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Inside the Canberra Press Gallery

Inside the Canberra Press Gallery: Life in the Wedding Cake of Old Parliament House

Rob Chalmers
Sam Vincent
John Wanna
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: ANU Press
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  • Book Info
    Inside the Canberra Press Gallery
    Book Description:

    Before television, radio, and later the internet came to dominate the coverage of Australian politics, the Canberra Press Gallery existed in a world far removed from today's 24-hour news cycle, spin doctors and carefully scripted sound bites. This historical memoir of a career reporting from The Wedding Cake of Old Parliament House offers a rare insider's perspective on both how the gallery once operated and its place in the Australian body politic. Using some of the biggest political developments of the past fifty years as a backdrop, Inside the Canberra Press Gallery - Life in the Wedding Cake of Old Parliament House sheds light on the inner workings of an institution critical to the health of our parliamentary democracy. Rob Chalmers (1929-2011) entered the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1951 as a twenty-one-year-old reporter for the now-defunct Sydney Daily Mirror and would retire from political commentary 60 years later - an unprecedented career span in Australian political history. No parliamentary figure - politician, bureaucrat or journalist − can match Chalmers' experience, from his first Question Time on 7 March 1951 until, desperately ill, he reluctantly retired from editing the iconic newsletter Inside Canberra sixty years, four months and eighteen days later. As well as being considered a shrewd political analyst, Chalmers was a much-loved member of the gallery and a past president of the National Press Club. Rob Chalmers used to boast that he had outlasted 11 prime ministers; and a 12th, Julia Gillard described him as 'one of the greats' of Australian political journalism upon his passing. Rob Chalmers is survived by his wife Gloria and two children from a previous marriage, Susan and Rob jnr.

    eISBN: 978-1-921862-37-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    John Faulkner

    If the Canberra Press Gallery is an institution, Rob Chalmers was an institution of that institution. His career spanned 60 years and 12 prime ministers, 24 federal elections and five changes of government. There is not a member of Parliament today who can remember a Press Gallery before Rob Chalmers joined it in early 1951, moving up from Sydney as a young journalist. As a result, his insight was as unique as his experience. At a time when politicians and political correspondents alike have become simply talking heads on televisions for most Australians, scrutinised and judged on the same terms...

  5. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Rob Chalmers
  6. 1. Youth
    (pp. 1-8)

    I was born in Concord West in Sydney’s western suburbs on Bastille Day, 14 July 1929, and duly christened Robin Donald Chalmers at Chalmers Presbyterian Church in Chalmers Street, Sydney. My mother, Janet (nee Smith), was a country girl from Grenfell, NSW. Her father was Isaac (Ike) Smith, a friend of Billy Hughes in the early days of the Australian Workers’ Union when they both organised for the union, riding bikes around New South Wales for the cause. My father, Robin (Bobby), was born in Wellington, New Zealand, and his father, John (‘old Jack’ to the family), was born in...

  7. 2. A Journo in Sydney
    (pp. 9-16)

    My father decided that I should do something serious about a career in journalism and, with a family contact, Roger Davis, a senior journalist on The Daily Telegraph, he contacted Mark Gallard, the then Editor-in-Chief of Truth and Sportsman, publishers of the Daily Mirror. I managed to get a job as an office boy at the Sydney headquarters in Hosking Place in the city. I was often instructed to take several bottles of champagne to the fashionable restaurant Romano’s, for the Mirror’s proprietor, Ezra Norton, and his luncheon guests. Cigarettes were in short supply after the war and one had...

  8. 3. Inside the Canberra Press Gallery
    (pp. 17-34)

    Soon after Christmas 1950, the chief of staff told me I would be going to Canberra for the upcoming session of Parliament. I was excited and anticipated seeing household names such as Menzies, Chifley, Evatt, Fadden and Calwell in action on the floor of Parliament. To serve in the press gallery in Canberra was one of my ambitions, but I feared I was far too junior to be selected for such a job. My father congratulated me. I was twenty-one and still in my cadetship. With another young journalist, Tony Ferguson, who was later to have an illustrious career with...

