Davidson, Dianne 2001, 'The saving of Fremantle heritage: Les Lauder interviewed by Dianne Davidson', Fremantle Studies, 2: 120-136.
Les Lauder’s contribution to the preservation of Fremantle heritage is enormous. He founded the Fremantle Society in 1972 and was a dominant figure on the Fremantle scene throughout the crucial 1970s. He currently runs a very successful antiques business, Lauder and Howard, in East Fremantle. This is an edited version of an interview conducted in 1991 - the first interview given by Les on the early heritage years in Fremantle, and now released for publication.
Les grew up in the Northampton/Geraldton area, largely raised by his grand-mother who had come from South Australia to teach in a small bush school. She was a cultured woman from a German family, and she instilled in Les a lifelong love of history, culture and art as well as appreciation of the beauty of old buildings.
He remembers starting work in Perth in the late 1950s/early 1960s and the lack of interest in heritage in those days.
I remember being horrified at the demolition of the T & G Building on the corner of Barrack Street and St George's Terrace, which was a late Victorian Gothic fantasy of about six floors with a cupola and fancy arches and decorative brickwork, and the whole Victorian gold rush thing. Remarkable building, which people would fight for now. That came down very casually. I remember getting a slate that had come off the roof and keeping that for many years. I had never actually seen slate roofs before, it seemed a fascinating thing. And I was active when the Barracks building was being torn down. I was one of the 20,000 petitioners who took a petition around and got hundreds of people to sign. That was really the first conservation victory in Western Australia.
How was that organised?
It wasn’t terribly formal. It was the first time people had actually been engaged in any form of civil disobedience in Western Australia, I think. At the time many people were just appalled that something so significant as that great building could be torn down. Where were you living then? You weren’t in Fremantle at that stage, were you? No. I was living in North Perth - I moved to different places. I lived in Cottesloe for most of the sixties, first in a little flat, then in an old weatherboard house which I and my partner restored. What influenced me greatly was seeing some- thing as charming and on such a human scale and as approachable as Perth unnecessarily destroyed. There was obvious scope for a lot of redevelopment, but it was done in such a crass way, without any reference to the past at all, and I found that generally unsettling and disappointing. I’d come as a child to visit other relatives in Fremantle, and I suppose in the very early days I shared some of the prejudices against Fremantle. It seemed very run down and grotty and uninviting. At the same time I was aware of the vestiges of its former glory. I particularly remember Queen Victoria Street and its great houses that had fallen on hard times and become boarding houses and so forth. So I was certainly aware of quite a lot of what Fremantle had, and I became conscious of the fact that much of Fremantle was intact and that Perth was clearly losing its intactness and losing its soul.
But when did you move your attention to Fremantle?
I had started working in Fremantle for the Education Department. I was based in the Fremantle area Guidance Office, and I was alternately working between John Curtin School, Hamilton High School and Bicton Primary School. By the beginning of 1972 I had become very interested in Fremantle’s heritage. But I didn’t quite know what to do about it. I was impressed by the fact that the Council had been in a sense behind the restoration of the old asylum. I thought this was most unusual at a time when Perth was tearing itself apart and the great Perth Town Hall had been hideously mutilated by the Perth City Council. It was an interesting contrast in the sort of values of the two councils.
How did that happen ?
Well, these days everyone, including people who actively voted against retaining the building, is claiming credit for saving the asylum. But my understanding is that the person who initiated the project, who persuaded the Council and particularly the Mayor that the building should be saved, was John Birch. He was the City’s Librarian; later styled as the Cultural Officer. He was a very civilised and cultured person, which was fairly rare in the Fremantle Council. Although to be fair, there were I think some great local government officers in Fremantle, particularly Stan Parks, who was a very humane and far-seeing person without any really formal education. He was an old North Fremantle boy who had started work I think as an office boy at the North Fremantle Town Council and found himself Town Clerk there at the time when the surprise amalgamation occurred between North Fremantle and Fremantle. Which happened, by the way, without reference to the ratepayers of either place.
