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A Talk with Barry Jones

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast. I’d be your host, Matt Smith, and I’m here today with the honourable Barry Jones. He’s a former Minister for Science during the Hawke government, former National President of the ALP. Thank you for joining me today.

Barry Jones:

Good.

Matt Smith:

I wanted to talk a bit about your experiences in politics if I could, and I just wanted to know what is it that influenced you to join politics?

Barry Jones:

I see myself essentially as being a creature of my time; that’s not exactly an original remark. But I’m just old enough to remember World War II. I’m just old enough to remember the impact of The Great Depression in Australia. And there was a period immediately after World War II of tremendous optimism. It didn’t last very long.

But a period of tremendous optimism to say, look, if we really apply what we’ve learned during the war and what we’ve learned about cooperation, learned that democracy is a powerful driving force, and a properly-organized democratic coalition can transform the world, then it was a time when people were saying, well, we can imagine so many of the things that we regard as of harmed in the modern world could be eliminated.

So there was that brief period of optimism and that coincide a lot, I think, with my formative years, the early teenage years. And I think at that time I had a very strong sense that if I could, I really wanted to play a role in trying to improve Australia, and through Australia, trying to improve the world. And at that point, the Labor Party which I thought ideologically linked although my family certainly didn’t, seem to be doing worthwhile things.

They were really—for the first time, they were becoming involved in reshaping the world through the United Nations as they thought. It didn’t exactly work out as they hoped but it worked out pretty well. But you had the creation of the Australian National University, which was a symbol of what they’re trying to do with the Commonwealth involved in tertiary education.

And they’re also very enthusiastic in their support for the liberation as they thought of Indonesia, of the creation of an independent State of Indonesia and, of course, making of India, the creation of an independent state of India and, of course, an independent state of Pakistan. So it was that brave period. It didn’t last very long when there was a lot of optimism.

And then after 1948 to‘49, you had the beginning of the cold war, and you had that very deep sense of pessimism that the western countries had to unite around what were essentially quite now economic goals. And if they didn’t, well, then the Great Russian Bear would dominate the world.

Matt Smith:

When you were given the science profile there was in the Hawke government, is that something that you chose for yourself or were you assigned that?

Barry Jones:

Because I’d written a lot about the role of science and what the implications of science were going to be for the labour force, for the transformation of labour, I could see that in a way the science portfolio was a job description I’ve written for myself.

But in fact just before we were elected in 1983, I’d also been the Shadow Minister for the Environment. And I had both portfolios and I’d played, oh I think, quite a useful role in trying to negotiate an outcome of the problem about the move to dam the wild rivers in Tasmania. It was a very controversial issue at that time.

The result was that because I was thought to have done reasonably well there, when we’re elected I thought there was a prospect that Bob Hawke might have offered me a choice, either environment or science, and I’ve often tossed up what I might have done in my autobiography. I said I think that if he’d given me the good choice, I might well have gone for the environment. But in fact he didn’t. He just said Science and Technology. Bang! That’s it. And then about three minutes that was all done and dusted.

The problem was if you raised a lot of issues about science, if you said biotechnology is going to become one of the great transforming technologies of the future, very often the reaction from colleagues was to say, well, well, fancy that or goodness or well, how about that.

It wasn’t as if you like going to get into a fight with anyone, however, and it wasn’t as if anyone was going to say well, we better do something by next Thursday or else we’re in trouble. People just said oh, election trashing, and then they’ll look at their watches and their stuff and did something else.

Matt Smith:

You were talking of biotechnology in 1979 and climate change in 1985. So these were coming to you. This was something that you wanted to work on well before anybody in power probably even thought to bring it up but not as its common occurrence especially climate change.

Barry Jones:

Yes, exactly. It was very difficult to get support from colleagues because when labor was elected 1983, something pretty dramatic happened. And the dramatic change that happened was that the labor party in a way abandoned a lot of the traditional support for protection, for example, for tariffs, and moved away to proclaiming the need for a more market-driven economy. And then Australia overly plugged into that international economy.

And there’s a certain irony that Malcolm Fraser was less sympathetic to the market-driven economy than Bob Hawke was because he was concerned that if you had a sudden withdrawal of protection, sudden withdrawal of support, this might lead to a collapse of employment in certain areas and lead to real destitution in some areas of the community.

And I often thought that part of the problem was that the one big idea in capital letters, that is the one big idea that we have when we were elected, was that we needed to get away from protection and towards a more open economy. And that you needed to get away from the idea that you could make a special pleading for a particular industry.

