oh no it was good to see the place gradually being opened up. In those days virtually the only places opened up were where the library was, and rooms along the front of the building along the main floor. Of course things have changed since then.
E Helgeby: And are there any last points or thoughts you’d like to make before we close the interview?
M Adamson: Well as I said, I had a most — from my point of view, had a most satisfying time working in this building. I couldn’t have imagined my working life finishing on such a high note anyway, and as I say, I had a very satisfying but pleasant time, by and large, working here. I certainly earned my keep, as I say, I believe — some people mightn’t agree — but no, it was just — for me it was a perfect way to finish the last 20 years of my working life.
E Helgeby: Well if there are any additional thoughts in hindsight or comments you’d like to make later, after we finish today, just let us know and we’ll set up another interview session to take care of those additional comments. But in the meantime, on behalf of the chief general manager of Old Parliament House, I’d like to thank you again for your willingness to participate and your contribution to this interview.
M Adamson: Thank you Edward, it’s been a delight to be able to come here and unload, as it were. Thank you for having me.
This history has multiple parts.1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
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