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A new generation of faceless men pulls ALP’s strings

31 July 2010 No Comment

JULIA Gillard is seeking election in her own right after she replaced Kevin Rudd as prime minister six weeks ago following an eruption of factional intrigue and personal ambition in the ALP. The successful coup was orchestrated by union and party insiders whose names — Feeney, Arbib, Bitar, Marles, Farrell, Shorten, Ludwig, Howes — meant little or nothing to the wider voting public.

In a wonderful coincidence, Rudd’s fall at the hands of the ALP’s present crop of faceless men occurred at almost the same time as my co-authored biography of the famed political journalist Alan “The Red Fox” Reid appeared in bookshops.

It was Reid more than anyone who, in 1963, persuaded the Australian electorate that the ALP was controlled by a virtually unknown machine group who came to be known as the “36 faceless men”.

Reid covered federal politics for a very long time — from 1937 to 1985 — but his primary love was intrigue and infighting in the Labor Party.

Reid’s first big story as a political journalist in Canberra was the overthrow of Robert Menzies as Australia’s wartime prime minister in 1941, after a federal election produced a hung parliament.

Labor’s nominal leader in 1941 was John Curtin. Though now seen as one of Australia’s great prime ministers, Curtin in reality was too timid and nervous to make a decisive move against Menzies.

Instead it was the brutal pro-Jack Lang faction in caucus, headed by “Stabber Jack” Beasley, who led the charge. Reid, as an adherent for a time of the Lang faction, had direct access to Beasley and was kept informed of the moves to get rid of Menzies. His coverage of the wartime change in government gained colour and authority because of his proximity to the plotting. Reid did not forget the lesson in politics as Beasley prevailed in caucus and forced a reluctant Curtin into taking the post of wartime prime minister.

For Reid, the real action in politics always happened far away from the public gaze.

At one stage in the 1940s, then prime minister Ben Chifley suggested to Reid that he should consider becoming a Labor member of parliament. Reid turned down the offer because he much preferred to spend his time in back rooms, swapping factional information with Labor numbers men such as Pat Kennelly or Clyde Cameron.

Reid’s decision to stay focused on events behind the scenes in the ALP was an inspired choice. Within a few years, as Cold War fears intensified, the big story in Australian politics was the growing influence being wielded in the Labor Party by disciples of the secretive anti-communist crusader B.A. Santamaria, now remembered as Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s political and ideological mentor.

Reid, in a newspaper profile in 1954, depicted Santamaria as a sinister svengali-like figure. The paranoia that the profile fostered helped precipitate the ALP split of the 1950s, which kept the party out of office until Gough Whitlam won the 1972 federal election. For a decade after the Labor split, anti-Santamaria forces in the ALP used their numbers in the federal party conference and on the federal executive to uphold the party’s embattled leaders H. V. Evatt and Arthur Calwell.

Reliance on the power of the non-elected party machine culminated in 1963 when Calwell called a special meeting of the then 36-member ALP federal conference to determine whether Labor should support or oppose a proposed new US communications base in Western Australia.

Reid, in his finest hour as a press man, arranged for embarrassing photographs of Calwell and his ambitious deputy Whitlam to be taken as they waited impatiently outside the conference after midnight as the 36 faceless delegates inside decided matters. The Liberal Party highlighted Reid’s scary photographs in its campaign material when it called a snap election at the end of the year.

In an effort to remove the faceless men taint, Labor restructured its national conference by including its parliamentary leadership team. But the truth is that the faceless men never went away. Wired deeply into the party structure through the affiliated unions, they simply morphed into the factional heavyweights and numbers men who remain key players in the ALP today.

Near the end of his career Reid wrote many a story in which he detailed how Bob Hawke, even when adorned with all the panoply of prime ministerial power, could never afford to disregard the enmity of the Socialist Left faction.

Significantly, Reid (who had stopped drinking for decades, but was a chainsmoker) was instrumental in persuading Hawke to give up the booze while PM. Hawke repaid the favour in 1987 by visiting Reid’s nursing home and spending four hours with him days before he died of cancer.

Reid was a serious journalist, but he could always see the comic side of Labor’s machinations and shifting allegiances. He would have been amused immensely by the party’s present crop of right-wing factional powerbrokers being forced to go cap in hand to Julia Gillard, a canny graduate of Socialist Left infighting in Victoria, once negative polling filled them a with desire to knife Rudd.

Gillard’s alliance with the right-wing factional powerbrokers adds weight to the suggestion that, in the present electoral contest, she has abandoned her youthful socialist principles and seemingly stands for nothing. Instead of boldness there is nuance, spin, repetition, negativity and a dependence on polling and focus-group findings. Yet Abbott could pertinently ask the question: Is she still in some ways beholden to the unions and to the Left?

A reviewer of Reid’s biography referred to how the authors have succeeded in recreating a political world “shut off in Canberra, run by a tiny elite, self-absorbed, manipulated and manipulative”. This indeed was Reid’s Machiavellian world, and it is the same narrow, factionalised world that destroyed Rudd and anointed Gillard.

In 2010, the faceless men are still alive and well. The backroom boys of Labor apparatchiks and insiders are still seeking to colonise anything that threatens their power.

Even with Gillard as their putative leader, the crucial role of Labor’s faceless men is something about which, on August 21, Australian voters should be keenly aware.

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