Russell Schneider was born in Sydney in 1946 and grew up in Newtown. He worked as a journalist in the Press Gallery from 1968 to 1983. During that time, in 1975, he became Press Secretary to Senator Reg Withers but returned to the Press Gallery in 1978. In 1983, he became Chief Executive Officer and a lobbyist for the Voluntary Health Insurance Association, a position he held until retirement in 2005.
Listen to the interview
- Russell Schneider
Interview with Russell Schneider part 1
B York: This is an interview with Russell Schneider who will be speaking with me, Barry York, for the Oral History Program of the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. Russell Schneider worked in the Old Parliament House Press Gallery, 1968 through to 1983. On behalf of the director of the museum I do want to thank you for being part of this. And do you understand that the Commonwealth owns copyright in the interview material, that disclosure is subject to anything you restrict on that rights agreement?
R Schneider: Yes I do.
B York: Thanks for that, and can we have permission to make a transcript or a summary if we are able to make one?
R Schneider: Yes, by all means.
B York: Thank you again. The interview is taking place today, 14th of April, 2015 at the museum in Canberra, and could we begin just with a bit of personal background, like date and place of your birth?
R Schneider: Yeah, I was born in Sydney on the 16th of April, 1946, almost 69 years ago today, almost! And my family lived in Newtown, my grandfather Frank Connor was the secretary of the Liquor Trades Union at that time; he’d been a — he joined the Army in WWI, signed up as a driver, which I always thought was pretty irrelevant, but actually when you think about it being a driver in those days you probably had to be a pretty smart cookie because you had to be a mechanic and everything in the sort of verticals they were driving in WWI were different from today. But anyway, after the war he and a mate of his, Tom Watson, got a job washing bottles at Tooth’s Brewery and gradually worked their way up and my grandfather became a member of the union movement and became secretary of the Liquor Trades Union and Tom Watson became a general manager of Tooth’s Brewery. And these days I suppose, the ICAC or something like that would be after them both because every Christmas Tom would send out to our house a couple of cartons of all of Tooth’s products, ranging from beer through to champagne [laughs]. So I think if it was good enough to take out a Premier it was probably good enough to have taken out both Tom and my grandfather.
But anyway, it was a — we lived in Newtown. Newtown in those days was quite different from the Newtown of today, it was basically one of the slum cities, slum suburbs of Sydney and a pretty rough place; if you took a cricket bat to school it wasn’t to play cricket, it was to beat off the other kids who like beat up on you in the way through. And I went to Enmore Boys’ High School where I was probably not the best of students until fourth year when I got a very inspiring English teacher, a guy called Evan Sutton, Evan Casey Sutton was his name, and he got me very, very interested in literature, English and writing, and as a result of that I decided that I probably would embark on a career as a writer if I could, and I got myself a job as a copy boy with the old Sydney Daily Telegraph, which was then owned by Frank Packer.
My first real reporting assignment was in the sports department and I was not particularly interested in sport but it was the only place that I could get a job with the Telegraph so I stayed there, and I used to — I learned the trade by running copy for the rugby league writer, George Crawford, who would write out these stories at a football match on sheets of paper which I’d then run over to a telephone and phone in to a copy-taker in the Telegraph building. Then after a while I got a cadetship and I — in those days a cadet had to achieve a certain standard of shorthand, a minimum of 60 words a minute. I managed — the Telegraph brought in a lady called Kay Kersop [?] who was nothing to do with journalism but a great shorthand teacher, and with her tutelage I ended up getting up to Hansard speed, about 180 words a minute, as a result of which I was then given the job of court reporter, or a court reporter for the Telegraph. And then I went down to New South Wales Parliament House where again, I became more interested in politics, and finally in 1967 there was a newspaper strike, and being from a good Labor trade union family I took a fairly leading role in the strike and went on the embryonic ‘The Day Tonight’ [television current affairs program] and berated the Daily Telegraph and Sir Frank Packer and all concerned with it. And the strike lasted for two weeks; the union lost control of the strike, it was only intended to be for one or two days but all the journos got a rush of blood to the head as they tend to do every 20 years or so, and said, ‘We’re going to stay out until we win.’ Well we didn’t win; as Frank Packer said in the editorial, ‘We came back to work with our tail between our legs,’ and we did.
And I realised — at that time I discovered that the money I’d lost in that two week strike I was just never, ever going to be able to recoup, no matter how hard or how long I worked, because that money was gone forever. So that formed a sort of a different view about industrial relations in my mind. Anyway, after the strike was over David McNicoll who was the editor-in-chief of the Tele, called me into his office and said, ‘Alan Reid’ — who was the chief political correspondent for the Telegraph, the old ‘Red Fox’ as he was known — ‘would like you to go down to Canberra,’ and I said, ‘Well what if I don’t want to go to Canberra?’ and he said, ‘Well there’s nothing here for you.’ So it was fairly obvious that I either went to Canberra or had not future with the Telegraph in Sydney so I came down to Canberra. Canberra at that stage, or Parliament House…
B York: Russell, sorry to interrupt, but at this point, before we talk about actually coming to Canberra, can I go back a bit and ask you to flesh out a few points?
R Schneider: Sure.
B York: You mentioned your grandfather; what about your parents? What did they do for a living? What were their names?
R Schneider: My father Jack was an engine driver — not an engine driver, it was a — his father was an engine driver. My father was a carpenter by trade and he became a vehicle builder with the New South Wales Railways, and he stayed there til he retired. His father was an engine driver and he was killed in a very unfortunate shunting accident at Rozelle where he got caught between two train — two carriages, and that was that. And my father grew up in the Depression and he had a very, very hard life during that time. He didn’t go to WWII, he went to the Snowy Mountains, he was one of the original people in the Snowy Mountains scheme, he was regarded as an essential worker and got a job down there building the — the first part of the Snowy, I mean it was obviously after WWII became a real project but the was building the original huts and things like that.
B York: Was he on Susso at that time? Was that a Sustenance thing with the…?
R Schneider: It was a Civil Construction Corps which was sort of the civil conscription arm of the government…
B York: Yep, yep, I’m with you, yep.
R Schneider: And my mother was a seamstress and she spent most of her time behind a sewing machine, even when I was growing up she had a back room in the house that we lived in — we lived in the same house with my grandparents — and she had a room at the back where she had ad sewing machine set up and she used to make swimming costumes for a woman called Kay Hilvert. It was quite interesting, I used to help her assemble the costumes, and the same costumes were made with various different labels, so made by the same person, the same material, same design, but some retailed in the bargain basement and some were in exclusive boutiques, all the same people! So that was that.
B York: How long did you live in Newtown with your parents?
R Schneider: Oh I lived there until I was — til I came to Canberra when I was — in ’67, so I was 21, so I stayed at home til I was 21.
B York: Did you have brothers and sisters at all?
R Schneider: No, no, no, no, I had no — I had a cousin with whom I was very close: Barry, but no brothers or sisters and basically it was just I was an only child and playmates with just the local kids. In those days it was funny; Newtown in those days was nothing like it is today, and not only was it sort of one of the slum places, but it’s hard to believe if you go through it today, to remember what it was like in the days when the streets just were a strip of tar in the middle of the road, and then with a grass verge on either side, not at all like inner city is, but all the houses were two-storeyed tenements and it was basically workers’ cottages I suppose. Just up the road we had the Pick-Me-Up tomato sauce factory and every now and then a tomato truck would come along and drop its load by accident and the stench of rotten tomatoes was hanging about for days [laughs].
B York: I can relate to what you’re saying because I had my first 30 years in Brunswick in Melbourne…
R Schneider: Oh, same sort of place, yeah, yeah.
B York: And it’s very similar — we were next door to a factory, and it’s very different today, as with Newtown, it’s got the demographics…
R Schneider: Yeah, totally changed.
B York: And the desirability of the place; everyone now wants to live there rather than wants to avoid it [laughs].
R Schneider: Yeah, yeah, well that’s right. In the days when I was young you wanted to get out of Newtown, you didn’t want to stay there and you certainly didn’t want to go there, so…
B York: And you mentioned your formal education and it sounds like you were very fortunate to have an excellent teacher of English literature, you said you wanted — that made you interested in writing; was that writing as in journalism or in a broader way?
R Schneider: Oh yeah I guess it was in a broader way, I mean like everyone, you sort of — well not everyone, but every writer — thinks that they’re going to write the great novel, which I never got around to doing. I thought about a number of different things; I tried to get a job as an advertising copywriter; that didn’t turn into anything, and by — I left school — I was young for my age when I left school, I was about 16, ten months I think, or 16 and eight months, and the first job I got actually was with the post office, it was a Christmas job helping sort and carry mail, and I came to get quite a respect for the poor old postie who had to get up at five o’clock in the morning to sort his letters out and actually working out how to do them to get the maximum efficiency on the route was really, really quite a challenge so — but then after that I waited about four weeks and was starting to feel fairly desperate because in those days, I mean in my family the thought of going on the dole was just, you didn’t do it, you know, in those days you worked, you found a job, it didn’t matter whether you liked the job or not, you just had to go and find something. So I was totally uncertain what I’d do and I went — I applied for a job at the Daily Telegraph as a copy boy, and with the Fairfaxes. The Daily Telegraph called me in; the personnel officer in those days was a guy called Leo Basser and he was willing to give me a try, and so he put me on as a copy boy.
B York: Was this an advertised job? You came across it through reading the…?
R Schneider: No, I think — from memory I think I just wrote to the various newspapers because there was the Daily Mirror, the Daily Telegraph, the Sydney Morning Herald in Sydney so — each owned by a different group, so I just applied to each of them and took the first one I got. In fact, I don’t think the Fairfaxes even acknowledged my application but…
B York: When you look back on your childhood how do you feel about it?
R Schneider: Oh well, I wouldn’t say it was unhappy, I wouldn’t say it was spectacularly happy, it was sort of a period my life that I had to go through and it was enjoyable at times but mostly it was probably endured rather than enjoyed.
B York: And what was the source of that Russell?
R Schneider: Oh nothing in particular, it was just I — it’s immodest I suppose — I was young for my age — no, that’s a bit silly — I was younger than the other kids in my class so they were all a bit ahead of me, but I guess I may have been brighter than they were too; I ended up being selected to go to Opportunity Class at Erskineville, which in those days was where they picked the best and brightest from all the schools in the Southwest. And I spent — I’d originally gone to Camdenville Primary School and I was happy there and then I found I had to go to this other school which I wasn’t all that pleased about. However, the idea of those schools was that they’d take the children who were I guess, better able to move faster through the courses, and I did that, but it meant leaving all the former friends I had at the other school, and then went to Enmore Boys’ High two years later. And it was okay. To a certain — I guess one of the problems was that being an only child I’m younger than the peer group, well I tended to get pushed around a fair bit and bullied quite a lot, almost every day coming home from school there were a couple of other kids who’d beat me up, and that wasn’t enjoyable and funnily enough, one of them came to Erskineville as well, so I couldn’t escape that in either case, and then he came onto Enmore Boys’ High School, and funnily enough by the time we got to fifth year we actually ended up becoming quite good friends. But I guess that was probably the main thing I wasn’t all that keen on in my childhood.
There were — I mean there were a couple of funny memories you have. Coming back to my grandfather, I used to enjoy going into his — he had an office in the old Trades Hall in Golden Street I think it was — and it had an old — one of those old fashioned lifts which they used to have here in fact, with the two doors that you had to open up with a concertina sort of thing, and one day I was in there playing with a typewriter which his secretary used to let me do and a couple of guys came in and there was an altercation between them and he ended up throwing two of them down the stairs, and he must — I don’t know what his politics were — he must have been one of — it must have at the time of the industrial groups in the ALP because I remember it being said that he’d thrown two communist union officials down the stairs, so he was probably in the right wing industrial groups, which is probably now — as I think about it now — is probably fairly true because one of my early contact stroke mentors in the newspaper business was Laurie Short of the Federated Ironworkers, and he remembered my grandfather. So because of that association he was willing to spend a lot of time talking to me about union matters, because apart from anything else I’d — as well as reporting parliament and courts I was also the assistant industrial roundsman with Jack Simpson who was the industrial reporter for the Daily Telegraph, so when Jack was on holidays or having a day off or anything like that I’d do the industrial round, and got to know quite a few of the union officials that way, but Laurie was always the one I felt most confident with, so…
B York: Were your parents political?
R Schneider: Not terribly, not overmuch. My father was a shop steward; he wouldn’t have called himself that. He was the union rep at Roselle or one of the union reps at Roselle, but not terribly political as such, certainly not in a — they were very good Labor — it was a Labor family, there’s no doubt about that.
B York: Because I guess Newtown generally would have been Labor at that time, strong?
R Schneider: Oh yeah, yeah, very, very much so, and our local member was Fred Daly and Fred and I actually became quite close in later years when I was working here in Parliament House. Fred would come around — every Friday was column day, I had to write a column for the Weekend Australian and it had to be done by one o’clock at the latest, which was okay because you’d finish it by one and go to lunch and finish off, and that was the end of Friday basically.
B York: Okay.
R Schneider: But I’d be in the office around about 10 am and Fred would wander through the Gallery — he’d retired from parliament in those days and he was running his Canberra dusk tours and he’d come to the Gallery on Friday morning and he’d pop his head around into my office and then start telling jokes, and he was a great, great teller of jokes, and of course the old bugger, he knew that he was holding me up, he knew that I had to get this column done by one o’clock, or by 12 o’clock, and nevertheless he wouldn’t leave until he’d exhausted himself with all these stories, and finally he’d go and he’d — I’d then have to work my guts out to get it done in time but — no he was — but he’d been my local member.
B York: What about your mother? Was she — she would have been a Labor person too?
R Schneider: Yeah but not fanatically so, I mean they never joined the party as such. My father may have been a member — I don’t — I don’t think he was even a member of the party actually — my grandfather wanted him to — my grandfather did want him to get more involved than he was, but that didn’t suit him, he was fairly happy just doing what he was doing.
B York: What about religion? Was religion a factor in the house?
R Schneider: Oh yeah, yeah, it was a good — my grandparents were Connor and Morgan; my grandfather was Frank Connor and my grandmother was Elsie Morgan, so it was sort of the orange and the green, but overall it was a good Catholic, Roman Catholic family, and the nuns would come around every Sunday morning to make sure I went to Church at St Pius Church down in Edgeware Road, so I’d go and go to mass. My parents and grandparents stayed home!
R Schneider: But they made sure that I was on the pathway to Heaven. And so I guess like all the other kids in the group I attended church as a matter of necessity rather than desire and, but — so I wouldn’t say I was a — I’m probably a failed Catholic more than anything else.
B York: And what about the standard of living that you had at the time? R Schneider: Well funnily enough it didn’t seem all that bad, I mean I wasn’t used to anything better and I guess when you’re a kid as long as you aren’t hungry you’re happy, and I think overall the standard of living was — we weren’t a wealthy family by any means but there was always food in the house, and the house itself was certainly no mansion, but it was comfortable, the roof didn’t leak and there was carpet in the floor and a way of, you know, the — as I think back on it, the modern conveniences were non-existent. I think we had an ice chest; we had a guy come down on a horse-drawn carriage, literally with blocks of ice, and he’d run through the house with big block of ice held in a pick, an ice — a truck …
B York: Like a clamp type thing?
R Schneider: Yeah, and go into the laundry area where the refrigerator was — or not the refrigerator, the chiller — and open the top of it, put the ice in there, close it up, go back out to his horse and then go down to the next place. And just up the road from us in Newtown was a dairy, believe it or not, and I used to go up there every day and pick up a — with a pail, and take it up there and the woman would pour the milk out from the big canisters into this pail, and I’d walk back home with the day’s milk, so — this was probably about 1950, ’52, ’53.
B York: Did you have the rabbitos coming round? R Schneider: No it was — no, there were certainly guys — fruit and vegetable trucks. We had sewerage; they put the sewer through although most of the houses had outhouses, and behind most houses there were those tiny little lanes that were just wide enough for the guys to go through and collect the night soil, but by the time I — I won’t say by the time I was born, but certainly from the time I can remember — we had a sewer on, no hot water; hot water was a kerosene-fuelled thing that was like a jet engine that roared away and you’d — there were chip heaters that some people had but we were pretty upmarket, we had a kero heater.
B York: Outside of your formal education and you know, being at home, what were your interests in your younger years? Were you like a bookish type of young fellow?
R Schneider: I read very — I read a lot, yeah, I read a lot when I was — when I was very young when I was, oh five, six maybe. I remember my grandfather was reading C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series, and I picked it up and I read the whole — I went through the whole series by myself, so my mother must have read to me quite a lot as a child, although I don’t remember that. But I was able to read very early on and I guess I was fairly bookish, wasn’t much good at maths. I fancied myself becoming a chemist actually at one stage, but neither my maths nor my chemistry were up to it so — but I guess I was probably an introverted kid I guess, and I had to fight my way out of that introversion into — I mean you couldn’t survive in this place if you were an introvert, you had to — particularly in the Gallery — you just had to get out of your shell and speak up and ask questions and be known and noticed.
B York: When you were younger would you read political stuff at all, political history or follow politics at all?
R Schneider: Not terribly, not terribly much although because of my grandfather I mixed in a lot more with political activities, although most of it was way above my head, but I remember — I vividly remember on one occasion going to a function which was either a Labor Party one or a trade union one, and my grandfather introduced me to Doc Evatt, who was then leader of the Labor Party, and I sat on Doc Evatt’s knee and — which I remember — and I didn’t know who Doc Evatt was! I wasn’t sure whether he was going to jab me with a needle or give me a prescription!
R Schneider: But he seemed a nice enough old fellow, and — but I wasn’t — I certainly wasn’t involved in school politics or anything like that and I didn’t go to university straight after school. I got a teachers college scholarship, and in fact I guess when I got the copy boy job my choice was to either take that or go into teachers college, and I didn’t fancy — I just didn’t fancy being a teacher, and I didn’t really fancy going to — I’d had enough of school at that stage so I — I got First Class Honours in English and an A in French, so it was sort of obviously going to be a write — well some sort of direction — my direction was going down that pathway, but — what was I going to say? Oh, it’ll come back to me, it doesn’t matter, but I certainly wasn’t — oh, that’s right — a couple of years later when I was down here I decided that I would like to get a degree so I went to enrol in the ANU as a part time Arts student majoring in pol sci and economics, and Professor Fin Crisp was the head of the school of political science over at the ANU.
He was very, very keen to get people who actually were in — if not in the political system at least working within the political environment, and so he became quite a mentor, and the first — now was it the first year or the second year? I think it might have been the second year — anyway, the exams in one year — it was the year of — 1970 — it was the year of a Senate — my first Senate election that I’d gone to report and the Senate election coincided with the university exams so I had to do a third exam, which was fortunate because Finn marked it himself; I think I would have failed if it had been anybody else because I said — there was something about — some quote about political science — whether political science was a science or not, and I started my answer off saying, ‘The problem is all political scientists live in academic Disneyland’ [laughs], and I thought, ‘Well that’s made sure I’m going to fail this course!’ [laughs] But Crisp must have loved it because he — I passed with distinction and he made a point of coming up to me later and saying what a refreshing essay — well not essay, refreshing answer it was [laughs].
But the reason I said that was that — I finally gave the course away, we’d just had a child and that was taking up a lot of time, but I found after a while the tutors — I was providing more to the class than the tutors were, and one of the things that annoyed was that even though the ANU was just across the lake you never saw any of the pol sci tutors or lecturers in this building, they just never came here, and it always disappointed me that — I mean that may have changed, it probably has changed now, but it was — to my mind this was the greatest laboratory that they could have had, and…
B York: And they weren’t far away from it. R Schneider: No, no, it’s not as though it was a long distance trip. So — but I guess when you say was I political at all, when I got into — when I started work I did involve myself in trade union activities — or actually the Australian Journalists Association never regarded itself as a trade union, it was a — well, it was a way above that, and as I said when the — when a strike was on in ’67 I was fairly heavily — I was one of the young Turk enthusiasts who were saying, ‘Stay out forever.’ And then when we came down here I went on the district committee of the AJA and I stayed on that for a couple of years, but that was about the deepest my political involvement was. I had — well that’s not true — I had tried to join the Labor Party when I was in Sydney but the amount of rigmarole that went through it — obviously it was not much different in those days in terms of things like branch stacking and things like that, so that if you weren’t known and approved of they didn’t want you on the branch and so I found the — what to me seemed to be a very, very tedious arrangement was just too much trouble so I sort of thought, no, and — but I voted Labor in the first couple of elections. I guess one of them was — I didn’t know — I was 20 in 1966 when Harold Holt won that incredible victory, but I voted for Arthur Calwell, mainly because he was opposed to conscription [laughs] and I wasn’t real enthusiastic about the idea either.
B York: I was going to ask about that, like that period in the late 60s when the strike was on and you came to Canberra and there was a lot happening with a lot of unrest here, people in your age back then…
R Schneider: Yeah, well funnily enough I was never anti-Vietnam, and I wasn’t even strongly anti-conscription, so long as it didn’t involve me, but if I’d been — if I had been conscripted I would have gone and I would have — I wouldn’t have been a conscientious objector or anything like that, it just would have — I just would have found it an inconvenience actually, was my attitude really. It didn’t take long; I actually concluded after a fairly short time — particularly as I wasn’t going to get shot — that the war actually was probably fairly justified, that was the view that I thought, and I did have to in Sydney — there were a lot of anti-Vietnam marches going on of course, and you had to report those, and I think that’s one of the things that probably turned me off the vehemence and the violence that the anti-conscription people did. I just found it a little bit over the top; it’s one thing to protest but the violence that it engendered didn’t appeal to me, and I thought ‘Well if that’s the sort of way people are going to behave I’m not so sure I want to be part of that.’ So that was — I suppose that was the beginning of the turning point where I shifted from the left to I suppose, I’m not sure whether I’d say the right or the moderate centre.
Interview with Russell Schneider part 2
R Schneider: But the environment in those days, yeah, it was — I was thinking about this earlier — it was interesting actually. Funnily enough, newspapers are a bit of a microcosm of society and this place was in those days too. When I first came down to Canberra the Parliament seemed to be dominated by really, really impressive, strong figures, men of great charisma and — not just Gough, Gough was undoubtedly head and shoulders above all of them, or Menzies probably more so although I didn’t see Menzies down here, he’d retired before I came here — but they were all sort of big men intellectually and they were just that — again, charisma is about the only word you can use for it. But there were two — both the Press Gallery and the Parliament and in the old Daily Telegraph was sort of two groups: there were these older guys who’d been in WWII and had seen a lot of the world, and then there were a lot of — but were basically either had no formal training or very little formal training or had done apprenticeships or something like that, maybe a few lawyers, farmers and those sorts of things. Newspapers were pretty much the same, there were — most of the journalists I knew were a bit like me, probably most of them from slightly better backgrounds, but very few had any academic training; most had gone straight into journalism from high school, some even from intermediate certificate level because you didn’t need to have any university qualifications to become a journalist. It was very much training on the job. And then there were gradually a younger group of people who did have university backgrounds, either degrees or partway through a degree. And I guess society itself was a bit like that, you know, there was this evolution of people who had — if they’d completed high school they’d had a good education, and then there were the others who were gradually going to university, and so that was a bit of a potpourri.
The other thing of course about Enmore Boys’ High School was that it was a real potpourri too. Of course, being post war there’d been a lot of migration, refugee migration in many cases, and we had just about every nation, every nationality, ethnicity you could imagine at school. I got an old photograph when I was going through the names the other day and it started off with [INAUDIBLE] and ended up with Zhang, so — and everything in between. I think the only Anglo-Saxon names there were Brown, Stewart, Potts, and I think there was a Jones. That’s out of about 80 or 90 kids. One of my best friends was a Chinese kid named Jackson Wong and there were a number, a number of — a number of Chinese, some Poles — there weren’t many Italians funnily enough, although there were quite a lot of Italian and Greek people living in the area. There were a few Irish and — but it was quite a mixture of races and ethnic backgrounds and things like that, and everyone got on quite well, there was no sense of ‘them’ or ‘us’, so I mean the multicultural stuff we have today was alive and living in the 40s and 50s.
B York: Yeah I can relate again as a Brunswick boy; same thing, people got on well in the main, and there was no official government policy encouraging it, it’s just…
R Schneider: It just happened, yeah, yeah, yeah, I mean kids…
B York: And I guess being low income, working class people had bigger problems to think about than hating each other or having a go at each other, you know…
R Schneider: Yeah that’s right.
B York: Can we talk now about your impressions of Canberra? Because that’s where I cut you off a while ago; as a city or as a place, like you’ve come down from Newtown Sydney, and I guess you’d never been to Canberra before?
R Schneider: No, no, no, I’ve never been here before. I got in the car, packed with a couple of — with some clothing — oh, I was very fortunate, one of the good things in those days: all the newspapers provided accommodation for their staff, that was one of the incentives for coming here; there were two groups of people came down here, one were full time and the others were sessionals who just came down when parliament was sitting, and they were quartered in places like the Ainslie Hotel, the Embassy Hotel, a couple of other places. The others who were here full time, that was including me, had full time accommodation and the Telegraph had a block of flats at Red Hill, on the corner of Nuyts and Hicks Street, Red Hill. Eight — there were eight units there and mine was a two bedroom unit which I got for the princely sum of seven dollars a week, which in those days was pretty good. So — but anyway, I packed up my car, waved goodbye to my Mum and Dad and drove down here not knowing where I was going except to just follow the Hume Highway and keep going, and it took four and a half hours which was pretty good.
Anyway in those days, four and a half hours, I mean that’s about three hours today on a super duper highway, this was virtually a tarred goat track, and got to Canberra, and my first impression of Canberra was pretty — actually pretty startling, it was not at all what I expected because they had all those government flats all down Canberra Avenue, and it looked like some sort of gulag, you know, it was boxy, strange architecture, all the same, and then I got into Civic and I think that was the — the only sort of traffic lights in Canberra in those days, just between the — what do they call them? — East and West buildings isn’t it?
B York: Yep.
R Schneider: And they were quite grand buildings; I was impressed with those, and then came over the bridge — which had only just been built, in fact I’m not even sure if the lake was full at that stage — and drove straight to Parliament House and made my way up to the Press Gallery. So I was not terribly impressed with what I’d seen up to Parliament House, and then of the staff took me out to the flat, and that was quite different, I thought; it was nice and leafy and the houses all looked fairly — they looked much, much better than the sort of — the housing that I was accustomed to in Newtown, and the flat was a palace compared with the house I’d lived in; it had hot and cold running water, there was none of this old kero heater, and it was nicely furnished and so I thought that was all pretty good, there were nice rental shops just around the corner. Went around to the supermarket to get something to eat and discovered that they sold grog in the supermarket, which you didn’t do in Sydney, and so I grabbed myself a bottle of red wine. And I think they were selling — I think they sold — I think they had a butchery there, so no, I set myself up for that night and cooked my first meal, first meal I’d cooked for myself in my life and…
My — I was engaged at that stage, I’d met my fiancé in Kay Kersop’s shorthand class, and in fact I think I spent more time — I was more interested in going to shorthand class to see her than I was to learn shorthand, but if I hadn’t done well in shorthand I would have been kicked out of the class and wouldn’t have seen her! [laughs] So it was sort of a chicken and egg situation, and so I figured that this sort of place would be pretty good to bring her down to, and that’s Pamela, that’s my wife’s name. And I commuted back and forth every weekend if I could, sometimes every second week, and for six or seven months until we got married and then she came down. But yeah, the impressions of the place, they were — I thought Canberra was a much more attractive place than Sydney, without any doubt, I mean it was, it was cleaner, it was smaller, and because it was smaller they were able — and of course it was run by the National Capital Development Commission so there was none of this nonsense about getting the rate payers to pay for cleaning things up or anything like that, it was a case of just anything that was necessary you paid for.
They say — I don’t know whether it’s true or not — but it was said that Sir John Overall who was the head of the NCDC, would go up to the top of Red Hill each week with his staff, and he’d look over all of Canberra to make sure that everything was in its right place, that all the roofs were the right colour, and that was the main thing, I mean they were very, very protectionist about those sorts of things, that all the buildings had to look right, and presumably they had to look right from a great height. And so I suppose it did seem a little bit clinical and the roundabouts were a bit of a trick at first, but once I got used to them they were fine, and we’d — and the roads were terrific by comparison with Sydney and there was hardly any traffic, and on nights when Parliament was sitting — after Parliament was finished sitting — we’d all jump into our cars after the Non-Members’ Bar had close and race one another across Kings Avenue Bridge and then down along — whatever was the road that runs along the side of the lake — down to the Hotel Ainslie and sit there and have a few grogs. And there were no breathalysers in those days thank god, but yeah, no that was fun.
B York: What about the social life of Canberra back then? What was their — what was available?
R Schneider: If you worked in Parliament House you didn’t have much of a social life to be quite honest, because if — when parliament was sitting you were working pretty much all day every day, or from early morning til fairly late at night, and it was certain — working every night anyway so it was pretty hard to have a social life other than after work; the Non-Members’ Bar was probably the main centre of social activity, or the Hotel Wellington — the Non-Members’ Bar closed at four thirty if Parliament wasn’t sitting and half an hour after the last house rose if Parliament was sitting. So basically social life was either dinner parties, Friday night at the Wello, or — you wouldn’t go to the Hotel Canberra Bar, which was the back of the old Hotel Canberra near where the lake is — that was a bloodhouse, so that was where all the tradies went, and you didn’t go in there unless you wanted to fight.
B York: God…
R Schneider: The Hotel Civic, which doesn’t exist anymore I don’t think, it’s now a block of flats — the Hotel Civic was the same — the Hotel Wellington Saloon Bar — was it Saloon Bar? Lounge Bar — it was okay, it was — that was where the public servants and the journos and so on went and drank, or otherwise it was either dinner parties or party parties in people’s houses. There were virtually no restaurants; there were cafes. Lobby Restaurant hadn’t been built when I first came out here, and I remember in Parliament House itself there was the Non-Members’ Dining Room, and that was like something out of what I imagined a school boarding house dining room would be like or it was — or a railway refreshment room — it had all these round tables with white tablecloths and old silver teapots and coffee pots, and very, very conservative crockery and cutlery, and there were all these what seemed to be old ladies in white uniforms with big bosoms who’d bustle around and take your order and disappear into the background where the kitchen was — you couldn’t see the kitchen in the old Non-Members’ Dining Room — and then come back out again.
