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Barry Humphries comments on Mabo, Irish Australians and lawyers

PETER THOMPSON: Finally this morning, to Barry Humphries. Mr Humphries was last in Australia in October last year, for the launch of his autobiography, More Please. In the intervening period, there's been a Federal election with a result which surprised many commentators, and a whole range of issues have been placed on the agenda: republicanism and Mabo - to name just two. Michael O'Regan began his interview by asking Barry Humphries what sort of country Australia is.

BARRY HUMPHRIES: I have to say that it always seems to me exactly the same, which is the lovely thing about Australia. I really don't think it changes at all.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: What about the fact that we've had a political victory by the Labor Party, a surprising one for most commentators, that's raised issues like republicanism to new heights?

BARRY HUMPHRIES: Well, that's always been raised. I mean, it's generally always pushed to the fore when things are so chaotic and disastrous that the public need to be distracted by some kind of exciting patriotic fervour. I don't think it's a new thing. I can always remember it constantly cropping up in my childhood.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: Well, in fact, in your book, you call the republican, or you describe the republican movement as 'a modern manifestation of the sectarian split'. Is that what it is, do you think?

BARRY HUMPHRIES: I think really of course it is. It's generally promoted, isn't it, by quite a number of friends of mine and all marvellous Irishmen?

MICHAEL O'REGAN: Well, in fact, some of the comments you make about the conscientious young bores with Irish names that you found as law students, you said that one day they'd be running the country. Do you think that's come true?

BARRY HUMPHRIES: Well, I think that, generally speaking, people of Irish origins are attracted to the civil service, which is an alternative to the church, isn't it? It's a kind of rather austere sort of job which doesn't appeal to a lot of people, rather the more worldly protestants.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: The opposite of what appealed to you?

BARRY HUMPHRIES: Generally speaking. That's why I'm not a politician and I frankly don't know a great deal about it, though you pay me a great compliment, I might say, Michael, discussing politics with me at all.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: And Dame Edna is someone who's never shied back from political view or political comment, surely?

BARRY HUMPHRIES: Well, she's always been rather outspoken promoter of the Left, I have to say. Edna was of course raised to her damehood, paradoxically, by Gough Whitlam, which was probably the beginning of his downfall, but she's always adored the Labor Party, and though she still spells it L-a-b-o-u-r, which is irritating, isn't it?

MICHAEL O'REGAN: Do you think Australians are much more comfortable with their identity these days?

BARRY HUMPHRIES: It may be so. I'd never thought of Australians as being uncomfortable. I think we've always been rather proud of where we come from, with very good reason. I think that certainly the look of Australians is changing. You just have to sit in a parked car and watch people crossing the road to realise how very few people of European origin now live here.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: Your character is based on, say, Dame Edna, based on a parody of that matronly suburban culture of the 1950s. How does she shift to adjust to a far more multi-cultural and, in fact, different looking Australia of the 1990s?

BARRY HUMPHRIES: I'm not really sure. I think probably it's better to ask her. She's coming to Australia later in the year to do one of her events, and no doubt she'll have something to say about the new Australia which you're celebrating.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: Would she differ much from you, though?

BARRY HUMPHRIES: Oh, I should think dramatically. I've never agreed with a single thing she's ever said.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: Do you think with any one of your characters, and possibly Dame Edna would spring to mind in most people's minds, that there is one character that you have that you'd really try and get closest to what you perceive as the Australian mentality?

BARRY HUMPHRIES: Yes, I think the character of Sandy Stone, who is my least noticeable character. He's always been part of my act since the 1950s. He's the dry, rather .. well, dehydrated suburban dweller of the 1950s. He's now dead. He's a ghost as indeed is his generation, as indeed is his attitude, but he still has a curious relevance to the Australian mentality.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: What about if we took a current issue, say, the High Court's decision in the Mabo case, what would Sandy Stone make of a major social shift in Australian legal history like that?

BARRY HUMPHRIES: Well, could you explain to me what the Mabo case was, first?

MICHAEL O'REGAN: Well, to say that there is a High Court decision which has effectively overruled the fact that Australia was an unpeopled continent when the British arrived in the late 18th century, and recognised that in fact Aboriginal people did have a form of title and ownership to the land, that that's changed the relative way in which we understand Aboriginal rights. Would Sandy Stone take on an issue like that?

BARRY HUMPHRIES: Well, he may discuss it obliquely; after all, Sandy himself is an Aboriginal. Sandy himself is a figure who formerly roamed the sparsely populated suburbs of Australia and he himself now has been dispossessed. I think we've had a number of Aboriginal peoples in Australia and it could be that you and I are the new Aboriginals.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: If you had to devise a new character now, what would you be drawing on, do you think, to find a new image of Australia?

BARRY HUMPHRIES: A lawyer.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: A lawyer - why would that be?

BARRY HUMPHRIES: Because they run Australia. They're the only people who are making any money in Australia, and they're living off our misfortunes.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: Living off our misfortunes - so it would be a pretty negative characterisation?

BARRY HUMPHRIES: No, it wouldn't be. It would be absolutely hilarious and it would be instantly recognised.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: Modelled on anyone that we'd know?

BARRY HUMPHRIES: Yes.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: Who would that be?

BARRY HUMPHRIES: Ah, you'd have to guess. You have to buy a ticket.

PETER THOMPSON: Barry Humphries who's in Australia for the paperback launch of his autobiography, More Please.