  9. 4. Menzies: The giant of Australian politics
    (pp. 35-52)

    Menzies’ presence matched his political dominance: an imposing figure, he was tall, well proportioned, although with an ample girth, with a good head of greying hair, offset by jet-black, bushy eyebrows. And in 1951 he was a mere fifty-seven years of age. He was a born orator with a compelling, but never hectoring, style of delivery. The blue-rinse ladies of Sydney’s North Shore and Melbourne’s Toorak ‘liked Mr Menzies because he spoke so nicely’. Menzies was the dominant figure in Australian politics in the twentieth century. He was Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, serving from April 1939 until August 1941 and...

  10. 5. Ming’s Men
    (pp. 53-70)

    A feature of the return to power of Menzies in 1949 was the number of returned servicemen who came into the Parliament at that election on the Government side. Before 1949 there were quite a number of MPs who had served in both the Boer War and World War I. Among the 1949 contingent of ex-servicemen were some outstanding military figures. Charles Anderson, a lieutenant colonel who represented the seat of Hume in southern New South Wales for the Country Party, was awarded both the VC and an MC. He served in both wars and was a prisoner-of-war (POW) in...

  11. 6. Parliament Disgraced by its Members
    (pp. 71-88)

    One of the more sensational events involving parliamentary privilege occurred after I arrived in the gallery in 1951. The Treasurer, Arthur Fadden, was to deliver his budget speech in August of that year. On budget day, the lock-up for the gallery began in the afternoon. At the dinner adjournment of the house, Fadden briefed the government MPs on the contents of the budget at a special meeting of the party room. Having been briefed that excise rates were to go up on a range of items—whisky and other spirits and cigarettes—a number of government MPs rushed to the...

  12. 7. Booze, Sex and God
    (pp. 89-98)

    Booze, sex and power suffused the old parliamentary building and they could be sensed particularly in the non-members’ bar. The entrace to the non-members’ bar was on the ground floor at the rear of the building, on one side of the two large courtyards, each dominated by a huge poplar tree dating back to the 1920s, planted during construction of the building. The non-members’ bar was the social centre for all who worked in the place, including the parliamentarians. They had their own bar, but often preferred the company available—particularly female—in the non-members’ bar. When the Parliament was...

  13. 8. Evatt, Splits and Garters
    (pp. 99-116)

    I had a lot of contact with Herbert Vere Evatt when he was elected Labor Party leader after the death of Ben Chifley in 1951. Evatt was by no means a close friend of Chifley. Among other things, Evatt, when he stood down from the High Court, had attempted to take over Chifley’s seat of Macquarie in 1940, but in the end he had to settle for the Sydney seat of Barton, in the southwestern suburbs. David Day, in his Chifley—The biography of J. B. Chifley, said that Evatt, after appearing unsuccessfully before the High Court to fight off...

  14. 9. Out on the Hustings: Getting in the votes
    (pp. 117-120)

    A Senate election on 9 May 1953 was the first election campaign I covered for the Daily Mirror and it was a tepid affair. The election was required by the Constitution. Normally a federal election is for the House of Representatives and half the Senate. Menzies, by calling a double-dissolution election on 28 April 1951, had the two houses out of step because after a double-dissolution the term of the Senate is backdated to the previous 1 July. In turn, this means half the Senate had to be elected three years later, hence the May half-Senate election.

    Serious reporting came...

  15. 10. Press Secretaries: Before spin doctors
    (pp. 121-132)

    None of Menzies’ press secretaries could be described as a spin doctor, and they saw their role as providers of information (except Hugh Dash, who had no information to provide), rather than propagandists. They answered housekeeping questions from the gallery: when was the Prime Minister going overseas, or when would the Government say something about whatever; they issued press releases and notified the gallery of press conferences and important statements to be made in Parliament. They stayed away from attempting to sell policy, leaving that to their political masters. Television hit the political scene in full force in 1988 when...

  16. 11. The Prime Minister Disappears
    (pp. 133-140)

    Harold Holt was fated. History will remember him for his dramatic and mysterious death off Cheviot Beach on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne, on Sunday, 17 December 1967. He had become Australia’s seventeenth Prime Minister less than two years earlier, in January 1966. Apart from his dramatic death, he will be remembered unkindly for his statement at the White House, when he was visiting US President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, declaring Australia would be ‘all the way with LBJ’ in the Vietnam War. This is unfair. ‘All the way with LBJ’ had been Johnson’s Senate election campaign slogan. Holt was...

