Rob Chalmers (1929-2011)
Rob Chalmers, the Press Gallery’s longest serving journalist, explains why the Rose Garden annexe for parliamentarians was built in the 1980s and how Prime Minister Bob Hawke saved the day for the Press Gallery.
Interview with Rob Chalmers
T Duffy: This is an interview with Rob Chalmers, who spent many years in the Old Parliamentary press gallery, producing a weekly information sheet called Inside Canberra. Interviewer is Tony Duffy. Welcome to Old Parliament House Rob.
R Chalmers: Thank you Tony.
T Duffy: Just what were the conditions like in the gallery in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, pretty appalling weren’t they?
R Chalmers: Well I came here in 1951 with the old Sydney Daily Mirror. Kevin Power was the head of bureau then. I don’t know whether I’d say appalling, they were very tight, very tight for everybody, not only the gallery but members and ministers. Ministers’ rooms were minuscule compared to what they are now.
But when I came here in 1951 with Chifley sitting in the chair of the Leader of the Opposition, I came with the Sydney Daily Mirror, and later I moved to the Sydney Sun under the great and famous Alan Reid, before I moved into–around ‘57 with Don Whitington, who was the founder of Inside Canberra.
In those days, I think the important thing to remember about the old days as compared to the new days, is that all news virtually was through the printed word. We had no TV of course until the ’60s and the ’50s, and up until then–really, right up until we entered the new Parliament House, the printed word was still fairly much the dominant issue. But once we got into the new Parliament House, TV really took over. It took over politics as well, which I might mention later.
T Duffy: Yeah, sure. It was the advent really wasn’t it really of ENG–electronic news gathering–that made the conditions here become even more impossibly crowded.
R Chalmers: Well that’s true, because the politicians were very keen on TV [LAUGHS] they all wanted to get on TV. So there was a great effort to provide them with space, and space was at an absolute premium. So we were more and more squeezed, and that’s why subsequently temporary sort of buildings, or shanties you could almost say, were put up on the roof which–in one instance, housed the whole of the Sydney Morning Herald, Age, Fin Review–the whole of Fairfax went out onto the roof. But they had hardly any studio space really until they got up into the new House.
But a story must be told of the reason why the old–the annex for members was built out in the rose garden on the House of Representatives side. What happened early in the first term of the Hawke Government after the ‘83 election, was that Hawke and the then leader of the National Party Doug Anthony, did a backroom deal with increase the numbers of members in the House, because Anthony realised that while the Senate remained at 10, the size of the House was fixed, and there would be a gradual erosion of country seats. So they did a deal to increase the size of the Senate to 12 from each state, and this allowed about an extra 24 members of the Lower House. But where to accommodate them?
Well, the Labor Speaker and the President at the time thought oh well, members have got to have a priority over the press gallery, we’ll move the press gallery to the old Hotel Canberra, then vacant, and occupied by other bureaucrats. This seemed a fine idea, until Peter Baron, the Prime Minister’s political advisor at the time, got wind of it, rushed to Bob Hawke and told him what was in view, that they were going to kick the–the Speaker and the President was going to kick the press gallery out of the Parliament, whereupon Hawke absolutely blew his top, and among other things told the Speaker and the President that they’d be out of a job pretty soon unless things were changed.
Hence, they built the annex out in the rose garden near the tennis courts, and they put the extra members in there, not the press gallery. In other words, the members ran second to the press gallery when it came to the pecking order in the Prime Minister’s mind.
T Duffy: The change came very quickly didn’t it, because I can remember when I first started contributing to the ABC, we had to do our Saturday night stuff from here. And how it changed over the few years, you’d come in then and it was half dead, a few people having a beer or watching TV. And I used to have to type it out on half a sheet to a par you know and I’d put it in that little hatch into the room there.
After about three weeks a bloke phoned me from Sydney and said where the hell’s your bloody copy getting? I said well I put it in. He said did you put a couple of cans of Tooheys on it? I said no. He said until you do, you won’t get your bloody copy through. [LAUGHS] So two cans of Tooheys on top of the half page, and the hand will come out and it would get in. But that’s…
R Chalmers: Well things certainly have changed to an enormous extent. For instance, in the ’50s and ’60s, the Parliament was supreme in the sense that the public looked to the Parliament for information, question time et cetera. And the newspapers of the day all had their own separate bureaux up here in the old press gallery, and the affairs of the Parliament, debates et cetera, were extensively covered. I remember on the old Daily Mirror, an afternoon newspaper, question time didn’t start until 3 o’clock in the afternoon, but it was nothing for us to get five or six or seven stories from question time into the late edition of the Mirror, which hit the press in Sydney at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon.
