Launch of A Thinking Reed by Barry Jones

Hill of Content Bookshop, Melbourne, 5 October 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Barry starts this remarkable autobiography by saying that it is an attempt to explain his life to himself. That’s always quite a challenge. I believe that his real explanation comes on page 119, where he says: ‘Passion drove me, as it always does’. He actually says this to explain one of his famous answers to a quiz question. Bob Dyer had asked him to name the first two Presidents of the United States. Barry said that he could name all 36 of them in order if Bob wanted him to!

But the passion that Barry refers to there explains a lot more about him than just that answer to that particular question. Barry was obviously fascinated, not just with the facts but with the minds and the motivation behind them. He liked the full story and he often gave it in the course of those famous quiz shows, where he placed himself on the national stage all those years ago.

This book is a rare achievement. It has tremendous range. It tells the story of a remarkably diverse life. Barry has done so many things – quiz king, teacher, academic, politician, minister, talk-back radio host.

The book ranges over all these things and tells the story of a remarkable career. The book also provides some tremendous accounts of political events over the last half century. What comes out is that Barry had an amazing knack of being in the right place at the right time, and managing to be around and often involved when a whole range of different events were taking place.

The 'Fifty Years Hard Labour' chapter tells the story of him meeting Ben Chifley during the 1949 election campaign. The way Barry tells the story of the meeting illustrates how the book doesn’t try to gild the lily. Ben asked him what he planned to do with his life, and Barry replied that he wanted to be a Labor MP. All that Ben was able to do, as Barry puts it, was that he ‘smiled wanly’.

He gives a new insight into old events and impliedly relates them to the new. During the chapter on 'Fifty Years Hard Labour', after Labor's defeat in 1996, Barry chaired a consultative review of that defeat. That review was meant to include a paragraph (on page 179) which went like this:

Losing the election was the second worst consequence of 2nd March. The worst was the realisation that we deluded ourselves that there was a national consensus on issues of race, sexuality, gender and tolerance, and acted accordingly. Regrettably this is not the case. We failed to recognise the extent of deep-seated racial, ethnic, sexual and gender intolerance in some rural and provincial areas.

The fact that that paragraph was included in the draft says a great deal about Barry’s determination, that the facts as he knew them to be were squarely faced. The fact that Kim Beazley asked that that paragraph be eliminated says more than I like to know about Kim Beazley. I am not sure, however, that Barry is entirely right.

I once made a speech in 1980 about multiculturalism. Like Barry, I believed that the issues involved had been resolved, that we had fought the fight and won. I now realise that we only win for a generation, that good policy can be followed by bad and much good destroyed.

In retrospect, I believe that the success that we believed we had, and that Barry believed we had, was due to the restraint of politicians and political leaders, was due to a determination that issues of race and religion would not again divide Australian politics.

We had experienced what racial division and discrimination did in Australia often enough. The question of Aboriginals, of Protestants and Catholics, a problem made so much worse by Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ intemperate attacks on Mannix, on the Catholic Church and on the Irish during his Conscription Referendum in the First World War.

When I entered politics, those divisions were not healed. They are still remembered by some.

In the post-war years, if Caldwell had wanted a vote amongst union members to support a large scale migration programme, he almost certainly would not have won it. There were 600,000 men and women waiting to be demobilised and only 7 years from 30% unemployment. If we had asked Melbourne if it wanted to become the biggest Greek city outside of Greece, Melbourne would have voted No. Now that it has happened, we are proud of it and overwhelmingly approve of it.

In some things, good policy has to be by leadership and not by fear and exacerbation of alleged difference. Policy will therefore be negative and regressive. It would always have been easy to create a religious or a racist divide over our immigration programme which would have made that programme impossible. It is so easy to create fear and suspicion of the unknown as is now happening in relation to Islam.

The restraint began to be broken down in the late eighties when compulsory mandatory detention centres were established, when Pauline Hanson wasn’t put back into her burrow, even before she had emerged. We know who is responsible, how it has occurred and why it continues.