So it was a very, very sort of conservative style of place, and that changed a few years later when they got rid of that room and turned it into more of a cafeteria, but there were no restaurants so basically if you wanted to have any social life you did it at home or at one of the pubs I mentioned.
B York: What was the nature of your work, that first job you had here when you were sent down? What was the title of the job and what were the duties involved?
R Schneider: Well I was the most junior person in the office; the office comprised Alan Reid who was the chief political correspondent for the Tele — in fact he was the political correspondent for the Tele — and Alan had been here pre-war and he was about 55, a very heavy smoker, had one and a half lungs removed; how he survived that I don’t know, but he was still smoking, as we all were. Bob Bordino was the bureau chief, Fred Brenchley, who later became the general manager of Fairfax and Brian Howard who’d died, so there were five reporters and a photographer called Peter Hardacre who’s also dead. We — I was the most junior in the office, and in those days because it was Vietnam the big jobs were foreign affairs and defence; that was the senior reports looked after those areas, and I, being the new boy, was given the least glamorous jobs which were health and social welfare, so I took an interest in health and became quite interested in health policy.
The other thing we did, in those days the Gallery was far more competitive than it was today, particularly in terms of reporting parliament. Up until a few years earlier each newspaper had its own Gallery reporting team. By the time I came down here the Fairfaxes, Syme and Consolidated Press had established Australian Associated Press, but they also decided that they would have an Australian Associated Press Gallery Reporting Service for the three papers, so basically the start of the economy drives. So we had AAP to which were seconded the junior guys from the Telegraph, Sydney Morning Herald, Age, and the West Australian, so there were about four or five of us working there.
So the Gallery was being reported by AAP, the Herald and Weekly Times, News Limited, the ABC, Australian United Press, which was all the country newspapers had their own agency, and probably one or two other groups plus freelancers who might or might not take an interest in what was going on in parliament, because a lot more of the parliamentary — a lot more of the Parliament House reporting was actually about legislation in parliament, which rarely is reported today. And so I was seconded to the AAP team for whenever parliament was sitting, so my job was when parliament was sitting we’d all assemble in the AAP room, go into the House, do Question Time, come out, and because there were so many different groups reporting parliament there was a real competition to get your story on the wire before anybody else and better than anybody else, and so we’d sort of have maybe shifts of about five to ten minutes during Question Time and then — or if a question came up that was particularly significant you’d just tap the guy who was sitting next to you on the shoulder, which meant, ‘I’m leaving, you take over,’ and you’d run out and the AAP room was just at the back of the Gallery, so you’d run to that, type out your story, hand it to the service chief, who was a bloke called Tom McNeill, and Tom would sub-edit it and hand it to a woman or a man — usually a woman — who was a teleprinter operator…
B York: Teleprinter?
R Schneider: Teleprinter, yep, and that was a direct line to the AAP office in Sydney and they just sent it away and let them be filed back to all newspapers. So as I said, it was an extremely competitive environment, and there was — in those days there were always — sometimes there were more people in the Press Gallery than there were in the parliament, you know, particularly at night, because each — you could not afford to not have a man in the Gallery in case something happened like, things like Gough throwing a glass of water over Paul Hasluck; I mean if there was no one in the Gallery it would have been unnoticed whereas — and there was no television or anything like that, so you had to have a physical presence in there. We did have — there were radios — they were not radios — speakers — so you could — so you had a speaker in the office which you could on and hear what was going on in the House, but that was the only way you could monitor what was going on, so you had to physically be there.
B York: What was the wage like?
R Schneider: Oh gee…
B York: I know I’m stretching your memory a bit but was it, you know, a reasonable income with possibilities of promotion?
R Schneider: Well yeah, I came down here and I was I think a D or a C grade. In those days you had a four year cadetship which could be compressed, and I did mine in two, and then you had five grades of classification, each of which has a different pay rate. So it went D was the lowest; C, B, A, A+, and I think by the time I came down here I was probably a C or a B, and that was not bad pay; it wasn’t great, of course I was broke when I first came down but that was my own silly fault, but we were paying seven dollars a week for the flat and I think I was probably on something like 50, 50 or 60. No way in the world we could have afforded to pay the full price, the real price for accommodation and so the subsidised rental was probably more — was one of the real attractions of coming to Canberra, not just for me but for a lot of other journos.
B York: Yes.
R Schneider: And yeah, I can’t remember, it might have been a bit more than 50, it might have been about 75/80, but in those days it was not bad, reasonable enough to be able to… We could afford to feed ourselves, run a car — run two cars, and yeah.
B York: And it sounds like early on you had decided to stay here, like that you made the commitment to the place, bringing your fiancé down and…
R Schneider: Yes when she came down we were expecting to stay here for a fair — I’d pretty well decided that I wanted to stay here for a fairly long time. I liked the work, I liked the town; even though there wasn’t lots to do — I mean I guess the social life as much as anything else was taken advantage of the bush and the parkland and things like that, so you’d get out to barbecues at the Cotter or Kambah Pool as it then was, and the only thing I really missed was the beach; that was a little bit too far away to go down regularly.
B York: Did your wife have a job here in Canberra?
R Schneider: Yes, she’d worked in the Telegraph with me as I said. When she came down here she got a job — she was looking around for anything and she got a job with a doctor as a doctor’s practice manager, and she was only there until she found something else, and she was only there for a couple of weeks when one of the doctors in the practice called her and said, ‘You aren’t pregnant are you?’ And she said, ‘I don’t think so,’ and he said, ‘Well I want to make quite sure of that because there’s just been a kid in here with German measles and if you’re pregnant you’d better take precautions.’ So as it turned out she was, and so she got zapped with something or other and that turned out okay, and then she ceased work and just became a full time mother, housekeeper, or housewife. She ended up — after a few years we had another child. She had a lot of difficulty with the first birth, a lot of difficulty, so it was five years before we had the second baby, and she then went and joined a craft group that set up a stall out at — oh, on the road to Yass — I should have the name…
B York: Hall?
R Schneider: It was near Hall, yeah.
B York: Murrumbateman?
R Schneider: It was between Hall and Murrumbateman, it was Cuppacumalong. No, it was an old — the old schoolhouse at Ginninderra, Ginninderra Schoolhouse. They established Ginninderra Schoolhouse which became a very, very popular outlet for local crafts, and arts and crafts including — they started off — I can’t think of the woman’s name, but a woman who knitted, and they became quite a fashion icon a few years later, but she got a start at Ginninderra and they expanded that into another gallery nearby, and then the person who owned the land sold it to somebody else and this guy wanted to take it over himself so they ended up closing it down, which was a shame but — and by that time I was — fortunately I was making enough money that she didn’t have to go back to work.
B York: Can you tell me, or just describe a typical daily routine in that early period that you were here? What time would you get here? Did you need a pass to come in and that kind of thing, you know, from the very beginning of arriving at the building.
R Schneider: Well fortunately you could — in those days you could just park out the front which was very — or at the side, or if the worst came to the worst — if it was really bad you’d go and park at Camp Hill up the back. It depended whether parliament was sitting or not, but generally the Telegraph being a morning newspaper it’d start at two o’clock in the afternoon and work through til — usually til about — well what would happen actually is you’d come in at about one o’clock and go to lunch in the Non-Members’ Dining Room with the other people from the office, go back to the office about two o’clock and then start deciding what sorts of things you were going to do, which was usually ringing relevant contacts in the round that you had. Everything was divided up into these rounds and as I said, the senior guys did the Foreign Affairs, Defence, and there were lots of stories about Foreign Affairs and Defence: F-111 purchases, Vietnam War, all sorts of other things like that. So the bureau chief would talk to the Sydney office, they’d got an idea of what stories we might be thinking of doing here, what was happening in Canberra. By the time we got into the office — there was a set of pigeon holes in the Gallery, in the middle of the Press Gallery just on this — on the side of the doors to the House of Reps — and by the time we’d get into the Gallery the — each newspaper had its own pigeon hole and our pigeon hole would have been filled with press releases up maybe one, two inches worth of paper, and press releases, reports, all sorts of junk.
So that would give you the — form the basis of the sorts of things that you knew you were going on and the bureau chief would talk to Sydney about that. The Sydney chief of staff would suggest any particular stories that they might want followed up or any comments that they might want checked out or sought and that would then be assigned around the different people in the office who — you’d either volunteer that you were going to do something or you’d be told that you could go and, ‘Here’s a hand out, follow this up, get some more details of that.’ In most cases we just didn’t; we used the handouts as a guide to start asking questions rather than just regurgitate the press release, and so we’d sort of try and pad them out. And we’d try to have our stories written by about five; they would all go through the bureau chief to just make sure that it was — that there was a second look at it, and again, newspapers in those days were totally different from today because you could not send a story from here to publication without it being vetted by at least five or seven different people who’d check it on the way, there was — if I wrote a story here it’d be checked by the bureau chief, it would then be sent to Sydney where it’d be looked at by the news editor, then be sub-edited, then go down to be set in type, and would then go to the proof reader’s room who would re-check the copy against the original version to make sure that it was accurate and everything like that.
B York: Were there other checkings? Or was that…?
R Schneider: There were — that was basically — of course a compositor or a linotype operator would then sit it in hot metal and of course there’d be a make-up sub and printer who would put it into the page and run a proof off. So there was a constant checking of — a number of times on the way where people could find out that a name had been misspelt or the grammar was not right or all sorts of things, whereas today of course most people sub their own copy, and that’s why a lot of the time you find that there are many mistakes in the newspaper, either of spelling or grammar or both. So we had our own — when I first came down we had a teleprint — or a telex? We had a teleprinter which was a direct dedicated line between our office and Sydney, and it was open all the time so anything that was sent would just go straight through to Sydney. But we didn’t have a teleprinter operator in those days, we had a — the post office was over in West Wing and the — at the back of West Wing and the telegram operators who had worked there would come over to Parliament House and earn a bit more dough by working in the Gallery for the various papers from about five o’clock on. So our teleprinter operator would come in from the post office; by that time the copy would have been filled up and he’d just start re-punching it into the teleprinter and then send it off to Sydney.
After a while it was decided that we’d have a — we’d swap the teleprinter for a Telex and we then got our own full time Telex operator and that, instead of just typing the — or retyping the copy directly onto a teleprint she would cut tape then feed the tape into the Telex, which meant that you only had to pay for the line while it was actually being used, so it was a way of just a little bit more efficient and a little bit of cost saving. And then around about — we’d listen to the six o’clock news on the ABC to find out whether there was anything happening that we didn’t know about, and then go to dinner between six and eight. One person would stay in the office between six and eight and you’d take it in turns, and in those days we went home, you’d go home for dinner. I could get home from here in ten minutes and be back in the office for ten minutes, so you got about an hour and a half to eat. And then I’d stay on til ten thirty, 11 o’clock at night when you’d ring the Sydney office and ask if you could leave, and they’d either ask you to hang around if there was something happening, or if you knew something was likely to happen of course you’d stay until it finished, because in those days the final deadline for the Daily Telegraph was about 3am in the morning, so if you — if something was happening you could still get — you could still make the paper, the final edition of the paper, up until about two thirty to three. By three o’clock it was…
Interview with Russell Schneider part 3
R Schneider: …Very tight, it had to be big, it had to be really big. But I was in Sydney actually, when Arthur Calwell was shot, and we did that based on — there was no one out there with him — so we did it basically on police reports, and I think that happened at about ten o’clock at night; we didn’t know about it til around about 11, and they stopped the press and we got it into the first edition, but that was another story. On a sitting day it was a little bit different; on a sitting day I’d come in, again about one o’clock and went to go and have lunch. Two o’clock or two thirty — parliament normally started at two thirty in the afternoon on Tuesdays and Wednesdays or at ten thirty on Thursdays, and it would sit until maybe one o’clock in the morning. The phrase ‘legislation by exhaustion’ was frequently used, and particularly as you got towards the end of a session they’d just sit and sit and sit. And so I was with AAP so we just reported the Gallery and there was no going home for dinner or anything like that on sitting days.
And we used to — we filled the wall of the office with quotes from the various — with silly quotes from the various pollies — we had a bit of a competition among ourselves as to who could get the best quote. I can’t remember them all. I think one was by — I think it was John Gorton who said, ‘Australia is an island surrounded by water,’ and so it was things like that that we put up on the wall. After parliament finished we’d all sort of sit around and say, ‘Well what was the silliest quote of the day?’ and scribble it down. And then — then we had a competition of reporting history as would have happened if AAP had been there, and so I think I won the prize with: The Red Sea Lifesaving Club had its worst day in history today when several thousand Egyptian horsemen were caught by an unexpected wave and swept back into the sea.’
B York: [laughs]
R Schneider: And those sorts of things, so there was a lot of fun, and — but we would have to sit there until the House finished, and of course on Wednesday nights it might not finish until twelve thirty, one o’clock, and you had to be back at ten thirty the next morning, and there were some occasions where they literally sat all night and we just had to stay there all night.
B York: And you experienced that yourself?
R Schneider: Oh yep, yep, yep, yep. There was one time I did go home; I went home and I was so tired I was eating sitting at the table, and I went to sleep and my wife woke me up, and I’d fallen, my head had fallen into the mashed potato on the plate. And so she woke me up and I got in the car and came back in for a bit, because they’d sit — it wasn’t unusual — it was unusual but not uncommon — for them to sit on a Friday and even into Saturday morning if they really wanted to get legislation through, but yeah, yep. . B York: How did that kind of work routine affect, you know, family life, like as a father and a husband?
R Schneider: Well it put a lot of — it put a lot of strain on my wife because she’d have the kids and then have to try and feed them and try and get my dinner ready for me when I’d come home — not knowing whether I was going to come home because some nights you’d just have to ring and say, ‘Look sorry, there’s something happening and I just can’t get home.’ So it did put a lot of strain there, and then I’d get home — I’d try and get home in time to bath them while she finished getting dinner ready, and maybe read a story if I could, maybe not, and so it did — it did impose those sorts of strains. On the other hand, not starting til two o’clock meant that you had the mornings free so I could do a lot of work around the house and things like that, so — but it was probably — it was harder on her than it would have been on me I think.
B York: What about the access to areas in this building at that time?
R Schneider: Oh it was totally wide open. About the only limitations were on the corridors that led down to — on either side of the chambers there would be an attendant standing at that — not even at every door in fact, but there was usually — at either the Senate side or the Reps side — there would be an attendant who could monitor both doors because — you’d just walk from one side of the building to the other through — across King’s Hall — King’s Hall was the only public area but there was really nothing to stop someone going — if you looked as though you owned the place the attendants wouldn’t stop you, there was no reason to. They might ask you — if they hadn’t seen you before they might ask you, ‘Where are you going?’ and if you said, ‘I’m going up to the Press Gallery,’ ‘You know where it is?’ ‘Yep,’ ‘Okay.’
I guess there probably was a little bit of a sixth sense they had about them because I don’t think there were ever any real incidents of problems — maybe society was just different — but there was a post office down where the security area is now, and anyone could go there, and as I said, King’s Hall was just open for the general public to go to. And if people would come up to the Press Gallery they’d come from departments or they’d be lobbyists or various other people and they’d just walk in. And as journalists we had virtually total access through the building itself; the only area that was out of bounds was the corridor behind the House of Reps Chamber which led to the prime minister’s office, and in fact even that wasn’t totally out of bounds because the press secretary’s office was just around the corner and you could — you had to go part in that sort of no man’s land to get to the Press Office. Beyond the Press Office you could not go unless you were escorted by a press sec or one of the staff, but everywhere else you just wander around. In fact one of the best places to have a casual chat with a pollie was actually to go down to the men’s toilets which were on both sides in the members’ areas, and as often as not you’d find yourself taking a leak beside a Cabinet minister, and of course none of them had their own — well, with the exception of the very senior ones — none of them had their own bathrooms or anything like that.
The only other area that was out of bounds was the Members’ Dining Room and the Members’ Bar, but we could go — and the Members’ Dining — the members had two dining rooms, the Members’ Dining Room which was members only and the other was the Members and Guests’ Dining Room where a member could take family, friends, constituents, journos, if he wanted to.
B York: And on occasions where you wouldn’t go home for dinner, that you would eat here, where would you got to eat?
R Schneider: Oh down to the Non-Members’ Dining Room, of which there was — as I said — initially there was that rather very formal boarding house type place. And then they opened up what we called the Sheltered Workshop which was…
R Schneider: Just — you can’t get this on tape, but it was just sort of the bottom of this courtyard that was down over in the — it was virtually at the end of this wing, down on the ground floor, and it had a big open kitchen, cafeteria style, so you’d all line up in queues, and all these, not terribly impressive, cooks — I’m not sure you’d call them chefs — were putting steaks — the food wasn’t all that bad actually, in fact the food was probably better in the Sheltered Workshop than it was in the proper, more formal dining room because you’d get steak, cold dishes, salads, baked — roasts and all sorts of things. So the tucker wasn’t bad; it was sustaining anyway, and you’d get yourself a little bottle of wine or a beer and either just eat by yourself or socialise with a few other people. A lot of Gallery people would just sort of sit down together, and with anyone who was there, so it was — I guess the thing about it was that everyone in the House just mixed in together. Every now and then a politician would go there — not very often — usually if the pollies were going to eat they’d eat in their own dining room or take you into the Guests’ Dining Room.
B York: And would they do that if they had an angle or they wanted some kind of publicity or…? R Schneider: Yeah, oh basically, yes, yes, either you were courting them or they were courting you or both. But sometimes they’d go down to the Non-Members’ Bar too, there was — again, if there was a member who wanted to become better known to the Gallery they’d go down to the — Paul Keating used to go down there on occasion. George Georges, he used to go down there quite a — Peter Walsh who was the finance minister. Peter probably spent more of his time down in the Non-Members’ Dining Room — Non-Members’ Bar I should say — than he did in the Members’ Bar, and he was quite a — he was quite a sad figure actually, he was usually quite morose; some said he’d had a bad childhood or difficulties with his mother or something like that, and he’d go down there, and I think he had more time for us than he had for his colleagues, which was understandable in many respects! Well given that he was quite determined to be a model of fiscal virtue I guess he was not — more likely to be friendly with us than with his own colleagues. I’m trying to think who else — oh, it’ll come to me, but…
B York: Can you tell me about the atmosphere in the Non-Members’ Bar?
R Schneider: Well it depends a bit on what type of day it was [laughs]. From memory I think — I don’t think the first thing in the morning — I think they didn’t open til about 12, and I suppose like any bar you’d get your regulars in there at that time who’d have a heart starter, and one before lunch, and then after lunch — usually after Question Time it was usually fairly empty. The barmen were, like most barmen, either very gracious or very ungracious depending on the type of day and their mood. The atmosphere — as the day wore on the crowd got thicker and it was smokey — I mean everyone smoked in those days so it was smoke-filled, stank of beer, the floor was — the floor wasn’t sticky in parts, but in parts it was. Jim Quirk who was the Daily Mirror correspondent, had a habit of going down there from about — by about 3 o’clock he’d be a couple of sheets to the wind and he used to delight in throwing a glass in the air — midi glass in the air, and sticking his foot out and either catching it with his heel or giving it a fair dinkum rugby kick. The glass would go up in the air it’d either shatter when he kicked it or shatter when it’s hit the ground, so everyone knew that when Jim was starting to get close to throwing the glass around that it was time to move out of the bar for a little while.
And then if it was a sitting day of course it would stay — it would become increasingly noisy, and people drank pretty hard in those days. There was — it was divided into two sections — there was a men’s area and one where men and women could both go, and so a lot of the female staff and a lot of, I suppose you’d say, political groupies, would gravitate to that bar. So again the place — that’s why I’m saying the movement around the place was pretty free and easy because some of the women who would go there were not employed in the Parliament House, they’d just go in there for a drink with the boys. And so it was — at the same time I mean it was — there were never any fights or anything like that, it was a reasonably well behaved place I think, probably the — as is usual — as was usually the case with pretty well all drinking spots in those days, the noisiest time was when they were closing, and closing time could become a battle between the staff and the drinkers to see who gave in first, but…
B York: What were — sorry, I don’t want to interrupt …
R Schneider: No, no, no, that’s all right.
B York: What were journalists — like the stereotype of the journalists of that era was that they had a drinking culture, you know? That they were — were they the main — was there a main section of the — among the non-members who used the Non-Members’ Bar? Who were stalwarts of the bar?
R Schneider: Oh yes, there were some who would — well drinking was done in two ways — one was in the Members’ Bar and that was basically — as often as not that was by the guys who were on afternoon newspapers, they’d finish work so they’d stay on at the bar for a couple of hours to have a drink after work. And then there were those who would just go down for a quick drink in between jobs, or usually a drink between four and four thirty if it was a quiet day, just before the bar closed. There were — excuse me — there were the guys like Jim who would be regulars in there. In many cases, as well as that, everyone had a fridge in their office, a little — they were usually an old fridge, and most of the time you’d go down there and get a dozen, two dozen cans, take them back and people would have a drink in the office while they were working. So you know, these days I guess it’d be a pretty — it was a pretty alcoholic, alcohol-fuelled environment. At the same time I don’t think there was a lot of drunkenness as such; there weren’t people falling down drunk, everyone was able to — no one ever drank to the point where they were incapable of functioning, but I suppose that probably owes more to the impression than the fact; other people may have had quite a different view.
B York: Yeah. Yeah, you mentioned that there was a men’s section and then a section for men and women…
R Schneider: Yep.
B York: Does that mean that women were excluded from the men’s section?
R Schneider: For quite a few years, yes. I don’t know whether they were actually excluded, sort of, by law — not that there was any law here — but they were — there were no — women did not go into the Non-Members’ Bar, they went in — I forget what they called it — I don’t think they — they may have called it ‘the Lounge’, but of course, that was true of anywhere, I mean any — any drinking establishment in those days women were segregated from the sort of public bar. I vividly remember my wife and I went down to Tasmania in about 19 — the 70s, about ’76, ’77, and we went to a little pub in one of the country towns, and I walked into the bar with her — there were two barmaids behind the bar but about ten men in there — and the barmaids were horrified that a woman had come into the bar. They were more concerned about it than the blokes were, actually, but — so she was told in no uncertain terms that the Ladies’ Lounge was around the corner. And I suppose the same sort of thing probably would have happened here up until probably the early — early to mid-70s, and then there was some redesign done and for some reason, I think the Ladies’ Lounge disappeared and people did go into — then the Non-Members’ Bar became open to everyone, and so there were then women and men both having a drink together, as they did outside.
B York: Yep. Was the Non-Members’ Bar important politically?
R Schneider: Yeah, not totally, no, I don’t think so. I mean it would be at times — it would be in a couple of senses I suppose, to the extent that there was a groupthink among the Gallery; that’s the place where it would take place, you know that’s where the conspiracy theories or all that sort of thing would begin to develop, but there wasn’t a lot of that taking place in those days. A politician who didn’t want to be seen taking you to the Members’ — Guests’ — Dining Room, would go — if he wanted to have a drink — would go down to the bar. But that was usually as much to be seen as anything else; it was rather paradoxical that you’d go to a very — well in fact that’s the reason why it was such a public place, that you could exchange confidences there. Of course no one would believe that anyone would be silly enough to go and leak in a place as public as the Non-Members’ Bar, because everyone knew that — well I’d say Peter Walsh — everyone would know Peter Walsh was in there talking to the journalists, so Peter wouldn’t have been so stupid as to tell them anything that had happened in Caucus or Cabinet, yet it was also a very convenient — therefore, again paradoxically — it was a good place for them to leak because it was so obvious. I’m using ‘leak’ in the sense of, ‘provide you with confidential information,’ rather than…!
B York: Yeah!
R Schneider: But I was never conscious of a — very much of that sort of groupthink, which I think started to flow into the Gallery in later years; I think there’s probably a lot more. I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen a film called Flying High…?
B York: Yep, a comedy.
R Schneider: Yep, well you remember in that there’s a press room or a group of journalists who were reporting on the — what’s going on in the skies?
B York: Yes, yes…
R Schneider: And they get — and they rush over to one end because something’s happened there, and then they rush over to the other end because they were told something’s there — well I reckon that’s how the Gallery has now become, of all these people just rush to one side because that’s where the story is, and then rush back to the other side. There was probably — I don’t know whether there was more competition but there was probably — people tended to pursue their own contacts and stories, and there were big stories which everyone was after, like when I came down here it was the F-111 purchase, it was Vietnam; the other issues were fairly peripheral quite frankly, and that’s why I got health and social services. Oh and the other thing I became interested in was the Senate because everyone regarded the Senate in those days as being an old men’s club, which to some extent it was, and no one was particularly interested in spending much time there, or the Senate was just sort of a rubber stamp. However the Senate became increasingly unstable. The Democratic Labor Party had four, and ended up with five senators. Lionel Murphy had come in and become the leader of the Opposition in the Senate. Lionel was a very ambitious man; he was from the left, and I always thought that deep down he harboured an ambition to move from the Senate to the House of Reps and take on Whitlam as leader. I’m not going to write about that because he never said it in so many words, but one got the impression he was. And Lionel had decided that the Senate could be used as a fairly effective political weapon.
Up until that time it was basically comprised of trade union officials, or one might cruelly say trade union hacks and ex-Liberal Party offsiders. Gradually that was changing and there were younger people coming in on both sides who didn’t have the same sort of affiliations as the others, and they were ambitious and they wanted — they were being, you know, being parliamentarians; they didn’t want to just sit in a Senate and make dull, boring speeches and rubber stamp legislation coming from downstairs, and because the DLP did have the balance of power the Senate started to become a more interesting place because it was always possible if Labor and the DLP voted together government legislation could be stopped. It very rarely happened; it usually took its form more in the case of them joining together to establish enquiries, and Murphy used it quite definitely, as I said, as a political weapon to get enquiries held which would provide Labor with ammunition to undermine the then government.
So whereas before it had been a backwater it started to become a place where things could happen, and I was one of the only people who’d taken enough interest in the Senate to actually know the senators and what was going on. I got to know Jim Odgers who was the clerk of the Senate and who wrote Odgers’ Senate Practice quite well, and Jim, again, was very determined to make the Senate the significant institution. Peter Rae from Tasmania, again, very ambitious and again, determined to make something of his career. Magnus Cormack, who looked like a — if you put a toga on him he’d look like a Roman senator, you know, he would have been totally at home in Rome. He had big white hair and craggy face, and he ended up becoming President of the Senate and there’s one story I’ll just tell — this is not reported in Hansard, one of the few things that have been excised from Hansard — but one day towards the end of a session — Magnus was not the President at that stage, he was just an ordinary senator, Sir Alister McMullin was the President of the Senate — and looking down from the Senate Gallery one always saw that Sir Alister’s glass of water had bubbles in it, and there was a distinct odour of gin emanating from… [laughs]
B York: Oh gee! [laughs]
R Schneider: So he was having a gin and tonic while he was presiding. Anyway, at Question Time Senator George Poyser from Labor Victoria, rose to his feet and said, ‘Mr President, my question is directed at you. Are you aware that the state of Victoria has recently introduced a device called the breathalyser which is used to establish the alcohol level of drivers? Would you arrange for one of these devices to be installed in the Senate, at the entrance to the Senate Chamber so that the sobriety of Senator Cormack may be tested each evening after dinner?’
R Schneider: Well Magnus leapt to his feet: ‘Oh Mr President!’ McMullin’s going, ‘Order, order, order!’ and without any hesitation Poyser was kicked out so I …
B York: And that wasn’t in the Hansard?
R Schneider: Hansard just says, ‘Disorderly question’. That’s all the Hansard records. So I went down, and in those days we would often move from the Gallery down into the King’s Hall if we wanted to ask a senator a question, catch him on the way out. So I got down there and Poyser was standing out there and giggling to himself and I said, ‘Just can you tell me, why did you ask that question?’ And he said, ‘Well Schneid’ he said, ‘I’ve been in the Senate for X number of years and in all that time I’ve never been kicked out. This is my last term; I don’t want to stay here for the next couple of days so I thought I’d give myself an early mark and that whole so and so a payback.’
B York: Oh boy. You mentioned that you’d wait in King’s Hall to…
R Schneider: Yeah.
B York: Would many journalists do that or…?
R Schneider: Not a lot; I guess different people had their different places where they’d operate from. Alan Reid used the Magna Carta; that was basically his office, and oh, the Magna Carta or I think the Constitution, and they were both in big glass — I don’t know whether they’re still there, I imagine they are in big glass cabinets — Alan would just loiter, he would just lean on the glass case which was on the direct route from the House of Reps Opposition side to the Senate government side, and you could see from there, you could see down to the front of the House which was where the Government Party Room was and the Opposition Caucus Room on the Senate side. So you could — from that position you could see anyone moving from one part of the building to the other, and because of the way the place is constructed — as I said, you’ve got the Government Party Room on the front of the building and the Government Senate Party Room on the other side of the building — so if a government minister wanted to go over to the Government side of the Senate he’d have to walk diagonally across King’s Hall, which meant going past Magna Carta or the other one. And so Alan would wait there and people would walk past and they’d say, ‘Oh gidday Alan, how are you?’ and walk over for a chat and as I said about the Non-Members’ Bar, it was such a public place that no one could be accused of leaking confidential information because you would not do that in a public place like that, you wouldn’t — if people saw you talking to Alan Reid they would know that you weren’t telling him something that he shouldn’t know. So he’d pick up a lot of information there.
Others, I guess, I don’t know, sort of, probably in fact posted themselves in sort of strategic positions around King’s Hall. I particularly remember that because working for Alan that’s where I’d often go and spend some time talking to him while he was waiting for someone to come out, and of course as soon as someone came out he just brushed me off and talked to them. But if you were in the Gallery and you wanted to clarify something or get someone to amplify something they’d said you’d go down to the front door of the chamber and get an attendant to go in there and ask the member to come out, which they do, and then amplify whatever it was that you wanted them to. That was — yeah. Alan had a chair — in the office he had a lounge chair which had been appropriated with the help of the attendants; in fact virtually every Press Gallery office had worn — not worn out — they’d replace the chairs in the chamber and as they did that they had to put them somewhere so they’d furnish the Gallery.
