Terry Larkin talks about his work in the Department of Treasury from 1958 to 1974, including his time as Principal Private Secretary to the Treasurer, Harold Holt, in 1960 and 1961, and his background and career path.
Interview with Terry Larkin Part 1
S Forde: This is an interview with Terry Larkin who was principal Private Secretary to the Treasurer, Harold Holt, in 1960 and 1961. Terry Larkin worked in the Department of Treasury from 1958 to 1974. We’re mostly interested, in this interview, in the period with Holt, two years marked by a credit squeeze. Terry Larkin will be speaking with me, Seamus Forde, for the Oral History Program conducted by the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.
On behalf of the Director of the Museum I would like to thank you for agreeing to participate in this program. Do you understand that the Commonwealth owns copyright in the interview material but disclosure will be subject to any disclosure conditions/restrictions you may impose in completing the Rights Agreement?
T Larkin: Yes, I do.
S Forde: This being so, may we have your permission to make a transcript or a summary of this recording should we decide to make one?
T Larkin: Yes, of course.
S Forde: This interview is taking place today, on 29 June 2012 at the Museum.
Terry, could we begin with looking at your background – where did it all start?
T Larkin: Well I must say to begin with it’s a great pleasure to be here at Old Parliament House, which I’m very familiar with from my days. I was born and bred and brought up in Sydney, in Manly, a beach suburb of Sydney. I went to school at Balgowlah. I very much enjoyed growing up there on the beach, the beach life of Manly and the surf and so on. I remember going to the convent school at Balgowlah, and then went to secondary school at Christian Brothers Manly and did the Leaving Certificate in 1951. I had just turned 16 when I did the Leaving Certificate – I was a fairly bright young boy and they seemed to push bright boys on and double you up and you’d do two years in one. I think the idea in those days was to try to get you through school and if you were bright you advanced a year or two. So I was really young, probably too young in those days, but there I was completing the Leaving Certificate in November 1951.
S Forde: What’s your most outstanding memory from the convent school at Balgowlah?
T Larkin: It was just a lovely community, very much the old Irish-Catholic tradition, an Irish parish priest and the Good Samaritan nuns. It was a lovely atmosphere, it really was delightful. My favourite teacher was Sister Benedict, she was a lovely young nun, and as little Terry I was her favourite. In retrospect, she would have only been 22 or 23 years old. I discovered later in life she was the daughter of Ted Theodore, the famous ‘Red Ted’ Theodore. So my teacher, strangely enough she was a Good Samaritan nun, that was Sister Benedict – an interesting political connection. Theodore retired and lived in Sydney after his downfall as Treasurer. Isn’t that an amazing story? It’s a small political connection I suppose, even with my primary school education.
S Forde: And your Christian Brothers school at Manly, what’s your outstanding memory from that time?
T Larkin: Again, it was very much the Irish-trained Christian Brothers. You got belted with the strap, the tuition was very rigorous – you were lined up and if you didn’t know your spelling or your multiplication you got a belt with the strap. It was hardly advanced learning techniques but by golly you learnt and passed your exams. But again, they were dedicated and good men really, but very strict and rigorous. We were all marched off to Mass every now and again and various things. We had physical education, we had our rugby, played football against the various other Catholic schools. We always seemed to get a terrible beating. We played rugby league, funnily enough, in those days at the school, and cricket in the summer. Most of our Christian Brothers seemed to be from Victoria and they only knew about Aussie Rules and they were running around with a book trying to teach us rugby league.
Anyway, they were very happy days. A lot of the boys left after the Intermediate Certificate in those days for apprenticeships as boilermakers and fitters and turners and things, and only a few of us went on to the Leaving Certificate in those days. The Leaving Certificate was fairly rare for boys. It was a small school but it was interesting, and very much had the beach culture about it. It was between North Steyne and South Steyne in Manly, very much a beach atmosphere.
S Forde: Were you a surfer?
T Larkin: Oh yes, I was. I used to surf a lot and swim. My father was a great surfer, he was in the Freshwater Surf Club years before in the 1920s. He used to talk about when Duke Kahanamoku came to Freshwater and introduced the surfboard to Australia. So we were very much into the surf and the water, and of course swimming was a school sport too. So that was an interesting exposure to the water and the culture of Manly and the beach.
My father was a public servant all his life and his father was a public servant in the Sydney Council, he was Town Clerk at Camperdown at one stage. My father and his family were all brought up in Camperdown in Sydney – there were thirteen in their family. Dad joined the public service, he was a great believer in having a steady secure job, he’d lived through the Depression. So he was in the NSW Public Service in the Chief Secretary’s Department and then the Public Trust Office for many years where he studied accountancy and became the Accountant and retired there in 1963.
I had an older brother and sister and we were all forced into the public service for some steady secure job. I thought it was very dull. I had to apply and be interviewed and took a job in the NSW Public Service in November 1951, the week after I finished the Leaving Certificate Dad had me starting as a clerk in the Mines Department. That’s where I stayed as a clerk in the Mines Department and in the Electricity Authority later after a promotion. I worked as a public servant for six years and Dad also insisted I study, so Economics was a degree you could study part-time as an evening student in those days. So I was an evening student at Sydney University for six years studying for an Economics Degree and working in the daytime in the public service.
My mother had a totally different background. She came from the Northern Rivers of NSW, her family had a big grazing property near Casino on the Richmond River. Her family was quite well-to-do and prospered, my grandfather was a great pioneer up there. We’d go there for holidays and he’d teach us how to ride horses and muster cattle with them. We thought it was very exciting. Mum and her sisters were sent to Monte Sant’ Angelo in Sydney as boarding students and she was educated there as a boarder. Mum was a very refined and gracious person, she taught us a lot of manners and etiquette which I think has stuck to me as a useful attribute and personality all my life. Not to say that the Christian Brothers – I remember a compulsory subject was Manners & Etiquette and again the Christian Brother would have the strap in his hand. All the boys were lined up and you were shown how to walk on the footpath with the lady on the inside, lift your hat to a lady and stand up on the bus and so on. If you got the answers wrong you’d get the strap for that too. It’s interesting how manners and etiquette were an important aspect of one’s schooling in those days, even at what might be called more downmarket schools like Christian Brothers.
So that’s basically the background of myself and my parents.
S Forde: Were your parents political in any way?
T Larkin: Well I remember at the grand Larkin family get-togethers, of course a great number of aunts and uncles and extended family, they’d often be arguing the point about politics. Most of them were more on the Irish-Catholic side, traditional Labor Party supporters, but they weren’t passionate or weren’t involved in politics, but politics would come up as a discussion. Whereas of course, my mother’s side and my grandfather, they were very much Country Party supporters, and Mr Anthony was their local member, who was the father of Doug Anthony. They would vote Country Party but they never really had any involvement. So politics wasn’t really a prominent field of discussion in my upbringing, although I was aware of it.
In the public service, very much a clerical public service and the NSW Government – I remember we had a Minister for Mines and so on, but really he was such a remote person. We knew that Mr McGirr was the Premier and later Mr Cahill, that was about it. Of course, we knew the great dramas of the Opening of the Harbour Bridge and Jack Lang and his dismissal, but it was only a vague memory. I can’t say I was politically conscious or aware or politically active either at university or at home.
S Forde: So what brought you to Canberra, Terry?
T Larkin: Well that’s an interesting story in itself. Having completed my degree after years of toil and slavery as an evening student at Sydney University, at the tender age of 22 in 1957, the graduation ceremony was in April 1958, I thought well, I’m an economist now, can I get a job as an economist, spread my wings and do something different. I could see the dismal life ahead of me as a clerk in the NSW Public Service, I thought surely there’s something more exciting than this. I could see myself growing up and continuing in my father’s footsteps and thought I’d love to do something more exciting.
So I was looking around and I noticed advertisements in the newspaper for research officers in the General, Financial & Economic Policy Branch of the Commonwealth Treasury in Canberra. This caught my eye, I thought this looked very prestigious at least and exciting, this would be a job for a professional economist. So I wrote out an application and sent it, I was duly interviewed, I was actually flown to Canberra for the interview with the Treasury in Canberra. It was my first trip in an aeroplane actually, so that was exciting in itself. So down I came to Canberra, it was about July 1958, I remember it was winter. I was met and taken to West Block where the Treasury was and met the Economic Policy Chiefs, Mr O’Donnell and Mr Pryor and Bob Whitelaw, the other Assistant Secretary, I was questioned and interviewed. Then I was taken over to the Public Service Board for an interview. Then I went back to Sydney and then got a letter in the mail a few weeks later announcing I would be appointed and I had to make arrangements to begin taking up duty there. So that in itself was great. Dad was very pleased but Mum was a bit surprised, losing her baby and going to Canberra. I thought this would be adventurous.
