Extract from oral history of Tom Fitzgerald by Ken Inglis

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

It was probably in the middle or the second half of 1956 [that the idea of Nation first came to mind]. And so far as I can reconstruct the reasoning behind it in the early stages, when it was purely my own idea, there were some factors such as these. I had only fairly recently realised that I would be staying in Australia continuously, probably for the rest of my life. I had hoped for about ten years after the War that I might spend some time at least in the United States. The problems of getting a visa were enormously complicated. They said there was a waiting time of seven years because of the very low quotas that were allocated to Australia, based on migration rates into the United States during the mid-1920s.

I had a smallish family, a very young family, and Margaret was totally in sympathy with the idea that I should go to America, try to find employment possibly as an economist or a journalist and just see how we all found it and either stay or come back. Just have the experience of it. I had been, quite unexpectedly, impressed with the United States, with New York and Chicago in particular. Passing through that country both on the way over to England on the way back during the War. I suppose I would have imagined that I would have been more attracted to England and in many ways I was. But the vigour of American life and thinking and conversation, the maturity, the adult character of that vast population was an extraordinarily unexpected excitement for me.

It was Roosevelt’s America and then Truman’s America. It was a great America. It was the America, you know, on various planes Gershwin, of the New Yorker, of very good theatre that I saw there, though not as good as London’s of course. But of, as I said, strenuous conversation, enormous articulacy and candour in discussing things. I even became an eavesdropper as a serviceman. Sitting in those air-conditioned bars in New York, alone, I would be pretending to be reading a book when I was actually listening to the conversations of such people as business executives either after their day’s work or at lunchtime. Talking over the business matters. The cut and thrust of their conversation, the whole atmosphere...I simply wanted to become one of them. An anonymous member of the mass of the American people. Just to be immersed in it, for a while at least. Just to see what it was like. It was the biggest... the most exciting sociological experience I’d ever had. I delighted in meeting those people over there. I had conversations with a senior economist in the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago, thanks to a nice girl whom I’d met at a party. She introduced me and we had a long debate about the economic future of America after the War. And the world after the War. And again, it was terrifically good. They talked about foreign affairs, the to them obvious emergence of Russia as a great power after the War. These sort of things were developed in a enormously interesting way. I felt that, you know, dear old Australia couldn’t offer you that kind of challenge... not challenge, immersion in the world’s issues, in exciting issues.

By 1955, late 1955 at least, I was ageing, my family was increasing, McCarthyism seemed to be holding sway in America and for various similar reasons I abandoned the idea of trying to leave the country. That was only the negative. That was only the removal of, I suppose, an obstruction to my even thinking about forming... trying a paper such as Nation.

It’s very difficult for a young person today to realise how stodgy and conservative, for the most part, the metropolitan press was. Very dull.

Another element is that I’d had battles with the Herald management, largely, I think, though he never confronted me, with Warwick Fairfax, over issues of my freedom to write. Even as Financial Editor on the financial page. And it seemed that to earn one’s living in an industry that was, in one’s own view, very unsatisfactory, far below what it might have been for the public, was not a very satisfactory way to eke out one’s life. The confrontations with the management had been, in my view, resolved reasonably in my favour. But it was also clear to me, I think... I thought at the time, that Mr Rupert Henderson [Managing Director of John Fairfax and Sons], who had had to conduct these debates with me, was himself quite supportive but ultimately would have to bow to superior command. It didn’t enter my head that the Herald would permit me to launch a paper of this kind while remaining Financial Editor. It was either late in ’56 or early in ’57 that I decided to make at least some preliminary arrangements for this to happen.

I had been approached quite strongly at least once and I think more than once by Sir Frank Packer and his off-sider, McNicoll, to go over and work for them. I had not taken those offers very seriously. But now I thought that one way to earn a living whilst still trying to produce this paper would be to write for Sir Frank Packer as a freelance contributor.

Packer by then was himself contemplating to produce a monthly periodical which was tentatively called the Observer. We had I thought a very interesting discussion in which by talking about our respective projects, without exactly saying so we came to an agreement that it would be more sensible if he also went fortnightly and we alternated in the weeks.

He was a very enjoyable man to deal with on that kind of basis, if you were not one of his employees. But I’ve heard a very different side of him from others.