The difference today is not that the basic make-up of Australians has altered so dramatically, not that Barry’s hope and belief was essentially wrong but we have political leaders who at times appeal to the worst in our natures, rather than to the best. Whenever that has happened through the course of history, serious consequences have followed, and they are following now.

There is another point in Barry’s book, on page 144, where he talks about the Communist Party Dissolution Bill, where he talks about the Referendum to give the Commonwealth powers to deal with Communists and Communism in 1951.

Roy Morgan ran a public opinion poll in June that year which reported that 80% supported the banning of the Communist Party. In August, that had fallen to 73%. We all know that Dr Evatt waged a massive campaign to oppose the legislation and he won, rightly. It was much to his credit, it said a great deal about principle and his readiness to support principles. Where do we see such courage today, such determination? Perhaps that is why bad policy has assumed a dominance in certain areas. I have no doubt that this aspect compounds the problem that Barry referred to about racism and discrimination.

The passion that drove Barry comes through in so many ways in the book. There is a moving chapter where Barry talks about the way in which the issue of the death penalty has been a pre-occupation for him. The passion and the depth of feeling that Barry is so well known for come through in a remarkable way in this chapter.

With his great breadth of reading, Barry has included some absolutely memorable quotations to illustrate and back up a lot of the points that he makes in the course of the book. In the chapter that I just referred to, he has a marvellous and haunting passage from Tolstoy, who said, after he saw a guillotining in Paris, that he 'understood, not in his mind but with his whole being, that no rational doctrine of progress could justify that act.'

About a year after he met Ben Chifley, Barry had a meeting with Bertrand Russell. The book abounds with marvellous images of remarkable encounters. Barry says that he has never forgotten something that Bertrand Russell said. It is worth mentioning them because the idea of passion comes into them again. Russell said that 'three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.'

Barry speaks of so many things, it is only possible to very inadequately awaken an appetite for his book. He speaks of John Gorton, warmly, as a fresh new Australian leader but he also, in two or three pages, lets the reader know not only why he was such an attractive character but also why he was doomed to fall.

He speaks of Donald Horne when, in The Lucky Country, he suggested that the 'sheer abundance of our mineral base and lucky elements in our history' held back aspects of social, economic and technological development.

He spoke of John Meynard Keynes and the conflicts his ideas created, with people like Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Freedman, page 317.

In his chapter called 'Faces', Barry talks about meeting Atlee, then Percy Grainger, then Adlai Stevenson. Barry has written this book with tremendous and engaging frankness and openness. It is very real. There is no pretence about it. It is more complex than it seems, and that is probably because of the passion that I have referred to, that drives Barry and that drives the book. This gives the book a special quality.

There is a particular part of the book that is worth looking at very closely, because it tells a lot about Barry. It is his discussion of the 'knowledge nation' policy. It is a great story about the fate of a political idea when it is subjected to a bit of heat in the crucible of politics. As Barry tells the story, he himself launched the policy in 2001, and Kim Beazley endorsed it with the ABC reporting that he had staked his political future on it. Barry wryly remarks that 48 hours later, Kim’s political future must have changed dramatically because he never referred to the Knowledge Nation proposal again. But then the Liberals got on to the diagram called 'the complexity diagram' in the policy. This diagram has about a hundred arrows linking about twenty-five boxes - and what I really liked was that Barry is able to laugh at himself by acknowledging that the Liberals 'scored a direct hit' by labelling this diagram as 'spaghetti and meatballs'.

All that is on page 460 of this really monumental work. Barry, it is amazing to think that it is 45 years since you won those forty boxes in the Pick-a-Box show; and what is even more amazing is that you have not only done what you have in the years since, but that you have managed to get so much of it down in this book. Philip Adams in the Foreword hits the nail absolutely on the head when he says that a 'rare degree of public affection' has been heaped upon you, along with high honours and Honorary Doctorates.

I congratulate you on the book, and have great pleasure in launching it.