  17. 12. The Influence Seekers
    (pp. 141-146)

    The Federal Government, the Public Service and the Parliament have assumed ever-greater significance in national affairs as the power of the States has waned, and are thus a target for special-interest groups. The most influential and wealthiest of special-interest groups is the Australian business community—representing businesses big, medium and small. Business claims to be enthusiasts for competition and berates unions for, among other things, wanting to have exclusive coverage of workers in business establishments. Yet businesspeople detest competition and do everything possible to wipe out competitors, be it locals or importers.

    A persistent myth about Menzies was his closeness...

  18. 13. The Coalition Starts to Slide
    (pp. 147-160)

    With the retirement of Arthur Fadden in 1958, the Country Party leadership went to John McEwen (later Sir John), an Australian World War I soldier-settler. He entered Parliament in 1934 and was long recognised as one of the strongmen of the Menzies Government. As Deputy Prime Minister, McEwen was entitled to take over from Fadden as Treasurer, but McEwen had been advised Fadden had secured all the tax advantages for farmers that were possible. He decided to set up a powerful new Department of Trade. McEwen had been Minister for Commerce and Agriculture when he made the switch to Trade...

  19. 14. Labor Out of the Wilderness
    (pp. 161-180)

    In March 1963, The Daily Telegraph published a bombshell picture of the Opposition Leader, Arthur Calwell, and his deputy, Gough Whitlam, waiting in the dead of night outside the Kingston Hotel for 36 members of the specially convened ALP National Conference to vote on the Menzies Government’s legislation for a US naval communications base at North West Cape in Western Australia. This gave Whitlam a powerful weapon in his mission to transform the Australian Labor Party into a democratic national institution. Many inside and outside the Labor Party today would argue it is far from a truly democratic party. This...

  20. 15. Darkness Descends on Whitlam
    (pp. 181-194)

    An important factor in the downfall of the Whitlam Government was the affair involving the Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Jim Cairns, and Junie Morosi. The media could not get enough of the yarn—splashed as a ‘bombshell sex story’. Cairns’ colleagues in the Caucus and journalists in the gallery were, to say the least, surprised. Until then, it had been assumed that Cairns and his devoted wife of many years were inseparable. Morosi turned up, out of the blue, becoming a regular visitor to the office of the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Minister for Customs and Attorney-General,...

  21. 16. A New Home
    (pp. 195-220)

    Fraser won the December 1975 election with a swing of 7.5 per cent, surpassing Whitlam’s effort in 1969 and bested only by the 7.9 per cent swing John Curtin achieved in 1943. Labor representation in the House of Representatives crashed from 66 seats to 36. Fraser was anything but a popular prime minister in the gallery—most believing he came to power, if not by a conspiracy between the Governor-General and Fraser, at least by highly dubious constitutional means.

    Given widespread community concern at the Whitlam sacking, the size of Fraser’s win was unexpected. This was a misjudgment by the...

  22. 17. New House, New Rules
    (pp. 221-234)

    Television and the move to the permanent Parliament House completed the demolition of the centrality of the House of Representatives in political life. Where once the contested issues of the day were fought out on the floor of the house, now the debate is conducted, via the electronic media, in the lounge room, car, office, or even on the street, with miniature devices providing everything that can be received anywhere else. Whether or not this is a good thing in a modern democracy should be a matter for some public debate. The absence of such a debate is largely because...

  23. Epilogue: Changing the game
    (pp. 235-240)

    The political system must be turned on its head. After nearly 60 years of observing politics from the gallery, I believe the system has lost its way. The competition for ideas is constrained as parliamentary colleagues of the Prime Minister or Opposition Leader are required to fall in behind whatever policies they hand down from on high. Before new policies are introduced, the political leaders give too much weight to the political advantage or disadvantage that might follow.

    There is excessive attention devoted to market research and devising the best spin for new policies, and not enough to the intrinsic...

  24. Bibliography
    (pp. 241-242)
  25. Name Index
    (pp. 243-250)
  26. Subject Index
    (pp. 251-254)