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Ann Polis was the editor of the Carlton News in 1969. The paper, which broadened its territory to become The Melbourne Times, distributed to all inner suburbs, in 1971. Published by local businessman Tony Knox, it fast became a must-read for inner-city activists looking for information on campaigns, residents’ action groups and freeway protests – as well as what was happening in entertainment and the arts in inner-city areas such as Carlton and Fitzroy.
A staunch advocate of the advantages of inner-city life, Ann became adept at
finding stories for TMT that highlighted the problems faced by inner-city residents
at a time when state and local governments were committed to the demolition
of much inner-city housing and its replacement with high-rise towers.
Ann grew up in the middle-ring suburb of Eaglemont, and attended Melbourne University from 1957 to 1960. This interview covers her work at TMT, her attitude to development in the inner city, and some of the production problems in the early days of the paper.
How did you come to be living in the inner city?
I suppose because of the university. I mean, it just was where I thought my spiritual home was. I moved into a house in Rathdowne Street, North Carlton [in 1960]… It wasn’t quite a share house because the owner lived there but there were odd people everywhere.
What did you see as the advantages and disadvantages of the inner city?
I liked being able to move around easily on foot and things were happening everywhere, everything was accessible, public transport was accessible. It was interesting, you know, there were Italians, there were Greeks, all sorts of people, pubs, all that sort of stuff. It was very vibrant.
What did the idea of community mean to you in the 1960s?
Not very much in that early time. It wasn’t until the 70s that that started really. I mean, I think I was just sort of more engrossed, well not engrossed but more concerned with my immediate life, my work and social life and the environment I just took for granted. It was there and it was just wonderful. I mean, I was politically always on the left but I wasn’t active… [it was] just a secure little social enclave, academics and professional people and young people. It was good.
You may have an interpretation of what we call urban activism but how did you
specifically become involved?
Well, I did know the people who were involved in the [1969 protests against demolition of buildings in] Lee Street , George Tibbits and Frank Strahan and those people and that was ’69 I think… I got involved for the most untheoretical sort of reasons. I had a new baby and didn’t want to go back to work and yet I needed something to do and there was a small traders’ newsletter called the Carlton News and I went along and asked if I could do it for them … I really was aware in asking that, I knew there were lots of issues. I knew that there was Lee Street, there was this, there was that and I talked to these people and said, ‘What a good idea.’ So immediately there was enthusiasm about it. I mean, there was no question of any pay and then I met Tony Knox who had a shop in Lygon Street at the time and talked to him about it and he was hugely enthusiastic and practical and dynamic and driving and so we got going.
There were issues to talk about just on our doorsteps… we were very green at this, we were learning it as we went. We had no money and no experience and Tony could take wonderful photographs but no one could really do much. Although, because of the Vietnam War of course, it was a very socially active time and there were lots of people around who helped us with the paper and, I mean the war politicised people to such an extent that the community just burgeoned. There were people being active about a million things. So it was a tremendously heady time and the issues were just there. It was quite interesting I think too, that at the same time in England for example and in Sydney too, there was a growth of this community press stuff because the issues were the same, you know, and the community was politicised and it’s not that the issues didn’t exist before, it’s just that, my theory is that it was the war that did it. The whole society was politicised.
How did you see your role in relation to the Carlton Association?
Well it was very close. They took up … they did the fighting and we did the reporting but we took sides… we didn’t believe in editorial impartiality so we were very much on the side of the goodies and said so and were also part of campaigns and said so individually, wrote them and took sides and pointed out the error of the government’s ways and took up all of these issues.
We were taken very seriously, to our utter surprise, here I was still with a child on my hip and Tony with his windcheaters and old jeans and I looked a bit hippy I suppose but people like Rupert Hamer and Alan Hunt gave us interviews. All the issues we took up… well I suppose we weren’t surprised, we said, ‘Well this is where the source is, this is who we have to talk to, these are the people who have to explain themselves.’ We didn’t get knocked back, which is pretty interesting in hindsight, you know, because we were very scruffy.
We also had to go sniffing stories out, or people would tell us something was happening and you’d go out. There was one, for example, the verandahs on this big building on the corner of Queensbury and Lygon Streets were taken off and we just waged this sort of war and they weren’t going to, but then they put them back. I mean, they put them back with the posts in from the curb because they said they could get knocked over by buses but that was really quite interesting.
I remember one terrible story I did, I mean, I couldn’t believe it. We used to say, ‘What’s the front page story, where is the news?’ and there was an absolutely heartbreaking story about a child who had been left in the house while the parents went out to work, it was a flat, a twelfth floor flat, with a brother. And the parents organised these shifts, I haven’t thought about this for ages, but there was only about half an hour when the children were alone, you know, they were really responsible about it but the child somehow climbed out the window and was hanging by a hand and the housing people inside wouldn’t let anyone break a window to rescue her and finally she dropped. So I went in… to the court on Monday afternoon to listen to this and it was so frightful and I went and wrote it. It was an anti-Housing Commission article, People could see her hanging and no one would do anything about it. ‘You can’t break windows. We haven’t got a key. The man with a key is at lunch’, or something like that. Terrible. So that was a way to beat the Housing Commission around the head. So that’s what we did. I mean, we didn’t go to demonstrations with our reporter’s notebook, we were there in it, often part of the organising.
We had no idea what a paper should look like, I mean it didn’t look very readable. If you look back on it, you’ve probably seen some things, it’s extraordinary. I mean, I’m quite proud of it in a way but we didn’t …
We had the terrible thing of using letraset, you know, to do the headlines and not having enough nor enough money to buy more, running out of ‘p’ or running out of ‘r’ and then make it ‘p’, sort of an ‘r’ with a stick, saving headlines so that you could cut them out and make them fit next week in a different story, change the word order, very creative.
But we were lucky. See, because of the importance of the written word and publications at that time, we did get terrific people, mainly from the university, you know, counter-culture people who were interested in that sort of thing and had done layout on other papers and could do artwork and stuff and they were just wonderful. Then the rest of us learnt, you know, in various ways. I wasn’t very good at it … everyone learnt a bit, and you’d pitch in. Everyone letraset it.
How important was the conservation of building stock to you personally?
I felt really strongly about it and I remember the demolition of the Methodist Chapel down on the corner here, I mean it was just the worst thing. Mind you, it was the end of a huge, long battle and Brian Howe had obviously been involved in that as you probably know. I walked along in the morning and I just felt sick, I couldn’t believe how terrible it was. The wreckers just sending it flying, awful. It was certainly an aesthetic response but it was a response to the whole thing because it was something that we’d been involved with.
There was a lot of discussion about urban renewal, I mean there were some people who thought that the market forces could deal with that… Yeah, I did feel very strongly about that, about the housing stock because it seemed to me it was about how life was lived too. Well, we came and that housing stuff had all been, the commission flats had already been built and that was sort of very misguided planning and it wasn’t here, it was elsewhere. But just how these ghettos had been created without much density change in the population and that whole mentality of the slum clearance and slum reclamation. I mean, that was aesthetic and also scandalous. The Lee Street stuff and the block up here, for example, they were reclaimed by slum regulations by the government and cleared and then sold to commercial people as cleared land, for a song. So that was a scandal too. So there was all of that mixed up with it.