When was that?
That was during the late sixties. And Fremantle had a good Town Clerk in Noel McCombe, who was the predecessor to Stan Parks. When McCombe retired my understanding is that Parks wasn’t actually in the front running to get the position, but he did, much to the annoyance of some of the other officers. I think that was a turning point for Fremantle too. I don’t think many people would know the behind the scenes work he did to help save Fremantle buildings and to keep Fremantle as an entity.
Was he interested in old buildings?
I think he had the sort of interest that a lot of Fremantle people had. It was almost subliminal in a sense. They’d grown up with familiar places, and the city as a whole meant something to people like Stan Parks, without them probably ever verbalising it before. At the same time there were a lot of councillors at that time who took the opposite view, and they associated Fremantle with all the sort of poverty and misery of the Depression and so forth, and couldn’t wait to get out of it. They continued to make money out of the city, but wouldn’t live in it. And of course they were hell-bent on changing the city. What they were going to produce, of course, was a very pallid, boring, second-rate sister to the new Perth.
How did a Council like that decide to restore the Arts Centre?
There was the influence of Birch, and perhaps Parks, and probably other people. It was before my time. But the important factor was the influence that Sir Frederick Samson had in the community. I think the reality is he was a developer who thought Johnston Court was a good idea, and who’d personally owned and demolished the Oriana Theatre - I mean, there are a whole lot of things like that which people don’t associate with Sir Frederick Samson. But he was somehow persuaded that the old asylum building was significant and important, and that it could be a great asset to Fremantle. And he was dogged, apparently, and against all odds took on the job of persuading the government. He was strongly opposed by a number of councillors, even some so-called progressive councillors of the day, who thought it would be a waste of working people’s money to go along with such a project. And that project, of course, was the turning point for Fremantle, because it showed an alternative and it inspired all sorts of people. It certainly inspired me to think about some mechanism for doing something about Fremantle.
This was before you actually came to Fremantle?
Yes. I wouldn’t know the dates exactly, but I think the Arts Centre - the asylum building - was late sixties, very early seventies it would have been restored and opened. The same sort of tatty old arguments that you hear today about the condition of buildings was trotted out for that. It was structurally unsound, it was a danger to everybody, it was an eyesore, it had a horrible past and therefore it had to be demolished. All these kinds of things that you hear in relation to, well, just about any building in Fremantle, and you can certainly make out those cases if you’ve got no vision at all.
But attitudes were being changed, with ugly high rise replacement for landmark buildings, and I read about the successes of resident societies which were springing up around the world. I thought, well, something needs to be done about Fremantle, because it’s all we’ve got.
Perth was mostly gone by then, wasn’t it, St George's Terrace was gone?
St George's Terrace was very badly damaged by that time. And there seemed no possibility of reversing that. But Fremantle seemed possible. And I remember at a small dinner party in Cottesloe talking about the idea with a group of friends, and saying: someone ought to do something. The evening was well advanced, and people said: well, why don’t you do something about it? Anyway, I said: I’ll go and ring Freddy Samson and see what he thinks. And next morning I woke up thinking: what have I done? But I’d given the undertaking that I’d do it. I arranged to see him, put the idea to him, and he was very friendly and receptive, very bitter about the new Council and some of the people on it.
Well, I think he felt that the conservative tradition of old families in Fremantle was being lost.
And was there such a tradition?
Well, certainly in local government. There had been so few Mayors and Town Clerks in Fremantle. Stan Parks once said to me he couldn’t believe he was only the sixth Town Clerk in Fremantle’s history. There have been nearly that many since he left. Continuity was a very important thing. Samson had been Mayor for many years, his predecessor Sir Frank Gibson was Mayor for thirty or forty years, and his predecessor served for a similar period. There had been very few. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but I do remember him saying those things to me and being very critical of his successor, whom I came to admire far more than I did Sir Frederick Samson.
That was Bill McKenzie?
