The Treasurer

In every family, certain old stories are always heavy in the air. With these threadbare tales, the most tangential remark in conversation will act as a kick to the anecdote jukebox, causing a 45 rpm of “Do You Remember When…?” to drop onto the spindle, and scratch into life once more. My maternal grandfather, Rupert, was our jukebox and classic hits DJ. One of his favourite tracks was how ugly I’d been as a baby. “You were the ugliest looking baby I’ve ever seen!” he’d say, with a shit-stirring grin, itching to get a rise out of my mother. “But you didn’t turn out too bad,” he’d add quickly, with questionable sincerity, before mum had time to marshal the full force of her indignation.

I featured in another of his favourite stories too. I would’ve been about two years old, and still trying to master bipedality. Rupert was taking the family beagle, and me, for our evening walk around the neighbourhood. My parents, both young professionals at the start of their careers, had just asked him and my grandmother to move in with us, ostensibly as a sort of live-in childcare and housekeeping service. This was in the Elysian dreamtime of the early 1980s, when childcare affordability wasn’t yet a national crisis, and young couples routinely purchased their first homes in Sydney without much fuss, or the assistance of Aussie John Symonds. Rupert and my grandmother Jean were overjoyed with this arrangement of course, as it meant unfettered access to both me, and my sister, who arrived a few years later.

As the three of us walked along that evening, through the pavement clumps of purple jacaranda flowers, past the sandstone buildings of our soon-to-be wealthy suburb, the dog registered something of interest, and sprinted ahead of us up the street towards a blind corner. In an instant, I’d torn off in pursuit, in that terrifyingly fast, rock ‘n roll reckless way of all toddlers, oblivious to any possible danger, or the need to come to a stop at any point. Panicked, as both dog and careening child raced headlong towards danger, and realising he had no chance of catching up to either of us in time, Rupert reacted instinctively. “Sit!” he roared, in the manner of his WWII gunnery sergeant. “And ‘boom, boom’,” he’d say in his retelling, slapping his meaty hands down on the dining table in sequence. “Two bums hit the pavement!”

As I’ve learnt more about his personal history over the years, particularly since his death, I now understand why he loved this story so much. In many ways, it crystalises the two major themes of his life – family security and authority. But there’s another, more important story about my grandfather which rests on these twin concerns, and which deserves to be told, if only for the sake of historical completeness. It’s a story he never revisited, in any company, as far as I’m aware. Despite being a big, charismatic presence in my life, and in the lives of those around him, he was also a modest man, from an era when modesty was much prized. So it’s no surprise to me that he never talked much about turning down the offer to become Federal Treasurer in the Whitlam Government.

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Rupert and Jean were a constant in my childhood: a second set of parents, cut from the cloth of an earlier, harder time. Their ideas on effective parenting often diverged from those of mum and dad, usually in favour of harnessing the rod, but overall my sister and I always felt like we were a part of a harmonious intergenerational commune. Hokey as it sounds, when I visit the family home now, I can still feel their presence in the hallways and doorways, in the re-purposed rooms and the now professionally kept back garden. When I walk into the kitchen, I still half expect to see Rupert there, head bowed in supplication over the morning crossword, the family cat sunning itself across his feet. In his later years, a friend of mine christened him “The Gunslinger”, after his habit of sitting at table with a breakfast banana in each pocket of his heavily-pilled tracksuit pants, the top halves protruding like six-shooters. He had a stentorian voice, akin to a battle-scarred primary school PA system, which he’d often deploy in failed attempts at disciplining the family dog, or me. He was engaged for much of his life in a solitary quest to keep alive numerous expressions from Old Australia that had long since disappeared from common usage. When he’d loudly break wind for instance (an increasingly frequent occurrence as he got older) you could count on the inevitable, cryptic: “Don’t tear it, missus, I’ll take the piece!” He would unfailingly address all retail and fast food staff by their nametags, as if they were old acquaintances, a trait I found mortifying as a teenager. And his incautious driving was a gift to the local smash repairers, who used to send him a card at Christmas. His hair-raising antics on the road were a legacy of having first learned to drive in the army, as a junior ack-ack gunner in Darwin during the war.