The whole attitude to slums, you think, ‘how dare people do that’. It was also sort of a social thing too, you know, the importance of the housing that this provided. I mean, I moved here and we used to go down to write up real estate here and saw the number of poor single people living in those houses, it was just absolutely appalling how they were turfed out and how precariously they lived, really sort of sad. You’d go in there and no sheets, just a couple of blankets and this sort of, you know, it wasn’t scungy in a way because people, this was their home, they were trying to make it alright… supposedly we were partly responsible for that, I mean, just that gentrification stuff and moving and what people did to their houses and the insensitivity of understanding the community they were moving into. I mean we opposed it but we were part of it at the same time. So it’s a real dilemma.
Yes, I think that’s an essential dichotomy of this whole time which is
why I asked you about the idea of community and what it meant to you in the
Well, it was interesting, we had a demonstration once outside the Housing Commission and again I can’t remember what triggered it off. It was about Ray Meagher who was the minister and we burnt an effigy of him and all that stuff, it would have been something specific. It was extraordinary, the broad base of that demonstration was absolutely astonishing. It certainly wasn’t just the trendies and the Trots going along to make a fuss, it was really quite interesting.
When you started working on The Carlton News there was an article in The Age
about the beginning of The Carlton News.
Was that by Jack Darmody? I mean talk about babes in the wood, we took on the issue of the North Carlton railway land where they were going to build a factory and the unions came in with green bans and so forth but Jack Darmody, who was a journalist in The Age, rang me up and said, ‘Who are these people? Will you come and be interviewed?’ He said, ‘We couldn’t write that stuff you write, in The Age, we’d have the bejesus sued out of us.’ That was something we didn’t understand either, I mean we were terribly naïve. But thank goodness. If we’d been worried about all of that we wouldn’t have… I’m a cautious soul, you know, I think I would have been unable to do it. Tony was much more fearless than me. He was very good.
I remember reading the Hamer pieces, that there seemed to be editorially a
bit of a shock that he was so forthcoming.
Yes, he was terribly nice. I mean, Tony and I both went there and we both went to the Hunt one too.
Why do you think they were taking you seriously?
Goodness knows, goodness knows. I mean it wasn’t just us… they had policies to implement in those areas and it was a politically turbulent time and they were sort of unknown quantities really, in the suburbs, they had never been sort of anything but safe Labor seats and there were things they wanted to do. Perhaps they were properly Liberal men who thought that consultation was important. Perhaps they thought that they’d get away with stuff if they were frank and open at the outset.
So you left The Melbourne Times in ’75. What were the circumstances behind
Oh, I just thought I’d had enough. I just thought, I mean I think I’m a starter, not a finisher if you know what I mean. I thought it was all getting a bit parochial because, you know, it was our objective, I did it but all this council stuff, it became, well it was changing really by ’75. We had people going to council meetings in a different way and anyway, I’d done it and I wanted to do something else and I did. I went to England for six months and then I got a job at the Australia Council just doing a report on education and arts and then I got a job at TUTA where I stayed on and off at odd times out of it, until last year.
Do you have any feeling about the legacy about what you were doing at The Melbourne
Well, I think it’s still pretty good. I think they still take up things. I mean, it’s dominated by the commercial imperative, to make money. If you don’t make it, you’re not there but I don’t think they do too badly. You know, they’re still doing their own thing and still taking up issues in depth and pursuing them and keeping them alive and I think that’s alright.
Ann Polis was interviewed by David Nichols, 18 February 2003
This interview edited for web publication by D. Nichols February 2004
Barbara Niven was born in Blackburn ‘when it was the bush’ in 1934. She was educated at Canterbury Girls’ Grammar and then Macrobertson High, and attended Melbourne University between1952 and 1956, studying English, History and Science subjects. She was in the ALP club at University, and was involved in student theatre. She spent a year in London in 1960, ‘at a time when they were arguing about the preservation of buildings and things in England.’ She feels that this experience formed her attitudes to the built environment in Melbourne, particularly when she came to buy a house, with her husband David, in Middle Park, which began a long association with the South Melbourne area and the Emerald Hill Association.
What year did you move to Middle Park?
1969 we moved to South Melbourne, or Middle Park. We had two kids by that time and we wanted to be somewhere near schools that we liked and Middle Park Primary School had an extremely good reputation. So that was another reason for moving in there but we just liked the feel of it. I just liked the look of it. At that stage it was full of Greeks and Italians and various other nationalities. It was just wonderful, you know. You could go to the health centre and it was full of people in black shawls and the grandmothers looking after the Greek children and a whole village lived in the street just around from us. I just liked the variation and the style compared with Beaumaris, it was much more interesting. The old timers were interesting too, the people who had been born and bred there.
Was the South Melbourne market operating then?
Oh yes, and it was much more like Footscray market is today. It was a place you went for the meat at 12 o’clock on a Saturday when they auctioned it all off and fruit and vegetables, and very little of the craft stuff you get there now, it’s got very trendy.
It sounds unlikely but I always thought it was like a country town and one of the reasons for that I think is that it was very geographically limited. It was one of the reasons we liked it because you had the river, the bay and the park on three boundaries of the four and the fourth boundary was only a narrow neck of land really between South Melbourne and St Kilda. Although it probably had about fifteen, sixteen thousand population, I think, South Melbourne, it just felt like a country town. You sort of knew a lot of people. There were corner shops everywhere. People who lived in Middle Park were aliens to people who lived in Albert Park, let alone Port Melbourne, which was a separate city.
So how did you specifically become involved in urban activism in the area?
I was trying to remember what caused this. I sort of vaguely knew about the Emerald Hill Association but it was regarded locally as a St Vincent Place based group and not as a general sort of community thing at all. I think the first dealings I had with it, I was visited by one Ray Wilson, who was in the Emerald Hill Association, one evening, and he never lived this down because he came in and looked at our grand Victorian two storey house and said, ‘I didn’t know they had houses like this around here.’
What had happened was there was a plan, somebody had drawn lines on a map and they had a north south freeway slicing through St Vincent Place at one end and an east-west freeway slicing through it on the other. Obviously nobody had even looked at what was there.
It was just terrible. It sort of followed the line of Canterbury Road and I don’t remember what number it was, but the F9 was the east west one and the whole thing was so appalling and Ray was around, as I say, trying to recruit people to be interested. So I was recruited. Merilyn White, who lived in the house behind us, was also recruited, and her husband Tony who was in a large advertising agency. So they were very handy from that point of view. It was sort of from there, I think, that I got involved with it. In fact, the whole Emerald Hill Association ambit changed a lot from that point because they had to go outside St Vincent Place to get some support.
We moved in at the end of 1969 to Middle Park and the first thing that happened after we’d been there for three months was in the early morning bulldozers came in and bulldozed the complete avenue of plane trees that went the whole length of Canterbury Road. I couldn’t get over it. If I’d known then what I knew five years later we would have been lying under the bulldozers. I could never get over that, it was just incredible.
So the preservation of St Vincent Place led on to the stopping of the freeway development?
Yes, because we all realised then that it was going to affect us but there weren’t many of us. Most of the people who knew that we’d moved into Middle Park said, ‘What do you want to move in there for? You are moving to the slums. What are you moving to that area for?’ and we said, ‘Because we happen to like it.’ I think probably the people who chose to move in there, like us, were ready to defend the choice and, therefore, probably a bit more upfront about protesting against things that changed it than we might have been otherwise. When we went around trying to get petitions from people to sign against freeways or buildings or anything else, a lot of the locals just wouldn’t do it because they didn’t think it was their place to interfere.
Were most of the people involved in the Emerald Hill Association more middle class?
I’d say so, yes, I’d say so. Yeah, I don’t think you could describe us as anything else really but we also had in common the fact that most of us didn’t have local family or available family to help us look after kids and things. So we were in there, really, defending our own way of life in a way that I don’t think we realised at the time but we all had a lot in common.