I don’t know whether you know this and I don’t know whether it’s still the case now: the Gallery existed and probably still does, on sufferance. It has no — the journos have no right to be in Parliament House, and the — unless they’ve changed the rules — it is still exactly the same as it was in England years and years and centuries ago where any member can at any time rise in their place and call the attention of the presiding officer to the fact that there is a stranger in the House, and if there’s a stranger in the House everyone’s out except the members, and that was done — I think it was done once in my time. I spy a stranger, but I can’t remember — I can’t for the life of me remember the out workings of it. But in any event the Gallery has no — the journos have no right to be here, and in the days when a bloke called Archie Cameron was speaker at the House the question was raised as to whether the Press Gallery proprietors should be required to pay rent for the space that they were occupying free of charge, and the furnishing, all the furnishing, was provided by Parliament House too, and Archie, who didn’t like the Gallery at all — he’d frequently apparently walk around the Gallery checking what was there, what had been stolen by the journos from downstairs [laughs], which included things like Parliament House glasses which had very nice embossed Parliament House things on them, very good souvenirs — and Archie said no he would not — they would not be charged rent because if they paid rent they would have tenants’ rights, and he always wanted to be in a position — and I think successive speakers also have — of being able to just throw the Gallery out if it suited them to do so.
So Alan had, in his room, one of those big lounges, and it was next to his desk, and mostly any member who wanted to talk to him really secret — well, not secretly, but without being too obvious — would come to our office, sit down beside Alan’s chair…
Interview with Russell Schneider part 4
R Schneider: …Which we called the Confessional, and tell him whatever it was he wanted to tell him. And sometimes it would be suggested that some of us might go down to the bar and have a drink rather than hang about, so that the privacy was protected, and it was used particularly frequently in the days when McMahon and when Gorton had become prime minister, and the pro-McMahon forces were trying to unseat Gorton, and there was an almost constant stream of members in to see Alan to tell him what had happened in the Government Party Room; tell him what they thought Ainsley Gotto and her excessive influence on John Gorton, tell him about whatever John had done wrong lately, or about how the electorate was responding to his various flaws and so on. And I guess probably the same sorts of things happened in the other offices. There was — our office was just down the corridor from the Sydney Morning Herald office where their chief political correspondent was Ian Fitchett who was a big man, big voice, big booming voice; been a war correspondent in WWII, ended up as the first public relations person at the War Memorial where the story is told — and I don’t know whether this is a true story or not — there was a story told of Fitch that he was feeling unwell so he went to the doctor and the doctor said, I guess, ‘Possibly you’re drinking a bit too much, Fitch. What are you drinking?’ He said, ‘Scotch,’ ‘All right, scotch. How much scotch?’ ‘Oh, two a night,’ ‘Oh, two glasses of scotch a night isn’t too much,’ ‘Bottles, bottles!’
B York: Dear me!
R Schneider: So now I’m not sure whether that was actually a true story of Fitch or whether it was a joke that people applied Fitch’s name to, but the same sort of thing happened in his office, these guys would do the rounds and the Age office further down had a bloke called Allan Barnes who was the chief political correspondent in it, and notes would go from our office, the Sydney Morning Herald, Allan’s ABC and across — on the other side of the building they’d just built some offices on the other side for the Financial Review, and Max Walsh had just come down here for the Financial Review and was making a name for himself — so I have no doubt they went over there and spilt the same sort of bile to him.
B York: I’m thinking Russell, we’ve had two hours together and maybe we could call it quits for this session, and if it’s agreeable with you I’d like you to come back and we’ll continue.
R Schneider: Yeah.
B York: So thanks very much for today.
R Schneider: No, that’s fine.
Interview with Russell Schneider part 5
B York: I’m continuing the interview with Russell Schneider. Today is the 2nd of July 2015, and Russell, to begin with, may I ask — I know you’ve listened to the CD of the previous session and I’m wondering are there any inaccuracies you want to correct or any points you want to elaborate on?
R Schneider: Well just one that I’d actually forgotten when you’d asked me Barry, which was about the social life in Canberra, and I think I said there wasn’t very much. What I’d forgotten of course, was that there was quite a widespread and perhaps even intense social circuit, the cocktail circuit, involving the embassies because in those — and the Press Gallery and people who were involved in politics, senior public servants and so on. I guess that was partly because most of — or all of those people had actually been despatched from their homes or their home bases and were now rather in an isolated state so they had to mix together just for normal social reasons and for some sort of entertainment. There was even a group that called itself the Refugees Club which comprised a lot of senior journalists and diplomats, public servants who’d come from state government departments and join the Commonwealth. So it was basically those people who’d been transported from their homelands, whether it be in Australia or overseas, into Canberra, which was in those days actually regarded by the diplomats as a hardship post because it was so remote from the cultural life of the capitals and obviously the cultural life of places like Europe.
B York: Thanks for that. Now today I wanted to begin by asking about the leaking that took place; we talked about that a bit in the previous session but I’m wondering, were there principal kind of leakers that you recall?
R Schneider: Yes, well I think every journalist had their own contacts obviously, so some would have different leakers from others. There were — there were a group when — it got to more of a fever pitch in the days after Menzies had left the parliament and Harold Holt became prime minister, and Harold began to encounter problems; whether those problems are just the legacy of things that have been left around after Menzies retired or whether it was because the government itself was becoming old and tired I’m not sure. Holt came in with all the goodwill in the world, he won the 1966 election with a landslide and then things started to go sour. Possibly there were some members, either of the outer ministry or the back bench who thought they should have been promoted to the ministry and were unhappy about that; others may have just been inept. And at the same time as that we had Gough Whitlam in his ascendancy and Lionel Murphy, as I’ve mentioned, using the Senate as a weapon; it was Murphy who began to develop the idea that you could use Senate Committee inquiries to embarrass the government and to come up with material that could be used by the Opposition, in which he was supported by funnily enough, Senator Peter Rae and Magnus Cormack on the government side, who didn’t want to embarrass the government so much but who also saw this was an important way of the Senate exercising its supervisory role.
And it started off I guess with things like the VIP affair where someone was leaking the fact that there were misuse — alleged misuse — of the VIP fleet. That boiled up into the — the minister of the day, the Minister for Air, Peter Howson, denied that there were manifests of the flights, which was not true, and John Gorton, who was then the leader of the government in the Senate, became aware that there were — that such manifests did exist, and after about several weeks or probing by the Opposition Gorton walked into the Senate Chamber and threw down on the table all the flight manifests of the VIP fleet for the last 12 months. And of course, the Gallery had great fun going through all these and finding out who’d flown when, where and so on. And most of it was pretty innocent, and really I guess if Howson had admitted the existence of the manifests table it would have blown over. So I guess the lesson from that is that it’s better always to come out and come clean at the outset for these things because ultimately the truth outs or someone will leak it, and whether it came from the public service or not, I don’t know.
The point of that is that that action caused Holt himself or the Holt Government a lot of harm, and it was resented a lot by a number of people who were close to Holt, and even more so people who were close to Howson. Then Holt disappeared and John Gorton suddenly became prime minister and — in circumstances in which he carried a lot of baggage, including memories of people like Howson who felt like he’d done the wrong thing by them. And so gradually a number of liberal back benchers started to express their concerns about what was going on within the Gorton Government, and so leaking started to become a lot more widespread than it may have been beforehand. There were always leaks, and the thing about it is people — there’s very good stuff in Yes Minister about leaks which is all very true, but governments establish enquiries into leaks usually because they know what — they know who leaked it but they don’t want anyone to find out, so they go through the process of an enquiry which they know is not going to get anywhere.
Usually it’s very difficult to trace why someone leaks something, it’s usually to advance a political purpose of some sort, and of course Alan Reid and Laurie Oakes managed to be the greatest beneficiary of the leakers over the years and in fact even up until today, largely because everyone knew not only that Alan, and later on Laurie, would keep their sources totally confidential, but also because they knew that the way the story would end up being — it would end up appearing — would advance their particular political interest, even though Alan or Laurie may not have been absolutely aware of what that interest was, but they had a talent for just being able to put the story into the context that was useful to the person who leaked it, and I think we should accept that leaks are really done — except possibly within the public service — for reasons of advancing the national good, it’s usually done to advance a particular political purpose, which as often as not is to undermine a minister or a prime minister or a leader, Opposition leader.
I had a number of leakers but my favourite leaker was Senator Jim McClelland, ‘Diamond Jim’ McClelland in the Labor Party, and Jim was a good mate of Murphy’s and he became — he and I became quite close, and Jim had an office on the Senate side of Parliament House and I — we had this ritual where I’d go around every Wednesday after the Caucus meeting and be invited into his office where he would proceed to pour a tumbler of gin, and I mean a tumbler of gin! And we’d sit there and have a drink, and I couldn’t take notes because he insisted no notes be taken because an attendant might walk through the door or another senator might walk through the door, and if I was seen with a notebook in my hand they’d think that Jim was leaking to me. So I had to keep everything in my head but he’d give me a very, very good run down of what had happened in Caucus that day and — but I had to finish the gin before I could leave, and of course, the sun was streaming in through the westerly windows, and the combination of the hot sun and the tumbler of gin tended to sort of go to one’s head. So I’d leave his office, go around the corner where there was a big red lounge chair and sit down on that, pull my notebook out of my pocket and proceed to write down what I could remember before the gin took over and put me into an alcoholic haze for about an hour!
R Schneider: But I used to get some good stories that way, and there were a number of others, I mean one shouldn’t — even though most of them probably did — one shouldn’t name names, but Jim was such a delightful fellow and he had a great turn of phrase, wrote a column for the Sydney Morning Herald for years, which was most entertaining, and unfortunately when I left the Gallery and started to work for Reg Withers he really never forgave me, he felt that was a treacherous act on my part, and I guess from his perspective it probably was, but he never spoke to me again, and — whereas Lionel Murphy actually remained reasonably affable despite the fact that I’d gone — sort of switched sides.
B York: Are you able to give an example of a leak from say, Jim McClelland, just as an example of how it would have served him politically?
R Schneider: I can’t think too much of Jim, Jim — but I do remember Arthur Calwell who I — did I mention Arthur Calwell earlier?
B York: No, no, it’d be good to — you mentioned him in an email to me.
R Schneider: Yep, yep, yep. Arthur — Arthur had a very characteristic voice and he really resented having been — having lost the leadership to Whitlam after the ’66 election. He didn’t like Gough at all and so he became one of Alan Reid’s best sources of information. But one — he’d ring the office and whoever answered the phone — you could pick Arthur’s voice, it was just so distinctive you knew you were — but the rule was you didn’t use his name because if you did he’d click and go. But one night Alan wasn’t there and he rang and I answered the phone, and I couldn’t stop myself; I said, ‘I’m sorry, Alan’s not here Mr Calwell.’ And I waited for him to hang up and there was this sort of almost deathly silence, and then he says, ‘Who’s that?’ and I told him and he said, ‘Well I’ve got a statement to make,’ and I said, ‘Oh yeah?’ So he just ran through a fairly asinine statement that was pretty meaningless, and then he said, ‘Now you read that back to me,’ and because my shorthand was pretty good I did, I read it back. He said, ‘You’ve got pretty good shorthand there young fellow,’ and I said, ‘Yep,’ and he said something else to me about — most journos were all working against the Labor Party, and I said, ‘Well I’m not, Mr Calwell, because my grandfather was secretary of the Liquor Trades Union and then I’ve got a good Labor background,’ ‘Oh yeah, right.’ So I guess it was a combination of those two things after that, whenever Alan wasn’t around Arthur would ask for me, and rather than — and then it wasn’t a case of making a statement, it was a case of actually telling information about what was going on with the Caucus and the Labor Party, and I was never in any doubt that that was being done quite deliberately to undermine Whitlam at every opportunity. I can’t think of any specific story, but that was the purpose of it, and yeah.
B York: What about McMahon? You once mentioned something about McMahon and…
R Schneider: Well Gough Whitlam described Billy McMahon as ‘Tiberius with a telephone’, and Billy was, yes, Billy was an indefatigable leaker, he’d — again, basically to cause trouble for his enemies, or his leader, and he was one of the principal critics of and leakers against, John Gorton when Gorton was prime minister. But he continued this when he was prime minister if he had — if he was having a difficulty with any of his ministers he had no taste about ringing whichever journalist he fancied at the time and giving them a run down on what that minister was doing wrong or how he’d stuffed up in Cabinet or whatever, and he became — I never got to the bottom of this — but he became a great friend of my wife’s. He’d ring me at home on Sunday nights fairly regularly and she usually answered the phone first so they got to chatting, and he proceeded to tell her all the time about how she was causing him trouble on this or how she was making him do that, and of course he was talking about his wife, and so he not only leaked against all his ministers but also against his own wife!
B York: He obviously trusted your wife then, they must have had a rapport…
R Schneider: Well if she’d been — if she’d still been working in newspapers she would have had some of the greatest stories of all time [laughs], and I think she respected her sources just as much as I was expected to respect mine!
B York: So she came from a journalistic background too?
R Schneider: She worked as a researcher on the Daily Telegraph, and then she moved out of that and got a job in advertising or as an — in the advertising section of a — what today would be a big computer firm but in those days there were no computers so it was the embryonic sort of office machinery kind of stuff.
B York: Is that how you met, if you don’t mind…?
R Schneider: No, no, no, we actually met in the Daily Telegraph; we were both going to shorthand classes and I spent more of my time going to shorthand classes to see her than I did to learn shorthand, but I managed to learn my shorthand anyway, and we went together for about four years before we got married, and I was down here six months before the wedding, which was a bit of a strain; I think I mentioned that before.
B York: You did, yes, yes. Anything else you want to say about the leaking?
R Schneider: Nothing comes to mind at the moment Barry, but if it does if we can go back to it later if I think of any particular stories I will — again, just with Billy McMahon and Doug Anthony in 1972 — this wasn’t really leaking, but in 1972 I was travelling around with Doug Anthony on what became known as the Wombat Trail; that was the trip through outback Australia with the leader of the Country Party, and we went to Bundaberg, and in those days you were able to buy from a distillery some excellent bottles of very aged rum that was boardroom supply only virtually. And so a couple of us bought these bottles of rum and took them with us, we flew away and continued down the trail for a couple of days, and we were in Melbourne at Tullamarine Airport one night when the news came through that McMahon had given a press conference in which he said that he may have made some mistakes but his real problems were caused by his ministers, he couldn’t rely on his ministers, which basically confirmed the sort of leaks that had been taking place earlier. And Anthony was — we were having a drink, as you tend to do, in one of the rooms in the Tullamarine Travel Lodge — when the door opened up and in came Doug with his bodyguard who was a Commonwealth policeman who we all got on very well with, and he said, ‘Have any of you blokes got one of those bottles of rum that you got in Bundaberg?’ And someone did and he said, ‘Bring it out,’ and we sat down and spent the night demolishing first that bottle and then someone found theirs, so our souvenir rum disappeared in one night, and of course, Billy having let the cat out of the bag, Anthony was quite prepared to tell us a lot of stories which he insisted we keep confidential about [INAUDIBLE] in the government but he — on that night he gave away the chances of the government retaining the ’72 election.
The next day we were flying to Murwillumbah where Anthony was to — where he lived and he was going to leave for the weekend, and we were flying in an old Hawker Siddeley 748 which had a small VIP room at the front and then at the back there was a — towards the tail there was a little press section, and the pilot came down and said, ‘Look, I’ve had a phone call from the’ — I mean, ‘a radio message from the ground. Has anyone here seen Constable So and so’s gun?’ And no we hadn’t, until one of their simple journos reached into his bag where he found a Smith & Wesson 38, loaded! [laughs] And apparently during the night someone, for fun, had got the gun and put it in and transferred — I don’t know how he got it away from the Commonwealth policeman — but transferred it from there into the journalist’s bag.
R Schneider: We had a very relieved Commonwealth policeman when we were able to tell him his gun had been located and would be returned to him post haste! [laughs]
B York: At that election in 1972 was the general feeling that Labor would be elected?
R Schneider: I think so. I came to the conclusion that Labor was almost certainly going to win the election when Frank Packer sold the Telegraph to Rupert Murdoch, and because up until then Packer had been an extremely staunch supporter of the Liberal Party; he didn’t like — he didn’t like Gorton but even so he would have supported a Gorton Government against the Labor alternative. Rupert on the other hand, at that stage was tending to be either neutral or pro-Labor, and I think one of the things that I’ve always believed about Murdoch — and I may be wrong but I don’t think so — Rupert does not so much, or did not so much, make political leaders as people believed, but he did have a very good capacity to see which way the tide was running, and so he would lend the support of his newspapers behind that party that he felt was going to win, thus creating the illusion of being the great kingmaker, you know? Whether that changed over the years or not I don’t — I was moderately close to Rupert in the years when I was the political correspondent and bureau chief of News Limited here, and contrary to what so many people will say about Murdoch, he never gave me a direct order or never told me how I should angle a story.
He would certainly, be quite — he’d express very, very strong opinions about things, and I suppose one could take that as having been an order that this is what the boss thinks, therefore you should implement it, but I found if you pushed back Rupert would listen to you and provided you had a reasonably logical argument to put it would influence him and he’d say, ‘Okay, all right, I didn’t realise that, thanks,’ and that was that. So I was never, ever in all that time given any instructions as to how I should report matters in Canberra, other than that we should always try to be objective, and that was a funny thing — and that’s quite contrary to the public perception or media perception of Murdoch. I think to some extent that’s come about as a result of weak editors who’ve taken those strong opinions as being unchallengeable, and they’ve done that. I mean certainly Rupert has been quite ruthless in replacing editors who he doesn’t believe are performing. Whether that’s because he hasn’t like their politics or not I don’t know but — sorry, I’ve sort of strayed away from the subject a bit but…
B York: No, that’s very interesting and I was going to ask you actually about the sale of the Daily Telegraph to Rupert Murdoch.
R Schneider: Yeah well that was interesting, that was — no one sensed that it was happening, in fact Packer had come down here, Sir Frank Packer had come down here only a couple of weeks beforehand and we didn’t get the slightest inkling that was taking place, and we had lunch with him at Alan Reid’s place at Yarralumla and everything seemed fine, and then out of the blue came the announcement that he’d sold the Telegraph to Murdoch, and all the staff were just like the cattle on the farm, I mean we’d just sold the masthead, and I got a nice letter from Sir Frank which said, ‘Dear Schneider, thank you for your work. Here is a cheque. I wish you well for the future. Goodbye.’ And that was that! [laughs] Well he didn’t say goodbye but that was that, and it was a — in those days it was a reasonable sort of cheque, it was a couple of hundred dollars I think, which given that there was continuity of employment was fine.
B York: Yes.
R Schneider: And so we then moved over to the — the Daily Telegraph bureau then moved to — well, we were left in limbo for a little while. Bob Bordino and I talked about what might be done and we did have the AAP experience behind us; I’ve mentioned before that AAP ran a sort of a collective Gallery reporting service for all major papers, and so Bob put the proposition to Sydney that rather than operate the various mastheads as individual units we should combine the bureau and have a service bureau which provided a flow of copied war mastheads, and then leaving individual correspondence to the individual who was directly responsible to the editors of each paper, because by then Murdoch had the Telegraph, the Australian, the embryonic Australian and the Daily Mirror truth I think was still in the stable, and the Adelaide News of course. So rather than — and it was basically a way of achieving some economies and so the new boys who came from outside the thing suddenly took over the bureau here which caused a little bit of — a little bit of angst among the others, but we were able to make it work and work quite well. So that was the foundation of the consolidation I guess, of news gathering in the Gallery, which as you know, is now — the Fairfaxes virtually operate as one organisation and News Limited similarly, so…
B York: Did Murdoch ever indicate an opinion of Whitlam after Whitlam was elected? I mean to you, informally?
R Schneider: I don’t think so. I know he became disillusioned with him — well, indirectly — it was actually — I’d become the Sunday Telegraph political correspondent, and one day I got a phone call from — he’s still alive so I probably won’t name who it was — from a senior person in Sydney who suggested I should write a story that was particularly favourable to the Labor Party, and I was a bit uncertain about that, a bit uncomfortable with that, so I rang the chairman of the company, Ken May, Sir Kenneth May, and because I’d had a little bit — a reasonable amount to do with him as we were gradually putting the bureau together after the sale — and I asked him whether I should proceed with it and he said ‘No, no,’ he said, ‘don’t take any of those instructions at all,’ he said — he said in fact, ‘You should play very, very straight ball,’ which I did. Now May was very close to Murdoch, very, very close and so what Sir Kenneth said you could almost certainly believe were the views of Rupert. Now what — so there — I think that says to me that Rupert was gradually moving away from his earlier support for Labor, or at least if not support for Labor at least it was sort of not opposition to it in ’72, to a more distant relationship, which became more and more distant as time went by.
Now I had left the Australian — I’d left News Limited before the ’75 election so I wasn’t involved in whatever machinations there may have been there, but I do know I did keep in touch with May. I was then working as one of the few press secretaries in the Opposition, I was working for Reg Withers, and I rang May a number of times basically to try and get some feel of how News Limited saw the Opposition, and he certainly indicated to me that they were far more favourable towards the Coalition parties than Labor at that stage, and I think Rupert was getting very concerned, mainly about the — Rupert, again for all his faults and for the fact that although he’s not a citizen, Rupert I always regarded as being a great Australian, a great Australian patriot, and he was always very, very concerned about the economic position of the country, obviously out of self-interest apart from anything else; if the economy was going down the plug his own fortunes would be going down, however he was certainly more concerned I think about the economic situation then about the periphery of politics. So that’s my experience. Other people have no doubt got different ones.
B York: What about the journalists? I mean can you generalise about their political outlook? Like in the Gallery, did they tend to be…?
R Schneider: I think in the early days when I was first in the Gallery, I think the journalists were basically pretty neutral. They all had their own views and I suspect — I would say in those days they probably would have broken 50/50 in their voting if, you know, at election time. There was a fairly strong philosophy that if you were reporting parliament you shouldn’t get — you should keep your own political views to yourself and reserve that for the ballot box rather than what you wrote, and there was a discipline behind that because opinion pieces were kept for the opinion pages and very, very few of the people in the Gallery had the freedom to write a story that expressed an opinion. You could always very, very cleverly angle the way you wrote a story to actually conform with your own opinions but you certainly couldn’t do it as overtly as is the case today.
The only people who wrote comment pieces were the political correspondents, the Alan Reids, Ian Fitchetts. When Max Walsh came down to head the Financial Review and Laurie Oakes came to the Melbourne Sun it changed a little bit, but not dramatically so until — I guess it was — the Gorton news tended to — what’s the word? — tended to encourage a little bit more partisanship I suppose, or crystallise is the word I was looking for — crystallise a little bit more the political attitudes of the people in the Gallery, and Laurie — Laurie started it off by quoting Gorton verbatim and Gorton’s sentences were so convoluted that to quote him verbatim was to do him a great disservice and it just made him look silly. And so gradually the Gallery started to become I think a little bit more partisan than it had been, or more overtly partisan I should say, and it began to seep through into the writings. The Financial Review was encouraging comment pieces from its staff, and I guess just to match that the Australian was also beginning to — the Australian probably had always been fairly opinionated in its journalists — so gradually the relative objectivity of the Gallery started to shift to what I’d say today as a very, very clear cut partisanship which tends more to the left than the right. I mean most journalists that I’ve known are generally leftish; whatever that might mean I’m not sure, I’m not even sure — I hesitate to use the word ‘progressive’. I think they’ve probably — that again goes back to what I was talking about before: when I started off most journos came straight from school into the newspaper job and learned in the school of hard knocks. It was on-the-job training and you really had a lot of pressure on you to be absolutely accurate. You started off — the first sorts of jobs that you did were putting together things like the shipping list, because if you got that wrong and told people a ship was coming the day before it arrived that would cause some reaction. Worst of all was the column of sports results, because we used — in the old days the newspapers would publish the results of every bowling club and cricket club and things like that, so if you’ve had some person — if you got the bowls score of some guy wrong and it was published you could guarantee there’d be a phone call to the paper complaining that you’d done it! So there was this really strong emphasis on accuracy that was drummed into you from the start, and I guess that if you’ve got to be accurate it’s pretty hard to not be objective. So the…
Interview with Russell Schneider part 6
R Schneider: … Tendency to impose accuracy has shifted, and it’s partly been the result of technology I guess, and costs, cost pressures that have shifted the industry into the use of technology more than anything else because when I started off in newspapers anything that you — any word that appeared in the paper would have had to have been checked by something like six or eight times, from the reporter himself through the sub-editor, news editor, printer who would reset the type, compositor who’d put it onto the page, and the compositors were — if they saw something wrong they had no hesitation in telling you — and then it would go back up to have a proof check, and then the proof, not only be checked by the sub-editor, would go back to a pair of readers who would read it to make absolutely for sure that everything was spot on. These days a reporter will write a story, effectively sub-edit it themselves and put it in as a package which gets a brief amount of subbing and then goes into the computer and turns into print, and of course, too many people use the word checker rather than read it, so ‘now’ becomes ‘not’ and the spellchecker still thinks it’s right. So with that drift away from an obsession with accuracy my feeling is that the whole media, television, newspapers, have allowed a lot more personal bias to creep into reports, and I think that’s been unfortunate, I think what it’s tended to do apart from anything else is shift a lot of the emphasis away from reporting the merits or demerits of legislation or political activities into trivia and opinions. So however, times change.
B York: That’s right, yep. With the sale of the Daily Telegraph did things actually change in the way the paper was run under Murdoch, was there — or was it pretty much business as usual for them?
R Schneider: No it stayed pretty much for the first — for the first 12 months at least, possibly longer. They retained the same editor. Alan Reid didn’t come with the paper, Alan stayed with Consolidated Press and Frank Packer, and television was just embryonic in those days but it started to — it was getting bigger, so Alan sort of shifted from being a print journalist to a TV personality, and Richard Farmer came in as the political correspondent for the Telegraph, but that was really about the only fundamental change that was made in the line up, so the Telegraph, it certainly — well certainly it became far less a vehicle that strongly supported the Liberal Party to one that was either neutral or pro-Labor. It was probably more anti-Liberal than aggressively pro-Labor I’d say, but that was about the only significant change. Gradually — King Watson had been the editor for many, many years — King was then sent to London as the — he was sent to London to do something, I’m just trying to think what — but in any event though they then changed editors and the paper became a little bit more tabloid — well it was a tabloid — it became a little bit more like an afternoon tabloid than a morning one, but there were no — there were no dramatic changes in it. I think Rupert would not have been comfortable with the rather conservative layout of the old Daily Telegraph and no doubt was making changes to it, but there was nothing that I saw that really stuck in my mind, until of course, the later days when they merged the Telegraph and Mirror, and then there were some quite dramatic changes, but that was some time in the future.
B York: And eventually, I mean 1975 you worked for Reg Withers, became a press secretary a staffer; I’m wondering how did you feel in that period — well I should ask, what led to you deciding to become a staffer rather than remaining in the editing and journalism field?
R Schneider: Well there were a couple of things: I’d shifted — when we moved — when the Telegraph — I was the deputy bureau chief of the Telegraph when Packer sold it. I then became the deputy bureau chief of the News Limited Canberra Bureau and — which caused a little bit of angst among some of the former News Limited staff who I effectively went over the top of. I then got moved to the Australian as basically a political features writer, and in December of 1974 — well by that time you could see that the Labor Government was falling apart, it was having all sorts of difficulties, and there’d been the Snedden experience and double dissolution had taken place which the Libs lost and Labor just got back. And then in December ’75 Whitlam decided to go on a seven — six or seven week trip around the world, and I was rewarded by being given that assignment to travel with him for six or seven weeks. It was one of Gough’s biggest mistakes I think because it really didn’t manage — he managed to alienate a lot of people in the Gallery, even those journalists who were pro-Labor were becoming disillusioned, and they became irritated about the idea of having to go away at Christmastime when everyone just wanted to have a holiday I think, and this was not a holiday. We went to — it’s a long story but it’s sort of — I might explain it…
B York: Please tell, yeah.
R Schneider: So we go to Europe and something funny was going on, I couldn’t get my handle on it, but Len Hewitt was then head of — I think Len was still head of prime minister and Cabinet; he may have become — he may have moved to minerals and energy, I’m not sure, but in any event Len Hewitt came with us, and Len disappeared for a little while in England, so there was something funny going on. And then of course Cycle Tracy hit Darwin and Gough flew back on a commercial flight, which annoyed everyone because they did it in the dead of night and didn’t tell anyone that he was going, so that was a minor thing but it was still, you know — on trips overseas with the prime minister very minor issues tend to become blown out of all proportion, they just set off a niggly feeling among the travelling press and that compounds itself.
Anyway Gough then let us travel along with — I’m not sure — I think this was after he came back — we went to Italy, and we were running late, running late in — the plane had landed at Rome Airport late and Gough was met by his usual motorcade and — but the appointment he had with the Rome prime minister had been cancelled for the afternoon so he had the afternoon off. So we were in the motorcade and for some reason I was in — I hitched a ride with the police car that was travelling behind Whitlam’s car and the other journos were on a bus. So the motorcade goes through — past the Colosseum, past something else, then all of a sudden the prime ministerial vehicle in front turned right and the rest of the motorcade kept on going, and of course we were in the escort car behind the prime minister so we turned right to follow him, and we ended up — what happened is Gough had said, ‘Oh Margaret, we’ve got the afternoon off. Let’s go and see the Vatican.’ So they went to the Vatican, and of course there were only the two Commonwealth police and me, so one of them said to me, ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘hold your right hand up and solemnly swear to uphold the laws,’ and something or other, ‘of Australia,’ blah blah blah. So I was sworn in as an acting constable of the Australian Federal Police or Commonwealth police [laughs], and my job was to go with the other two and make sure that the prime minister was protected as he walked through the Vatican [laughs]. And we did have to too because there are always Australian tourists there, most of whom were giving Gough a bit of a razz! [laughs] So he’d become a little bit unpopular even then.
