Long-ago night of faceless men still Labor’s albatross
FIFTY years ago, journalist Alan Reid arranged for photographs to be taken of Labor’s then federal leader, Arthur Calwell, and his deputy, Gough Whitlam, waiting outside under a street light as ALP powerbrokers met in a Canberra hotel to determine a key item of ALP policy.
In the wake of the December 1961 election, which Calwell lost by one seat, Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies needed to shift the focus away from domestic issues and on to foreign policy and defence matters, where Labor was vulnerable.
In May 1962, Menzies’s announcement of a US request to establish a naval communication station in Western Australia raised the prospect of Labor being wedged. The ALP supported the goal of a nuclear-free zone in the southern hemisphere. If Labor stuck to its anti-nuclear principles and opposed the base, it could easily be denounced as dangerously anti-American.
Continued internal resistance to the base forced Calwell to resort to an unusual, though not unprecedented, stratagem. Although vocal in caucus, left-wing opponents could be silenced if the matter were determined in Calwell’s favour by the external party organisation.
After the federal executive was deadlocked, it referred the matter to a special meeting of the ALP federal conference, which comprised 36 delegates (six from each state).
This special ALP conference got down to business at Canberra’s Hotel Kingston on Monday, March 18, 1963. Over the next few days, two rival submissions were presented.
On Tuesday afternoon, Calwell and Whitlam – although not accredited as delegates – addressed the conference. As night fell on Wednesday, an end to the ordeal seemed tantalisingly close. Two doubtful Tasmanian delegates had swung behind Calwell. The only delegate yet to be pinned down was Queensland party leader Jack Duggan.
Until Duggan was won over, the Left retained the power to prevent any decision being made. At 11.30pm, an attempt to gag the debate was voted down. Calwell and Whitlam arrived at the Hotel Kingston just before midnight.
Inexplicably, Calwell refused to enter the building and to lobby delegates. He chose to wait outside and do nothing. Instead, Calwell talked to Whitlam about an earlier difficult time. This was the night in 1948 that he had spent in anguish while his young son Art was dying of leukemia and which prompted Calwell to thereafter always wear a black tie.
Bemused by Calwell’s unexpected passivity, various delegates, including Victorian Cyril Wyndham, came outside to confer with him. But Calwell indicated that it was up to the conference to make a decision, just as it was his and everyone else’s role faithfully to accept it.
Calwell’s remaining outside the Hotel Kingston was, as Wyndham later noted, “totally unnecessary”.
For Alan Reid it was a godsend, to secure, in his words, “an extraordinary series of pictures”.
No photojournalist being around at this late hour, Reid arranged for a friend, Val Paral, to take photographs of Calwell and Whitlam waiting outside the Hotel Kinston at midnight, conferring with some delegates.
At 1.15 am, Calwell emerged smiling broadly in a corridor outside the conference room. He knew that a vote in favour of the US base was at hand. Half an hour later, the wayward Duggan joined with 18 other delegates to defeat the Left.
Calwell left the Hotel Kingston convinced the conference would soon be forgotten, leaving Labor free to concentrate on less embarrassing issues.
Reid had other ideas. He was going to immortalise the night’s events.
Paral rushed off to a darkroom at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, where he worked. He then went to Parliament House where he presented his night’s work to Reid.
A selection of the photographs, with accompanying text, appeared in Friday morning’s edition of ‘The Daily Telegraph’.
Not all of Paral’s photographs were published – only those that showed an anxious Calwell and Whitlam conferring with assorted apparatchiks outside the Hotel Kingston.
The photograph of a beaming Calwell was not published. Happy snaps complicated Reid’s message. The nub of his article accompanying the published photographs was that “Arthur Calwell’s night watch (was) a sad commentary on the decline in status of Labor’s parliamentary leadership”.
Reid’s article did not refer to the conference delegates as “thirty-six faceless men”. This expression was first used a fortnight later by Liberal Party federal backbencher Harry Turner. Although one of the 36 delegates, Phyllis Benjamin from Tasmania, was a woman, the phrase packed a punch.
In the Queensland election in May 1963, the victorious incumbent Coalition state government successfully targeted Labor’s “faceless men”.
This was a few months before Menzies called a federal election, which he turned into a referendum directed against Labor’s faceless men. An emphatic victory on November 30 that year vindicated this tactic.
Fifty years on, Labor’s faceless men remain an albatross around the party’s neck. Indeed, this year Tony Abbott and the federal Coalition will almost certainly use this damaging phrase over and over again.
The events of one crucial night in March 1963 continue to haunt Labor.
To adapt a recent gnomic utterance by Kevin Rudd, the past and present Labor reality exemplifies to a T the “closed culture of faceless factional men which makes a whole series of (deleterious) things possible”.
The bitter reality is that despite Whitlam’s reforms to the party’s structure, in recent times the federal ALP has lurched backwards to the power of factional heavyweights.
Ross Fitzgerald is co-author, with Stephen Holt, of ‘Alan (“The Red Fox”) Reid: Pressman Par Excellence’.
‘The Weekend Australian’, January 5-6, 2013. Inquirer p 18.