So I then made arrangements to resign from the NSW Public Service and that caused a bit of a stir. To my somewhat surprise, I’d obviously come to the attention of Wallace Wurth, the famous legendary chairman of the NSW Public Service Board who ran the NSW Public Service as a dictatorial fiefdom, and he obviously went into overdrive to keep me. I didn’t realise I must have been some valuable property. I was taken over to the NSW Treasury and the Premier’s Department and interviewed and various positions were proffered to me, but in the end I thought I’d take the chance with this strange place called Canberra and do something totally different. So I turned down the offer.
I took up duty on 26 November 1958 in Canberra. I was able to join the Commonwealth Public Service under some ancient provisions of the Public Service Act which permitted the transfer of state public servants to the federal public service with the carriage of their superannuation and leave entitlements – it must have been some old provision going back to Federation which permitted that – but you had to cease the state public service the one day and start in the Commonwealth Public Service the next, and it couldn’t be over a weekend for some reason. Luckily I’d saved enough money and I’d bought a second-hand old FJ Holden during the year, so of course I was going to drive my car to Canberra. So I finished in the Electricity Authority on 25 November, got up at the crack of dawn the next morning at home in Balgowlah, got into my best suit and collar and tie, had my bag packed, Mum gave me a cut-lunch and I hopped in my FJ Holden and off I drove to Canberra, down Parramatta Road, down the Hume Highway, through Mittagong and Goulburn, and I arrived at the front of West Block just before midday on 26 November. Of course you could park the car out the front in those days, and I marched upstairs into the personnel office and was signed on, did the swearing of the oath on the Bible and various things and was taken around to the daunting General, Financial & Economic Policy Branch and sat down at a desk, and that’s how my career began.
S Forde: Do you remember how you felt on that first day, sitting at that desk?
T Larkin: Oh, a lot of great fear and trepidation because it was all most impressive. It was immediately apparent, the prestige and the scholarship and the higher quality of senior Commonwealth Government officials, particularly when compared to the NSW Public Service. I was rather terrified that these very nice and decent men, but clearly very intelligent and polished men, would find me out and find out my lack of knowledge, give me an examination in Economics and find that I was wanting. So I was very much on my best behaviour and put my head down and worked away. But they were very pleasant and very welcoming, and it quickly became clear that division was the elite division of the Treasury itself in those days, the Economic Policy Division. So it was very much a wonderful appointment.
The division was broken into an international branch and a domestic branch. I was put into the domestic branch and put on Commonwealth-State Financial Relations work, so I did much analysis of state budgets and state financial positions and we prepared submissions for the Commonwealth Grants Commission, which was a body that recommended equalisation grants for the states. So I got involved in what was called the domestic policy area, but largely the Commonwealth-State Financial Relations area. That itself was important because, as you know, there were the annual meetings of the Premiers’ Conference and Loan Council, which happened in June of each year. That was part of the actual budget cycle. So the premiers of the states and their treasurers and advisors would all assemble in Canberra and confront the Commonwealth. The meetings were always held in the House of Representatives chamber. Parliament was in recess then of course, in May or early June, and then in the second part of June we’d all assemble and Parliament House then became the meeting place for the Loan Council and Premiers Conference, which in a sense is another function that Old Parliament House performed in those days. So that gave me a glimpse of Parliament House.
The Prime Minister and the Treasurer sat at the top of the table where the clerks now sit. On their left was Sir Roland Wilson, the Secretary to the Treasury, and on their right was Sir John Bunting, the Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department. Then the premiers and advisors were arranged around the table, around the Opposition side, the Hansard side, and the Ministerial side. Then the proceedings would begin and they’d argue the point and meet on issues concerning the premiers. Then later it would go to what was called Loan Council, which was a more formal item dealing with the capital budgets of the states and the Commonwealth and the Treasurer would chair that. The Prime Minister would withdraw and Mr Holt would chair that with Sir Roland Wilson again on his left, and on his right was the Secretary of the Loan Council, who was a senior Treasury officer, Lindsay Brand in those days. So we’d go into Loan Council and that was where the serious business of the capital works and loan borrowings and so on of the states and the Commonwealth were approved each year under the Financial Agreement of the Constitution.
So it was a great ritual but very important economic issues, because that was the prerequisite to the Budget, and those figures which were agreed then had to be incorporated in the Annual Budget, which was prepared in July and brought down in August. So there was a program in which Old Parliament House figured very prominently. The meetings went for a day or two days and the state premiers and their advisors were allocated various ministerial offices and so on, as the place was vacant then. The Party Room was turned over to receptions where morning and afternoon tea was served for all the state officials, and the Prime Minister would host a dinner in the parliamentary Dining Room. So Parliament House was turned over, one might say, for that important function.
So for me it was interesting, in July 1959, going over there, because I worked in that area of the Treasury, so we had a back room with our calculators and various documents, having to write minutes and do work as the to-and-fro of the negotiations went on.
S Forde: How did the opportunity arise for you to become Private Secretary to the Treasurer?
T Larkin: Well that’s an interesting story too. In June 1959, I’d been in the Treasury seven or eight months. Sir Roland Wilson had the practice of having an Executive Assistant all of his career, his personal male secretary who carried out all the executive things he might want done relating to policy and handling cabinet submissions, relations with senior officers, and of course you had to be a trained economist to understand all this.
One of my chiefs in the Economic Policy Branch, Roy Daniel, had previously been an Executive Assistant to Sir Roland for two or three years and one had to pass the job on to someone you knew would get on with Sir Roland because if you didn’t your career was finished. Don Hunter was then the Executive Assistant to Sir Roland, he’d been with him three or four years and he had come from the Economic Policy Branch. Don was going to get married in October of that year, so he had to find someone to act in the position while he was away for three weeks, for the dreaded Sir Roland Wilson. He must have put his head together with Roy Daniels, but anyhow I was told that I’d have to do the job as Acting Executive Assistant, which again I thought was daunting. I’d known of Sir Roland, he was a mysterious person that you rarely saw, a small diminutive figure but renowned for his sharp tongue and ruling the Treasury with an iron rod, and of course his outstanding intellectual ability was legendary, no one could contest him in terms of economics or management. He was a remarkable tower of strength of course to the Menzies Government also. But he ruled the Treasury most ferociously.
So there I was, in trepidation I went down and had to do this job for three weeks and survive this three weeks. Somehow they must have thought that I could perhaps carry this off. I must have had the personality or the ability, but I think my six years of public service experience may have helped me a lot. I was familiar with clerical things, management of papers and documents. So down I went for three weeks and I survived that experience.
There was an executive area in the Treasury on the ground floor. Sir Roland Wilson was there and Richard Randall, the Deputy Secretary, and the two steno secretaries, one older woman who had been there many years and another young attractive secretary also, and then the Executive Assistant. We were the sort of nerve centre, one might say, of the Treasury.
So I survived that in October and November. I didn’t know that Austin Sellick who was the Private Secretary to the Treasurer, he was Mr Holt’s private secretary, he’d been the private secretary to Arthur Fadden, the Treasury Officer. He was from another branch of the Treasury, the Banking Branch. He wasn’t an economist, he was a clerical person, but he was a single fellow of 35 or something, ten years older than me. Sir Arthur Fadden retired when Mr Holt was appointed Treasurer after the 1958 Election, so his first full year as Treasurer was 1959. Austin Sellick must have had an arrangement that he’d work for a year and then retire or go back to the department, so at the end of 1959 the need apparently arose, I didn’t realise Austin Sellick was retiring and the task was who was to be his replacement as Private Secretary to Mr Holt. It was not long before Christmas, December 1959, I gather it was put to Sir Roland that Sellick was retiring and we had to find a new private secretary, and Sir Roland said “Send that young fellow Larkin over” – and that was it. Morris O’Donnell called me in and said the Secretary says you have to go over and be the Private Secretary to Mr Holt. I said oh! So over I went. I didn’t received any commission from Sir Roland or anything, I was just sent.
So over I went. I went home for Christmas and told Mum and Dad and of course Dad was overjoyed – the success of his son in the Commonwealth Public Service – and Mum was amazed. So after Christmas I came back and came over to Parliament House and Austin Sellick showed me the ropes and so on for the first few weeks and then I took over in the second half of January.
S Forde: What were your main duties as Private Secretary?
T Larkin: Well I must say it was a daunting workload, but being young and energetic it wasn’t a problem for me. What struck me firstly was first and foremost you’re a private secretary, what would technically be called nowadays the Principal Private Secretary. There was only the one Private Secretary, I managed all of Mr Holt’s business as Treasurer, all the official documents coming from the Treasury, cabinet papers, diplomatic cables from overseas, an enormous volume of paper which you’d have to sift and organise. And of course you organise his daily and weekly program appointments and relations with the Treasury and of course the Reserve Bank, which was a fairly new institution, Nugget Coombs, the Governor of the Reserve Bank, and the chairman and managing director of the Commonwealth Bank too, which was then a separate government bank. Then the Tax Office of course – Sir Patrick McGovern was the legendary Commissioner of Taxation in those days, and the Bureau of Statistics and all the other outriders of Treasury.
