This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007
Sir Robert William (Bob) Askin (1907-1981), bank officer and premier, was born on 4 April 1907 in Sydney, eldest of three sons of Adelaide-born William James Askin, sailor and later tram driver, and Ellen Laura Halliday, née Rowe, a widow, born in New South Wales. After spending his pre-school years with his mother in Stuart Town, young Askin (known as Billy) and his family moved to Glebe, where his parents married on 29 September 1916. Educated at Glebe Public School and awarded a bursary to Sydney Technical High School, he completed his Intermediate certificate in 1921.
At the age of 15, after a very short time in the electrical trade, Askin joined the Government Savings Bank of New South Wales as a clerk. The GSB closed in 1931 and he moved to the new Rural Bank of New South Wales. Keen on Rugby League, he played for the Glebe Dirty Reds and for the banks’ teams. In 1934-39 he served on the executive of the New South Wales Swimming Association. He also played bridge and poker. On 5 February 1937 Askin, nominally Anglican, married Mollie Isabelle Underhill, a typist at the bank, at Gilbert Park Methodist Church, Manly; he was to live in that suburb for the rest of his life. In 1940 Askin was appointed manager of the Rural Bank’s service department, which focused on public relations. He served as vice-president (1939-40) and president (1940-41) of the Rural Bank branch of the United Bank Officers’ Association.
Askin enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 30 March 1942. He was 5 ft 8½ ins (174 cm) tall, with grey eyes, a medium complexion and brown hair. Between 1925 and 1929 he had served part time as a lieutenant in the 55th Battalion, Militia; he was a keen rifle shooter. An instructor with the 14th Infantry Training Battalion at Dubbo, he was appointed acting corporal, then reverted to private. In November 1942 he joined the 2/31st Battalion in Papua, where he served for two months; he was in New Guinea for another six months from July 1943. He landed at Balikpapan, Borneo, in July 1945, and that month was promoted to sergeant under Lieutenant Colonel Ewan Robson. When hostilities ceased, he attempted to set up an import business at Bandjarmasin. Back in Australia in February 1946, he was demobilised on 22 March. He returned to the Rural Bank to manage its travel department. Known as `Slippery Sam’--a nickname he had acquired in the army--he also ran an illegal starting price bookmaking operation.
A chance encounter with Robson led to Askin’s joining the Liberal Party of Australia in 1947. He became president of the Manly branch, the Manly State electorate conference and the Mackellar Federal electorate conference; campaign manager for W. C. Wentworth in 1949; and a member of the party’s federal council. Preselected in 1949 from more than twenty candidates, Askin won the seat of Collaroy in the Legislative Assembly in June 1950. He represented the newly created constituency until the seat was abolished in October 1973. From November 1973 until his retirement he represented the new and equally safe seat of Pittwater.
After the 1953 election, in a party increasingly divided and demoralised by the loss of six of its twenty-eight seats, Askin saw his chance. He was elected deputy-leader of the State parliamentary party in July 1954, and a month later tied with P. H. Morton in a ballot to replace its leader (Sir) Vernon Treatt. Askin withdrew in favour of Robson, who defeated Morton. In September 1955 Morton turned the tables on Robson, but Askin remained as deputy. After Morton narrowly lost the leadership on 17 July 1959, Askin was elected unopposed. He sold a printery that he had used to produce the Manly-Warringah News in 1953-57, thus becoming the first party leader devoted to the office full time. `First, last and always’, he declared, `I am a politician--a professional politician’.
The party Askin now headed had been characterised by the Sydney Morning Herald as a `self-seeking rabble’. He accepted the challenge. In 1961 he led the successful `No’ campaign in a referendum to abolish the Legislative Council; he argued for election by popular vote. He backed the drive by the extra-parliamentary party for `new blood’ in the legislature. And, above all, he strove to gain office. His first tilt, in March 1962, ended in failure. The Liberals contrasted their `go-ahead’ team, led by a `trim, alert, greying, quickspoken’ Askin, as Peter Coleman described him, with the Australian Labor Party’s `tired old men’. However, the Labor premier, Robert Heffron, stole some of the Liberals’ policies while Askin declined to endorse state aid for non-government schools. Other policies, including Askin’s proposal for the legalisation of SP telephone betting and his promise to allow increases in controlled rents, may also have been ill judged. Nor was he helped by the Federal government’s credit squeeze.
Askin’s second attempt, on 1 May 1965, was to succeed. After twenty-four years in office, the Labor government was widely seen as out of touch, even dictatorial, for example in its controls on small traders. While it ran largely on its record, Askin devised policies for all manner of disgruntled groups: shopkeepers, public servants and teachers with unmet demands for pay and superannuation, and citizens wanting cheaper transport, more police, or improved animal welfare. Askin, a Freemason, was also persuaded to embrace state aid. His decision to acquiesce, after threatening to close down the Young Liberals for supporting state aid, allowed the party to appeal to the Catholic vote, and to be seen to represent all sections of the community.
