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Life and times of a liberal reformer

11 October 2014 88 views No Comment

REVIEW OF ‘Dick Hamer: The Liberal Liberal’
By Tim Colebatch
Scribe, 505pp, $59.99 (HB)

IN a strong field of recent political biographies and memoirs, this first published biography of Dick Hamer is a most welcome addition.

Hamer, a reformist, was Liberal premier of Victoria from 1972 to 1981 and, as with any biography, details of the times the subject lived in make it all the more fascinating.

Author Tim Colebatch writes that he envies American historian Robert Caro, who has spent the past 40 years researching and writing his still unfinished five-volume biography of former US president Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Colebatch, a political and financial journalist, could have spent longer on his subject but managed to finish the job in the equivalent of a year of full-time work. He admits he has “left many fields unploughed.

The Public Record Office Victoria finally made the Hamer government papers available last year, too late to be of much help to Colebatch. Also, he writes, the biographer would “have loved to have had time to read the records of the Victorian Liberal Party, now in the University of Melbourne’s archives. But, then again, he did not have 40 years up his sleeve, as Caro seems to have had. Yet, despite the time constraints, Colebatch has done an excellent job.

Although neither official nor authorised, this fine, well-illustrated biography has benefited from members of the Hamer family providing Colebatch with detailed memories, copious photographs and other documentary material. The last includes the 1160 pages of four volumes of personal and political diaries that a young and ambitious Hamer wrote between 1939 and 1941. Thank goodness that in the 20th century many of our leading politicians kept detailed diaries.

As well as more traditional sources, Colebatch has made extensive use online of the Victorian parliament’s biographies of former MPs, the ‘Australian Dictionary of Biography’ and the National Library’s invaluable search engine Trove. He also praises Wikipedia, the veracity of which I am much less certain about.

As Colebatch explains, Rupert James Hamer (who was known as Dick most of his life) was a Toorak boy educated at Victoria’s best private schools, including Geelong Grammar. As a lieutenant in World War II he served with distinction at Tobruk.

Before taking over as premier of Victoria, Hamer had been a loyal minister under the chain-smoking and often uncouth Henry Bolte, who benefited enormously from the parlous state of the opposition that resulted from the great split in the Australian Labor Party in the mid-1950s.

Politically pragmatic, rarely doctrinaire and ably assisted by his intense and authoritarian political sidekick and attorney-general Arthur Rylah, Bolte was premier of Victoria for 17 years, from June 1955 until August 1972, when Hamer took over the reins.

As Colebatch demonstrates, in many ways Bolte — the sports-loving, authoritarian, no-nonsense farmer — was the polar opposite of the cultured and urbane Hamer, who for years had cultivated a strong social conscience.

Indeed somewhat earlier in his political ­career, Hamer had been a strong advocate of the abolition of capital punishment. This was a legacy of Hamer’s emotional abhorrence of the highly divisive hanging at Melbourne’s ­Pentridge Prison of Ronald Ryan at 8am on Friday February 3, 1967. As it eventuated, Ryan was the last person to be legally executed in Australia.

Although opinion polls demonstrated that most citizens still supported the death penalty, in the third year of his premiership and in a direct repudiation of Bolte’s legacy, Hamer (who allowed MPs a free vote) legislated to abolish capital punishment in his state.

Hamer was the last Liberal premier in Australia to win three elections in a row, and his commitment to democracy in the partyrooms, which starkly distinguished him from the autocratic Bolte, ultimately became his achilles heel. As economic and fiscal problems accumulated and chronic disloyalty in state Liberal ranks undermined him, Hamer was, as Colebatch puts it, “run over in the end by the Young Turks.

Nevertheless, Hamer’s damaged leadership towards the end of his premiership cannot undo his many positive achievements. These include his promotion of urban and rural environmentalism, and of cultural activities and the arts; his protection of built heritage; his advocacy of racial and sexual equality; his qualified support for feminism; and his significant social and legal reforms, including the decriminalisation of homosexuality. More tangibly, under his premiership, Melbourne’s iconic tramlines were extended for the first time in a half century, the West Gate Bridge was built, and art galleries, libraries and theatres were constructed throughout Victoria.

Above all, in this well-written and helpfully indexed book, Hamer comes across as a person and politician of considerable charm and manifest integrity.

Perhaps as a result of our changing political landscape, by the end of his life in March 2004, aged 87, this classically educated, liberal-minded, progressively inclined former Liberal premier appeared to be valued and respected much more by his Labor opponents than by members of his own side. But, as another famous person hanged in Victoria so aptly put it, “Such is life.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, October 11-12, 2014, Review, Books p 19.

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