The Treasury in those days was a gigantic organisation. This was before the split of the Treasury effected by Malcolm Fraser in 1976 with the creation of the Department of Finance. In our day the Treasury had the entire responsibility for the expenditure side of government, as well as the revenue and economic policy and tax policy. The Treasury nowadays is only half the organisation it was in my day, so it was a very important organisation, and of course the volume of work was significant. We had all the expenditure decisions to make, fighting with other departments and so on. It was a very powerful department and a very large volume of work.
In addition to that, Mr Holt was also the Leader of the Government in the House, which nowadays is a separate function, but he was not only Treasurer but also Leader of the House, which involved all of the daily business of parliament, the Notice Paper, the ordering of debates, urgency motions, negotiations with the Opposition on the business of the House and the actual politics of the House every day, and the relations with the Government Whips of course.
And thirdly, amongst other things, he was Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, which is a very pivotal position in the party.
Menzies was of course the Leader of the Liberal Party in political terms but much of his work in that organisation was delegated to Mr Holt, and of course Holt and Menzies were very close. So there was quite a bit of political relations with the Federal Secretary of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Party people on various issues coming up. So that another workload.
Mr Holt wore numerous hats. Another one we often forget, we had a lot to do with Mr Turner, the Clerk of the House. There was a thing called the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which was a great association of parliaments and parliamentarians I think of the British Commonwealth and Mr Holt was the Chairman of the Australian Branch of the IPU and Mr Turner was the Secretary of that and visits of foreign members of parliament and visits by our members of parliament to other countries were always being arranged.
So there was IPU business and numerous other hats that Mr Holt had and all of these things came across my desk and had to be sorted and sifted. Just the arrangement of air travel, plane bookings, that was all my responsibility. As I said there were the two ministerial girls, the two marvellously efficient stenographers, typists and secretaries who were fabulous and very experienced people, as ministerial girls were and as they were colloquially called in those days. We had an Assistant Private Secretary in Melbourne who was very much an old retainer and managed Mr Holt’s Melbourne office with all of his personal affairs and we spent much of our time out of session in the Melbourne office. That was Mrs Bernadette Long, she had the status of Assistant Private Secretary. But I was nominally and actually in charge of that staff of three. So the Treasurer of the Commonwealth in those days had a staff of three – I understand now the Treasurer has a staff about eighty and it’s only half the size, half of the responsibility. So it gives you an idea of the smallness but the effectiveness – all of the ministers had quite small staffs in those days. But I think it was the additional functions that came as a bit of a shock to me. I had about three or four hats and Mr Holt to manage and run.
S Forde: What part of this building did you work in, Terry?
T Larkin: We were in the main lobby. As you come up the front steps of Parliament House, you turn left and enter the House of Reps lobby and the first office on the corner was the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, where Mr McEwen and his staff were. The next set of offices were ours – three offices, an office for the girls, an office for myself with Private Secretary to the Treasurer on it, and then Mr Holt’s office that had Treasurer on it. That was directly opposite the main door into the chamber of the House. I think that was obviously deliberate, Mr Holt being the Leader of the House had to have immediate access to the chamber, and of course being such a senior minister, the Treasurer, had to be readily able to get to the chamber quickly. Directly opposite also by the chamber door was the office of the Government Whips. We had a lot to do with the Government Whips in those days – Mr George Pearce, Member for Rockhampton, and Mr Bill Aston, Deputy Whip who later became Speaker of the House. Next to us in the next set of offices was the Minister for Labour & National Service, Mr McMahon, and his private secretary and ministerial girl, and next again to that was the Party Room and then there were the stairs opposite that that led upstairs to the Press Gallery. The next office along from the Party Room was of course the Prime Minister’s office and the Cabinet Room complex on that far left-hand corner of the building.
So that was mostly where I operated. If not dashing in to see the Whips or them coming to see me, I’d be going into the chamber each day, I had a seat at Question Time and had to be there and of course you’d go into the chamber whenever your minister was speaking or presenting bills, which in the Treasurer’s case was fairly frequently. So most of my time was spent in and out of the chamber and my own office when parliament was sitting. Parliament had its very different moods – when parliament was sitting everything was alive and working like mad and like clockwork, an amazingly efficient organisation with such efficient and dignified staff and very dedicated and decent people. It worked so well all the way from the Clerk and the Hansard people, the attendants, the cleaners, the refreshment room people – all wonderful staff and it all worked like clockwork.
Then of course when the House was out of session, when the House rose at the end of May or early June, as I mentioned, there was the event of the Premiers Conference and Loan Council which went for two or three days in June, and then the House was sort of…[end part 1]
Interview with Terry Larkin Part 2
T Larkin: …somnolent, one might say, until the August sittings and the Budget sitting. But of course it was extremely busy for us in July. July was the month of the Budget, so all of the cabinet ministers and ministerial staff are here in July, no members here in those days, but July was busy and it was very hectic in the cabinet office and cabinet deliberations on the Budget. Then the Budget Session would begin with the Budget brought down in the middle of August and away that would go. The House would usually rise in late November, early December.
I remember Mr Holt saying to me – the autumn session is always chaos, urgency motions and bills and things – he said the August session always chops and changes and it’s all over the place, but he said the Budget session is much easier when we get the Budget in, the Budget debate goes on for two or three months and it’s a totally different atmosphere and flavour – which was very true. I remember him saying that to me about the different moods of the House in those days.
It’s a very different cycle now in the new Parliament House. The Budget is brought down in May and passed by June. I imagine it’s a very different atmosphere.
S Forde: Did you as Private Secretary have any input to the Budget?
T Larkin: Oh yes, very much so. That was an enormously hectic time. I was I suppose coordinator-general of everything that came from the Treasury to the Treasurer’s office. There would be about fifty cabinet submissions that came in and all those were delivered to me from the Prime Minister’s Department, in turn I’d have to open them up with all the seals and so on, and then I would send them over to Treasury to analyse those and back would come all the Treasury briefing on the cabinet submissions. These were the expenditure submissions of the departments wanting to spend money on this, that and the other, whether we should increase the child endowment or the age pension or something. It was a very significant amount of work that all would come to me and through me and then back to Mr Holt.
The key economic submissions were drafted by the Treasury, the scene-setting submissions on the outlook for the economy and the budget outlook were the major submissions which were dealt with first. They were drafted and there was a tremendous amount of activity – Sir Roland Wilson and Richard Randall would arrive and the various Tax people, and there was a tremendous amount of movement and activity through my office as the senior officers came in for long conferences with the Treasurer and I’d be coming and going and getting documents. I suppose it was at the high policy level of the final coordination and finishing touches rather than the creative economic work which was all done there under the supervision of Sir Roland Wilson and Richard Randall and the Economic Policy people.
So it was an enormously busy time, that July period, and it was exhausting. Cabinet would sit every day till 11 o’clock. It was exhausting on Mr Holt and all of us. I suppose the Budget was completed by attrition and hard work and I suppose it still is to this day really. Although these days there’s an Expenditure Committee and various ways they try to reduce the main effort, but in those days it was all done – I think Menzies himself wanted all the ministers involved and everybody had to have an opportunity to present their case for higher expenditure or something and the Treasury of course would have to attack that and say no, you shouldn’t spend any money at all. I suppose that was one of the difficulties, the Treasurer could never be everybody’s friend because he had to say no. Treasury officers regarded it as a fearsome place where we always said no. And of course Doctor No – one of our deputy secretaries, Lennox Hewitt, was famous, he was in charge of the Budget & Accounting Branch of the expenditure side and also incorporated the Defence budget as well, so he was always known as Doctor No – he always said no way departments are allowed to spend anything.
So we had a ferocious and highly prestigious status. But it all ended up coming through and on the desk of the Private Secretary from Sir Roland’s office and Treasury, through to me and to the Treasury. So the Treasurer had to have an enormous ability to read and absorb papers, as well as I did.
S Forde: What was the highlight of your time working for Harold Holt?
T Larkin: Well I loved the atmosphere of Parliament House and the glamour of it. But I must say the highlight was really just enjoying the travel and conversation with him. He was just a delightful person, he and Mrs Holt, working with them and travelling to Melbourne. Spent a lot of time in Melbourne.
I suppose I should mention the routine. The routine was exhausting. We would begin the week in Melbourne on Monday. I would be in Canberra over the weekend and collect all the Treasury documents, cabinet submissions, cables and correspondence, two great briefcases, sift it all out, and I would fly to Melbourne on Sunday afternoon, stay overnight in Melbourne, Monday morning we’d be in Mr Holt’s ministerial office in the Commonwealth Offices in Treasury Place in Melbourne. That was the famous Commonwealth Offices – there was a Cabinet Room and sometimes meetings of Cabinet in Melbourne, and that would have been the offices before Federation, before this Parliament House was built. We had an office there, as did the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister – I remember Dick Casey was there, I met him just before he retired.