There was a pioneering baby-sitting group, which was a baby-sitting co-op, which one of the local estate agents said was one of the most powerful networks he’d ever encountered. He said no estate agent in his right mind would offend any member of that group because the whole group would hear about it. He was right actually about it because the co-op ran without bookkeeping. At that time, most people I knew who were in baby-sitting co-ops had a secretary and it ended up with rows and arguments about who owed what to whom but this token system was invented by one of the people in our group who had access to places where they could manufacture plastic disks and it was a self-regulating baby-sitting co-op. You got a spike with a whole lot of triangular bits, orange for an hour and red for half an hour, or maybe the other way around, and you were expected to use them plus a list of names. If you had tokens coming off the top, you were expected to go out and use your tokens and if you had a nearly empty spike you’d be ringing around saying, ‘Give me some baby-sitting to do.’ It was a terribly important network because all of us, I think, were in the Emerald Hill Association. It meant that in elections and times like that everybody in this group was involved in one way or another. It was just an amazing group.
What can you tell us about the anti-freeway fight?
I just remember the hideous lines on the map, the Emerald Hill Association going in to bat for it. Merilyn White went to see Dick Hamer. I remember being astonished by this because my whole background was in school teaching and things and you weren’t allowed to go near a minister, you know, you didn’t go near members of Parliament. But one of things about living in South Melbourne was that everything was so local. The architects’ institute was just up the road. If you wanted help you just walked up the road and got it and the same thing with the Houses of Parliament, they were just at the end of the tram. I remember one night, Merilyn got fed up with the whole thing to do with the freeway stuff and she said, ‘This is nonsense. I’m going to go and see Dick Hamer.’ She got on a tram, she went in and said she wanted to see him and went in and confronted him and had a few things to say about the planning for the freeway. The result of that was a bit later on I thought if she could do it, I could do it too. So I went up and confronted Alan Hunt. He was the Planning and Local Government minister.
What do you now see as the key tactics in the move to halt Lanark Terrace?
It was on the corner of Harold Street., in Middle Park, on Canterbury Road, on the corner and it was a terrace of, I think, six houses with a tower in the middle. Some of them were on separate titles but it was a consolidated block of land. In fact, next to it there was a single storey house and Hooker Home Units tried to buy that as well and he wouldn’t move, that bloke. Next to that there was already a ten storey block of flats and the interesting thing was that the people in the ten storey block of flats were some of our strongest supporters, you know, objecting to 21 stories three doors away from them, which is understandable.
Hooker played an interesting game of playing one off against another, they took out an option. I think there were four occupier owners, I think, I can’t remember if it was four or five, I know two of the ones in the middle were owned by the same person. Hooker’s tactics were to take up an option and tell each one that they already had the option on the one next door and they could pull down the individual house. The person in the one storey, single storey, separate house, was so upset about all this and he didn’t want to sell. So they just made life hell for him. He eventually didn’t sell but his house cracked in the excavations and things and it was one of these first cases where nobody got compensation of course, nobody was going to admit problems.
So the thing that was significant about Lanark Terrace wasn’t just the actual building, it was the whole principle of highrise buildings along Canterbury Road. Beaconsfield Parade had already had it, you know, it had lots of traffic and there were rows going on down there as well but there were already some quite high buildings on Beaconsfield Parade but on Canterbury Road, Middle Park, there weren’t. The nearest one was, apart from the ten storey one in Wright Street, Harold Street is the corner I was trying to think of, there was one over the boundary in St Kilda but nothing else. The whole of Canterbury Road was threatened by this because every corner block for the whole of Canterbury Road was a big block of land, comparatively speaking. They were deep blocks and if you could get two or three houses together on these big blocks, you had enough of a site to build a high rise building.
This was the whole point of my conversation with Alan Hunt when I went up to see him because all a developer had to do was apply for a building permit and the council turned that down. So they took it to the building referees and the building referees were obviously going to give them the permit. I mean, it would have been amazing if they refused it. It was at this point when I just thought this was, not only me but the whole Emerald Hill Association, thought, ‘This is outrageous, nobody has a chance to say anything, we don’t know what’s planned, we can’t object, there’s nothing.’
So I went up and saw Allan Hunt. It was a funny interview because I said, ‘The building referees’ decision is tomorrow and they are going to come in with a decision and we have had no right of objection.’ He said, ‘Well, you’ve had the right to object’ and I said, ‘No we haven’t.’ He didn’t believe me but I was so adamant about it he finally said, ‘Well, just a minute’, and he went out of the room and he was away for a few minutes. He came back and he said, ‘You’re right.’ The next morning, the building referees who were supposed to come in with their decision at about 9 o’clock I think, came in deferring the decision. Alan Hunt said, ‘Nothing to do with me. This is arm’s length. I don’t know anything about with the building referees, no, no. It’s got nothing to do with me.’ But they didn’t make a decision. Hooker was furious, absolutely furious. I think the following Wednesday morning they were supposed to come in with a judgement. So the following Wednesday was when they were going to hand down their decision. On the Tuesday night before, Alan Hunt gazetted a change that gave us all the right to object, the Town Planning thing.
Hookers were then apoplectic with rage because the next morning the building referees, of course, did give them the permit but by that time they had to advertise a town planning application and put that up on the block. So this was really funny and by that time they’d practically wrecked the building by letting it just fall into disrepair and all that sort of stuff. More significantly, they had houses further up Canterbury Road. We said to Hookers, no matter what happens to the historic building, we are going to argue about the 21 storeys and eventually we won it. We had to go to the Supreme Court and the building regulations …
Before the Town Planning Appeals Tribunal we had to assemble a case. So we did the wind. We had lots of really helpful professionals either in the Association or friends of people in the Association who really did a lot of very good work for us. It didn’t, in the end, have any effect. I think the most crucial thing we kept saying to Hookers was, ‘Look, the water table is 12 inches below the surface. When you do this you are going to have to pump it out and it’s going to cause a huge amount of uproar.’ Eventually, it was deferred I think twice in the Tribunal, you know, the Town Planning Appeals Tribunal and lo and behold, what happened when they did sink a bore into it, they found the water table was 12 inches below the surface and, therefore, they had to reconsider their plans. We’d been arguing all along they couldn’t build it on a raft. We had advice that they couldn’t do it. It was too tall and they were going to have to use pile driving. They kept denying they were going to have to do that but we knew they were lying about it. Eventually, what happened was they dug a great big hole after they demolished the building and the council made them put very expensive cyclone wire fencing right around the hole to protect the population. It was costing them a fortune, every day of delay was ending up costing them a fortune. Somebody found carp in the ponds that had formed and this became an urban myth, that the carp had swum through from the lake and they were in this pond. Of course, it wasn’t, some kids had thrown them over the fence and then they went fishing for them.
Hookers gave up because of attrition. That’s how we won it in the end. It wasn’t anything we did, it was what we stopped them doing. Whenever we found some way to sort of cross swords with them, we did it and the council did it too. I think the crunch came when we found out about the options they had on the block up the road where one of the blokes there did not want to sell under any circumstances. Hookers kept on putting up the town planning application sign in his front yard and he kept on pulling it up and throwing it in the gutter. So Merilyn’s publicity skills were terrific for this. Everything went to the press, you know, preferably to the daily press in Melbourne but if not then into the Emerald Hill Times, so everybody was aware of what was going on. We just kept on holding them up and Hookers eventually withdrew its options on the new sites in order to concentrate on the Lanark Terrace fight. In the end I think LJ Hooker himself died. Oh, Tony White went to Sydney to see him to try and do a person to person discussion about all this and he still wouldn’t believe that we would not allow 21 storeys on the Lanark Terrace site, come what may. So eventually it was costing them, I think somebody estimated about $51,000 a day just to hang onto the site. Eventually they gave up and sold the site off to AV Jennings who then put up a low level housing development.