That was Bill McKenzie, of course. Anyway, Samson said to me: well, I’ve got no influence any more, you’d better go and see them at the Council. By this stage I was starting to get a bit intimidated by the whole thing, and wondering whether I should go on with it. Anyway, I arranged to see the Deputy Town Clerk, a man named Murray Edmonds. He and a group of Council officers had published a booklet called Preservation and Change, which now seems a very pathetic wimpy kind of document. But at that time it was quite radical, it was actually saying that there were a number of buildings that should be retained in Fremantle. They were easy ones, of course, publicly owned. But they actually discussed the fact that the west end of Fremantle had harmony, and although it was going to be cut in half by the widening and demolition of one side of Henry Street, it still had some sort of integrity as an area.
I particularly remember my horror at sitting with him by his big glass windows in the horrible Council offices overlooking the block where the dreaded Queensgate building now is, and gesturing at the building and saying: these are the sorts of things that are vital to Fremantle, these must be kept. The whole block had integrity then, lovely building. I remember it was three-ﬂoored, rusticated stone and brick, Burns Philp warehouse. And he said: ‘Well, you’d better be quick: they’re coming down in a couple of weeks, the whole lot.’ And I began to think, well, is it worthwhile? Because by that time, well into 1972, there’d been so much redevelopment of the east end of Fremantle, and all bad and ugly, Westgate and so forth, that it seemed a bit touch and go whether it was really worthwhile to do anything. Anyway, I came away from that meeting with a sense of urgency. I then rang a few people, with the idea of putting together a sort of steering committee, just to see if it was possible to form a body such as the Fremantle Society.
The upshot was that we met, and decided that we should proceed with such a body. The goal was to have a public meeting to launch the Society and to get publicity for that, and to work out a proposed structure of the Society and its aims, which we did. Those aims remain the same today.
Where did you have the public meeting?
We got the Council to provide the Exhibition Hall for us, and we publicised the meeting. We had some posters put up around Fremantle, designed by some art students. We got a bit of publicity on the radio. And I prepared a sort of speech: in those days I couldn’t talk publicly at all - the mere thought of anything like that frightened the life out of me. So I was terribly nervous that night, but as it turned out at a quarter to eight - the meeting was at eight o’clock - there seemed to be nothing to worry about, because only four people had turned up. And I thought, well, that’s that. But by five to eight a lot more people had trickled in, and it looked as if there were going to be about fifty, so it was worth going ahead. By five past eight, however, there were four hundred people. This was absolutely extraordinary, and completely terrifying to me. I had to go up in front of all these people at the microphone and talk to them.
I found that the meeting was absolutely on side with the idea. The other thing that I found quite extraordinary was the broad base of the people who came. There were people from all walks of life, and all sorts of ages. A few I knew, and a few when they identified themselves were obviously well known people, such as Paddy Troy, the union leader.
How many people would there have been from Fremantle as opposed to other places?
At that initial meeting it was hard to say. Lots were, and lots were East Fremantle people. Most of them, if they didn’t live in Fremantle, used to, or were from Fremantle families. They regarded Fremantle as something special. That’s always been the strength of Fremantle. Unfortunately we didn’t have a mechanism to take their names and addresses, we just hadn’t thought about that, so we never ever found out who they all were. But when a committee was called to be formed, people kept volunteering from the ﬂoor. After twenty people I got up and said I thought we probably had enough, and that it could become unwieldy, but for anyone who was interested to leave their names and addresses. And there was unanimous agreement that the Society should be formed, and that it should pursue aims which were in direct contrast to the official planning policies of the Council of the day. I don’t think people quite realised that there would obviously be conﬂict, and I suppose a lot of people naively thought that pure reason could carry the day with the Council. We tried that for a while, but of course that’s no good. But that meeting was a real turning point.
When did the link with the ALP begin?
There was never a formal link with the ALP, but certainly it was a time when the ALP was considered by a lot of people to be a reform party, and a party that was talking about change that would benefit the whole community. These were the Whitlam years. A lot of our members were the sort of people who are drawn to the conservation movement today. But not exclusively. There were some of what people call ‘small-L liberals’ who were in the Fremantle Society then, and on the committee. And there were other people who just weren’t interested in party politics as such.
