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Hasluck, Sir Paul Meernaa (1905–1993)

Sir Paul Meernaa Caedwalla Hasluck, who died in Perth yesterday at the age of 87, was one of the most versatile Australians of his generation to grace public life.

"Journalist, author, historian, academic, civil servant, diplomatist, member of the Parliament, minister of the Crown, viceroy ... there has not been a pro-consul of more diverse attainments since Cicero.'' That was the catalogue of his accomplishments when a political adversary, the Prime Minister, Mr Gough Whitlam, paid tribute to him in Canberra on his retirement as Governor-General in July 1974.

One more attainment, and Sir Paul might have changed the course of Australian political history.

Had he been able to convince a handful of his Liberal Party colleagues of his ability to project his personality to the electorate he would have been prime minister.

And had that occurred – on the admission of Mr Whitlam himself – the Labor Party might not have been able to defeat him.

Paul Hasluck's lack of the common touch and his inability to conceal a self-righteous streak in his make-up undoubtedly cost him the deputy leadership of the Liberal Party when Sir Robert Menzies retired in 1966.

He lost narrowly to Mr (later Sir) William McMahon, the man who on the death of Mr Harold Holt two years later was "blackballed'' by the Country Party as prime minister.

A victory for Mr Hasluck would have given him the deputy leadership, and a power base for the leadership on Mr Holt's death.

That could well have been sufficient to bring about a different result when he met Senator John Gorton in the final ballot for the leadership. John Gorton won, and the removal of a potential rival was an obvious political exercise.

When Sir Paul was named as Governor-General, The New York Times described him as "an intellectual politician plagued by a reputation for pomposity''.

Sir Paul did not see himself that way. He seemed to feel he was misunderstood.

"The family circle know me as a funny man,'' he told an interviewer.

"Just because I don't giggle or dig people in the ribs all the time, outsiders say I haven't a sense of humor.'' Even though the public gaze did not reveal the same Paul Hasluck as did his shaving mirror, those who had occasion to meet him privately knew him as a gracious host, a considerate guest and an entertaining conversationalist.

In the far-off days when he was a public servant, he used to list his recreations in Who's Who as "theatre, riding, old colonists' stories and printing''.

Entries after he became a parliamentarian mentioned no recreations – perhaps heightening the unfortunate impression that he was a man who did not permit himself such frivolities.

Sir Paul long had an interest in the problems of the Aborigines.

Aboriginal welfare was the subject of his master of arts thesis, and when the book developed from it, Black Australians, was republished in 1970 he felt able to make a claim "without mock modesty''.

He said that because of the opportunities of political office he had perhaps been able to do more than any other individual to restore the status of the Aborigines.

Sir Paul Hasluck was a self-made man.

Born into a Salvation Army family in Fremantle, Western Australia, he won a scholarship to the Perth Modern School.

In 1922, at 17, he went from school to the West Australian newspaper, and by the time he was 26 – in an era when youth had no special virtue – was an A-grade journalist.

Old-timers recall that when he was a subeditor every story he handled read as though Paul Hasluck had written it.

He simultaneously undertook a part-time university career, majoring in history and English. In 1939-40, he lectured part-time in history at the University of Western Australia.

In 1941, at the urging of John Curtin, he joined the Department of External Affairs.

By 1946 he was counsellor-in-charge of the Australian mission to the United Nations in New York.

His relationship with his minister, Dr H.V. Evatt, was not happy, and he resigned from the department in 1947, charging that the minister wanted to make the department his personal possession.

Two decades later, without naming Dr Evatt, he delivered the Sir Robert Garran oration: "I once saw a good department brought to confusion and near ruin by a minister who tried to make it his own private possession to serve his own interests and who tried to subordinate all public servants to his own directions.'' He returned from New York to the University of WA as a reader in history and was contracted to write two volumes of the official war history. One of them was destined not to be completed until 1970.

In 1949, he stood for the safe Liberal seat of Curtin, and within 15 months of being elected became Minister for Territories, a portfolio he held until 1963.

After a brief four months as Minister for Defence he became Minister for External Affairs in 1964.

When he was being discussed as a possible prime minister, he declared he would "use all the brains available'', saying: "If you've got a horse, you don't pull the plough yourself.'' Yet, as a minister, he developed a relationship with the Public Service that was peculiarly analogous to that for which he criticised Dr Evatt.

His intrusion into detail was such that public servants privately criticised him for wanting to be not merely minister but also departmental secretary, section head and junior clerk.

In 1932, Paul Hasluck married Alexandra Darker, a teacher who shared his interests in history and writing.

Lady Hasluck is well known as a historian and author. They had two sons, Rollo and Nick. Rollo, the elder, died suddenly in Singapore in 1973.

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 11 January 1993

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Hasluck, Sir Paul Meernaa (1905–1993)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hasluck-sir-paul-meernaa-18555/text30210, accessed 25 November 2017.

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