Review by Michael Easson of Chris Bowen, Labor People. The Stories of Six True Believers, Monash University Publishing, Clayton, 2021.
Chris Bowen, the former Treasurer, now Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, is an avid reader, and curious about the motivation, thinking, and conflicts that rule the hearts and minds of political folk. His latest book tributes six, largely forgotten, Australian Labor men and women, never household names. In doing so, Bowen says that many books: “…tend to focus on the big names or the big dramatic moments: the election wins, the reforms, the splits, the challenges.” But there is more to the Labor story: there are many thousands of personalities who make up the movement.
The book carries chapters on ALP Senate leader and Deputy Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, Senator Gregor McGregor (1848-1914; Senator from South Australia, 1901-14; Labor Senate Leader in the same period); Labor suffragist Lilian Locke (1869-1950); Labor Leader Frank Tudor (1866-1922; Federal MP, 1901-22; Labor Leader and Leader of the Opposition, 1916-22) who succeeded Prime Minister Billy Hughes in 1916 as Labor Leader when “the Little Digger” walked out of the party; John Dedman (1896-1973; Federal MP, 1940-49; Minister, 1941-49), arguably Curtin’s and Chifley’s ablest Minister — Evatt, his only rival; Gertrude Melville (1884-1959; member of the NSW Legislative Council, 1952-58), the anti-Grouper Labor Women’s activist who was elected in 1952 by a college of the two Houses of the NSW parliament to the NSW Legislative Council, the first women so elected; Ken Wriedt (1927-2010; Senator from Tasmania, 1968-80; Minister in the Whitlam government, 1972-75; Labor Senate Leader, 1975-80; Tasmanian state MP, 1982-90; Tasmanian Labor Leader, 1982-86), one of Labor’s most significant ever representatives from the Apple Isle.
Of the people discussed, Dedman alone attracted a book-length account of his life (Andrew Spaull, John Dedman. A Most Unexpected Labor Man, Hyland House, 1998). The others nowadays are barely known.
In recalling their lives, Bowen is measured, his judgements supported by careful research. For readers coming to these characters for the first time, there is much to whet the appetite; another way of saying there is the urge to explore more about each one.
McGregor’s Chapter is the shortest, half the length of Wriedt’s for example. McGregor never had much prominence on the national stage but acted as Deputy Labor Party Leader during the entire time he was a Senator. A Scottish migrant, labourer and gardener, unionist, South Australian MP in 1894, supporter of women’s suffrage, an accident caused him to go blind (which he was when a Senator). Famously, in 1901, Labor elected to the national parliament in a minority, between Protectionists and Free Traders, he announced Labor is “for sale, and we will get the auctioneer when he comes, and take care that he is the right man.” Close to the Defence Minister, Senator Pearce, who “ratted” in 1916, it is an open (and unfair) question whether he too might have joined Hughes and others. But he died in 1914.
Lilian Locke’s is another succinct, interesting chapter. The aunt of novelist Sumner Locke Elliott, she was Labor’s first female paid official (an Organiser in Victoria), contributor to the radical journal The Toscin, and the first female delegate to national conference. Living and moving between Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland, and NSW, she was active in the Labor cause. Her husband, George Burns, was briefly a Tasmanian state MP, 1903-06, and a Federal MP (from NSW), 1913-1917. After Sumner Locke Elliott’s mother died, Locke brought up her nephew, and several of his novels, particularly Waiting for Childhood (1987) contain allusions to his doting aunt.
