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Sir Paul Meernaa Hasluck (1905–1993)

by Malcolm Allbrook

This article was published:

Paul Hasluck, by Studio Ten, n.d.

Paul Hasluck, by Studio Ten, n.d.

Fremantle History Centre, 16702

Sir Paul Meernaa Caedwalla Hasluck (1905–1993), governor-general, historian, poet, politician, and public servant, was born on 1 April 1905 at Fremantle, Western Australia, second of four surviving children of English-born parents Ethel Meernaa Hasluck and his wife Patience Eliza, née Wooler, both of whom were Salvation Army officers. Paul spent much of his childhood at Collie, where his parents ran a home for boys; there he attended a single-teacher primary school. To facilitate Paul’s further education, the Haslucks moved to Guildford, a suburb of Perth. With the aid of a scholarship he studied at Perth Modern School (1918–22), where he did well in English literature and history, and impressed his teachers with his intelligence and integrity. In January 1923 he entered a cadetship with the West Australian. A voracious reader with a particular liking for the works of Montaigne, he led an active social life, later describing himself as an ‘eager and puppyish fellow, making friends with anyone’ (Hasluck 1977, 84).

Having joined the Historical Society of Western Australia in 1926, Hasluck was appointed honorary research secretary, and he used his knowledge of shorthand to prepare transcripts of interviews with pioneers from the colonial period, creating a valuable oral historical record of the State’s early years. Concurrently, he commenced part-time journalism studies (DipJ, 1932) at the University of Western Australia (UWA). He joined the university dramatic society, and developed his skills as an actor, playwright, and poet. As drama critic for the student magazine, Pelican (1930), and then for the West Australian, he established a reputation for erudite and perceptive reports on local productions. During this time he met Alexandra Margaret Martin (Alix) Darker, a fellow student, who shared his interest in theatre, writing, and literature. They married at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Perth, on 14 April 1932, and the same evening left for an extended honeymoon in England and Europe.

On their return Hasluck joined the Australian Aborigines Amelioration Association and, using the pen-name ‘Polygon,’ which he had employed for his dramatic criticism, he wrote articles for the West Australian. He joined the staff of a royal commission, chaired by Henry Mosely, into the circumstances of Western Australia’s Aboriginal people, and travelled throughout the State interviewing pastoralists, missionaries, and Aboriginal people. With Alexandra he established Freshwater Bay Press in 1939 to publish works by local authors. The press’s first production was Into the Desert, a volume of his own poetry, but with the onset of World War II, its development was curtailed.

Having returned to part-time studies at UWA (BA, 1937), Hasluck completed a master’s thesis on Aboriginal affairs policy in Western Australia (MA, 1940); the work was published in 1942 as Black Australians. It argued that State policies of protective segregation had failed and should instead be founded on principles of legal equality and citizenship rights, with special measures to raise the living standards of Aboriginal people to those of modern Australian society. Such notions of assimilation were to be the foundation of the policies he espoused in later public life. After a year lecturing in history at UWA, he was recruited by the Department of External Affairs, having been recommended by John Curtin, then leader of the Federal Opposition, and the historian Fred Alexander, his former mentor at UWA. Curtin had known Hasluck when both were members of the Australian Journalists’ Association.

Moving with Alexandra and their baby son to Canberra in 1941, Hasluck was initially unimpressed with the public service. Unable to get on with his superiors, he complained that he was often given inconsequential work, and privately contemplated a return to Perth and to journalism. The entry of Japan into the war, however, induced him to remain and later he was assigned as officer-in-charge of postwar policy. Under H. V. Evatt he worked to formulate the powers of the Commonwealth to oversee postwar reconstruction. Attending in December 1942 a conference of the Institute of Pacific Relations at Mont Tremblant, Canada, he found it a ‘stimulating learning experience, his first exposure to international debate and the practicalities of maintaining the Anglo-American alliance’ (Bolton 2014, 116). He formed the view that Australia was well placed to influence Pacific regional development, and shared his minister’s mistrust of American postwar ambitions in the region.

While Hasluck was developing a reputation as an ‘efficient, reliable, and intelligent’ (Bolton 2014, 123) officer, his relationships with staff were often difficult, even acrimonious. In November 1944 he was commissioned to write a volume on the home front for the official war history, Australia in the War of 1939–45, under the editorship of Gavin Long. As the prospect of victory in the Pacific increased, he postponed his return to academic history and became influential as head of his department’s post-hostilities planning division. With John Burton, William Forsyth, and others, he was a member of the delegation led by Evatt and the deputy prime minister, Francis Forde, to the United Nations (UN) Conference on International Organization at San Francisco (April–June 1945). Responsible for coordinating committees and briefing representatives and observers, he was appointed with (Sir) Kenneth Bailey to the fourteen-member committee to draft the UN charter.

