Hasluck in 1960, Wikimedia Commons

First, a few facts. Sir Paul Meernaa Caedwalla Hasluck was born on 1 April 1905 in Fremantle, the second of four surviving children to dedicated Salvation Army officers Ethel Meernaa Hasluck and Patience Eliza Hasluck (née Wooler). After entering the Commonwealth Department of External Affairs in 1941 and rising rapidly, he became a central figure in the Australian delegation to the San Francisco Conference, which founded the United Nations. Hasluck later participated in the proceedings of the Security Council, of which Australia was an inaugural, non-permanent member. Hasluck returned to the University of Western Australia after leaving the Commonwealth bureaucracy and wrote the first of two volumes of the official history of Australia’s involvement in World War II. Hasluck sat in the House of Representatives as the Liberal member for the Perth seat of Curtin from 1949 until 1969, serving as Minister for Territories (1951-1963), Defence (1963-4) and External Affairs (1964-1969). In 1969 he became Australia’s 17th governor general, a post he held until his retirement in 1974. On 1 January 1966 Hasluck was appointed to the Privy Council (an honour normally reserved for prime ministers), and on 29 May 1970 he received England’s highest order for knighthood, the Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order. He died of prostate cancer on 9 January 1993. In 2001 a Western Australian federal electorate was named in honour of Paul Hasluck and his wife Alexandra Hasluck.

1. What kind of first impression would Paul Hasluck have made?

Hasluck was a man of many personalities and interests. In the foreword to Hasluck’s autobiography, Mucking About, Peter Boyce described Hasluck as one of the very few genuine intellectuals, and probably one of the relatively few introspective personalities to grace the Australian political stage with distinction. He was an intellectual working in politics, a man who wrote poetry, a pedantic bureaucrat, as comfortable discussing matters of high policy as correcting grammar. He was a lover of classical music, jazz and Australian rules football—he was a passionate supporter of the Claremont Tigers—and spent much of his leisure time working on his bush block in the Darling Ranges, outside Perth. At work, where he spent inordinate amounts of time, Hasluck was invariably a stickler for ‘proper’ public behaviour; each person had a role to play and he expected them to adhere to these conventions.

Hasluck’s biographer, the late historian Geoffrey Bolton, believes the reason that Hasluck is not well-remembered is because of his difficult personality; or, more precisely, those aspects of his personality that he chose to display in public. As a public servant, and later Commonwealth minister, he was often brusque, standoffish and demanding; a complex mix of compassion and insensitivity. Dame Rachel Cleland, wife of long-term Papua New Guinea Administrator Sir Donald Cleland, wrote of the joy of working with a person of wide vision, one with a clear grasp of a problem, a first-class intellect, and a commitment to issuing clear, concise written instructions. On the other hand, Hasluck had an exposed nerve, and if you unwittingly touched it, his reaction was immediate and savage. Bolton described Hasluck as lacking an efficient emotional thermostat. He not only hurt people, mostly his subordinates who could not answer back, but his behaviour left them shattered, according to Bolton. Hasluck’s capacity for intimidation and personal nastiness stifled innovation and risk-taking among those who worked for him. And yet, the private person was usually relaxed and in good humour. He was stimulating in conversation, held firm, life-long friends, and was even, in some quarters, described as exhibiting a larrikin streak. So, to answer the question, your first impression of Hasluck would depend very much on the setting in which you met him.

2. How did Hasluck earn his interesting middle names, Meernaa Caedwalla?

Paul Hasluck’s father was born in 1872 and registered as Ethel Meernaa Caedwalla Hasluck. Ethel was the sixth child to his colourful father, Lewis, who apparently decided that, regardless of gender, his next child would be named ‘Ethel’. Ethel Hasluck, probably inured of the unusual name, preferred to be known by ‘Meernaa’. According to Bolton, ‘Meernaa’ was a memento of Lewis’ travels, collected in the South Australian Flinders Ranges. ‘Meernaa’ is an Indigenous word said to mean ‘joyful spring of fresh water’. The origin of Caedwalla is a mystery, although ‘Caedwalla’ was an obscure Anglo-Saxon king from the late seventh century.