The main thing is we’d won in terms of having a huge block of flats. Nobody has since tried on Canterbury Road to do that and so in a very important way it’s preserved the amenity of the whole Middle Park area really and one of the things that’s made it so attractive to come in and pay a fortune and push out everybody else who lived there.
Did The Age take much interest?
Yes, The Age did. There were some reporters there who were particularly interested. Ann Latreille was interested, Alex McDonald, who actually lived in Middle Park and we had friends at The Age who sort of looked after things we were interested in but Merilyn was actually brilliant with this. She just handled media, because that was what she had done for a living, and she knew how to do it and I learnt an enormous amount just by observing what she did. She was excellent at getting attention and doing things like that. I can’t really speak too highly of her. Another case where we had to do the same sort of thing was in the orphanage development around the town hall, which was owned by the Melbourne Orphanage Group that was in Brighton. That nearly disappeared too but thanks to this experience …
Do you think the Emerald Hill Association achieved all it set out to do?
I think so. I think it was more than just an association of people with a particular interest. It really did have a kind of crusading zeal and it was shown in other respects as well. An awful lot of people in the Emerald Hill Association, for instance, were involved in meals on wheels and then there was the baby-sitting group. So it was a whole sort of social fabric thing really. The preservation of the way of life, I think you could say, was what it was really all about. Nobody wanted it all sliced up with traffic and high rise buildings and we could all see what had happened in St Kilda too, which was another thing.
What do you think the inner suburbs of Melbourne would be like today if there
hadn’t been this sort of opposition to development in the ‘60s and
I don’t think they would have existed, to all intents and purposes they would have just been traffic throughways the way you get in some American cities. You go into the centre of those and they are just nothing but freeways.
Do you think gentrification has caused major changes anyway?
It has had some repercussions. I mean, some obvious social repercussions like rooming houses, used to be lots of rooming houses and now they’re practically not there because the buildings are worth millions, even if they’re falling to bits. So it’s changed that kind of social fabric. A lot of people who lived there moved elsewhere. A lot of people who were born and bred in South Melbourne have actually moved to places like Glen Waverley and further out and not exactly lived to regret it but they were sort of trying to take advantage of where they found themselves. It sort of destroyed the fabric with the schools, far more private school attendance from the kids in those areas now and local primary schools are closing down hand over fist because they haven’t got the enrolments.
Barbara Niven was interviewed by Jane Yule, 9 December 2003
This interview edited for web publication by David Nichols March 2004
Nigel Buesst is a Carlton-based filmmaker; he has also worked extensively as an architectural photographer. He has been producing innovative short films for forty years. He was interviewed for the Urban Activists project primarily because he made a short documentary, The Destruction of St. Patricks College, in 1971. However many other films he has worked on can be seen as important documents of inner-city Melbourne. He recently completed a documentary, Carlton + Godard = Cinema, which looks at the importance of the French new wave on Carlton filmmaking in the 1960s and early 70s.
St. Patrick’s College, in East Melbourne, was decreed redundant by the Catholic Church in 1969 and the move for its demolition caused a furore in the Melbourne press in 1970: John D. Hennessy, who set up a committee for its preservation, called the demolition ‘nothing short of an act of vandalism’, and many others agreed. Nevertheless, the church went ahead with the demolition (employing Whelan the Wrecker to do so), and Buesst captured the event, marrying it with a ‘found’ piece of narration from visiting Texan professor, Harley Grattan. This interview covers the making of this film, as well as Buesst’s attitude to the inner-city and its artistic population.
How did you come to make The Destruction of St Patrick’s College?
I really can’t remember. Reading that it was going to be destroyed that week and being aware of these two magnificent Italian towers, it seemed like something that should be filmed. So I took an old Bolex over there and just filmed it. Later I heard this talk on Guest of Honour, a regular ABC radio show on a Sunday night, this visiting American professor, and just put the two together.
So did you confer with him, the professor?
No. He’d flown back to Texas, and it just existed as a radio talk. As no one was going to see this film, I seemed to be specialising in films that nobody sees, you just put the two together. It was like a little artwork.
When you actually filmed the demolition, did you have to be secretive at all?
No, I seem to remember the conversation with the guy from Whelans. Whelans used to have a lot of tough stocky Yugoslav guys and he used an expression which lingers to this day, he was going to ‘ball ‘em’. What he was referring to was that giant steel ball that swings off a crane and brings a building down, ‘We’ll ball ‘em Tuesday afternoon.’ So I thought, I’ll be there Tuesday afternoon when the ball starts swinging.
You have some scenes of a man and a woman walking around part of the building before it is demolished.
Oh, come to think of it, Tom Cowan, who was another cameraman at the time, went along one day because I couldn’t be there, I had obligations. He shot that. The process must have taken two or three days. I was there when the tower came down but Tom wandered around the day before when they were sort of ripping out the interior. Of course, I don’t know whether this is a relevant observation but the Catholic Church which was a power in the country going right back to the birth of Australia, you know, Archbishop Mannix and the battles over conscription in the First World War and John Wren and all the other Catholic issues that have gone on through history. I think the general consensus was that Catholics were total philistines and any sense of the aesthetic was completely irrelevant. They had very spiritual beliefs and morality and strong values of various sorts but the aesthetic value was completely absent from that culture. Therefore, it seemed only natural that their most beautiful icon should be smashed without a second thought.
So this film wasn’t made to be seen or it wasn’t going to be seen.
So was it shown?
Well there was no expectation that it would be seen. I’ve been in a lot of situations like this. I suppose I was sort of catching history. I liked recognising and capturing historic moments. There’s plenty I’ve missed but again, you’re thinking, ‘This film costs money.’ If you’ve bought a roll of film from Kodak, it was substantial money then and now. You know, a hundred foot roll of film, that’s about three minutes, it costs about $30. To process it costs the same again. That’s why everyone is going digital.
So, my life has been littered with this urge to record historic moments and the realisation that nobody gives a damn until a long time afterwards. There were screenings but I don’t remember where they were. It would have been shown at the Film Makers’ Co-op perhaps, in Spring Street, a one off screening. The National Trust bought a copy for thirty dollars as I recall.
Did you think of it at all as a protest film, was it protesting against something
happening or was it simply recording?
Well I guess I am an aesthete really and am profoundly affected by the quality of the built environment. The appalling architecture of the fifties and sixties really hurt – ugly blocks of flats in yellow brick, sprawling suburbs, cheapo shopping malls. The architecture of today is so much more acceptable, even if it’s reproduction Regency or whatever. If a film doesn’t work you can put it in a cupboard, but bad architecture is in your face forever!
Would you say that of the films you’ve made there is anything else of
similar subject matter to St Pat’s?
Well, my very first film is called Fun Radio. A kaleidoscopic vision of the pop world of the sixties. There was also a half hour film on the architecture of Peter Burns. It’s called The Caves.
Was Carlton a hot bed of innovation of interesting people doing interesting
things which I think the film suggests it was?