Now, another point for instance, motions of no confidence moved by an opposition against a government then was treated with enormous respect. It was regarded as a matter of great moment. I remember several motions of no confidence that were moved against Menzies, and the debate went for a couple of days. Taken with great seriousness and filled up columns and columns in the paper. These days, a motion of no confidence–there’s two speakers from both sides generally and the debate’s gagged and that’s the end of it, because it’s not on TV and TV, politicians from all sides regard as far, far more important than debates and question times in the House.
T Duffy: So it changed terribly didn’t it in those few years.
R Chalmers: Yes.
T Duffy: It was on the way to change before the move up the hill took place.
R Chalmers: That’s right, but when they got up the hill and were able to have commodious TV studios and had the ability to have direct and instantaneous press conferences beamed all over Australia–which they didn’t have here. The press conference then became, and still is in the minds of governments of the day and oppositions of the day, far more important than making a speech in the Parliament.
T Duffy: Yeah the whole conception of reporting changed in that few short years.
R Chalmers: It did, it did.
T Duffy: With ENG and the greater television coverage. Question Time started about then didn’t it, just before they left here, being televised?
R Chalmers: Yes, I’m not sure–no you’ve got me there. I’ve got an idea it wasn’t until they moved up the hill that it was televised.
T Duffy: Yeah my daughter-in-law’s father was a technician, he was the technical officer down in the Reps.
R Chalmers: Well he’d know.
T Duffy: It seems a great shame, as we said about the old units, but people come here now–I was talking to Barry Cohen a few weeks ago, he said it’s still got the ethos and the feel of the place.
R Chalmers: Yeah.
T Duffy: He said up there, you could be walking through an Egyptian sarcophagus, you wouldn’t hear or see anybody.
R Chalmers: Well look this is absolutely right, and it’s worth recording, because I spent from ‘51 till ‘88 in this building, before we moved up to the other building. Despite the difficulties of working, I’d much prefer to have remained in this building, for the reason it was far more intimate. If you stood in Kings Hall for a few hours, you’d see just about half the Cabinet at some stage cross the hall. Sometimes you’d see Menzies padding gently across the slippery slope of Kings Hall to go into the library and have a look at the papers.
We were all mixed up into one–I wouldn’t say happy family–but one big family, and the absolute centre of all activity of course was the non-members bar.
T Duffy: Yeah absolutely.
R Chalmers: When the house got up, that’s where all the socialising, gossiping and what have you took place. Whereas up at the new Parliament House, Malcolm Fraser made sure that there was a central wing, a single wing for the administration. And the ministers are separated from the main building in their own set of offices. And in the press gallery, you only run into a minister these days or an Opposition figure, if they’re wandering down the corridor of the gallery to do a television or radio interview somewhere. You don’t run into them in the members hall as you used to in Kings Hall, so all that’s changed.
T Duffy: Yeah, well Peter Harvey was through here a few weeks ago and I got onto him, the next time he comes to Canberra I want to get him, because he said that down in the non-members bar in the latter years, you could start a bloody rumour down there, run like buggery and it would meet you coming in the front door [LAUGHS]. He also said we don’t have Mungo McCallum falling off his stool backwards.
R Chalmers: No. Well the other thing to say about the ’50s/’60s and right up until Whitlam I suppose, is that yeah, we were all pretty laid back. There wasn’t a hell of a lot of work going on, particularly in the Menzies’ years because Menzies very shrewdly decided that as the economy was going along very nicely, he didn’t need to do much. And very wisely, he didn’t, except he garnered votes of course with the Cold War threat of communism and all the rest of it. But that was the biggest story of the ’50s, not what the Government was doing, but what the Labor Party was doing with the big split.
