LABOR PEOPLE – THE STORIES OF SIX TRUE BELIEVERS
by Chris Bowen
Monash University Publishing 2021
RRP: $29.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Keith Harvey
Who was the first federal deputy leader of the Australian Labor Party? If you know the answer to this question, you either have an exceptional knowledge of Australian political history, or you have just read Chris Bowen’s latest book: Labor People – the Stories of Six True Believers (Monash University Publishing 2021, RRP $29.95).
Chris Bowen is a rare example of a politician with an interest in political history and an ability to write about it. Currently Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Bowen’s Labor People is his fourth book since the ALP lost federal office in 2013. His first, Hearts and Minds: A Blueprint for Modern Labor (2013), was an attempt to set a modern agenda for the ALP. It was published in the dying days of the disastrous Rudd/Gillard/Rudd governments. Bowen held a number of portfolios in these governments, ending up as Treasurer for just three months during Rudd’s second coming as PM. Bowen hails from NSW where he is a senior figure on the right of the party.
Two years later, Bowen published The Money Men: Australia’s Twelve Most Notable Treasurers (2015) in which he included both John Howard and Peter Costello as well as a number of Labor Treasurers. After Labor’s shock defeat in the 2019 Federal Election, he wrote On Charlatans (2021) in which he pondered the way populist politicians like Donald Trump and others had managed to woo working class voters away from social democratic political parties.
First deputy federal ALP leader…
I have kept readers waiting long enough. The answer to the question posed above – which is also the first sentence of Chapter 1 of Labor People – is Gregor McGregor. McGregor was the first leader of the ALP in the first Senate elected in 1901, having been previously a member of the South Australian Parliament. In those times, there was no Deputy leader in the House of Representatives and the Senate Leader was considered to be the Deputy leader of the federal party. McGregor served the first three Labor Prime Ministers in this position.
In many ways, McGregor is typical of the politicians that Chris Bowen has chosen for this volume. The ALP has had many well-known leaders as well as many who have defected from or been expelled from the Party. Bowen’s selected “true believers” were Party stalwarts at all times – often putting party before self (a much rarer quality these days). His subjects – who, in addition to McGregor, are Lilian Locke, Frank Tudor, John Dedman, Gertrude Melville and Ken Wriedt – are also characters who may not readily be found in a modern political party: genuine ‘true believers,’ committed to the broader labour movement, motivated by principle not career – and non-factional.
McGregor is also different in a key respect: by the time he was elected to the Federal Parliament he was going blind because of an industrial accident. McGregor was born in Scotland where he worked both as an agricultural labourer and in the Glasgow shipyards (his father was a gardener; his mother’s occupation is not given).
Migrating to Australia in 1877, he got a job as an agricultural labourer for a Sir Richard Baker (who was, evidently, a substantial landowner). McGregor later served in both the SA Legislative Council and the Senate at the same time as Baker. I imagine that neither man expected that that outcome to be remotely foreseeable when the 29-year-old McGregor gained employment with Baker. But it is a tribute to the democratic and egalitarian political system that eventually developed in the Australian colonies and after Federation that such an outcome was possible. The early Labor parties were able to put talented individuals into elected political office and government.
While working for Baker, McGregor suffered an accident while felling a tree and a branch fell into his face, eventually overtime rendering him blind by the time he entered federal Cabinet. It is a tribute to his perseverance and courage that he was able to continue as a parliamentarian without the ability to read. He memorised all his speeches and was considered one of the best speakers in the Senate.
McGregor was also a strongly committed Christian – a Presbyterian naturally enough coming from Scotland – who frequently quoted the Bible in his speeches. McGregor shares a faith commitment with many others in Bowen’s book and he notes that while many people think that Irish Catholics must have started the ALP, this was not true. Protestants, including especially evangelical Christians, were the mainstays of the early ALP. Bowen notes the religious faith of all his subjects but does not go into detail on whether their faith was a driving force in the political activism. This is a pity.
Bowen’s second subject is Lilian Locke, an active suffragist and ALP and Labor loyalist. Born in 1869 in Melbourne, Locke was not of working-class origins. She was the daughter and granddaughter of progressive Church of England Ministers with an interest in social reform. Despite her Anglican upbringing, Locke became an adherent of the Christian Science religion until the day she died – refusing medical treatment and hospitalisation.