Then we travelled — we went to Russia and I vividly recall coming out of our hotel one day and seeing a lot of old women in — literally in rags sweeping the ice off — or shovelling the ice off the footpath, and walking around them were all these much younger women in fur coats, obviously the wives, daughters or relatives of the apparatchik and I just suddenly thought, ‘Well if this is what communism is all about I don’t like it.’ And then we went to Amsterdam — not Amsterdam, The Hague, and that morning the news came through that the freighter had run into the Hobart bridge, the North Tasman bridge in Hobart, and so I got a phone call from the office saying, ‘What does the prime minister think about that?’ So in we go to the press conference and I said, ‘Prime Minister, they —’ Oh no that’s right, I walked up to him first and I said, ‘Look, I’m going to have to ask you a question, I don’t know whether you’ve heard about it yet or not but a freight has run into the Tasman bridge and sunk it,’ and he said, ‘Schneider, only you would enjoy telling me something like that!
So we got to the press conference and having forewarned him I asked the question and he said, ‘I can only say the captain of the boat must have either been stupid or drunk.’ [laughter]
B York: Oh gee!
R Schneider: And that was that. So that was that — oh, and another Gough story if you don’t mind me intruding…
B York: Please.
R Schneider: We went to — in Germany some of the lads saw a sex shop and went in there because we had to — we were flying from Germany to — back to Australia and they wanted to get Gough a present, so they got him a sock, it was a long sock with two round things at the…’
B York: Okay…
R Schneider: And we got on the plane and Julie made the presentation to him of this sock and he looked at us [laughs] and he looked at us and he said, ‘I never thought you fellers thought I was such a big brick!’
R Schneider: And so — I had quite a love/hate relationship with Gough. But anyway, I’d become pretty disillusioned, and then started to discover that things were going funny; part of the things that had happened on that trip were someone — I’m not sure whether it was Hewitt or someone else — I think it was Hewitt — had gone to see Khemlani about the foreign loan, so that’s where the Foreign Loans Affair actually began.
B York: So where were you when this happened?
R Schneider: I was on the — I was the political correspondent for the Australian, special political correspondent for the Australian and we were in London.
B York: Right, so you’re back here now?
R Schneider: Well it started to break — yeah, it started to break when I was back here.
B York: Okay.
R Schneider: sometime after but I pieced it together later because I had a particular job to do about it. But anyway, I’d become that disillusioned and then I — as I said I was also quite interested in what was going on in the Senate and I got to know Reg Withers who was then the leader of the government and the Senate, quite well — and his staff. And Reg and I got on quite well, and one day he decided he needed a new press secretary so I was — he asked me whether I’d be interested in the job, and I said, ‘You don’t know what my politics are,’ and he said, ‘Well I really don’t care what your politics are,’ he said, ‘so long as you’re not a card carrying con, in which case you’d be committed to my distraction,’ but he said, ‘other than that I don’t care how you vote, the only thing I want you to do is do your job for me honestly and loyally.’ And I thought to myself, ‘That’s a pretty decent sort of offer and so I’ll try that for a while.’ And so I left the Aus and started off with Reg.
I started off with Reg the day before they’d opposed Billy Snedden, and that had been building up for about — in fact I think it actually started building up between the time I resigned and started work with Withers, and so I thought, ‘God, what have I got myself into here?’ And then Fraser became leader of the Opposition, and I’d got on reasonably well with Fraser beforehand, he’d been Minister for Education and I’d interviewed him a few times about that, and Robert Maher who was our principal private secretary, Reg’s principal private secretary, senior private secretary they were called, said, ‘Well it’s the short back and sides party now,’ and Rob who had a beard, moustache and long hair, went and shaved the beard and got his hair cut short!
And so we — then I wouldn’t say my loyalty’s changed so much but obviously if you’re working for the Opposition you become a little bit more acutely aware of the deficiencies of government if there are any, and the economy was getting worse and worse and it was becoming fairly obvious that something would have to be done. There were — there’s a lot of stories about November 11, most of which aren’t quite right. We — Rob and I — Withers had written the scenario for November 11 in a letter to Snedden while Snedden was leader. After the first — I think it was after the first double dissolution — it may have been before, I wasn’t working for him then — but what happened is that after Labor got into power the Coalition retained numbers in the Senate, and rather like the current set up they were quite obstructive. The senators didn’t like being obstructive and there was a strong division of opinion between the majority of members in the House of Reps who felt that they should use their Senate numbers to block anything the government put up that they didn’t like, and the view of the senators which was, basically whether we like it or not this government’s been elected, it’s got a mandate to do certain things, and all we’d do is expose ourselves to criticism if we use our numbers to block those things, which is an interesting attitude.
And Reg finally wrote to Snedden saying, ‘We’ll have to be a lot more pragmatic about what we do in the Senate and we should only block that legislation which would either be impossible for us to reverse if we got into government or which threatens our capacity to get back into government, or which is so objectionable that the community would want us to throw it out.’ And I think from memory if my timing is right, I think Snedden probably — if he did ignore that he wasn’t able to act on it — that’s right, it did go to Snedden, because one of the first things that happened after the change of leader was Fraser was asked to reinforce that position, which in effect he did, although he chose not to have it included in the minutes of the Shadow Cabinet, but he did I think write a letter to Reg saying that he agreed with that.
So the Opposition actually became less obstructionist for a period than it seemed. However it also comes on with the time when Labor was putting through some very, very contentious legislation. The most important of which actually was the electoral bill, Electoral Amendment Bill. The electoral amendment bills provided for several things, but one of the most important apart from — they effected redistributions, but there was also a provision that allowed for senators for the ACT and the Northern Territory, expanded a number of senators from one to two from memory, which became very, very important as events moved on because we were nearing a point where there was likely to be a half Senate election — well yeah, there could be a half Senate election, and at a half Senate election the senators — no that’s right, the change was that the senators from the ACT and the Northern Territory would take their seats immediately after the poll was held, rather than from July 1 of the following year. And if that occurred, if there was a half Senate election and Labor won it, or even if Labor didn’t win it, those two senators, if they could get the numbers in the territories it could temporarily have a majority in the Upper House which would allow it to pass the electoral amendment bills, which were in effect going to give — they were separate from the senators — but they would have given a — they would have effectively given a gerrymander which would have almost certainly ensured Labor would have won an ensuing election. So that was never really made public but that was one of the main issues we were concerned about.
Coming back to Reg’s original letter, or original scenario, it was that if the Senate did wish to force an election it should hold — it should do it on money bills, but it should not reject the appropriation of supply bills, but hold them in the Senate where — because if the bills were rejected it was then the province of the prime minister and the Lower House to determine whether to re-restore them and send them up to the Senate again. If they were held in the Upper House and therefore the motion was that the bills be deferred til a later date, if they were held there a simple majority in the Upper House could restore the bills for a vote, and if you had numbers, a simple majority would get the legislation through. And what that meant when taken to its final conclusion was that whoever controlled the numbers in the Senate — the leader of the party which controlled the numbers in the Senate could — would be the only person who could guarantee the governor-general that his money bills would be passed.
So we never rejected supply; we held supply and the scenario was further refined in around about July, August, maybe August/September — I’m not sure of the date but they were painting the Senate offices, and our office was closed down and I remember Rob Maher and I were sitting down in a Whip’s office one afternoon where we worked through all the dates on which things would have to take place and worked out that at a certain date, around about — by early December if the appropriation bills had not passed the government would be in a very difficult situation in terms of paying and meeting the ordinary annual services of government bills, and a Senate election, which would take whatever period of time it would take to go through the machine, could not be held in time to guarantee that the money wouldn’t have run out, and obviously they didn’t do that work on the other side. So when the budget was introduced we had a delegation of senators came into Reg’s room in effect demanding that we reject the appropriation bills. Of course they thought they were dreadful. It was Hayden’s first budget I think. Anyway, they dithered and dathered and finally the Opposition did decide that it would defer passage of the bills on the condition that — of course by this time Khemlani had been blowing up and was becoming monstrous, Cairns had been sacked, Connor had been sacked, Gough and Cameron were fighting and I think Cameron may have even been sacked, so the government was pretty well falling apart.
Fraser was very reluctant to commit to it because I think he was always concerned about the propriety of how he came into office, but with the exception of one or two, the minute the Shadow Ministry was pretty well determined to go ahead with it, and so we — I remember writing Reg’s speech saying why we were knocking the — why we were going to defer the appropriation bills, and the motions were as I recall it that the bills should be deferred until such time as the government agrees to submit itself to the people at an election, and that was continually done. And that was not gratuitously, that was done because the journals of the Senate were theoretically the only official communication between the parliament and the governor-general, so we were — that motion was in effect an open letter to the governor-general saying that, ‘You’re not going to get your money until such time as the government agrees to go to an election,’ and without saying it there was the implicit suggestion that if the governor-general proceeded to force an election he’d get his money.
So the Senate bills went backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards and we just always kept holding them in the House, and people couldn’t understand why we weren’t going to outright reject them, and one day Richard Carlton from the ABC and Peter Bowers from the Sydney Morning Herald both came in at separate times and they said, ‘You guys are going to lose this,’ and I said, ‘No,’ and they said, ‘The governor-general won’t step in,’ and I said, ‘Well you want to have a look at the Constitution and just see because the key clauses are that in relation to the Federal Executive Council, in effect the governor-general’s got to act on the advice of the Executive Council,’— the Executive Council is comprised of ministers — or members of the Executive Council are ministers of state for the Commonwealth, and the Executive Council or Executive Councillors hold office at the pleasure of the governor-general — and I said, you know, ‘The governor-general has in effect got the power to sack the prime minister.’ ‘Oh no, he wouldn’t do that,’ and I said, ‘Okay,’ not knowing that I’d probably give them — just speculating — I’d probably given them the best story that they could ever have had, and they didn’t believe it, and I thought after a while well, you know, ‘I don’t think I should really be pushing this idea too hard.’
And so then we got to the 11th. By the time we’d got to the 11th the government was really getting desperate in terms of its financial position and there was talk about forcing the banks to give it loans and things like that. Gough called Fraser, Doug Anthony and Phil Lynch to his office early in the morning and told them that he had decided to go to a half Senate election, and that message got passed back to us and so we effectively said, ‘Well that’s it.’ And the view in the office was that we’d effectively lost the long, drawn out battle of wills and there would be a half Senate election and if the half Senate election was held — and I think at that stage John Gorton had let it be known that he would be running for the Seat of Canberra as an independent and Gorton would probably get up in the ACT and he would vote for the passage of all the nasty legislation we didn’t want — and we’d in effect not only lost the battle but lost the war.
And so Reg went off to the War Memorial for the 11am ceremony and then came back and we all agreed that we’d go to have lunch in our separate ways. And sometime between 11 o’clock and later Reg discovered what had happened, and I don’t know to this day whether he found out beforehand or afterwards; I think it was after. I went to lunch with Geoff Kitney of the Perth Daily News over at the lobby, and sitting next to us was Kep Enderby and a couple of other people, and of course everyone sort of thought the whole battle had been fought to the end and so there was a fair bit of celebration going on over at the lobby. And all of a sudden the phone rang and Kep was summonsed over to — of course there were no mobile phones in those days, there was only a phone on the wall near the entrance to the kitchen — Kep went over there, came back and his face was white, and I was sort of — he was on the side of me so I could see him — he excused himself from the table and said, ‘Something very important has just come up,’ and he went rushing back over here, over to Parliament House, and Kitney and I had just about finished lunch so we had a port to finish it off properly and strolled back to Parliament House. I walked down the corridor leading towards the — on the side of the Senate, and the two Senate clerks, or assistant clerks, Keith Bradshaw and Cumming Thom …
B York: Alan Cumming Thom?
R Schneider: Alan Cumming Thom, Alan Cumming Thom, were wandering down the opposite direction. They had been very, very helpful to us in fact, in framing all the motions and all the rules and things in the Senate, all the ritual in the Senate was being — clerks actively assisting the Opposition in putting that together, and they said as I walked past them, ‘Ah, he’s smiling, he knows what’s going on,’ and I said, ‘I’m smiling because I’ve had too much port, I don’t have a clue what’s going on.’ And I walked down to our office and it was deserted and all the phones were ringing like mad, but there was a tie line between Malcolm Fraser’s office and Reg’s desk, and that was ringing so I thought, ‘That’s the most important one, I’d better pick that up.’ I picked up the phone and Malcolm said, ‘Where’s Reg?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know,’ and he said, ‘Well you get down here. Who is it?’ and I told him, and he said, ‘Well get down here quick.’
So I got down to his office and it was just absolute pandemonium; there were senators and members milling around, there were — on the fringe of it there were journalists and cameras and everything, and Malcolm saw me and he grabbed me over and dragged me into his office and he said, ‘Go and find Reg, for God’s sake find Reg quick! Tell him that the Opposition’s going to move a censure motion and I want him to get me my bills as fast as he can.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Tell him, the Opposition’s going to move a motion against me, I’m the prime minister and we’ve got to get those bills,’ and I said again, ‘What? You’re the prime minister!’ He said, ‘I’m the friggin’ prime minister!’ [laughs] And so I said, ‘Yeah okay,’ and I was like a little boy who’d been sent to go and do the shopping for mum, you know, wandering back to the Senate repeating to myself, ‘Opposition’s going to move a censure motion and he’s the prime minister, and get me the bills.’
So no one was still in their office so I went back through the door into the Senate and Reg was standing down in the horseshoe area where the ministers and leaders sit, and I walked over to him and I said, ‘Look I don’t know what’s going on but I’ve just been down to see Malcolm Fraser and he’s asked me to tell you that there’s a censure motion against — look, the Opposition’s moving a censure motion against him and he wants you to get him the bills as fast as you can,’ and Reg said, ‘That’s all right, don’t worry about that, I’ll do that,’ he said, ‘just go and find the whip, and between you tell all the fellers to just do whatever I say. I don’t have time to explain…’
Interview with Russell Schneider part 7
R Schneider: ‘…But just tell them to follow me on everything.’ So I found Fred Chaney who was the Whip and Fred and — I told him, I said, ‘Look just, something is going on. I don’t understand everything that’s going on. The boss just says do whatever he says, okay? And tell everyone that.’ So we went around and told and all these senators are sort of saying, ‘What?’ you know, [laughs], and then Ken Wriedt came into the chamber and he sat down and Reg said, ‘Well, what about the bills?’ and Ken said, ‘Oh yeah, bring ’em on,’ and Reg said, ‘Well, do you want me to move them or will you?’ or, ‘Will I move them or will you?’ and Ken said, ‘Haha! You’ve buckled!’ He said, ‘I’ll move them!’ And so the President comes in and the bells stop ringing, ‘Order of the day number something or other, Appropriation Bills numbers so and so,’ and Ken moved that the bills be passed, and just as he got to his feet and his mouth opened, through the door on the other side Tom Connors, his press secretary, who had been in the Gallery too in the Financial Review, came busting through the door, running down the alleyway towards him, and by the time he got down to the bottom where he could actually speak to Ken, Wriedt had moved that the bills be now passed and Reg said ‘Oh the President considers the motion agreed to,’ and Reg said, ‘Yep,’ and the President said, ‘Okay the motion is agreed to,’ and that was that.
Ken and Tom had a, not fiery exchange but a frantic exchange, and no one knew what to do and the President — I think it was Justin O’Byrne — left the chair and that was that. And so I mean, analysing the mistake, the biggest mistake Whitlam made was going for a half Senate election when it was — when the governor-general would have been fairly convinced that it was not going to resolve the — if it did not resolve the situation there would not have been sufficient time for the government’s monies to run out to hold a full election to finally sort out — to have another double dissolution. So that would have influenced Kerr no doubt. The second mistake that they made was not keeping their senators informed of what was going on, and the third one probably was not telling the Senate President to stay in the chair and not push for that motion to be agreed to too quickly because I think their — I think the theory — the tactics that Labor were working on that day was that if they could pass a motion of no confidence in Fraser before the bills were passed in the Senate that would mean that they were back in control and that Kerr would have to again swear Whitlam in as prime minister; I think that was probably what was behind it, but they forgot to let their Senate side know of what was going on.
Anyway, it was a bit more confused than that at our — where we were, and the motion of no confidence had passed in the Reps, and I went down to — I suddenly got this rush of—a cold sweat broke out on me. Reg had gone and disappeared somewhere and I went down to the clerks to see what they thought, and I said, ‘Look, I’m not sure, should we have passed those bills before the censure motion or not?’ Because I had some vague feeling of uncertainty that maybe we’d given away our advantage by having the legislation go through, and they went — three of them went ashen-faced for a fair minute, I vividly recall that, and they looked at one another, thought, and finally I just said, ‘No, no, no, he said it’s all — it can’t be changed now, can’t be undone.’ So I think it was a little after that that the governor-general’s ‘lackey’ as Gough called him, came and nailed the doors for prorogation of parliament on the House of Reps door, and it was all over. But yeah, it was a pretty exciting day, and one day I didn’t go anywhere near the Non-Members’ Bar.
B York: Yeah, okay.
R Schneider: There were a lot of — a lot of very angry people around the place and — so that was November 11.
B York: How did you feel about it yourself? Like when you realised what the outcome was and the implications of it?
R Schneider: Oh I never — I never had any — I never had any feelings of guilt or that it was a bad thing to do, I mean basically from where were — I was surprised that the strategy that we’d thought about working had worked out the way it had. We had not expected in any other discussion I had, including with Fraser and Withers, that Kerr would accept the proposition we were putting forward, but we were going to put it forward regardless. It was a case of putting pressure on — we were quite determined I guess, now I think back on it, there was a view that we should sustain the pressure on the governor-general in the hope that he would — or more — I think the expectation was that we could put so much pressure on the governor-general that he would say to Whitlam, ‘You give me no choice. You’ll have to go to an election, I’m advising you to go to an election, Prime Minister.’
I don’t believe we thought seriously that he would actually dismiss the prime minister, but the possibility was always there and as I said, I’d already canvassed that possibility with Stone and Bowers — not Stone, Carlton — with Richard Carleton and Peter Bowers, but not expecting that it was likely that — the likelihood we thought was most likely to take place would have been a GG telling Gough to go to an election, or his own party saying he should go to an election or Gough himself deciding that he’d do it. So I suppose, if anything, my feelings at the time were, ‘Wow, the strategy worked, now the question is, are we going to win the election or not?’ And so one’s mind shifted totally away from what had happened and you didn’t have time to really have any mental analysing of what had taken place, it was a case of now — well the next day we —the next day we were — or Reg was sworn in as Minister for four I think territories, a capital territory, Special Minister of State, and one other that I can’t think of, and media, and that morning we had the permanent heads of the four departments lined up outside the office, desperately anxious to — or jostling with one another to see who could get in first, and we worked out, somehow or other it was worked out, who was the most senior, so the most senior went in there and sat down and briefed their new minister, which lasted for about ten minutes, and then the next one would go. When all four of them went in there Reg came out and he said, ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I know why, now I know why the government’s fallen apart: the bloody senior public servants spend all their time reading my speeches!’ Because each one had said to him, ‘Minister, we’re delighted that you’ve become our minister, we know a fair bit about where you stand on all these things because we’ve been reading your speeches over the years and we know what you think about this, that and the other’ [laughs] which I suspect was the usual [INAUDIBLE] approach to a new minister.
B York: Yeah.
R Schneider: And so we then went on the electoral circuit and he got approached one day to go on Radio 2JJ. A couple of his colleagues heard about this and said, ‘No way in the world, no, no, no you can’t go on that, that’s the ABC sort of, you know, youth station; they swear and carry on and do all sorts of things,’ and I said, ‘No look, I think you can handle it, and I think you know, it’d be a good way of showing the youth vote that we don’t have two heads and horns.’ So on he goes, and he did a fantastic job, and the first thing he said was, he was asked, what’s the first thing he was going to do if they won the election? And he said, ‘I’m going to abolish myself,’ [laughs] and the guy said, ‘What are you talking about?’ he said, ‘Well I’m Minister for the Media, and I don’t think we should have a minister for the media, that’s the sort of thing that they did in Nazi Germany, and as far as I’m concerned my first official act is going to be to abolish the media ministry,’ and they loved it.
And then of course the rest is history, the election went on and the outcome occurred and we were — we had sort of expected that he’d end up with the Defence Ministry, but that didn’t work out that way, and instead he was given — they created or expanded — they turned the old special minister of state into the Department of Admin Services or the Department of Administrative Services, and that was, as much as anything else, sort of the ministry of politics because we had the electoral office members’ entitlements, Commonwealth cars, Commonwealth transport, and a whole range of — of course I mean all those things were quite — oh the Remuneration Tribunal — and all those things were quite important in terms of maintaining a good relationship within the members of parliament, the lurks and perks people would say to that, which were always carried out very, very fairly and we had a person in the department who made absolutely certain that everything was carried out with punctiliousness, to the point where from time to time they leaked any details — we were talking about leaks before — any member who abused their entitlements would find that on if not the front page of a newspaper, somewhere in the newspaper, and it was coming out of the department, the offices in the department were quite obviously — if they thought something was going wrong they’d let the press know about it.
And we also had Norfolk Island and Cocos Island, which was an interesting experience in itself, and so we spent the next couple of years — oh and then one of the — one of the interesting things — the most interesting thing that I had in the portfolio — I’m just pausing because there were probably a number of interesting things — but after the election Malcolm had all these sort of feelings of guilt I think about the propriety of how he’d come to office, and of course the media was helping fuel that and the Gallery were and I believe even his wife was, although I’m not certain about that. But he’d partly been put in the leadership by the senators, and they’d played quite an influential role in getting him the numbers to become leader, but there was still quite a — there were a number of them who still resented the way Snedden had been tossed out, so it was sort of, the majority were on Fraser’s side, but a minority were against him. And he came up with the idea — well the first thing that they did to try and save money — they went through the expenditure review process — and one of the things they came up with was a subsidy that had been paid to the widows — widowers — when their spouses died; there was a subsidy to cover the cost of the funeral, and this was removed, and I went around calling it the Undertaker’s Subsidy but no one wanted to pick that up. So a couple of senators, about half a dozen senators — from memory I think Peter Rae, Neville Bonner, Kathy Martin, probably Michael Townley — anyway there were about half a dozen, rebelled and said they would not pass this legislation, and that created a lot of tension between the senators and Fraser, and with Margaret Guilfoyle because she’d indicated that they — oh, she indicated that they would stand firm on the legislation, and half an hour later Fraser backed off and said, ‘No, we’ll —’ and he yielded to the pressure and pulled it, so that was the start of a tenseness between him and the senators, some of the senators.
Later in the year he followed this up by deciding that he wanted to have a referendum, and the referendum questions, he wanted to create simultaneous elections for the house and the Senate, partly to overcome the problems that — there were a number of reasons for it, one was very pragmatic; if he could get that through he wouldn’t have to have a half Senate election himself and could serve a full term, but it was also seen as being an indication of some sort of guilt over what had happened with the appropriation bill on November 11. Just as Eddy McTiernan was about 80 years old or more on the High Court and hardly ever came in to do any judgements or anything like that, and so it was decided that it’d be a good idea to have a retiring age for judges like you did for other judges. The people at the ACT should be allowed to vote in referendums, people of territories should have their votes counted in the total for referendums, and there was one other — anyway there were four, three of which were innocuous but the simultaneous elections one really stuck in the craw of the senators, and Magnus led another revolt, and I said to Reg, ‘This is crazy, this referendum is mad, all that’s going to happen is that the Prime Minister’s going to put himself at odds with the Senate and you’re going to be at odds with your senators and it shouldn’t go ahead.’ And we had a fairly, yeah had a fairly rough exchange over it, so much so that he wouldn’t speak to me for a week and we communicated then in notes, because I’d still see all the papers that came through and I’d put my notes on it and he’d ignore my notes most of the time.
And then one day the Attorney General’s Department had prepared the ‘Yes’ case, and with the yes case with a referendum you’ve got to have — both sides are able to present their case, a case for yes, a case for no, and it’s required that those cases have to be distributed to every household in Australia, so it’s the only chance you get to talk to everyone, and one came in from the Attorney General’s Department for the ‘Yes’ case and it was full of the most incomprehensible legalise I’d ever seen. So I sent a note into Reg saying, ‘This is absolutely incomprehensible, this department couldn’t run a raffle in a pub,’ or something like that, and really, you know, the, ‘yes, we’re going to lose the referendum if this is what the ‘Yes’ case is.’ So I expected that to be ignored and five minutes later, or maybe ten minutes later, out comes a note with the brief from the AG’s department, and it says, ‘If you’re so smart why don’t you write the ‘Yes’ case yourself?’ and I said, ‘I will!’ So again about maybe an hour after that I sent a ‘Yes’ case back into him, and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the end of that,’ and he actually came out and talked to me, and he said, ‘That’s pretty good,’ and so I forgot about it and I thought it was going to go nowhere, and on the Sunday morning I get this phone call from Tony Eggleton who was then federal director of the Liberal Party, and he said, ‘Can you come over to the lodge? The Prime Minister wants to see you.’ So I got dressed and went into the lodge and Malcolm was there, and he’s got this two page thing of the ‘Yes’ case, and he said, ‘This is excellent and I want you to be — just refine it a little bit and I want you to be the deputy campaign director for the ‘Yes’ campaign,’ and Tony was the director, so that was that.
So we went and I redrafted some of it, of course the first one had been knocked out, you know, just right off the top of my head, and that did become the ‘Yes’ case; the ‘No’ case was far more convoluted as I suspected it would be, and I don’t know whether the case itself had anything to do with it but it was the simplest ‘Yes’ case that I’ve ever seen put in a referendum, and we carried three out of the four, and the one we lost was simultaneous elections, which I wanted to lose in the first place [laughs]. So — and then Reg — oh, then of course there was the Hilton bombing, which I think came after that, and I found out about that about six o’clock in the morning the day after — or the day of because I think it occurred after midnight, I was in Canberra — and the Permanent Head rang me and said there’d been a bombing of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sydney and he didn’t want to get the minister out of bed yet but the prime minister was taking over and could I get the minister to give him a ring as soon as I thought it was reasonable, because it would have been about four o’clock in the morning over in Perth.
And then all of a sudden the journos started ringing, and I rang the Permanent Head back to get a little bit more detail, and I probably didn’t ring Reg til about seven, let him know, and by that stage Fraser, who was on the spot, had effectively taken over the running of everything that was being done; I guess people were running around like chooks with their heads cut off as they do in those circumstances. As a result of that, well, Malcolm called out the army and we had the spectacle of armed troops standing on every rail along either the railway line? I think it was on the railway line when the heads of government came from Sydney to Canberra, which was not a good look. And as a result of that we moved to — because Reg was in charge of administrative services we were given the job of establishing the necessary systems to deal with potential terrorist attacks or protective security of ministers and senior government officials and visiting heads of state, etcetera. And we formed a — well we didn’t, the department established a unit which was called the — oh, CCC — anyway it was a special — the Crisis Control Centre, and it was a small discreet unit over in what was then East block, and they were tasked with coordinating all the Commonwealth and state agencies in the event of there being any sort of terrorist incident in Australia, and to test it out we did an exercise to see just how the coordination would work in — they set up an area in the Department of Foreign Affairs I think it was, where we had my minister, Reg Withers, me, because I’d won the argument that we should make quite sure that—or that any terrorist incident was going to involve media and that the terrorists would want the media to be used for them — and we should then make quite sure that the media was used to try to maximise our chances of dealing with the incident.
So there was me, Reg; in Tasmania the Premier, Doug Lowe and his press secretary because the alleged event was taking place in Hobart Harbour, it was a group of terrorists were said to have taken over a ship in the harbour and threatening to shoot the crew if their demands for a release of some of their brethren from prison wasn’t agreed to. And it started about eight o’clock in the morning; we had people from AG’s, Defence, Foreign Affairs, various other agencies, and we started playing through just how this thing was working, and it was quite exhausting, but of course Reg being Reg, the first thing he wanted to do was send in the Army, and they said, ‘Well, the only army unit capable of doing this is the SAS and they’re in Perth,’ and he said, ‘Well get the SAS over here,’ and they said, ‘Well we don’t know how long it’ll take to mobilise them,’ and he said, ‘Well they’re supposed to be the, you know, the principal force to deal with this so you’d better get someone on the phone to drag them in from the pub or wherever they are, and get them on a plane!’ ‘Well Minister, we can’t get a plane over there because the only transport aircraft capable of transporting these men and their equipment is at Richmond and it would take a while to have the crew organised, and then about six hours for the Hercules to get over to Perth, then it would have to be refuelled, and so it’s going to take about —’ ‘So,’ he says, ‘all right, commandeer a plane from TAA or Ansett,’ and Attorney General then told us that we didn’t have the power to commandeer anything and that we’d have to ask the airlines if they’d agree to do it and they might disagree.’
So by the end of the exercise Reg was totally drained and he said, ‘You know, if ever this happens we’re never going to get anywhere because the army doesn’t want to fight, the Air Force doesn’t want to fly and the lawyers all tell us we can’t do it anyway!’ So I guess actually it did prove something; it showed that there were a lot of institutional barriers which needed to be broken down, and they were over successive years, and I suspect today that the barriers that we had in that first exercise have all been broken down. But at the end of it we were both emotionally and physically drained because it was a really, really — after the first hour it seemed to become real, and of course at the end of it the alleged hostages were all being shot and so it was pretty full on, and as we were leaving the departmental secretary came up to Reg in a great hurry with a piece of paper in his hand and said, ‘Minister, you’ve got to sign this,’ and Reg said, ‘What is it?’ and he said, ‘Oh it’s just an order to authorise the Commonwealth Police to go and mount a series of raids on some suspected criminals who’ve been defrauding the Commonwealth.’ And of course, in the circumstances Reg who was about to — rushing for a plane himself to go back to Perth, said, ‘Okay, I’ll sign it.’ So he did, and the next morning of course, we found out that the orders he’d signed authorised the Commonwealth Police to raid something like 60 or — several hundred homes in around Sydney, Melbourne and other places and arrest 64 alleged Greek conspirators — Greek migrant social security fraud conspirators, and possibly if he’d had a little bit more time he might not have signed the order, and might have thought a little bit more about just how that should have been dealt with.
And then came — I mean we had so many different experiences it’s impossible to go through them all, but finally came his sacking. I suppose we should go into that. He — because we’d lost a simultaneous election’s referendum the government still faced this big problem of whether it went full term of had a half Senate election in 1978, Malcolm desperately wanted to have a House of Reps election — oh that’s right — there had been a court case which determined that you had to have a redistribution of all federal electorates based on population change, and so compounding all these problems was the fact that a redistribution had to take place, because the population in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland changed the balance so there had to be new seats made there. And if the redistribution didn’t take place, under the Constitution we’d have to have an election at large, and no one knew how an election at large would work, but it would most likely have been a sort of Senate style election, and the outcome — of course the entire state would have been one electorate, as would the Senate, so the outcome may well have been if things went wrong the government could have lost the numbers in the House.
