Reflections on the Modest Member

The Modest Member: The Life and Times of Bert Kelly
by Hal Colebatch
Connor Court, 2012, 300 pages, $29.95

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Charles Robert Kelly (born December 22, 1912) who, in 1958, at the age of forty-five, became the federal member for Wakefield. He was a reluctant politician. His family had farmed Merrindie, a South Australian property with an annual rainfall of about twenty inches, since the 1870s. The farm was more than 2000 acres but only half of it was arable, and keeping it profitable required hard work and a great deal of farming know-how. Bert, as he was universally known, was proud of his success as a farmer. In 1951 he had won a Nuffield scholarship, which took him to England and enabled him to visit many farms and educational institutions. On his return to Australia he helped to raise money to keep the Nuffield program running and with the aid of a slide projector addressed many meetings of farmers and their families on his experiences. It was this activity which made him a public figure in the electorate of Wakefield.

When Sir Philip McBride retired as the member for Wakefield two people, one from the grave, persuaded Bert to run for pre-selection. His father W.S. (Stan) Kelly (1882–1969), had been a full-time member of the Tariff Board, then based in Melbourne, from 1929 to 1940. WS, as he was called, was increasingly concerned with the rise of protectionism during the 1950s, and he urged his son to take up the anti-protectionist cause in parliament.

The other was Charles Hawker, the crippled war hero who became the Member for Wakefield in 1929 and was killed in an air crash at Mt Dandenong in October 1938. Had he lived he would almost certainly have succeeded Joe Lyons as Prime Minister. He was a frequent visitor to the Kelly home and had told Bert that he should be ready to take up the burdens of political life when the need arose.

Hawker must have been an extraordinary judge of character to have realised, when Bert was in his twenties, that this young man, for whom the idea of a political career was repugnant, was capable of accomplishing great things for his country. Bert recalled that during one such visit Hawker had suggested that Bert should prepare to succeed him as the Member for Wakefield, a suggestion from which Bert resiled. Hawker said, “I am not asking you what you want, Bert. I am telling you where your duty lies.”

Those words from Charles Hawker could not be ignored, even after twenty years, so Bert, with his wife Lorna’s consent, put his name down as a candidate for pre-selection and won on the first ballot.

So Bert became an MP and after visiting India and Nepal as part of a parliamentary delegation in 1959 and becoming engaged in committee work, he was reproved by his father for lack of zeal in the anti-protectionist cause.

Writing the Kelly biography was something I would love to have done myself, but when Bert blessed the project in 1990 I was too engaged in my work and in extra-mural activities such as the H.R. Nicholls Society to be able to do anything more than arrange for taped interviews with some of Bert’s contemporaries. Some of these interviews provided valuable information.

One of them was Jim Forbes, who became the Member for Barker in 1956, and who later held senior ministerial portfolios for many years. He was Bert’s closest parliamentary colleague. I also talked to Lorna Kelly and she gave me some valuable insights into Bert’s career. Lorna, sitting up in the Visitors Gallery, was often the only person in the Chamber, apart from the duty MP on the other side of the House, when Bert was using the opportunity of the adjournment debate to get into the Hansard the results of his study of the Tariff Board reports.

However, I think the most illuminating interview I had was with Sir Paul Hasluck. Sir Paul mentioned that amongst Bert’s Liberal Party colleagues, he was often put down “for his Methodist zeal”. Sir Paul also told me that he prided himself on his ability to get on the right side of Sir John McEwen if it was necessary to get McEwen’s support prior to a cabinet meeting. I mention McEwen in this context because McEwen was Bert’s great and formidable opponent in the long debate over protection, and so Hasluck’s comment introduces the second most important figure in the Kelly biography.

In comparing the two men and the relative power they were able to wield, the story of David and Goliath immediately comes to mind. Jack McEwen was indeed a Goliath. As Leader of the Country Party, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade, he had built up a team of civil servants who were loyal to him rather than to the nation. He also had a faction in the Liberal Party who admired and supported him, and Menzies had to be watchful of them.

In conventional terms Bert Kelly’s career as a politician was not a successful one. Harold Holt appointed him Minister for Works in 1967, a minor portfolio, but after Holt’s death John Gorton promoted him as Minister for the Navy, only to drop him in November 1969. Now freed from the constraints of collective responsibility, Kelly was able to take up his pen and he began writing his influential “Modest Member” columns in the Australian Financial Review. They were published on Fridays and the circulation of the AFR increased on Fridays as a consequence.

When the Modest Member columns appeared, John McEwen, widely known as “Black Jack”, arranged for a question in the House asking him if he was aware that the Modest Member was the Hon. Bert Kelly, member for Wakefield. McEwen replied that, yes, he was aware of that, and that the pseudonym Kelly had adopted was particularly appropriate because “he had much to be modest about”.

That well prepared put-down, by one of the most powerful politicians in Australia’s history, about an MP who had recently been dumped as a minister, powerfully illuminates the story of a parliamentarian who, with the aid of a very few friends, brought protectionism to an end in Australia.