The Society was formed at the beginning of December, the public meeting was on 6 December, 1972. The committee I think met within a week and more or less agreed on the sorts of things we would try and do, and then we arranged to meet after Christmas. Then the real job started. The first horror for us was a group of us going to meet the members of the Council. We were met by the Planning Committee, and that was a quite horrifying experience because there were some absolutely appalling people on it, who became arch-enemies of the Fremantle Society and myself.
Well, some people stand out as being hostile to everything we stood for. One was a senior Council officer, the Town Planner, Ken Bott, who appeared utterly committed to the wholesale removal of everything old in Fremantle, and its re- placement with high-rise and big wide sweeping streets. He had already been responsible for a great deal of damage in the city. But to be fair to him, none of that could have happened without support from the Council, and there was plenty of support. Later on, when I became a Councillor, it never ceased to amaze me, the extent of philistinism within the Council. I mean amongst Councillors. The one person who remained in my mind as friendly and supportive and pleasant at that first meeting was the mayor, Bill McKenzie, who seemed to look a bit cynically upon what we were saying - I don’t think he understood where we were coming from or what our position was - but he was very cooperative and friendly, unlike some of his colleagues. I particularly remember Esme Fletcher, I think she had a genuine hatred of old buildings and cultural things. She opposed the theatre groups in Fremantle, it seemed that she hated art and - she was antagonistic toward all the things I liked. So there was a bit of antipathy there from the start. I certainly set out to try and break that down, because I found that kind of thing very stressful and I took her out to dinner and tried to become friendly, but her resolve was absolute. But so was mine, and we clashed continually.
That’s jumping the gun a bit. The Fremantle Society Committee met with Council a few times and we thought ‘We’re not going to get anywhere there’. That impression was strengthened further by speaking with officers like Stan Parks, who gave us a lot of guidance, and also his impressions of what the real situation was. Most of the people on the council would actively oppose the kinds of things we were talking about. And we were talking about preservation on a large scale. We were talking about dropping the road widening scheme that would have devastated High Street. Every building in High Street was to come down, both sides, and they’d already started. The TAB building and the National Bank building had been built on the new setback. If you go and look now, that was the line Fremantle High Street was to take. Every time a building was renovated or if any development happened, which Council was encouraging, the building would have to be pulled down and set back on that new line. The same was to apply to Market Street. In Market Street the building next to the Post Office was demolished and the new renovated telephone exchange or whatever was put in there, set back on the new line. It was also happening at the east end of High Street. If you look at the buildings on either side of Victoria Hall and Crane House, they were all on the new line. So that was to be the new Fremantle, and it was pretty grim. But a far more urgent matter was Henry Street, which was going to be widened by a further ninety feet on the eastern side. All those buildings would have been removed but for the intervention of Stan Parks. He was clearly uneasy about the highway proposal. He said: we’ve got the buildings, let’s not demolish them, let’s lease them out, get a bit of income until we’re ready to do the whole thing. If he hadn’t adopted that particular view, Henry Street would have been lost.
Did you have a strategy worked out, how you were going to go about trying to save the Fremantle buildings?
No, we didn’t, but we quickly realised that all the significant decisions were made by the Council and that it was impossible to influence them on any broad scale. So we thought, well, why don’t we try and get some people onto the Council, to be part of the decision-making process. I was chosen by the Commit- tee as the first attempt at that.
When was that?
