Labor’s Original Killing Season
Alan Reid (1914-1987)
Alan Reid was one of the most influential political journalists in 20th century Australia. Working for most of his long career as Canberra correspondent for Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, he not only reported key events in Australian politics, but also from time to time actively participated in them.
As far as can be ascertained, Reid’s roman a clef about the 1950s Labor Split, The Bandar-Log, holds the dubious title of being the only Australian novel legally judged defamatory without having been published.
As myself and Stephen Holt point out in our biography Alan (“The Red Fox) Reid: Pressman Par Excellence (2011), The Bandar-Log was submitted to Angus & Robertson in 1958. Colin Roderick, who worked for A & R at the time, insisted the novel was libellous and the publisher withdrew its initial support.
In 1960, there was another attempt at publication, this time by JP Atkins of Cleveland Publishing. This also failed when the printer, Halstead Press, a subsidiary of A & R, was ordered by its owner-company to halt the print run. A celebrated legal case followed, with Atkins, who was president of the Democratic Labor Party in NSW, suing Halstead for breach of contract. In September 1961, Judge WB Perringnon of the Sydney District Court found the novel was libellous and dismissed the claim.
After more than half a century of suppression, The Bandar-Log: A Labor Story of the 1950s will finally be published on Monday. It is based on the 1960 galley proofs of Reid’s novel I uncovered at the Mitchell Library in Sydney.
The extract below features characters who mirror the actual political players of the time. As Holt and I explain in the introduction to the book, Kaye Seborjar (“Cesare Borgia) is largely based on federal Labor leader Dr HV Evatt; Con Fortune on Evatt’s deputy Arthur Calwell; Carr Domineco on the Melbourne-based, Catholic anti-communist BA Santamaria; and Gilly Hoskin on Labor firebrand Eddie Ward. Jasper Danke is a fictionalised supporter of Santamaria, while the character Macker Kalley (“Machiavelli) is a close representation of the book’s author, Reid.
The title comes from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The phrase refers to “monkey people or, more generally, any group of vicious chatterers. In essence, The Bandar-Log is a graphic Labor novel about the “killing season of its time.- Ross Fitzgerald
Con Fortune had answered the ring at the front door, and been surprised when he recognised his visitors. Carr Domineco and he had been feuding politically within the Party for years. Fortune had ushered the men into the sitting room where his wife Lottie had been sewing. He had introduced them and Lottie, fluttering, had gathered her sewing and left the room.
When the door closed behind her, Fortune dropped the thin pretence at urbanity he had maintained for the brief moments of his wife’s presence. His eyes narrowed. He said, “What do you two vultures want?
Jasper Danke smiled without humour. Large and dominating, he said in his truculent voice, “I take it you want us to come straight to the point, Con? as though he were issuing a challenge.
“Why not? Fortune asked curtly.
Fortune did not like Danke. He did not like his overbearing manner. He did not like the slavering, uncritical, adoring obedience with which Danke stooged for Domineco. Most politicians had obedient, unquestioning stooges. “But Domineco’s are different from the usual stooges, thought Fortune. “There’s something about him that brings out the groveller that’s in every man. The rest of us have stooges, followers and supporters. TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll do anything for us while weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re on top, or while they believe in us, or because they like us. But they want something back. A pay-off. Or flattery. It’s a two-way traffic. But with Domineco it’s one way. He gives nothing, but takes all. He doesn’t have supporters, he has devotees. To them he is without blemish, infallible: a Pope in a lounge suit, a modern saint with a God-sent mission. But despite his distaste for Danke, Fortune did not let the man anger him: he had long passed the stage at which he expended rancour needlessly on unimportant people, even when he disliked them. Danke was merely Domineco’s faithful watchdog. If the dog was kicked, the master went unhurt.
Domineco was silent. He sat in his chair, demure, smooth-cheeked, his face unlined and expressionless, like a Buddha slightly less than life-size, with the same air of calm, compelling benignity. He was very small. But everything about him was exquisitely finished. The bones under the rounded plumpness of his flesh were light and delicate. His face, olive-tinted, was round and sleek, under a retreating, tight-fitting hairline. The mouth was unexpectedly prim, though full-lipped. His hands, which he held clasped in front of him, were sensitive and well-shaped, but tiny.
“Con, said Danke, with booming heartiness, “IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll put it to you straight. We — he paused and nodded in the direction of the motionless Domineco — “Carr and me, we think that it is about time we — that is, you and us — had a powwow.
“What about? said Fortune.
The big man made a conciliatory gesture. “About burying the hatchet, Con.
“Why? said Fortune. “The only place IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d like to bury the hatchet is in your skull. Yours and Carr’s.
Danke shrugged. “So you don’t like us. So what? YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re entitled to feel that way if you want to. But youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve got to be realistic, Con.
“How realistic, Jasper? asked Fortune.