So Malcolm was quite — the Cabinet were very, very desperate to have the redistributions completed in time to allow them to have the election without having an election at large. And so Reg was ordered — Cabinet ordered him to expedite the redistributions and make sure nothing got in the way. So that went through its normal course and the redistributed maps for Queensland came in and they’d changed the name of the electorate of McPherson to Gold Coast, which was contrary to a report of the Senate Standing Committee on — well the Joint Committee on Electoral — on the naming of electoral distributions, which had said that whenever you change an electorate, the name of the former electorate should be retained in the case of the area that held most of the former voters, so that the majority of voters felt they were still in the same electorate they’d been before. The commissioners in their wisdom had reversed that and so all of a sudden the people who had been in McPherson had been told that they were going to be in Gold Coast. The consequences of that were obscure. The likelihood — or the thing that worried Reg more than anything else was the possibility that this was going to cause a delay in the Senate as they debated whether they should stick with that name or not.
So he came back from Cabinet one day where they’d talked about this, and picked up — walked into his office and said, ‘Get me the electoral commissioner, quick!’ And I was all — I’d taken over sort of being interested in electoral office affairs so I sat in the office while he made a phone call. And he said to Keith Pearson who was then the electoral officer, ‘These bloody commissioners have stuffed up the boundaries’ — not stuffed up the boundaries — ‘they’ve stuffed up the name of the boundaries, and they’ve called this McPherson/Gold Coast. It should’ve been called McPherson, so can you get onto them and just draw their attention to the report of the Committee on Electoral Boundaries, which says how the electorate should be named, because I don’t want to have to frig around with the thing in the Senate.’ And he hung up and I said, ‘I don’t think you should have made that phone call,’ he said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘I think I should have made that phone call. I don’t think you should have talked to the Electoral Office about that.’ ‘No, what would you know?’ So he goes out to lunch and I went out to lunch and we thought nothing more of it.
The election was held, we got the bills through, the election went on and on in 1977, the government was returned and in February — no, January — he went off, I — we had the Surveyor General’s Office too I think and they were surveying the waters around Thursday Island, so he went up on a boat trip around Thursday Island for a couple of weeks and was totally out of touch. Don Cameron, who’d been the member for — one of the members for Griffith, had had the name — he’d lost Griffith, the boundaries had been redistributed and he’d gone for another seat, Fadden, at our instigation, and he then at the declaration of the poll claimed that there’d been some funny business taking place and that someone had conspired to change the name of the seat to get him out of parliament, in effect. So a Royal Commission was established to look at that. Eric Robinson was regarded as being the person who had quote “fixed” unquote, the boundaries.
Eric didn’t know anything about it. We didn’t know anything about it, no one knew, it was just what the commissioners did. However, Malcolm established the Royal Commission and it called Reg, and the night before he went there we were talking about it, and I said, ‘I think you’ve got some problems there because the judge is starting to look at — because some of the commissioners had said certain things,’ and I said, ‘I think,’ you know, ‘everybody else has got legal representation, we’ve agreed to pay the legal representation for all of the Commonwealth officers involved and I think you should get yourself a lawyer,’ and he said, ‘I don’t need a lawyer,’ and I said, ‘Well…’ he said, ‘In any event there’s not time for me to brief anyone before I go into the witness box,’ and I said, ‘Well as you’d tell me, anyone who goes to defend himself has got a fool for a client.’ So [laughs] he took that quite on the jaw and we remained friends, and he went into court the next day and he — instead of — he could have handled it differently, he could have explained a little bit more about the reasons for asking for the change, but he didn’t, he was a little bit — a little bit more aggressive than he should have been. The judge justice went…
Interview with Russell Schneider part 8
R Schneider: Our permanent head described him as a twisted Catholic and he thought that the government would have been served better had they appointed a pragmatic Jesuit to do the job, and this was Sir Peter Lawler who was probably one of the most influential Catholic public servants the company’s ever had. Peter, apart from other things, influenced Menzies or Holt to introduce funding for Catholic schools when he worked in the PM&C. So anyway, the Royal Commission finding came out that nobody had done anything wrong except there was a possibility that the minister for administrative services had acted improperly in contacting the electoral commissioners, and of course we thought that Fraser would tough that out, and as it turned out it didn’t work that way and Fraser decided that — he’d been having problems with Reg for sometime so I think he just decided that this was the issue that gave him the excuse to fire him. It went back to the 1977 election when Phil Lynch, who was then the deputy leader, had been accused of some sort of very minor financial scandal; I can’t remember what it was, anyway, it disappeared, but Lynch at the same time, came down with a severe case of kidney stones, very severe case, and he wasn’t able to defend himself; he went into hospital and he was relieved of—he was stood aside—or he stood aside as deputy leader.
After the election was over and done with Phil was still pretty crook and Malcolm was undoubtedly trying to get Tony Street — who was a friend of his and in a joining electorate, and their minister for Labor and national service I think, or employment — he wanted to get Tony up as deputy leader and replace Phil. Withers found out about this and he got the numbers to make sure that Lynch would not be sacked and would retain deputy Liberal leadership, and he went down and told Fraser this, and I was in my office and got a phone call and Reg said, ‘Come down to the office.’ So I went down, Malcolm was standing there, and he must have gone out to Government House that morning because he was in a morning suit, you know? A black coat and striped pants and everything like that, and Reg said, ‘Tell him what you told me,’ and Fraser said, ‘Oh look, there’s this story going around that I want to try and replace Phil Lynch with Tony Street,’ he said, ‘That’s not true at all and I want you to let —’ he said, ‘I want you to let everyone in the Press Gallery know that that is not true!’ And as he said that he went to sit down and there was this ripping sound, and his pants must have been so tight, but as he sat down the seat of his pants ripped open! [laughs] He said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve ripped the seat of my pants!’ And so Reg just smiled and said, ‘Well you can tell your mates in the Gallery that there’s no truth in the rumours about Phil,’ and so I did. But I think from that moment on Fraser saw both Lynch and Withers as being potential threats, the old Machiavellian thing that those who made the prints are the ones who can unmake them.
B York: Yes.
R Schneider: So that’s how that all came about I mean I’m just thinking, you asked me very earlier on about leaks, and for a while, for reasons best known to others, I was given the main job of being the ‘dirty leakster’ — if ever there was anything really not nice — or well no — anything that was really politically damaging I would be given the task of being the person who spread that news appropriately to the media, and of course you’d only do it very, very selectively to people who you could trust, but that was one of those occasions, when actually it was a positive leak rather than a negative one.
B York: You know there’s a lot more I’d more I’d like to ask you about, going back on things you’ve said; we’ve done two hours again today and I’m wondering Russell, is it possible, would you mind another session at some time?
R Schneider: If you’re happy to do more I’m happy to too.
B York: Yeah, oh great, thanks.
R Schneider: Yeah. Sorry to ramble, but some of these things sort of just come back as you’re talking about them.
B York: No, it’s excellent and you know, there are things about the office that I’d like to ask about, even about the post November 11, the atmosphere, and especially, we’re always interested in the men who were prime ministers, if we could talk more about those who you had contact with and like you said you know, love hate relationship with Whitlam, well that’s something to—I’d like to ask a bit more about and…
R Schneider: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I’d be delighted to talk about that.
B York: And I’ll send you questions, a point form sort of guide to how we can do it and you can consider that, and of course we’ll also finish with asking about what you did after 1983 too.
R Schneider: Okay, good.
B York: So thanks very much for today.
R Schneider: No, that was a pleasure…
Interview with Russell Schneider part 9
B York: This is a continuation of an interview with Russell Schneider. Today is the 3rd of September, 2015, we’re continuing the interview at the museum in Canberra, here.
We finished the last session late 1978 we were up to, Fraser sacked Withers, but I’m wondering, to begin today, were you able to listen to the last session we recorded — I sent you the CD — and is there anything you’d like to add, or elaborate upon, or correct even — any factual type errors?
R Schneider: Thanks Barry. Well I have listened to it and I noticed a number of times my memory failed me in respect to things like dates, and names like committees, and things like that. But I think basically anyone that might be looking at it might be able to correct those. So if there’s any variation between the dates, or the name, and the official history I suggest people rely on the official history rather than my faulty memory. The one thing — I couldn’t go through it more — but one that I did remember was I think – this is a minor one - I talked about Gough going overseas in December, 1975. Of course I meant December 1974. And there’s a few little things like that where I couldn’t remember the precise date.
B York: And they’re kind of self-evident mistakes, aren’t they?
R Schneider: I think so. And as I said, if you compare it with the official history I’d rely on the official histories.
B York: And anyone interested in this would you’d presume have a background in that period of politics.
R Schneider: Presumably.
B York: There were a couple of points that I wanted to ask in light of the email that you sent me — you mentioned a few things that you were keen to talk about, let’s take them one by one. Somebody by the name of Les Love, can you tell me about Les? Who he was, and why he’s memorable?
R Schneider: Yeah, well Les Love was an older journalist in the Gallery, he was probably one of the oldest people in the Press Gallery in those days. He’d been here for a long, long time — I don’t think anyone knew exactly how long. And I said I specialised in reporting the Senate, but Les was even more of a specialist in reporting the Senate than I, he was almost a permanent fixture in the Gallery — in the Senate Press Gallery — from the time I arrived, for years and years until he retired or died. And Les became known to all and sundry as ‘Senator Love’ because he spent so much time — Les was the only person I know of who was — certainly the only journalist — who was allowed to interject, and he couldn’t stand pomposity or hubris or anything like that.
So the moment he detected that taking place on the floor of the Senate he’d immediately proceed interjecting, which the Presidents, or the chair of the committees would accept these interjections coming down from on high, and from time to time the senators would actually reply to these interjections that were coming from Les. So he was quite a character. He kept very, very much to himself. He didn’t particularly socialise with the other journalists or anything like that, but he was quite a Senate institution. And he was a very nice man, apart from anything else.
B York: That’s amazing that he wasn’t reprimanded for…
R Schneider: Yeah well I think he’d been there for so long, and I think that probably his interjections were so pertinent that a lot of people on the floor of the chamber would wish that they’d thought about it themselves.
B York: Look, the other one that you mentioned in the email was the Bass by-election, that’s 1975 isn’t it? When Lance Barnard retired…
R Schneider: Yes.
B York: There’s a huge swing against Labor in that election…
R Schneider: That was the time that people became certain that Labor was going to lose the election. It happened pretty much in the middle of winter. Launceston in Tasmania is a pretty cold place at the best of times, but in the middle of winter you can feel the damp coming up through the soles of your feet until it move its way up to your head. And I was working with Withers at that stage, and we went down to Bass to campaign with Fraser. And I vividly recall on one occasion we had a Commonwealth car that was given to Malcolm — we didn’t have a Commonwealth car ourselves — and he insisted that we travel with him from one point to another. So bundled into this car with Fraser, Withers — both of them quite large men — myself, our privet — Reg’s private secretary, Rob Maher and Fraser’s private secretary, David Barnett, and probably his press secretary. So you can imagine this car was — big though it was, was like a can of sardines, and Malcolm thought it was so funny. But anyway, on the day of the by-election itself, we — Reg was sent around to booths as were all the shadow ministers, and ministers from the government side too, just to sort of encourage the booth workers to keep on handing out ‘how to vote’ cards.
We got to one place that was — and it was a — not just bitterly cold, it was a really, really cold day. And it was raining. And we arrived at this place, and the rain had kind of stalled a bit, but it was still sprinkling, and Reg went over to the Liberal Party workers and chatted to them, and I stood in the background a little bit. And then a man came over to me, he was wrapped up — literally wrapped up on newspapers, he had newspapers strapped around his legs, and his arms, held on with elastic bands. And he said ‘excuse me sonny,’ because I was a bit younger than him, he said ‘would you mind — would you do me a favour?’ ‘Yeah, what?’ ‘I’d like you to hand out these ‘how to vote cards’ for me.’ And I looked at him and I realised they were Labor, ‘how to vote’ cards. And I said ‘oh look, I’m with Senator Withers over there, and he’s from the other side,’ and the guy said ‘don’t worry about it, my problem is that I’ve been here — I have never, ever’ — he said, ‘I’ve been a member of the party all my life, and I’ve never, ever missed a polling day where I’ve been here to hand out ‘how to vote’ cards with all the others. But this time I’m the only one here. I came here when the booths opened, and I’ve been here ever since, and quite frankly I need to go to the toilet, which is just out the back, so I’ll only be a couple of minutes.’ ‘Well yeah, but…’ he said, ‘don’t worry son, no one is going to take them’ [laughs], and he was absolutely right, I stood there with the Labor Party ‘how to vote’ — I said to Withers, ‘can I do this?’ and he said, ‘yeah, do it for the poor old…’
And so I did, and literally people just walked past, and they did not want to know, and you could tell from the vibe there. Because it looked like it was a sort of reasonable Labor booth. So that was a very telling experience.
B York: The only time you’ve handed out Labor cards. Gee well there was a huge swing wasn’t there? Sixteen per cent, and it had been a very safe Labor Party electorate.
R Schneider: It was a massive swing, and of course the first thing that went wrong — well firstly, the government was in bad odour, secondly, Lance Barnard had held the seat for a very long time, and I think people were a little offended that he was giving the seat up and taking and ambassadorship. And thirdly, Labor picked a very bad candidate, a dud candidate. So those three things together I think just multiplied the swing. They would have lost the seat in any circumstances I suspect, but those three things made it massive. And that of course gave the Liberal Party much more — or the coalition, much more confidence that it was going to win the next election. And helped them tough it out.
Which reminds me, one of the other things that I did forget, I noticed that I was saying that the then opposition was very, very determined to do all sorts of things. But within that, there was also a lot of concern, which went right up to the top. Fraser himself was very, very concerned from time to time about whether the course that he’d embarked on was the right course, or the wrong course. And I vividly remember one night — late one night when the opposition had had a very bad day in parliament, walking past the House of Reps’ opposition leader’s office, that is, Malcolm Fraser’s office. And I looked in, and the door was open, and Dale Barton, his private secretary, and his press secretary, were in conversation, but they also looked extremely agitated, concerned, and worried.
So I walked in there and said ‘look guys, I think the first thing you should do is shut the door so that no one can see you, and secondly, if people do see you, you shouldn’t be looking as concerned as what you are, because the whole key to this operation for what it’s worth, is confidence. And if we don’t look like we’re confident in what we’re doing, that’s going to seep through to our own people, it’s going to see through to the media, and it’s going to seep through to the public.’ So although there was a sort of determination to keep on plugging away, that didn’t mean that people weren’t extremely concerned about the potential risk that they faced. And the risk that they raced of course was an election annihilation if there had been an election, and the electorate had not supported the coalition. Obviously, Fraser’s own position would have been impossible. So there were high stakes.
B York: Thanks for that. The other point that you mentioned in the email related to the Senate committee on securities and exchanges, and Lionel Murphy — but I’m wondering — before we talk about that one, I wanted to ask something that you mentioned when we walked into the building today. And you said that you’d been up to the Press Gallery, what was that like for you, going back? What memories did it bring back of the working situation in that Gallery?
R Schneider: Well I was surprised, delighted, and disappointed — to be quite honest. Three things. I was very — well the disappointment: the disappointment was that the Gallery has shrunk from what it actually was, I guess for whatever reasons they’ve cut back the size of the Gallery, rather than — I think at one stage they were going to demolish the whole thing, but they’ve retained a section of it, but it’s a very, very old section. I was surprised to see; however, that the heart of the Gallery I suppose you’d call it, was intact. That is, where the press pigeon holes or boxes were kept, which is where all the news came out. Gee, there were lots and lots of quite big news stories came out there, as I mentioned before, this was the period of Vietnam and the first news the Australian people got of what was going on in Vietnam would usually come through the Gallery press boxes where the Department of Defence or the Department of Army would issue a press release that was usually very bland. To the effect of ‘there was a contact somewhere in Vietnam today, and several members of the Australian contingent were wounded or killed,’ whatever it might be, ‘names will be announce later,’ that sort of thing.
And so of course we’d get onto the Army PR, which would sometimes background us with a little bit of detail about what had actually taken place so that we could follow a story. But it was quite a strange experience, actually. We were thousands, and thousands of miles away from the conflict, and yet we were getting the first news. Sometimes possibly before even the troops in Phuoc Tuy [?] received it, about what was happening with Australian troops there. And a friend of mine who had been at Vietnam said later, talking about Afghanistan actually, ‘we really do our service men and women a great disservice by not letting people know more about the actual circumstances in which they find themselves, and more detail about the battles and the confrontations and so on, than they have, because it seems so far away, so remote, and the only Army news we ever receive is bad news about people being killed, or wounded.’
And I think he’s probably right, that there’d be a lot more understanding, and possibly a lot more sympathy for the Diggers that do go and put their lives on the line from time to time. But that was one of the things that came through. The other thing that was quite fascinating was, again, a space exploration. Because we’ve got the big space stations out at — space aerials out at Tidbinbilla, and much of the news about the moon flights came through from there, and it was translated into the boxes. And at one stage they had I think — I think it was when the first moon landing took place, they rigged up a speaker system at the Press Gallery boxes so that you could hear the exchanges taking place between the astronauts, NASA, and our ground stations here in the ACT. And so then one night there was a bit space junk was going to come and descend on Australia somewhere, and it happened to be at a time when there was a postal strike, or a telecommunications strike.
So all telecommunications were down, and we had retained one line from Canberra to Sydney, and it went. And of course the news about where this bit of space junk was going to land was coming out of Canberra, and so the editor of the Daily Telegraph, they kept the paper open until this news about what was going on — finally, finally, a decision — we had no phones, we didn’t have a phone hook up, the only communications that we had was this teleprinter line which I said had dropped out. And a statement came out that the bit of space debris was going to land in, I think it was in the middle of West Australian desert, so no one was going to be injured or anything like that. We had to get the news up to Sydney so that they could close the paper. So although we didn’t have the teleprinter line, we did have a Telex line that was still open. Wouldn’t communicate within Australia, but I ended up sending a Telex to our office in New York, which bounced it over to our office in London, which had a direct teleprinter line to Sydney that was still open. And they got the message there.
So it went from Canberra, New York, London, Sydney. One of the longest distance news stories of all time I guess. But I said I was delighted. I was delighted, and surprised to see that my old office when I went back to the News Limited the second time, is actually one of the offices that are on display in the Gallery. And opposite it was what was at that time our teleprinter room at the library. It had been the Australian Associated Press office, where the co-opted journalists from the Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Telegraph, and so on worked when parliament was sitting. And so there was something like seven people working in that small room at any — and that included one person who was a teleprinter operator. So you had the teleprinter going virtually all day, and journalists would be coming in and out of the Press Gallery writing what had been taking place in parliament.
And at the end of Question Time you might well have six people plus the teleprinter operator all pounding away at typewriters, you can imagine the sort of noise that was taking place in there. Plus, we had speakers on in both houses of parliament, so that you could listen to what was going on in the House of Reps and Senate, at the same time. Talk about sort of juggling things — multitasking, that was real multitasking. Then my office was the one opposite it, where they’ve got a fairly large display. We had three people working in that room: myself, chief of staff, and one other person on another desk. So the whole place was pretty cramped, and people were literally working cheek by jowl.
B York: And was there smoking permitted back then?
R Schneider: Oh yes [laughs] yes, you’d walk in there and there’d be this haze of smoke, sort of from about a metre above floor level there was just this cloud. And it was very, very hard work and hard living, I think is the way to describe it.
B York: Anything else you’d like to say about that, before we move on?
R Schneider: I don’t think — well one other memory, just in case I forget later, in the corridor that separates those two offices I talked about — that was the site of the Press Gallery cricket games. We didn’t play them out on the oval, or outside, in those days. It was played inside Parliament House. And it was a — it’s about I suppose 20 metres or so long, and someone would set up bat and ball — set up with their bat just next to the boxes, and someone would be down at what was the ABC offices and proceed to bowl a ball down through the Gallery. It was one way of filling in time when things were quiet.
B York: Alright, well should we move on now and talk about that other point that you mentioned in your email about Senator Murphy and the Senate Committee on Securities and Exchange?
R Schneider: Yeah. I think that was the — the Senate Committee on Securities and Exchange was probably the first major step in the Senate really asserting its powers of enquiry. Which I think have probably been corrupted a bit as time’s gone by, but as I said earlier, Lionel Murphy was quite determined to use the Senate as a political weapon, because if he could get the DLP onside he could pass resolutions, motions, and set up committees of enquiries. And so there’d been a fairly spectacular stock market crash — I can’t remember the exact date, but it would have been the late ’60s — involving minerals exploration companies basically. And Murphy decided to try and extract as much political capital out of that as he could, so he moved for the establishment of a committee to enquiry into — well it was called the Senate Select Committee on Securities and Exchange, and it was intended to be basically a short, sharp bash over the head of the Liberals and their stock market colleagues, and big business, and capitalism, and everything like that.
What they didn’t allow for was the — the coalition appointed Magnus Cormack to chair the committee, and Peter Reith from Tasmania was sort of chief-council, or council assisting — whatever you’d like to call it. And Peter took this particular job very, very seriously. And he — they dragged before them a number of very, very high profile stock brokers, mining company directors, and others — and created — turned the committee into, if not a — well into a really major, significant force and showed just how the Senate could get to the bottom of substantive issues by using its inquisitorial powers. Reith — Cormack began President of the Senate, and Reith then assumed the committee chairmanship, which he proceeded to come up with a report. Which has been pretty much the basis of the formulation of the National Stock Exchange and a lot of company law changes have come about as a direct result of that committee’s enquiries.
And I played my part, I reported that virtually from the day it started right through till it finished and became quite expert on it. The interesting thing about it was that after a while the Labor senators, including a guy called George Georges from Queensland, all became very — they all worked very, very cooperatively. The politics was put to one side, and it was probably the best exercise in the Senate committee system that has taken place since it started. Whereas today, unfortunately, and I feel quite disappointed about this, all too often the committees that get news tend to be politically — well the politics shines through, it becomes quite obvious that they’re political exercises. There are still some that do some very good work, come up with some very good reports, and they’re never mentioned.
B York: Alright, good, thanks for that. I wanted to ask about the atmosphere in the building here after November 11th. That was something that I didn’t actually ask you about when we were talking about the dismissal. What was the atmosphere like after that happened?
R Schneider: Funnily enough, in the immediate short-term, I think people were more concerned with getting on with the election than they were with anything else. Certainly a lot of people from the Labor Party were very, very bitter and annoyed — to put it mildly — angry, about what had happened. But I don’t think anyone had the luxury of time to get the atmosphere to change. It was just a case of one side became opposition, one side became government. I don’t — I don’t believe we even changed offices, it was a case of getting out into the electorate and running around running and screaming at poor, innocent voters. So within the building, I don’t recall any particular atmospheric change. Of course after the election things — I think by that time, while the anger remained, and — I think just people were just so exhausted and it was coming up to Christmas that everything just sort of died down, quite frankly. Others may see it differently, there may well — I’m quite sure that those who were dismissed would have still carrying considerable unhappiness, to put it mildly, but I can’t say that I ever encountered any particular agro, for want of a better word, from people on the other side.
The funny thing about politics, a lot of it is smoke and mirrors, and the people inside, whether they’re from one party or the other will often tend to be quite pragmatic about who’s winning and who’s losing. And I wouldn’t say it’s a game, well it is. In some respect it’s a game played very, very seriously. It’s a bit like when you see tennis players on the court who are beating the daylight out of one another, and if what you hear is true, and I don’t know whether it is or not, but afterwards they’ll go and have dinner together, or go and have a practice match together, help teach one another’s kids to play. And I guess in those days, I can’t say what it’s like today, but in those days those involved in politics tended to have sort of a shared mateship because ‘we’re all in the same business.’ And some days you’d win, and some days you’d lose. The stakes were high, but the level of intensity — it’s often said, and it is true that as often as not some of your best friends in politics are on the other side.
And some of the worst enemies are on your own side. And in fact I think that that is a truism, I think there tends to be more resentment within a political party when things changed, like leaders are changed or policies are rolled — there’s more intense bitterness within the party than there is between parties. Because you sort of accept that the other side are out to do you, but you don’t accept that the people on your own side are out to do the same thing, so that creates a sort of really strong resentment which has been obvious in the Labor Party in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, which are still hung over. And I think even today within the coalition. I think the pro-Abbott and anti-Abbott forces are probably quite — if it ever came to a head, as it probably will, the losing side will be quite bitter about those who won, and that was the case when Fraser replaced Bill Snedden — a lot of the Liberals who supported Snedden were very, very unhappy about Fraser. If we talk about atmosphere, I think the atmosphere within the parliamentary Liberal Party after — for about a week after Fraser rolled Snedden was far more toxic than the general atmosphere between — within the building — between Labor and Liberal people after the dismissal.
People like — for example, Graham Freudenberg, the incredibly marvellous speechwriter who is a Labor icon, and deservedly so, and I maintained a — we’d always been reasonably friendly, Graham is just a delightful person, I got on very well with him. And even while we were sort of withholding supply, holding up the appropriation bills, Graham and I continued to have quite a harmonious, friendly relationship. As we did with Ken Reed and his staff, so yeah that’s — what we see from outside isn’t always what you see from the inside.
B York: Thanks. I wanted to ask too about Senator Wither’s office, like how did an office at that level work back then, what was sort of the daily routines in it, and the hierarchy within it — the different tasks, duties…
R Schneider: Yep. Well the opposition office was much smaller. In opposition we had no departmental backup, there was only Withers, his private secretary, myself, a research officer, and a typist, so there was about staff, four. Withers himself. And so we had to really do all the sort of legwork and research work and so on. Interesting, I remember — not sure if I mentioned this or not — the office was — as most of the office are, was filled with bookshelves that were full of Hansard, and one day after we’d blocked the appropriations, I sat there for a full day going through Hansards, because I had a vague memory of something Lionel Murphy had said. And in fact Murphy — I found the reference — and in fact Murphy had tabled a list of all the money bills that Labor had opposed in the Senate, from about 1949 to the present day, and it was incredibly long.
And Murphy made the point that if Labor could use the rejection of a money bill to force a government to the polls, that was its duty to do. And so we had great fun throwing that back at the Labor Party, but it tends to be forgotten — the only difference was that Labor could very conveniently oppose appropriations, or supply bills, and stand up for whatever it was arguing, but it never had the numbers, so it had the luxury of maintaining a position without the odium of executing it. It was a bit different, and I think to myself today that one of the unfortunate things for Labor, as much as anything else, is that they do have a capacity to get the numbers in the Senate, which means that rather than simply maintaining a strong stance on an issue, and voting against it, but still having the legislation go through, they now carry the responsibility that if they do oppose something, it actually does stop. Now what does that mean? Well if, as they say, the government’s move is obnoxious, then they must stop it, it saves the people from ever being affected by that unpleasant piece of legislation. So they sort of create problems for themselves, which don’t quite exist if you don’t have the numbers in the upper house.
B York: But with the office, did — like how many people were there, and what were the jobs assigned to them?
R Schneider: Well in opposition, once again, we would start off fairly early in the morning. My job was to go down with the other four press secretaries and a couple of people from Liberal Party headquarters, and we’d work through what was in the newspapers and what sort of questions might be asked that day. And we’d do that until Question Time started. Withers himself would usually — there was usually a part meeting, although there was officially a party meeting on Wednesdays, there would usually be a party meeting before parliament sat, just to sort of talk through tactics and what was going to be done. And we had a research officer whose job was to research and it was very broadly defined. It was a case of anything that…
Interview with Russell Schneider part 10
R Schneider: … He wanted or needed to know about, she — it was a lady — and or I, and or the private secretary would all work it out together to try to find out what it was on. So it was very much a teamwork sort of approach, no one had an individual job except that as press secretary it was my job to talk to the media, and we were private consistent that either Withers or I would be the only person who talked to the press, just to make sure that we kept our messages straightforward. And of course there was a lass who did everything — did the typing, typed the speeches for me, typed letters for Reg, and the private secretary, and made the tea, and whatever. So a very small office, and of course Harold Young was a Whip, and Harold would come into the office to talk to Withers and together they’d sort of work out a battle plan for the day that would then get passed on to the senators. And there’d be a stream of backbench senators or shadow ministers coming in to talk about this, that, or the other. And of course when parliament was not sitting, Reg would go back to Perth and he’d deal mainly with electoral matters over in Perth, and the rest of us stayed in Canberra. Very sensibly he took the view that there was no point moving his staff backwards and forwards with him because you’d have a permanent state of jet lag and basically it was much more valuable having the staff on the ground in Canberra.
In government, things didn’t change dramatically, except we had much more staff. The staff just about doubled. Nowhere near as big as the staff ministers have today. We had — again, principal or senior private secretary through whom all paper passed, and the job of the senior private secretary was to determine what material needed to go into the minister and what could go direct to the department to be dealt with, and what might need a reply to come back to the minister, so you’d have a little tick box sheet: ‘see minister,’ or ‘department to reply,’ ‘minister to reply,’ which meant the department would normally draft a response. Very, very rarely would the minister write his own response to anything. Pretty much everything would go back to the department where it would be — quite properly, where people who should be expert on the matter would be able to put the facts together, for better or for worse. Sometimes you had the feeling that they hadn’t read the letter [laughs] that they were responding to.
And sometimes they were very, very in-politic. One of them for example, it was just before Christmas, and we got a letter from some person who had failed to vote in the election, and they’d received a letter from the Electoral Office threatening them with the fine, and they hadn’t paid the fine, so they were now being threatened with going to jail, and we referred that to the Electoral Office for a response and the letter that came back basically said ‘go to pot, you’ve done the wrong thing, you should go to jail,’ [laughs] I said to Withers ‘It’s Christmas time, I really don’t think it will be a good look if this man takes this letter to — if you sign this letter, and he takes it to the newspaper saying he’s a dirty dog, he should go to jail over Christmas,’ with which Reg agreed, so we sent it back to the department. I think actually we may have redrafted the letter in the office to explain a little more that the need to comply with the requirements of the Electoral Act without being quite so brutal.