That was for the following election, in May 1973. I’d moved to Fremantle by that time, and I was one of the few people really eligible from the Society Commit- tee. I went about it seriously but with some trepidation, never having done any- thing like that before. I didn’t ever really think that it was going to happen. The Society went to Council meetings and was appalled at the level of debate. We were quite shocked to hear a Councillor Rule, who was the representative more or less in charge of the Round House through his membership of the Fremantle Port Authority, standing up and talking about what a nuisance the building was, and how it should be pulled down. And we thought, well, if this is what the custodian is saying, what hope is there? Of course the building is the oldest building in the State, and we’d made it the logo of the Fremantle Society. So we thought, you’re not pulling that down! and, okay, he’s the one we’ll stand against. Except the mayor said to me, you shouldn’t stand against old Charlie, he’s quite a nice bloke you know, and he’s also basically my boss - he was head of the Friendly Societies. However, he didn’t intervene at all, other than to give me a lot of tips and advice on campaigning and so forth, because he was a skilful politician in that sense.
Anyway, I stood in North Fremantle against Charlie Rule, and appealed to the Society for support. Our membership had boomed - we had hundreds of members by this time, very quickly, and large number of volunteers turned up to help on the day. They were a very interesting mixture of people. For example, Sir Frederick Samson sat at the booth at North Fremantle handing out how to vote cards, and Kim Beazley Senior came and quite a number of well known people also involved themselves. The Hasluck family helped, and it was very interesting, this sort of mixture. The trade union people were helping, Paddy Troy and others. So that was all quite encouraging. But what I set out to do was to door- knock the whole of the area. By this time the Fremantle Society had realised that North Fremantle was arguably the most damaged of any ward of Fremantle. Most of the people who lived there had been displaced by the demolition of their houses on the western side of the highway, for port expansion, and they regarded the plight of North Fremantle as being virtually beyond help.
I campaigned and doorknocked on a campaign of reviving North Fremantle as a place to live in, of stopping any further industrial expansion there at the expense of residents, and the removal of offensive industry that was damaging them, their quality of life, and a general residential revival and protection. I found a lot of support as I went around from people, also a lot of hopelessness. A lot of people thought, yes, we’ve tried all that. We’ve had petitions, and all these things in the past, but you can’t get anywhere. Of course, I could see why. The City Engineer and Planner was completely hostile, the local representatives on the Council from North Fremantle were virtually moribund, and fatalistic about it. And most of the rest of the Council couldn’t care less about North Fremantle. Anyway, I campaigned heavily, I doorknocked, and some of the people who got on to the Society committee designed pamphlets. I was promoted as the new direction for the North Ward, things like that. They’d never actually seen anything like that before, it had been virtually a closed society, a closed club. It was a case of, well, it’s your tum to stand for the Council now. Well, as it turned out, I had a resounding victory, with a very high voter turnout. We calculated afterwards that over 70% of the residents voted. It was officially a 50% poll (of the number of residents on the roll). Which was remarkable when you consider that a very large part of the North Ward including most of the area on the southern side of the river was business-owned. Used car yards and those kind of things, plus all the factory areas. So the people really did endorse what I was saying. I think I won on a 2-1 basis. That was pretty terrifying. Suddenly it wasn’t just talk any more, I was actually in there. Well, certainly it was the cat amongst the pigeons. Cat amongst the vultures, actually.
Where were you living at this stage?
I was living in Ellen Street, in Fremantle. So I didn’t even live in the ward, but on the boundary of the ward.
How many committees were you on?
I think I went on to every committee. Except Finance and Executive. I was certainly on two or so at the start, but miraculously I was able to get on to the Planning Committee, which was the most important one, that’s where all the action was. I think they thought that it would be a bit of tokenism, that I couldn’t do much harm in there. But I did, of course, I set about trying to change things, and what I did at the start was to confront them with North Fremantle issues. The only electoral promise I made when I doorknocked was to call a public meeting, to put a program for those who came for the revival of North Fremantle and how we would go about it. I did say to everybody: I’m just one person, I can’t do much by myself, you’ve got to get behind me. If you really want change to come about, it needs to be broadly based. Well, I got hold of the North Fremantle Town Hall and called a public meeting there. A very large number of people came, and I’d prepared a petition which basically called on Council to dump the existing planning scheme for North Fremantle, rezone the whole thing to protect the residential area. It was unanimously endorsed by the meeting, and a large number of volunteers took the petition around. I think within a week we had 90% of the residents sign it. I presented it to the full Council, in a fairly dramatic way. I think I ﬂung it on the table, and people were rather stunned when I read it out and mentioned the numbers of people I spoke for. I told them that this was what the people of North Fremantle demanded. Anyway, that came to the Planning Committee and of course the City Engineer and Planner was very bitterly opposed to it, because it was a complete repudiation of what he’d done in North Fremantle.
