Robert Menzies was Australia’s greatest prime minister, William McMahon was “despised”, and a young Paul Keating had an obsession with parliamentary entitlements.
In the final part of our exclusive interview with Jim Forbes, 90, the last remaining Liberal member of Menzies’ Cabinet, the South Australian recalls the great – and the not so great – politicians he served with. He also reflects on the controversial decision that got him in trouble with his kids – the deportation of English singing legend Joe Cocker.
The life and times of Dr Alexander James Forbes sit in four distinct parts – his military service from ages 16 to 24, as an academic at Adelaide University until the age of 33 and then a Member of the Parliament until he retired aged 52.
He had served under Prime Ministers Menzies, Holt, McEwen, Gorton, McMahon and caretaker PM Malcolm Fraser.
He saw the rise, rise and fall of Whitlam and shared Canberra digs with the young Paul Keating.
Few Australians have such a first hand knowledge of our political history.
The last 38 years, however, have been a period of personal reconstruction for the man who missed so much of his five children’s early years; who lost friendships and got lost in the abnormal world of Parliament House, Canberra.
After dealing with a noisy screen door, banging in the breeze, we picked up the story again this week where it began; with his election to the semi-rural seat of Barker which ran from Coromandel Valley to Mount Gambier.
“I’d always been interested in politics; when I was a cadet at Duntroon I took an interest in what was going on.
“I gradually came to the view that I might go into politics some day.
“I talked to Hector Clayton, (founder of law firm Clayton Utz), who was a great friend of my father.
“Hector was Leader of the Opposition in the NSW Legislative Council and he lived next door to us in Sydney.
“He told me that if I want to go into politics, to study law; so I took a few law books with me up into the jungle.”
The notion that you would take a few law books into the jungle and study while also keeping the Japanese at bay is typical of what one of Jim’s grandson’s described this week as his grandfather being a “master of understatement”.
When he returned from the Second World War, he decided to leave the Army and study.
His parents had retired in Adelaide “so when I got out of the army and decided to study, I went to Adelaide University so that I could live at home”.
He spent four years doing honours history and politics, and became president of the University’s Liberal Union.
He won a scholarship to do his Doctorate in Philosophy at Oxford’s Magdalen College.
“It was on the subject, The Attitude of the Dominions to Security and Welfare, 1939-45“, he rattles off with a smile.
“While I was there I got married (to Margaret, also from Adelaide) and was appointed lecturer in politics at Adel Uni, so we came home.
“I’d been there two years and the Liberal Party asked me to stand for the Federal seat of Kingston in the 1955 election.
“I didn’t win it, but I made inroads.”
The following year the member for Barker, Archie Cameron, died.
With the support of Alex Downer (father of Alexander), Forbes beat a field of 30 to win pre-selection and then won the by-election.
Suddenly, Forbes was in Canberra and responsible for a massive country electorate.
Back at home, Margaret Forbes had a two year old daughter, Sarah, a one-year-old Emma and three more children to come.
It wouldn’t be long before the diligent backbencher would come under the notice of Menzies.
“He was always very nice to me.
“In 1958 he took me on an official trip to Indonesia and Malaysia.
“It was a fascinating experience; seeing Sukarno and Tunku Abdul Rahman in action and at close quarters and seeing how Menzies behaved and acted in that situation.”
Go here for part one of our series, in which Forbes defends the Vietnam conscription ballot that he took to the Menzies Cabinet. In part two, he has fascinating insights into Australia’s health policy – insights that hold a warning for the Abbott Government.
Forbes had taken the view that Menzies’ decision to take him on the Indonesia trip meant he was in line for promotion – but he would have to cool his heels as the canny Menzies dealt with the forces of political ambition among backbenchers.
“It is all too easy when this restlessness and ambition overtakes you to attempt to trim your sails to the wind so that you don’t fall out with the old man. Over the years I saw this happening with a lot of people.”
Menzies had the sole power as PM to make or break political careers.