Frank Tudor might never be recalled at all, but for “events”. He achieved an honourable place in the labour movement: a hatter, unionist, Protestant social justice campaigner, politician, Minister, indifferent orator, in the “mould of respectable artisan radicalism” as historian Janet McCalman, quoted by Bowen, described him. Tudor’s principles clashed with expediency. In September 1916 he resigned from Hughes’ Cabinet because he did not support the first referendum on conscription. After Hughes quit Labor in 1916, taking many of the ablest ministers, a third of Labor MPs with him, Tudor became leader, stabilised and revived the party. Bowen pronounces that “Tudor wasn’t a natural leader,” yet his ordinariness, decency, and absence of radical fire made him an appealing figure, right for the times. As Bowen says, he was leader for “the darkest days” and was defeated at elections in 1917 and 1919. For a time, Queensland Premier T.J. Ryan aspired to lead the party, stalking Tudor for the leadership. In a flourish, Bowen says that the two were very different: “Tudor was slim with a reputation for good administration and Labor values rather than charisma; Ryan a fuller figure who was charismatic and found his way to Labor only after a dalliance with the Liberals…” Bowen tells some of the stories well, such as Hughes personally leading in Brisbane a small group of soldiers in November 1916 to seize the Queensland Hansard due to his dislike of a speech by Ryan published there. In 1919 Ryan was found a seat in Sydney for the Federal elections. He, Tudor, and party president, Edward James Holloway, co-signed election material. The triumvirate battled against more radical policy drafts. None wanted to wobble with the Wobblies. In 1921 Ryan died of influenza, Tudor was in ill-health, and Labor turned to Matthew Charlton (1866-1948; Leader, 1922-28), another forgotten figure, as Leader. Bowen expresses hope that his account might awaken interest and further research in appreciating Tudor’s various battles for and within Labor.
The fourth chapter is the longest in the book, on John Johnstone Dedman, Scottish-born Victorian dairy farmer, Labor MP for nine critical years, who was instrumental to Curtin’s and Chifley’s dreams of a progressive post-war Australia. Chifley might have favoured him as his successor, but Dedman lost his seat in 1949. Interestingly, Dedman was originally a Country Party supporter who moved to Labor. As Minister for War Organisation, and later Minister for Post-War Reconstruction, Dedman was one of the best in government. Part of his story is also told in Stuart Macintyre’s book Australia’s Boldest Experiment: War and Reconstruction in the 1940s, New South (2015), which is referenced here. Bowen discusses Dedman’s life with confidence based on his wide reading. Towards the end of his life, Dedman contributed learned articles in various journals, including the Australian Journal of Politics and History, Australian Outlook, Australian Quarterly, Labour History, and Politics, on aspects of his political experience, covering topics such as his memoir of the War-time Labor government, practical aspects of collective responsibility, the ‘Brisbane Line’, the encounter over Manus Island, the return of the A.I.F from the Middle East. This too is a source for understanding Dedman. In some respects, however, the Keynesian fan was not ideally suited to politics. Bowen summarises: “Talented in policy, a friendly outward-facing image wasn’t Dedman’s forte.”
Perhaps Dedman’s greatest peace-time achievement was in championing the formation of the Australian National University in Canberra. The Snowy Mountains scheme was another focus, reconstituting government scientific research into the CSIRO. Responsible for the White Paper on Full Employment, Dedman was at the heart of government efforts to develop, explain, and extend its reforms. He engaged in a pamphlet war with Eddie Ward on the case for the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement between the allied powers concerning a system of rules, institutions, and procedures to regulate the international monetary system, including the formation of the International Monetary Fund.
In Geneva at the time, he heard the news that the Federal Cabinet indulged Chifley with his surprise proposal to nationalise the banks, an electorally fatal move. Dedman had previously supported this idea in Cabinet. Bowen admonishes him, however, saying: “… an active monetary policy was necessary, but wrong in his view that bank nationalisation was the way to achieve it.” Dedman’s career is an important Labor story, and Bowen is right to highlight his impact and influence.
Gertrude Melville is affectionately portrayed, but Bowen under-appreciates why her last years were so controversial. A member of the ALP from 1904 onwards, Federal Labor rather than Lang Labor in the 1930s in NSW, a leader of NSW Labor Women, she was regarded as a straight-shooter, earthy, practical, sincere. Bowen sketches the sometimes-complicated story of NSW Labor politics; she stood unsuccessfully as a state MP in 1925 and 1932, and then successfully in local government, winning election in 1944 to Cabramatta-Canley Vale Council, “the knitting alderman” as local paper The Biz (Fairfield, NSW) called her. She campaigned for a revamped rail platform at Canley Vale station, a maternity ward at Fairfield Hospital, better footpaths. In 1948, with a merger with an adjoining Council, she was no longer there.