At about the same time there was a proposal for industrial expansion in Pearse Street. This was a largely residential street which I saw as the front line. When I’d gone there I met a character named Dick Cotton, who declared his interest in public affairs and was a principal of a technical school at the time. He said he wanted to stand for Council and he agreed with everything that I was saying, and he appeared to be quite sound. Then this proposal came up for industrial expansion in his street almost immediately. So I went to see him and we organised a little petition in the street, and every resident and ratepayer except a couple of the absentee owners signed it. This was too much for the Town Planner and he did an investigation of the names on there; he said that some of these people weren’t actually ratepayers, they only lived there, so it shouldn’t be taken notice of. But he got a lot of his facts and figures wrong, which I think is unforgivable, and I pointed that out at full Council. There was really active hostility between us, and I set out to get rid of him from the Council. I made that very clear to him. And I succeeded, which I think was one of my greatest achievements. It wasn’t any- thing personal, because he was relatively personable in a way. But his whole view of the city was just totally different to mine, and he could do so much dam- age.
I found that my view of the Town Planner was actually shared by a few other people within the Council. The Mayor, Bill McKenzie, was I think a bit skeptical about the redevelopment that was going on in the city, even if he was hardly a lover of old buildings. Certainly Stan Parks and the cultured elements of the staff were hostile to him, or certainly didn’t agree with him. He was extremely aggressive, and confident of his rightness in things.
He was the Town Planner, which would now be what? Director of Planning?
Yes, they’ve got fancier titles these days, but they’re still driving the same kind of bulldozers. His whole philosophy was really hostile to concepts that I felt were important like residents coming first, that residents had to be given priority in all sorts of planning terms. So you had approvals of industry in residential streets going on because the street had been zoned for industry but people still lived there, and I thought those things had to stop. I set as a target completely throwing out the existing planning scheme and replacing it with a new one. There was undeclared war between the Town Planner and myself from the start. It became very clear that we had to get more people on to the Council, and not long after that there was a by-election in North Fremantle and Dick Cotton came in and was very supportive in those days. And the following year I think we managed to get two new people on, Gerry McGill and Don Whittington, in 1975. We put up candidates in all seats; they performed quite well, and two won. That really started to change the balance, because both McGill and Whittington were well-educated and skilled, and they were able to give strength to the movement. It was well under way.
So in North Ward then you had Gerry and you and Dick Cotton?
Yes. North Ward was the thrust, and we got a situation where other wards were complaining that North Ward was getting all the attention. I countered that by saying, yes, but it suffered longer than anyone else, so it was time for some positive discrimination for North Fremantle.
What really hits me thinking about it now is how much was concentrated in such a short period. It was tremendously exciting in a way, because there were proposals for high-rise buildings and a large number of historic buildings were threatened. One of the big projects that we got under way very early in the piece was the classification of buildings for the National Trust, which involved the Fremantle Society in a massive amount of work that went on over many months.
Was that a purely Fremantle Society project?
Almost entirely the Fremantle Society, no involvement from my recall of the Council. And the National Trust involvement was very minimal. They obviously had to do the approving, and they came down and looked at what we had done, but all the work was by volunteers from the Fremantle Society.
What did people do, or how did they go about it?
We got the procedures from the National Trust. They had forms that needed to be filled out — you had to photograph the building and describe it, you had to give as much of its history as possible — who designed it, when it was built, what changes had occurred, and so on. And in those very, very early stages we concentrated on the central city. But we were looking at hundreds of buildings, and it took a lot of work to do that. Just the photography alone meant a lot of work.
Who did the photography?