Well, somehow the world goes on. I think as I explained a few minutes ago, things seem the same whether it’s 1880, 1920, 1950 and today. The implication that things are hugely different always leaves me slightly puzzled. They seem remarkably the same, you know. The clothing fashions change. In Carlton in the ‘60s, people were running around putting on plays, writing books. Sure there were watersheds like the starting of La Mama and people writing plays, and I remember going and seeing David Williamson’s The Removalists, La Mama didn’t start until about ’68 come to think of it. It was an excellent play and one does remember these initial high points. I remember seeing Jack Hibbard’s early plays, there was this sense of quality. There was art, plays, books, maybe not the quantity there is today but they were available. I mean, today, how many plays did you see last week? They’re there if you look them out, there’s music, it comes and goes, it ebbs and flows. Similarly, in the ‘60s there was plenty going on.
Melbourne was regarded, particularly in the ‘50s, as a bit of a desert and a lot of people reacted against out perceived blandness, outsiders took a look at us and said, ‘You people are boring’, which was never really true. There were people popping up from Melbourne and doing things from Melbourne. Even today, well throughout the last 40 years or so, there’s been steady procession of interesting things eventuating from Melbourne, despite the fact that we’re fundamentally a bourgeois soft consumer society, still things are happening.
How did you come to live in Carlton?
In the 60s Carlton was where people with creative aspirations would gravitate. Today it’s probably St Kilda. I remember once saying, as one of the throwaway lines with which I’ve littered my life (but what the hell) ‘Nobody interesting lives east of Glenferrie Road.’ Last week I was driving out to Rowville. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Rowville, it’s about 1000 miles in the direction of the Dandenongs, to visit an old Russian cinematographer I know who is living in a heavily mortgaged house. I felt a sense of depression, well not depression but despair as I drove down Stud Road, thinking, ‘My God, the trucks, the houses, the mortgages. How could anyone entertain a moment’s thought about being creative when you’re in this hugely expensive wasteland?’ The two things that seem absolutely dominant out there are the car, every house has to have by law a two car garage, you can’t build a house without twin garages. Now, what sort of society are we creating, utterly dependent on the car, and utterly dependent on the television. It’s the one thing that binds society.
Was there any sense of wanting to record a lifestyle and a physical environment?
I was aware that large chunks of Carlton were being bulldozed in the fifties because they were supposedly unhygienic and they were putting up high rise Housing Commission blocks.
One of the things that interested me in Carlton + Godard was the use of those
terrace houses as backdrops. I was wondering whether there was a certain aesthetic
at play there or whether it was simply a matter of realism, that’s where
people lived and that’s what you were filming?
Well, a bit of both really. I’ve often wondered why, when Australia achieved certain styles, they didn’t go with it and keep reproducing it? I guess architects feel insulted if they’re not coming up with something fresh. Recently, when the tea room at the end of St Kilda pier burnt down, there were immediate battle lines drawn between those who wanted to recreate what seemed to me the perfect tea rooms, you couldn’t top that, and people who wanted to put a sort of space age needle or something out there. I thought the housing style of the 1860s to ‘90s, seemed to suit Melbourne perfectly. It is still, from a photographic point of view, one of the most Victorian looking cities.
Of course, Sydney boasts this great harbour and, sure, it’s fabulous with blocks of flats looking over the blue water but the city’s perimeter is a disgrace really. I was painfully affected by being an architectural photographer in the ‘60s, going around photographing these orange brick dog boxes. I was actually commissioned by Robin Boyd to photograph The Australian Ugliness. He said, ‘Go out and take 100 pictures of motels in Dandenong and cheap blocks of flats’, and all the rest, to illustrate his book. I still flinch when I’m going up Drummond Street there and I see a big yellow brick box has been put up bang in the middle of a row of Victorian terraces.
Nigel Buesst was interviewed by David Nichols, 7 October 2003
This interview edited for web publication by D. Nichols February 2004
Pete Steedman has been, amongst many other things, a journalist and editor, an activist and a politician. Steedman grew up in Brunswick, an inner-city suburb of Melbourne and studied at Monash and Melbourne Universities during the 1960s. His editorship of the Monash student paper Lot’s Wife (originally known as Chaos) and of Melbourne’s Farrago made both papers the most celebrated of their kind in Australia. Steedman relocated to Britain in the late 1960s where, amongst many other campaigns (detailed below) he was active in saving Piccadilly Circus from redevelopment. On returning, Steedman was offered the editorship of a new, putatively radical magazine to be published by David Syme and co, Broadside. With the American journalist Bruce Hanford, Steedman published an article highly critical of the approach of the Housing Commission of Victoria, which led to a threat of legal action only assuaged by a second ‘reply’ article. The sections of the interview with Steedman here explore his impressions of Carlton in the 1960s and his recollections of Broadside and the controversies surrounding it.
Q: Where were you were living in the 60s?
A: In the 60s I lived briefly in East St Kilda and most of the 60s in Carlton.
Q: You originally came from Brunswick - did you see Brunswick as being inner city?
A: Shit no. Brunswick was the slums, we still had night carts in some of those areas on cobbled stones, it was a working class area that everybody who grew up in it wanted to get out of.
Q: So what were the advantages and disadvantages of the inner city as you saw them at the time?
A: Well in those days Carlton was a good mixing pot, what we now call multicultural or ethnicity. You got cheap student housing. The house I had opposite the Clare Castle Hotel in Rathdowne Street, rented from the Simiones who ran the Kent Hotel just down the road, cost me ten guineas a week and when they went to decimal currency it cost me $21 a week and it had five bedrooms and a lane next to it to put my motor bikes up. You’ll still see it if you go there to the Clare and just look straight opposite. Boyd Oxlade who later went on to write Death in Brunswick was living in the converted chook pen out the back by the dunny which was just big enough to fit a double mattress in with parachute silk on the top and we all paid $3 or $4 dollars a week rent.
Then you had all the other benefits there too. I mean, that particular area of Carlton was little Italy, there was a little Mafiosi game going on down there which made me feel very secure. You had the Clare Castle there with Nick Delassandro running it and all the Italian boxers used to come and stay there. We were right behind the bocce club off Palmerston Street. Straight opposite that corner you had the Africa which was the sly grog because all the drinking laws, 6 o’clock closing and all that and you’d go there and you’d have cups of coffee full of grog and prostitutes and things like that. Mike Leunig moved in later on and I was using him as a cartoonist on papers I was editing.
So it was a little thriving community and the Clare Castle in those days, only Italian was spoken and we had deals that whoever was at my place at the time could always go over there and be safe, not to be molested. You also had the sly grogs in those days. Around the corner you could call in there at Fergies which no longer exists. You’d sit out the back sipping piss with them on Sundays and things like that. You had genuine Italian food in a small area. You still had Greeko’s joint in Lygon St, where you sat in little cubicles and you got the worst steak and eggs in the world, you know, typical Anglo mash done by a Greek. It was a friendly atmosphere, everybody knew everybody….So it was just a great atmosphere and cheap.
Q: What did community mean to you in the 60s?
A: It didn’t seem to mean much around there, because we probably were a community but didn’t identify in that way. I think Carlton was a melting pot and a transient place, from the Jews that moved in the early days and set up the synagogues to the Italians and Greeks. So it was a clearing house. It’s now become far more settled because it’s close to the city, it’s desirable and the bourgeoisie have moved in and complain about everything that happens in the place now. They want to have it both as an entertainment area but ‘No noise thank you and no grog on the streets because they’re all elderly citizens’ like myself, ‘we want our peace and quiet because we’re the only arseholes with enough money to afford Carlton now anyway. So why don’t you people go away!’, that’s the attitude… That community thing I think was probably just starting to develop in the late 60s when you did get the bourgeoisie and the socially committed priests like Hollingworth, Howe, Matheson and Pope galvanizing communities to get together to work for their own interests and fight the bureaucracy, at that time particularly the Housing Commission.