3. Tell us about Hasluck’s early life

Hasluck was the second of four children, born to God-fearing parents who abandoned the Anglican church for the evangelical fervour and social service mission of the Salvation Army. Despite rejecting the outward form of religion espoused by his parents, Hasluck was deeply affected by their commitment to social justice and strong sense of civic duty. According to Hasluck, his father was so conscientious in paying all debts that Salvation Army obligations came before the needs of his own family. As such, the family was invariably short of money and knew poverty of an extreme kind. Hasluck described how each corps had to finance itself from the collection plate and, out of its weekly takings, send a prescribed sum to finance headquarters. Various charges were set out in order of priority and the officer’s own salary was the last to be claimed. Hasluck remembered the regular Saturday nights when his father would do the books. The whole income of the week was counted, and deductions made. His mother would be waiting anxiously to know how much cash she would have to feed and clothe the family.

Hasluck was spiritually drawn to the land, an attachment that began with his happy boyhood years at a Salvation Army farm school near Collie, managed by his parents. His family moved from the Collie farm when he won a scholarship to Perth Modern School, a selection entry school that provided opportunity to bright young Western Australians. Hasluck attended ‘Perth Mod’ between 1918-1922, where he was one year ahead of HC ‘Nugget’ Coombs, who became a distinguished public servant and the first governor of the Reserve Bank.

In January 1923, Hasluck began a journalist cadetship with the West Australian, later travelling throughout the state compiling records of the early colonial period. In the early 1930s, he accompanied, and wrote extensively, on the Mosely Royal Commission, which investigated the circumstances of Western Australia’s Aboriginal people. During this period, he began part-time tertiary studies at the University of Western Australia (UWA), where he eventually completed a Diploma in Journalism Studies, a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts.
Hasluck met his future wife Alix Darker at UWA where they shared an interest in theatre, writing, and literature. Despite almost single-handedly raising their two boys, Alix Darker became a distinguished writer and historian in her own right.

4. What were the major influences that shaped Hasluck’s political beliefs? What drove him as a politician?

From an early age Hasluck was drilled with a strong work ethic, an obligation to support oneself, and the belief that it was humiliating to be supported by public charity. Duty and diligence were a condition of life and were expected of everyone. His parents espoused that ‘hard work never did anyone any harm and that Satan always found mischief in idle hands’. Effectively, for Hasluck the workaholic: work was good in itself.

Hasluck was not a typical conservative politician. Lacking the partisanship of many of his Liberal colleagues, he worked constructively with the opposition Labor party throughout his political career. His keen awareness of poverty and other forms of social deprivation (especially during the Great Depression), genuine concern for the welfare of Indigenous peoples, admiration and friendship with John Curtin, and constructive diplomacy at the United Nations meant he was uniquely placed to understand complex social issues.

5. Hasluck had an early and sustained lifelong interest in the welfare of Indigenous Australians. Where did this interest stem from?

Hasluck’s years on the Salvation Army farm at Collie first exposed him to Indigenous Australians. He spoke often of ‘Black Paddy’, a Noongar man, who worked on the property. Hasluck was in awe of Paddy’s tracking abilities and learned from a young age to value Indigenous Australians’ capacities; he never succumbed to the demeaning stereotypes of the time about an unteachable ‘dying race’. In 1932, during his honeymoon in England, Hasluck spent much time at the British Library searching for answers as to how, despite many good stated intentions by government officials, the plight of Western Australian Aboriginal people at the hands of European colonisation was so dire. Back in Australia he became a founding member of the Australian Aborigines Amelioration Association. According to Hasluck this organisation had become the principal advocate in Western Australia of better care for Aboriginal Australians by the mid-1930s.

The then minister for territories Paul Hasluck opens new buildings at Retta Dixon Homes, Darwin, in 1961 to move its wards away from Bagot reserve, National Archives of Australia

6. Hasluck’s views on Indigenous Australians have been widely criticised. What were they? And how did he justify them?

Hasluck’s master’s thesis, which focussed on Aboriginal affairs policy in Western Australia, was published in 1942 as Black Australians to enthusiastic reviews. A reprint in 1971 was praised by anthropologist John Mulvaney for ‘its fluent scholarship, historical insight and human understanding’. The book argued that state policies of protective segregation had failed. Instead, new strategies and programs should be established based on principles of legal equality and citizenship rights, with special directives to raise living standards. Such notions of assimilation were to be the foundation of the policies he espoused in later public life.

