Rats or Ratbags? You Decide


In the absence of sufficient foxes and hounds, the Australian national blood sport happens mostly indoors it’s known as Caucus.

The ALP has, since its inception, been a forum for great ideological debate and ruthless opportunism. The most ruthless opportunists those who need a wider canvas to fully express themselves are branded ‘Labor Rats.’ This usually describes politicians who have deserted the ALP side for the conservatives those such as Billy Hughes who crossed the floor of Parliament and brought down a government.


But there are others who didn’t desert a sinking ship they just slipped off, almost absentmindedly, while the vessel was sailing along nicely and never made it over the side. This lot people like the pathetic Jim Cairns and the sozzled Andrew Dawson could perhaps be best described as ‘Labor Ratbags.’ These are the characters who, when they arrived at the crease of public life, didn’t bat for the team rather they let their ego and their personal interests bring down the Party.

Ironically, the ALP cherishes its Rats and Ratbags almost as much as its heroes. It may be that those on the Left understand human frailty, or perhaps they just love a good yarn and understand that every tale needs a villain. In any case, it’s surely significant that there’s no equivalent term for Rat on the opposite side of Australian politics. Perhaps we just expect all Tories to be genetically, essentially Rats. Or maybe they wouldn’t consider the term pejorative?

Below is a gallery of the best of the worst of the ALP’s Rats and Ratbags. The selection is in alphabetical order and randomly includes both Rats and Ratbags. Readers of New Matilda are invited to go to the Forum relating to this article and tell us who is the Labor Rat or Ratbag you most hate (or most love to hate). It can be one of the figures listed below, or you can nominate your own.

The two best entries will receive a copy of 1001 Australian You Should Know (Toby Creswell and Samantha Trenoweth) published by Pluto Press Australia RRP $49.95.     Third place will receive a New Matilda gift subscription.

Brian Burke

The son of Federal ALP Parliamentarian, Tom Burke, Brian was born in 1947. After a career as a journalist, and at the age of 36, he became Premier of Western Australia in 1983. This was a period of enormous prosperity as result of mining revenues the aggressive entrepreneurial efforts of businessmen such as Alan Bond, Robert Holmes à Court and Laurie Connell. Burke used State monies to support their efforts in return for donations to the Party. The 1987 stock market crash sent many of these entrepreneurs to the wall at a cost to the State of some $1.5 billion. Burke retired from WA Parliament in 1988 and became Ambassador to Ireland and the Holy See. A Royal Commission was set up to investigate dodgy dealings between government and business. Burke was found to have rorted his travel expenses and was jailed in 1994 for seven months. In 1997, he was convicted of misappropriating campaign donations to buy rare stamps but this was later quashed on appeal. He was the first former head of an Australian government to be jailed. Since his release he has been working as a lobbyist in Perth. On 9 November, 2006, Brian Burke quit the Labor Party.

Dr Jim Cairns

Jim Cairns will be remembered as a key leader of the anti-Vietnam movement, but also as a flawed man. Born in October 1914, Cairns grew up in a single-parent household. He said that his mother contracted syphilis from his father and was forever concerned about hygiene and never had more contact with her son than shaking hands. Cairns later blamed his mother’s distance for his odd behaviour with women. Cairns became an academic and author and, at the 1955 Federal poll, won the seat of Yarra. In the 1960s, Cairns threw himself into the anti-Vietnam movement and his standing was such that he almost defeated Gough Whitlam for the ALP leadership. In 1970, he led the Melbourne Moratorium demonstration of over 100,000 people. After the ALP’s 1972 Federal election victory, Cairns held the portfolios of Overseas Trade and Secondary Industry, and following the 1974 election, Whitlam made him Treasurer. Cairns appointed Junie Morosi as his principal private secretary. Although both were married already, rumours circulated that Cairns and Morosi were conducting an affair. Cairns exacerbated the matter in early 1975 by declaring to The Sun newspaper, that he had ‘a kind of love’ for Morosi. Cairns’s duty from 1974 was to win the confidence of a sceptical nation for the ALP. He did the reverse.