And part of my difficulty was, and I could say this is where my timing was atrocious, if I then went to my colleagues in the government and said, well look, we really need a bit of support, a bit of protection, a bit of feeling for the biotechnology industry and the microelectronics industry, they’d roll their eyes and say, oh god, that’s exactly what the shirt manufacturers are saying. That’s exactly what the shoe manufacturers.

They said that’s got to be treated the same way. And I had to say, well, these new industries like biotechnology and microelectronics, they have special needs. And again my colleagues will say, well, that’s what the shirt manufacturers say. There’s no difference. And if we do it for biotechnology, then we’ve got to do it for shirts. And in fact, there are more people employed making shirts than they’re employed in biotechnology. So in a way I could see that the argument that I was trying to put, no matter how passionate we are trying to put it, was really a bit too early.

Matt Smith:

You mentioned your book before, Sleepers, Wake! I understand that Bill Gates came to you early on and he’d read it. What was that like? Wouldn’t have really a name for himself back then, would he? He was just sort of starting out.

Barry Jones:

He was just starting out and he wanted to see some of my ministerial minister colleagues including Paul Keating, and they were sort of too busy. But I was always open to meetings. Bill Gates came in and we developed some sort of rapport. And it did seem that he’d actually read the book. Even stranger was that the book was translated into Chinese and a number of other languages. I had a visit from one of Deng Xiaoping’s daughters.

She said, oh, I’ve been here to see you because my father has read your book and was deeply impressed by it and it’s helped him influenced what we’re doing. And I don’t want to get this out of proportion. And I thought well, that’s very kind of him to say so and no doubt she has been given a script. Well, I can’t really quite believe that her distinguished father has read the book.

But a couple of years later, a second daughter of Deng Xiaoping came to see me and said, you know, what an important book and how grateful he was that I’d read it and how valuable a Chinese translation was. At that stage I decided to believe her, that in fact it wasn’t a coincidence. They were just reading from the same script.

Matt Smith:

Did you ever get disenchanted about politics in Australia because it’s changed quite a lot since you first started since Malcolm Fraser’s time and Hawke’s time? At what point did you think that maybe it wasn’t the same game that you first started out in?

Barry Jones:

The point was it never was. I mean, I tended to be optimistic and idealist on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and to be sort of bitter, twisted, and pessimistic on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturday. And then on the seventh day, I rest.

Matt Smith:

I should be happy I’m seeing you on a Monday then, should I?

Barry Jones:

Well, what I was concerned about was that, okay, I might be a very disillusioned on what I was doing but I also, if it’s a question of looking at what the alternatives were, in the early period of my political career, we think things are pretty tough in the New South Wales Labor Party, but let me tell you, in Victoria, in the early 50s when I was first in the party, they really played politics as a blood sport. And it was hard to be idealistic in that period because you’re really fighting people who are simply control freaks. And their preoccupation seems to be obsessively short term. And I was part of a small but perfectly-formed group of people who were trying to work to reform within the party. And we have this very painful process of trying to reform the party; make it more open, make it more democratic. And in fact, make it more electable.

But there was a time when the very hard left took the view that trying to win elections showed the kind of despicable character weakness. That in fact if you try and win elections, it just meant that you are compromised and then selling out and betraying the worker’s trust. And we took the other view to say, you know, that’s the course of the course of the workers by getting donged on the head all the time every time there is an election. You just go further and further and further and further away from actually implementing change.

What kind of world are you really looking for? What are the values that you’re looking for? I think the real tragedy that’s happened in politics in Australia in the recent decade, particularly since the 1980s, and that’s party of byproduct and what happened under the Hawke era, was that we moved away from ideology to managerialism.

Elections in Australia are really essentially a contest between two different management teams. It’s like saying the next election will be a contest for supremacy between Price Waterhouse Cooper and KPMG, two teams essentially offering the same. But you say, well, which of the two teams do you prefer? And it’s a bit by having a contest frankly between Collingwood and Carlton.

I mean it is supremely ironic that on a lot of issues, say an issue like refugees, I would find myself having more in common with the dreaded Malcolm Fraser than I would with some ministers, not all, some ministers in the Rudd government. In some issues, I can say that Malcolm Fraser is taking a radical, progressive, humane line, and I’m attracted to that.

Matt Smith:

What do you see as being your best achievement in politics?

Barry Jones:

I did get a profound sense of satisfaction out of my role with the evolution of the death penalty. If I had to pick out a single achievement, I think that would be it. Because the whole death penalty debate was a kind of metaphor about value systems and about coping with the problem of violence; whether you applied violence as a kind of antidote to violence.

Matt Smith:

Okay, Professor Barry Jones, thank you for your time today.

Barry Jones:

Thank you.