In making his pitch for office, Askin was advised by his politically astute press secretary Alan Green, formerly chief of staff at the Sydney Morning Herald. He was also backed by two different advertising campaigns, both officially authorised by the general secretary of the Liberal Party’s State division (Sir) John Carrick. One took as its catch-cry the slogan `Vote Liberal and Get Things Right’. The other, financed by Sir Frank Packer, focused on Askin: `With Askin You’ll Get Action!’ Targeting different audiences, in different media, in different ways, this campaign was the most expensive, presidential and creative that the State had seen.
The victory was narrow and the government depended on the support of one of the two Independents, Douglas Darby or H. G. Coates. The Askin-(Sir) Charles Cutler coalition government was returned for a second term in February 1968. Though the Liberal vote declined, a favourable redistribution of electoral boundaries helped the party to win five more seats. Despite a substantial anti-government swing which resulted in the loss of four seats, Askin secured a third term in February 1971. Labor, led by Pat Hills, had attacked the government over its taxes and charges and for not keeping its election promises, especially on education.
In November 1973 Askin became the first premier of New South Wales to win a fourth successive term. To capitalise on the opening of the Sydney Opera House by Queen Elizabeth II, he had called the election early. After a campaign focused on rising prices and industrial militancy, and on the Whitlam government’s destruction `by stealth’ of the States, `extreme socialism’ and `untried revolutionary schemes’, the coalition reduced Labor’s representation by just one. Meanwhile, indirect elections for the Legislative Council meant that the coalition now controlled both Houses.
Askin had been `heavily involved’ in Liberal Party planning for the 1972 Federal election and had campaigned strongly against the ALP. At the instigation of the Liberal MLC Clyde Packer, a director of Consolidated Press Holdings Ltd, and of John Singleton, an advertising executive, before the May 1974 Federal election Askin helped to raise funds from businessmen for a series of advertisements with `ordinary people explaining in ordinary terms what socialism is really all about’. Authorised by Askin in Sydney, the series included prominent sportsmen, political leaders, and--most controversially--in Estonian woman who described Labor as `disguised Communist’. In public, Askin declared the advertisements the best he had ever seen; privately, he thought them unhelpful and tried to have some of them, including one that attacked Jim Cairns, toned down.
The day before the re-election of the Whitlam government Askin embarked on a seven-week overseas tour, ostensibly to attract investment. A heart attack in June 1969 had kept him away from work for two months and in March 1971 he tried to ease the dual burden of premier and treasurer by appointing an assistant-treasurer. He suffered another heart attack in November 1974. On 3 January 1975 he resigned as premier and treasurer and left the parliament. Although Sir Henry Parkes had served longer as premier, Askin had eclipsed the record of seven and a half years’ continuous service set by John Cahill.
To gain and then hold power in a `natural’ Labor State, Askin had drawn on his class background, early career and industrial experience. He was `a superb raconteur’; he often visited pubs as he `pursued votes remorselessly’; and he was a regular at the races. Though keen to have Imperial honours bestowed on him, he presented himself as `an ordinary bloke’, unpretentious, with common tastes and a playful sense of humour. Under Askin the Liberals became a party of `the small man’, in Coleman’s words: `the man worried about his mortgage, his superannuation, his rates, his children’s fees at the parish school, and his widow when he died’. In his maiden speech, Askin had listed, among other problems facing his electorate, the almost complete absence of that `basic amenity’ sewerage; `shockingly overcrowded’ schools; and no public hospitals. Though he never lived in his electorate, he and Mollie looked after it.
Despite its lack of ministerial experience, Askin’s `reasonably talented team’ impressed departmental heads. Many of his government’s `mild reforms’, as Peter Tiver described them, were due to J. C. Maddison, minister for justice, or (Sir) Kenneth McCaw, attorney-general: a law reform commission, the introduction of consumer laws, an ombudsman, legal aid, health labels on cigarette packs, breath-testing of drivers, limits on vehicle emissions, the liberalisation of liquor laws, and compensation for victims of violent crime. There was also a new National Parks and Wild Life Service, a boost to transport and secondary industry, and the inauguration of what Ann Curthoys described as a `new era’ in Aboriginal policy and administration. Yet the government countenanced a brutal prison regime that culminated in the 1974 Bathurst jail riots.