Now I gave him a verbal understanding, quite clear, that I would join him. I then went to Mr Rupert Henderson and, to my horror and dismay, I realised I’d underrated him because of his willingness to help, to try to accommodate me. He immediately said, “Well so far as I’m concerned, if you do your job as Financial Editor at the Herald you can have your paper. I’ll put it to the other Directors and get in touch with you as soon as I can.”

The following day he said, “It’s cleared with the other Directors.” He said, “You owe it to me to stay. You shouldn’t go to Packer.” I must say I was in a terrible state of conscience over this. So I went down to see Packer. Oh, Henderson had also said to me what he had said to me many times before and later, that he wanted me to be a future Editor of the Herald, he personally did. I told Packer what had happened in McNicholl’s presence. And without my even asking Packer said “Well so far as I’m concerned you’re free to stay.” Extraordinarily generous.

[Packer’s Observer] came out first and we were relaxed about that. We knew we couldn’t beat them and of course Packer was quick off the mark. May I say, in passing, Packer umpteen times after that, if he ever saw me in a restaurant – I remember I was once having a meal in Beppi’s with some friends – would come up and demand that I join him. It was a sort of a continuous joke about my joining him.

The White Australia [Policy] was very much up in my mind as something that had to be tackled. At that time, of course, as you know, it was a plank in the Labor Party's platform. It was an explicit part of their platform. And Indonesia – I’d been horrified some years before, when RG Casey, as our External Affairs Minister, told a group of us journalists in effect that he avoided Sukarno, that he would not invite Sukarno to Australia, lest that would give Sukarno an added prestige in his own country. An added status in his own country. It seemed to me that that was an appallingly wrong-headed attitude, from a man, Casey, by the way, whom I genuinely like. Liked and still like very, very much. A fine man.

But it seemed to me to be totally wrong. Sukarno was well-entrenched and didn’t need any little flea-bite of encouragement from a visit to Australia. Far more important was for us to develop an understanding with the country.

So Indonesia was certainly... and White Australia, they were linked, they were very much linked, obviously, needless to say. Because these people were dark we somehow didn’t regard them as neighbours in the same way as New Zealand was neighbours. Well that was just a nonsense.

I suppose there was that general stuffiness. I remember when we started off in 1958 the prospect that the Labor Party as it then was had no immediate prospect at all of regaining office, and, whatever reservations one had about the Labor Party, this made it so easy for a dull, dreary conformism to settle over the country. And Menzies’ behaviour at Suez was a real shocker. I thought the press…let him off very lightly, in his behaviour at Suez. Where, you could argue, as I suspect RG Casey felt, that Menzies subordinated Australia’s national interests in this part of the world to some concepts of Empire solidarity and loyalty to Britain, which were simply inappropriate.

We came out not long after the Suez affair. It was one of the things that made it so obvious that there needed to be some kind of an organ. There had to be some sort of a voice for that kind of thing.

So there was a general feeling that the country needed shaking up on things of that kind. And I was also quite a bit concerned about the trend towards monopoly in Australia. I did a series of articles at the back of the book in the early issues dealing with that kind of thing. It was not such a burning issue as some of the others, but it was something that was perhaps worth a bit of discussion. There were numerous issues like that that one felt, even though one didn’t have in some cases a very definite opinion, were worth bringing up and airing for consideration.

We’re talking about a period when Foster Dulles was I think still living, or at least his spirit was still very much prevailing in America. And although America was not in my view anything of an ogre there was an excessive deference, we thought, to America. And a feeling that even if America is morally wrong, even if America is strategically mistaken in some of its policies we must at all costs go along with it. I thought that was not desirable as an Australian people’s attitude. One could understand a government would have to be circumspect from time to time, but that the people of Australia shouldn’t have their eyes blinkered to the realities and the anomalies that were caused by that kind of thing.

Just before we launched our first issue, the Americans, whom we’d given such total support to in their attitudes towards China, the conflict between Taiwan and mainland China, Mao’s China, and the bombardment of those islands, Quemoy and Matsu, useless islands but we’d give total support to the Americans, vociferously, Menzies and Casey and everyone. A day or two before we wrote our first editorial America imposed a stiff tariff, or import ban, or tariff quota, on some of our metals entering the United States. It was sheer vested interest, protectionist interests. And we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to point out that a friendship ought to be a two-way process. I think we called the first editorial... we alluded to that queer belief that being wrong together was better than being right.