After attending the UN Preparatory Commission in London in late 1945, Hasluck became counsellor-in-charge of the Australian mission to the UN and acting representative on the Atomic Energy Commission; he moved in March 1946 to New York. Answerable to Evatt, who retained the ambassadorial role, he participated in the proceedings of the Security Council, of which Australia was an inaugural non-permanent member. Having been joined by his wife and two sons in May, he performed his duties with diligence and energy, and led a team which included (Sir) Arthur Tange and (Sir) Alan Watt. Described as ‘cold, meticulous, and sparing of praise,’ his colleagues saw him as developing ‘an excessive punctiliousness’ (Bolton 2014, 169, 168). 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.

Following John Burton’s appointment as permanent head of the department, Hasluck resigned in 1947 and returned to Perth to take up his official war history commission. He approached the task with a vigorous interest in the archives, and interviewed many of the central wartime participants. In March 1949 the Liberal Party of Australia endorsed him as the candidate for the new Federal seat of Curtin. His progress on the official history now had a deadline; he needed to finish as much of it as possible by the elections at the end of the year. He had the added challenge of ensuring he continued to be seen as an objective historian. Volume One of The Government and the People, 1939–41, published in 1952, was praised for fairness and accuracy, and it prepared the way for other historians to pursue research on Australia during the war.

Elected in December 1949, Hasluck took his place as a backbencher in the new government of (Sir) Robert Menzies. He was to be returned with large majorities in seven subsequent general elections, his electorate becoming the safest Liberal seat in Western Australia. In 1951 he was appointed minister for territories with responsibility for the Northern Territory, the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, Nauru, and Norfolk Island. A stickler for administrative efficiency and with firm ideas about the relative roles of the public service and the minister, he nevertheless regularly intervened in departmental matters and expected his officers to conform to his standards of professionalism. Access to his office was controlled by his secretary, Ellestan Dusting, ‘the epitome of the protective personal assistant’ (Bolton 2014, 233); she would remain with him throughout his ministerial career. Unavoidably absent from Perth for much of the time, he left Alexandra to develop her own profile as an author, and to bring up the family. Later their sons were enrolled at Canberra Grammar School and Hasluck rented a house in the suburb of Deakin, while his wife visited frequently.

In the Northern Territory, Hasluck focused on improving administrative and governance procedures, developing infrastructure, and diversifying industry, while giving cautious support to aspirations for self-government. In February 1959 cabinet agreed with his proposals for an enlarged legislature, the Commonwealth retaining control of the budget, lands administration, and Aboriginal policy, and the minister having the power to veto Legislative Council ordinances.

The Territory’s large Aboriginal 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. The Welfare Ordinance 1953 removed race-based protective legislation, ostensibly providing Aboriginal people with the legal equality to ‘attain the same manner of living … enjoying the same rights and privileges … as other Australians’ (Hasluck 1988, 93). His 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 ineffectual. Nonetheless, 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.

Hasluck assumed responsibility for Australia’s administration of Papua and New Guinea with no previous experience of the country but with powers akin to those of ‘the Premier and the whole of a state Cabinet’ (Hasluck 1976, 6). Rejecting what he believed was a colonial approach founded on ‘a misguided or mistaken idea that such was the way in which one ruled dependent peoples’ (Hasluck 1976, 14), he visited the territory frequently, later characterising his role as that of an ‘inspector-general’ (Hasluck 1976, 407). The historian Hank Nelson noted his unusual aptitude for ‘close surveillance in the field and of the files, for selecting central issues from cautious reports, for sustaining interest over a long period and for hounding and harrying his senior public servants’(Nelson 1998, 154).

Australia’s mandate from the UN required that the country should be prepared, gradually in Hasluck’s view, for self-government, and thus much of his attention was directed towards diminishing what he saw as ‘the cramping effect of remote control’ (Hasluck 1976, 9). In 1951 he inaugurated a Legislative Council made up predominantly of ex officio members. Ten years later it was enlarged, and the number of elected members increased. In October 1962 the council recommended a House of Assembly of sixty-four members, all but ten of which were to be elected; this was approved by the Commonwealth the following year.

While recognising the importance of political development, however, Hasluck’s priorities were education, health, law enforcement, and employment, underpinned by skilled and knowledgeable local officials. Alert to the risks that entrenching foreign landownership would pose to future self-government, he resisted European demands for more land, and rejected proposals for an Australian soldier-settlement scheme. He insisted that the territory should raise its own revenue; in February 1959 cabinet endorsed his proposal for a system of income tax, in the face of opposition from European landowners, nominated members of the Legislative Council, and some members of his own party. He sought to improve health care and education, and in matters of local government, believed that traditional authority should be supported. By the end of his tenure there had been a significant growth in agriculture, industry, and infrastructure, while the number of local government councils, primary schools, hospitals, aid posts, and infant welfare clinics had also increased.