Locke was an ardent supporter of and campaigner for female suffrage – but unlike many of her sisters – believed that it was important for women to be involved in a political party and not remain as nonaligned independents, according to Bowen. She was equally prepared to criticise her own party if she felt that it was not doing enough to support voting rights for women and getting women into Parliament (a much longer struggle).
Locke was the first female paid official of the ALP and the first female delegate to a Labor national conference. She campaigned for Labor in Victoria, Tasmania (where she met and married Tasmanian ALP parliamentarian George Burns) and in Charters Towers in Queensland.
However, perhaps unfortunately for the political aspect of the book, the most interesting parts of this chapter are those dealing with Locke’s family life. Unbeknown to this reviewer, Lilian Locke and her family are integrally connected to Australia’s literary history – her nephew was Sumner Locke Elliott, a celebrated Australian novelist who wrote – among other works – Careful, he might hear you, which became a well-known movie.
Lilian Locke became guardian of her nephew after Lilian’s sister Helena died the day after giving birth to him (the father was away at the First World War). Lilian devoted her life to her young nephew, but this guardianship was interrupted in 1921 when another sister returned to Australia from the UK in 1921 and sought control over the child, arguing at times that the “socialistic tendencies and doctrines” of Lilian and George might give the child “improper ideas”. Sumner Locke Elliott told the story of his unhappy childhood and the struggle between his aunts in his autobiographical novels.
While this aspect of Lilian’s story may interest readers more than the party-political ones, it is clear that Bowen has been prepared to write a comprehensive account of the life and times of his subjects. In addition to the biopics, Bowen has included much background Australian political context from pre-federation days (in the case of McGregor) to the Whitlam government and beyond (in the case of Wriedt).
A good example of this is the life and times of Frank Tudor, an actual leader of the Federal ALP whose name has slipped away from the collective memory, unfortunately so in the opinion of Chris Bowen. Tudor was born in Williamstown, Melbourne in 1886 and following stint overseas in the US and the UK became active in the trade union movement in Victoria. Tudor was a deacon of the Congregational Church, a smaller Protestant Church which became part of the Uniting Church. Bowen says he was “a teetotaller, non-smoker and a consistent observer of the Sabbath.” Elected to Federal Parliament for the seat of Yarra in the first Federal parliament in 1901 he became a Minister in the first Fisher government of 1908-9 and again in 1910 and 1914.
Bowen’s chapter on Tudor is dominated by the tumultuous political events of the first world war in Australian politics. As is well known, ALP Prime Minister Billy Hughes (who succeeded Fisher) sought a referendum to introduce conscription – which was opposed by the ALP’s organisational wing and unions. When the first such referendum failed, the Federal caucus sought to debate a motion of no confidence in Hughes, but Hughes walked out of the party room followed by nearly a third of the caucus. Hughes formed a National Labor Party, entered into an arrangement with Joseph Cook’s Commonwealth Liberal party and remained as Prime Minister.
The devastated ALP needed a new leader and turned to Tudor to hold the Labor camp together (splits also occurred in various States as well). Hughes went to an election in May 1917 on a “win the war” platform and Tudor’s ALP suffered a big swing against it. Hughes subsequently held a second referendum, which he also lost. Active in the anti-conscription campaigns for Labor (as well as Melbourne’s Archbishop Mannix – who is not mentioned in Bowen’s account) was Queensland ALP Premier, T J Ryan.
Ryan had held his successful State ALP government together during the war and was a national campaigner against conscription though an active supporter of recruitment for the war. The battle between Hughes and Ryan was monumental and Bowen covers this in some detail, including the extraordinary raid by Hughes on the Queensland government printing office seeking to destroy copies of the Queensland parliamentary Hansard which included anti-conscription speeches by Ryan.
After the successful defeat of the second conscription referendum, moves were made to have T J Ryan transfer to the Federal Parliament. A NSW seat was found for him and he was seen as an obvious successor/replacement for Tudor.
Against the leader’s wishes, Ryan was appointed as an Assistant to Tudor and Campaign Director for the 1919 election (which must have been difficult for Tudor), which Labor again lost. Ryan did not become Federal ALP leader however as he died suddenly in August 1921 campaigning in Queensland. However, Tudor himself, who had also been unwell at times, also died in January 1922.
In this chapter, Bowen tells the story of these eventful years well although it seems at times that the story is as much about Ryan as Frank Tudor. Nevertheless, it is easy to agree that Tudor served the ALP well in the most difficult of times and did it well as he could in the particular political circumstances in which he found himself and the Party.
