Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ball, William Macmahon (1901–1986)

by Peter Ryan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

William Macmahon Ball (1901-1986), professor of political science, diplomat, author, journalist and radio broadcaster, was born on 29 August 1901 at Casterton, Victoria, fifth and youngest surviving child of John Aubrey Ball, a London-born minister of the Church of England, and his wife Edith Laura, née McMahon, who had been born in Victoria. The family moved to Melbourne when the boy was 9. An indifferent scholar, he left Caulfield Grammar School seven years later, without matriculating. He became a student-teacher at New College, Box Hill, and qualified for entry to the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1923).

Until then Ball had remained strong in the Christian faith of his upbringing, and contemplated entering the ministry. Discussion with the head of one of the university’s colleges revealed the depth of his underlying doubt and he was thenceforth an undogmatic rationalist. His academic results remained poor until he came under the influence of Mary Flinn, a tutor whose talents unlocked his latent brilliance. Graduating with first-class honours and several prizes, he was appointed research scholar in psychology. He taught a subject titled `Psychology, Logic and Ethics’. On 24 May 1924 at the Congregational manse, Eagle Junction, Brisbane, he married Iris Shield, a journalist; she died childless in 1926. At St Paul’s Church of England, Gisborne, Victoria, on 20 December 1928 he married Muriel Katrine (`Kay’) Sandys Cliffe Anderson, a clerk.

In 1929 Ball won a Rockefeller travelling fellowship in political science, enabling him to study under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics and Political Science. On visits to Europe he observed the ferment that, following World War I, formed the seed-bed of fascism. In 1932 he returned to the University of Melbourne as lecturer (later senior lecturer) in political philosophy and modern political institutions. His classes were well attended, and he became a popular figure among the students, as he addressed their meetings and advised them. A left-leaning liberal, he raised eyebrows when he awarded an important academic prize to the prominent right-wing student B. A. Santamaria.

Ball’s stature increased steadily throughout the troubled and emotional decade that led up to World War II: abroad were the Spanish Civil War, the regimes of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, and Japan’s rampage in China; at home, the Depression, the dismissal of Premier Jack Lang, and the New Guard. In such unquiet and strident times, Ball’s voice was one of calm and reason. He was active in the adult education movement as a university extension lecturer, and he taught, in one capacity or another, an astonishing number of future Australian leaders. In this period, too, he began giving talks for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, a medium in which he shone. He also wrote articles on international affairs for the Melbourne Herald.

Working for disarmament and the peaceful settlement of international differences, Ball published his views in Possible Peace (1936). At first he supported the World Peace Congress but later denounced it as a communist front, and repented what he called his `naïvety and folly’ over disarmament. Yet he remained courageous and outspoken in defence of Australian democratic freedoms. In May 1938 he departed on another visit abroad. After witnessing the German occupation of the Sudetenland, he was given a conducted tour of the notorious Sachsenhausen concentration camp—a horror which never left his memory. He returned via the United States of America where, with a Carnegie scholarship, he visited the political science departments of leading universities, arriving home in March 1939.

Invited by Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies, in February 1940 Ball was appointed controller of broadcasting in the Department of Information. In June he became responsible solely for short-wave broadcasting. As well as heading a team that monitored overseas transmissions, he took charge of the nation’s information and propaganda services directed to friendly, neutral and enemy countries in the region. Under Ball, the material disseminated abroad avoided blatant disinformation and crude hate, and thus gained credibility. His section was transferred to the ABC in July 1942. He resigned in protest when Arthur Calwell [q.v.13] moved it back to the department in April 1944. Ball remained with the ABC and added to his public laurels by chairing the popular radio debates, `Nation’s Forum of the Air’.

In 1945 `Mac’ Ball returned to his university as senior lecturer-in-charge of the department of political science. He wrote an introduction to a book of speeches by Bert Evatt, Foreign Policy of Australia (1945). That year he was part of Evatt’s entourage at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco, USA. Ball did not like his leader, nor approve his methods, and the two men jarred on each other. Nevertheless, Evatt sent him in November as special observer to report on the conflict in the Netherlands East Indies, where the Indonesians were throwing off colonial rule. His dispatches were undoubtedly penetrating and accurate, but not what Evatt wanted to read.