As treasurer, Askin had focused his interests on the State budget and on Commonwealth-State financial relations. The budget, he argued, was always under pressure because previous Labor governments had under-borrowed. His attitude to the Commonwealth was shaped by his first premiers’ conference in 1965 when Sir Robert Menzies had negotiated with the Victorian premier (Sir) Henry Bolte at Askin’s expense, and by the strong States-rights position of the Sydney Morning Herald and its parliamentary roundsman, John O’Hara. At subsequent premiers’ conferences he opposed the `centralising’ tendencies of Canberra--under various prime ministers--and became a strong advocate of the rights of the States, especially in relation to the distribution of the Commonwealth’s taxation revenue and the rights of States to borrow. In 1968, with Bolte, he forced Prime Minister (Sir) John Gorton to open the conference to the press; later, he and Bolte organised an `emergency’ premiers’ conference, without Gorton, to publicise the plight of the States. After the 1969 election, Askin had helped to save Gorton; in 1971, he helped to defeat him.
The Sydney Opera House and the Eastern Suburbs Railway were the two landmarks for which Askin most wanted to be remembered. The first was initiated by Cahill and the second was completed under Neville Wran. Without the opposition from community groups, and the `green bans’ imposed from 1971 by the New South Wales branch of the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation, Askin might also have been remembered for the redevelopment of The Rocks, Kings Cross and Woolloomooloo, developments on parkland at Kelly’s Bush and Eastlakes, and the building of a sports complex on parts of Moore and Centennial parks.
Askin’s style was characterised by his deputy, (Sir) Eric Willis, as a `slow, gradual, painstaking process of attacking one issue after another’. He was `fanatically tidy’. An affable boss and gifted after-dinner speaker, he was a `loner’, but a happy one. Few of those who worked with him thought that they really knew him.
A law and order man, at least when there were votes in it, he told a luncheon in 1968 that when demonstrators ran out in front of the car in which he and Prime Minister Harold Holt were travelling with President Lyndon Johnson in October 1966, he had said something like: `It’s a pity we couldn’t run over them’. A journalist reported him as saying that he wanted the car to `run over the bastards’. It was for that statement, more than any other, that he was remembered. He never corrected it because he thought it had done him no harm. His `gravel voice, pugnacious presence and lack of kid gloves were trademarks’. He always wore his Returned Services League of Australia badge.
Although he attacked the Federal Labor Party in 1972 for advocating `abortion on demand’, `homosexuality’ and `a soft approach to drug offenders and pornographers’, and for wanting `to flood the country with black people’, Askin remained a pragmatist rather than an ideologue; he pushed such issues because, persuaded by Jack Kane, he thought they might win votes. For expediency he had dropped his support for the re-introduction of capital punishment, for having Christian religion taught in schools, and for having communists barred from the public service; he had weakened his stand on the Summary Offences Act, 1970, targeted at `rabid Communists’ and `professional agitators’, after an adverse by-election result in 1973; and he had settled a power strike that year through `talk, talk, talk’, notwithstanding the pressure he was under to send in the police.
Askin’s electoral focus was on the `extreme centre’; this encompassed `80 per cent of the public’. Of the rest: the 10 per cent from `big business’, on the `extreme right’, had to vote for him; the 10 per cent of `communists and radicals on the extreme left’ would never vote for him. That the Liberals had to be a party of the `middle’ was also Carrick’s view. None the less, relations with Carrick were strained; by the 1970s Willis deputised for Askin at meetings of the party executive. Carrick was uneasy with the `burlesque’ of the Liberal and Country parties presenting themselves as different but the same and insisted that the Liberals should compete with the Country Party in three-cornered contests, albeit on a selective basis. He disapproved of Askin’s taking money from business and directing it to Liberal candidates, to election advertising of his own, and to the Democratic Labor Party to help it win Labor and Catholic votes in particular seats and to deliver them, via preferences, to the Liberal Party. Askin refused to pass on the donations to the party for fear, he said, that they might be used for Federal rather than State purposes.
Askin’s political skills included a `phenomenal memory for faces’, a feel for public opinion and a `flair for manoeuvre’. Ahead of each election, he ensured that electoral boundaries were redistributed. He abolished compulsory voting in local elections, dismissed the Labor-dominated Sydney City Council and changed the city’s electoral boundaries. Shrewdly, he refused to debate with the leader of the Opposition believing that it would put his `weights up’. He was an astute manipulator of his cabinet, too. Sometimes he led his opponents to believe he was not going to do something he actually intended to do. At other times he misled his allies. After the ballot to determine his successor, he insisted that he had voted for Willis. But Askin had long thought Willis lacked political judgment: he supported Lewis.
At the height of Askin’s popularity, candidates had to be restrained from dropping `Liberal’ from their publicity material and substituting `Askin’. But towards the end of his career, an opinion poll reported that, of all the premiers, Askin was `the most unpopular’. Elected in place of a Labor regime seen as `worm-eaten’ by `graft, corruption, nepotism and general chicanery’, the coalition was responsible for a police force widely seen as even more corrupt. According to David Hickie, while campaigning for office Askin had seen `both the potential votes and finance available to him through the SP network’. Certainly Askin, who attended assiduously to inequities in police pensions, did little to encourage the enforcement of the laws on gambling, other than to call for police reports; he rejected demands for a racing control board; and rather than bet off-course through the Totalisator Agency Board, established in 1964, he maintained an account with one of the biggest SP firms in town. He `almost entirely’ ignored the recommendations of Justice Athol Moffitt’s royal commission on allegations of organised crime in clubs.
