tip off

Robert Askin: the legacy that dare not speak its name

The most successful Liberal premier in NSW  — and only two have won elections  — would have been 100 this month but no one bothered (or dared) to remember. I am referring to the late Sir Robert Askin, who died 26 years ago, and is recalled nowadays merely as a corrupt politician best forgotten (especially by the Liberal Party).

Askin won four elections in his reign from 1965 to his retirement in 1975, and only Nick Greiner has joined him in the Liberal winners’ list with two. It all began after Askin died in 1981, when a journalist wrote about him on the day of his funeral, calling him a friend of crooks, quoting unnamed sources.

Curiously, no one has ever come forward to put their name to such allegations, freed as they would be, from the laws of libel. (I can reveal that the journalist’s source was a close relative, a medical man, whose patients included a notoriously loud-mouthed and unreliable underworld figure).

I knew Askin and liked him. He might have played fast and loose at times, but I doubt that he was corrupt. And, from beyond the grave, comes a similar opinion  from one who knew him far better and worked closely with him for his entire premiership —  his deputy premier and Country Party leader, Sir Charles Cutler.

Cutler, who died last year, penned his memoirs with the condition that they not be made public until after his death. In them, he not only defends Askin as “a good bloke”, but reveals how he and former colleagues threatened to sue former Liberal premier Nick Greiner for calling Askin and his government corrupt.

Askin was branded as a gambler, which he was, and a crook and a womaniser, which he wasn’t. I lived and worked closely with the man for 17 years as co-leaders and I recall no incident which supports such claims,” wrote Cutler.

But the crunch came when Greiner, elected in 1988, took to distancing himself from the former coalition government. Greiner, for reasons which Cutler finds “totally foreign”, began to follow the line of criticism of the Askin-Cutler government, but “always carefully omitting my name”.

Tom Lewis, who followed Askin as premier, and several other senior ministers of the day, including Cutler, felt that “this was too much to take, particularly from our own side of politics.” Cutler writes: “We became completely fed up with Greiner excusing himself and his government by blaming ours of over 10 years before.”

The group decided not to go public with its concerns, but a letter, over the signature of all of them, was sent through one of Sydney’s leading lawyers to Greiner, saying simply that the signatories took exception to his carrying-on in this way and would take joint legal action if he persisted.

The thought of a former Liberal premier and a Country Party deputy premier and other senior ministers taking this action must have shaken the new premier. He ‘squared off’ and the petty practice ceased. Such is the depth of the free-flowing allegations,” Cutler recorded.

Norman Abjorensen’s book on Henry Bolte and Bob Askin will be published mid-year.

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