Whitlam intended to send ALP Senator Lionel Murphy to the High Court in late 1974. Had he done so, it’s likely that NSW Liberal Premier Tom (Lancelot) Lewis would have followed normal protocol by appointing an ALP candidate to fill the casual Senate vacancy. Whitlam decided to wait until the heat surrounding the Cairns-Morosi affair had died down. Unfortunately, by the time Murphy went to the Bench, the Coalition’s blood was up, Lewis trashed precedent and then so did Queensland’s Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen on the death of ALP Senator Milliner. Consequently, Whitlam lost control of the Senate and the board was set for Coalition Leader Malcolm Fraser’s blocking of supply and the dismissal which brought the end of the Whitlam Government on 11 November 1975. As a Minister, Cairns was less than competent and somewhat naïve. Like others in the Whitlam Government, he engaged dodgy financiers to look at opportunities for raising money for the Commonwealth. When asked in Parliament if such an arrangement existed, he lied. When this was discovered, Whitlam sacked him as Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister. Within a few months, the Whitlam Government lost office.

Post-1975, Cairns became an apostle for the New Age, attending hippie festivals. He and Morosi sued the National Times newspaper for suggesting the pair had a sexual relationship. Cairns won the action as a result of perjuring himself as a witness and took the damages awarded. Shortly before his death, he admitted that he and Morosi had indeed had a sexual relationship. Jim Cairns had, for a time, been a hero to the Left, but when the responsibilities of government were thrust upon him, he put the personal ahead of the political.

Sir Joseph Cook

One of the founders of the ALP in 1891, Joseph Cook was the first Labor Rat, deserting the Party in 1894 to join George Reid’s Free Traders. In the 1901 Federal election, Cook won the seat Parramatta which also included the Lithgow area for Reid. Cook had been a miner since the age of nine in the north of England and moved to Australia in 1885. He came up through the union movement, but quickly adapted to the Tory philosophy. In 1908, Cook helped forge a coalition of non-Labor parties into the Commonwealth Liberal Party under Alfred Deakin and succeeded to its leadership in 1910. He won the 1913 poll with a majority of one in the Lower House and a hostile Senate. The following year he requested Australia’s first double dissolution election, unfortunately timed to coincide with the outbreak of World War I. The public preferred Andrew Fisher’s ALP. In 1916, Cook grasped the opportunity to assist t
hat other Labor Rat, Billy Hughes in the creation of the Nationalist Party. Cook retired from Parliament in 1921 and was appointed Australian High Commissioner in London where he remained until 1927. Cook was described as having ‘no glow’ and being the most humourless of Prime Ministers.

Andrew Dawson

Anderson Dawson was born ‘Andrew’ in 1863. He started his working life at age 12 mostly employed as a miner or a journalist. He was active in the trade union movement and entered Queensland politics, winning the Legislative Assembly seat of Charters Towers in 1893. A division in the conservative ranks prompted the Lieutenant Governor to call on Dawson to form a minority government on 1 December 1899. This was the first Labor Government in Australia and the first socialist government in the world. Seven days later, when the House again sat the conservatives had regrouped and they took the government back. According to historian Ross Fitzgerald, in all, Dawson only had control of Parliament for four hours but it was a start. Dawson stood for the Federal Senate in 1904 and was the first Senator ever elected from Queensland. Later that year, he became Minister for Defence in Chris Watson’s short-lived ALP Government. Alcoholic and unpredictable he lost Party support for the 1906 election. His life rapidly fell apart and he died of drink in 1910. The Federal electoral division of Dawson is named after him.

Brian Harradine

Born in 1935, Harradine advanced his career through the Tasmanian Trades and Labour Council in the 1960s. His views were closer to the Right-wing Catholic-dominated Democratic Labor Party (DLP), and he was expelled from the ALP in 1968. He stood for the Senate as an Independent in 1975 and won. Pursuing a strict papal line on matters such as birth control, the permissive society and pornography, Harradine held the balance of power in the Federal Upper House between 1994 and 1996. He used every opportunity to extract concessions on moral issues and huge amounts of pork barrelling for Tasmania.

Billy Hughes

William Morris Hughes

William Morris Hughes served 51 years in the Australian Parliament, helping to found four political Parties and being expelled from three of them. Hughes was one of the founders of the Waterside Workers Federation and joined the ALP in 1893. He won a seat in the NSW Parliament before successfully contesting the 1901 Federal election. His temperament denied him the Party leadership until 1915 when he succeeded Andrew Fisher in the first year of World War I. Hughes attempted to introduce conscription, which required a referendum. When the first referendum failed in October 1916, the Party split and Hughes formed the Nationalist Party and became Prime Minister on the other side of the House, aided by fellow Labor Rat and ex-PM Joseph Cook.