So you know, it was all pretty laid back, and we didn’t work all that desperately hard, although we covered the parliament efficiently and so on. There weren’t many leaks from the cabinet, apart from the fact that cabinet didn’t make a lot of decisions, there weren’t many leaks, and not many leaks from the party room. But I mean these days the Prime Minister comes out of cabinet and tells you what cabinet has decided–if it’s favourable to them of course.
T Duffy: Yeah. Up in the new place you don’t get any characters like say Bluey Thompson, and people like that wandering around the place. Bluey and dear old Fred Daley. Fred when we first reopened used to haunt Kings Hall, and you could get so many little stories out of him, and my greatest regret was we never got him on tape.
R Chalmers: Well most of the characters, there are very few what one would call interesting, colourful characters in the Parliament, because the old brigade, particularly on the Labor side of the horny-handed former unionist that got into Parliament, are not there. I mean there’s plenty of ex-unionists, but they are all PhDs or they’ve certainly got degrees. They’re all in blue suits and take themselves very seriously, and there’s not much fun anymore in the Parliament. And of course Howard’s no great humourist. So it’s a pretty dull place.
T Duffy: I’ve been up there a few times when Hawke was there, and rather than the Lodge which got a bit small, his pre-cricket match drinks there. And it was rather like drinking in a mausoleum, because it was one of those marble corridors there’s no atmosphere. But up in the old garden, up at the House you used to get a bit of that.
R Chalmers: Yeah that’s right.
T Duffy: My youngest son works up at the House, and he was saying–I said to him there’s no atmosphere, he said it’s like walking through a graveyard sometimes. He said you wouldn’t realise that Parliament was sitting.
R Chalmers: The only interesting place really in the new Parliament is the press gallery. That’s where there’s action and people moving. There’s a lot to cover. I mean there’s a lot more to cover now than there was in the ’50s/’60s. The expansion of Commonwealth power and responsibilities has been enormous. But quite frankly, the press gallery–although it looks large, it’s still not really large enough to keep tabs on particularly the Government departments. There’s not much work done about government departments from the press gallery’s point of view, although thank God we’ve got the Senate estimates committees. This has been one of–in my view–one of the greatest things that’s happened to the Parliament. But the Senate has now got the–fortunately because the Government’s never likely to get a majority in the Senate, of either government colour–it’s never likely to get a majority. So the Senate can, and does, conduct some very good probing of what the bureaucracy is doing, which didn’t happen in the Menzies era and the Gorton era.
T Duffy: No. Menzies was a more or less, a figure–if you expect anyone to haunt this chamber, it would be Menzies wouldn’t it.
R Chalmers: Oh most certainly, oh yeah. I mean he was a dominating political figure, and–but of course, it’s not my job here to go into a big dissertation about Menzies, but it’s got to be remembered that his long run was due to the split in the Labor Party. But give him his due, he had a lot to do with creating that split.
T Duffy: Yes. After question time in the old days here, that was free go, if members and people wanted to come out and talk to the press wasn’t it?
R Chalmers: Yeah, look the building was completely open, I mean there was no security whatsoever. I remember in the ’50s when Harold Holt was immigration minister, Ezra Norton, the then owner of the Sydney Daily Mirror was an arch racist, and he was forever sending messages via the old telex up to Canberra, that he’d discovered some Chinese cook in a Chinese restaurant in Hay Street in Sydney who’s name was whatever, and he should be kicked out. Go and ask Harold Holt the immigration minister to look into this and kick him out. I spent a lot of time with Harold Holt, that’s why I got to know him very well.
But you could wander into a minister’s suite at lunch time, look round, call out anybody home, oh no well you’d walk out again. I mean it was completely and utterly open. Unlike today.
And just on the subject of censorship and what a family we were, this didn’t happen in my day but just before my day I’m told, that Ben Chifley used to walk when he was Prime Minister, would walk from here to Kurrajong, even in the bitterest winter nights. One night about 11 or so o’clock, Jack Alsop and Les Teece from then, AUP came out of the building and were about to get into Les’ car to drive home when Chifley came through the door to walk to Kurrajong. Would you like a lift PM they said. Oh thanks boys, it’s a fairly cold night, so they emptied the beer bottles and stuff out of the car and Chifley got into the front seat and it wouldn’t start. So Jack said, PM would you mind getting into the driver’s seat, and when we yell out let the clutch out. So they started pushing, and they pushed him all the way to the Kurrajong. [LAUGHTER] No police, no security, no nothing.