So we’d work in the Melbourne office on Monday on all the cabinet papers and documents I’d brought down, sign correspondence and organise the program for the week, appointments, delegations coming to see him. Then on Tuesday we’d get up at the crack of dawn, Mr Holt had a limousine and driver of course – Stan was the Commonwealth car driver – he’d pick up Mr Holt at his home at Toorak and we’d catch a plane about 8 o’clock. The time was important because Cabinet sat at 10am on Tuesday morning and there was no question that ministers had to be present – Mr Menzies did not accept the fact that anyone was late, so you would be there. But Mr Holt always took the odds to it and we’d fly up on Tuesday morning from Melbourne and if there was a fog in Canberra we had our heart in our mouth, particularly on winter days like this in July.
So we’d fly up on the quarter to eight plane. I used to stay at a boarding house in East Melbourne and Mr Holt’s car would come past. I’d be up early, leap out of bed and get dressed, had all the papers with me in my briefcases, it would just stop and I’d jump in the back of the limousine with Mr Holt. I’d always sit in the back with him, I didn’t have to sit in the front. It was an Armstrong-Sidley limousine with the big glass partition, a big black car.
Off we’d go to the airport at Essendon, I had the plane tickets and everything, in we’d go to TAA, no VIP room then, we’d always arrive about five minutes before take-off and they knew we were coming, we’d be taken on by the air hostess. We’d always have a ministerial girl with us in Melbourne, she would independently go to the airport and have her ticket. Mr Holt and I would sit together on the plane and go through any further papers, hoping no one was looking over our shoulder at cabinet documents and secret things!
The plane would arrive about 9.20, the driver would meet us there and in we’d come to Parliament House and up the front steps and into our office, undo our bags and Mr Holt would be ready to go into Cabinet at 10 o’clock. Cabinet would sit till lunchtime, then Question Time was at 2 o’clock. So I’d have to madly get ready for Question Time and answer the prepared questions, likely questions to be asked, that was panic stations, and the Whips of course would be on the job. Mr Holt would usually settle the Notice Paper on Tuesday morning with the Whips and the Parliamentary Liaison Officer, who was Keith Pearce. So he’d go off to Cabinet at 10 o’clock and be out about 12.30 and usually go off to lunch in the parliamentary Dining Room with the other ministers and be back in the office at ten to two, get the papers and the question brief, then the bells would ring at five to two and in we’d go to the Chamber for Question Time. After Question Time we’d come out and work would continue, ordinary work you might say. Cabinet would usually resume on Tuesday night and go until about 10.30.
By then of course I would have taken Mr Holt’s bags to the Hotel Canberra where he’d stay, I’d check them in there, he always stayed at the Hotel Canberra. I’d take the bags down with the driver after he went back into Cabinet. The Hotel Canberra would take care of them and put them in his room. Thornleigh Thorpe was an institution, the manager of the Hotel Canberra. The ministers all stayed there. I did everything myself, I never took my eye off anything. The only golden rule was that Mr Holt always carried his own briefcase. He’d carry his briefcase and I’d carry mine. It was always a good rule really, that the minister would always carry his briefcase, so it would never get lost, and of course a lot of his cabinet papers would be in it too. But I always counted the bags, always knew how many bags we had, but he always had his briefcase and I had mine.
Similarly when I’d collect him on Friday morning, it was the same reverse thing. On Friday morning we’d get up at the crack of dawn, I’d pick him up in the Commonwealth car, it would pick me up at Havelock House, we’d go to the Hotel Canberra. I’d get his bags first, they’d be ready, then out he’d come and off we’d go. One of the ministerial girls would be with us, she’d be picked up too, straight out to Canberra Airport, again I’d have the tickets and bookings. So we’d work on Friday down there, I’d come back on Friday night with all the documents and letters and minutes he’d signed and so on and disgorge those to the Treasury administrative people for dispatch. Then I’d have the day off on Saturday and start again on Sunday afternoon.
So that was the rhythm of life as a Private Secretary.
S Forde: What time would you finish on a Friday night after getting back from Melbourne?
T Larkin: Oh well, I’d get a late plane back, the last plane back. I’d get back to Canberra about 8 o’clock that night.
S Forde: And still have to go to Treasury?
T Larkin: Well I’d come to Parliament House and lock all the papers in the safe and lock up the office, then I’d come in on Sunday and the Treasury administrative people would come over and I’d disgorge everything to them – and they’d give me the next load of work to take down on Sunday night to Melbourne! That’s why the qualification for the job of Private Secretary had to be a single man, I suppose that’s why I was selected. I was single, and Austin Sellick was single – it was no job for a married man or someone with a family, you had to give your total life to this.
Something else that was funny. We had the big four-drawer cabinet in the office, which I just showed you – a large Chubb safe with a combination lock. For security reasons you had to lock all the cabinet papers and everything else in it. It’s an interesting illustration on modern obsession with security. When Austin Sellick was giving me the handover and educating me on the run of the office and how it worked, he said now here’s the safe and there’s the combination, told me the combination and showed me how to do it, and then he said but actually, I never lock it because I’m terrified I mightn’t be able to undo the bloody thing! Often Mr Holt would come out of Cabinet or the chamber and say can you get me that paper or cabinet submission or something, and there you were trying to unlock the safe and of course you’d get it all wrong and you’d have Mr Holt standing right behind you. So Austin told me, he said but I never lock the bloody thing because I might not be able to unlock it when you want something urgently. So that was funny, an amusing insight to the importance we attach to security these days.
S Forde: How did the sudden introduction of the Emergency Economic Measures, the credit squeeze, affect the atmosphere in Parliament House – back in 1961 was it?
T Larkin: I suppose in my time the profound event was the November 1960 Economic Emergency Measures. That had a profound impact. Mr Holt was opening Treasury in 1959, things were cruising along alright, he’d had his first Budget. In 1960 there were two major events. In January 1960 the government made a major economic decision to liberalise import restrictions. Up till then Australia had quantitative restrictions on imports. It was colloquially called the Dash for Freedom, we liberalised imports and removed virtually all the restrictions on imports, which was a very important event in trade policy but of course the economic policy implications were significant. That was announced in February before parliament sat. It was quite a big event and came as quite a shock, particularly to the manufacturing sector who were protected by not only tariff protection but also by import prohibition on goods. So Australian manufacturers were very shocked, but it was regarded as a great economic thing, nowadays what’s called economic free trade or economic rationalism, and nowadays it would be unthinkable to have import restrictions. But in those days it was a very important element of our control over the economy.
So that happened in February 1960 and the Budget in August 1960, there were inflationary pressures and the Budget was reasonably restrictive on public expenditure, but then we went off to the annual meetings of Commonwealth Finance Ministers in London and International Monetary Fund and World Bank annual meetings in September. So after we got the Budget in, part of the reason why the Budget sitting was so pleasant, the Treasurer and his entourage would all go off overseas to these meetings in London. It was a grand international event and in that year, 1960, Mr Holt from Australia was appointed the Chairman of the entire meeting, a great accolade for him to be Chairman of the IMF and World Bank meeting, and I of course, as his Private Secretary, thoroughly enjoyed that. I had this great prestige as the Aide-de-Camp to the Chairman. We had a grand suite in the Sheraton Hotel in Washington, huge hotel, all the Treasurers and Finance Ministers of the world and the IMF and World Bank and we were in charge of the whole thing. So that was marvellous, we had grand events and it was wonderful. Apart from that, the meetings in London which were all very ceremonial, we stayed at the Savoy Hotel as guests of the British Government and everything was laid on and it was delightful.
Anyway, we’d no sooner returned from that and were feeling very happy with life around early October 1960, then in the second half of October, Sir Roland Wilson and Mr Randall came over very grim-faced and looking very dark – must see the Treasurer. Lo and behold, that was the beginning of them breaking the news to Mr Holt that the economy was seriously deteriorating. Imports were pouring in, the lifting of import restrictions wasn’t expected to lead to this enormous flood of imports, and monetary policy was reasonably easy, there was a huge amount of consumer spending and of course it was an era of fixed exchange rates, we didn’t have a floating exchange rate, and of course our foreign exchange reserves were running down like mad. So another three months would have been a balance of payments crisis because we would have run out of foreign exchange reserves. So something had to be done as an emergency to stop the economy dead, which of course is what happens with a fixed exchange rate system and it’s happened in Australia’s economic history before.
So they had to break this news to Mr Holt that there’s a crisis, the foreign exchange reserves are running down rapidly. Then they prepared cabinet submissions, there was enormous activity with the Treasury officers coming over, we were working day and night. Nugget Coombs was down from Sydney, the Commissioner of Taxation. They were all there cooking up in secret, you might say, this emergency package. So that was an intense period coming into early November. I think the journalists could sniff there was something on, the press gallery knew there was a bit of activity in the Treasurer’s office, but it was kept a secret really, and Cabinet of course, there were an enormous number of Cabinet committee meetings, and the Prime Minister of course was heavily involved. So it was a full economic crisis.
