The historian Lord Acton once famously remarked that all power tends to corrupt.
On being asked why he had gone to live in England barrister Geoffrey Robertson replied that being then interested in criminal law, he had to leave New South Wales because all the local criminals were either in parliament or in the police force; an understandable exaggeration given the history of corruption in state politics going back at least to the days of the NSW Corps.
Robin William Askin, Premier of NSW for the then record term of 1965 to 1975, preferred to be known as Bob and changed his name by deed poll to Robert in 1971 before he recommended himself for a knighthood. He is probably best remembered for a comment he was alleged to have made when acting as host to Prime Minister Harold Holt and President Johnson on the occasion of the latter’s visit to Australia, when the involvement of Australia in the Vietnam War was becoming increasingly unpopular. He is said to have told his chauffeur when the motorcade was confronted by protesters to ‘run over the bastards’. In information provided by him for the Biographical Register of the New South Wales Parliament he gave his date of birth as 4 April, 1907 but in the absence of a birth certificate there is no documentary confirmation available. The entry for Sir Robert Askin in The Australian Encyclopaedia gives his year of birth as 1909 and place of birth as Stuart Town NSW, his mother’s home town.
He was one of three children of William James Askin and Ellen Laura Halliday who were married in Glebe on September 29, 1916. It has been stated that the Askin family lived in Bridge Road and Cowper Street but I was unable to confirm this. The Electoral Roll for the division of West Sydney in 1916 records an E L Askin, home duties, and a W J Askin, tram driver, living at 29 Talfourd Street, Glebe. Earlier entries going back to 1909 record the Askins living at the same address although the 1909 entry gives William’s occupation as tram conductor and records an Annie Askin, possibly WJ’s mother, at the same address. In 1925 Askin RW appears with his parents at 11 Lyndhurst Street while Annie is still in Talfourd Street. Both addresses are quite modest two storey terrace houses.
R W Askin went to Glebe Public School and won a scholarship from there to Sydney Technical High School but as there are no extant records of enrolments at either school covering this period it is impossible to ascertain the exact dates of his attendance. He passed his Intermediate Certificate at the age of fifteen and on leaving school worked as a clerk in the New South Wales Government Savings Bank, moving to the Rural Bank in 1931. On being transferred to the Manly branch of the bank he met Mollie Underhill whom he married in 1937, moving from his home in Lyndhurst Street to Manly. In 1940 he enlisted in the AIF, serving in the South West Pacific and rising to the rank of sergeant.
His uncle, CR Halliday, had won preselection for the ALP for the seat of Drummoyne and Askin’s working class background had been one of his strengths. But a chance meeting with his old CO Lieutenant-Colonel Robson, then a Liberal MLA for Vaucluse, led to his joining the Liberal Party in 1947 He won the seat of Collaroy for the Liberals in 1950, became deputy leader in 1954 and was elected unopposed as leader of the party in 1959.
David Hickie, in his 1985 book The Prince and the Premier, records that Askin played hooker in the1928 Glebe reserve grade rugby league team and in his twenties played for Glebe Football Club which was then in the Sydney first grade competition, so there can be no doubt of his close association with the suburb.
Askin’s acute sensitivity about the circumstances of his birth may appear exaggerated in our more tolerant 21st century but in the early decades of the last century such origins were so strongly stigmatised that even Askin’s closest associates were never made aware of them. Hickie makes no reference to Askin’s illegitimacy, perhaps because he was unaware of it or because he judged it to be irrelevant. This doesn’t mean that he approved of Askin – far from it. The Prince of the title of his book was Perce Galea, a highly respected and generous member of the Catholic community in Sydney who claimed to have been made a Knight of the Order of St John by the Pope and who appears in the book in a photograph taken together with Cardinal Gilroy and the then Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies. He need concern us no longer except to say that he became very rich on the proceeds of illegal gambling casinos whose operation was known to and tacitly condoned by the police and is alleged to have paid $100,000 per annum directly to Askin to ensure he could continue to break the law with impunity.
Askin’s role in this corrupt regime was never exposed. He was succeeded as Premier by Tom Lewis and briefly by Sir Eric Willis who lost the 1976 election to Neville Wran. It wasn’t until many years later that another premier set up the Independent Commission Against Corruption and, by a delicious irony, became one of its first victims.
Askin was never charged and nothing was ever proved against him but if only half the allegations made against him by Hickie are true then he was certainly one of the most corrupt premiers that NSW has ever had. He died of pneumonia in 1981 leaving an estate valued at $1,985,000.
Of more interest to Glebe residents is the role he played, or failed to play, in the preservation of our suburb. Viewers of that superb English television program, Yes Minister, will The ‘Old’ foreshore. be aware of the power of the bureaucracy. In Tasmania power, in more than one sense, lay with the HydroElectric Commission. In NSW it was the Department of Main Roads. It had plans to build two expressways, the North-Western and Western, through Glebe. These roads, as well as severely disrupting the lives of residents whose homes would have been demolished, would have divided Glebe into three parts and totally destroyed it as a community. Fortunately there were enough people affected by these proposals to arouse opposition to them which was eventually successful; but that is another story. The point is that ultimate responsibility for the expressway project rested with the state government and more particularly with the cabinet and Askin as Premier.
Having been somewhat unkind to our local boy made good, I feel obliged to add that I don’t believe that corruption is a monopoly of either side of politics or of any particular era. Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.