Political diplomacy

William Macmahon Ball, 1901–1986

William Macmahon Ball, or ‘Mac’ as I shall refer to him henceforth, was born in Casterton, in south-western Victoria in 1901, the son of an Anglican minister and the youngest of a family of five. He recalled that he hated going to church, and resented the restrictions placed on Sunday activities, which included a ban on reading anything other than religious literature.

His father retired when Mac was nine, and they moved to Melbourne. He had an undistinguished school career, but was able to gain a scholarship to Caulfield Grammar School for his last two years of secondary education. His lack of scholastic distinction meant that he failed to matriculate. However, the outbreak of war in 1914 led to the enlistment of a large number of schoolteachers. (Schoolteachers have played a large part in providing officers for the Australian army. One of the senior teachers at my own secondary school, A.H. Ramsay, became a brigadier in the Second World War and later Director of Education in Victoria.) The shortage of teachers meant that youngsters like Mac were in demand. He recalled that he taught school during the day and attended a coaching college at night, which enabled him to teach the subjects he had failed for his matriculation examination. He finally matriculated and was admitted to the University of Melbourne.

Mac distilled his own experience by reminding people that school performance was no guarantee of university success. In his own case, he fulfilled this proposition by doing well at university and gained honours in philosophy, psychology and sociology. He was also a foundation member of the Labor Club, along with other well-known characters such as the historian Brian Fitzpatrick. He was soon appointed to a lectureship in psychology, logic and ethics, and quickly established a reputation as a brilliant teacher. In 1929, he was awarded a Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship in political science, and spent two years at the London School of Economics and Political Science under the tutelage of Harold Laski, probably the best known teacher of political science in Britain during his lifetime. (Laski was the mentor for political activists from all over the British Empire, and many of his students became political leaders in their own countries.)

Laski had an abiding influence on Mac. One of his main concerns was to expose the abuse of power by governments. In his largest and most influential work, A Grammar of Politics, first published in 1925, Laski emphasised that agents of the state are as fallible as any other citizens. ‘The danger of leaving to the State a sovereign position lies in the fact that it must always act through agents, and those agents are drawn from a body of experience which is not necessarily coincident with the general interest of the community. As Rousseau said, it is the natural tendency of all governments to deteriorate. To leave to the State the final control of all other wills in the community is, in fact, to leave to a small number of men an authority it is not difficult to abuse.’

Laski returned to this topic in a later book, Liberty in the Modern State, which was republished in 1937 as one of the earliest Pelican paperbacks. Some of his remarks could have been written yesterday. The state, he said, cannot be relied upon to act as the ‘guardian of tolerance’—a notion which has reappeared on the public agenda through the speeches of the Commonwealth Treasurer, Mr Costello. ‘In a time of crisis‚’ Laski wrote, ‘when the things we hold most dear are threatened, we shall find the desire to throw overboard the habits of tolerance almost irresistible.’ He went on to link liberty in general with freedom of speech in particular. The crux of the matter was that the free exercise of opinions is vitally dependent upon the truthfulness of the facts available to us through the news media. Laski warned against the use of stereotypes, which create a miasma that is impossible to penetrate, and concluded that the control of the media by special interests may make prisoners of men who believe themselves to be free.

In 1938, Mac himself took up this topic in his introduction to a collection of essays called Press, Radio and World Affairs. A tightening of international tension‚ he observed, produces a worldwide degeneration in the news. The maxim that truth was the first casualty of war was an understatement. Truth becomes a casualty long before the outbreak of hostilities. It is suffocated by the atmosphere of anxiety and distrust that goes with preparations for war. As an illustration, he cited the statement made by H.V.C. Thorby, Minister for Defence in the Lyons government, following the resignation of Anthony Eden from the Chamberlain government in Britain in protest against its policy of appeasing Hitler. Mr Thorby declared that it was impracticable for the public to be fully informed on delicate international discussions‚ based on secret information. To this, Mac responded that democratic government requires an informed public opinion. If democracy is to mean wise government as well as good government, it is important that public opinion should be educated on important current issues.

Mac was particularly concerned with the right of the ABC to air discussion of political events, and the contemporary relevance of his comments on the coverage of international affairs is painfully obvious. There was, he remarked, one very good pragmatic test of whether a broadcasting system allows the measure of freedom which the avowal of democracy would imply, and that was whether there was freedom for speakers to broadcast  criticism of government policy.