John Dedman was born in Scotland in 1896. At the outbreak of the First World War, he enlisted in the British Army Officer Training Corps and saw service at Gallipoli – where he first met Australians. At the war’s conclusion, he transferred to the British Army in India where he served with the rank of Captain in Afghanistan. According to Bowen, the Amritsar Massacre (known to Indians as the Allianwala Bagh massacre) in which untold hundreds of civilians were killed by the British, convinced him to quit the army and return to Scotland. There he received a letter suggesting that he and his new wife migrate to Australia.
Ending up in Victoria, Dedman began a life as a dairy farmer in the Yarra Valley east of Melbourne, which eventually led him into politics. Not initially into the ALP though but into the Victorian Country Party as part of a campaign to win better milk prices for dairy farmers via the establishment of a Milk Board. When the Country Party reneged in Parliament on their commitment to support the creation of such a board as proposed by the Hogan Labor Party government in 1927, Dedman resigned from the Country Party.
He then concluded that the Labor Party had more to offer actual primary producers and joined the ALP, eventually winning ALP preselection for the seat of Corio. In 1940 this seat was vacated by Richard Casey, who Prime Minister Menzies had appointed as Australian Ambassador to the United States.
Dedman won the seat and subsequently served in the Curtin and Chifley Ministries. Dedman became, amongst other things, the Minister for War Organisation, which, Bowen suggests, turned him into a key figure in both the wartime and post-war reconstruction periods. His role during war time possibly also turned him into the most disliked member of the Curtin government since he applied a strict war time regime seeking to cut out waste and excess in every area of life so that the freed-up resources could be devoted to the war effort.
This went as far as banning cuffs on men’s suits and pockets on pyjamas to save labour and materials, according to Bowen. Wars are fought on many fronts but the battles of Bourke and George Streets in May 1942 as shoppers swarmed shops to get pre-restriction clothes tells us that panic buying was not invented during the current pandemic!
Bowen also credits Dedman with taking important steps in promoting education, including in the creation of the Australian National University, and science in the creation of the CSIRO. Dedman lasted only nine years in the Federal parliament, losing his seat (to Hubert Opperman) in the 1949 swing to the new Liberal Party created by Menzies. Bowen concludes that Dedman who did not have a typical ALP background (no union activity, for example) was a solid performer of importance to both the Curtin and Chifley governments and another Labor figure who deserves better recognition.
Bowen’s account of the life of Gertrude Melville is the most problematic in this book. Melville was undoubtedly a “tough pioneer’ of the ALP, as Bowen says, since she was a member of the NSW Branch Executive from 1922-26 (and again from 1950-52), was an unsuccessful candidate for election to the Legislative Assembly in 1925 and, nearly three decades later, was the first woman “elected” to the NSW Legislative Council. There had been women previously in the Council, but they had been appointed, not elected. Melville was not popularly elected either but “elected” by members of both houses of the NSW parliament.
In between times, Melville had been active in local government and in NSW ALP Women’s Organising committees. It is said, and Bowen has recorded, that it was a motion moved by Melville at the Paddington Branch of the ALP calling for the introduction of child endowment that was the catalyst for the Holman Labor Government seeking to legislate this for the first time in 1919.
As an active ALP member from the early 1900s to the late 1950s when she died, Melville lived through an extremely turbulent time in the NSW Branch of the ALP: the split over conscription during WW1, the “Lang Labor” period – which saw the whole NSW Branch of the Labor Party expelled from the Federal ALP – as well as the post-war struggles between the anti-communist Industrial Groups and the left wing/pro-communist forces supporting Federal leader H V Evatt.
Bowen portrays Melville as a Labor loyalist in all these events – and this is true. She supported Federal Labor during the Lang split – a courageous and unrewarding thing to do in NSW – but also supported Evatt in the fight that he unwisely chose to have with the ALP Industrial Groups in the 1950s. This is less understandable.
Melville was born into, educated and married in the Catholic Church. But, as Bowen points out, she did not support the ALP Industrial Groups in NSW which were formed to fight communist influence in the ALP and the trade union movement (with the support of B A Santamaria’s Movement). Bowen portrays Melville as being on the receiving end of some tough treatment at meetings allegedly at the hands of Industrial Group supporters because of her support for federal leader Evatt. But this is not analogous to the struggle between Federal labor and Lang Labor in the 1930s. There was, of course, no split in the ALP in NSW – the State Branch always remaining within the ALP fold. There was no need to choose the erratic Evatt over the struggle against communism.
