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Peter Coleman: a very personal memoir

13 April 2019

9:00 AM

13 April 2019

9:00 AM

The contribution to Australia’s cultural life by my old friend and long-standing colleague Peter Coleman demonstrated that to be an intellectual in public you do not have to be a wanker. Coleman was a real-life intellectual, a brilliant writer (not so much of a public speaker) communicating, through his journalistic, editorial, and political professionalism and as an author of so many influential and thought-provoking books, a set of ‘cultural freedom’ principles that are increasingly under challenge. They need his support more than ever now that he is dead.

I first met Peter Coleman not at North Sydney Boys’ High (he was a year ahead of me) but in 1950 at Sydney University when he, as secretary of the ‘Anti-Conscription Committee’ (an Andersonian anti-authoritarian manifestation) he brought into the Honi Soit office, where I was a sub-editor, an article opposing the compulsory military service being proposed (and introduced in 1951) as a result of the Korean War.

We met again, after his return from the LSE and the Sudan, when I joined him in 1959 as the other half of the permanent staff of editor Donald Horne’s Packer-owned, loss-making intellectual indulgence the Observer magazine. With the support of a cast of remarkable contributors, Coleman and I wrote much of the fortnightly magazine, some under a variety of noms de plume. Coleman in his subsequent careers remained true to the anti-authoritarian (and therefore anti-leftist, as a liberal conservative) principles of open enquiry which Horne ultimately converted into a more ‘progressive’ (and popularly rewarding) contrary position.


Coleman became my editor when I moved back from the Australian Financial Review to the Bulletin in the mid-1960s. It was his initiative that resulted in my 1967 book on the building of the Sydney Opera House. I also wrote for him as editor of Quadrant. We both ended up writing for The Speccie and, in recent years, meeting for occasional dinners. The last times I spoke with Peter, he lamented the loneliness of life without his beloved Verna. And he maintained his email correspondence, always in upper case, like the following: TOUCHED BY YOUR CONCERN MICHAEL BUT I’M PERFECTLY OK. I’M JUST A LITTLE WORLD-WEARY. YOUR COLUMNS ARE A TONIC. And in response to my complaint that he was not writing anything: AS FOR MY WORDS OF WISDOM, I’M AFRAID I HAVE NONE LEFT BUT STILL ENJOY YOURS. CHEERS PETER.

Peter and I both drifted into the Liberal party and he became my local member in the NSW state parliament when he won the marginal seat of Fuller in 1968. But his political career was at once both more rewarding and disappointing than mine. His brief state ministerial life and party leadership in opposition led to a thumping by Neville Wran, and the loss of his own seat; my three terms as federal MP for the marginal seat of Macarthur that peaked with my appointment as Treasurer John Howard’s parliamentary secretary, also ended in my ‘involuntary retirement’ from parliament in the Hawke-slide of 1983. But both of us were politically resurrected, he in the federal seat of Wentworth in 1981 and me, after only 18 months in the wilderness, in the Senate in 1984. His six years in federal politics were a disappointment to him, covering only the last couple of years of the decaying Fraser government and four years in opposition. At least he and I achieved some minor victories, like the motion we successfully moved in 1986, he in the House of Reps and I in the Senate, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian uprising ‘as a symbol of the struggle for freedom of all oppressed nations of Central and Eastern Europe’.

With support for John Hewson mounting among Liberal branches in Wentworth, Peter gave his last speech in April 1987 (in defence of Israel’s judicial system) and decided not to contest the coming election. He had noted in his maiden speech (on freedom of choice in education) that Wentworth had always been represented by members who played a major political role in the national life of the country.

While he recognised he had not done so, Australia may have benefitted had all his successors followed his example.


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