I first encountered Mac through listening to the ABC while I was still a schoolboy, and his mellifluous voice and style were familiar to me long before I actually met him. In 1940, after teaching a course called Modern Political Institutions during the 1930s, he was appointed director of short-wave broadcasting services in the newly-created Department of Information, and headed a remarkable team of radio men, journalists and anti-Nazi European refugees, who were technically enemy aliens. The Europeans were responsible for monitoring and translating foreign-language broadcasts. Mac remained as leader of this team when it was taken over by the ABC in 1942, and stayed on when Arthur Calwell, now Minister for Information, reclaimed it in 1943. In no time at all, Mac came into conflict with the new director of the service appointed by Calwell, and resigned. Mac was never one for suffering fools gladly.

In 1945, Mac returned to Melbourne University, but was soon drafted back into government as an adviser to the Australian delegation at the San Francisco conference that drew up the charter of the United Nations. He returned again to the University, but was drafted once more to go to Indonesia as an observer on behalf of the Department of External Affairs.

His favourite anecdote about this period relates to the fact that the Australian waterside workers were black-banning Dutch ships which were taking supplies to the Dutch forces in Indonesia. Mac claimed that he went around Indonesia declaring that he was an Australian waterside worker, which opened all doors. It is fairly clear that Mac did not have a very high opinion of President Sukarno, and was much happier in the company of the socialist prime minister, Sutan Sjahrir. Sukarno got rid of Sjahrir in due course.

The pattern repeated itself once more when the new Australian prime minister Ben Chifley asked Mac to represent Australia and the other Commonwealth countries on the Allied Council for Japan. The British government, as the senior partner, should logically have nominated a representative, but they apparently decided not to risk conflicts which they believed, correctly, would inevitably break out as the result of the dictatorial methods of the Supreme Allied Commander, General Douglas MacArthur. (He was soon nicknamed The Mikado.) An American magazine, describing Mac’s appointment, characterised him as an aggressive Australian with a mind of his own. Mac was in the job for about 18 months, but finally resigned in disgust when his political boss, Dr H.V. Evatt, failed to back him up. According to Mac, one of his friends said at this point that at least he had the Christian virtue of resignation. Mac’s book Japan: Enemy or Ally? gives blow-by-blow descriptions of his fencing matches with the General.

Yet again, Mac was asked by Ben Chifley to lead a goodwill mission to south-east Asia during 1948. This mission helped to lay the groundwork for the Colombo Plan and also for the decision by the Commonwealth Government, in 1952, to subsidise the teaching of Asian languages at Australian universities. I can speak about that directly, as I was an official of the Prime Minister’s Department in 1951–52, and was one of the people who handled the files on the subject.

Back in Australia, Mac was invited by the Melbourne Herald proprietor, Sir Keith Murdoch, to become its resident expert on foreign affairs. It will surprise nobody to learn that they soon clashed, and Mac registered yet another resignation. He then gave a series of lectures on international affairs to the undergraduate students in political science at Melbourne University, which was where I first encountered him in the flesh. His lectures became the book on Japan. Shortly afterwards, he was appointed foundation professor of political science, and his career of resignations came to an apparent end.

Mac’s clashes with authority did not end there. He returned to the ABC as a regular commentator on Pacific affairs, with a weekly slot on Sundays. I was a regular listener. In 1952, he referred to a report by the Red Cross which examined allegations about the use of germ warfare by the French in Indo-China, and suggested that they should be looked into. According to the story which I was told by people at the ABC, the broadcast was heard by the Minister for External Affairs, R.G. Casey, who was infuriated and put pressure on the ABC. It was even said that Mr Casey had been shaving at the time and was so disturbed that he cut himself. At all events, Mac’s weekly program was discontinued and he became an occasional commentator on international affairs.

I joined the Political Science Department shortly after this episode, at Mac’s direct invitation. (Life was simpler in those days.) I stayed there until 1956, when I moved to Canberra. I remained in close touch with Mac and with the Melbourne department, because at the time the Canberra University College, where I taught until it became part of the Australian National University in 1960, was under the tutelage of Melbourne University. In later years, Mac was invited by the Public Service Board in Canberra to arrange seminars for senior public servants and asked me to become one of the regular lecturers.

Mac’s views on international affairs remain as valid today as they were in the 1930s. In 1936, he published Possible Peace, in which he examined justifications for the use of force. Discussing the shortcomings of the League of Nations, he observed that if a world community were to come into being, it would be justified in establishing a world police force. But it is impossible to regard existing armaments as part of such an international force; they are the instruments of national power, dedicated to serve national ends. To build an alliance is not to create a system of collective security. The world will never be civilised until collective security becomes a reality.

We can all say amen to that.

Sol Encel is Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales’ Social Policy Research Centre.



submit a comment


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up