In the two-year period after the 1961 election, when the Coalition had a majority of only one in the House of Representatives, McEwen had Menzies in a hostage situation, and it was during this period that McEwen carried out his plan to make the Tariff Board, which had been established in 1921, impotent, and to create in the Office of the Special Advisory Authority an instrument which would do his bidding on tariffs. McEwen appointed Sir Frank Meere as the Special Adviser; the Tariff Board was neutered; the chairman, Sir Leslie Melville, an economist and a public servant of great distinction, was forced to resign; and Bert Kelly was still a backbencher with only three years experience in the parliament and the party room. Hal Colebatch has well described the difficulties Bert faced in this period. He was at his wits’ end as to what he could do. He really was a diminutive David, facing up to this giant Goliath, and trying to find some suitable stones to put into his sling shot.

Only now are we learning the extent of McEwen’s mendacity and duplicity. Charles Massy has recently published his immensely important book on the wool industry, Breaking the Sheep’s Back, in which he discusses the way McEwen and his allies established the Wool Reserve Price Scheme, built up a wool mountain of over 4 million bales, and a debt of more than $4 billion. In 1991, when Bob Hawke finally blew the whistle, that was an enormous debt. Massy’s book could only be published last year after the death of one of the key players, and Massy has told us that in due course a new edition will come out with even more information on the damage that was done to the wool industry by McEwen and his supporters.

It was during the period 1961 to 1963 that Bert, with only Jim Forbes to give him moral support in the party room, established himself as a parliamentarian who could not be bullied or silenced. After the 1963 election, which restored Menzies’s authority in the Coalition, Bert was able to go on the offensive.

After Melville had been forced to resign, a new Chairman of the Tariff Board had to be appointed, and Alf Rattigan, formerly from the Customs Department, accepted the job. An account of Rattigan’s appointment is in Colebatch’s biography, but it is not the full story. I had lunch with Alf Rattigan in Canberra—I think it was not long after he retired—and he told me how it came about that he decided to accept the appointment. Recall that Sir Leslie Melville, a distinguished public servant, had been ignominiously forced to resign; that McEwen had broken the authority of the Tariff Board with his Special Advisory Authority; and that Rattigan was well aware of McEwen’s ruthlessness and vindictiveness when he was crossed. So he was, not unreasonably, reluctant to accept the appointment.

However, he was at this time attending a black-tie function in Parliament House of a diplomatic kind, at which Menzies sought him out, took him to one side, and asked him in the most direct terms to accept the appointment. According to Rattigan, Menzies’s words were, “Rattigan, I really want you to accept this appointment”, with heavy emphasis on the word really. He told me that after that very brief conversation he felt he had no choice but to do as the Prime Minister had asked.

Hal Colebatch tells us how Bert, full of anxiety, rang his father on the news of the appointment, but WS, who had very good knowledge, from his time on the Tariff Board, of who was who in Canberra, reassured Bert that Rattigan would turn out all right. And so it proved.

Let me now return to the conversation I had with Sir Paul Hasluck. In his dealings with McEwen. Hasluck told me that his technique was to put down no more than five points on a single sheet of paper, arrange to meet “Le Noir”, as Menzies called him, and go over them, one at a time. Once McEwen had orally, and I emphasise the word orally, agreed to each one, Hasluck knew he would get what he wanted in cabinet.

Hasluck’s reference to “Methodist zeal” rang loud bells in my mind because I, too, had been a Methodist boy, albeit twenty-seven years younger than Bert.

The Kellys had come to South Australia from the Isle of Man, a self-governing Crown dependency in the Irish Sea, with a strong Methodist tradition dating back to John and Charles Wesley. South Australia was a Methodist stronghold; Adelaide was known as the city of churches. Much of this Methodism came with the Cornish miners who pioneered the copper industry in South Australia and saved the infant colony from bankruptcy. Geoffrey Blainey tells us that thirteen of the sixteen churches at Moonta were Methodist.

I understand that Methodism is still alive in the UK and is thriving in the USA. But it died in Australia when the Uniting Church was formed through the union of the Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist churches. The Methodist church which I attended as a boy is now a Chinese Christian church, and I’m delighted to see the church notice board, replete with Chinese characters, when occasionally I drive past it.

You may be wondering what this has to do with Bert Kelly, his Methodist roots, and his extraordinary contribution to Australian political and economic life. Bert is remembered and revered for his lifelong commitment to his lonely battle against protectionism, but what has religion in general and Methodism in particular got to do with tariffs?

In my view, almost everything. Edmund Burke, widely accepted as the father of conservative and liberal political doctrine in the Anglosphere, tells us that “True politics is morality writ large”; which raises the question, “Where does morality come from?” One of Burke’s answers to that question is this: “There is but one law for all, namely that law which governs all law, the law of our Creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity—the law of nature and of nations.”

In Western society, the law of our Creator is the Decalogue—the Ten Commandments—and many, perhaps most, churches had the Decalogue inscribed, at least in shortened form, above the stained-glass windows often found in the sanctuary.