In the week of Askin’s funeral, under the heading `Askin: Friend to Organised Crime’, the National Times published the first of a series of articles by Hickie that accused Askin of wide-ranging corruption. Hickie was to expand on his claims in a book, The Prince and the Premier (1985). One of the most serious accusations, attributed to an `impeccable’ source, was that over the last seven years of Askin’s premiership, Perce Galea, head of an illegal gambling empire, had paid him $100,000 a year in bribes. Another was that Sydney bookmakers had given Askin $55,000 on the eve of his retirement as a reward for his not doubling their turnover tax, a payment Askin described unapologetically as `a gratuity from some members of the racing fraternity’. A third focused on the claim that businessmen had been buying knight-hoods from Askin for $20,000 to $60,000 each.
According to Donald Horne, at the end of the 1965 campaign Askin had told one of his own staff that he was going to win, and to `think of the money we’ll make!’ Even before his death Askin had been accused of being corrupt. But the sources turned out to be anonymous, as they were in Hickie’s work, and defamation actions were settled out of court in Askin’s favour. In 1993 the Sun-Herald took the extraordinary step of holding an inquiry, headed by a retired coroner, Kevin Waller. To the dismay of Evan Whitton, who organised the investigation, Waller believed that `the evidence acceptable to a legal mind was miniscule’.
Throughout the Askin years, David Marr argued, a `gullible press’, with some `very honourable exceptions’, had `much to answer for’. Askin’s own view of the press was rather different. He always regarded journalists with suspicion, reducing the frequency of press conferences, and sometimes introducing controversial legislation late at night, allowing journalists little time to scrutinise it. John O’Hara recalled that, early in his premiership, Askin `tried to bully journalists’ whose writings displeased him, by cutting them off from news and by alluding to his close associations with their `bosses’. To counter hostile reporting, his staff wrote to the press under assumed names.
In 1961 Carrick asked Askin not to appear on television without the party’s permission. Brian White observed that, after Alan Green’s death in 1970, Askin `failed increasingly to get on with anyone in the press, radio or television’. Bill Peach wrote that when cornered, Askin `resorted to a mixture of evasion, insult and threat’. Attacking journalists, Askin believed, added to his popularity. After `needling programs’ on illegal casinos and on police behaviour at moratoriums, in 1973 he accused those involved with the program `This Day Tonight’ of being `extreme radicals’ operating a `subversive unit’; in September he transferred responsibility for the police from himself to Maddison.
Known since the war as Robert or Bob, Askin disliked the name Robin. Anticipating his appointment, on his own recommendation, as KCMG in 1972, he changed his name in 1971 to Robert; he was elevated to GCMG in 1975. The University of New South Wales had awarded him an honorary D.Litt. In 1966. The Antioch Orthodox Church gave him the Order of St Peter and St Paul (1972) for his services to ethnic minorities and he was appointed an Officer of the Lebanese Order of Cedars (1973). An executive member (1953-55) of the Food for Babies and Good Samaritan Fund, he was also a councillor, later a life patron, of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, New South Wales; the RSPCA was to be a major beneficiary of Lady Askin’s estate. A member of the University Club, an honorary member of the Royal Commonwealth Society (New South Wales branch) and (appointed by his government) a member (1966-77) of the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust, Askin was also chairman (1974) of the trustees of Randwick racecourse. In retirement, he joined (1976-80) the board of Thomas Nationwide Transport Ltd.
Askin died on 9 September 1981 at Darlinghurst and was cremated. Anticipating that questions might be asked about his estate, valued at $1.958 million, he had explained to his former press secretary, Geoffrey Reading, that for years he had been `the highest paid public officer in the State’, that `his lifestyle was frugal’, that he had `taken out a series of maturing endowment policies’, that `he was a very successful punter’, that he had benefited from the will of his brother, and that he was skilled in financial affairs and a most successful stock market investor. Though the Department of Taxation made no finding of criminality, it determined that a substantial part of Askin’s estate was generated through undisclosed income from sources other than shares or punting and taxed it accordingly. Lady Askin, childless, and a devoted wife who almost certainly had no idea that he conducted a number of extramarital affairs, survived him and inherited most of his estate. Her estate was valued at $3.725 million; a substantial part of it, too, was taxed. A portrait (1968) of Askin by Judy Cassab hangs in the New South Wales Parliament.
Murray Goot, 'Askin, Sir Robert William (Bob) (1907–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/askin-sir-robert-william-bob-12152/text21773, accessed 11 December 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007