18 July 2023

'Be kind': John Haslem reflects on decades in business, politics - and love

| Zoe Cartwright
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newly engaged man and woman in the 1960s

John and Caryl Haslem shortly after becoming engaged in 1963. Photo: Supplied.

84-year-old John Haslem has a distinguished professional resume – degrees in law and commerce, accolades as a lawyer and a restaurateur, and the first Liberal Party member to win the seat of Canberra.

But possibly the most impressive of his achievements is his 54-year marriage to the love of his life, Caryl Haslem.

The couple met when they were in their teens. John was the son of a grocer in an increasingly multicultural post-war Yarraville.

Although Caryl died in 2018, John still is grateful for his incredible luck in meeting her.

“I was taking up the collection at the youth Sunday service at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne in 1956,” he said.

“There was a pretty girl who smiled at me, and I smiled back. I gave her a wink, and she blushed!

“Then, strangely enough, when I was catching the train home, the same pretty girl was sitting opposite me.”

It could have all ended there, but John’s mum and dad held a picture show to raise money for children with disabilities.

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When John arrived, he couldn’t believe his eyes – the pretty girl who blushed was there, selling sweets.

Being a gentleman, John asked his mum if she might know who the girl was, and luckily, she did.

John’s mum called Caryl’s mum, and he was given permission to take her out to a barn dance.

“I took her out and she was petrified – she didn’t speak to me except to say ‘Hello’ when I picked her up and ‘Goodnight’ when I dropped her off,” John said.

“But I was a typical overconfident 17-year-old and thought I must have taken her breath away.”

John later found out Caryl was only 14 and had never been out with a boy before.

But he must have done something right, because she agreed to more dates, and two years after he started university, she came too.

“That’s why I stayed and did commerce after I finished my law degree,” he said.

“All the med students were circling around her!”

Caryl studied teaching on a scholarship and wasn’t allowed to marry until she had finished the scholarship on 1 January, 1964.

“So it didn’t look like we were rushing things, we got married on January 2, 1964,” John said.

“She was 21 and I was 24. We knew each other extraordinarily well, we clicked and I loved her and I still love her, even though she’s not here anymore.

“We were lucky, incredibly lucky.”

older man and woman in outback with wine glasses

John and Caryl Haslem on a trip to the Northern Territory in 2016. Photo: Supplied.

The following year the couple, who were happily joined at the hip, moved to Canberra, where John first worked for the Department of Trade and then for the leading law firm in the region, until 1975 when he stood for preselection.

The unlikely candidate had voted for Gough Whitlam in 1972 and only joined the Liberal Party in 1974.

He had attended just one meeting before he decided to stand.

“There were 11 candidates, and I got preselected, I think because I hadn’t any baggage, I hadn’t any friends or enemies in the party, I was just a chap in his 30s with three little kids and a pretty wife,” he said.

“No-one expected me to win the seat because it had never been held by the Liberals.

“I was preselected on October 10, the coup d’etat was the 11th, and the election in December.

“I went from a solicitor in October to an MP in December.”

Shortly after winning, John learned his new salary would be exactly a third of what he had earned as a lawyer.

But there were plenty of other perks to the position.

“It was a wonderful, wonderful experience,” he said.

“All of a sudden I was rubbing shoulders with people you saw on TV; all of a sudden you were one of them, and so I was able to help people.

“As a local MP, when you live and work in the electorate, you had plenty to do. You could get bicycle paths and make sure the buses were running well.

“There were committees and travel and it was incredibly interesting.

“The public service were apolitical and if you worked properly with them, if something went wrong or was not going properly, you could just pick up the phone and talk to the head of department and say ‘What are we going to do about it?’

“People knew you, and knew you could help them.”

In 1980, he was defeated by Ros Kelly, and opened a law firm.

He and Caryl also opened the first brasserie in Canberra, Fringe Benefits.

They ran the award-winning business for eight years, employing 20 people at a time, nurturing apprentices and providing the venue for Paul Keating’s Christmas parties.

“We did it because we loved it,” John said.

“It was a challenge and we could employ people, and I was fortunate that I was a successful commercial lawyer and so we could do things that interested us.

“I like doing what interests me, and once I lose interest in something, I stop doing it.

“If I’m not enjoying it, I’m not contributing to the full, so I look for something else.”

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John retired in 1993, before he and Caryl moved back to Melbourne for a period in 1995, where she worked as a development director for her former school.

In 2000, they retired to their beloved holiday home on the South Coast, although ”retired” is a relative term for the Haslems.

John noticed there was no Ray White real estate office in the area, despite the location’s development potential and appeal to retirees from Canberra.

In 2002, he obtained the franchise, which he and Caryl developed into three offices, where he still works part time.

He believes the secret to his and Caryl’s success in every endeavour was down to good luck and good values.

“I’ve had an incredibly interesting life, I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been,” he said.

“I’ve hopped from one thing to another like a grasshopper, but every time Caryl and I did something we tried to do it well, we tried to be fair and honest and help people, and I think that worked.

“If you’re keen and honest and enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll do well.

“And be nice to people – life is too short to have enemies.”

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Good values, isn’t that what we all think we have.
Was standing in for the Liberal local member, when in no elected position or authority to do so, at community events, good values?

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