And I don’t think that letter was sent off until after Christmas. And then there was a private secretary who would do much of the — again, the sort of screening work, the lower level letters — we had a — Reg had an appointment secretary who jealously guarded all his travel, and appointments, which would be done in concert with the senior private secretary, and the minister himself. And I had — I commandeered, when we moved from the opposition office just down the corridor into the government leader’s office, and I acquired for myself an office that was right inside the entrance, so I could see everyone that was coming and going in to see the minister. Because I found it useful to know who was in, who was out. And positioned it so that any journos who came in to see me had their backs to the door, so while I could see who was going in and out, they couldn’t. The minister’s office — in fact, it was interesting, they’ve retained the government leader’s office over on the other side. It’s changed quite a lot from our days, but when we were there, there was actually a secret closet behind the bookcases, and you had to go and push on the right spot on the bookcases and all of a sudden the bookcase would open out, and all of a sudden there was this little hidey-hole, which I suppose if you’ve got any real secrets, you can keep them.
B York: Gee, that’s quite extraordinary.
R Schneider: Yeah, whether it’s still there, I don’t know if people know about it or not. We knew about it from our predecessors who told us about it. I don’t know whether Reg passed it on or not to anybody. So for all I know it may still be there.
B York: And where was it again?
R Schneider: It was on the wall on this side. The wall that faces east I guess. There’s a row of bookcases — or there was a row of bookcases, and one of those, you press the right spot — I can’t remember what the right spot was. We acquired a huge safe that wouldn’t have fit in that cabinet. And that’s where all the Cabinet submissions were kept, and there was only two people in the office who were allowed to have the combination to the safe, so that it could be kept quite confidential.
B York: Who were they, what position…
R Schneider: That was the senior private secretary and the private secretary, they were the only two who could do that. I did not have the combination, although as thing sort of happened, everyone — after a while, most people were able to open the safe if they really needed to. But we pretty well respected that that wasn’t done. I think I said the appointments secretary.
B York: Yes.
R Schneider: After a while, we went into a period — a bit like the government of today found itself not so long ago, where we had enormous problems with the backbench, and with the government going down in the polls as governments always do. And the backbench was complaining that the government’s message wasn’t getting out, and that more should be done. So we — they formed themselves into a sort of committee of angry backbenchers who took a deputation to Withers, as he was the Minister for Administrative Services, and as I mentioned before, member’s irks and perks, he should do something about it. Reg didn’t really want to go and be harangued by all these backbenchers, so he gave me the task of going down and fronting them. And so I did. And it became pretty obvious, as is always the case, the backbenchers wanted to put out all the good news and didn’t want to try and sell the bad news.
And so after a while — this meeting took place in a committee room — House of Reps Committee Room number 1 or 2 — can’t remember now. And they were — so I quite bravely for a start — in those days, staffers had none of the power that staffers have allegedly go today, you were supposed to do your job and be seen but not heard, other than in the office itself. But I took it upon myself to effectively to read the ‘riot act’ to these blokes and I told them in no uncertain terms that their job was to go and sell the government’s message for better or for worse, and if it was a tough message to sell, it was their job, that’s what they were elected for. And fortunately none of them could sack me, and I knew that basically this was the thrust of what Reg believed, so I felt fairly comfortable saying it. But we did come up with two things: one was the establishment of an organisation called the Ministerial Documents Service, which simply just put every press release that the minister had made during the week into one little compendium, and they’d deliver it one way or another to each member’s office so that they could then make their own press releases and so on. And that actually worked quite well.
The other thing that we did, we agreed that it was more important for the Cabinet to take note of the consequences of its decisions. Or rather, the political consequences of its decisions. Now people may find this very hard to believe, but up until that time, which was around about 1976-7, Cabinet submissions — which were written in departments — would take into account a lot of the policy consequences of what was proposed, but not he electoral-political ones. So a decision that might be a very logical decision from the point of view of the public service, would only have its political consequences tested if the antenna of the relevant ministers were alerted to it.
And that didn’t always happen because ministers were very, very — naturally very busy with all the things they had to do. So we created a front page for every Cabinet submission, which actually required the minister to identify the people who were likely to be adversely affected, the groups who were likely to be positively affected, the measures — or the arguments that might be used to counter criticism, and the cost, and a number of things like that. Which meant that — it had a lot of valued because it meant — and it was supposed to be filled in by the minister by his own hand, or by a senior member of staff, which meant that within each ministerial office a very senior person, if not the minister, would be required to think about the electoral consequences of any submission. And to the best of my knowledge they’ve continued that today, although sometimes you wonder whether it’s done. But — in fact I must try and — I might be able to dig that out and send you a copy…
B York: Yeah, that’d be great.
R Schneider: It’s so old that it can’t be classified anymore, the new ones probably are but this wouldn’t be. But what we found after a while, trawling though the Cabinet submissions which were supposed to be two or three pages but the attachments had grown it to maybe 30, 40, 50 — it was almost impossible to go through and fill them all in. So we ended up employing someone to actually read every submission and then condense it down to a two or three-page summary for Withers and for me, because there’d usually be a press release attached. And we insisted that the press release be done within the office, for the reason, again, to make sure that the politics of any issue were addressed before the event rather than after it had hit the press and then you’d have to react, rather than be positive on it. So that took up a fair bit of time. We also had a person from the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet, who was the parliamentary liaison officer, and it was his job to liaise with his equivalent in the Prime Minister’s Office, or the Leader of the House’s Office, just to see what kind of legislation was timed to go in the House, and then into the Senate, and what time it was supposed to come out.
B York: Who was that? Do you remember who it was?
R Schneider: Can’t remember his name…
B York: Doesn’t matter, we can find that out, not to worry.
R Schneider: And so he would share an office with the girl — again, can’t remember her name — Jenny, can’t remember her last name, who would scan through the Cabinet submissions, or condense the Cabinet submissions. And we had a dining room out the back, I think that’s gone from the display, and a kitchen, and an attendant who was an ex-butcher — Barry was his first name, can’t remember his last name — and he did a great job of organising meals, most of which came from the dining room in Wither’s suite, so that he could entertain backbenchers or visitors, or whatever, in his own — so he had his own private dining room.
And we had a nice little balcony that overlooked the Rose Garden and Senate, and that was about that. The working day itself, started around about 8 o’clock in the morning, and usually around 8:30 the head of the department, Peter Lawler — Sir Peter Lawler would come and brief the minister on whatever issues there might be, and find out from the minister whatever the minister might want him to do or get the department to do. And we had a person from the department who varied, from time to time, who would come and assist in preparing a Question Time brief. So much of the activity, even out of sessions, still revolved around parliament and Question Time, and what was likely to happen in Question Time. And the brief, of course, was prepared by the department and just dealt both with background to everything the department did, and then if there were issues running in the media they’d be highlighted and updated, so that the minister would actually have with him his big book, big compendium, the right — or the latest, most appropriate, accurate response. Which was a lot more difficult to deal with than you might imagine, because sometimes, as I’ve said this compendium was about three inches, four inches thick and sometimes there’d be two of them. So you’d have to cross-tab whatever might be important, so that even though it was done alphabetically, the task of trying to find the right answer when a question was asked was still pretty difficult. So you’d have to spend some time to make sure that the way it was indexed was as user friendly as it could be. And then we’d usually find — I usually found that there were journalists from the Gallery wandering in and out, just basically checking on whether there was anything happening that they should know about. You’d then have Question Time itself, I would usually sit out in the office listening to Question Time on the speaker — one of the jobs that I shared with — God, what’s his name? — Fraser’s office — Petro Georgiou, who later became a member of parliament — Petro was on Fraser’s staff. Petro and I shared the task of writing condolence motions, because basically how many people died in those days, and virtually every second day in parliament there’d be a condolence motion either for a former member of parliament or dignitary of some sort. Or a foreign dignitary.
And — not sure that we’d should record this [laughs] one day the President of India, whose name was Fakhruddin, one day died and we had to a do a condolence motion. And it was my job to do it. And one of the things we did — in those days the ABC had a thing called something like The Committee on Spoken English, and its job was to ensure that ABC presenters had the correct pronunciation of every word that was uttered on the ABC — it’s a great tragedy that committee seems to have gone into abeyance, so I checked — what we do is check with this committee to find out, make sure that the prime minister and that the leader of the government in the Senate both pronounced the name of these people exactly correctly. And so I rang and asked how this name was spelt, and sure enough it was as you’d think.
So I wrote this speech, a copy of which went down to Fraser’s office, and made sure that both Withers and Fraser pronounced it correctly, ‘I regret to inform the House of the death of the President of India, Dr — or Mr Fakhruddin (pronounced F-ck-ruddin),’ and we’d written these speeches so often, and the minister and prime minister had read them so often that they were just accustomed to reading it out [laughs] without thinking about it. So Hansard fortunately does not record — as it went through, both of them said ‘it’s with deep regret that I inform the House of the death of the President of blah, blah, blah — pronounced,’ [laughs]. And I don’t think either of them spoke to me for a couple of days after that.
B York: Okay, so they weren’t appreciative of that.
R Schneider: It probably caused a ripple of laughter. But then if particular issues were on the Senate I would go to the seating gallery and sit in the adviser’s chair and pass notes to the boss. And then the afternoon would be spent — come out of parliament and spend most of the afternoon either talking to departmental officials, and or dealing with the submissions, and of course the amount of paper that comes over a minister’s desk is phenomenal, I don’t think people would comprehend just how much comes through. And even if you’ve got people outside who are shifting stuff over to the department for response or reply, those things that you’ve sent over for a response still come back. And Reg would come through in the mornings and just go through the correspondence. We’d start about 8, he’d often be here about 6:30, just working through things when it was nice and quiet.
The afternoon, as I said, might be the — the departmental head might be over again, if not, he’d go through his papers and or I and his senior private secretary would have a discussion about what was going on, how it might be handed, gossip about this that and the other. The Whip would come in an again be given their instructions about how we wanted things to be played. Then dinner — we’d adjourn for dinner, sometimes I’d go home, sometimes I’d work through — and then at night it started to get fairly dull, and quiet, but of course you’d still have to stay here. There’d be the occasional journo that’d come down and chat for a while, and then when parliament got up, Reg would normally have drinks in the office for anyone who — well firstly for anyone that he particularly wanted to talk to, and secondly for anyone that wanted to drop by and have a drink. And so we’d hang about after the House had got up, probably for half an hour to an hour, and then go home. And then the next day it’d start off pretty much the same. So that was the routine, for what it’s worth.
B York: No that’s good. Good to know that, and it’s a complete — very full answer, so I thank you for that. What about the sort of relationships within the office — were they smooth or were their hostilities that developed or…
R Schneider: I think — in the office we did have a pretty good team of people who did work well together for most of the time, not all the time. Certainly with Reg’s original private secretary, Robert Maher I had a very, very good close working relationship, we worked very well. Rob left, and a new guy came in, and from time to time that would get a little bit tense. But we both worked fairly hard to make sure it was cooperative and workable, and it was. In those days I suppose there was probably a lot more chauvinism than there is today, so I suppose the boys tended to hang out together, and the women in the office were probably — felt that they were regarded as second-class citizens I suspect, but by and large things worked out fairly well.
There’d be some tension on sitting days, particularly before Question Time when we were trying to get that brief that I was talking about, together. But by and large I think we worked — not as a well-oiled machined — but it was pretty friendly, and we’d — on Fridays we’d usually have lunch in the office. Barry would organise a collection — salad and things from somewhere. We never really knew where they came from, and we’d all sit down, including him, and perhaps someone would get a bottle of wine or something like that and we’d sit down and have a chat about how the week had gone. Usually Friday afternoon was not much work done, unless something suddenly occurred to make us put our heads down.
B York: Good. I wanted to move on now to the topic of prime ministers — we’ve got the Australian Prime Ministers Centre here, so we always like to ask people if there are any anecdotes that provide insight or help understand the people who were prime ministers. Did you have much contact with the earlier people like McMahon, Whitlam…
R Schneider: Well one way or another, I saw every prime minister and including, from Menzies on, but my experience with Menzies was extremely limited. I think I went and reported a couple of things he opened in Sydney, and that was about that. So I don’t think — I certainly wouldn’t say I knew him by first name, nor he me. Gorton I got to know reasonably well when he was Minister for Education and Leader of the Government in the Senate, and he was pretty much the sort of — what you see, you get. There was no — Gorton’s public persona was almost exactly as his private one. He was a — he had a good sense of humour, he was a bit of a character, he’d been a pilot in World War Two and I suppose all plane jockeys are a bit cocky, and self-opinionated, he knew very much what he — he had ultimate — or he had pretty much total faith in his own convictions. He certainly would not suffer fools or incompetence easily or lightly.
He probably got a bit carried away — I think he basically had a ‘take me as I am or kick me out,’ sort of attitude, ‘love me or leave me.’ So whereas his predecessors, including Holt, though Holt was nowhere near as much a towering presence as Menzies, but Gorton didn’t really care what people thought of him, and wasn’t quite crash or crash through but he sort of — he was so self-confident I don’t think he ever seriously thought about the consequences of his actions, and of course he started to come under — he didn’t appreciate, I don’t think, the level of opposition that was bubbling beneath the surface within the party, particularly from McMahon. And he made his first mistake, of course, was taking a girl from the Gallery, Gerry Willesee to the American Embassy late one night when I think Ed Clark was still the ambassador — whoever was the ambassador, doesn’t really matter.
And word got around about that, I’m not sure that Gerry told people about it herself or it came out from the Americans, or what, but he took her to the embassy late at night, and then I think took her home and of course this was scandal, horror, shock. Now I don’t believe anything untoward happened, other than it being a bit dopey of the prime minister to arrive at the American embassy with a girl reporter in tow. But it’s funny, up until that day I think, any prime ministers’ dalliances went totally overlooked by the media, perhaps because it was the Americans involved or maybe because it was Gorton, this was big news. And it started to — it was used I think by his opponents to argue the case that his judgement was very poor, but overall he was a very affable, very approachable guy. I never saw him lose his temper, though he probably did.
He became quite sour, though, when Fraser became the leader, he left the party. He couldn’t — because of course Fraser had been the instrument that caused his downfall. Fraser was Minister for the Army, Gorton was Prime Minister. Fraser felt that Gorton had not supported him on an issue, the details of which I can’t recall, and Gorton allegedly briefed Alan Ramsey about this, Fraser found that offensive, went into parliament and resigned. Gorton denied that he’d briefed Ramsey about it, Ramsey was in the Gallery and yelled out ‘you liar.’ Alan Reid ushered Ramsey out of the Gallery, because everyone was infuriated, and embarrassed. And things went on and on until that came to a head and there was a party meeting, and typical Gorton, the vote was tied so Gorton used his casting vote to vote himself out. But he was very, very bitter about Fraser’s actions. And so he left the party and he ended up becoming a rather — not bitter, but a sad old man, and he drank too much.
And I went out when I was writing the book about Peacock, I went out to see him to get some background at his home in Red Hill, and the place was a mess — his wife had died by then, he was living alone — and he gave me a drink early in the day, and I felt it was very, very sad that a man who’d been prime minister had ended up such a sad and lonely figure. But then there was — oh, I didn’t talk about Holt. I didn’t really know Holt, other than seeing him in parliament, so I can’t really go into much detail about Holt. Billy McMahon, well he was a funny character. He was actually quite a likeable old bloke, and I’ve mentioned before about he and my wife had had these Sunday night telephone trysts, but he went into parliament one day — when he succeeded Gorton of course, he made a lot of enemies on Gorton’s side, one of whom was — the principal one being Jim Killen who was sent off to the backbench.
And one day in parliament, Billy got up and said ‘oh, I admire a worst enemy,’ and this voice came from the back saying ‘not while I’m alive, you aren’t,’ and that was Jim Killen. And so — he was a very — I understand, he was a very poor chairman of the Cabinet, which probably Gorton was too, like all prime ministers they like to get their own way, and that then creates tensions within the Cabinet. Billy himself, as I said before, was almost perpetually on the telephone talking to anyone he could about anyone he wanted to — anyone he wanted…
Interview with Russell Schneider part 11
R Schneider: … To bag, he’d be on the phone to all and sundry and bag them. When he finally lost the election, he chose to stay in parliament, which up until Gough’s time, I suppose, most — yeah, it wasn’t fashionable for ex-prime ministers to leave, as often as not they’d hang around, and Bill did. He would frequently get up in the party meeting and raise issues for various people, but I think I’ve probably run through most of the Billy stories. Gough. Gough and I had this love-hate relationship that I mentioned before. I quite liked — I really didn’t admire Gough in many ways — I think he was a great guy, he was not a bad prime minister himself, but he had a bunch of unreliable ministers who were all at odds with one another, so he didn’t run a good government.
He would have been a great President I think, but not prime minister. Of course he really did need to have absolute power. He had often, when he was opposition leader, if he was campaigning anywhere you’d see him lying by a swimming pool — whatever motel we’d be staying at — and he’d be in these skimpy little swimming costumes, same as Tony Abbott wears, but nobody complained about Gough doing it, funnily enough, and he’d be lying by the pool reading Hansard. He went — the classic story, he went to — my memory is failing me, Barry, having a terrible difficulty with names, I’m just trying to think of the Queensland Senator…
B York: Field?
R Schneider: No, he was President of the Queensland rugby league, he was a Labor — McAuliffe, Ron McAuliffe, he went to — during mid-’75, he went to the Queensland rugby league with Ron McAuliffe who was the President of rugby league and a senator. And they went out to the middle of the oval where McAuliffe had made a speech about — not sure if it was State of Origin, I don’t think — but anyway, it was a big Queensland rugby league, and he said he wanted to introduce the prime minister of Australia, at which time the crowd started to boo — Gough made a very brief speech, he turned around to McAuliffe and said ‘McAuliffe if I’d known you were so unpopular I never would have come to Queensland,’ [laughs]. He was a man of phenomenal wit. He was — when I — I think I told most of the stories about travel with him, but when I got — well when I got my AM, he sent me a letter saying ‘dear Russell, Margaret and I are delighted that you have joined our order,’ [laughs], and I thought ‘yeah, right.’
And I saw him a number of times at Canberra Airport, when I was in my later life running the Health Insurance Association, and he said to me one day — came over to — we’d often meet and have a coffee or whatever — and he came over and said ‘I’m glad you’re doing such a good job in your new role.’ And I said ‘really?’ ‘Oh yes’ he said, ‘Margaret’s legs are very, very bad, and she’s going to have to have a number of operations, and I’m very glad that you’ve organised for them to be paid for,’ [laughs]. So there was Gough and Malcolm Fraser. Malcolm had a hideous hidden sense of humour which was occasionally referred to. As I said when we were in Bass he thought it was hilarious to have all these people stacked in his car like sardines, nobody else thought it was funny, but Malcolm thought it was hilarious.
He used to freeze — make ice-cubes of gin, which he’d put in the martinis — he’d mix the martinis in his own office. He liked a fancy — or liked people to regard him as a bit of a wine buff, but in fact he was always outshone by his mate, Tony Street, who from time to time Malcolm would say ‘oh this is a beautiful drop,’ and Tony would say ‘well actually it’s corked, Prime Minister.’ And I think he always carried a feeling of guilt on his shoulders about the way he came to power. I think he always had a feeling that there was something a little bit improper about it, and he would have preferred to have won the election in different ways.
B York: What gives you that impression?
R Schneider: Oh a number of things about Fraser, hard to say there’s any one particular thing. He was always obsessed with propriety afterwards, and there was some — it’s honestly, Barry, I don’t think I can come up with a single thing that says that — mainly and attitudinal thing that just one felt. And of course he managed to get rid of the two people who had been instrumental in the supply crisis, Lynch and Withers. But he was also — he was a mean — I almost said ‘bugger.’ There’s a classic story about Malcolm and his entourage went around the world, and he was in Paris, and all prime ministers stay at the Hotel de Crillon in Paris, which was the Gestapo headquarters in World War Two, and one of the most elegant hotels in Paris on the Champs de Elysees, next to Maxim’s and one this particular occasion he and his wife, Tamie — or Tamie — they were staying in a suite in the Crillon, and one night they were free and Tamie said ‘Malcolm why don’t we go and have dinner at Maxim’s?’
And Malcom said ‘well we could, but I’d have to pay for that myself, whereas if we eat in the Crillon it just goes on the prime ministerial tab?’ Tamie said ‘you so and so.’ So Malcolm said ‘oh well get the Crillon to arrange for Maxim to send us up a meal.’ So they rang the Crillon, some manager or someone, and said can you go to Maxim’s and get a menu please?’ And of course the manager was somewhat offended by this: ‘Maxim’s? But we have the best kitchen in Paris, prime minister.’ ‘Oh no, no, we want it from Maxim’s. My wife wants to eat from Maxim’s, so we’ll have it from there thank you.’ So the manager said okay, and he sent around for Maxim’s and got the menu, and Tamie and Malcolm ordered from the menu, and they went out and back downstairs, trooped down to Maxim’s, brought the meal back and delivered it to the suite. But there was no way in the world the Crillon chef was going to allow his kitchen to be totally — or his dining room to be totally bypassed. So they scraped all the meal of the Maxim’s crockery and put it on to Hotel de Crillon plates, with the Hotel de Crillon crest on it, and served it. And how do I know that story? Well the next day we were all told by Tamie and the manager of the Hotel de Crillon. They both had the times of their lives telling us about it. And so…
B York: I was going to ask ‘how do you know that?’ I mean did you know the chef or…
R Schneider: No, no. Tamie thought he was such a mean so and so. And he was delighted to tell everyone about it. We went around — I went around with both Gough and Fraser around the world so many times — well with Gough only once, with Malcolm a number of times. And one of the other things about Malcolm was that he hated the banks. He was a farmer and he’d often come down the back of the VIP aircraft as prime ministers do and just have a private discussion with the journalists travelling with them. And usually those sorts of talks were off the record but you could use that as background for various things, and on one occasion there’d been some sort of problem over interest rates I think, and Malcolm came down to the back of the plane and he was vicious about the banks, about how they had no sympathy on people on the land, because being a farmer he was particularly — acutely sensitive to that.
And he was seriously thinking about what action the government could take to force the banks to be, in his words, ‘more responsible.’ Unfortunately for him, his treasurer was letting him down. His treasurer at that stage was John Howard, and John as treasurer had to put up with a lot of interference from Malcolm as prime minister. Malcolm would talk about legislation by exhaustion, would have Cabinet by exhaustion — if Malcolm wanted something done, he would take it in to Cabinet, and he would force Cabinet to sit until such time as he got his way. Just wear the ministers down. Which I suppose didn’t ingratiate him for his more senior colleagues, it was probably okay for the more junior ones who were happy to be in the ministry, but that’s — probably most of what I can recall about Malcolm…
B York: He had that public image of being kind of aristocratic, and aloof, and distant.
R Schneider: Yeah. I guess it was his upbringing that always made him have that aloof, aristocratic turn of phrase and demeanour. Privately, he was reasonably — well as I said, bit of a practical joker with a good sense of humour — well good sense of humour is probably the wrong term, it was more a bit of what one would imagine to be a boarding school — prefect’s sense of humour. Of if you could play a practical joke on someone and leave them feeling a bit uncomfortable you thought that was very funny, and I think Malcolm tended to be like that a lot of the time. Although we’d been fairly — well quite friendly in the early days in opposition and the early days of government, once Reg was sacked he and I — he did not like me at all. Reg had given — Reg sacked me, as I said, just before he was sacked so that I could get my entitlements, but I still was in the office, and a couple of journos were coming down wanting to see him. And he said ‘I’m going to call a press conference,’ and I said ‘I don’t think that’s a very good idea, I don’t think you should call a press conference. If you want to brief anyone, do it selectively and individual,’ ‘no, no, no, I’m going to have a press conference,’ ‘I said I don’t think you should,’ he said ‘you can’t tell me what to do, you’re sacked, I sacked you.’
So he went on and had a press conference, and he made the mistake I think, in the press conference, of saying a number of things that were critical of Fraser, and Fraser believed that I had encouraged him to give the press conference, which was in fact not true. Anyway, he didn’t particularly like me, and I think it was — I’m pretty sure it was at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which was held in Melbourne. I wasn’t particularly interested in reporting what all these boring heads of government were talking about, I was more interested in the domestic politics. So I rang around a number of my contacts, and — because at that stage there was — it appeared to be bubbling away that Andrew Peacock was going to have a go at the leadership, and I rang one of — several of my contacts and said ‘anything happening?’ and one guy said ‘yeah I think it’s going to be soon because they’re starting to ring around, and I got a call today asking what side I was on,’ so ‘okay thanks,’ and I ended up with a story that we ran on page one that said Peacock about to challenge Prime Minister Fraser — or ‘Fraser faces challenge’ I think was the headline. Malcolm walked into this meeting of Commonwealth heads of government who were all sitting around this big round table, and they were all sitting there with The Australian held up in front of them, so he took his seat at the convenor’s chair, looking around this see of, not faces, but headlines, all of which were talking about how he was about to lose his job — he was infuriated. Absolutely infuriated.
And he — I think it was at that stage he wanted to get me sacked, and he rang Rupert, who was in London, and what Malcolm didn’t think about was what time it was in London, because it was probably around about, I don’t know 5 o’clock in the afternoon here. And he apparently said, because Rupert told me the story later — he said ‘Rupert, that so and so Schneider has done this, he should be sacked,’ and Rupert said ‘what?’ he said ‘Malcolm, do you know what time it is?’ And Malcolm said ‘oh it’s about 5 o’clock,’ or whatever time it was there, and Rupert said ‘Malcolm where I am it’s 3 or 4 AM in the morning, I’ve had a hard day, I’m trying to buy the London Times, and all you’re doing is wasting my time trying to get one of my staff sacked? Forget it. Good night,’ and hung up on him. And again, I’m not exactly sure of the timing there, but whenever Rupert was buying the London Times was the relevant period. Anyway, after this CHOGM thing, there was a lunch for all heads of government in Melbourne. And by accident or design I was sat down at the table with Dame Elizabeth Murdoch, and she really was one of the nicest people I’ve met in my life. All of the stories say what a charmer she was, and she really was. But anyway, she was sitting by me and she said ‘Rupert thinks quite highly of you,’ and I said ‘that’s very nice,’ ‘but I don’t think the prime minister does.’ So I don’t know how she’d got this story, perhaps Rupert had talked to her, and she said ‘you know, I was — one of my closest friends’ — Fraser’s mother, Una Fraser — and she said ‘Una’s very, very worried about the way Malcolm is being portrayed in the press, and you shouldn’t have to worry about that, but you must understand how mothers feel about their sons.’ And that — and actually then it went on, but ‘don’t you worry about that, you just do your job as you should.’
B York: With the story about Murdoch being rung so early in the morning, how did you find that information?
R Schneider: Well Malcolm — not Malcolm, Rupert told me. Rupert told me later, he said ‘the prime minister has tried to get you sacked,’ and I said ‘oh why’ And he explained it, he told me the story. As I think I mentioned last time, during that period when I was — after Reg was sacked and I went back to the Gallery, I spoke to Rupert fairly frequently. Quite a lot of the time we — he wanted to know what was going on in politics, and then — well I come to the 1980 election, which is probably just putting on the record, Barry, if you don’t mind, because I’ve been blamed for a number of things about that. That was the capital gains tax election.
And Bill Hayden was the opposition leader. Bill had a rather difficult time with News Limited leading up to that election and his then press secretary decided that Malcolm Collis who was our political correspondent, and I, would not be allowed on Hayden’s plane during the election campaign, so we were banned. And that was a bit of a pain, because in those days the senior journalists — senior political journalists of each paper would travel with the prime minister and opposition leader in their aircraft around the country. So we were forced into a situation where we were left to our own devices, and if we wanted to attend any of the rallies or anything like that we’d have to make our own way that, which was logistically very, very difficult. So Malcolm and I decided that it would be just as easy to go out and try and get different stories, and we were allowed to assign staff from the bureau to be on the travelling circus, so we did that. And a guy called Brian Boswell who was at that stage editor of The Australian, so we went our own ways, and I went to Melbourne one day for the opening of the Democrats’ campaign.
I had a couple of hours to kill, the Liberal Party had established its campaign headquarters in Melbourne so I thought I’d just wander down there and find out what’s going on. And when I got there, and bear in mind that this was in 1980, so even video recorders were in their infancy in those days. And Graham Morris was the deputy PR person there I think, and Graham took me around — Graham had been on my staff, so he said ‘come and I’ll show you what we’ve got.’ So in this room they had all these TV sets and video recorders, ‘what’s that for?’ ‘so I can record anything that’s been said by any politician, anywhere in the country, on any TV station and we can get it down.’ ‘Oh yeah, right, so what have you got?’ ‘let’s have a look and see.’ So we went around, had a look at a couple of things and — it was as new to him as it was to me — so he played one video tape, and of course its Peter Walsh, the then finance spokesman for Labor on the Country Hour for ABC TV, and he’s asked about whether Labor’s platform has a capital gains tax, do they intend on having a capital gains tax? ‘Oh yes, that’s Labor policy,’ says Walsh. ‘And will it extend to everything, including the family home?’ ‘Yes.’ So I said, ‘that’s not a bad story, can I get a tape of it?’
And yes I got a tape of it and then went back to Sydney and sat down — I wrote the story on the Sunday, and the acting editor didn’t run it, didn’t think it was much of a yarn, so the next day I sat down with Brian Boswell, I was annoyed that they didn’t run it — sat down with Boswell, who was the editor, and he looked at it and said ‘family home? I bought a home in Balmain, that’s worth such and such, and you mean to say that if I sell that I’m going to get hit by capital gains tax?’ ‘Yep,’ ‘that is outrageous.’ So we put it on page one. And funnily enough we then contacted — we tried to get the treasurer to say something about it — Howard was the treasurer, and he wouldn’t make any comment — whether he was planning to have a capital gains tax himself, I don’t know, but we couldn’t get him to make any comment on it. So we pushed, and pushed, and pushed and then we found other sources that we could keep the story running on. And it gradually built up a momentum of its own.