Various volunteers, but I think that Michael Lewi did quite a bit for us. He certainly did it at a later stage, but I think he did even then. Certainly as a result of that survey we had a very successful photographic exhibition of the buildings of Fremantle which was opened by the Governor-General, in 1974 I think.
The Fremantle Society and its interests — they weren’t only about buildings, there was a very strong social component?
Oh, certainly not. We considered the buildings important, and we thought that the economic future of the city depended very heavily on the preservation of the buildings, and reusing them. We didn’t quite know what for, but certainly people would come and look at them and we could see economic advantages there. We had to save the buildings, because once they were gone that was it. And there was a great deal of proposed demolition. The fights were very keen and closely contested, and in most cases the Council was evenly divided as to whether to save or demolish. But for McKenzie’s casting vote we would have lost so much that it would hardly be worth looking at the city as a whole. We had already lost a lot in the eastern sector, but that was before the Fremantle Society was formed. After our formation we lost very little, and indeed most of what’s been lost since 1972 has been lost in the eighties when the Fremantle Society was more or less dormant, if that’s the word.
We had to save the buildings, so that was a very high profile thing which gave us a lot of public identity. We involved ourselves with the unions, and some green bans were placed on buildings. That had very important ramifications, of course, because apart from saving those individual buildings it gave a clear message to developers that you couldn’t pull down buildings in Fremantle, or that it would be hard to do so.
How did you manage to involve the unions?
At that time the Builders Labourers’ Federation under the leadership of Jack Mundey had taken a really socially responsible role in Sydney, basically saying that workers shouldn’t just be concerned with wages and conditions ~ they should look at the impact of what they do on society. And that I thought was a very potent kind of argument, certainly the results were there in Sydney. He came over and spoke to us, and we were very impressed by him.
You invited him over?
Yes. He spoke to the Fremantle Society, and said he’d do his utmost to influence the local branch here to support us. We met the local branch people, and one of the heads of the Union came on to our committee, and we were able to get green bans placed on a number of significant buildings that were going to be demolished, such as Victoria Hall. This frightened a lot of people within the Fremantle Society and in the community at large. It was considered a very radical thing to do. I had no problem with it at all, I wasn’t concerned about the unions per se or what they did really, my concern was saving Fremantle. I thought they were giving lip service at least to something socially desirable. I doubt that many of their members felt the way Mundey did, but there was the opportunity to bring about this change in Fremantle, and to hold the line, as it were, so we took it. I think most of those people who complained at the time, are now pleased that it happened. And I don’t think Jack Mundey is considered to be a problem any more. He seems a great Australian.
So we concentrated on the buildings immediately; we had to deal with those in sort of firefighting exercises, but we very quickly went beyond just looking at saving buildings. We wanted to be a body that aimed at improving the quality of life for everyone in Fremantle. The basis of our proposed revision of the planning scheme was that it should protect Fremantle as a residential area. We went beyond that — we promoted the idea of seeing that there was housing for low income earners maintained in a new Fremantle, because what was starting to happen was rising property values, and the town was going to turn into a largely owner-occupied town as against a majority of rental properties. And there were people who were socially vulnerable, they were going to be damaged. We certainly identified that, and tried a few strategies through the Council and through the Society, and later on the Commonwealth government. For example, we promoted the small houses scheme, a variation of the scheme which has been very successful in Scotland, to the National Trust. Ours was going to be different. It wasn’t just a rolling fund to create pretty houses from ruins. We were concerned about who would live in them, and we involved Homeswest (then called the State Housing Commission). They were going to manage the small houses scheme and provide funds for building houses on land provided by the Council. There would be a large quantity of in some cases restored old houses, but in most cases new houses in public ownership, which would allow people who were important to Fremantle but who were socially vulnerable to remain.
How were you going to keep a check on the design of new places?
Well, they were going to have to meet fairly strict design controls, and we were responsible then for setting up a Townscape Advisory Committee. This Commit- tee produced a great report which was promptly shelved.
Who was part of that?