How he handled this power, Forbes said, was why he was such a great and long-serving PM.
“Menzies was conscious of the power that this gave him in controlling the party.
“I am sure the word of encouragement here, the eyebrow raised there, simulated anger and so on were all related to his knowledge that the ambitious restlessness was there; his knowledge of this and the way it could be exploited is the reason he retained unquestionable command of his party for such a long period after 1949.”
The restlessness in Forbes would subside when Menzies rang in late 1963 and asked him the be Minister for the Army and Minister for the Navy, filling the vacancy caused by Menzies’ decision to shift Alex Downer to the job of High Commissioner in London.
“I still remember the phone call. It was all very straightforward.”
Forbes threw himself into the role, but would find early headwinds.
He was frustrated by the division of Defence in Service Departments of Navy Army and Air Force, each often working against each other.
He was also testy about the recruitment methods of the Army and in a rash moment decided to test the methods by taking the educational and psychological tests home and gave them to his daughters Sarah and Emma, then aged nine and seven.
“They did them and I took them back and got the Army to mark them, without telling them where they had come from.
“My eldest daughter was marked as ‘suitable for enlistment, highly recommended, should quickly become a sergeant.
“The other daughter was ‘recommended for enlistment’.”
It wouldn’t have been a problem, expect that Forbes made a political error; in the heat of parliamentary debate he railed against the slack recruiting policies in a time of high unemployment, saying: “But you don’t understand that people who go into recruiting offices in this time of high unemployment are the flotsam and jetsam of society.”
Harold Holt, sitting alongside him, immediately said that you can’t call citizens of your own country ‘flotsam and jetsam’.
Menzies told Forbes after he retired that the remark was thrown back at him from the back of halls throughout the Senate election of 1964.
“I learnt the political lesson from that,” Forbes recalls.
“But I mention it as an example of why Menzies was a great leader.
“He suffered considerable embarrassment as a result of things I’d done.
“Not once did he have a go at me about it.
“He just backed me up.
“He took the view that I was a young Minister and young Minister’s make mistakes.
“He was NOT the sort of person who got rid of people as a means of getting the Government out of trouble; he believed in stability, it was his instinct.
“He was a very great man Menzies, a very great man.”
It wasn’t long after that episode that the Menzies era would start to close.
Menzies resigned as Prime Minister on Australia Day 1966.
He’d spent 32 years in Parliament — most of them on the front bench.
He been Prime Minister twice – from 1939 to 1941 under the United Australia Party and another 19 years from 1949 to 1966 as leader of the Liberal Party.
He is the last elected Australian Prime Minister to leave office on his own terms.
The winds of change were beginning to be felt in Canberra.
The ALP were about to find a new leader, Edward Gough Whitlam.
Menzies’s successor Harold Holt would die in a tragic accident and the Liberal Party would become consumed by leadership tussles between Gorton, Sneddon and McMahon.
Holt drowned at Cheviot Beach in December 1967, just short of two years after Menzies had retired.
“Holt wasn’t PM for long, but he was in parliament for a long time,” Forbes recalls.
“He’d been very effective in senior roles.
“He wasn’t flamboyant … he was a very outgoing character.
“I liked him, but he wasn’t in the same league as Menzies.”
When John Gorton took over, Forbes remained as Health Minister, but the party was feeling the strain of the transition from the strong leadership of Menzies to Holt and then Gorton.
“Gorton struggled to get loyalty and support.”
Forbes was busy in his bid to achieve support for reforms to the National Health Act, while Whitlam made solid ground on his pitch to the voters for a national health system Medibank.
The Coalition suffered a 7 per cent swing against it at the 1969 election, and Labor outpolled it on the two-party-preferred vote.
As Forbes reminded me this week, the Coalition would have lost government had it not been for the Democratic Labor Party’s longstanding practice of preferencing against Labor.
The preferences tipped four marginal seats to the Liberals.