And finally all the other papers, including the competition, picked up this capital gains tax which arguably cost Labor the election and cost Hayden the chance to be prime minister. But the point I make is that had his press secretary not banned us from the aircraft, I would never have gone down and see that tape, and I don’t think anyone in the Liberal Party had picked up its significance, even Fraser. Normally prime ministers are very, very quick to jump on anything they can use against the opposition — he didn’t pick it up for several days after we’d been running stories about it — editorials and so on. During that time, Tom Uren, who was the Housing spokesman, rang Hayden and said ‘you’ve got to come out and make a very strong statement that we are not going to have a capital gains tax.’ To which Hayden replied, ‘Tom you so and so, you and your left-wing mates put that into the so and so party platform, and as the leader of the Labor Party I am not going to walk away from our platform. But you just remember that you’re the guys that cost us the election.’
How do I know that? Well a couple of months after that — Bill was still leader of the Labor Party — and his office and ours decided that it was time for a rapprochement, so Malcolm and I went out to lunch with Hayden and his staff, and his wife. And Bill told me that story there, he said to me ‘people blame you for costing me the last election. You didn’t cost me the last election, the left-wing did.’ Which is interesting. And we became quite close at that lunch, it was agreed that I would write a story about a day in the life of Bill Hayden, and flew up to Queensland — flew up there the day beforehand, we had dinner at his house, Dallas cooked mullet, I recall that — I think it was mullet stuffed with spinach or something like that, quite exotic — and I stayed the night in their house, in his daughter’s bed — not with his daughter, who wasn’t living at home at that stage, but they put me up in his daughter’s bedroom for the night.
And the next day we went around his electorate, including to Amberley RAAF base and sat together in the cockpit of a F-111 and he said — we were sitting next to one another, and the squadron leader — the bloke who commanded the squadron was standing on the wing next to us, and Bill said ‘how long do these blokes sit in these planes?’ And he said ‘well several hours,’ and Bill said, ‘well how do they go to the toilet?’ And ‘in the plane,’ and he produced a little thing like the sort of bottles that you have in hospital. And Bill looked at me, he said ‘God, how would you go if you’re the sort of bloke that finds it hard to have a leak if there’s someone sitting beside you?’ [laughs] And so Bill and I became — or resumed — quite reasonably amicable relationships. Dallas — funnily enough, my wife and Dallas became reasonably close friends, because they kept on bouncing into one another at the shops, as did Rosemary Sinclair I think.
Of course in those days, you’d go to Woolworths at Manuka and you’d never know who you’d meet. You’d be likely to bounce into the prime minister’s or opposition leader’s wife, or whatever. And — I’m just trying to think about how I got into that — oh, after that election Rupert had — he’d bought Ansett and Channel Ten, and he was experiencing very, very real difficulties with the incoming government — the government that some people thought we had returned. And he had a meeting of editors at Cavan, which was the big wool property down in the Riverina — that’s quite an interesting story too, about how lucky Rupert is. Ken Cowley, who was at that stage chairman of News Limited — managing director of News Limited, great Australian, discovered that Cavan, the great wool breeding property, was about to be broken up and sold — probably to Japan, or Japanese interests. And he thought this would be a national tragedy, so he convinced Rupert that he should buy it. And Rupert did. And the property — he bought it I think for 7 or 12 million — anyway, the day he bought it, it rained after a seven or eight-year drought, so a property that was going down the plug overnight he got more than his investment back just because of the rainfall. Anyway, we had a meeting of editors down in this place, and I was about to be sent up to Sydney as deputy-editor of the Aus and mostly likely then editor of the Aus or one of the other publications. And Rupert vetoed it, because he said he thought that he needed me in Canberra, and took me off reporting for a little while and he wanted me to help him negotiate with the government some arrangements which would be more favourable.
The main problem he had was with the West Australians — or the government backbench, and the West Australians and Tasmanians were bitterly opposed to the two-airline deal. They wanted open skies, which would have ruined Ansett, and would have not done the News Limited empire much good either, because Rupert was so locked into that. So News Limited half owned Ansett with TNT, and so my job was to try and organise a meeting of those backbenchers, so that Rupert could go — and there was nothing untoward about it, it was basically so that Rupert could go and present his case for the two-airliner agreement being retained, which I did, and he did. And they asked some questions, and he answered the questions and explained the difficulties that would be involved, and the fact that it was quite possible under and open-skies arrangements that West Australia and Tasmania might end up with worse air services than they had under the agreement, which forced both Ansett and TAA to run relatively unprofitable airlines.
They complained a lot about schedules, which had turned out the schedule problems that they had and still have are brought about not by the two-airline agreement, but by the curfew at Sydney, which means you’ve got to schedule your flights from Perth particularly, and from overseas, to arrive in Sydney at a certain time. Which means they have to leave at bloody atrocious times there. So take the curfew off and you’d have totally different schedules. Which seemed to be a fairly compelling argument that once they thought about it, they accepted. And ultimately the legislation continuing the two-airline agreement went through. By that time, I’d got a little bit of a taste more for lobbying than for reporting, so it became a fairly natural move from the Gallery into lobbying, when the opportunity came up. And the opportunity came out of the blue, actually.
I’d been invited — at that stage, journos weren’t often invited to go and speak at functions, it was just beginning, and I was asked to go and talk to the Private Hospitals Association, which I did, not knowing quite what to say I ad-libbed the whole thing and basically gave the private hospital industry a serve about a whole range of different issues. And at the end of my speech, a person came over to me and introduced himself Derrick Shaw, who then ran HBA, the big health fund in Victoria. And he was the President of what was then called the Voluntary Health Insurance Association of Australia. He congratulated me on what I had to say, because he was in perpetual conflict with the private hospitals over fees, and that’s sort of where it ended. I went overseas with Hawke, who had by then become prime minister, and when I came back there was a phone call from a lobbyist — not from a lobbyist, from a head…
Interview with Russell Schneider part 12
R Schneider: … Hunter, asking me if I’d go to Melbourne and talk to people about a job. So I found out a little bit more about the job, and it turned out that Derrick had obviously put him on to me, and I went down and I decided that this was probably the next move in my career life, and did. So I moved from the Gallery into lobbying.
B York: Were you — did you have doubts about whether you were doing the right thing in leaving journalism, or leaving the Gallery?
R Schneider: Yes. Yes and no. I’d got to the point — by this time — this is jumping ahead quite a bit from 1980, this was in 1983 — Labor had won the ’83 election, Hawke had become leader — that, again, was — there was another funny story: on the day — in January of that year, 1983, a story had appeared that Hayden was under pressure as leader of the opposition. And so I was recalled from holidays and Labor was having a meeting of the shadow ministry I think, in Brisbane. So we all went up to Brisbane to wait for it, and while I was up there I got a phone call from a contact, who will be nameless, who said ‘the prime minister is going out to Government House to call an election, a double-dissolution,’ and I said ‘yeah, right.’
As I was quite buddy with Hayden and reasonably close — not close, but I knew Hawke fairly well — I thought this would be — I thought Hayden should know about this, and I rang his office and tried to find someone, anyone, who could get in touch with Bill and was told that he was in, I think shadow-cabinet, and was there anyone there that I could talk to? ‘No, no, no.’ So I couldn’t get the message through to him. And heaven knows, they were probably so locked into making Hawke leader that they wouldn’t have changed anything, but one wonders whether if Hayden had known that Fraser was going up to a double-dissolution before they actually got around to the point of forcing out, whether he could have used that information to — whether he’d stayed in the job, I don’t know, probably no one does. I guess the thing is once Hawke was in there, it became pretty certain that Labor would walk in, although as Bill said, ‘a drover’s dog could have won.’ I don’t know. Fraser may still have beaten Hayden a second time, but Hawke was just so charismatic.
B York: I’d like to ask more about Hawke, and you said you got to know him to an extent, and also of course I want to ask about your lobbying work, because we’re very interested in lobbyist from the viewpoint of history of this building, this place — but I’m looking at the time…
R Schneider: Yeah I’ve talked too long.
B York: And I’ve got something else that I have to get to, unfortunately. We’ve gone for a couple of hours on tape, do you mind another session?
R Schneider: No, no, that’s fine Barry.
B York: Well that’s great. And also, next time we’re here let’s go to your old office and line up to have some photos taken…
R Schneider: Yeah, yeah. That’d be good.
B York: I was hoping that we’d finish today, but we can’t, and I don’t want to rush it at all. It’s great stuff, by the way…
R Schneider: Is it…
B York: Thank you so much for doing it — oh yeah. And so next session we can talk about Hawke, about your lobbying work — you can listen to this CD and tell me if there’s anything that you want to correct, or add to, or elaborate, or that you neglected to talk about. So thanks very much for today anyway, Russell.
R Schneider: Pleasure, it’s a pleasure. As it turns I have an unexpected dental appointment this afternoon, so…
B York: Alright…
Interview with Russell Schneider part 13
Today is the third… [Technical fault – about five minutes of audio lost at time of recording]
Interview with Russell Schneider part 14
R Schneider: Most of my time at the Gallery was spent actually in aeroplanes, rather than Parliament House — chasing prime ministers and ministers around the countryside. The first real trip I had was with Gough Whitlam, in 1970 — in the 1970 Senate election. We were flying from Sydney to Tasmania, and the pilot of the RAAF VIP aircraft was, I believe, a former RAAF bomber pilot — certainly seemed like that anyway, because as we went over Bass Strait he announced that our first oil rig would be in sight, and he was going to descend so we could have a close look at it. He descended on something that I’d term a bombing run, and we got so close that you could see the white faces of the people on the oil rig waving the aeroplane away, and all of a sudden he stood it on its tail, and we flew back to 20,000 feet. This was in a BAC 1-11 jet, and of course it happened about lunch time, so everybody was having lunch and Don — someone asked ‘is there anything better than first class?’
Well RAAF VIP is much better than first class — and we were all drinking Grange Hermitage, and I vividly recall one bottle of Grange rolling down the aisle with wine spilling out on the carpet of the aeroplane. Jim Clerk was sitting on the other side of me, he’d been smoking a pipe. The pipe fell into his crotch, he was holding onto a glass in one hand, a bottle in another, and wasn’t able to rescue himself from this smouldering pipe. And we finally got back up to our height, and it turned out that air traffic control in Sydney had seen that the plane was so low, way below its authorised height, and it ordered the pilot to get the hell out of there very fast, which he did. Well we landed in Hobart that evening, and got off the aeroplane, and Gough had arranged — or Gough’s staff had arranged for him to do a press conference, none of the press actually turned up, but there was a man from This Day Tonight, which had just begun broadcasting, and we sat down.
We all gathered around in a very small room at the airport, and the interviewer said ‘well Mr Whitlam, before we get started, I’d just like to run through the sorts of questions I’ll be asking,’ which you never do these days — and ‘my main question is that I’d like to explain for us about Tasmania’s future.’ And Gough looked at Graham Freudenberg, his press secretary, and raised his eyebrows, and Graham shrugged his shoulders. He looked at Lance Barnard, who was his deputy, and member for Bass, in Launceston, and Lance shrugged his shoulders — Lance was deaf, I don’t think he could actually hear what Gough had asked, and then Clem Lloyd, who worked for Lance, was also looked at by Gough, quizzically, and he, again, shrugged his shoulders. So Gough said to the interviewer, ‘oh for God’s sake, don’t ask me that, Tasmania has got no effing future.’ Now I tell that story for two reasons: first, very few people know just how profane Gough Whitlam could be, he had a very potty mouth in private — not in — he was a great orator in public. And secondly, had any politician today made that sort of comment, it would have been front page news, certainly in Tasmania if not anywhere else. But no one reported it, it was just sort of kept in the club, so to speak. It was a very, very clubby atmosphere in those days, with the Gallery and senior politicians — particularly prime ministers. I guess partly because one lived cheek-by-jowl with them, and no one really wanted to end up on the outer by reporting the intimacies, and to a certain extent, I think there was a degree of camaraderie among all concerned. So you didn’t really see that sort of thing as being news, but as I said, today no one would get away with that for a few seconds.
B York: There’s even eavesdropping today, isn’t there?
R Schneider: Well that’s right, yeah, absolutely. It’s a far less — well there’s far less privacy today than there ever was, far less intimacy. Another one that happened was I was flying to Cocos Island with Reg Withers, and we had on board a television crew who wanted to get some shots of the Emden, which had sunk near Cocos Island, and they believed they’d found where the wreck was, so they were doing a documentary on it. And we had hijacked — well not hijacked, we had hitchhiked I should say, a ride on an Air Force Orion, which was on a long distance patrol course over the Indian Ocean. Happened to be going from Christmas Island to Cocos Island, so they took us along. As we got near the island where the Emden was, or the atoll where the hull was, and again the flight descended to a couple of hundred feet above the ground. We were invited up onto the flight deck, and the flight deck on an Orion was quite huge, so we had a number of people standing around there.
And as we were flying in a circle, over the atoll, Reg leaned back and above him were rows and rows, and rows of switches, and as his hand went back he just clicked every switch, so what was on went off, and what was off went on, and the plane sort of blipped a little bit in the air, and the squadron leader who was in command, but not flying it — it was a young pilot who was flying the plane — the squadron leader came over from the jump seat in between the two pilots, and said ‘you’d better watch your stall speed, sonny.’ So the pilot — at that stage I looked at the stall indicator and I say we were just about — so the pilot revved everything, and we got out of there. And a third one, again with the prime minister Malcolm Fraser, on the eve of the Lowe by-election in Sydney, in around about 1982 I think it was. Fraser was flying from Brisbane down to Melbourne, and our aircraft was hit by a lightning strike actually, as we flew out of Brisbane, which was rather unsettling.
And we weren’t due to get into Melbourne until about 11:30. During the flight Fraser produced — his press secretary had produced a fairly significant press statement, which was going to make quite substantial news, but our problem was we were going to Essendon, and in those days the final editions closed around 11:45 or so, so to get anything in you’d really have to push it. There was only one telephone at Essendon Airport that anyone knew of, so we landed and Malcolm went down to the back of the plane before anyone could get out, and stood at the doorway and watched — gathered us all together and said ‘go!’. And everyone ran down the stairs trying to get to the telephone first, we called it ‘the Essendon dash.’ And being not the most athletic of persons, I was left behind. And so rather than rush and — I just walked over, because I just happened to know from sheer coincidence, there was actually a phone upstairs away from the public phone, in a bar [laughs], and the bar was still open, and I was very, very conveniently able to file my story while the others were battling downstairs over the public phone. So that’s just a couple of little anecdotes that I thought might pass some insight on things.
B York: Good, yeah, thank you.
R Schneider: The other one — because I travelled so much, I was used by News Limited to experiment with a lot of technology that was used for remote communications. And in around about the early ’80s, computers were really embryonic, no one with email today can comprehend how old fashioned things used to be. News Limited had bought a system from Sony, which was called the Typecorder, which was about the size of a big laptop, but it didn’t have a computer in it, as we have in it. It had a little tape, and so you’d type your story out on a keyboard, the tape would record it, and you’d then put it on a telephone line with a modem, press a button, and that would then presumably send the story through to the News Corp mainframe computer. As I said, this was being experimented with, so they sent me out — I had to go to Darwin with Prime Minister Fraser, and they sent me out with a Typecorder, and I couldn’t get this damn thing to work by hook or by crook. No matter what I did, in the hotel that we were in.
And I became very, very frustrated, as one would expect, and finally I thought well maybe — in the hotel we were staying you had to go through a switchboard to send a — to make any phone calls, and I wondered whether the switchboard might not be interfering with the line, so we went out to the airport on our way home, and there was a public phone there. So I whacked two or three dollars’ worth of coins in it, hooked up my Typecorder, and I sent a message to Sydney saying ‘Dear Ms. News Corp’ — which is what I called the mainframe — ‘I’ve been trying to have electronic intercourse with you for the last three days, and each time you have rebuffed me. As far as I’m concerned, you can go and get nicked.’ And jumped on a plane, thinking that’s the end of that, it was fun, but nothing is going to happen. I got into Melbourne I think it was, and phoned the office to see what was going on, and our chief computer officer came on the line and said ‘listen, there is no need to use that sort of language to our computer.’ So I’d finally found the trick that made it work.
And on another occasion in Indonesia, I was trying to get the modem to work on the telephone which was a different shape to ours, so the modem I’d been given just wouldn’t fit over the mouthpiece of the telephone, and so I complained about this, so they said they’d send in a telephone technician. So an Indonesia technician arrived, I thought this was a pretty backward sort of place, ‘I don’t this guy’s going to be able to fix anything,’ and he took one look at the phone and the modem, and he pulled out a roll of sticky tape from his back pocket. And he wound the — put the modem on the handset and wound it around with the sticky tape, and sure enough he’d achieved the perfect seal and the system worked again. So I often think when I see the boys and girls these days using their smartphones and iPads and everything like that to send messages, how they would have coped in the good old days, the pioneering days. But anyway, that’s just a few little memories.
B York: Thanks. I must just go back a bit, because you mentioned about Tasmania with Prime Minister Whitlam and how the journalist explained the questions or described them before asking them — was that common practise with prime ministers back then? With interviews, would a journalist…
R Schneider: Oh no, even in those days you’d rarely tell a prime minister or minister what questions you were going to ask. You’d — the way the game was changed, and it was a bit of a game, was to come up with surprises or you weren’t supposed to give them time to think about what they were going to say. I’m not sure that’s a really sensible approach or not.
B York: So why would it have happened on that occasion?
R Schneider: Oh I think this guy was just very new to the whole business, and This Day Tonight, as I said, was just embryonic at that stage, and I think this was probably the first time he’d met a prime minister. He probably hadn’t even met the premier of Tasmania at that time. So he was trying to be — I think probably also he was trying to make sure he’d get a decent sort of interview without having to probe too hard, it was easier to let Gough know in advance what the question was going to be. I don’t think he expected — if he’d had — or if the camera had been rolling the camera at the time, he would have got a great interview, but unfortunately the incident was recorded only in the minds of those who beheld it.
B York: And as you said, I mean there was that sense of it being an off the record comment, or private kind of informal comment. That obviously doesn’t happen today, and hasn’t been the case for quite a while — when do you think that shift occurred with journalism?
R Schneider: Probably after — sometime between Hawke, Keating, Howard, and it’s hard to say exactly when. I think probably — Hawke’s less than totally savoury background probably inclined some journalists to start — well actually there is an incident where it did — probably the first time it happened: it was a journo from Sydney for the Daily Telegraph, who I probably shouldn’t name, who had just taken over as political correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, and he was not part of the club, he was a new boy on the street. And one night there had been some Labor function in Canberra. I think it might have been a meeting of the national executive, and Bob Hawke and Hazel were staying over at the Canberra Rex over the lake. Bob began flirting, or two women in the bar began flirting with Bob, and Bill Hartley, who was a very left-wing member of the executive from Victoria, and an opponent or enemy of Hawke’s, was also there. When the bar closed, Hawke, Hazel, Hartley, and the journalist and a couple of other people went up to their room, and the next day — I didn’t go, I went home — the next day [INAUDIBLE] — the journalist came into the office and said ‘I have got a great story.’
And the story was that Bob Hawke had told left-wing ALP official Bill Hartley that if he, Hawke, was the prime minister of Israel he would have used a nuclear bomb against the Arabs if they attacked him, if they attacked Israel. So of course that was a very big story, it made page one of the Daily Telegraph and I was in working for the Sunday Telegraph, and on the Saturday morning the phone rang, and Bob Hawke was on the phone and he exploded. And he told me what a rotten organisation the Telegraph was, that News Limited was, that I was — and I said ‘Bob, I had nothing to do with it.’ And he said ‘it’s absolutely outrageous, that was a private conversation, it’s absolutely outrageous to have recorded a private conversation like that.’ And he said ‘I demand a retraction.’
So I got onto the editor at the Telegraph and told him about the story, and he said ‘there’s one problem with this, if we — say it was a private conversation, we are effectively saying that — we can’t print a retraction because that’s effectively saying that it didn’t happen.’ And I went back to Hawke and said ‘look the editor says we’ve got a problem here,’ and explained it to him. And ‘humph!’ and he just hung up. So that was that. I think that was probably the turning of the tide, I think that was when people in the Gallery began to decide that there was no such thing as a private activity, unless the rules of the games were that the person who was the subject of information, your source, explicitly said at the outset that the information that they were providing you with was off the record or for background only, and no attribution. And that’s always been respected, but I think unless that qualification is put down at the very outset of any discussion, the interviewee should be very, very wary of what they say. So that would have been probably 1980 — somewhere in the early ’80s between ’81 and ’82, ’83.
B York: Yeah, I vaguely remember that being in the headlines. So I’m assuming that the reporter, was he a young person?
R Schneider: No, he was fairly senior. He was senior to me, he was older than me, and he’d been around the game for a fair while. He was not a political journalist, he hadn’t been involved in the — he hadn’t done very much political reporting at all, but he’d been, for whatever reason, sent down to be the political correspondent for the Daily Tele.
B York: Were there any consequences for him?
R Schneider: Not substantially I don’t think. He didn’t stay in the job for terribly long, but I can’t remember whether he was transferred out or whether he transferred himself out. But he was not a long stayer in that particular — in Canberra, or certainly in the Gallery.
B York: And what about for the newspaper itself, were there consequences in terms of Hawke’s influence and cooperation and…
R Schneider: No, not really. Not extensively. I think it was subsequent to that particular story that — at that stage I don’t think Hawke was a really serious — well he was always a serious contender for the prime ministership — I don’t think he was seen as being likely to take over the leadership of the Labor Party within a twelve month, eighteen-month period. Subsequently to that, News Limited did hold a boardroom lunch which they did fairly regularly in fact — they’re not the only ones, Fairfax do it too — held a boardroom lunch with — they’d hold a boardroom with prime ministers and leaders of the opposition and various other political figures. And Hawke was invited to that when Ken May was chairman of News Limited, and I was invited up really as an observer, and Hawke certainly made a really real impression on News Limited editors who were at the lunch.
He seemed to have changed, metamorphesised from being a larrikin and a trade union leader and everything like that, he started to look very much more like a serious politician, and I think that — I don’t know that News Limited actively supported him after that, but they certainly didn’t actively oppose him either, and I think, from the point of view of very senior management, by which I mean Murdoch and his senior managers, the one thing that did impress them particularly was Hawke’s view, which he expressed at that meeting, that Australia had to get into the world economy, that we had to get rid of all the barriers that were around and start becoming a major — well not a major — we had to remove artificial barriers to trade and competition, and we had to do something about the currency, and that was in line with the sort of thinking that Murdoch had, so that certainly seemed to ring a bell with him.
So I don’t think there was any particular — any more of a confrontation between Hawke and the News Limited papers than there was between Hawke and anyone who — the simple fact was that both Hawke and Keating had no qualms at all about speaking in extremely strong terms to editors, or managers of newspapers if they thought they’d been given a raw deal. And in fairness to newspaper management, and all publications, tended to take the same equally aggressive line and were not prepared to be pushed around because the prime minister did — oh occasionally it would filter back that the prime minister wasn’t particularly happy about something that had been written, and ‘you’d better make sure that it’s absolutely accurate if you do anything like it again.’
B York: With the meeting that you described where Hawke was invited, did you say it was a dinner or…
R Schneider: Boardroom lunch.
B York: Boardroom lunch. Was it the kind of event where he was invited to give a presentation and to speak, or was it less formal and…
R Schneider: It was less formal, although fairly obviously he wasn’t there just to have a drink and casual chat, so he was given the opportunity to outline his views about the world, the economy, the state of the nation, the state of the Labor Party, and politics in general. And he didn’t have any sort of fixed speech, or any notes or anything like that, he just spoke about what he believed. And from time to time, if people had a question that they wanted to clarify, they’d do that. But he was just sitting at the table, he didn’t stand up or anything like that. But he was certainly the dominant person in the conversation, or he dominated the conversation I suppose.
B York: And the different editors were there did you say?
R Schneider: Yeah. Editors of the Australian, Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Daily Mirror, which we had in those days. I think they even flew the people in from the Adelaide News, and the Courier Mail — no, we didn’t have the Courier Mail then, the Adelaide News, and possibly the Sun. But it was editors, couple of senior managers, the editorial manager and a few others whose titles I can’t recall.
B York: And I guess that would happen with different political figures.
R Schneider: Yes, Hawke was not the only one. That was the only that I recall attending. There were some others, and there was of course, and I suspect as well probably still is, annual meetings of the top executives and editors of all the major newspaper organisations, and I guess there’s only Fairfax and News Limited today, but there would be an annual dinner at the Lodge with the prime minister and senior ministers. And political correspondents were not invited, it was purely between the prime minister, his ministers, and the senior execs of the newspaper chains. In separate forums, I mean the Fairfax went separate to News Limited. And after the meeting, which was supposed to be off the record and private, and just a discussion between them, the editors would come back — usually to Parliament House, and we’d usually go down to the bar where they’d attempt to suggest leads for stories, which they would never say had come out of the dinner with the prime minister, but one could usually make a fairly well informed guess.
B York: Right, yes. Now you’ve mentioned Bob Hawke a couple of times, as you know we’re interested here in the prime ministers, can we — we talked about other prime ministers last time, but did you have much to do with Bob Hawke overall? Do you feel that you got to know him to any degree?
R Schneider: Yeah I don’t know how many Bob Hawke other than perhaps Blanche and Hazel — probably Blanche more so, I’m afraid, really know Bob Hawke. I rather doubt that many people do. He’s very much his own person, and there’s a public façade, which isn’t necessarily all the real book, but I interviewed him when I wrote the book, The Colt from Kooyong, and I think the final chapter of that is ‘Is it the year of the Peacock or the Hawke?’ He had absolutely no doubt at all that it was going to be the year of the Hawke, and that he would outdo Keating in the rush to the prime ministership — not Keating, sorry, Peacock. He was a man of quite incredible discipline, I mean he was a very heavy drinker, as everyone knows, he did give up the grog shortly before becoming prime minister. And that was quite an achievement when you think about it, given the pressures that prime ministers are under, and the temptation to have a drink.
He was fortunate in having a very well disciplined staff, I recall the first overseas trip he went on. We were on — the first night we were in Papua New Guinea, in Port Moresby, and Bob came — we were all having a drink after a dinner that we’d gone to, and Hawke came and joined us, and he was drinking water, but he started to get into the mood of things, and began just talking — I mean he wasn’t drinking, but he was obviously willing to stay there and share information with the travelling press party, and one of his staff came up to him and ‘okay Bob, you’re going to bed now.’ And he said ‘okay.’ And just walked off into the — back into the main part of the hotel. He had — originally he had an office down the end of this wing of the building, which he shared with a couple of other people, and I’d go down there from time to time to interview him.
At one stage, Hayden — or Hayden’s office had leaked a number of very damaging stories about Hawke to the Fairfax press. And they didn’t leak them to News Limited, which annoyed me a little bit, so I decided the best way to deal with that was to go and form an alliance with Hawke, because we’re both on the outer as far as Hayden’s people were concerned, and I guess to a certain extent that was mutually constructive, or useful. But he was undoubtedly — or his greatest attribute I think was that he was an excellent chairman. As prime minister he would — he allowed his ministers to go and do what they needed to do, would support them when they needed support, but tended not to put his finger in every pie.
He saw his job very, very much as being chair of cabinet and overseeing the broad sweep of government, and being loved by everyone, and he was. It was quite remarkable how the Australian population — despite his very many faults, just liked him. And one of the other things of course, he had this reputation of being a great strike — or a man with a great capacity to settle industrial disputes, he made his reputation on that, he was very smart as someone once pointed out to me once: Bob would find something to do, whether it was to go to an ILO meeting in Geneva, or something somewhere. Or just disappear, until the dispute had pretty much run its natural course, and he’d then all of a sudden appear as the great, white, shining knight who was able to bring the warring parties together and settle the dispute. In fact the dispute probably would have settled itself by that time anyway, so his sense of timing and theatre was great.
B York: How many times would you have met him do you think? Had personally dealings with him?
R Schneider: Well at one stage when he was prime minister, virtually every day. I mean in terms of press conferences and things like that. In terms of going out and having dinner or anything like that, very rarely — once or twice. I went to his house — or actually it wasn’t his house, it was his secretary’s house in Melbourne behind the Hilton Hotel, when I was interviewing him for his book. And I went out to him flat in Kingston a couple of times. But I couldn’t claim that we had a very close, regular, friendly relationship as such. It was always a professional one, and he had no bones at all about putting me down if he chose to, if I’d done anything that — written anything that offended him or asked him a question that he didn’t like.
We were flying from Hawaii to Australia — maybe it was from America to Hawaii, and we went into the front of the plane to have the usual sort of prime ministerial briefing, there was a premiers’ conference coming up about a week after he got home, and I just asked him if he could give us some idea about the sort of — there was a couple of issues, and I asked him about those, and I remember him saying to me ‘if you seriously think that you think I’m going to tell you anything about an upcoming premiers’ conference, you’ve got another thing coming, I’ll tell the premiers what I think, I won’t tell you.’ And that was the way he said it. But I suppose I probably would have been — I would have seen more of him than most people do on twenty or thirty occasions I suppose.
B York: Anything else you’d like to say about him?
R Schneider: Not that comes to mind immediately, I mean I think his wife made a well written book, or well-read book, and yeah I don’t think there’s anything…
B York: Alright. Did you have anything to do with Paul Keating at all?
R Schneider: Yeah, not as much as with Hawke. Well actually I did have quite a bit to do with Paul when he was President of the party in New South Wales, when they were in opposition. Less so when they go into government, he was treasurer and I didn’t get terribly involved with treasury stuff, but I did — yeah I think I can say I knew Paul reasonably well. From the time he came into — I met him within weeks of him coming into parliament. The permanent head we had, Sir Peter Lawler, actually introduced Keating to his wife, Anita, on board a flight somewhere in Europe I think it was. She was a hostess and Lawler and Keating were sitting together. Keating I think was a backbencher at that stage, and Sir Peter introduced her to him, and that set off their marriage. But — well Paul, again, publically and privately was about as…
Interview with Russell Schneider part 15
R Schneider: … As profane as Gough, if not more so. And he, just trying to think of a couple of — it was interesting, he was — it was said that Keating was the great numbers man in New South Wales, and that the New South Wales right would follow him on anything, particularly the leadership, and it was said that if Keating ever sided with Hawke against Hayden, Hayden would get rolled, for the leadership. According to Hayden, and I believe it to be true, Keating was the last person from the New South Wales right to shift his support from Hayden to Hawke, so Hayden was of the view — again, I believe probably directly — that Keating did not have the same clout within the New South Wales party as he liked people to believe. Graham Richardson on the other hand, at the time he was a significant political figure, did have quite a lot of influence in the New South Wales right wing of the party, and nevertheless he — he was quite a character, Graham.