Q: So I guess it’s a mistake to think that your activist and consciousness or even skills as an activist came out of your English experience. You’d been an activist in Melbourne for a long time. In what kind of thing?
A: I suppose again if we go back into that, it is claimed that Monash got its radical reputation because of my editorship of Lot’s Wife, the student newspaper. That is actually true but the reason is not as obvious as it is presented. Basically, what happened was you had a new university, you had a chance to do new things. We had Vietnam. I was too old to be conscripted so I was lucky like that but the conscription issue was real. I took control of the paper and the so-called radical reputation was developed because we actually put both sides of the story. This is what’s so sad about it all. By putting both sides of the story we were considered radical and therefore a police target. When I took over Farrago in ’67, they had had three fucking stories on Vietnam up until that time. Now, this was an issue that was on the daily papers every day, young people of university age were being conscripted and forced into this bullshit game and that’s when they tried to get me out of Farrago and sacked me from the University of Melbourne, but that’s another story.
If you follow the history, all of the papers I edited were the number one paper in their day. When I was editing Lot’s Wife it was the top student newspaper, when I was editing Farrago it was the top student newspaper, voted by its peers and everybody else and I did it by covering all views. It wasn’t the polemics that you get these days. I mean if you had a view point you got it in there, religion, sport, jock strap, everyone got a run but I manipulated the editorial direction, naturally, but everyone got a run. So when they say, ‘You’re cutting people out’, well I wasn’t. In fact, my enemies were getting far more runs than they deserved.
Q: OK, can we get back to the inner city and, as you know, this project focuses a lot on the organised protests on the development of freeways and so on …
A: Yeah, which I said I had not been involved in.
Q: No, I wondered if you had a perspective on what you think from living in Carlton in the 60s and from knowing the political climate and the bureaucracies and so on in Melbourne in the 60s, what do you think inner Melbourne would be like if there hadn’t been that kind of protest?
A: Not too flash. You had a couple of organisations, one of them was the Board of Works, the other one was the Housing Commission who just ran fucking rough shod over everyone, they were laws unto themselves. When I used to go to secondary school, I’d go on the West Coburg via William Street tram, no. 55, which went through Camp Pell which you probably have some knowledge of but nobody else does anymore. It was actually an American base during the war. It was cleaned up in ’56 so that people coming to see the Olympics couldn’t see that we had white people living in third world conditions. Well they then shoved them in these fucking high rises or took them out to bloody West Heidelberg. I mean, in those days at Camp Pell, at least once or twice a week they’d be carrying a body out in the morning because people were living in those Nissan huts and they were all your lower socio-economic strata and there were knife fights and fights over sheilas and grog the kids would be at the tram stop with bare feet and sniffly noses in the middle of winter and they’d carry a couple of bodies out each week. So the government needed somewhere to put these people and inner suburban high rise in ‘slum’ areas seemed a good idea.
Now, the other perspective I had on this was from my father was an earth moving contractor and he used to knock things down I’ll never forget him saying things like, ‘Well you know, it’s all slums. We bulldoze them down and give people some good modern brick veneer housing.’ I mean, you come back from the war, you build a house. He built our house in ’46, on a block of land in Brunswick. Got second hand bricks for it … you build a house, that’s what the house is like. I mean, these Victorian houses, they’re slums, you bulldoze them down. That was the mentality then, modernise, modernise. Have a look at the ads for the kitchens in the 50s, you can get all these things and the lucky housewife has got to have these things. Why would you want to live in a slum in the city, in one of these leaky dark Victorian primitive little workers’ cottages, when you could have a three bedroom brick venereal? I mean, what sort of maniac are you? That was the thing, bulldoze them down. Progress, progress, modernity. Robin Boyd with his so called brilliant designs, all that stuff. So that was it.
Those monster blocks went up and I only think it was when a couple of them went up that people suddenly realised, shit, what are they doing. I think people then started looking for the first time at the way Melbourne had been designed, with its great parades coming in from the north and the south, you know, avenues that went into the city and looking at it along those areas, along Nicholson Street and Macarthur Place and around the parliament a bit, you suddenly realise you have got strands or whatever you call them, of classic Victoriana and you’ve got the more extravagant Italianate mode and they wanted to demolish the Exhibition Building. I think people started to think for the first time about streetscapes, what that meant.
Q: Were you conscious of a burgeoning political consciousness amongst students?
A: Oh yeah, a lot. It was self-preservation because of Vietnam. There’s nothing like self-preservation to get you active. Actually, a line that I took which turned out to be true but it wasn’t nice at the time, when we were fighting the Vietnam War I said, ‘We’re not going to win this philosophical debate until mummy middle class sees sonny middle class coming back in a fucking bag. Then it will impact on people. Until the bodies start coming back we’re not going to win this bullshit. There’s an anti-communist rhetoric going around, we’re not going to win it.’ So that’s what it was. When the bodies started coming back and straight citizens out there and middle aged or young mums like Jean McClean start thinking, ‘Jesus, they’re going to kill my kid’ and sets up Save Our Sons and those sort of things that came through, yeah, it was a rising consciousness.
But it was also, because the generation we’re talking about, many were pre-baby boomers. This isn’t the baby boomer generation, the baby boomers weren’t active in the early 60s because they weren’t old enough to be active. A baby boomer by definition is a person born from ’46 when the war ended or the end of ’45 but ’46 up until about 1960. So even if you were the oldest of the baby boomers, you were born in ’46 so in ’66 you’re only just 20. So you weren’t there at the start of the 60s and that’s why most of the stuff I see about the 60s and the Albert Langers and Maoists and that it’s ’69 – ’73, it’s not really the 60s. But those eligible to be conscripted were boomers and the call up ensured the late 60s would be volatile. That’s when your baby boomers hit in, in the late 60s, early 70s. So us pre-baby boomers, war babies, we were the ones who were active in the earlier stages. It’s a different culture because when the baby boomers come in, strangely enough there are only three or four years separating us but there was a totally different attitude and it might be something that we grew up during the war and windows blackened and a bomb shelter in your front garden. I don’t know what it was but there were slightly different things. Yes, there was definitely a consciousness but there was also the thing that we could do anything. You could do anything. You were young, you could do anything. We started up newspapers. I mean I was editing newspapers when I was 16 or 17 or some age like that and continued to do it, it was my first career sort of thing. The world looked rosy, you could do anything you wanted. The brave new world.
Q: How did you come to save Piccadilly Circus in the late 1960s?
A: I was based in London for a few years and in that time, as I said, I had more political success in a short period than I’ve ever had in Australia… I was managing editor of Ink, which was a weekly newspaper on current affairs and political stuff and I can’t remember what period I was doing that. At the same time I was involved with a whole lot of things happening around the streets. With Caroline Coon, a drug agency called Release, and things like that… I helped proof The Female Eunuch when Germane was putting it together. There was a lot of activity based around Notting Hill Gate which is now a very trendy area but in those days were slums with a large Jamaican population. I got a reputation as an operator around town and I can’t remember what I’d done to deserve that, obviously something nasty. At another stage, I went in as business manager and restructured a magazine called Time Out which still survives and I changed it from being a little A5 publication to an A4 publication and produced a guide to London. We were also into politics and broke a lot of mainstream stories.