Following the re-election of the Menzies government in 1963, Hasluck was appointed minister for defence; he became minister for external affairs in April 1964 after the appointment of (Sir) Garfield Barwick as chief justice of the High Court. Sharing with Menzies a conviction that China sought to establish hegemony throughout South-East Asia and that Chinese aggression posed a threat to the stability of the region, he advocated policies of forward defence to curtail communist influence. During his short tenure as minister for defence, he had committed limited military aid to Malaysia to shore up the stability of the new republic and to counter Indonesian belligerence, which Australia feared also had the potential to threaten Papua and New Guinea. He sought to build constructive relations with the government of Indonesia, a goal that became more attainable with the overthrow of President Sukarno by the anti-communist Suharto regime in October 1965. In 1966 and 1967 he visited Indonesia on four occasions.

Hasluck held that the potential threat from Vietnam was a greater danger to Australian interests than Indonesia, and that the Viet Cong insurgency in South Vietnam was serving the aims of China. While a firm supporter of the alliance with the United States of America, he thought that Australia should retain a degree of independence in external affairs and avoid simply following American policies. He also believed that the Soviet Union could act to restrain its communist rival, and in October 1964 travelled to Moscow to meet the foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, and the premier, Alexei Kosygin. Yet the Soviet Union and other European powers, notably France, were unconvinced that China was behind the growing conflict in Vietnam. Visiting the United States in November 1964, Hasluck urged American military involvement in Vietnam, and expressed Australia’s willingness to commit troops in support of its ally.

Following the reintroduction of national service in 1964, cabinet agreed to offer a battalion as part of an American commitment of ground forces. Hasluck counselled delay until there was greater clarity about the aims of American strategy, and was worried that a military commitment to Vietnam might leave Australia exposed closer to home. Nevertheless, the decision to send troops was announced in parliament on 29 April 1965. In June the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, was sent to Vietnam to join the build-up.

On 1 January 1966 Hasluck was appointed to the Privy Council, an honour normally reserved outside Britain for Commonwealth prime ministers. Following the retirement of Menzies later that month, Harold Holt was elected prime minister; Hasluck unsuccessfully contested the deputy leadership against (Sir) William McMahon. Retaining his position as minister for external affairs and steadfast in his support for government policies on Vietnam, in March he oversaw the dispatch of a task force of two battalions, and the following year another battalion. In the public eye, he became closely associated with the increasingly unpopular Australian military involvement in Vietnam.

In December 1967, after the disappearance of Holt, Hasluck was persuaded by senior Liberals, including Menzies, to contest the leadership. (Sir) John Gorton, having risen to prominence in the month before Holt’s disappearance, also contested the leadership. Refusing to canvass support, on 9 January 1968 Hasluck lost to Gorton. He retained the external affairs portfolio in the new government. Uncertainty about Gorton’s commitment to forward defence and signs of America’s desire to disengage in Vietnam, however, made his uncompromising policies on Asia seem anachronistic. Indeed, more recently elected members of the backbench were of the view that he stood for a conservatism which was being overtaken by a desire for change.

With the impending retirement of Baron Casey as governor-general, in September Gorton asked Hasluck to take on the vice-regal office, and, on 10 February 1969, he retired from parliament. On 21 February he was appointed GCMG. A brief sojourn in Perth gave him the opportunity to finish the second volume of The Government and the People (1970). Sworn in on 30 April 1969, he was appointed GCVO on 29 May 1970. In 1969 he had published Collected Verse; this was followed in 1971 by An Open Go, a collection of his essays.

The Haslucks undertook their official and unofficial functions conscientiously and with dignity; Sir Paul was meticulous in his consideration of official documents and in his observance of the ‘role of the Crown to discuss, counsel and warn’ (Hasluck 1979, 33). Although he disliked McMahon, who had replaced Gorton as prime minister in March 1971, he was able to maintain with him a working relationship that he later described as one of ‘frankness and trust’ (Hasluck 1979, 33). He also formed a good relationship with Gough Whitlam, who became prime minister in December 1972. While the new government was ‘composed of his former party enemies,’ he ‘acted with perfect constitutional impartiality’ (Cunneen 1998, 211), even though the Australian Labor Party government sought to reverse policies he had previously espoused.

Hasluck’s term was to end in April 1974, but Whitlam asked him to continue for a further two years. He refused primarily because Alexandra was opposed to the idea on account of her health problems. In addition, Rollo, their son, had died suddenly in June 1973, a bereavement which may have contributed to their unwillingness to remain. Before his departure, with Whitlam’s agreement, he had suggested some possible replacements, including (Sir) John Kerr. One of his last actions was to agree to Whitlam’s request for a double dissolution election; this was held on 18 May and resulted in a return of the government. His final official function was to open the new parliament on 9 July.