And I got to — I used to spend a reasonable amount of time with them in Sydney at Labor Party conferences — New South Wales conference was in the ‘70s and ’80s, and before, was a very significant political event, as was the Victorian one, because in those days the conferences really did determine Labor Party policy, whereas today they tend to be a lot less influential in terms of parliamentary party policy. Although they may still be able to exert a lot of influence in terms of who becomes the leader of the party, but the conference itself tends to be a little bit more for show than — but these ones, in the old days, they were quite significant and both Keating and Richardson would find — and I — would find it mutually constructive to be able to just have a discussion about various issues and things that the part was going — I vividly recall one conference that Labor had in Victoria, where the notion was put that they should adopt affirmative action for — and Paul, didn’t take me aside just standing beside me, he was giving these stupid so and so men, and these something or other women, the round of the kitchen verbally — not to them, but to me, saying what a stupid idea it was, and it was over his dead body that he’d ever see quotas given for people to get into the party, or to get into parliament, and not very long after that, in his public position was that he was totally in favour of affirmative action and it should have happened long ago.
So it just goes to show that what politicians say in private, and what they think in private is not necessarily consistent when they’re in a position when they’ve got to say something in public. I also vividly recall one day in a New South Wales town hall, the June Labor conference, State Labor Conference, and someone was putting up a notion from the floor that was in effect reinforcing Labor’s socialist platform, and Paul was standing beside me and said ‘look at all these silly so and sos,’ he said ‘the problem is they’re all locked into the warm, inner glow of futility, and they’ll these stupid ratbag notions up so that they feel good, and stop us getting into power.’ He also made no bones about expressing strong views about people, personalities, and events.
B York: He was a no nonsense politician for sure.
R Schneider: Not at all, but he certainly had a great turn of phrase, there’s no doubt about that. He could shred an opponent just with words.
B York: Is that idea about him that he was quite debonair and sophisticated and charming — he could be — does that tally with your experience?
R Schneider: Oh yes. Yes, he could be. And he loved his antique clocks, and he genuinely — I think he was — not unique, I think he was like so many of us, I suppose, of people who started off on what might be termed the wrong side of the tracks, the more difficult part of society, and took advantage of every opportunity that came their way, and then decided that the lifestyle that they’d been denied as children was well worth pursuing as they got to a position where they could. And I think his interest in arts, culture, and other things is quite genuine. And as you said, he could be an extremely charming dinner companion or social companion, and within seconds could cut you to ribbons.
B York: Yeah, it’s strange how people at the time criticised him as being from Bankstown means you’re not allowed, or not supposed to be cultured and like classical music, you know, you’re meant to be I don’t know what…
R Schneider: A yobbo, or a bogan, or whatever.
B York: Yeah. Anyway, I’d like to move on and ask about your role as a lobbyist, let me know if you want a break at any point for any reason, and if it’s okay to move on — is there anything else you want to say…
R Schneider: Yeah — no, no that’s fine.
B York: Okay, so with the lobbying, it was the Australian Health Insurance Association, and it came about I believe after you left the Gallery in ’83…
R Schneider: Yes, I was in — what happened actually, after the ’83 election, I was pretty well worn out, because I had been travelling a hell of a lot, and I was seriously thinking about whether I wanted to stay in journalism in perpetuity or not. There were opportunities, I would almost certainly have moved up to Sydney and been made a deputy editor, and ultimately editor, and probably worked my way through the ranks from there, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do that, I wasn’t enthusiastic about leaving Canberra. And after, or during the year, I had been invited to speak at the Private Hospitals Conference in Sydney. I didn’t know much about hospitals in those days, but I knew what I liked, and I went up there — I had always had an interest in health policy, and so I went up there and I proceeded to tell them that one of the reasons that governments interfered so much in health policy because the hospital sector had never really made itself — had never been well regarded politically or by the community, particularly in the private hospital arena.
And a guy came over to me and introduced himself, and said ‘that’s one of the best speeches you’ve ever done.’ Which amazed me, because I didn’t think I knew all that much about the subject, and it turned out that he was at that stage the President of what was called the Voluntary Health Insurance Association of Australia. And he said that they would be looking for a new executive director and would I be interested in the job. And I said ‘I don’t really know, I’ll think about it.’ And a little while later I was approached by the head hunting firm that they’d appointed, and invited to put my name forward, so I did. And I again didn’t think a lot about it. Hawke went on his first overseas trip, so I went on that with him, and came back again pretty well physically exhausted — physically and mentally exhausted, and waiting for me on the first day back was a call from the head hunter asking me if I’d go and meet the interviewing panel for the job of executive director, as it was then called, of the Voluntary Health Insurance Association, which represented all the private health funds. And I went to that interview, and I proceeded again — because at that stage Medicare was on the horizon, it hadn’t actually been introduced, the legislation was being prepared, and the health insurance was aware that it was going to be very severely adversely affected by the introduction of the new system.
B York: So what year are we…
R Schneider: This was 1983.
B York: Medicare hadn’t been…
R Schneider: No it hadn’t, it came in on the 1st of February, 1984. And it was actually what had been termed the Hayden Health Plan, which was an extension of the original Medibank Mark I which Whitlam had introduced. And I effectively, probably insulted the people on the end of the interviewing panel by telling them that I thought they had not done a particular good job representing themselves or the industry over the years, and that the private sector had to get its act together if it was going to have any influence with government. And I walked out thinking ‘well I’ve blown that one.’ And 24 hours later I was asked how soon I could start. And I was ambivalent even then, but I finally thought ‘yeah, this might be an interesting thing to do for a year or so, give me a gap year sort of thing.’ And so I took the job on, I started in September, I can’t remember the exact date.
I do recall — I think it was the 15th — it was the day the Medicare legislation was going through the parliament, and that was rather a relief because I was so new in the job I couldn’t be expected to stop it or anything like that. So we had to learn to live with it. Neal Blewett had been given — Neal always wanted Foreign Affairs, but he’d been given the job of shadow spokesperson, and he had to put together — he became health minister and he had to put together the enabling legislation. And he was a very, very shrewd person. He would have been a great poker people, as a number of people said, he never let you know exactly what he was planning or what he was doing. And he was very, very good at bluff-manship or brinkmanship and so the legislation went through. Interestingly, the government had claimed that when Medicare was introduced no one would have to pay more than $5 per week for their private health insurance, and that just wasn’t true, even Medibank Private — Medibank Private was government owned, and had outmanoeuvred the private industry all the way through, and Medibank Private staked a claim to be the sole administrating agency for the new health scheme. The health insurance industry lost all their business, and all their transaction capacity with medical claims, which is where they make — they used cash flow to remain profitable.
They had had a searing experience a few years earlier when Malcolm Fraser was prime minister, Fraser was going into an election in 1977, and he was concerned about the price of health insurance, so he refused to allow the insurers to increase their premiums, and at that time one of them, the biggest health fund in Australia, MBF, got to within two days of running out of money — almost bankrupt. After the election Fraser allowed the prices to rise, and it was — having held them down for so long, they were even bigger than before, and that caused a major problem for both the government and the image of health insurance generally. And was one of the reasons why Medicare became popular. Anyway, Medibank Private was not able to meet its reserve requirements, and also offered premiums at $5 a week for families.
And so a bargaining process began between me, who was only in the job for about two or three months, didn’t know a lot about the industry, and the Department of Health and another official who was quite instrumental in the introduction of Medicare, as to what the rates should be in each state, and it went on the lines of — if Medibank went to $6, ‘how close could your people come to $6? Because we want the rates to go as low as they’ll go, but Medibank won’t go beyond 6.50, can you come down to 6.50?’ So I’d get on the phone to my people and say ‘look, in your state Medibank will be offering its product at $6.50, can you get down to that?’ ‘Oh, we’ll make it $6.80, or $6.50, or 7,’ whatever it might be. The ACCC today would be mortified if that sort of behaviour took place, and it doesn’t. In fact, one of the things that I take some pride in being party to is creating an extremely competitive position between the insurers, which forces them to minimise rate increases. Although not many people would believe that’s the case. But it is true, it’s a very competitive market. I can explain why later.
So that was the beginning of the job. Either side of it there was no point having a long, drawn out battle with the government over Medicare, they had the numbers, they had the capacity to control it all. So I made sure that we developed, or maintained, because the industry had developed a report — I made sure that we maintained, improved that relationship. So we’d go out and have dinner with Blewett and senior officers at the department every couple of months. Our problems could be shared with the government, and the government could share their intentions and some of their problems with us. And it became a very, very effective working relationship. At the same time, Blewett followed his own agenda, but there was one thing I learned — a couple of things I learnt; firstly, most policy is set by the bureaucracy, not by politicians, with the exception of the real big bang electoral policy stuff.
And even then, once the bureaucracy gets its hands on it, it will tend to mould the proposal in its own — what it sees as being its own image. But that, if you could create sufficient political circumstances you could have a minister make a decision which would force the department to not — to accept that the minister had decided something and that was that, even though it might run contrary to their long-term agenda. Knowing full-well of course that when ministers changed, they could revert to their long-term agenda. And on one occasion we had a particular problem in the industry, in that the price of the cover for the older funds was going through the roof, and we set up a task force to find out why that was so.
And believe it or not, the industry had virtually no statistical information at all in those days, and I’d learned that the only way you were going to influence the bureaucracy was to present them with unchallengeable facts and data. So we set up a task force to just look at the age makeup of the insurance industry. And without it being too surprising, discovered that he longer established organisations all had a very ageing membership of people — about ten percent of their members were over 65, but they represented 40 percent of the claims. So if you had a significant number of older people within the fund, it would become uncompetitive in the market place, and that became a vicious cycle where you became more and more uncompetitive. And there were a couple of solutions to that problem, one of which was to make everyone share in the risk of the high end users, the high cost people who are basically people over 65.
And another was to limit the capacity of new insurance organisations, which had come out of the woodwork when Medicare was introduced, to limit their capacity to recruit younger members from the older funds, while putting up barriers such as waiting periods, for people who were sick who were transferring into a new fund. So if you had a pre-existing ailment you couldn’t transfer. And so we put to Blewett on a number of occasions the need to change this, and the department was obstinate and bitterly opposed to any change. So I decided one day that we had to send a very solid message to the government about this, and we printed a little pamphlet which said old people are soon going to be uninsured because of the refusal of the minister and the prime minister to protect them. And it went on and on. And we letterboxed Neal Blewett’s street, his residential street, and his electoral office — the street in which his electoral office was.
So we only produced I think 100 or 200 pamphlets. On the Saturday, Blewett rang my then President, Bill Cousins who is now deceased, and said ‘I’m just wondering Bill, what are you proposing to do with these pamphlets?’ And Bill said ‘we’re going to distribute them all over the place, Neal.’ Neal said ‘how many have you printed?’ Bill said ‘we’ve got about a million at the moment, and we’ll have six million by the time we’re finished.’ Neal said ‘do you think you could ask that Schneider fellow to stop the press?’ [laughs] ‘and perhaps you could come to my office on Monday morning and we’ll talk about this.’ So we went to the office on the Monday morning, and we received and undertaking from Blewett that after the election he would act. Now similarly, it was at an earlier election I think, we did a similar thing but not quite the same. Peter Beattie, who was premier of Queensland, had been the Labor Party — or was the Labor Party state secretary at the time, and again, I rang Peter and said ‘look, we have got a very real problem about the way that the legislation is acting contrary to the interests of the elderly population, and if nothing is done we will have to make a very, very strong political, public campaign out of it.’ And he said ‘what do you want?’ And I said ‘well I’d like to — ‘I can’t do anything before the election,’ and I said ‘well no, if I can get that question asked at a press conference, and the prime minister gives his commitment that he’ll do this, that will be fine.’ And Peter said ‘leave it with me.’ And he rang me back a little later on and said ‘you organise for that question.’
And I go onto a friend in the Gallery who asked the question, and Hawke gave the commitment that we wanted. And after the election I took it to the department and said ‘the prime minister is committed to doing this.’ And the officer said ‘I wasn’t there when he made the commitment.’ So fortunately Hawke did go, did pass the word that he expected his commitment to be undertaken, and so we got another small passage of legislation through the parliament. And there were incidents like that, but it was basically a case of understanding what drove the people in power, what they could tolerate and what they couldn’t tolerate. And there were some things that were just non-negotiable, there was no way in the world, no matter how much the industry wanted to see things done — there was no way in the world that a government could do it.
They had — Medicare really was the price the community and the government paid for being able to sell the Commonwealth Bank, TAA, Qantas, all those things — well not Qantas, but TAA — and they wouldn’t have been able to de-nationalise those things if they weren’t able to provide the unions and the Labor Party generally with the promise of universal healthcare. So there was never any point in trying to go down that path. But we were able in a number of areas where it was quite clearly disadvantageous to a significant section of society where the legislation could be equipped to change things. So we were able to do that. And I found actually working with the Labor Party was quite constructive. Funnily enough, on a number of those issues the coalition opposed some of the propositions that we had fought very hard to get the government to agree to, so that was that. When the Howard government came things changed quite a bit.
Of course there was one little story: when Graham Richardson — when Keating became prime minister and Graham Richardson became health minister, Richardson asked me to bring my executive or board to a meeting with him. And so my board sat there and decided that they’d come up with this great presentation that were needed to be done in the industry. And Richardson came to the office — came to the meeting late, he’d been up all night watching cricket, and they proceeded to introduce themselves, he said ‘don’t worry about that, I won’t remember who you are.’ And they said ‘we’ve got a presentation for you,’ he said ‘I don’t want to see that,’ he said ‘I just called you in here to tell you that there’s going to be a fight with the doctors.’ And everyone said ‘oh, that’s good,’ because the health insurers and the AMA had been at loggerheads for years. And Richardson said ‘yeah there’s going to be a fight with the doctors, but I’m not going to fight with the doctors. You’re going to fight with the doctors.’ And we said ‘what do you mean?’ He said ‘well you’ve convinced me that one of your big problems is the price that the doctors are charging their customers, and that’s leading to a lot of our out of pocket costs and big gaps. And we’re going to fix that because we’re going to allow you to come into contract with the hospitals and the doctors to limit their prices, and that’s going to cause a real war, and I’m going to sit back and watch it.’ And then he got up and walked out of the room.
So we were sort of delighted because we’d been pushing this for some time, but they were really nonplussed at the forcefulness with which he told us what we were going to do. And as it turned out we did end up with legislation going through — not Richardson, he’d departed — and his successor Carmen Lawrence oversaw the introduction of the legislation which allowed funds to contract with doctors and hospitals. Which has worked out moderately well, not as well as it might have but moderately so. And then of course the Howard government came in, and they were very, very — and their health minister was — their first health minister was Michael Moore, and Michael was in my view the best health minister that the country has ever had. He was seriously concerned — he was a doctor, he understood the politics of the industry, he understood the workings of the public and private sectors, he was determined to — he convinced John Howard that Medicare should remain, and the past many years in which successive Liberal oppositions have threatened to dismantle Medicare was gone.
And Michael was — his most significant achievement was in my view that he got immunisation rates up from very, very low levels up to about 90 per cent. And then of course they declined again after he left. And under his ministership, and John Howard, a number of concessions were provided which made the private health insurance system much more freely available, and we got the insured population up from 30 per cent to 50 per cent with a combination of different measures. Many of which originated from the industry of my office. We put forward the idea of a Medicare levy surcharge, which is one of the great ways of stimulating high income earners to be insured. We worked very closely with the government on a 30 per cent rebate, and later a higher rebate for older people. And things like that. So it was a pretty satisfactory experience actually, all those years.
B York: How long were you in that role?
R Schneider: I was there for 22 years. I just couldn’t leave it.
B York: Yeah, so that first thought ‘oh, I might do it for a year, like a gap year,’ certainly…
R Schneider: Yeah. News Limited did invite me back at one stage, Laurie Oakes had left Channel Ten, and they wanted to rejig thing, and they offered me a job as sort of News Limited supremo, running their television operation — Channel Ten operation, in Canberra. And the News Limited bureau of Canberra. And I thought about that very seriously. Very, very tempted. Finally I decided that — I’d only been with the insurers for six to twelve months, and I felt like I’d be dumping them in the lurch if I left, so I stayed there for 22 years.
B York: Sounds like you were very effective.
R Schneider: Well it would be immodest to say so, but I think other people would probably say yes that was the case. We did achieve quite a lot. And mostly by identifying problems and solutions for government which were politically acceptable. There’s no point in proposing a solution to a government if it’s going to cause a political pain. Unless the problem was greater than the pain, than the solution. So yeah.
B York: You mentioned that you met with Neal Blewett and others — was this building part of those meetings? Would you actually come here physically to meet with them…
R Schneider: Oh yes. Access to this building was much easier than it is with the new building, or even was to the new building. You still needed a pass to get around, but it was pretty easy to get a pass as an industry representative, or a lobbyist, whichever you wanted to call it. You could just walk through the door and virtually wander into the minister’s office. And if you picked the right time of day you had a reasonable chance of the minister walking in or out of the office and if they weren’t doing anything, then be invited into the office and ‘sit down, what’s your problem?’ Other times it would be more formal, there were times when one would have to make an appointment.
And usually that would end up with either the permanent head of the department or a senior officer coming along to be with the minister so that they knew what was being talked about, they knew what the minister was seeking. And to some extent keeping the minister under control, making sure he didn’t make promises that they didn’t want to keep. So that was a fairly regular part of it. And of course you wouldn’t just confine your visit to the minister or staff, you’d see the shadow minister and various other people who had an interest in health policy or were just associated, friends. You’d go into the Press Gallery and have a yarn to people about what was going on. Maybe decide to go over to the lobby for lunch or whatever. I’d come over to Parliament House probably once, maybe even twice a week when parliament was sitting.
And when it’s not sitting — I found it easier when they weren’t sitting to go into interstate and see the minister or MP in their own electorate, because the one problem — and it’s still the case — of trying to see members of parliament when parliament is sitting is that the bells are always ringing, and they’re constantly getting called into the Chamber, or Cabinet might have a sudden meeting or a backbench committee might suddenly need a minister to come, or might need the members or the minister to come in there. So you had no certainty about any capacity to have a serious discussion with anyone.
B York: How was the new building — how did that effect the ability, and the effectiveness of being a lobbyist?
R Schneider: It wore out a lot more shoe leather. It’s so much bigger. So you certainly — the capacity to just bump into someone in the corridors became extremely limited. Access itself wasn’t so hard, because the pass still allowed one to wander in, enter, and once you were inside the building you could go anywhere you liked. You could even park down in the private carparks, or the employee carparks underneath the hill. But whereas you could walk around this building in an hour and probably see the four or five most important — for the purpose, four or five most important people you wanted to see, you couldn’t do that in a day in the new building because it’s just so enormous.
The chances of bumping into someone in the corridor is very remote, their offices are usually so big and palatial that they can sit in there themselves and watch what’s going on in the Chamber on a big flat screen TV. And so it takes more time, but having said that, the architects did a remarkably good job at — for one who knew their way around this building, it’s very easy to find your way around the new one. The logic of it is much the same, even though the actual corridors might be different, and rooms are different, there’s still a sort of feel, a vibe, that lets you go from one place to another…
Interview with Russell Schneider part 16
R Schneider: … Without getting lost.
B York: Talking about this building, the old Parliament House, I believe it has a certain significance in terms of — was it the first general meeting of the Australian Association…
R Schneider: Yes, oh yes. When they decommissioned this as a parliament, they were very uncertain about what to do with the building, and it sort of almost mothballed. And I discovered that it was possible to arrange to book the chambers for special functions. Because I think the people were sort of desperate to find a real use for it. It certainly wasn’t the gallery and museum that it is now. And so we booked the Senate Chamber for our annual general meeting, and used King’s Hall for the annual general meeting ball. To which we invited parliamentarians, people from various lobby groups, public servants, and all like that. And we staged a meeting in the Senate Chamber, my President sat in the speaker’s chair, one of the staff actually got a frilly necklace and a thing that looked like a black rod and knocked on the front door to usher everyone into the Chamber, and all these health insurance executives were sitting around in the red armchairs pretending to be — or feeling like they were the senators. And everyone had a great time, it was terrific. I don’t know whether they still allow that to be done, they certainly should, it puts a bit of life into the place.
B York: When was that, roughly?
R Schneider: Oh that would have been — I can’t remember the dates on which the houses actually changed, but it would have been ’90s I suppose, late ’80s or ’90s.
B York: Oh so it was soon after the move up…
R Schneider: Very soon after the move up there.
B York: Okay, so that’s very early in terms of the history of the building.
R Schneider: Within, say, twelve months of the move. And they had not at that stage decided whether to make it a museum or what, and I think — I imagine they were having these sort of things just so that it could stay alive, and not become derelict.
B York: Well that early post-parliament period is something of interest to us. Do you remember what the conditions were like, what the building was…
R Schneider: Oh it was fundamentally in pretty good shape actually. I don’t think there’d been — I don’t think they’d made any changes. The chambers were both intact. The Senate Chamber was exactly as it was the day before parliament — the location change. And in fact it was virtually identical to what it was when I was working for Withers, probably ten years earlier. Or more than ten years earlier. So as a building, at that time it was in very good condition. I don’t know how much access there was to the sort of back part of it — whether that was closed down or what. I think we had — yes, we had external caterers, so the kitchens weren’t working, we had to get a caterer from outside to come and provide the dinner. But that was quite a gala occasion, we had big tables all around, terrific.
B York: And that was in King’s Hall?
R Schneider: King’s Hall, yeah.
B York: Roughly how many people do you think?
R Schneider: Oh probably 200. It was a big night, had a jazz band.
B York: Oh okay.
R Schneider: Fourteen-piece big band.
B York: Would you have any photos of that?
R Schneider: No I don’t, Barry, I’m afraid.
B York: Yeah well that decade of the 1990s, in terms of this building, it was a period that needs to be researched I think. I’ve spoken to people who worked here in the late ’90s, or mid to late ’90s, and the things weren’t that good in the mid-’90s.
R Schneider: I imagine it would have started to deteriorate — of course, the place — I vividly recall, when I was in the bureau, we were constantly getting workmen, usually electricians, plumbers, and the like — and an electrician came in one day and ‘this whole bloody building is held together by electrical wiring.’ [laughs] he said ‘if we take the wiring out, the whole place will fall down.’ Of course they were constantly replacing the phone lines, the power lines, everything.
B York: And that was when you were in the Gallery…
R Schneider: That was when I was in the Gallery. So it was wearing out as a building, it needed very substantial reconditioning even in those days, and that was up to ’83, so it was quite a few years before the change.
B York: I was wondering about your — your skill set that you had as a journalist and editor and so on, how did that transfer to your role as a lobbyist, or did you require a completely new kind or role?
R Schneider: No, I always saw myself as being in the information business, and as a lobbyist — as a journalist you sort of take in information, and then reproduce it in a newspaper, or a television bulletin, or a radio broadcast. As a lobbyist I found it was basically a case of taking information from the government and feeding it back out to my members, or taking information from my members and feeding that back into government. So it was really just I saw the skill set as such as being quite compatible with either job, it was a case of just delving in and finding out what the facts were, and then you’d come up with analysing the facts to see what the real situation might be, and then present that to whichever audience might be appropriate at the time.
Sometimes it would be a case of advising my membership as to what the government was thinking, what it was likely to do, what it was planning to do, how that would affect them — and then feeding that back into government as to ‘you’ll have a problem here.’ It was very much a two-way exchange of information, and a lot of the time we were able to save the government from, what are they called? Unforeseen consequences of legislation. I suppose people would have regarded me as being unduly assertive at times, I took the view that if you couldn’t see a case forcibly, there was no much point — if you couldn’t sell it unforcibly, you had to try it forcibly. And did so.
There were times when that would mean going very, very public, and raising, highlighting and issue in the public arena and forcing the government to make concessions. As often as not, one would try to provide some advance information to government that that was going so that they didn’t have a problem with the unexpected. There were two or three election campaigns where health policy was very, very influential. And we took very, very strong positions on it, and on three occasions they were contrary to the position of the Labor Party, and we took some very, very strong public action, in terms of encouraging our membership to either vote for the coalition that was offering a better deal for health insurers, or against Labor. But I always made a point of letting the people within the Labor Party, particularly the campaign manager, who was usually the national secretary, know precisely what we were doing in advance, and how we would do it, and what we would expect from them if they did certain things we’d turn off the agro. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t.
But by doing that, I found we were able to maintain a working relationship with both sides of politics, even though from time to time we would end up with confrontation. I think — far too many people in the business community don’t understand that — they don’t understand that the lobbyist is an overall part of the critical process, the industry association is part of it. And politicians expect industry associations to defend their member’s interests. If you don’t defend your member’s interests, they regard you with contempt. And they’ll regard you — they’ll be angry if you do become vocal, but they’ll respect you. Whereas if you don’t vigorously defend what you’re supposed to defend, advance the interest of your course — as I said, they’ll regard you with contempt. And that’s both sides of politics.
We had at one stage when the 30 per cent rebate legislation was going through the parliament, Labor was opposing it — bitterly opposing it. And we arranged one day — I was able to bring together the private hospitals, the AMA, and ourselves to go and have a meeting with Kim Beazley, who was then the Labor leader. And we went in there, and Jenny Macklin was with Kim, and he didn’t take his eyes off her, she was then the spokesperson for health — she was obviously influencing his behaviour, every time he’d say something he’d look at her for approval. And finally he said — we were getting nowhere and he said ‘we’re still going to oppose this.’ And I said ‘well the problem is that the industry is going to die if this legislation doesn’t go through.’ And he said ‘well that’s tough, you’ll — you can threaten to take it out on us beforehand, but when we get back into power we’ll deal with you, we’ll hate you.’ And I said ‘well that may be so, Kim, but first of all you’ve got to get into government, and if you’re going to maintain this stance I’m going to do everything I can to make sure you don’t.’ And we parted then. We actually shook hands. And left.
And after that we letter-bombed, for want of a better word, a number of marginal seats with a letter that was myself, the AMA President, the private hospitals, and the Association of Independent Rights for Retirees, warning them, or urging them to contact their local Labor member and urging them to let the legislation go through. And finally, in a very, very roundabout, circuitous route, I think that message did get through, and although Labor did continue to oppose it in the Senate, they didn’t complain too much when both Mal Colston and Brian Harradine both voted and allowed it to go through.
B York: I have another question, it’s a fairly obvious one, but I want to ask it anyway for the record. I’m assuming that you’re — in addition to the skills set that we’ve talked about, the actual contact in the journalistic area would have been very advantageous.
R Schneider: Oh undoubtedly so, yes, yes. Of course — I mean you could do that sort of job and start from scratch and make those contacts, but it was useful to know editors, and news editors, and senior people in management in news organisations. As well as people in the Gallery and ministerial staff, and members of parliament. And they knew me from the old days when I guess different relationships had been formed. I think they trusted me, I did have a pretty good record of not breaching confidences, and I think that flowed through into being a lobbyist, people would know they could talk to you confidentially. And they might tell you something that they didn’t want people to know that they’d told you. By that I mean departmental officials, politicians — and they knew that they could be confident that I would never tell anyone what the source of my information was. And I think that was a very valuable tool. The communication skills, such as they might be, I think are also very useful. One of the things I did do was — my telephone number was available to the world, and — well that’s not quite true, my secretary’s number was known to the world, my mobile number was known only to me and her. My home number was known to them. And the journos knew that they could always contact me either at home or if I wasn’t in the office, my secretary would contact me and I’d ring them back from my mobile, within minutes of the call, unless I was in a meeting or something like that.
And that meant that I was able to influence the news cycle, such as it was, and do a lot of radio. I always believed, and still do, radio is probably the most influential medium that you can use: low cost — low cost in terms of money, in terms of energy, most radio talk-back operators will give you a fair go in the health area, most are fairly sympathetic to the industry. And so being able to hit the airwaves I found very useful, because you were talking to — not just to the people — the ordinary radio listeners, but of course one of the things is using the government feedback machines. Because all governments monitor the media intensely, and if an issue is coming up on radio it’s not very long until that gets to the minister. And the minister then, or his staff, have to start thinking about how they’re going to respond to it. So one could use access to a radio station to get a very, very quick message in to government. In fact, if anything I would tend to say now that governments would be better off spending a lot less time monitoring the media and getting on with governing, rather than what they do, do. And the 24-hour news cycle has made it even more difficult for them. Yeah.
B York: Russell, how are you for time?
R Schneider: I think we’re about right.
B York: I did want to ask about the Order of Australia that you were awarded. Can you just tell us briefly about that?
R Schneider: Well I don’t know or why I got it, but I know I retired and after I retired I was — someone had put me in for the honour, and I still to this day do not know who it was. I can make a few guesses about people who may have supported it, but all that happened was that one day I got a letter from the Governor-General advising me that this was in the offing, and could I confirm that I’d be prepared to accept it. And it was provided me as services to the health insurance industry and to health policy generally. Because I had — again, I don’t want to sound too boastful, I had played quite a significant part I think in developing policy as it applied to the private health insurance industry, no doubt about that. But you couldn’t isolate health insurance policy from public health policy generally. So I was involved in quite a lot of discussions with ministers and departmental officials about public health policy as well, and how the two interlinked and how one could actually facilitate the more efficient working of the other in a two-way street. And I guess — I can only conclude that that’s the reason.
B York: And what’s your current situation?
R Schneider: I’m currently on the board of the Hospitals Contribution Fund of Australia, which is the biggest not-for-profit health fund in Australia, and I went onto that shortly after I retired. They invited me on, and I was more than happy to accept. And about three or four years ago — four years ago I think, the minister for health in New South Wales appointed me to the New South Wales southern district health board, which runs public hospitals in New South Wales. So I’ve maintained a very active interest in health and health policy in all that time. And from time to time try to write books.
B York: Yeah, well you did the Peacock book…
R Schneider: War Without Blood, and The Colt from Kooyong, they were both a lot of fun. And now I’m looking at writing one on health policy, which I call The Medicare Conspiracy, and another one on Australian early history — which is a work of fiction — faction. So we’ll see how that goes.
B York: Alright, well again, thank you very much for an excellent interview.
R Schneider: Pleasure.
B York: Thank you.
R Schneider: Thanks Barry.
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