Somewhere around that time, I don’t know which was first, Piccadilly Circus was going to get knocked down. I don’t know how I got involved in that either but I got together with a group of activists somehow and said, ‘Well what you’ve got to do is identify who the people are and personalise it and make them fucking arseholes.’ The problem I had then with the deal was they all turned out to be Jews and I had to say, ‘Fuck, is this going to look like an anti-Semitic crusade or not?’ In the end I decided ‘No, we go with it’, so we had these posters around, stating, ‘All good friends together knocking down Picadilly to share a multi-million dollar bonanza’ with pictures of the men involved.
I then got into residents’ action groups and organised the brothel owners in Soho into a residents’ action group because they had property there and I set up an organisation called London for the People Campaign which was basically a bodgie organisation that was to collect one hundred thousand signatures in three weeks, New Society wrote about it, and I was called ‘a component of the cottage industry of community action’, whatever that means.
That overlapped with the Covent Garden game and again I can’t remember, exactly, I had limited involvement, there was a well organised Covent Garden group in those days and I got involved because of the success we’d had with Piccadilly and the way I was able to get the media to concentrate on issues. It was also a strange thing that the British seemed very reticent to do anything and while we think of Yanks as out of control on speed, they saw us in the same way and because I’d been an activist for years at home, it came quite naturally to me.
Q: OK, let’s talk about Broadside specifically. Who proposed Broadside, who came up with the idea?
A: Well, I was having a relationship with a woman who at the time was also being rooted by the Prime Minister of Australia and when he drowned she moved onto somebody else who happened to be young Ranald McDonald, who was the heir apparent to David Syme and co. Young Ranald, who was 28 and just out of Cornell University, was looking for ideas to make his impression on the company. Now, I had ideas for everything. I had the dummies for lots of magazines. Magazines was my game in those days. I had motorcycle magazines, I had women’s magazines, I had political magazines, what did you need, I had a cornucopia, whatever you want. One day young Ranald was looking to expand his empire so he was brought around my place and said, ‘Well what we’re wanting is something, blah, blah.’ So we came up with an idea for a radical paper. The name Broadside came because it was going to be a broadsheet and I’ve still got the dummy, at home of the original large broadsheet. It was broadsheet. Broadside was going to give you a broadside, it was going to take it on, it was going to challenge this, that and the other. All those sorts of things were going to happen.
In the time from the discussions with Ranald and Graham Perkin about what it was going to be, they moved offices from Collins Street down to the new site at 250 Spencer Street and young Ranald was engaged in several other ventures which cost massive amounts of money, These included a woman’s magazine called Aura and against advice, set up this thing called Newsday, another paper which cost him. So Ranald blew out two and a half million dollars which was a lot more money in 1968. So the paper that I had planned to do, that was going to compete with The Bulletin, didn’t go ahead. It was just left with me to produce and then they brought in a bloke from Tasmania called Doug Flaherty who was put above me, who stopped everything that I was trying to do. Then they bought a controlling interest in Shepparton Press. So they decided to put Broadside on it to see how the presses worked. Well they didn’t. So the paper never really got the support and staff that it needed.
There was no advertising revenue. Rather than being held as a unit, they decided to spread costs of it across the structure which meant nothing was co-ordinated and I was just sitting there inventing these games for myself every couple of weeks and getting editions pulped. I invented a bloody cartoon character which was based on Ainsley Gotto and they pulped the edition. Three days later the Ainsley Gotto shit had hit the headlines. Then we had to change the way the cartoon ran. I wrote the dialogue and it gets more and more obscure because their fucking lawyers vetted it. Then they pulped another one just prior the ’69 election because I came out supporting Labor and it was so called pulped for an obscene cartoon which was an anti-war cartoon actually, and at that stage, you know, I said, ‘Fuck it.’
Q: How did Bruce Hanford’s story on the Housing Commission happen?
A: [Bruce Hanford] was hanging around with Philip Fraser and basically the same Lot’s Wife crew, Go Set was still happening and somehow Bruce had got in with them. But Bruce had sailed some yacht over from San Francisco to escape the draft… so I just sent him out to do it, ‘Let’s get them.’
Q: And the Housing Commission tried to have that issue pulped?
Probably… I can’t remember. There were the little calls about stuff and I had The Age ring me up and say, they’d bloody rung through to the Housing Commission and would we take them on by doing this. Was this story correct factually etc. It was all that, they just did the usual rearguard action that a large non-communicative unresponsive bureaucracy usually do.
Q: You’re talking about Broadside as though you could have gone all types of ways. Did you have a grand plan?
A: Well I did but it was thwarted by the fact that I thought I was getting a staff and we were going to go in hard headed, you know, political stuff aimed at a younger generation, aimed at a socio-economic factor of young 18 – 35 year olds, students, semi-professional people who could think laterally and wanted a different view point than what was being presented to them, a counter face to The Bulletin, providing coverage of similar areas but a different coverage, putting a different perspective on it. That was the aim and objective but it never turned out to be anything like that.
Pete Steedman was interviewed by David Nichols, 5 December 2002
This interview edited for web publication by D. Nichols February 2004
The Liberal Party were in power in the State of Victoria from 1955 to 1983. Rupert Hamer, who served in the Bolte government (1955 – 72) as Minister for Local Government, was Premier of Victoria from 1972 to 1981. Unlike the pro-development Bolte government, Hamer’s was a self-proclaimed ‘quality of life’ government, in which conservation and heritage issues were often to the fore. As well as this, many Hamer ministers were committed to the concept of community consultation as a tenet of democracy. After the battles of the late 1960s, many of the inner-city ‘urban activists’ found the attitude of the Hamer government a refreshing change.
There’s a story that Robert Menzies encouraged you to enter federal politics
but that you decided you’d prefer to be a State politician … were
you a bit of a Melbourne-centric?
Oh yes, but it was a bit more than that. I mean, he did invite me. He had some rooms in the Menzies Hotel, no was it Menzies? …Anyway he invited me in there and I didn’t know what it was for. He said, ‘I’m about to retire from my seat’, which was Kooyong, ‘and I’d like you to take over.’ I mean, he was magisterial in some ways, as you know. It wasn’t in his keeping anyway but …
Nice to be asked.
Nice to be asked, yes. By then I was minister, I’d served about ten years or more already in the Victorian Parliament and my family were here, growing up and all sorts of factors. I honestly thought there was a lot to do at State level, I still think so. Federal wasn’t quite so domineering and dominant as it now is, because of money reasons largely. Then it was, there were many responsibilities, education and health amongst them always which the State was responsible for. So for all those reasons I thought there was something to be done at State level.
I think [Melbourne’s] a fine city. I’m grateful for that, grateful for our ancestors and what they achieved here. I’m glad we had so much gold in the ground to finance it all. I’ve felt a growing pride in the city, like I’ve described it, a new wave, a new generation if you like, a lot more migrants. See, there’ve been lots coming in, in the 50s and 60s from all over the world. It’s a fine cosmopolitan city I thought. So that was a factor.
It was somewhat controversial at the time that you and Lindsay Thompson had city backgrounds rather than being from country.
Yes, Henry Bolte had been there for 17 years and he was in every sense, as I say, a country boy. He was a farmer down to his bootstraps and he thought environmentally as a farmer. So it may have been a factor to have a switch over like that.
And the party was much more city based by then as well and Melbourne was growing in size all the time and for electoral reasons you have more seats where the people are. I didn’t feel it as a strong movement at the time. Another thing is, of course, with all the country members, they keep you on the job. Luckily, when I was Minister for Local Government for seven years, I tried to visit every municipality in the State, there were 210 of them in those days, I was kept busy. I think I can say I knew most districts fairly well which helped. Members from those districts certainly kept you on the jump, brought their worries and so on to you. It wasn’t city centered.