When Hasluck became Minister for Territories in 1951, the Northern Territory’s large Indigenous population, together with the potential of the Commonwealth to influence the states, gave Hasluck the opportunity to implement the reform agenda he had advocated in Black Australians. In a radical break from the past, he directed the government to provide full citizenship and remove race-based legislation to any person of Aboriginal descent ‘capable of looking after themselves’. In 1951 Hasluck established a Native Welfare Council to co-ordinate and formalise federal-state cooperation. When this initiative was overwhelmingly ignored by the states, Hasluck set about developing the Northern Territory as a showcase for the improvement of Aboriginal well-being.

Hasluck’s views about Indigenous policy have been aligned with those of the notorious Western Australian Commissioner of Native Affairs, Auber Neville, who believed in the absorption of ‘half-caste natives’ into mainstream society. Hasluck’s assimilationist ideas drew criticism from anthropologists such as A.P. Elkin and Catherine Berndt, who argued that policies that did not attend to Aboriginal cultural identity would be ineffective. However, not only was Hasluck scathing of government neglect of Aboriginal health, his assimilation position in the 1930s was far more nuanced than some critics allow. He desired for Indigenous people to share the same opportunities, privileges, and responsibilities as other Australians. In his eyes, Aboriginal Australians could continue to cherish their cultural traditions, but within the bounds of a common and equal notion of Australian citizenship. In later life, Hasluck acknowledged that he had assumed Indigenous people would seek to be accepted into the mainstream culture, and that he may have undervalued the strong spiritual and cultural connection of customary land ties. Regardless of subsequent criticisms, the principle of assimilation was endorsed by a meeting of Commonwealth and state ministers in January 1961 and became a cornerstone of Aboriginal policy until the mid-1970s.
The most controversial issue regarding Hasluck’s term as Minister for Territories was the forced removal of children from Aboriginal mothers. Hasluck’s department advised him that ‘partly coloured’ children could be removed if the Native Affairs department thought it in the neglected child’s best interest, and the mother willingly gave the child up or a ‘painstaking attempt’ had been made to explain the advantages of removal to the mother. Hasluck not only accepted this advice, but he removed restrictions on the age at which children could be removed. While Hasluck appeared to believe he was acting in the best interests of Indigenous people, the policy has been heavily criticised as being callous and causing untold suffering to generations of Indigenous families.

7. Tell us about Hasluck’s early involvement with the United Nations

For most of his six years at the Department of External Affairs, Hasluck worked under the enigmatic Dr H.V. Evatt. In 1942 he was assigned as officer-in-charge of post-war reconstruction. Hasluck shared his minister’s view that Australia was well-placed to influence Pacific regional development, and as such was instrumental in the creation of the Australia-New Zealand Treaty of 1944. Hasluck was a central figure in the Australian delegation to the 1945 San Francisco Conference. He later attended the United Nations Preparatory Commission in London and became counsellor-in-charge of the Australian mission to the United Nations and acting representative on the Atomic Energy Commission.

Although he admired Evatt’s capacity for hard work and the quickness of intellect, Hasluck was scornful of Evatt’s haphazard management style and shambolic record keeping. Hasluck believed in clearly delineated chains of authority and allocation of responsibilities. He became frustrated by what he viewed as Evatt’s erratic ways, particularly his failure to instruct his staff properly and his tendency to ignore the formal public service channels of advice.

8. Your research is focussed on post-war development in Papua and New Guinea. Paul Hasluck was the minister for much of this period. What is your assessment of his impact? What are the long-term consequences of such an interventionist and driven Minister?

When Hasluck came to power, approximately two-thirds of the vast mountainous territory of PNG (475,368 square kilometres) was under effective administration. PNG was divided into more than 200 clans and 800 languages. It had no common sense of nationality, and in many cases, little knowledge of the wider world. External political realities, namely the expectations of the United Nations Trusteeship for rapid socio-economic development and the pervasive emergence of independence movements across the colonial world, further complicated Hasluck’s task. My supervisor, Associate Professor Helen Gardner and I were recently discussing whether, given these circumstances, enough recognition has been given to the difficulties that Australia faced in administering PNG.

Hasluck was appointed Territories Minister in 1951. Despite his reputation as a stickler for administrative efficiency with firm ideas about the relative roles of the public service and minister (given his experience with Evatt), he regularly intervened in departmental matters. On his first tour of PNG, Hasluck was disturbed by the apparent lack of development in the six years following the Pacific War. In quick succession, he inaugurated a Legislative Council of predominantly ex-officio members and approved the appointment of Brigadier Donald Cleland as Assistant Administrator. Within a short period, he removed Colonel J.K. Murray as Administrator and promoted Cleland. Hasluck had found Murray to be reserved, secretive and fixated on the quasi-vice-regal aspects of his post. His decision to remove Murray reflected what his political biographer, Robert Porter, described as a renewed emphasis on ‘policy initiatives, focussed administrative effort and increased expenditure directed at bringing about change’.