The Ten Commandments describe for us the moral world in which Bert Kelly and his contemporaries grew up, and the moral compass which guided their activities. And so political issues within Australia were framed, debated and resolved within this framework. Biblical texts were often used in political debates. I remember hearing Bob Menzies announcing state aid for church schools, in the form of Commonwealth grants for science blocks which would be distributed to all schools—government and non-government—at the beginning of the 1963 election campaign, and using John 14:2, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions”, as a supporting statement.

The tenth commandment—“Thou shalt not covet”—provides the main theme for these comments on Bert Kelly and his fight against protectionism. But I cannot pass over, without comment, the fifth commandment—“Honour thy father and mother”. It does not say “Honour parent one and parent two”. Much more could be said about the implications of that commandment.

However, back to the tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet”. Protection was a government-mandated system of rewarding covetousness. The rent-seekers, or as Jack Lang called them “the tariff-touts”, were able to steal huge amounts of money from the rest of the community, transfers which were never scrutinised in parliament because they were off-budget. Bert, through unremitting study of the Tariff Board reports, and then through information which came to him on unsigned sheets of paper, or from telephone calls at night, was able to give chapter and verse on the huge amounts of money involved. And those numbers, together with the realisation that protection was impoverishing Australia, became the weapons which brought down the protectionist system which had been in place since Alfred Deakin established it, soon after the new Commonwealth parliament began to legislate in 1902.

The measure of Bert’s achievement is best seen in the context of Keith Hancock’s opening sentences to Chapter 5 of his marvellous book Australia. Well after he had retired from the parliament, Bert rang me, with great glee, to read to me these few lines. The book was written in 1930, when Hancock was himself just thirty-two years old, and Bert had only just discovered it. I quote:

Protection in Australia has been more than a policy: it has been a faith and dogma. Its critics, during the second decade of the twentieth century, dwindled into a despised and detested sect suspected of nursing an anti-national heresy. For Protection is interwoven with almost every strand of Australia’s Democratic nationalism. It is a policy of power; it professes to be a policy of plenty.    

Bert lost pre-selection for Wakefield in 1977 but continued his columns as the Modest Farmer. Malcolm Fraser, a supporter of protectionism, won the 1980 election, but then presided ineffectually over rising inflation and increasing trade union militancy. In 1983 the Hawke government was elected and Hawke and Keating began to implement a policy of phasing out protection. It was the most important political development in postwar Australia.

In 1980, Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore, visited Australia and commented that we were in danger of becoming the “poor white trash of Asia”. This statement touched a deep nerve because Australia had, since federation, been sliding down the per capita income ladder. At federation Australia was, with New Zealand, in per capita terms, the wealthiest country in the world. By 1980 we were twenty-second or twenty-third on the ladder and accelerating downwards.

There were two primary causes for this slide. The first was protectionism, a policy which rewarded rent-seeking instead of entrepreneurial endeavour, and the second was our much-prized industrial relations system, under which our legally privileged trade unions made fighting the class war the major focus of their activities. Both of these institutions had been established by Deakin soon after federation, and together they transformed Australia’s economy from one which was internationally highly competitive, to one in which our key export industries, notably the wool industry, were increasingly weighed down with costs and regulations.

If we think about the events which took place in the Commonwealth parliament recently, it is clear that the moral compass which the Ten Commandments provided has been broken. For example, the ninth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness”, would be seen by many of our contemporary political leaders as naive nonsense. Graham Richardson, who many regarded as the arch-cynic of Australian politics, and entitled his memoirs Whatever It Takes, has, in his October 12 column in The Australian, recanted, at least in part:

Minority rule is destroying the Labor government. In an attempt to hang on to the gossamer-thin thread of the ALP’s majority in the lower house, apparently anything goes. I once wrote a book called Whatever It Takes, and that embodied my political style. Never, however, did I believe that the “whatever” would include defending a slime like Slipper.

What I am really wondering is how much of the PM’s or the party’s reputation will be sacrificed in this pursuit. No one has argued the case for Labor being in government more than I across many, many years, but right now, right at this moment, you really have to wonder if this has all gone too far.

Coming from Richo these words are a sign that the nation does require that its leaders have a moral compass which constrains their behaviour, both in public and in private. And it gives us hope that the ancient condemnations of theft, of bearing false witness, of covetousness, will reassert their authority.

The rent-seekers of Bert’s day were those who used protectionism as a cloak to disguise their covetousness. The rent-seekers of today use renewable energy targets, or the green virtues of putting ethanol in petrol, for the same purpose. In Europe and the USA, palm oil and corn are used to make bio-diesel, with serious impacts on world food prices. So the rent-seekers are always with us, and every generation needs a Bert Kelly who can use the sword which John Bunyan’s Mr Valiant-for-Truth bequeathed to Bert Kelly, but also to all “that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage”.

Hal Colebatch’s biography provides a permanent record of a man who changed Australia for the better, incalculably so, through his commitment to what he saw as the task to which he was called. He did so through his talents as a writer and a parliamentarian; but above all through his integrity, his courage and his patriotism.

Ray Evans launched The Modest Member with this speech in Melbourne in October.                                 

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