So a package of measures was prepared which were quite draconian measures – an increase in sales tax on motor cars from 30 percent to 40 percent; tremendous credit squeeze, bank lending was restricted through the Reserve Bank via new powers under the Banking Act. I think the most damaging one was interest was denied as a tax deduction, so every company that had borrowed, leverage as it’s called these days, was just denied, so all of a sudden had to really shut down their operations. So that was the end of investment. And finally superannuation funds, who were largely channelling money to hire purchase companies and leading to increased consumer spending, were compulsorily required to deposit 30 percent of their assets into government securities. So that was a stunning group of measures. Of course the idea was that you really had to stop the economy dead.
So this was phenomenal panic and we were working away till all hours and I was in the thick of all this and the cabinet meetings. Then the day came, it was to be announced on 15 November in parliament, the measures brought down then. So it was effectively a supplementary budget – and the existing budget was still in the House being debated. So it wasn’t a good look, let us say, for economic management! Or for Mr Holt and his competence as Treasurer.
So finally on 15 November the measures were prepared for legislation and the speech was drafted and sent over to me as Private Secretary about 5 o’clock in the afternoon for Mr Holt to read. It was a long speech, like the Budget speech, and was scheduled for 8 o’clock that night. The Standing Orders were suspended, the House had no idea this was coming. So myself and my wonderful two ministerial girls had to retype – we had to retype all of his speeches in parliament into a large type. He had reading glasses but hated to be seen in them, and also in the House he needed that long-sightedness to see who was interjecting, so we had a special typewriter with a very large script and we retyped all his speeches in this large Jumbo type, as it was called, and onto quarto pages. So the girls had to madly retype this speech before 8 o’clock – it was huge task, it was about a 40 or 50-page speech.
Then there was a Party Room meeting called at 7.30, government members and senators called into the Party Room, Menzies and Holt were there and broke the news to the party that this is the problem, we’ve got an economic crisis, we have to bring in these measures. It was an absolute shock to the members – not to the ministers, most of them had known about it. So they were told and we were madly typing away, still hadn’t finished it at 7.30, the clock was ticking. Finally the bells started ringing at five to eight, the girls were typing and I had to proof-read it and make sure there were no mistakes compared to the official copy – I didn’t want to say motor vehicle tax had been increased to 45 percent when it was only 40 percent! That was my job to make sure it was accurate, but the girls were very accurate typists. Just as the bells were ringing I got the last page finished, I opened the door and the Party meeting had just come out, they all poured out with Menzies and Holt leading them out, the entire party in through the main doors of the Chamber. Harold must have thought I was very competent, he just glanced at me and held out his hand and just thrust the manila folder into his hand and in he went. Standing Orders were suspended and he announced these economic measures, he read the copy, away he went. He was a very cool and collected person, he wasn’t agitated, he knew he could rely on his staff and away he went.
I think that’s a most memorable moment and time, and that then triggered a totally profound change. Of course, Mr Calwell and the Opposition couldn’t believe their luck – what’s this? The political advantage for them – what on earth is this, an emergency – oh! And initially the press were shocked, they had no idea, the Press Gallery. Although there was in those days a budget lockup and I think they were given a lockup at about 7 o’clock, but it was very strongly controlled and they weren’t allowed out until we’d completed the speech in those days.
Anyhow, that was a profound event and then a new atmosphere unfolded after that and workload increased even more greatly after that.
S Forde: Can you tell us about Holt himself – what he was like, his character, his personality?
T Larkin: As I mentioned just now with that example, he was a most wonderfully calm and cool character, he was never agitated, never lost his temper, always very even-tempered. I was astonished at his control. Never swore. Very temperate. He liked a drink but would only ever have one – he was a gin drinker, he liked Gin & Tonic or Gin & Dry Ginger. Sometimes with lunch in Melbourne, if he stayed in the office and had a sandwich, he’d have a glass of sherry, that’s all. He was extremely temperate and controlled. I was amazed at his self-control. I suppose like a modern athlete, he was so well-trained. He had a wonderful style, a marvellously gracious and elegant style. He was clearly a very elegant, stylish, delightful personality. He was a wonderful conversationalist, could put people at ease, at no sense a stuffed-shirt or put on an artificial personality. He was very decent and kind and thoughtful person. I admired him, I must say. I couldn’t believe what a pleasant person he was to work with and travel with. Also his capability – he was very able to read and absorb issues quickly, a wonderful reader, quite well-educated. Some of his detractors said he wasn’t an intellectual person, but he had a Law degree, he was well-educated, wonderful command of the English language, a marvellous speaker in the House.
He was actually just a very pleasant and delightful person, and how he bore this cross, one might say, of the economic measures. Here he was, travelling well, and it’s not to be forgotten, he was the first Liberal Party Treasurer, the genius of Mr Menzies was to wrest the Treasury from the Country Party. Sir Arthur Fadden had been Treasurer in the Coalition since 1949 and of course was the central power base for the Country Party, and when Sir Arthur Fadden retired after the 1958 election in December, Menzies in his genius captured the Treasury for the Liberal Party and that’s how Harold Holt became Treasurer and Mr McEwen said he felt he could do more for the Country Party as the Trade Minister. Of course, Mr McEwen was the Deputy Prime Minister, but he was the Minister for Trade and that led to the Trade Department having more economic clout also and trying to rival the Treasury also. But Mr Holt had that additional burden that he was the first experiment, you might say, of the Liberal Party withholding the Treasury portfolio. Of course nowadays it goes without saying that the majority party would hold the Treasury and the Country Party has never been able to recover or seize the Treasury back. But Mr Holt was a trailblazer.
So he had that added burden of making sure he performed well as Treasure and of course had these economic measures to add to the burden of that.
But I must say he was a wonderful person and I couldn’t fault him, he was so kind and pleasant. He enjoyed having us – he said to me, Terry, I love having young people around. He quite enjoyed having a young Private Secretary and young, glamorous ministerial girls. He said I love young people around me, they keep me young and keep me thinking as the modern young people think. He loved being in touch and not being seen as an old fossilised politician. He was a wonderful person. Of course he loved theatre and movies, had a great interest in theatre and movies and movie starts. He had a wonderful range of conversation as well which I enjoyed very much.
S Forde: Did he easily accept advice from the Treasury officials
T Larkin: Yes, he did. He had worked with Sir Roland Wilson back when Sir Roland Wilson was appointed as Secretary of the Department of Labour & National Service in the wartime when Mr Holt was his first minister in 1941 and Sir Roland was his first head of department. So they had a connection going back many years and he knew and liked Roland. So they got on very well, and of course, Roland Wilson was such a towering figure in economic policy and advice. Wilson and Coombs were the two twins, but Wilson was very much in control and had been a very successful Secretary to the Treasury under Sir Arthur Fadden since 1951, and of course Sir Roland enjoyed the confidence of Menzies.
So he accepted the advice. He sometimes questioned things that were a bit too harsh or too rough. Often we’d get Treasury-prepared correspondence, and the language – often he’d say could you tone this down a bit, it’s a bit too rough, so I’d tone down things. But in terms of mainstream policy he didn’t accept or seek advice from many other sources… [end Part 2]
Interview with Terry Larkin Part 3
T Larkin: …other than Wilson and Coombes. We’d go to Sydney now and again to see Nugget, or Nugget would come down. But generally Treasury was the prime source of advice and of course he’d talk extensively to businessmen and had a wonderful circle of major business leaders in Melbourne and we’d get delegations from business people. So listened and took in things, but in the end the economic advice he did rely exclusively really on Treasury.
Then of course, he manfully accepted the need, which there clearly was a need, for the emergency measures, as did Mr Menzies of course, and so he manfully took on that task and he battled away and it was an enormous strain on him selling this draconian package that startled the Australian public, it was quite a task but he stuck at it, put his head down and manfully went on with it, but it was a very difficult task.
For Mr Holt himself, economics and the language of it didn’t come easily to him. That’s not any criticism of him because economics in those days, unlike now where every second person has an economics degree, in those days it was very rare and economists were very unusual and in short supply. It was also regarded very much as black magic and a mystery that the ordinary person couldn’t understand and Mr Holt didn’t really have that aptitude, as a lawyer by background, and nor did anyone in the government. Mr McMahon had an economics degree but he was very rare. Mr Menzies had no economic training and really left things to the Treasury and Roland Wilson. Generally the ministers weren’t as articulate in economics as they are in the modern day, because economics was so much more a bit of mystery in those days. So I’d say Mr Holt wasn’t actually comfortable with economics but he certainly mastered the language and could make speeches quite convincingly, he read his briefs and was very skilled at debate in the parliament and so on.