In 1952, at the NSW ALP Conference, where the ALP Groupers in a short-lived coalition with the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) won control of the party, Melville and women delegates urged consideration of a woman candidate for the NSW Legislative Council. She won election for a casual vacancy – elected for the balance of the term of the Hon. E.H. Farrar, deceased, to April 1958. “A Grandmother MLC” was the local newspaper heading. Oddly, Bowen in bold writes: “Leading Loyal Labor Women Through the Tumultuous 1950s”. But surely, the main protagonists in NSW Labor Women were all loyal to the ALP, with a near majority supporting the old Grouper aligned executive, with Melville lining up with the Evatt supporters. Not mentioned in Bowen’s account, is that Kath Anderson (1921-1996; NSW MLC, 1973-81) was mentored by Melville, and on the latter’s retirement as an MP was Secretary of Labor Women, and a supporter of the broad coalition against the NSW Right. Following the ALP Split, 1954-56 in NSW, and in its immediate aftermath in 1957-58, prominent figures in Labor Women like Anderson, Dorothy Isaksen (1930- ; NSW MLC, 1978-99) moved from opposition to co-option into the dominant Labor Right in NSW. How and why is a story for another day.
Bowen discusses the rows between the different factions, the loyal-to-Evatt crowd versus the heirs to the NSW Labor Industrial Group traditions. With Federal ALP intervention in NSW in 1956, Assistant Secretary Jack Kane and NSW ALP Organiser Frank Rooney were sacked, purges occurred in pockets of Sydney (notably in the Sutherland Shire), but overall, the NSW ALP stayed whole with only minor defections to the DLP.
Bowen mentions a rowdy Labor Women’s conference in 1956 oblivious about some names he cites from the pro-Grouper-side, Mrs Monica McCarney (1913-91), wife of the Vehicle Builders Union leader Milton McCarney (1910-1974); Josephine (“Josie”) Freeman (1902-1989), who this author knew slightly — until her health gave way, she volunteered with Johno Johnson (1930-2017; NSW MLC, 1976-2001) in the canteen at NSW ALP conferences years after the events Bowen describes — the sister of the priest (Cardinal) Freeman; and Miss Carmel Nyham (1893-1962), the Shop Assistants union official for 41 years, another forgotten Laborite.
Melville was regarded suspiciously by the old Labor Right because of her fellow-travelling associations. Bowen references Melville’s trip to Japan and China in August 1957 and her urging that the ALP support “peace” organisations. Peace front organisations were often contaminated by hard-line communists. Not mentioned by Bowen is Melville’s account, uncritically reported in The Biz on 30 October 1957, drawing from her address to a crowd and her notes of the tour. Melville insisted: “…I was not led astray by any fanciful ideas whilst in China, and no-one can say that the Communists have ‘got’ me. What I am going to tell you is what I saw with my own eyes, and not what I was told.” As a Catholic, she was possibly sensitive to the stories about many Chinese priests and lay persons arrested and dying in jail since the “Revolution”.
Melville proceeded to say that in China “to-day it is ‘one man, one vote’,” an incredible assessment. In February 1957, Mao proclaimed, “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend” before the first crop of dissent and democratic expression were lopped, purged, jailed, or disappeared. She reported that in Beijing “I attended Mass and afterwards we saw three of the priests who told us that there was no interference with them and their religious duties, and the only ones who were not welcome were the political ones,” which might have set off alarm bells, if she had thought about what she had heard. Who were the “political ones”? All Catholics at the time knew for example that the Bishop of Shanghai, Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, was in prison. In September 1955 he, along with more than 200 priests and Church leaders in Shanghai, was arrested. Taken to a mob “struggle session” in the old greyhound stadium in Shanghai, Bishop Kung was meant to publicly confess to his “crimes”. Before being bundled back into the Laogai, where he was to spend the next 30-years, Bishop Kung cried out: “Long live Christ the King, Long live the Pope!”