Had those preferences gone the other way, Whitlam would have become Prime Minister in 1969.
Forbes could see the writing on the wall.
“I regarded Whitlam as a considerable danger to us.
“I was very conscious of his capacities to promote his cause and I think I had a sense of inevitability about his rise.
“He was an astonishing bloke in the way he barged forward into things.”
While Gorton struggled in the aftermath of the 1969 election, William McMahon was waiting in the wings.
A young Malcolm Fraser sensationally resigned from his ministerial post, bagged Gorton on the floor of the parliament and all hell broke loose.
Gorton had already seen off one leadership challenge from McMahon and he decided to pull on a quick ballot to test his leadership.
The vote was tied. Gorton resigned and McMahon won the subsequent ballot.
It would be this period where Jim Forbes started to become disillusioned with politics and seriously consider retiring.
As Forbes revealed, it was only the intervention of Country Party leader and deputy PM Doug Anthony that slowed the inevitable.
“I despised McMahon – I think most people did,” Forbes says.
“He had so many people on a promise.
“You only have to see the people who became ministers under McMahon, who had been MPs for a long while and hadn’t been promoted.
“That was the way he operated … ‘if you vote for me, I’ll see you fixed when I get there’… Menzies would never had done anything like that.”
McMahon was about to dump Forbes to make way for those to whom he made promises.
“Doug Anthony told me afterwards that McMahon showed him a list which made it clear that he proposed to sack no less than nine Ministers.
“Anthony said to McMahon; ‘are you mad? You’ve just got this job because five or six disaffected people were able to go into the party room and say that unless we change leaders they would support a censure motion against Gorton. Now you propose to put nine people on the back bench who, given you’ve got a majority of five or six, will always be hanging the sword of Damocles over your head.”
He dumped three and found another way to appease his supporters.
“He had to pay his debts to other people in other ways, mainly through knighthoods and other honours and the creation of the the absurd Assistant Minister system.”
Forbes was given the job of Immigration Minister where his own decisions were often over-ruled by McMahon.
The PM was heading rapidly to an election and short-term political considerations were paramount.
Unemployment was high, McMahon was “throwing everything but the kitchen sink” to stimulate the economy.
“In that climate, there was a superficial view of Immigration that at a time when Australians are out of work you reduce your level of immigration.”
As McMahon headed towards inevitable defeat in December 1972, there would be one final moment where Forbes would carry the can for the PM, bringing enormous criticism of Forbes from the media and more damningly, in the Forbes household.
The British rocker Joe Cocker was touring Australia in October 1972.
It was a comeback tour after two years in a drug and booze-fuelled wilderness.
Cocker and and six members of his entourage were arrested in Adelaide by police for possession of marijuana.
The next day in Melbourne, assault charges were laid after a brawl at the Commodore Chateau Hotel.
Immigration officials were concerned – but as Minister, Forbes thought it was a step too far to deport the bad boy of music.
McMahon saw an electoral opportunity.
“It was McMahon who made the decision. I didn’t think it was necessary,” Forbes tells InDaily.
But Forbes was the man associated with the decision.
Cocker was given 48 hours to leave the country; it caused a huge public outcry, but McMahon’s view was that they were Labor voters.
Back in Adelaide, Emma Forbes, aged 16, had taken little interest in her father’s career.
“I was a typical teenager; self-obsessed,” Emma told InDaily.
“My one abiding memory of Dad’s career is this; can you imagine being a teenager in 1972 and you father has just thrown Joe Cocker out of the country?”
Jim Forbes has never shied from taking responsibility for the Government decision; not even when his daughters questioned it. It’s a trait he learned from Menzies, about whole-of-government responsibility.
On the night of December 2, 1972 the Coalition stranglehold on government ended.
Forbes, no longer a Minister, had to move out of his government flat and into a residential hotel, where he would spend many evenings and nights talking with another rising Labor star – Paul Keating.