Indeed, after he became Prime Minister – I kept in touch with him over the years of course – he said oh Terry, it’s wonderful to be back in general politics. He was obviously uncomfortable in the economic area and he said oh it’s wonderful, I enjoy being back in general politics – which is what a prime minister is involved in, the general political issues of various kinds. The decimal currency issue is an example of an economic issue that he handled brilliantly, the selling of that and the excitement of it and the design of the coinage. He was an exceptional politician and able to handle policy issues, but he made that remark to me.
Another thing he said to me, when I was complaining about the chaos, he said Terry, politics never goes along in a nice smooth line, there’s always ups and down, the world of politics is not a smooth existence, more or less implying that that the public service might be a nice easy smooth predictable life, but not in politics. And that’s the excitement of it and he enjoyed the excitement, the stimulus of the ups and downs of politics and debate in the chamber. We had lots of interesting chats and he made interesting remarks which have stuck in my mind.
S Forde: I remember reading that he had a very good relationship with Albert Monk, the head of the ACTU.
T Larkin: That’s true, he did, and he was a very successful Minister for Labour & National Service for many years. Of course, they were headquartered in Melbourne too. He and Albert Monk got on very well. He had a wonderful ability to have personal relations with the other side of parliament. He and the ACTU people really got on well, there wasn’t the friction that you now see. The wharfies were the worst, they were a bit beyond the pale, but otherwise Albert Monk and the mainstream unions, Monk was very much an institution also, but they had very good relations with the government. Equally Mr Holt got on very well with the Opposition, with Arthur Calwell and the Opposition members. It was a much more friendly atmosphere in those days between government and Opposition members, much more gentlemanly and pleasant, there wasn’t the acrimony that one sees in the modern parliament. Things were conducted with great decency. Sure, they had vigorous parliamentary debates and attacked each other. My time was after Evatt had just retired and Calwell had been appointed leader, and Gough Whitlam – certainly there were often difficulties between them. The contest for Deputy Leader was a contest between Eddie Ward and Whitlam who was an up-and-coming person. We were in the Melbourne office listening to it on the radio when it was announced that Mr Calwell had won the leadership, then finally it was announced that Whitlam had defeated Ward. Harold said he was glad about that because Whitlam was a lot easier to deal with than Eddie Ward who would have been a tough customer to deal with. He said Whitlam would be lot easier to deal with, so he was pleased that Whitlam got it rather than Eddie.
S Forde: How did you address Harold Holt?
T Larkin: I was trained by Austin Sellick who gave me a wonderful handover. I said what will I call him? He said always Mister – Mr Holt – always call him mister and he’ll call you Terry. So I adopted that, always called him Mr Holt, never Harold. Equally that was the golden rule generally with all ministers – Mr McEwen, Mr McMahon – always address them as mister. I called very member of parliament Mr This or Mr That, you couldn’t go wrong called anyone mister. I always avoided the Prime Minister, such a fearsome person, I never really had to address him or have discussions with him, but I gather you didn’t call him Mr Menzies, he was always called PM. The ministers would call him Bob, but only in personal things, not in the company of other people. He was PM. Otherwise it was always Mr Holt and Mrs Holt – I travelled with her a lot, she was delightful. I met his sons, Andrew and Sam and Nicky, I called them by their first names. It was a very friendly relationship. Generally you sort of distinguished the more senior people by calling them Mister.
S Forde: I’m interested in his relationship with McEwen and the Country Party in general?
T Larkin: Again, that was quite cordial really. We had a wonderful relationship with next door. Mr McEwen was quite pleasant to me, we had a great time with him and girls, they were a wonderful crowd next door – Bill Carew, the press secretary, and poor old Leo Maroney. Fiona O’Connor, the private secretary, a lady in her 40s, had been there many years, and Mary Byrne, a ministerial girl – they were a great crowd, lots of fun going on there. Also Mr McMahons ministerial girls, they were great fun. We’d often drop in – when Cabinet was on at night we’d drop in and have a drink there and a few laughs, a few of the other ministerial girls would come in, it was a great place for a bit of a convivial drink. Sometimes Mr McEwen would burst in from Cabinet, he’d come in to get some paper, he’d say it’s alright, carry one, don’t worry. He was very cordial and pleasant. He certainly had that dark and strong demeanour, he was tough alright, no question, he didn’t have the even-tempered personality of Mr Holt, he was strong-willed and tough and something to be managed, but in terms of Parliament House and his relationship, he was very kind and pleasant.
When it came to the Economic Measures in November 1960 Mr Holt had to bear the blame for the lifting of import restrictions and Treasury had to manfully accept the blame, but really as it turns out the dash for freedom, the lifting of import restrictions was actually an initiative of Mr McEwen and the Department of Trade. They requested it and the Prime Minister agreed and it was simply put to the Treasurer, and it was done I think without a cabinet submission too. Everyone said it was a stupid decision to lift import restrictions, a number of the economics profession, including Sir Douglas Copeland, said it was a mistake. There were various recriminations, particularly upon the manufacturing industry and the banking industry, saying it all started with this stupid decision of the Treasury and Mr Holt, and McEwen didn’t ever come to his defence. So I think there might have been a bit of tension as things went on between them. But certainly in my period, up until the mid-60s there was no serious tension that I saw. Treasury of course, finally, didn’t mind being blamed for the import lifting because it suited them to be seen on the side of economic rationalism and also it suited our stance in the IMF, we were able to achieve what was called Article 8 status which put us in the big league of developed countries who didn’t impose import restrictions.
So there might have been some underlying tension between them but it was never evident in those earlier years. They got on quite harmoniously. But certainly, clearly, in later years, as Mr Holt became Prime Minister, the tension between them and the demands that Mr McEwen was putting on the government, it became almost intolerable – as it was in the later days of Sir Robert Menzies, but Menzies seemed to yield to giving him what he wanted for the sake of peace, but I think Mr McEwen may well have seen Mr Holt as a weaker person and unable to stand up to him, so I think their relations certainly deteriorated after Mr Holt became Prime Minister. It was more of a burden on Mr Holt, he wouldn’t get into a serious confrontation.
S Forde: But Mr Holt did stand up to him on the devaluation of the dollar in 1967?
T Larkin: Oh yes, he did. There were times when they did actually have to. That was on strong Treasury advice, he had the weight behind him, of course the Prime Minister would know the Treasury advice, so Mr Holt would know he’d have Mr Menzies behind him.
S Forde: When and why did you leave Mr Holt?
T Larkin: Well that was a tragedy in many ways. It was really just overwork, I cracked up from overwork, I was just so run-down. After the Economic Measures the workload increased enormously. We went up to Queensland, a lot of speeches trying to quell the troops, there was a tremendous backlash from the government’s traditional supporters, the banking industry, manufacturing, they were all attacking the government, and of course the Opposition was having a field day.
So the intensity of work just escalated like mad and I got very run-down and tired. Leading up to the Premiers Conference, a new cycle of the year, and I contracted hepatitis, which there was an epidemic of in those days, I only had a mild attack, but I was a single man living at the hostel, I was sent off to the Canberra Hospital with an infectious disease in the isolation ward for three weeks. That was quite funny – I told Don Hunter, Sir Roland Wilson’s executive assistant, there was grand panic in the Treasury – what do we do, Larkin’s sick! So an acting Private Secretary had to be found immediately, so poor old Austin Sellick was dragged out to come back.
We always played a few tricks on Austin, we’d pull his leg. So a phone call came through to Austin Sellick saying the Secretary wants to see you immediately and he said oh, another joke. Wilson was there tapping his fingers, saying where’s Sellick? So Austin sprung up, grabbed his coat and went racing down the stairs, tripped over and fell down the stairs, nearly killed himself, tore a button off his coat, staggered in to Roland Wilson. He said Larkin’s sick, you have to go over there and act as Private Secretary till he gets better. His button fell off on the floor and he got down to look for it, Wilson’s saying where are you, what are you doing? Austin tells a funny story! So Austin was dispatched over here and was able to quickly pick up the threads.
So it took me about three weeks – it actually wasn’t just the hepatitis, I was so run-down, I was in a state of collapse. So I went home to Sydney to Mum and Dad’s for a week or two. When I came back I was just so down – Wilson came in with Dick Randall to see Harold about something, he said how are you, are you better now – I said no, I’m still sick. So Wilson went in to Harold and said Larkin has to come back into the department, he’s sick. Harold said he’ll be alright, he’s okay now, he’ll run himself back into form – using racehorse jargon – they had sharp words about it, but Wilson could see. Wilson was a wonderful person, had a wonderful side to his character.
So I went back to the department. He said you just sit down in my office here and don’t do anything. He sat me down for three months and said just rest. Very decent – like a father to me. He had no children himself, but he could just see – it was amazing. I must say, I was in a pretty bad state of collapse, and I think it was overwork mostly.
