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Faces behind the legend of the faceless men

22 March 2013 1,753 views No Comment

Fifty years ago today, ‘The Canberra Times’ shed some fascinating light on the debut performance of the Australian Labor Party’s famed faceless men.

The notion that faceless forces control the ALP is deep seated. In its present form it originated in the wake of a special meeting, back in March 1963, of Labor’s federal party conference in Canberra. The special conference was called to decide party policy on a proposed US radio communications base at Exmouth Gulf in Western Australia. After meeting for over three days at Canberra’s Hotel Kingston, the conference voted narrowly to accept the base. This decision, with delegates squaring off over the issue of its link with nuclear submarines, removed a major point of difference between the ALP and the Coalition government led by Robert Menzies. A number of the journalists who covered the conference believed that Labor had done well to settle this vexed issue by accepting the base.
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Prime Minister Menzies needed to counter this favourable impression. He was supported by his ally Frank Packer, who owned ‘The Daily Telegraph’, based in Sydney. At this time the chief Packer journalist in Canberra was Alan Reid. His brief was to depict the ALP conference in as unfavourable a light as possible. Reid executed this task by engaging in selective reporting. Just after midnight on Thursday, March 21, with the conference still in session, he summoned a non-journalistic friend of his, Val Paral, out to the Hotel Kingston to take photographs that soon scuttled the ALP. The photographs, which quickly became iconic, were of Labors two parliamentary leaders, Arthur Calwell and his ambitious deputy, Gough Whitlam.

Paral took photographs of them as they conferred anxiously with conference delegates, including federal party secretary Joe Chamberlain, while they stood under a street lamp outside the Hotel Kingston. Calwell and Whitlam were not accredited as delegates under the existing party rules. Reid’s photographs were meant to show, and they seemingly did, that they were puppets excluded from the ALP’s decision-making process by backroom operators such as Chamberlain. In all, Packers ‘Daily Telegraph’ published five photographs of Calwell and Whitlam standing outside the Hotel Kingston. Reid’s accompanying text dwelt on their nocturnal furtiveness as they conferred with party and union insiders. But in crafting this story Reid exercised artistic license. He suppressed any material that might modify his unflattering portrayal of Calwell and Whitlam marooned forlornly under a street lamp at midnight.

Reid’s friend Paral followed Calwell into the lobby of the Hotel Kingston, where he continued to take photographs. In truth, Calwell and Whitlam were never locked out of the Hotel Kingston, as some commentators (such as the scriptwriters of Annabel Crabb’s ABC1 documentary ‘Canberra Confidential’) continue to believe. In fact, they chose to wait outside. As a favourable vote neared, Calwell’s mood brightened. He ceased to be worried. Half an hour before the final vote was taken, Paral photographed him with a broad grin on his face. After the vote to accept the US base was carried, Paral took a further two photographs featuring right-wing Australian Workers Union powerbroker Charlie Oliver (later a hero of the young Paul Keating). He was flashing a victory smile.

Reid chose not to use any of these three photographs. They detracted from his theme of Labor as a party of sad losers. Yet the act of excision, while effective, was not total. Reid knew that Val Paral had done an excellent early mornings work with his camera in stressful circumstances. He did not want any of his friends unused photographs to go to waste even if they did not sit with ‘The Daily Telegraph’s agenda. So he passed them on to another, less partisan, newspaper. In a finale to its coverage of the conference, ‘The Canberra Times’ published the three photographs of a beaming Calwell and a happy Charlie Oliver. The accompanying captions noted that they were on the winning side. No other newspaper published these photographs. Despite telling only part of the story, the five gloomier photographs in ‘The Daily Telegraph’ became the canonical presentation of the nights events.

In the wake of Reid’s heroic efforts, Menzies brought on an election a year early. Liberal Party election material carefully referenced the unappealing ‘Daily Telegraph’ photographs of Calwell and Whitlam. Menzies won the election handsomely. This year, Tony Abbott hopes to do what Menzies did 50 years ago. At least in part, he wants to convert the coming federal election into a referendum directed against the faceless men who overthrew Kevin Rudd and replaced him with Julia Gillard.

The faceless men scenario, as devised by Reid, began as an act of selective reporting, involving the suppression (except by the fair- minded ‘Canberra Times’) of photographs of jubilant Laborites led by a beaming Calwell. Its creation was dodgy but it has nonetheless endured, even unto the era of Abbott.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald and Dr Stephen Holt are co-authors of ‘Alan (The Red Fox) Reid’, published by NewSouth Books.

‘The Canberra Times’, March 22, 2013 p 21.

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