Hasluck’s primary long-term goal was to forge a sense of unity among PNG’s diverse population; an ambition that echoed his assimilation policy for Indigenous Australians. Given Hasluck’s strident belief in equality of opportunity, it is of little surprise that he focussed on a program of universal development. Hasluck was concerned that parts of PNG that had long-term exposure to European intervention would come to dominant other areas that were newly exposed to western culture. In order to encourage the emergence of a meritorious PNG elite, Hasluck prioritised education, health, law enforcement, employment, and local government at the expense of higher levels of education and national political institutions.
A frequent criticism of Hasluck’s universalist policy concerns education. Instead of developing a secondary and tertiary education system, Hasluck prioritised universal primary education, focussed on rapidly developing literacy and numeracy across the country. He argued that a natural by-product of this policy was the development of a common national culture and an offset to the risk of regional and clan loyalties. He wrote that he did not want to ‘simply hand over [that nation’s] destinies to a few smart boys and shrewd heads from Moresby and Rabaul. Similarly, we have to ensure that women are not left behind in the general progress’. Hasluck insisted that women be educated to the same level as men, and in 1955 introduced a program to increase the proportion of girls in schools.

By 1957, Hasluck had become what he described as an ‘inspector-general’ and would constantly drop in on various remote parts of both PNG and the Northern Territory. He would deliberately bypass the capitals to form his own opinions about the people and problems on the spot, recording matters to be sorted out back in Canberra.

Hasluck often clashed with the expatriate community, describing them as locusts, as ‘gleaners of a harvest sown and reaped by the toil of others’. Alert to the risks that entrenching foreign landownership would pose to future self-government, he resisted European demands for more land, and advocated Indigenous rights and opportunities at every opportunity. His difficult relationship with the European business community culminated during the introduction of income tax in the late 1950s. Formidable attacks were made in local and Australian newspapers, the House of Representatives, PNG Supreme Court and the High Court of Australia. But all to no avail. Hasluck held his ground and income tax was introduced in the early 1960s.
When, in February 1960, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan spoke of the winds of change blowing across the colonial world, the political pressure on the Australian government to relinquish control of PNG ramped up considerably. Menzies responded with his infamous ‘sooner rather than later statement’, while Hasluck stubbornly restated his belief that ‘political advances could follow only after social and economic improvements… which can only be made by hard work year after year’. Hasluck told a New Guinean audience in July 1960 that ‘so long as you need our help you can depend on us to give it. So long as you want us to stay you can depend on us not to desert you’. Regardless of Hasluck’s belief, he was unable to hold back world opinion. As the European African colonies rapidly decolonised, the early end of Australian colonial rule became inevitable. Within twelve months Hasluck had conceded that external political pressure would bring about independence within a shorter time than he felt necessary to properly prepare the people and economy of PNG for independence. This is the crux of a long running debate regarding the sudden, accelerated surge towards independence: did Australia PNG leave too early? Was Hasluck right about the need to stay longer?

Delegates from Territory of Papua and New Guinea (TNPG) with Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, at Kings Hall, Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, Cochrane, Percy, 1907-1980, Cochrane, Renata, 1944-1966, University of Wollongong Archives Online.

9. Would you rate Hasluck’s management of PNG a success?

There is no doubt that Hasluck had a significant impact on PNG in the post-war period. By the end of his tenure there had been substantial growth in agriculture, infrastructure, and industry, while the number of local government councils, primary schools, hospitals, aid posts, and infant welfare clinics had also increased. His focus was predominately agroeconomic; that is, converting subsistence farming in the village to a system of cash cropping, while maintaining existing village social structures. This approach meant there was little, or no, manufacturing or service industry development.

Among Hasluck’s chief ambitions on becoming Territories Minister was the promotion of universal socio-economic development and the protection of assets and future economic opportunity for traditional owners, while ensuring minimal disruption to traditional Indigenous society. It is hard to deny that, on these terms, his management was a success. In fact, and this is something I am tussling with in my thesis, it could be argued that his vision of gradual universal development has, in the long term, been vindicated. For all its problems, PNG has been a comparatively stable democratic country since independence; there have not been any coups, and the country continues to operate in a relatively successful manner today.