So we had to find someone, we sent over another chap to act as Private Secretary more permanently, Stuart Hunter, but he didn’t have the right personality and only lasted a few months and we sent someone else over. The year dragged on and I gradually got better, Don Hunter wanted to get out, he was married then, so he retired and was promoted to another position and Roland made me his Executive Assistant and he told Harold I wasn’t coming back and was going to work for him from now on. So I then tended to do a lot more liaison work, I’d go over to Harold with papers and I could help whoever was floundering around as the Private Secretary. We tried various experiments and that went on right up until the November 1961 election, which was the disastrous election where Menzies was on the brink of losing, all because of the Economic Measures.
After the November election a number of government members lost their seats, including the Government Whip, George Pearce. One of them was Peter Brown, a young up-and-coming Liberal member for Kalgoorlie. Harold, doing the right thing by the party, offered him the job as his Private Secretary, so this former MP, Peter Brown, took over as Private Secretary in 1962 and 63. He had no idea of Treasury or economic issues so I spent a lot more time going backwards and forwards and shepherding things through Mr Holt. That’s why I ended up keeping that long-standing connection with him right through, as Sir Roland’s Executive Assistant. Previous executive assistants were more just basically departmental and routine but in my case I did a lot more. Roland would send me over with cabinet submissions to discuss and clear with him. It suited Roland also, but he was a wonderful person, in spite of his fierce exterior, we got on very well.
So that was the story of my Treasury life up until 1965 really.
Interview with Terry Larkin Part 4
S Forde: There were some great characters there during your time?
T Larkin: Oh yes, I’ve certainly got recollections of the ministers and the Prime Minister, and future prime ministers of the day.
Mr Menzies, as he then was in my day before he was knighted, certainly ruled the parliament in a magisterial way and was treated with the greatest respect and reverence and fear indeed. Functionaries like myself, private secretaries, really had no dealings with him, and indeed wanted to avoid any dealings, in case we came to grief or made a mistake. He would have known who I was because he always looked around the House and would have known that fellow sitting next to his private secretary was Harold Holt’s private secretary, and he would have known from Hazel Craig who I was too. But one never had any dealings with him and I didn’t wish to really. But he was a wonderful figure in a way, in a sense almost a deity in his personality and wonderful control and superiority which seemed to pervade the parliament. We knew this exceptional figure was in charge, almost a royal figure, and the House went along under his supervision and reflected his own spirit of order and good behaviour and so on. In terms of parliamentary debate and speaking he was so outstanding and brilliant to listen to. I thoroughly enjoyed Question Time, marvellous entertainment.
There were many on the Opposition side who were brilliant parliamentary debaters. Mr Calwell himself was excellent, and Eddie Ward was a brilliant debater and speaker, as was Dr Cairns, another one. Les Halen was another famous very good debater. The Shadow Treasurer, Frank Crean, was very solid and very good in terms of his portfolio, had very good command of economics. And of course Gough Whitlam was a rising star, he was an exceptionally talented parliamentary speaker and debater. So between them there was a wonderful repartee. But Sir Robert Menzies was totally in control of them all, and of course Harold Holt was certainly, unquestionably, the next best government performer in the House, a marvellous speaker, marvellous in parliamentary debate, very quick, and clearly as a first lieutenant to Menzies head and shoulders above the others on the ministerial benches. McEwen himself was very powerful and strong, but in terms of straight-out extempore debate, the cut-and-thrust of urgency motions and so on, Holt was clearly well appointed as Leader of the House, he was able to manage things up against quite a formidable Opposition team.
I suppose I can tell a story on myself about Sir Robert Menzies. At the height of the credit squeeze when there was furious response and complaints from business leaders and banks and major companies and so on, would have been in January or February 1961, I got a phone call one day at Parliament House from Mr Hooker – the very famous real estate millionaire and baron, LJ Hooker. He was very strongly critical of the government’s economic measures of course. So he was on the phone and he wanted to see Mr Holt and complain about these measures. I explained that Mr Holt was busy at the moment, that was my job. Anyhow he went on, explaining what was wrong, that these measures were going to send him bankrupt. I suppose in my innocence or otherwise, or as a good Treasury official, I said but that’s precisely the objective of them, it’s unfortunate but this is the state of the economy and the balance of payments crisis, the economy is overheated and the intention clearly is that some companies will certainly go bankrupt, it has to happen. Well! It was rather like you’d find one of those inept remarks you see on Yes Minister by the private secretary, Bernard. Anyway I finally got rid of him and that was the end of that.
About half an hour later, it was very rare for the Prime Minister, Mr Menzies, to come down and he’d just knock on Mr Holt’s door and go straight in. Anyhow, there’s a knock on the door, the Prime Minister going to see Mr Holt, I thought nothing of it, and later on Harold pressed the buzzer and I went in. He said you weren’t speaking to Les Hooker on the phone were you this morning. I said oh yes, he did ring, I told him about the economic measures. He said hmm. So obviously Les had somehow got onto Menzies and went off his brain! No doubt he would have been a large donor to the Liberal Party.
So I have to tell that joke on myself – an earnest young Treasury official trying to explain the real background of the economic measures to an uninformed member of business. Harold didn’t dress me down, any other minister would have given me the greatest dressing-down. So I nearly had contact with Mr Menzies but I’m very glad I didn’t!
As for Mr McEwen, I had very pleasant relations with him, always found him very cordial, we were of assistance to him and his office and he’d know I was often in there having a drink with his staff.
Senator Gorton – Mr Holt cultivated a lot of young up-and-coming backbenchers, of which John Gorton was one. There were others – Billy Sneddon, Jim Killen, Peter Howson and so on. In his role as Deputy Leader, they could come and talk to him. Malcolm Fraser was another one who would often call in as a young backbencher and wanted to see Mr Holt. Occasionally I’d say he’s too busy if they came too often, but he’d see them fairly frequently. If a minister called, like Mr Hasluck or Mr Frieth or Mr Townley, they’d go straight in, but with backbenchers, if you knew he was preoccupied, sometimes you’d fob them off.
Gorton came across, as he did as Prime Minister, very laidback relaxed person, very much on a wavelength I suppose of the coming hippie era, the change in social attitudes in Australia, he very much resonated with that and I think that’s why Mr Holt found him interesting and possible ministerial material later on. Mr Fraser was the opposite extreme really, the Oxford accent, very young and a bit imperious, but nevertheless very polite. Jim Killen was always very friendly and pleasant. I knew Mr McMahon quite well, he was next door and would call in, he and Mr Holt would walk back together every night to the Hotel Canberra. He had his hat and dapper gear on and they would walk down to the Hotel Canberra, and walk up in the morning too. They were fairly close as colleagues, and Mr McMahon having succeeded Mr Holt in the Labour & National Service portfolio, and Mr McMahon was an experienced economist who was able to speak but he was never taken terribly seriously in the House, easy to upset and a figure of fun almost for the Eddie Wards of this world. He had a hard time trying to establish his gravitas in the House, but he was very pleasant and nice.
Mr Whitlam would come around fairly often because of needing to do business with Mr Holt on Leader of the House issues and order of debate. He had a wonderful turn of phrase. There was a royal visit of some kind in 1961, all the cabinet ministers were instructed to assemble at the front of Parliament House for the arrival of whoever it was and they all had to wear morning suit. So he was all dressed up, we walked out to the top of the stairs and there was Gough Whitlam and a number of the Labor Party fellows just in their suits. Gough came along and said oh Harold, you look beautiful, so lovely dressed up like that, so nice Harold – sending him up. Harold said you bugger, just you wait till you get into power, I’ll give you hell! An interesting repartee between them, and equally interesting that Harold was prepared to concede that someday there would be a change of government.
On another occasion Mr Whitlam came into the office and said Terry, you’re such a wonderful Private Secretary, when I become Treasurer I want you to be my Private Secretary. I said oh yes, Mr Whitlam.
In 1972 just after the election when Whitlam won power, I was a senior Treasury officer then and Whitlam came to the Treasury for a meeting with Sir Frederick Wheeler and the senior Treasury officers for a briefing on the economy. This was only the week after the election, he’d been sworn in with Mr Barnard as the two ministers. So Whitlam arrived, brought up to the fifth floor conference room, we all sat down. There was Sir Frederick Wheeler, Jack Garratt, the Deputy Secretary, John Stone, the Deputy Secretary, Roy Daniel, the Deputy Secretary, and me, I was an Assistant Secretary at that stage, a lower rank, although I did have responsibility in Treasury for the Department of Urban & Regional Development when the Albury-Wodonga centre was one of the major expenditure areas of the Whitlam Government.
