Nobody knows better than I - Letters between current and former prime ministers

This collaborative project by the Network of Prime Ministerial Research and Collecting Agencies is locating and reflecting on communication between those who have held the office of prime minister since the early twentieth century, with a particular focus on correspondence between current and former prime ministers.



I want to begin with a confession. Not long ago I could not have named all of Australia’s prime ministers. Those I could name I knew very little about beyond the defining events of their terms. Today, not only can I name them (albeit with consternation) I have also developed unexpected attachments to a number of men I have never met. 

In March 2015, I was engaged as a researcher by the Australian Prime Ministers Centre to work on a prime ministerial letters project. The aim of this project was to identify and locate correspondence between any two individuals who have at any time held the office of Prime Minister of Australia. 

In total, over 700 items of correspondence have been identified as part of this project, as a joint effort with the members of the Network of Prime Ministerial Research and Collecting Agencies. These items are comprised of original letters, telegrams, postcards, memos and a number of copies held by various archives. The correspondence has been located across more than fifteen collections held by seven institutions – the National Library of Australia, the National Archives of Australia, the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Library at the University of South Australia, the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library at Curtin University of Technology, University of Melbourne Archives and the Whitlam Institute within Western Sydney University. Over seventy per cent of correspondence identified was written or received by a prime minister in office and around forty per cent was between a serving prime minister and a former prime minister. Needless to say, the resulting collection provides a new and unprecedented window into not only the lives of our prime ministers, but into the continuities and evolutions of the office itself. 

For me, this window opened gradually as the inherently slow process of archival research brought me into contact with each prime minister. As a PhD candidate, it takes a little self-delusion to hold on to the research process ideal; search the catalogue, use the finding aid, request relevant boxes, have earth-shattering manuscripts delivered to your table. Yet, more often than not, it derails after the catalogue search. Finding aids, although useful, are not compiled with a specific project in mind. Consequently, research is painstaking. I sat, day after day, with a trolley-load of archival boxes, each containing uniform white folders bursting with correspondence. As I handled letter after letter the uneasy guilt of prying manifested in the layers of black grime which built up on my hands. Yet, curiosity consumed me: curiosity and the silent fanfare of finding each new letter. 

There is a lingering sense of humanity in handwritten letters; the physicality of letter writing makes this inevitable. It may be nothing more than an illusion, but as I read letters I felt more and more familiar with each prime minister. Alfred Deakin wrote in a languid scrawl, often decipherable only by the grace of the zoom function on my computer. George Reid, on the other hand, formed clear letters, consistently easy to read. Billy Hughes was heavy handed, but formed his letters with an idiosyncratic flair. Beyond handwriting, the language used by prime ministers also gave me a sense of their personality. Stanley Bruce used long complicated language, but managed a degree of exactitude. Robert Menzies’ command of language, above all others, was spellbinding. He wrote to Gorton in 1969, ‘Scurrilous and unsupported attacks will as usual nauseate decent people and damage only those who get notoriety by making them.’

Perhaps unfairly, it is those men whose handwriting I read that I felt closest too. For many, the changing tides of technology cut much of their personality out of their correspondence; handwritten letters were soon superceded by typed letters; telegrams become more frequent and eventually letters sent make reference to ‘conversations over the phone’. That said I could not shake certain sympathies for prime ministers attempting to convey complex ideas within incomplete and unpunctuated sentences of a telegram (we have all been there trying to formulate a text message). Typed letters too, had some room for personality. Arthur Fadden routinely signed letters to Menzies ‘Regards, Artie’. 

For the most part, the letters assembled deal with what might be referred to as mundane or ordinary aspects of political life. There are just fewer than forty letters that deal with requests or complaints from constituents; over 100 between Bruce and Lyons dealing with debt conversions in the aftermath of the Depression; and around fifty socially obligatory letters of thanks, not to mention various Christmas and New Year good wishes. Here, each series of correspondence provides insight into various elements of the ‘everyday’ for the prime minister – both in regards to his role running the country, but also his role within the broader context of parliamentary colleagues. 

I very quickly had to come to terms with ‘the toll of office’, and what it meant for the men I was getting to know. The notion that the office of prime minister takes a toll on the health of the individual is, for the most part, a given. Yet to see this toll being discussed openly by the very men who had to endure it, personalised the issue for me in a way history never has. Illnesses, accidents and everyday fatigue are referenced frequently, but it was one letter above all which has stuck with me. In a letter to Fisher in 1911, Reid wrote: ‘I hope that you will, by the time this reaches you, be enjoying a rest from your arduous labours. I venture to offer you a bit of advice based on my own experience… I used to treat my health like a banking account, when I had overdrawn I used to be careful to pay in again to redress the balance’. 

Another of the unique advantages of this collection is that it makes observable the relationship between serving prime ministers and former prime ministers. Across correspondence between various prime ministers, an understanding and empathy that transcended party divide is apparent. One example of this unusual solidarity which resonates with me still can be found in a letter from Menzies to Curtin in 1942. Menzies wrote: 'It has also been a great source of satisfaction to me that, notwithstanding the great responsibilities you have had to accept and the incessant labours involved in their discharge, your health appears to have stood the strain remarkably well. Indeed, by some wise dispensation of Providence, it seems to have done you good to be in office - and at the same time done me good to be in opposition.’ 

As a researcher on this project I was struck by the unusual solidarity and mutual understanding that defines much of the correspondence. Even as I worked, themes and ideas began to emerge solely because a unique set of correspondence was being compiled in one place. Prime ministers are so often understood and judged through the eyes of the media and remembered for decisions and actions taken while in office. In focusing on letters between Prime Ministers, the underlying acknowledgement of mutual understanding, even across parties, offers new windows into the office and those who have held it.