Moreover, Melville earned the genuine suspicion of the anti-communists due to her willingness to embrace the so-called “peace movement” – usually a front for pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese Communist foreign policy campaigns. In 1957, Melville visited Japan and Communist China as a member of a peace delegation, returning to Australia to praise the Chinese system and, specifically, to declare that the Catholic Church operated there in complete freedom. The Communist Party newspaper Tribune specifically called this out in a brief obituary for Gertrude Melville when she died in 1959:
Having satisfied herself that the Church functioned in conditions of complete freedom, she came home and said so — despite the storm that this evoked. (Tribune, 26 August 1959, page 3).
Little wonder that the anti-communists in the NSW ALP regarded her with suspicion. Bowen’s account of this period seems to this reviewer to willingly accept Melville’s judgements without a fuller assessment of her policy positions in this period and to portray her as a victim of the Groupers. In other respects, however, this chapter is a good glimpse into a very troubled period for the NSW ALP.
The most recent of Bowen’s true believers is Ken Wriedt, who was a Minister in the Whitlam Government and the ALP Senate leader in 1975. This enables Bowen to recount the events of 11 November 1975, when the Whitlam Government’s commission was terminated by Governor-General John Kerr amid the crisis over the failure of the Senate to pass the Government supply bills.
As Bowen recounts, Whitlam was dismissed by Kerr at 1 pm and Malcolm Fraser sworn in at 1.30 pm as a caretaker PM pending an election. Rather than returning to Parliament House, Whitlam went to the Lodge and consulted his colleagues in the lower house. He did not inform Senate leader Wriedt of these events or seek his advice. Bowen puts this down to Whitlam’s general contempt for the Senate and Senators but, in any event, it was a major error of judgment.
The issue at stake was supply – which the Senate was refusing to provide. In total ignorance of the lunchtime events, Wriedt took his place in the Senate at 2 pm and again moved the Supply bills. The Coalition’s leadership – who had been briefed – immediately agreed to pass the bills. Wriedt was shocked, initially thinking that the “Opposition” had finally given way – only to be informed shortly thereafter that Whitlam was no longer Prime Minister.
Whether things would have worked out differently if Whitlam had informed his Senate colleagues of Kerr’s action is now speculation only. But it does reveal a lot about Whitlam and his style of leadership which was found wanting on the day.
Bowen portrays Wriedt as one of the quite achievers in the Whitlam government – in a sea of political egos and big political personalities. Wriedt was Minister for Primary Industry and while he had no background in primary industry (he was in the merchant marine) and Whitlam had little interest, as Minister, Wriedt won the respect of primary producers, according to Bowen.
After the defeat of the ALP in the 1975 and 1977 Federal elections, Wriedt decided that, despite holding the Number 1 spot on the Tasmanian ALP Senate ticket, he should attempt to move to a lower house seat to boost the Party’s chances of regaining government. This he judged to be in the ALP’s best interest, though not his own, thus earning him a place in Bowen’s pantheon of Labor loyalists. Wriedt nominated for the seat of Denison but failed to beat Michael Hodgman in the 1980 ballot.
This was not the end of Wreidt’s political career, however. The Tasmanian ALP was in turmoil after the Franklin Dam issue ended badly for Premier Doug Lowe who left the Party. In the 1982 State election Ken Wriedt stood for election in Franklin, topping the poll. He was then immediately prevailed upon to become State opposition leader, a post he held until the further defeat of the ALP in 1986. Wriedt remained in the Tasmanian parliament until 1990 and was a Minister in the minority Field government in 1989-90. He died in 2010.
Chris Bowen’s selection of this group of “true believers” has served not only to give some insight into the lesser-known individuals chosen but to tell in a very readable form some of the key stories from Australia’s political history from a Labor point of view. With the qualifications noted above regarding Gertrude Melville, they are a group of individuals from a range of backgrounds with political characteristics that are increasingly rare in Australian politics. They all exhibit a commitment to a cause rather than a faction or a career – and Australian politics could well do with more such commitment from its political representatives. Chris Bowen has presented their life stories and political times well.
Keith Harvey is a non-factional member of the Victorian Branch of the ALP. His memoir, Memoirs of a Cold War Warrior, was published in 2021 by Connor Court Publishing.