When young he’d been a talented sportsman, starring particularly at cricket, where he’d come close to playing for his home state as a fast bowler. I vividly recall him bowling to me in the nets when he was in his mid-seventies, at a pace easily equivalent to my 12 year old peers, imploring me to “get down and smell the ball!” Before my grandmother died, and his world began its ineluctable withering to the size of our kitchen table, he was a vital, physical presence in all of our lives. During our home renovations, he’d pitch in to help the builders, and I was proud of his robustness, and his defiance of the ageing process. In my mind’s eye, I can still see him cutting sandstone blocks in the afternoon sun, shirtless, blue toweling hat clinging to his sweaty head, and the call of some long-forgotten horse race blaring from a radio in the grass.

During the early 1960s, Rupert first came into contact with Gough and Margaret Whitlam as their bank manager, when he was in charge of a branch in the Sydney CBD. The building that housed the branch would later be knocked down to make way for the MLC Centre and Theatre Royal complex. Gough was by this point deputy leader of the Federal Labor Party, and his parliamentary offices were located nearby in Martin Place. In those days, prior to deregulation, and the “Which Bank?” era of corporate facelessness and online accounting, bank managers held a very different position in society. Lying somewhere between a judge and a priest on the social scale, they were respected, sometimes feared elders of the community, who had a much more personal relationship with their customers than they do today. Indeed, it was a time when managers held Christmas parties that their customers attended. Rupert said he used to make sure he’d stand on an upper step at these parties, so he could converse with the statuesque Whitlams face to face, something he never had to do with others, being a tall man. His social concerns were echoed in a famous cartoon of the period: at a cocktail party, one guest points to a pair of monolithic legs dominating one side of the room, and tells his friend, “I’ll meet you later, underneath the Whitlams.”

During this period, Rupert and Gough became close. So close in fact, that in the lead up to the 1972 “It’s Time” election, Gough made my grandfather an offer: come to Canberra and serve as Federal Treasurer, in the first Labor government in 23 years. A political neophyte, Rupert was to be “parachuted” into a safe Labor seat, in order to guarantee his passage into parliament. At first, Rupert thought it was a joke. He had no qualifications in economics; he hadn’t even been to university. But it soon became clear that the offer was serious, so he called a family conference to discuss it with Jean and the kids. These conferences had been a semi-regular feature of his career with the bank. Identified as a rising star early on by his superiors, “Rupe” had been the target of a concerted push to get him into upper levels of management. He’d even been offered a posting to London at one point, which in the pre-globalised era was a rare accolade. But he’d always declined, preferring to remain at street level, where he felt more secure. And it was this street level experience that Whitlam wanted to harness. He knew that he’d have a whole Treasury Department full of economics boffins at his disposal once he took office. What he wanted was someone with an innate understanding of how business worked, and the mechanics of the city. What you really need in a politician is the ability to apply real world, streetwise thinking to judgements about whether abstract, theoretical policy advice will work in practice. And in the case of a Treasurer, you need someone who’s not afraid to tell a notoriously difficult branch of the public service where to go. In this respect, Gough saw in my grandfather the same qualities that the bank had. The two men had also established a bond of trust and mutual respect: something that was noticeably absent between the PM and his second-choice Treasurers in the turbulent three years that followed.

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After talking it over with his young family, Rupert decided against going to Canberra. As he’d always done, he opted to put his family’s security first, rather than take a chance on an uncertain career in the alien world of politics. A child of the Depression, Rupert lost his mother when he was 11, and was thereafter raised by his father, and a clutch of austere adult relatives in the working class suburb of Richmond in Melbourne. An only child growing up solely amongst adults, he was an old soul from a young age, something reflected even in his physical appearance. He went almost entirely grey by the time he was thirty, leaving him with a statesmanlike shock of white hair for the rest of his life. He was a lover of animals, cats in particular. The ones that roamed wild throughout his neighbourhood as a child provided him with a source of companionship he often lacked, and he retained a highly emotional attachment to them for the rest of his life. In his later years, when irascibility had begun to get the better of him, he was even expelled for a short period from his exclusive golf club for defying the president’s orders to cease feeding the feral cats living in the club car park.