Henry Bolte was a farmer to the fingertips, so to speak, and a very fine person but he wasn’t of this sort. He didn’t belong to this new thinking. A lot of the members we got in the parliament, after all the ‘76 election was our most successful of all time, we got more Liberals into parliament than we’d ever had before and a bigger vote, showing that the community was behind us. And a lot of those new members were strong supporters, enough of them to outweigh the more conservative farmer element, if you like. It wasn’t difficult. I think people appreciated what was happening.
Where does your interest in old buildings or heritage come from?
Who can tell. I mean, I was interested in fine building. I just thought they were great achievements of the human spirit and should not just be gaily dispersed but should be preserved, like paintings or other achievements, in music, in the arts, I thought that was important as well to preserve what we had which was good, you know. I wasn’t alone in that of course.
No, but you would have been a little out of step with the very pro-development
State Government throughout the 60s…
What was your opinion of these inner suburban associations? Do you think they
were effective during this period of the late 60s and early 70s in terms of
achieving their objectives?
First of all, at that time in the 60s, I was Minister for Local Government and one of my responsibilities was the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works and one of its functions was planning which was rather a new notion for all of us. It was part of a new wave, I think, of thought. Many people were looking around pretty much for the first time and think many were appreciating what they had in Melbourne, really not just for personal reasons but also seeing what had been achieved architecturally and environmentally. Planning was a bit of a new notion. So that’s the first thing. Secondly, it was the baby boomer generation and that post-war era saw a lot of quite new ideas. So those two factors were important ones and that’s why I had some responsibility right at the end.
Now, you ask about the people. I did insist that as far as possible the Board of Works should consult with each of the parties… it was fundamental to proper planning I thought to let people know what was proposed and to get their opinion and also to take into account their representations. So that said, individual people, I’m not quite sure, I wasn’t then quite concerned, as long as their opinions and wishes were taken into account.
Critics have said that inner-city residents got involved so heavily in urban
activism because of their own economic and selfish reasons. What’s your
Yes, well I think more than that, for the first time they had an opportunity to express their views in a practical way. I mean, up to that point, they had someone else’s ideas in front of them and they were asked specifically to comment. Planning was pretty new to all of us.
A new wave of thought was sweeping the State. I’d like to think I gave it a good burst. When I became Premier, I carried these ideas there and it was certainly part of my policy to encourage environmental thinking. I appointed a minister specially for that and he was very good, Bill Borthwick, have you struck that name? The first minister ever to take on that function, and he did very well. Gradually the whole structure emerged and I think we’ve had consultation ever since and agitation for that matter, as you would expect. But the idea that you wouldn’t bring in a plan for an area without consultation with the people living there would be, I hope, disastrous now. I think we’re used to getting views and trying to resolve conflict. Certainly I thought it was very important and it hadn’t been done that way before.
Did you find it difficult at any time as Local Government Minister and then
later as Premier to balance the needs of urban activism groups and developers
like the Housing Commission?
Of course, there were conflicts, no question about that and it was the job of the planner to try and sort them out and resolve the conflicts. You wouldn’t expect everyone to be 100% accepting of the final result but I think on the whole, they did manage to – well, you can see now there are some we would regard as mistakes, I suppose – but at the same time they did achieve a lot.
Was the emphasis on conservation a sign of the times – something that
would be electorally appealing?
Yes, well that was my first election and there were other new ideas going around too, like equal opportunity and so on. I just regard it as an important part of the State’s development. I don’t know, you’ve got to implement what you think is important. I do, I mean I think national parks and things are very creditable to the State now. I think there’s a general community support for it as well.
So when you typified your government as pro-conservation you were talking specifically
about the natural environment?
Not entirely. I mean, conservation of what was, I mean we had some fine buildings, we had a fine historic set of buildings and we introduced an Act called the Historic Buildings Act which was to preserve our fine buildings.
What were your opinions with regard to the Housing Commission and their plans?
I think they had to be curbed a bit. The Housing Commission was essentially a slum clearance outfit really and its method of operation was to find an area and literally clear it and start afresh with high-rise buildings but with gardens below, that was the idea. You know, it was the slum clearance part which was unacceptable in the end and really came to an end, didn’t it. You’ve probably got the history of it. It ran out of areas which were totally cleared because nearly every area contained elements which were worth preserving and should be preserved in planning and looking ahead. So I don’t know what was in the areas where the Housing Commission has built these high-rise places but I hope that they didn’t demolish too many worthwhile buildings in these places, most of which had occurred before. We became more concerned with what ought to be preserved and that put a spoke in the wheel of the Housing Commission which likes to clear whole areas and start again.
Ann Polis has said that when she visited you on behalf of the Melbourne Times
she was impressed by how seriously you took her. Did you see these people as
rising in importance? How did you regard them?
I thought community opinion was very important. That seems to me to be part of democracy, isn’t it? It’s no good surging on, boiling in anger without any way of expressing it. No, I think I took people seriously who were serious. I don’t remember what she came about.
Did you have any ideological conflict with Ray Meagher, who was advocating
the old Housing Commission line into the early 70s?
Well there may have been differences of view but he didn’t press it and he didn’t succeed in pushing it anywhere. Ray was the most conservative of the ministers that I had. As they say, he was old school Liberal and a strong Bolte admirer but we didn’t, I mean, the majority, the clear majority of cabinet was onside, so to speak. Ray was a good minister, you know, he used to have rather outdated ideas, that’s all.
Were you directly involved in the change from high-rise housing commission
to low-rise, low-density development?
Well indirectly I’d say. Not many other people thought the high rise was suitable for the families and so on who were increasingly being moved in there. I did know that anyone above the fourth floor who didn’t take their children down below, which was part of the original idea, to have some open spaces to play in, but people above the fourth floor increasingly thought it was too far to go and get them at meal time or any other time.
Increasingly I thought, they weren’t originally intended for families but that had been the tendency, for families to move into them or be moved in and it was not satisfactory and not as planned. I mean, the whole idea, an open area below for a high rise was to provide open space down below and we thought if that wasn’t suitable for the residents then that’s no good.
What was the basis of your interest in community consultation?
Because it was democratic, that’s really why. I studied of these things at university and then, you know, survived five and a half years of war and like a lot of our generation, we wanted to implement the things we valued and that’s one of them. That’s democracy in action.
Just before you became Premier you visited Israel. I was wondering whether
that was in any sense a fact finding mission, to pursue your interest in housing,
planning or conservation?
Well, it turned out a bit that way but it was mainly to open a new settlement, I was invited to go and open a new settlement which was totally planned. I don’t know if that was a factor but anyway, it was and it was great to go and see what they’d done and how they’d overcome their water shortage.
We have, lots of historic buildings and lots of areas they wanted to preserve and they had total planning, very important. Yes, all the things we were attempting to start ourselves were in action there, or some of them anyway.
What about the BLF and Norm Gallagher, did you have any particular problems
with them during the late 60s and early 70s or did you just think they were
helping to support the resident groups in their objectives?
I wasn’t a great admirer of Norm Gallagher. I thought he was an extremist but I didn’t have any particular problems with him.
The BLF under Gallagher were instrumental in preserving land in North Carlton
that residents wanted retained as open space.
In this case… they were obviously doing it for a community purpose which, I won’t say it validated their activities but it made them a bit more supportable.
Rupert Hamer was interviewed by Cameron Tait and David Nichols, 22 August 2003
This interview edited for web publication by D. Nichols February 2004