Life and times of a lib­eral re­former

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

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, nonon­sense 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.”

Vic­to­rian premier Dick Hamer, left, with his pre­de­ces­sor Henry Bolte in 1971

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