Hughes was a textbook example of a demagogue and enormously popular. Nonetheless, by 1923, even the Tories had had enough and he was forced to stand aside as PM in favour of Stanley Melbourne Bruce. Hughes fumed away until 1929 when he seized the opportunity to desert the Nationalists and bring down the Bruce Government. In 1931, he joined yet another Labor Rat, Joe Lyons, in the United Australia Party (UAP). Hughes supported Lyons’s heir Robert Menzies and joined the newly formed Liberal Party in 1944. He remained in Parliament until his death in October 1952 a career of 51 years and seven months. He was at that time Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister. He was the last of the Federation members to leave the Parliament. Hughes was a racist and xenophobe who despised Jews, Continental Europeans (Germans in particular) and Asians (in particular the Japanese).

Cheryl Kernot

Few politicians have gone down in flames as brightly as Cheryl Kernot. The former schoolteacher was elected as an Australian Democrats Senator for Queensland in 1990 and became Party Leader in 1993. Kernot took the Democrats to the Left and argued convincingly for them to be the Party of human rights and conscience, often at the expense of the Labor Party. In October 1997, she defected to the ALP. The Labor leadership (Kim Beazley and Gareth Evans) were pleased to have such a high-profile and capable personality on boards. However, some of the Party’s hard backroom boys, and ambitious ftontbenchers, were less than happy with the star recruit.

Then it all came apart. Kernot was not able to take the personal criticism levelled at her by the media. There were questions raised about her tax records and an anomaly on her designated residence. She attacked the ALP for not finding her a safe Lower House seat. Many considered the media attacks to be part of the cut and thrust of politics. Kernot, however, went to ground, was dubbed ‘Princess petal’ and was barely effective in her Shadow Portfolio. When she lost her seat in the 2001 Federal election it was to everyone’s relief, including hers. Kernot published her memoirs after leaving Parliament in which she blamed the ALP for her own woes but neglected to mention that she had had a long affair with Gareth Evans, while both were married to others. When this fact came out it caused a mini scandal.

Jack Lang

John Thomas (JT) Lang was known as the ‘Big Fella.’ He was an arch conservative on social and financial issues, and (like most politicians of the day) a racist, one of Labor’s greatest heroes and one of its greatest villains. Lang was born in 1876 in the Sydney slum of Brickfield Hill, and joined the Labor movement at its 1891 inception. In 1913, he was elected the Member for Granville in the NSW Legislative Assembly. Seven years later he was Treasurer. The ALP lost government in 1922 but when it returned in 1925, Lang became Premier. In less than two years, before losing government, Lang introduced workers’ compensation, the widow’s pension, and he abolished fees in State schools. The ALP returned to government in 1930 the middle of the Great Depression. Faced with an unemployment rate heading for 20 per cent and a collapsing economy, Lang devised a plan to use the public service and the government to reinflate the economy. He maintained public service wages, protected defaulting tenants and proceeded with public works such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He called it, modestly, the Lang Plan which was not far removed from US President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

To fund the Lang Plan, the Premier proposed a reduction and/or moratorium on interest payments to Britain and overseas bondholders. As he put it, ‘The same people who conscripted our sons and laid them in Flanders’s fields … Now demand more blood, the interest on their lives …’ The NSW Government and ALP Prime Minister, James Scullin, were now openly at war with each other. Matters came to a head in 1932. The Premier tried to subvert money going to Canberra and as a result, NSW Governor, Sir Philip Game withdrew the Lang Government’s commission. The ALP lost the consequent State election. Lang then formed ‘Lang Labor’ as a faction within the ALP and his supporters brought down the Federal Scullin Government. In 1941, Lang started his own Labor Party, which resulted in him being tossed out of the ALP. In 1971, Lang’s protégé, Paul Keating, had the Big Fella readmitted to the ALP. He died in 1975, two months before Sir John Kerr dismissed Gough Whitlam.