There was Rob Campbell, Ken Adam, Eric Morris, myself of course — I was on everything in those days. Well, I was the person being the spokesman. I was put- ting forward these ideas at the Council level, so I was the logical person to go on to them. There was a new Town Planner, Rob Henwood, there may have been one or two other people. But we certainly wanted to see new houses built that provided accommodation for the elderly and people on low incomes, and people who weren’t going to be protected by open market forces. I’m pleased that it got under way, and very sad that it’s been disbanded and sold off by the Council. But we got very much involved in other issues, too, like trying to get premises for the Darby and Joan Club, which had been a very significant group in Fremantle, and had been very badly treated by the Fremantle Council. Getting a home for the Harbour Theatre; there was a very bitter fight within the Council over the Evan Davies building. We involved ourselves in a very wide range of socially desirable things, instead of just being a historic buildings group. But the great thrust was through planning — we thought of rational planning as being the way to look after society. Open market forces and Council regulations certainly wouldn’t do it.
How long were you actually on Council?
Six years. I left in 1979, because of a very strong and considered campaign by the Labor Party to get rid of me, which culminated in John Dawkins, who was the Federal member at the time, who had agreed to authorise my campaign, putting out a letter on House of Representatives notepaper to every letterbox in the ward, saying in essence that — and without going into the reasons — because of events that had occurred he had to withdraw his support from my campaign.
Why did he do this? What happened?
The Labor Party decided that they wanted to get members on to the Council. They came to us to ask us at the election of 1979 to get one of our candidates, whom we were supporting in the South Ward, to withdraw in favour of their candidate, Norm Marlborough. We refused to do this, not because of any special antipathy towards the Party or to Marlborough, but because we thought we had to be independent. It was a three-way contest, and we said we would be quite happy to give him second preference, but we have to be independent. Also I think a lot of our members felt that, well, we’d been doing the job. The Labor Party hadn’t been around, and they should be supporting us. We also didn’t like party politics in local government. We didn’t think it was effective. We thought State and Commonwealth government was pretty ineffective anyway, and I thought the Fremantle Society’s success depended on being bipartisan. That’s certainly how we worked through the Council.
Do you know what caused the Labor Party's move into local government?
I think the Fremantle Society caused it in a way, because we were seen to be very successful. I think a lot of budding politicians thought, we’ve got to get into Fremantle Council, it’s getting all this incredible publicity. They wanted to use it as a stepping stone to greater things. We’ve seen that, with Geoff Gallop and Norm Marlborough and others, using the Council as a sort of training ground for State politics. Anyway, our Society committee met, we discussed the thing — it was a very contentious issue — and we were under threat. Certainly we discussed it openly at length, and one of our members put forward a compromise proposal which basically meant we should all stand down in favour of the Labor Party. These issues were discussed and put to a secret ballot, and the vote was almost unanimous to say to the Labor Party that we have nothing against you whatsoever, we will give you second preferences, but we must retain our independence.
They wouldn’t accept that. Gerry MacGill was persuaded to stand against me at the last minute, which didn’t especially bother me, and he was to have full Labor Party backing. I was very limited at the time in what I could physically do, just recovering from a number of major operations, and I found the actual physical doorknocking very difficult. As it turned out, the campaign became particularly dirty and various people I know have told me since all the appalling things that were said about me person- ally. There were all sorts of implications of corruption and things that were said at the door to lots of people, none of it of any substance. It was dirty campaign which was very hurtful, but I may still have won I think but for the letter from Dawkins. The implications of whatever the reasons for him withdrawing his support might have been were so open-ended. I know even former Fremantle Society committee members voted against me because of the sorts of slanderous things that were being said, and later regretted it.
The Dawkins letter is what I think got me off the Council, but of course that saved my life, because I was really very ill at the time, and I resigned as President of the Fremantle Society. I stayed as a member, but I needed to be much less involved. I changed my occupation. I went overseas and I started this business [Lauder and Howard].
The interview was terminated at this point.
Garry Gillard | New: 31 July, 2017 | Now: 20 August, 2017