Anyhow, Whitlam came up and the idea was to give him the bad news about the economy – things aren’t good and you won’t be able to carry out all your expenditure proposals that you have in mind. He had with him Jim Spiegleman and Peter Wolenski, two private secretaries or advisors. He was full of beans, his usual ebullient personality. Sir Frederick was all very ponderous, introduced his senior colleagues, he got to me and Gough said your face is familiar. I said it was probably at the embassy in Japan when I was there and he came for a visit as Opposition Leader. He said no, it was before that. I said I was Private Secretary to Harold Holt years ago in 1960 and you said to me that when you became Treasurer you wanted me to be your Private Secretary. Old Wheeler was wondering what’s going on here. He said oh you’ll have to speak to Jim and Peter about that now! And he had actually been sworn in as Treasurer for those few days. So isn’t that funny – the stock in trade of a good politician is a photographic memory for names and places.
So Whitlam, again rather like Mr Holt, had that wonderful personality and repartee, everything was a bit of fun, but a superior intellect, no question. So of the Prime Ministers they’re the ones. I didn’t have any real dealings with Malcolm Fraser except as a young learning backbencher. He actually did speak quite a bit on the economy. We’d give him briefing and Treasury material to use in his speeches too.
So of the subsequent prime ministers, they’re my most vivid or interesting memories of them.
S Forde: Tell me about your time at the International Monetary Fund in Washington and how that came about?
T Larkin: I was Sir Roland Wilson’s Executive Assistant from the end of 1961 till 1965 and like all good executive assistants I had to try and think how I would extract myself from this more or less permanent position and proceed with my Treasury career. I had been promoted, Sir Roland had promoted me as it went along, he was very good to me, but I had always wanted to do some further studies and a higher degree. My Bachelor of Economics from Sydney University was adequate but I could see in the longer run I felt the need for more depth in postgraduate study. I mentioned those thoughts to Sir Roland. I had a great liking for America which was instilled by Mr Holt. We went on a great trip to Washington, I remember, and met movie stars in Los Angeles with him, went to New York. So I just had a liking for America, rather than going to Oxford or Cambridge, that was a bit too British for me. Sir Roland asked me at one stage what ideas I had for my future and I said I’d really like to do that. He said oh, you’re just the type of person we want as an Harkness Fellow. Harkness Fellows were supposed to be people who were potential leaders in their country and outstanding in their field of endeavour, Sir Roland himself had been an Harkness Fellow back in the 1930s, as had Sir John Crawford and other famous Australians, artists and writers – Sidney Nolan, Brett Whiteley, Peter Sculthorpe, Nobel prize-winning medical scientists and what-not.
So Sir Roland said to apply for a Harkness, perfect profile – and actually Sir Roland was on the selection committee. I was a bit doubtful about this. The selection committee consisted of Sir Owen Dixon, the Chief Justice of the High Court, and McFarlane Burnet, the famous Nobel prize-winning scientist, and Dr Darling who was the great headmaster of Geelong Grammar School and Chairman of the ABC, and Sir Roland Wilson. So I thought oh, I don’t know about this. I’ve faced up to many an ordeal but I don’t know how I’d go with these, being grilled about whether I was a suitable candidate.
Anyway, I was obliged really to apply for a Harkness Fellowship and as it happened Owen Dixon had just retired and by good fortune or otherwise Nugget Coombs was made chairman and of course I knew Nugget well. So I was shortlisted and flown to Melbourne, it was near the end of 1964 and timed for the beginning of the academic year in America in September the following year. So they had all my papers, my CV listing my distinguished career and all my wonderful alleged achievements and they had various questions to ask. Roland didn’t speak at all and wonderful Nugget bowled up all sorts of nice questions that I could hit back with no trouble at all. But Dr Darling said Mr Larkin, you don’t appear to have a very distinguished academic career – which was quite correct actually. I said that as an evening student I didn’t attempt Honours – by implication, had I attempted Honours of course I would have got First Class Honours – but fortunately I’d won two prizes as I’d gone through, so I told him that and that silenced him. I don’t think McFarlane Burnet wasn’t all that impressed with me.
Anyhow I was awarded a Fellowship, there were three others, and it was certainly a wonderful thing, most prestigious. A very wealthy fellowship – you were given a car and told to drive around America and absorb American culture, a wonderful thing, and of course it was an entrée into wherever you wanted to go. So I immediately got accepted to Harvard and admitted to the John F Kennedy School for Government, because I had this government background in public policy, but I did a full Economics PhD major. I got a Master of Public Administration after the first year, then the second year I got automatically, after passing the PhD general exams, which was a very harrowing experience, the Masters in Economics, and I then decided to return to Australia rather than staying another two years. The Fellowship actually ended so I would have had to get an extension and get leave from the public service, saying away for four years.
But prior to that romance had blossomed and I got engaged about that time, intending to get married to a young lady who was a secretary in the Department of Foreign Affairs. She was in the Australian Embassy in Jakarta at the time. So I had to juggle all this romance and marriage before next September, so there was this wonderful executive program organised by the International Monetary Fund for four months from February to June for leading young middle-ranking officials from various countries. You could go there for an internship program. I thought I’d apply for that, and naturally I pulled that off with our connections at the IMF, so that was a wonderful package. We could get married in February, go straight to Washington for four or five months and do the IMF program, which gave me wonderful additional insights into the IMF and the World Bank, and then go up to Boston and get organised and take up the Harkness Fellowship at Harvard in early September.
S Forde: So your wife was with you during your time at Harvard?
T Larkin: Oh yes. The intensity of study at Harvard was enormous.
I remember one of the other students saying it’s like being talked to walk by being dragged behind a train – such a higher level of academic endeavour and intensity of study. Mind you, it was graduate school, and just stunning intellectually and in terms of depth of knowledge in economics and public policy. It was a wonderful experience, and the Harkness Fellowship of course gave us this car and the opportunity to drive around America and absorb the American culture. So it really was the most marvellous experience.
Then I returned back to Australia in 1967 and I remember seeing Mr Holt at Parliament House and had a chat to him. That’s when he mentioned to me about it was great to be back in general politics. We had a nice chat and that was the last I saw of him. He sent me a Christmas card, I’ve got it in my bag. He drowned the week before Christmas and I got his Christmas card in the mail three days later.
By then Sir Roland had retired from the Treasury just before Sir Robert Menzies retired. Roland was then appointed Chairman of Qantas and Chairman of the Commonwealth Bank, and that allowed Dick Randall then to be appointed Secretary of the Treasury. Randall was only a few years younger than Wilson. Then Menzies retired and Holt was made Prime Minister in early 66. So I was away – I wrote him a letter and he wrote back a reply thanking me for my congratulations.
So those changes had occurred and when I came back to Canberra Harold Holt was PM, Dick Randall was Secretary of the Treasury and I got promoted to a higher level back in the Economic Policy Division as a more senior officer, and picked up the threads of Canberra. But before I could blink Mr Holt was dead and then the turmoil of the Gorton appointment and the McMahon appointment and finally the Liberal Party disintegrated and lost office in 72, which led to a whole new era of the Whitlam Government and the Labor Party finally gaining power.
So that’s the story of why I went to Harvard and achieved these degrees. If it hadn’t been for the urging of Sir Roland to apply for the Harkness Fellowship I might not have got there. He always set daunting tasks for me and he set me the daunting task of actually winning it, even though he was on the selection committee, but I was very fortunate that Nugget Coombs was chairman. I had the advantage of knowing people like Nugget Coombs on first-name terms. It was amazing the number of contacts and people I knew just from my time with Harold.
S Forde: What words come to mind to sum up how you feel about your time at Parliament House?
T Larkin: Just one of the great pleasure and delight really. It was such a formative time in my life and also the excitement of seeing a boy from Sydney – I thought I knew everything from Sydney, I didn’t need to see the world, friends always said I was mad going to Canberra, a country town like that – but it was just seeing Australia at work, seeing the parliamentary process and Parliament House and national affairs at such close range was wonderful. Wonderful people – everybody from the ministers, the members of parliament, the attendants, everybody from the top to the bottom were lovely people and decent, and the atmosphere was so pleasant.
They’re my memories of it. I’m afraid I can never relate to the new Parliament House. It’s so much bigger and less personal, whereas this just had that wonderful feeling and once you’ve been here and worked here I think you can never take those memories from your mind. It’s something that has always been with me.
S Forde: When you came in today for this interview, what were your feelings when you returned to the building?
T Larkin: Oh, one of high emotion really. I wanted to walk up the front steps. Walking up the steps was such a ritual with Harold, the heart always misses a beat. I like walking up the steps of Old Parliament House. It brings back a flood of memories, many of them happy and delightful. A bit sad too. Walking up the front steps of Old Parliament House is a wonderful emotional experience. Of course I was prepared and wanted to be prepared to speak to you and do this. It’s something I’ve avoided in a way and not talked about the past or reflected on, but in the end I thought I should do it. In a way it was just nice to confine myself to that formative period in my life of 1960 and 1961. There were other events of course at Parliament House in my later public service career which were much more difficult and hurtful, but I won’t go into those today.
S Forde: Terry, on behalf of the Museum I thank you for today and your wonderful memories. It has been a great interview. Thank you very much.
T Larkin: Thank you.
This history has multiple parts.1 2 3 4
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