Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Labor's Faceless Men

I have to confess to being completely over hearing about the Australian Labor Party's "faceless men".  The phrase is trotted out by journalists, egged on by Coalition politicians, every time there is a change of Labor leader - and there have been a few of those recently!

The notion of "Labor's faceless men" originated with Daily Telegraph journalist Alan Reid in 1963.  Reid was a disillusioned Labor man, on the DLP side of the 1955 party split.  In 1963, during the lead-up to the Federal election which saw a Robert Menzies-led Coalition government returned for yet another term, Reid and photographer Vladimir Paral captured images of Labor parliamentary leader Arthur Calwell and deputy Gough Whitlam cooling their heels outside Canberra's Kingston Hotel.  Inside, the 36 members of Labor's National Conference - six representatives from each State - apparently discussed the party's position on the location of a US military base on Australian soil. 

Reid's take on this incident - that the elected leaders of the parliamentary party were left waiting outside while party policy was decided by "36 faceless men" - was enthusiastically picked up by the Coalition in the subsequent election campaign.  They made the Labor Party look like an undemocratic, secretive organisation which could not be trusted.  Their election poster, reproduced here and featuring one of Paral's pictures, says:

...36 unknown men, not elected to Parliament nor responsible to the people, were laying down policy and giving orders on critical questions of defence and foreign relations which could effect every man and woman in the country.  Australia's security and your security are involved when national leadership on great affairs is surrendered to unknown outsiders bitterly fighting with each other about action on national survival.

The symbolism of the photos was incredibly powerful, making Calwell and Whitlam look like mere puppets, servants waiting in attendance on their masters' pleasure.  Whether this is actually what happened is of course open to question - what were Calwell and Whitlam doing there, if they had no say?  And how did Reid know exactly what was being discussed inside given that he too was outside on the street?  Still, the story helped Menzies coast back into power and provided a stick to beat Labor for the next 50 years and counting.

So here is my problem.  Leaving aside the propagandistic elements of the original story, it has little relevance to recent Labor events.  First of all, the National Conference was not discussing who would be leader, they were discussing party policy.  Calwell and Whitlam were elected, as leaders have always been, by their parliamentary colleagues.  When Whitlam inherited the leadership a few years later, he drove through party reforms which ensured the parliamentary leader and other parliamentarians would be represented on the party's highest decision-making bodies, but policies of all our major political parties are still decided by the party.  What is surprising or sinister about that?  They tell us their policies (or fail to) and we vote accordingly for the one we like most, or hate least.

Secondly, the telling part of the "faceless men" taunt was that these decision-makers were not elected parliamentarians, they were party officials.  When we come to the revolving door leadership of the Labor Party since 2007 the people labelled as "faceless men" are people like Mark Arbib, Bill Shorten, Joe Ludwig, Don Farrell and David Feeney.  These men may or may not be paragons of virtue but they are anything but faceless in Reid's terms.  You will find their smiling faces on the parliamentary website following their legitimate election, entitling them to vote in leadership ballots as well as canvas their colleagues about leadership issues.  They also, incidentally, have a perfectly legitimate say in policy questions.

It is quite possible - indeed it seems certain - that the leadership turmoil of the past 3 or 4 years is a sign of dysfunction and division in the Labor Party.  It is not, however, a sign that the Labor Party is controlled by "faceless men".  These men all have faces, we know who they are, indeed some of us voted for them!
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