In an occasional self-deprecatory moment the late Sir John Kerr liked to tell the story of his visit to London in 1945. The future Governor-General was then merely Major Kerr in the Army’s Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs. His mission in London was to smooth over tensions that had developed between this Directorate of Research and the British authorities responsible for the post-War government of British Borneo. The Directorate was an elusive group of boffins, academics, poets and intellectuals recruited by Alf Conlon and protected by the Commander-in-Chief General Blamey whom it would advise on civil policy. Kerr was Conlon’s right-hand man. The British found Conlon hard to get on with. At a cocktail party in London Kerr fell into conversation with an obviously very cluey British officer whose name Kerr had missed. He explained to the Englishman that he was a sort of backroom boy whose duties should not be scrutinised too closely. But the officer, dissatisfied with such waffle, probed him politely but mercilessly. After the most uncomfortable fifteen minutes of his life to date Kerr broke away and inquired who on earth the man was. He turned out to be the brilliant novelist Nigel Balchin, himself a former backroom boy (and brigadier) who had written The Small Back Room. It is no wonder that Alf Conlon’s extraordinary life mystified observers. It is the theme of the most thorough book on him – The Backroom Boys (Big Sky Publishing) by Colonel Graeme Sligo. Published a couple of years back, it was my recent Christmas reading. I had long wondered why no full biography of Conlon had been written. But this had proved impossible since all his papers were, as Sligo puts it, ‘destroyed’. Sligo did the next best thing – and wrote this full account of his amazing public career. A student senator at Sydney University when the Second World War broke out, he became the University’s Manpower Officer advising the authorities on which students should, in the national interest, be exempt from military call-up. He soon persuaded the desperate Curtin government to set up a learned if preposterous and short-lived committee to advise it on sagging public morale. Under Conlon’s leadership it transmuted itself into the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs advising General Blamey. Now, under such grand patronage, the Conlon legend flourished. He influenced decisions about the future of New Guinea and the South Pacific and the expanding role of the Commonwealth in education from the creation of the Commonwealth Office of Education to the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA). His disciples regarded him as a magician or genius. The poet Jim McAuley and the legal scholar Julius Stone dedicated books to him. Others dismissed him as a conman, charlatan, even madman. In time, even some of his warmest followers grew disillusioned. Kerr was ‘scarred’ to find himself a victim of Conlon’s devious doctrine of ‘therapeutic lying’ according to which it is right to trick people into doing things they do not want to do but are in their best interests. In Kerr’s case this meant tricking him into taking over as principal of ASOPA. But Conlon was a hopeless administrator. A disillusioned McAuley, now an ASOPA lecturer, led a staff revolt and compelled Conlon to resign. (As it turned out Conlon’s Directorate achieved its most enduring fame not as the seed-bed of post-War policies but as the backroom where Captain McAuley and Corporal Stewart knocked off one of the greatest hoaxes in literary history, the works of Ern Malley.) After the War he somehow – the facts are debated – completed a degree in medicine and practised psychiatry. His great gift for friendship still dazzled the susceptible but ‘the great days’ were over. He died aged 52 in 1961. Sligo will not settle the issues but his massively researched and always fair study will consolidate whatever view you take of Colonel Conlon and his extraordinary boffins. Before Conlon’s demobilisation General Blamey advised him to seek work in the private sector. ‘Service for the public,’ the Commander-in-Chief said, ‘will break your heart.’
As the late Paddy McGuinness used to point out, there is not a scintilla of hard evidence to support the dogma, dear to the hearts of journalists, that Bob Askin, the former Premier of NSW, was a crook – ‘not one single concrete proven example’ of corruption has ever been produced. Askin was indeed a rough diamond who preferred poker to poetry. But this does not make him a crook. Yet the truly corrupt legend persists and deepens. In truth he was a reforming Premier. He led the Liberal Party out of Sydney’s North Shore and laid the basis for the later sweeping election victories of Barry O’Farrell and Bruce Baird. He created the permanent Law Reform Commission and passed early legislation on consumer protection and pollution controls. He set up the first Cultural Grants Advisory Committee – a model later adopted by the Commonwealth’s Australia Council for the Arts. In his memoir as Askin’s press secretary Geoff Reading summed up my own view: ‘If Askin was corrupt, he deserves universal obloquy; if he was not, no public figure in Australia’s history has been more deeply wronged.’ Yet there is no end to his defamation. I read the other day a po-faced reference to him as a bank robber. No doubt we will soon hear that he was a killer, probably a serial murderer.
Talking about literary prizes a friend of mine who is a mathematician recently remarked that he will take them more seriously when a prize is awarded for a brilliant new book on mathematics!
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