Mark Latham

Mark Latham is the most controversial Australian politician of modern times. Born in 1961 and raised in south-west Sydney in a working class family, Latham was clearly gifted and was dux of his selective high school before enrolling at Sydney University where he studied Economics. Latham entered Federal Parliament a
t the 1994 election winning Gough Whitlam’s old seat of Werriwa. When Simon Crean assumed the leadership of the parliamentary ALP in 2001, he promoted Latham to the frontbench and ultimately to the position of Shadow Treasurer. On 2 December 2003, Latham became Leader of the Opposition, by one vote. A colleague of Latham’s noted at the time: ‘fasten your seatbelts Australia, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.’ For the first time since 1996, John Howard was wrong-footed and remained that way until, in 2004, Latham himself stumbled with a principled but unthought-through announcement on talk-back radio that Labor would bring the troops home from Iraq by Christmas. In reality, the ALP had no chance of making the Treasury benches at that year’s Federal election, coming as they did from so far behind but they were devastated all the same, when they failed. Latham resigned the leadership in January 2005 and wrote his memoirs, The Latham Diaries. The book is full of vitriol against the ALP and, indeed, most major figures on the political landscape, but it also contains a forensic and valid examination of where Labor has lost its way. Unfortunately there is so much spite in the book that Latham’s more reasoned arguments have been lost and he has painted himself as a traitor to the ALP. There has been much hand wringing and I-told-you-so comment about Latham but it’s worth remembering Kim Beazley’s comments on election night 2004 when he noted that before Latham the polls suggested that Labor would have barely won a dozen seats. On the other hand, it seems that when the blowtorch was turned on him Latham could dish it out but not take it.

Joseph ‘Joe’ Aloysius Lyons

The great Tasmanian Labor Rat began work at age nine after an inopportune Melbourne Cup wager impoverished his family. Perhaps this formative event shaped the prudence that made Lyons famous. Twice Premier of the Apple Isle, Lyons, born in 1879 had been a printer’s apprentice and a schoolteacher before entering Labor politics and the union movement. In 1929 he won the seat of Wilmot and was catapulted into James Scullin’s Federal Labor Ministry as Postmaster-General and in charge of trains. The Wall Street Stock Market Crash that inaugurated the Great Depression, began (29 October 1929) in the same week that Scullin took power and ripped the nation apart. Lyons favoured the business establishment and opposed the policies of Scullin and his preferred Treasurer, ‘Red Ted’ Theodore. Eventually, at the urging of the Melbourne establishment and political strategists such as Billy Hughes, Lyons split from the ALP, taking some members with him to form a new conservative party, the United Australia Party (UAP). Lyons was a devout Catholic and the Labor had become the Catholic Party. He split that electoral base and, after forcing the December 1931 election, he decimated the ALP and became Prime Minister. He died in office, of a heart attack, aged 59, on Good Friday, 1939.

Chris Watson

Australia’s first Labour Prime Minister was also its youngest. Born in Valparaíso, Chile, to a Chilean/ German father (Johan Cristian Tanck) and a New Zealander (Martha Minchin) in 1867, his parents separated and his mother married George Watson. He arrived in Australia at the age of 19 and went into the printing trade. An autodidact, John Christian Watson was a keen unionist and a founder of the Sydney Trades and Labour Council and, in 1891, the Australian Labor Party. He stood for the NSW Parliament and later Federal Parliament where he was elected the Member for Bland in 1901. Then, to his surprise, he became Federal Parliamentary Leader at the age of 34. Watson was one of the chief proponents of White Australia. In 1904, Watson became Prime Minister, commanding a minority government. He was the first Labor Prime Minister in the world. He lasted four months until George Reid struck an alliance with Alfred Deakin and Watson resigned. Although a socialist, Watson was a moderate. Under his leadership, the Party increased its popular support at successive elections to the point where it would eventually be able to form a majority government in its own right a decade later. Watson took a back seat after 1907, possibly due to ill health. He retired from Parliament in 1910 although he remained active in Labor politics until the 1916 conscription referendum when he sided with Billy Hughes and was expelled from the Labor Party. Watson concentrated on business. He was the founder and Chairman, until his death, of the NRMA and of AMPOL.

Don’t forget!   Readers of New Matilda are invited to go to the Forum and tell us who is the Labor Rat or Ratbag you most hate (or most love to hate).

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.