Maxwell Newton, “A ‘spy’ replies,” The Bulletin, December 16, 1980, p. 5, as a letter to the editor.
Robert Macklin’s tearful note (The Bulletin, December 2) on Jack McEwen makes the tired old point that I tried to undermine McEwen and his policies because I was a “Japanese spy.” Indeed, for some time during 1965-67 I did have a contract with the Japanese External Trade Organisation to write them a weekly report on tariff developments in Australia. Massey Stanley, a great Australian journalist then working for the Japanese, gave me the job more as a favour, when I was scratching for a quid after I finished up with Rupert Murdoch, as foundation managing director of The Australian, in 1965.
However, my comment to opposing all Jack stood for in economic policy went back years, to my first job (after leaving Cambridge University in 1953), in the General Financial and Economic Policy Branch of the Commonwealth Treasury. When I went to work on The Financial Review in 1957, in Canberra, I began what was then a rather innovative practice of reporting and analysing Tariff Board reports. I became friendly with, and influenced by, Alf Rattigan, an old Customs man, who was one of the most innovative thinkers about tariff reform in Australia and who was in latter years perhaps just as detested by McEwen as I was. Bert Kelly was also a close and dear friend in those early days.
For a time during the early 1960s I took on the task (extremely unpopular in the Fairfax organisation in those days, where Warwick’s Anglophilia was dominant) of supporting McEwen in his campaign against the British terms of proposed entry to the Common Market. At the final crucial meeting of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers in London, I supported McEwen so strongly I was threatened with recall from London by Louis Leck, then assistant to the general manager of Fairfax. Jack used to give me private briefings in the Savoy, where he was doing all he could to get Menzies to dump the British (which Menzies of course finally did, giving Macmillan a terrible caning and going back on Menzies’ own deep-seated loyalties).
During my tenure as foundation managing editor of The Australian, in 1964 and 1965, McEwen became very friendly with Rupert. My own strong attachment to the “Treasury View” of economic policy in Australia at that time contributed, I believe, to a breakdown of confidence between Rupert and myself.
During 1965 and 1966, McEwen made his big play for dominance over the Treasury in economy policy power. He was deeply suspicious of the Treasury and often told me of his frustration in constantly failing to destroy the influence of the Treasury. Sir Roland Wilson was his bete noire and I often sat in his office while he derided Wilson. The instrument McEwen chose to destroy the Treasury was the Vernon Committee. McEwen tried to use the committee to establish an alternative economic policy apparatus to Treasury. Thanks to tremendous staff work in the Treasury (where one officer of exceptional ability was virtually put full time on the job of “shadowing” the Vernon Committee) and to Menzies himself, the plan failed. The Vernon Committee Report was stillborn. It was an autarkic, protectionist-frightened document. I was able to play my part in destroying the Vernon Report — as did Peter Samuel, who was then working for The Canberra Times.
After the defeat of the Vernon Report, it was downhill most of the way for McEwen. Naturally, I was co-operating fully with Billy McMahon in destroying the Vernon Report and Jack along with it. The Treasury was deeply involved at the official level in all this. But after Harold Holt was killed, Billy went to water. He rang me up and pleaded with me not to talk to him again. It must have been around that time that a move was made to expel me from the Parliamentary Press Gallery. This move came to nought because Jack and Macklin muffled it. At the meeting of the Press Gallery I think it was Alan Wood, then working for The Financial Review, who got up and said that Macklin had approached him and said that if he could vote to expel me, Jack would leak to him. A similar offer was made to other journalists.
After that I was able to white ant Jack’s own department, and as is well known, I had a number of Jack’s own officials working for me.
Gorton caught the McEwen virus and had my house and offices raided. This also ended up in farcical failure for Gorton and Jack.
At the bottom of all this palava was the continuing powerful and bitter debate in the top echelons of the Federal Government over “protectionism-dirigiste” economic policies (also known as interventionist or quasi-socialist) versus “modern laissez faire.” Jack promoted the former policies; the Department of Treasury by and large the latter. What vigour we have in our economy today is due in part to the fact that Jack lost most of these great battles. Macklin’s attempt — used so often by Jack himself — to use patriotism as the justification for protectionist policies is, of course, merely disgusting.
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