The big man leaned forward in his chair and tapped Fortune on the knee confidentially. “IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll give you the picture as we see it, Con, he said. “You and us — his thick thumb waved towards the silent Domineco — “weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been battling against each other for control of the Party for years. You are strong in the Party, but you haven’t got control. Right at this moment we are even stronger, but we haven’t got control. WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve got a lot of power, but neither you nor we have the tight control that we want. He hitched his chair nearer to Fortune’s. “But together, Con,–his voice was persuasive — “we can own the Party.
Fortune tilted his chair back. He thought, “What’s Domineco up to? What’s coming? Where’s the gimmick? He was alert, like a ratting terrier, but he was outwardly relaxed, his eyes half-closed and reflective.
“So? he asked calmly.
Danke was encouraged. He stabbed at Fortune with a blunt forefinger. “WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re putting all our cards on the table, Con. Being completely frank. His eyes flickered to Domineco. “That’s so, Carr, ain’t it? he appealed.
“That’s so, Con, Domineco confirmed. The little man’s voice was unexpectedly deep and musical, cultured and carefully modulated. He was said to be as fine and fluent a speaker as there was in the country.
“Look, Con. The big man leaned forward eagerly. “IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll tell you how it looks to us. There’s a fight on now in the Party. The right wing — us — versus the left wing. We know you don’t belong ideologically to either side. YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re a middle-of-the-road man. YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re in the position that you could join either side without losing face.
His tone changed subtly. Fortune felt the insinuated threat before Danke voiced it. “Better join us, Con. YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been in the Party a long time. YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve not always been consistent. But youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been consistent in one thing. In Party fights, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve always ended up on the winning side. WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re the winning side, Con. His voice had a triumphant note. “WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re winning now. You can’t beat us, Con — nobody can. Better join us.
“You almost convince me, Fortune answered calmly. His mind was racing. He thought, “If youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re winning, sport, why bother telling me? Why not go on and win? He took a cigarette from the box on the small table beside him. “But IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m like the man from Missouri, Jasper. I have to be shown. He looked at Danke thoughtfully. “What makes you so positive yours is the winning side, Jasper? At the risk of being corny I point out there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip.
“ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll be no slip, Con, said Danke. He struck a match, leaned across and held it for Fortune’s cigarette. “We practically own the Party now. He sounded very confident, Fortune noted dispassionately. “The cup’s at our lips. All we have to do is drink. WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re the winners. Con.
“Thanks, said Fortune. He exhaled and held his cigarette, watching the ash grow. “But somebody might knock the cup from your hand, Jasper. Someone like me. Or Gilly Hoskin. Or half a dozen others. Perhaps the Leader — Kaye Seborjar himself.
“Seborjar? Danke was scornful. “What’s happening to your spy system, Con? Macker Kalley on vacation? Seborjar is backing us. He’s holding the cup steady for us.
Fortune ignored Danke. He turned to Domineco. “That right, Carr?
“That’s right, Con. The little man inclined his head gravely. “And you know me, Con. I don’t lie.
Fortune felt his stomach muscles contract. It was as though he had been punched. He believed Domineco. Domineco did not lie. The little man prided himself on his punctilious honesty in a world where lying was as natural as breathing. Fortune knew that he should say something, anything, to hide the shock of the news that Seborjar, who disliked him and had been trying secretly to undermine him within the Party for years, had joined his dedicated open enemies. “Hell, where does this put me? he thought.
“Surprised, Con? the little man asked gently.
Domineco was trying to gauge his reactions. Fortune knew that. It helped him recover his self-control. “Yeah, he said. “I admit it. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m surprised. That’s quite an alliance — you and Seborjar.
“We both want something, the little man explained unsmilingly.
“Yeah, said Fortune. “Seborjar wants to rule the country — and he doesn’t care how he gets to do it. You want control of the Party — and you don’t particularly care how you get control. There was tension in the room. The three men had the serene wariness — an air of being simultaneously fearless but cautious — that men who are expert in handling dangerous animals so often have. They were all three schooled in handling that most unpredictable of all animals, man. They appeared relaxed, yet at the same time they gave an impression of careful watchfulness. When Fortune rubbed his long forefinger horizontally across his top lip, and kept rubbing, Danke glanced at Domineco. Both men knew the gesture. They had seen it at Party rallies, at committee meetings, at Party functions, on innumerable occasions when Fortune was disturbed.
At last Fortune said, “You two have a boa constrictor by the tail, you know. Sooner or later, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll writhe round and crush you. Danke said with loud confidence, “Seborjar? He boomed his hearty, insincere laugh. “Don’t worry about us, Con. WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll handle him. Fortune said, his lips twisting wryly, “If you can handle Seborjar, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re the first in Party history who can.
This is an extract from Alan Reid’s ‘The Bandar-Log: a Labor Story of the 1950s’, edited by Ross Fitzgerald (Connor Court, $34.95).
Treasured memories of political intrigue:
Alan Reid was the Paul Kelly of his day and the Labor Split in the 1950s was probably the most far-reaching convulsion in Australian politics. It gave birth to the Democratic Labor Party and the National Civic Council and hastened the move of Catholics to the conservative side of Australian politics.