At school during the 1930s, he was an exceptionally bright student, staying on to do his Leaving Certificate at a time when few did, and came close to topping the state with what was then known as a “maximum pass”. But his family had no money to send him to university, so it was straight into the world of work, courtesy of numerous job offers. One of these came from the Commonwealth Bank; the other was from oil company Shell. He often used to mock-gripe that if he’d chosen the latter, he’d have ended up a very wealthy man. But once again, the security of a bank job swayed him.

The years of the Whitlam Government, from 1972 to 1975, were arguably the most tumultuous in Australian political history. After the relaxed and comfortable coma of the Menzies era, Whitlam’s progressive program of reform chimed with the rebellious spirit of the times, and hit the country like an earthquake. But the huge problems his government failed to solve, and which eventually brought it undone in spectacular fashion, were largely related to the economy, and in particular the running of the Treasury portfolio. The 1973 world oil crisis, and the “stagflation” phenomenon of rising inflation and persistently high unemployment that accompanied it, were global economic catastrophes on a par with the Global Financial Crisis, and they hit almost as soon as Whitlam took office. And they would’ve been my grandfather’s shit storm to deal with, had he accepted Whitlam’s job offer. Whether he’d have done any better than Frank Crean, or Jim Cairns, or Bill Hayden, who all had a go at the job, is obviously a moot point. But I like to think that his bank manager’s nous, and his ingrained aversion to risk, would’ve seen him reject out of hand the catastrophic scheme that came to be known as the “Loans Affair” – a plan dreamed up by a group of senior government ministers to raise $4 billion in funds from cashed-up Middle Eastern oil producers, by circumventing Treasury and handing loan negotiating authority to a shady Pakistani businessman, Tirath Khemlani. The failure of this scheme, and the stench of impropriety it engendered led to the sacking of Cairns as Treasurer, and the eventual dismissal of the Whitlam Government on November 11, 1975, in the greatest constitutional crisis in the country’s history.

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The man who ended up serving as Whitlam’s first Treasurer in place of my grandfather, Frank Crean (father of future Labor leader Simon), was a compromise choice. Regarded as a decent, capable man, but also as an uncharismatic policy wonk and political plodder, Crean was handed the role largely because of his long service as opposition treasury spokesman during Labor’s 21 years in the wilderness. He infamously refused to go on television to present his first budget in 1973, and ironically, it was around this time that Rupert was coaxed by a director friend of the family into appearing in a commercial for Rank Arena television sets (typecast, of course, in the role of a city executive).

It’s a matter of record that Whitlam had no great confidence in Crean, to the extent that Whitlam removed him from the role in late 1974, replacing him with the flamboyant, self-destructive Jim Cairns. Cairns’ infamous affair with married businesswoman Juni Morosi, and his appointment of her as his Principal Private Secretary, despite her being completely unqualified for the role, engulfed the government in a sex scandal that dogged it until its dying days. Despite denying the affair (he finally admitted in 2002 that they had had a sexual relationship), Cairns infamously professed “a kind of love” for Morosi to a reporter at the ALP conference in 1975, a quote that had the same olfactory effect on the government as a bag of rotten fish heads left in a hot Valiant. After being dismissed from the ministry, he and Morosi founded an alternative lifestyles event – the Down to Earth Festival – first held near Canberra in 1976. Often referred to as the “socialist conscience” of the party, he devoted the rest of his life to writing and selling self-published leftist books at market stalls around Melbourne and the rest of the country.

