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
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
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
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.”
[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
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