T Duffy: Yeah this place, I mean you walk in on a Saturday night, and old Jock the former Scottish guard bloke…
R Chalmers: Yeah, yeah.
T Duffy: He knew everybody, no pass.
R Chalmers: Oh no pass. The passes didn’t come in until the Sydney Hilton bombing. I mean we had a police pass, but that wasn’t for security reasons, that was so if there was some sort of a police incident or crowd scene or something you could be identified by the police as a media person.
T Duffy: Yeah but on most Saturday nights there was no security, you just came in, the hall was in darkness, you walked up and you could go anywhere you liked.
R Chalmers: There was no security whatsoever.
T Duffy: No, it was just open house.
R Chalmers: As I said it didn’t come in until after the Hilton bombing, Fraser introduced semi-strict security.
T Duffy: Up the hill it’s–every time I walk around, I feel I’m walking around an Egyptian tomb.
R Chalmers: Yeah, well except in the press gallery. If you come into the press gallery, there’s activity. People are moving and ministers and people come up for interviews. But the rest of the building is…
T Duffy: Yes Doug Anthony was saying, when he was down here for the Christmas–some function last year, we had a function with him and Barry Cohen. He thinks the worst thing they ever did in this building was to demolish the old members’ bar.
R Chalmers: Well so do I.
T Duffy: And it happened before he and Barry Cohen were given the reins.
R Chalmers: Yeah, well I think that was a huge mistake, because I’ve even approved spending a bit of money putting it back to what it was, but it was as I said earlier, the absolute centre of social life. I remember the late Huey Dash, Menzies’ famous press secretary, who was a great bloke, but the Dasher as he was known was quite a considerable imbiber, although we all were. They were enormous drinkers in those days, and partly as I said earlier, because there wasn’t as much to do. There wasn’t the same pressure on them as there is now. But Dash would be first in the door at 12 o’clock, the non-members bar opened and anybody that beat Hugh Dash through the door was doing well.
T Duffy: It was–the last barman there–Alfie?
R Chalmers: I’ve known most of the barmen there, I’ve forgotten them now.
T Duffy: Yeah, he turned up at the Lodge–Stafford.
R Chalmers: Oh yeah, Al Stafford.
T Duffy: Alfie Stafford.
R Chalmers: No he was the keeper of the cupboard in the cabinet room.
T Duffy: Yeah that’s right.
R Chalmers: He was Menzies’ fact totem and general–sort of a–not a butler but a drink waiter when he was required to or…
T Duffy: Yeah he turned up at the Lodge a couple of times when Hawke was having his pre-PMs functions, looking after the drinks.
R Chalmers: Oh well he’s a great old bloke Al.
T Duffy: I don’t know if he’s still alive Alfie, is he?
R Chalmers: Oh well I think he’d be passed.
T Duffy: I know the sons are still around, both the sons, David and John, and they’re a fair age too. Well I think we’ll let you get to the new Parliament House. It’s been a great privilege to listen to this, because I’ve been saying to our historian, we’ve got to get press gallery people.
R Chalmers: There’s just one other thing I’d like to say in press relations, in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s there was considerable competition between the various bureaus in the gallery. And that still exists, but there has been an increasing move towards press control by governments, and I think it really started in the Fraser period and Hawke and Keating particularly, and then even more so now Howard, that the official leaf–so just before budgets–the governments of all persuasions leak out some information about what might be in the budget, or been considered in the budget, as a way of testing the wind.
But if you’re out of favour with the government, and you don’t get the drip feed from those leaks, you could be in trouble back at home with the editor, who says why didn’t you get this story. So there’s quite a degree of quiet press control by all governments that the public doesn’t know about.
T Duffy: Yes it’s–well it’s a miracle that this old place survived actually, because I think as Barry Cohen said, we haven’t got that much history we could afford to knock down 61 years of it.
R Chalmers: Yeah well that’s true.
T Duffy: Thank you very much Rob, it’s been a pleasure.
R Chalmers: Righto.
T Duffy: I hope you’ve enjoyed it.
R Chalmers: I have. Now I’m going to walk up and just have another look at the old gallery to see what they’ve done up there.
T Duffy: All right.
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