The Godfather: Peter Corris on meeting prime ministers
I’ve met three prime ministers: one serving and two ex. I nearly met another one and I’ve also met a couldabeen – probably a shouldabeen.
The first was Gough Whitlam when he launched a 1978 edition of Frank Hardy’s The Unlucky Australians to which he had contributed the Introduction. Whitlam gave his customary eloquent and effective speech, possibly going on a little too long, and I had a chance to talk with him later. I mentioned that I’d done work with the Melanesian descendants of the islanders who had been brought to Australia as indentured labourers in the second half of the 19th century and early years of the 20th, describing them also as unlucky Australians. These people had been denied even the meagre benefits available for Indigenous Australians. Whitlam showed interest and said he’d send me some information he had on the subject. It never arrived but I suppose he had many calls on his time.
Rolling Stone commissioned Linda Jaivin, Reg Mombassa and me to interview Paul Keating during his campaign for the 1993 election. We met at a coffee bar in, I think, Chatswood. I was surprised at how young and fresh he looked. If he had minders they kept out of sight. I forget what questions we asked but Keating was affable, if cautious. He came across as conservative on social issues – drugs and sex – but was otherwise progressive. The magazine published a photograph we had urged him to pose for wearing Ray-Bans à la the Blues Brothers. I like to think the image helped him to win the election.
I met Bob Hawke a few years ago at the Clunes Booktown Festival in Central Victoria. Someone introduced us at lunch. He’d obviously never heard of me but was chatty and friendly. I told him that we’d had a mutual acquaintance – the late Professor Jim Davidson at the ANU. Jim had told me some stories about Hawke when he had been a PhD student. The famous eyebrows shot up.
‘Would the stories be true?’ I asked.
‘Only the good ones,’ Bob said.
Jim had said that Hawke had announced his ambition to be prime minister even then. Other stories concerned his gambling. Bob tucked into a steak and drank a leisurely glass of red. I was glad to see a once notoriously heavy drinker apparently able to handle the grog.
I almost met Malcolm Fraser at the Byron Bay Writers Festival. A golf match had been arranged and I’d been selected to partner Fraser. I was nervous. You don’t want to duck hook your first tee shot in front of your famous partner (as Greg Norman said he did when he first played with Jack Nicklaus), especially if he was a good player, as I suspected Fraser was. He was known to be good at tennis and the two often go hand in hand. To my relief he had to cancel to fulfil another commitment.
Bill Hayden launched a book dealing with politics (I forget which) at some point in the 1990s. He was standing as a somewhat lonely-looking figure apart from the throng. An admirer of him as the architect of our health system and a fellow atheist, I took the opportunity to say hello. He gave me a smile as he looked up from thumbing through the book’s substantial index.
‘Just checking to see how many mentions I get,’ he said. ‘Doesn’t everyone?’
I agreed that they did. His manner was easy, companiable, reminding me of a favourite uncle. Famously, he said that a drover’s dog could have won the 1983 election. Bill Hayden certainly could have.