In retirement Hasluck occupied himself with writing and visiting his bush block in the Perth hills, where he became adept at building dry-stone walls. He took no further part in public life. On 24 April 1979, he was appointed KG; Alexandra had been appointed AD the previous year. He published more books: A Time for Building (1976), a memoir of his administration of Papua and New Guinea; an autobiography, Mucking About (1977); Diplomatic Witness (1980), an account of his time with the Department of External Affairs; and Shades of Darkness (1988), which covered the evolution of Aboriginal affairs policy between 1925 and 1965. Two more collections of poetry followed his earlier volumes: Dark Cottage (1984) and Crude Impieties (1991).

Hasluck’s biographer, Geoffrey Bolton, considered his subject to have been a rare intellectual in Australian political history who, ‘if he had never entered politics,’ would ‘still be remembered as a distinguished historian, poet, cultural publicist and essayist, and an important and early spokesman in favour of Aboriginal rights’ (Bolton 2014, 474). Instilled since his youth with a sense of duty and social conscience, he was motivated by a ‘belief in a common citizenship’ (Bolton 2014, 475). During his long tenure as minister for territories Hasluck succeeded in advancing political rights and improving services such as health and education for the indigenous people in the Northern Territory and Papua and New Guinea. Despite these achievements, he considered himself to have been a ‘diligent practitioner of government but an indifferent politician’ (Hasluck 1986, 3). While to his colleagues he could appear ‘brusque, demanding and aloof’ (Bolton 2014, 476), acerbic and withering in his judgements, to his family and friends he had ‘a positively mischievous sense of fun, a mind immeasurably well stocked from reading and reflection, with immense discretion, loyalty and tact, and an Orwellian sense of “decency”’ (Ryan 2014, 91–92).

Following the celebration of their golden wedding anniversary, Alexandra became more frail and eventually went permanently into hospital care; Hasluck visited her daily. He suffered increasingly from the effects of prostate cancer. Survived by his wife and one son, Nicholas, he died on 9 January 1993 at Subiaco and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. Many dignitaries, including current and former governors-general and prime ministers, attended his state funeral in St George’s Cathedral, Perth. Alexandra died on 18 June the same year. A Western Australian Federal electorate was named in their honour in 2001.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Bolton, Geoffrey. ‘Oral Historian.’ In Paul Hasluck in Australian History: Civic Personality and Public Life, edited by C. T. Stannage, K. E. B. Saunders, and Richard Nile, 37–45. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1998
  • Bolton, Geoffrey. Paul Hasluck: A Life. Perth: UWA Publishing, 2014
  • Cunneen, Chris. ‘A Question of Colour.’ In Paul Hasluck in Australian History: Civic Personality and Public Life, edited by C. T. Stannage, K. E. B. Saunders, and Richard Nile, 208–16. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1998
  • Harris, Max. ‘Man For All Seasons at the Head of the Good Ship Australia.’ Weekend Australian, 10 September 1989, 2
  • Hasluck, Paul. The Chance of Politics. Edited by Nicholas Hasluck. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 1997
  • Hasluck, Paul. Diplomatic Witness: Australian Foreign Affairs, 1941–1947. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1980
  • Hasluck, Paul. Mucking About: An Autobiography. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1977
  • Hasluck, Paul. The Office of Governor-General. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1979
  • Hasluck, Paul. Shades of Darkness: Aboriginal Affairs, 1925–1965. Carlton, Vic: Melbourne University Press, 1988
  • Hasluck, Paul. The Social Scientist in a Democracy. Annual Lecture 1986. Canberra: Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, 1986
  • Hasluck, Paul. A Time for Building: Australian Administration in Papua and New Guinea, 1951–1963. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1976
  • Macintyre, Stuart. ‘The “Civic Personality” and the Public Intellectual.’ In Paul Hasluck in Australian History: Civic Personality and Public Life, edited by C. T. Stannage, K. E. B. Saunders, and Richard Nile, 60–66. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1998
  • National Library of Australia. MS 5274, Papers of Sir Paul Hasluck, 1925–1989
  • Nelson, Hank. ‘Papua and New Guinea.’ In Paul Hasluck in Australian History: Civic Personality and Public Life, edited by C. T. Stannage, K. E. B. Saunders, and Richard Nile, 152–69. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1998
  • Ryan, Peter. Brief Lives. Potts Point, NSW: Duffy & Snellgrove, 2004
  • State Records Office of Western Australia. SROWA 1184/1-3: transcripts of Paul Hasluck’s interviews with pioneers, 1926–32

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Allbrook, 'Hasluck, Sir Paul Meernaa (1905–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Paul Hasluck, by Studio Ten, n.d.

Paul Hasluck, by Studio Ten, n.d.

Fremantle History Centre, 16702