Alan Reid ‘The Bandar Log: A Labor Story of the 1950s’, edited by Ross Fitzgerald
The Labor Split spillover
Alan Reid’s ‘The Bandar Log: A Labor Story of the 1950s’ (Connor Court, 2015, $30), was reviewed in ‘News Weekly’ in the July 18, 2015, issue by Patrick Morgan. Here, longtime NW contributor Hal G.P. Colebatch takes a more personal look at the novel.
This book, by “The Red Fox, veteran insider political journalist the late Alan Reid, is a fictionalised account of the great Labor Split which led to the formation of the Democratic Labor Party and consigned Labor to the wilderness until the rise of Gough Whitlam.
The title sums up the author’s judgement of those involved. The Bandar Log in Kipling’s Jungle Book was a band of useless, vicious monkeys, forever caught up in purposeless schemes and intrigues. It is little wonder no publisher would touch the book while the principal characters were alive.
Reid’s vision of 1950s Labor politics (the Liberals are hardly mentioned), is unrelievedly bleak. There is no room for principles, and the whole business is disgusting. It says something of the book’s atmosphere that every man has his jacket shoulders plastered with greasy dandruff. Each protagonist is obsessed with “numbers. To ask what the numbers were for would be merely fanciful.
It is a tale of brains and shrewdness horribly perverted in the pursuit of power for its own sake. In fact, the characters spend a lot of time when not either flattering or threatening one another in justifying their own backstabbing. Even those who begin with high ideals are quickly corrupted. Politics is shown as an addictive moral poison: giving it up, or being ousted, is a shattering blow. Reid himself was a protagonist as well as a reporter, and it is easy to guess from this book that he, too, yearned to play a more direct political role.
The more than half-insane party leader, Kaye Seborjar, a name intended to evoke Cesare Borgia, is a pretty accurate portrait of H.V. “Doc Evatt, whom Reid plainly loathed and despised.
Con Fortune, representing Arthur Calwell, seems much more cunning and ruthless than the Calwell Australia remembers in the twilight of his political career, plainly an inferior to Robert Menzies in tactical ability and intellect, and depicted by Paul Rigby as a plucked cockatoo perched impotently on the wheel of the foundering ALP ship. (Reid’s brief references to the Menzies figure , a cautious reformer , are not unfriendly).
Yet Calwell did have some strong beliefs. As Minister for Immigration he had enforced the White Australia policy with utter ruthlessness, even breaking up families. There was, I am told, nothing fictional about his loathing of Whitlam.
Tom Bannion is described in the book’s “cheat sheet as standing for the young Gough Whitlam, though he more closely resembles Kim Beazley Senior.
B.A. Santamaria, though he is seen and described only through the eyes of his enemies, is caricatured as Carr Domineco, a medievalist clerico-fascist obsessed with the notion that Australia is poised over “the abyss of godless communism. He gets no chance to speak for himself.
The real Santamaria’s organisation of the defeat of the communist leadership in a number of key unions in both Australia and South Asia was a truly great feat, and his whole career , giving up what would probably have been a most lucrative legal practice to fight communism , can be seen as one of self-sacrifice for a principle. But the protagonists of this novel are incapable of recognising a sacrifice: they see him as nothing but another rival for political power (something the real Santamaria never sought), as unscrupulous as they are. Indeed, the real Santamaria was cunning and manipulative, but it was always for an end beyond himself.
Petrov, the Soviet agent whose defection threw open the whole question of the relations of Evatt and his staff with Soviet intelligence and of Evatt’s own sanity, is, surprisingly, not mentioned. Nor is the tragi-comedy of Evatt triumphantly telling Parliament that Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov had assured him there were no Soviet spies in Australia (Labor Members in the House were said to have hidden their faces in despair). Here it is the Communist Party of Australia whose embraces bring about Evatt’s mental and political downfall, but the general structure of the affair seems broadly accurate.
It would be a bold man who claimed to know more about it and to have better sources than Reid (who appears as a character under the name Macker Kalley). When he retired on 1985 after nearly 50 years in the Federal Press Gallery, Members interrupted Question Time to give him a standing ovation, a tribute to his expertise and accuracy, and recognition no other political journalist has received.
When I first read this book, I did not believe Australian politics were all as unrelievedly cynical and treacherous as Reid portrays here. The Split, which is the subject of this book, was in fact marked by a unique episode of political self-sacrifice for a principle: the Labor state MPs, mainly Victorian and Catholic, who formed the DLP, threw away their political careers rather than be part of the ALP left’s flirtation with communism.
While I know more about the Liberal Party, I did know or know of a number of Liberals who were or are men of absolute integrity, not all of whom attained high ministerial office but were unswerving in placing the good of the country above personal ambition.
These include the late Charles Hawker, Bert Kelly, the heroic and indefatigable “modest member and campaigner for economic rationality whose biography I have written, John Hyde, the father of the modern “Dries, and Ross McLean, who is said to have interrupted a speech by Malcolm Fraser in the Party Room with: “Why not try good government, Malcolm? It might be popular.
Now, of course, we have the disgusting Turnbull coup, making professions of honour and loyalty within that party, too, seem merely quaint and quixotic.
The Liberal Party which I and my family had worked for, and which my father and maternal grandfather had helped found and represented in Parliament, would, I thought when reading this book, whatever its mistakes and mediocrities, at least never descend into the miasma of sheer political squalor, such egregious slimy treachery and betrayal, such absence of honour, as this book evokes.
How wrong I was!
Hal G.P. Colebatch
News Weekly, April 9, 2016