Extract from oral history of Tom Fitzgerald by Ken Inglis

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John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the National Library of Australia. Interview of Tom Fitzgerald, 01/02/1988 - 3/09/1988. JCPML00658/1. Original held by National Library of Australia TRC 2247

Tom Fitzgerald: Let me say in passing that, if it’s of any personal interest, I think I had my first vote in a federal election straight after the War in 1946. And because of my background, my father who was a cagey, occasionally abstaining or even opposition voter, he voted Labor if he could. And that’s how I’ve been all my life too. My first election, ’46, I voted Labor. But I had the extraordinary experience in ’49 of finally deciding I would have to vote not only...well not only abstain but vote positively against Labor in ’49. That’s a story in itself. That was why when Macmahon Ball asked me what I stood for I couldn’t give him any simple cut and dried answer.

Professor Ken Inglis: Can I ask why? In 1949.

Tom Fitzgerald: This is very personal, very personal. I’ve never heard anyone even mention these things. The question of bank...it all hinged around the question of bank nationalisation. Now on bank nationalisation, since I had studied economics and in the course of it had had mixed feelings about our Australian banks, about their behaviour, about their character, I... I wasn’t so much opposed to nationalisation in itself. It existed in France in banking. Though I would have said that those who wish to do it have to show cause in a very clear way as to why they’re doing it and not do it on impulse. I could see that some of the awful characteristics of our banking leaders, their reactionary characteristics had a kind of a... a saving benefit in that they were a countervailing force of enormous wealth and influence in the media against the opposite extreme, the... the totally... totally careless or reckless desire to make drastic change.

But that was not the real...I had become, during the War, in England, a very great admirer of George Orwell. I used to wonder whether I was perhaps one of the very first Australian Orwellians, long before Animal Farm and 1984 which to me added little if anything to Orwell’s interest. But I’d read him in England, I’d read some of his books, I’d seen him in Tribune and in... in Cyril Connolly’s Horizon.

And when he died in 1950 I’d just joined the Herald, this is in parentheses, I said to Angus McLachlan, 'Well it’s as though I’d lost a second father or an elder brother' and he said, 'Who’s Orwell?'.

Which was common, it was perfectly... but coming down to tin tacks I was sitting at home on the Saturday evening when Chifley and his Cabinet decided to nationalise banking. And I turned on the seven o’clock radio news. And the item of that decision was number five or number six in the news. And I read in the next day’s paper... the Sunday paper, that Chifley had asked that this matter not be given undue prominence. Then, a little later, Chifley was asked why, now in 1947, he was proposing such a big drastic measure when he had not mentioned it in his election policy speeches in 1946 and he said...he was reported to have said, 'Well anybody can see our... our party’s platform and what we stand for.'

That… those two things disturbed me. Somewhat later it seemed to me to be...well it was clear: Chifley said that he wanted to go into the 1949 elections with the nationalisation a fait accompli because, he said, 'Once you scramble the eggs you can’t unscramble them.' Now those three elements seemed to me to take the whole question of [the merits of] bank nationalisation away from the [real] issues. Remember this is the time when Jan Masaryk had been defenestrated, the Communists had moved into Europe in a way we’d not expected in 1945. Of course Chifley was far from being a Communist, a lovable man in many ways. I and my next-door neighbour went to see both him and Menzies give their...give policy...give speeches in different suburbs in the election campaign.

But it’s not Chifley as a person but that kind of mindless group movement in directions that don’t...aren’t justified and explained that made me decide: that I don’t want the media unduly influenced as to what they treat as prominent; that I would like to know in advance what the government I’m voting for is going to do; that this is an elementary right we all have; and that the people should not be given a chance to decide in the ’49 elections whether they want the nationalisation but should be told, 'It’s all over, mate,' was just too much. So I voted against them. In the end...I thought I’d have traumas doing it, I didn’t, it was quite easy. Did it.