Its repercussions are still felt even today, six decades later, in otherwise unlikely alliances across the party divide.
Reid was far too scrupulous a journalist to put two and two together to get five and a half. For Reid, nothing that first hand witnesses hadn’t verified could find its way into his reporting or his books — or, at least, that’s what he told Greg Sheridan and me when, as wannabe journalists, we visited the largely retired press gallery legend in the late 1970s.
Still, it seems that the gossip and the conjecture that heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d accumulated demanded an outlet — hence this book, his fictionalised account of what he thought had been happening behind the scenes but couldn’t quite substantiate.
In 1958, he turned the drama heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d been covering for the previous few years into The Bandar-Log, a phrase he borrowed from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book that probably best translates as “vacuous chatterers.
Twice, legal action thwarted publication. The account that was too close to the bone to be tolerated, even with the names changed, could have been lost to our literature but for the efforts of another fine analyst of Australian politics: Professor Ross Fitzgerald, who uncovered the final galley proofs of Reid’s work in Sydney’s Mitchell Library.
In some ways, the book illustrates how much has changed for the better since our grandparentsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ day. Many of Reid’s characterisations could be questioned including his rather florid depiction of my one-time political mentor, BA Santamaria, as “demure, smooth-cheeked, his face unlined and expressionless, like a Buddha slightly less than life-size, with the same air of calm, compelling benignity.
Still, the turbulence of times long past is full of instruction for all who would understand the turbulence of our own times. It’s good that Ross Fitzgerald has rescued this important insight into events that have shaped our nation – Tony Abbott
This is the foreword to The Bandar-Log, edited by Ross Fitzgerald.
The Labor split, as told by a witness and player:
Those Russian novelists with their penchant for complex casts of characters had nothing on Alan Reid. His rediscovered work, The Bandar Log, is stuffed with protagonists carrying complicated names designed to disguise their real-life alter egos. It’s sometimes difficult to tell one Labor flunkey from another.
These men criss-cross the narrative, dragging their suit coats through the muck and mire of politics. Their names may differ but their naked ambition and immorality are interchangeable.
No matter. Like the Russians, Reid, the journalist who dominated Canberra reporting for decades, is intent on making some big statements amid the detailed political history he is recounting. The Bandar Log is a book about the Labor Split of the 1950s but it is also about the corrupting effects of politics, a world, according to Reid, inhabited by the venal, the heartless and the dogmatic.
The relentlessly negative view of the politicians and operators whom Reid reported on is a shock although the doyen of the press gallery could be uncompromising in his non-fiction accounts.
And when, in the late 1950s Reid sat down to write this book — recovered thanks to historian Ross Fitzgerald — he had lived through years of manipulation, intrigue and betrayal that had destroyed the Labor brand.
Fiction released Reid, or so he thought, from libel laws, and he let it rip as he recounted the split between the anti-communist Right and the Left in Labor, a rupture that created a new party which, in 1957, became the Democratic Labor Party .
The split of the mid 1950s took place against the background of the Cold War and fears of infiltration by communist agents. Industrial groups had been set up in the ALP to combat communists in the trade unions and B.A. Santamaria, a militant Catholic layman, supported these groups through the Catholic Social Studies Movement. He was pitted against the flawed Labor leader, H.V. “Doc Evatt for control of the direction of Labor.
Reid was a witness but also a player, with intimate knowledge of all the major figures, from Santamaria to Evatt to deputy leader Arthur Calwell. And as Laurie Oakes says in his postscript to The Bandar Log, it was Reid who “lifted the lid on what he termed the Ã¢â‚¬ËœSvengali-likeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ role of Bob Santamaria, starting the process that led to the great Labor split.
Here is journalist Reid writing on October 20, 1954, just 15 days after Evatt, in an extraordinary and destructive move, publicly denounced the influence of Santamaria. “Rightly or wrongly Santamaria, short, squatly rotund, fluently jovial, is believed to be the brain that has built up as powerful a political machine as Australia has seen — Ã¢â‚¬ËœThe MovementÃ¢â‚¬â„¢, a political force that exists, unknown to the thousands who belong to it, within Catholic Action, which itself is non-political and devoted to matters spiritual, not material.
Four years later, with Labor on its knees, Reid as a novelist talks through the Calwell character (Con Fortune) to paint a picture of the differences that ripped Labor apart: “My enemies in the party — Domenico (Santamaria) and his organisation — are bitter. They know I loathe the things they stand for. Their ruthlessness. Their suicidal craving for a Holy Crusade against the Communist heretics … They want to restore peasantry, this time in an urban as well as a rural setting. Their ideal man is bovinely content, stupidly docile and subservient to the divinely inspired, crazy guidance of leaders whose minds half the time are preoccupied unrealistically — and intolerantly — with the problems of life after death.
Reid is a brilliant writer, able to nail the personalities of his protagonists in a few words. The Bandar Log has its faults as a work of fiction but it is a compelling read: history masquerading as fiction and offering a unique contemporary account of events more than half a century ago – Helen Trinca
The Weekend Australian, June 20-21, 2015, Inquirer, p 8.