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It’s fair to say that my grandfather would’ve had little in common with the flamboyant, quasi-hippie Cairns, despite a quirk of history that saw both men attend the same high school in Melbourne – Northcote High – some years apart. Amusing as the idea is, I honestly can’t imagine them having too many chats about Marx, or polyamoury and mudbrick housing construction, within the upholstered confines of the Cabinet room. Cairns also harboured ambitions to lead the party, and the spectre of political ambition was always a natural irritant in the relationship between the two men – something that would never have been a factor with Rupert. As for Crean, Whitlam’s memoirs of his time in government make scant reference to him, implying that Whitlam thought him a failure as Treasurer, or at least of negligible importance to his administration. So is there anything to suggest that my grandfather would’ve fared any better? Treasurers in Australian politics have traditionally been aspiring or thwarted Prime Ministers, but it’s obvious that Rupert wouldn’t have fallen into the category of a Costello or a Keating. It’s also highly unlikely he would’ve been ensorcelled by a Juni Morosi, or have had anything to do with a character like Tirath Khemlani.

For all of his street smarts and authoritarian charisma, my grandfather was a suburban bank manager with no formal training in economics, and a babe in the woods when it came to professional politics, and the machinations of the ALP’s faceless men. But it’s for those very reasons that I like to think he would’ve found a place in Whitlam’s eccentric Cabinet, perhaps striking up a rapport with the likes of Al Grasby and Tom Uren, who had been selected for their similarly intuitive qualities. Perhaps he would’ve found a brilliant, MacGyver-esque solution to the devilish macroeconomic problems that had stumped other finance ministers around the world? I doubt it. But history is littered with tantalising potentialities and hypotheticals. In fact, a Gitane-smoking post-structuralist would argue that that’s all history is: a series of sliding doors and roads not taken, scaffolding an accepted narrative.

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Rupert had a pretty great death. That’s something everyone in our family would happily concede. In saying that, I’m not trying to sound glib, or callous, or needlessly provocative, because I loved him very much, and he was a huge part of my life. But he went out well, and I’m glad. I’ve seen what confused, protracted, painful death looks like – the kind that puts a ‘Closed’ or ‘Back in Two Years’ sign up on families, and gives each member a kettlebell of stress and foreboding to carry around in their daily luggage. So it’s a source of lasting happiness for me that his death was the antithesis of that.

It happened at the hairdresser’s. Even as he became increasingly frail, and the confident sportsman’s gait of his youth slowly morphed into a hunched, arthritic shuffle, he remained fastidious about maintaining his silvery plumage. So one day, he drove to his regular appointment, slowly ascended the flight of stairs to the salon, and after greeting the staff with the his standard response to being asked how he was, “Much better and I couldn’t stand it, thanks!”, said he just needed to catch his breath for a minute in one of the waiting room chairs. So he slowly sank into one of them, and closed his eyes. His long-standing heart condition did the rest, and with that, he was gone. It was all slightly traumatic for the salon staff, of course, but totally effortless and peaceful for him.

I spoke briefly at his funeral, knowing that my job was to try and provide a bit of light relief from the more serious speeches. So I talked about how, when his knees became too troublesome, he walked the latest family dog for a brief period by holding its lead out of the car window, while driving slowly through the same streets of my childhood, yelling “Sit!” every time dog and driver came to a stop sign (before I dobbed him in to mum, and she called a halt to the practice). His commitment to job security and family safety never quite translated to how he drove a car. Ignorant of the Whitlam story, I strangely ended my speech with a quote picked at random from one of the great Labor “crazies”, Bob Ellis. At the time I think I chose it simply because it made me sentimentally teary, rather than feeling it bore any relevance to Rupert’s life. But knowing what I do now about his past, and how close he came to playing a key role in Australian political history, it seems vaguely appropriate that I borrowed Ellis’ maudlin words. When I think of Rupert now, through the jumble of fading and frozen images that make up the memory of another’s life, I think about the old stories, but also the ones he never told, and the ones I’ll never know.

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