Ball’s next assignment from Evatt was a surprise, and the matter may have been settled by Prime Minister Ben Chifley. Appointed British Commonwealth member of the Allied Council for Japan, and Australian minister to that country, Ball assumed office on 3 April 1946. His place on the council was a singular recognition of Australia’s fighting role in World War II, and an acknowledgment of his personal qualities and standing. But it was not a happy time for him. General Douglas MacArthur, the dictatorial supreme commander for the Allied Powers, submitted little of importance for the consideration of the council; the British undermined their Commonwealth representative; and Evatt, as usual, was inconsistent and devious. Ball resigned in August 1947 and returned to Melbourne. Yet he agreed to carry out another job for Evatt in 1948, leading a mission of good will to South-East Asia. Newspapers reported an innocuous remark he made en route suggesting the possible future relaxation of the rigid White Australia policy. Ball was attacked in the Australian parliament and Evatt threw his man to the wolves.

For a short while Ball worked as a special foreign affairs writer on the Melbourne Herald where his elegant articles, largely on relations with South-East Asia, enhanced that newspaper’s best traditions. But he liked the proprietor, Sir Keith Murdoch, little better than he had liked Evatt, and was glad to learn of his own impending appointment to the foundation chair of political science at the University of Melbourne. In 1949 he settled with contentment into the job which he was to retain until his retirement in January 1968. To be a teacher was his métier; in class or tutorial, in print or on radio, and in the `cheerful flow of unguarded conversation’ at the `pub’, he was a quiet teacher all his life.

Active in the general life of the university, Ball led the academic staff association. As chairman of the board of studies in journalism, he successfully resisted its elevation to degree status, maintaining that, while journalists should be as well educated as possible, theirs was essentially a craft to be learned on the job, and at risk of being degraded if it became `academic’. On the board of management of Melbourne University Press he was usually influential. As chairman in 1961, against opposition, he persuaded the board and the university’s council to make important changes in the press’s management which were to endure for twenty-six years.

Ball was tall, straight-backed into oldest age, with handsome, strong features topped by a thick mane of silver hair. Although he well knew that he cut an imposing figure on campus, he was easy-going and readily approachable. (After a `spat’ on the professorial board, a defeated party was heard to grumble: `the bloody trouble with Mac is that he looks like a Roman senator’.)

As well as innumerable articles, book reviews and radio broadcasts, his publications included the volumes Japan: Enemy or Ally? (1948); Nationalism and Communism in East Asia (1952); and an edited collection of documents and readings, Australia and Japan (1969). Alan Rix was to edit the diaries Ball kept in Indonesia and Japan as Intermittent Diplomat (1988). On Ball’s retirement from the university, Sir Frederick Wheeler, chairman of the Public Service Board, invited him to give, over several years, a series of seminars for senior public servants in Canberra. He was appointed AC in 1978.

The Balls lived in a several-times-extended timber house in semi-rural Eltham, north of Melbourne. Here Kay’s practical abilities and hard work maintained the `bush and garden’ small estate which provided fresh produce for the table and space for Mac to keep his horse. His relaxations included riding in the surrounding hills with younger friends, and assiduous (if modest) punting on the Victorian races. Aided by Kay’s splendid table, Eltham saw much quiet but significant entertainment of leading figures in Australian and overseas affairs. Ball died on 26 December 1986 at Heidelberg and was buried in Eltham cemetery. His wife and their daughter survived him; their son predeceased him. Mac Ball’s passing depleted the ranks of distinguished Australians who lived by the standards of `gentlemen’, and who combined high learning and genuine cultivation with a relaxed and authentic attachment to the ordinary citizens of their country.

Select Bibliography

  • K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC (1983)
  • J. Hilvert, Blue Pencil Warriors (1984)
  • P. Ryan, William Macmahon Ball: A Memoir (1990)
  • H. de Berg, interview with W. M. Ball (typescript, 1971, National Library of Australia)
  • Ball papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Ryan, 'Ball, William Macmahon (1901–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ball-william-macmahon-12166/text21801, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 13 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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