Ian Downs, a legendary expatriate figure in PNG, clashed with Paul Hasluck on many occasions. Despite their differences, Downs viewed Hasluck as the sole catalyst for positive change in PNG. He believed that Hasluck’s ministerial record was so good that few Australians ventured to share the stage or even to ask questions. To Downs, Hasluck seemed to have asked nearly every question himself in his quest for what was best for the fledgling nation, and to have acted on most of them to public satisfaction.

10. Following his long stint as Territories Minister, Hasluck became Defence Minister briefly in 1964, before serving as External Affairs Minister for five years. What was his legacy during this period?

In late 1963, Hasluck became Defence Minister, but it was a short appointment. In April 1964, after Garfield Barwick moved onto the High Court as the new chief justice, he became External Affairs Minister. Hasluck’s time in this portfolio coincided with the Vietnam War, of which he was an enthusiastic supporter. Hasluck, and his generation, had experienced the expansionist ambitions of great powers during the Second World War and Cold War that followed, and were wary of underestimating Chinese communist ambitions. Hasluck adhered to the ‘domino theory’, sharing with Menzies a conviction that Chinese aggression posed a threat to the stability of the region, and therefore required a forward defence policy. Although Hasluck thought Australia should retain a degree of independence in external affairs, he firmly supported American involvement in Vietnam, and expressed Australia’s willingness to commit troops in support of its ally. Over the next few years he oversaw the dispatch of three battalions, and was closely associated with the increasingly unpopular Australian involvement in the Vietnam War.

11. How close was Hasluck to becoming prime minister?

Sir Paul Hasluck, Governor General of Australia with an unidentified man at All Nations Club dinner, Wentworth Hotel, 17 July 1969 / John Mulligan, 1968.

After Harold Holt’s elevation to the prime ministership following the retirement of Menzies, Hasluck unsuccessfully contested the deputy leadership against William McMahon. Hasluck was a reticent self-promoter; he believed his record spoke for itself, and only contested the deputy leadership because of his intense dislike of McMahon.

After the disappearance of Holt in 1967, Hasluck was urged by Menzies to contest the leadership. Again, Hasluck declined to lobby for support, and narrowly lost the party room ballot to John Gorton. In early 1969, Gorton offered Hasluck the post of governor general, which he accepted. This may have cost Hasluck a second opportunity to become prime minister: in 1971 Gorton narrowly lost the Liberal leadership to McMahon. Later, Menzies told Hasluck that if there had been a ballot for leader, he would have defeated McMahon.

12. In 1974, Gough Whitlam asked Hasluck to continue as governor general. How different could history have been if he had accepted this offer?

Hasluck was sworn in as Australia’s 17th governor general on 30 April 1969. During this period, he was, as in all his roles, meticulous and proper of manner. Although Hasluck disliked McMahon, he maintained a reasonable working relationship with him. Against the odds, Hasluck established an excellent rapport with Gough Whitlam. In 1965, Whitlam and Hasluck had infamously clashed in the House of Representatives. When Hasluck described Whitlam as ‘one of the filthiest objects ever to come into this chamber’, Whitlam threw a glass of water at him. In fact, when Hasluck’s term was about to end in April 1974, Whitlam asked him to continue for a further two years. Due to personal issues—his wife Alix was suffering a debilitating hip problem and his son, Rollo, had died suddenly in June 1973—Hasluck declined the offer.

Of course, this leads one to wonder whether, if Hasluck had still been governor general in 1975, the constitutional crisis of that year would have ended differently. Hasluck himself implied on several occasions this may have been the case. In a 1985 interview with Clyde Cameron for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History series, he suggested Kerr made a mistake in taking advice from Malcolm Fraser prior to appointing him as prime minister.


Brad Underhill is a PhD Candidate in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University. His thesis is cautiously titled ‘The New Deal on the Ground in Papua and New Guinea: The Impact of Australia’s Post-War Development Plans in the Village’. His Honours thesis, which was awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s Prize, ‘Co-operatives in Papua New Guinea: Economic and Political Development or Colonial Control?’ primarily argued that, despite their economic failure, colonial sponsored co-operatives were instrumental in the long-term success of several micro-nationalist movements. Paul Hasluck has been a constant fixture in Brad’s research, and despite an initial expectation that he would dislike this conservative politician, he has not only grown to admire but, much to his surprise, quite like him, or at least appreciate him!