“Ministers could rent a government flat and I rented one with Lesley Bury in the Stuart flats in Manuka.
“When we lost I had to get out and went back to the Hotel Kurrajong … there weren’t many of our people there … a lot of Labor blokes.
“When the House would rise, we would go back there and have a cup or tea or a drink.
“Keating had just come into the parliament in ’69 and you’d go back to the Kurrajong.
“Keating talked about nothing else but parliamentary entitlements.
“He would ask me as a senior member of the Opposition to put the case for improving MP’s entitlements.
“He never spoke about anything else in that period.
“When you hear him now, I find it very amusing.”
Forbes, however, could see the enormous political talent lying underneath.
“Keating stood out among the Labor blokes in the Kurrajong.
“Whitlam, meanwhile, was being let down by some ordinary performers, such as Cairns, Connor and Murphy.
“Keating stood out.”
History now shows that the Whitlam era lasted a mere three years and Malcolm Fraser rammed home a landslide win after the 1975 Dismissal.
Forbes, however, had already decided he wouldn’t be staying around for a second run in power.
The leadership wars between Snedden, Peacock and Fraser had taken their toll.
At a 1975 Shadow Cabinet meeting he railed against the lack of loyalty to leaders.
Disillusioned, he left.
Some of his political colleagues say he should have stayed.
“His retirement from politics in 1975 was a very extraordinary decision,” former Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer told InDaily.
“He was a supporter of Snedden’s and didn’t have a very good relationship with Fraser … which in retrospect, among us Liberals, he was perhaps ahead of his time on that.
“He was very disillusioned I think.
“He could have gone on and would have played a very prominent role I think.
“I think he regretted it for a while and seemed to be a bit lost post-politics.”
Forbes served as vice-president of the Liberal Party’s SA division, later as President from 1976-79 and also as Federal President.
He would return a favour to Alex Downer (Alexander’s father).
“He was a good friend of my fathers and went out of his way to help me…he was a great sponsor of mine,” the younger Downer says.
“He helped me win the preselection for Mayo.
“He had a huge influence behind the scenes.”
While many wondered why Forbes had left parliament, it’s clear in our discussions in early 2014 that he stands by the decision.
He had paid his dues.
“No. No regrets.
“One of the things about life in politics, with a large country electorate and with ministerial responsibilities, is that you lose touch with a normal life.
Friendships need to be kept in good repair and you just can’t do that.
“The people you’d known all your life, you just had to forget about them.
“The whole of the almost 40 years since have been to catch up with that normal life … to do the sort of things that the average person does.
“I reckon its taken me two years for every one in politics to achieve that…to settle down, to have a normal life with friends.”
It’s been a long haul, he says.
“I have now arrived at a point where I feel normal.”
Last month the family came from all around the nation and some from overseas to celebrate his 90th birthday.
Married for 62 years to Margaret, the family is Sarah, 59; Emma, 58; Alexander, 54 and David, 53.
Anna, died, sadly, last year after a battle with cancer.
The children, nine grandchildren and a couple of great grand children, came for the birthday and stayed for Christmas.
“My sister Sarah got up and gave a wonderful speech, outlining his life and saying how proud we are of him,” Emma said.
“We are a very close family; it’s something Dad, and Mum especially, worked very hard at.
“When he was asked to say a few words; to ponder his life, he had just one thing to say; he proposed a toast ‘to his wife Margaret’.
“There were tears in all our eyes.”
At the end of our second discussion in their inner suburbs home, Jim sees me to the door.
“I’m afraid I haven’t been very useful to you,” he says.
He is, as always, the master of understatement.
Alex, Sarah, Margaret, Jim, Emma, Anna and David Forbes at home in the mid-70s after his retirement from politics.
This is the final part of a three part feature that looks back on the issues confronted by the last surviving Liberal MP from the Tenth Menzies Ministry of 1963. It has been made possible with the time and cooperation of Jim Forbes and his permission to access papers held in a private collection by the National Library of Australia.
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