Gertie knew best. In Shanghai, in one confiscated-for-the-state religious building she noticed the “grounds where a Shrine of the Blessed Virgin is still there, and well cared for, which gives the lie to the fact that there is no religious freedom.” An instant expert, seeing what her chaperones wanted her to see, Mrs Melville proceeded on a Potemkin-village-like tour. At one factory: “Here, as in every other place we went, the workers seemed so interested and happy in their work. They loved us seeing what they were doing. They work continually in all these factories on an eight-hour shift. Outside those whose shift had finished were playing baseball and they seemed very happy.” In Canton (Guangzhou), on a day trip, another Church, she found another priest who said “…there is no interference with them.” Six months later, his Bishop, Dominic Deng Yi-ming, S.J., began serving a 22-year prison term, in February 1958, without a peep from Melville, now safely home, and in a position to raise her voice as a “friend” of China, to seek mercy for him and other imprisoned co-religious.
Ironically, in the very month that Melville was led around meeting frightened priests and hearing all was sweetness and light, on 2 August 1957, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) was established by the Chinese Communist Party United Front organisation to manage, domesticate, and control the “local” Catholic Church and sever connections with the Vatican. The “true” Church went underground. In the new “patriotic” organisation, as in Soviet Russia, all religious appointments were authorised by the communists. All properties of the Roman Catholic Church were confiscated.
No wonder on her death the Australian communist paper Tribune lauded Melville for standing up to the Catholic Church criticisms about religious freedom in China.
Bowen admires Melville for raising in the parliament in 1958 a complaint about police brutality in NSW and calling for an investigation. Ministers criticised her. The Liberal opposition chimed-in to move a Private Members’ motion calling for an inquiry. But Melville voted with the government, despite the humiliating backdown, because “I still have faith in the Labor Government… I believe that once my party realises that these things are being done, that things are as I believe they are, justice will be done…” The government initiated investigations on the allegations but it is not apparent that any reforms ensued. The whole episode was draining on her health. She died a year later. Bowen says: “A trail-blazer, a feminist of her times; a passionate advocate for what was regarded as right… Gertrude Melville was a remarkable Labor woman” — still true, despite her flaws.
The closest figure to contemporary times, Ken Wriedt, then Labor Leader in the Senate, is forever remembered as the man Gough Whitlam forgot to ring after his dismissal as Prime Minister on 11 November 1975. If Whitlam had had his wits about him, his call might have inspired Wriedt to adjourn the Senate and upset the “orderly” resolution of the supply crisis of 1975.
From a career in the merchant navy came contact with other cultures and religions, and an abiding interest in Buddhism, then courtship, marriage, and settlement in Tasmania.
In Opposition, Wriedt was a huge champion of Whitlam but grew disillusioned with the Prime Minister’s style of governing, his light touch in managing and overviewing decisions, the Cairns/Connor Loans Affair(s) illustrative. He feared the “crash or crash through” tactics of 1975 would end in disaster. He was appalled by the revelations in early 1976 that Labor had sought secret funding from the Iraq Ba’ath party. Yet he still immensely admired Whitlam for inspiring so much positive change. Bowen says: “Wriedt was a good man — competent, caring and respected”, a successful Agriculture Minister, one of the best of the Whitlam government.
After the turmoil of the Whitlam years, in 1980 Wriedt sought election to the marginal seat of Denison in the Federal parliament, but was beaten by the sitting member, “the mouth from the south” Michael Hodgman. From the vantage-point of a safe Senate position, Wriedt gambled, failed, but did so hoping Labor would gain an extra seat in the House of Representatives.
“Every successful reforming government needs dreamers and senior members who are rooted in common sense to provide a balance.” “Perhaps if Wriedt, [Bill] Hayden, [Lionel] Bowen and the other pragmatists had had more influence, that government would have been longer lived and its substantial achievements even greater,” are a few of the conclusions Bowen draws about the Whitlam era.
Later a state MP, an unsuccessful State Leader, and briefly a Minister in the Tasmanian government, Wriedt was not a lucky politician.
All the characters discussed by Bowen left an imprint on the party, even if in some cases that might now only be faintly detectable. All found the party frustrating at times, divided, riven with dissension, stoked with personality clashes, in other words intensely human. That imperfect people in a flawed party could live through the wash of events, the tumble of contested argument, clinching solid achievement that they fought for, making Australia a bit better, is a rich story, Labor’s story.
Hopefully, there are many more ahead from the same pen.