A Three-Day Press Conference


According to the people who keep a weather eye on what passes for ‘Sydney society,’ Bob Hawke is growing his hair again. The Silver Bodgie is said to be cultivating the kind of luxuriant mane not seen since the 1975 Labor Party National Conference in Terrigal.  

Ah, Terrigal. I’m not old enough to remember the festivities at the Hotel Florida on the NSW Central Coast but the images gleaned from the myriad pictures and TV footage are seared into my mind. At the time, ‘Hawkie’ was President of both the ALP and the ACTU, and he sported a silver bouffant and not much else. He spent most of the week dressed in nothing but a pair of Speedos, showing off what his biographer, and later wife, Blanche d’Alpuget, would describe as his ‘sculpted torso’ that gave him ‘the look of a Bantam fighting cock.’

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

He was also pictured, in said budgie-smugglers, ambling onto the beach with a bikini-clad Glenda Bowden. But it was February and hot, and it was, by way of further exculpation, the 1970s. Labor had emerged from the long dark tunnel of splits and Opposition from almost two decades as the Divided Party. Now it was determined to be the Party Party.  

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam delivered his Leader’s Address wearing a floral Hawaiian shirt, telling delegates, ‘We shall go from this Conference with our program refreshed and, and I believe, with our determination refreshed.’ That was an understatement.  

Several delegates danced a conga line around the pool to the tune of The Seekers’ hit, ‘Myra’:  

Myra, Myra, many boats in the harbour;
Gonna go down south and make many fast dollar,
And shake up the party, shake up the party.  

(Upon reflection, The Seekers’ lyrics seem rather apt for a Government that would lose office partly because the quest by one Minister, Rex Connor, for some fast Middle Eastern money to fund a natural gas pipeline really did shake up the Party.)  

Meanwhile, two senior staffers to South Australian Premier Don Dunstan, Steve Wright and Peter Ward, frolicked with Athenian abandon in the swimming pool. But, as Dunstan recalled in his memoir, Felicia, Wright’s ‘skylarking’ ended up in the next day’s newspaper, under the headline: ‘Dunstan Aides in Pool Violence.’  

Deputy Prime Minister Jim Cairns injected his own spice into the press coverage of the Conference, telling journalist Toni McCrae he felt a ‘kind of love’ for his Private Secretary, Junie Morosi, and hinting at what he would later confess that the two were having an affair.  

And Hawkie again determined not to be overshadowed, took himself off to the colonial theme park, Old Sydney Town, at Gosford, where he had himself placed in the stocks and whipped by a wench, while he groaned in flagellant delight. Michelle Grattan recalls that the next day’s headline in The Age was, ‘Labor’s Whipping Boy.’  

The 1975 Conference was a fitting encore to the 1973 gathering, which had taken place in similar environs at Surfers’ Paradise on the Queensland coast. Former NSW Attorney-General Jeff Shaw, then a brilliant young law student and Australian Young Labor delegate, recalls a 34-year-old Trotskyite named Bob Gould moving a resolution to abolish ASIO, and almost having it carried but for the intervention of the then Federal Attorney-General and lion of the Left, Lionel Murphy.  

Two years earlier, in 1971, Labor delegates had also heard the siren call of Surfers’. At the Chevron Hotel, they had watched then Federal frontbencher Bill Hayden argue with equal passion for the decriminalisation of homosexuality between consenting adults and for a ban on professional boxing. As Hayden’s biographer, John Stubbs, recalled so beautifully in his 1989 book, Hayden, the Queensland ALP President Jack Egerton, a union boss of the old school, rasped: ‘Delegate Hayden seems confused. He’s bitterly opposed to a bloke getting a punch in the nose but he doesn’t seem to mind him getting a punch in the bum.’  

When the time came to vote, Egerton, in the chair for the debate, called on those opposing Hayden’s gay rights amendment to go to one side of the room and the ‘poofters’ to go to the other.  

Cringe as we might now, the colourful debates and Conferences of the 1970s were a riotous circuit-breaker to the bleakness of the 1950s and 1960s, when the ALP was riven with bitter ideological debates and beset by weak leadership.  

At the 1955 Federal conference in Hobart, Labor formalised its long simmering split, with a theatrical touch from then Leader Herbert Vere Evatt. Dr Evatt, having pressed the wrong button in the lift at Hadley’s Hotel where he was staying, found himself trapped in the cellar. As Whitlam’s former speechwriter, Graham Freudenberg, recalls, Evatt discovered a narrow staircase, climbed it, threw open a trap door and emerged in the middle of a meeting of dissident Right-wing ‘Groupers’ as though ‘it were the devil himself, ascending from hell.’ The rancour of the 1955 Conference helped condemn Labor in the Federal election that December, and again in 1958.  

Another Federal conference would also doom Labor. In 1963, Whitlam and his then Leader, Arthur Calwell, found themselves waiting in the sallow light outside Canberra’s Kingston Hotel, as a coterie of delegates Labor’s ’36 faceless men,’ as Prime Minister Robert Menzies described them decided Party policy about the presence of a US spy base at North West Cape in Western Australia. Despite most delegates supporting the Calwell-Whitlam position which was that the base did not violate the Party’s anti-nuclear stance as Freudenberg recalled in A Certain Grandeur, ‘Menzies’s jibe at the ’36 faceless men of the Federal Conference of the ALP was devastating The humiliation lay more in the appearance than the substance There, for all the world to see, was the proof that the parliamentary leaders were literally outside the decision-making process.’  

According to historian Ross McMullan, the key division within the ALP of the 1960s was not between Catholic ‘Groupers’ and the rest, but between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘modernists,’ and the ideological distinctions were blurred. Calwell, a working-class traditionalist, opposed (initially) State funding for private schools but supported the White Australia policy. At the 1965 Federal Conference he won a compromise on State Aid but lost an historic battle over immigration, as modernists led by Don Dunstan expunged racial discrimination from the Party’s platform. Calwell, sensing defeat, ended up seconding Dunstan’s motion but, as the former South Australian Premier recalled, ‘He did it in a speech that sounded as if his mouth was full of bitter ashes.’  

A dinosaur he might have been at the 1965 Conference, but Calwell arguably enjoyed his finest hour when he made his extraordinary, prescient, Freudenberg-crafted speech, firmly stating Labor’s opposition to the Vietnam War. ‘I cannot promise you that easy popularity can be bought in times like these; nor are we looking for it,’ he told delegates:  

But if we are to have the courage of our convictions, then we must do our best to make the voice heard. I offer you the probability that you will be traduced, your motives will be mis
represented, your patriotism will be impugned and that your courage will be called into question. But I also offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated; that generations to come will record with gratitude that when a reckless government wilfully endangered the security of this nation, the voice of the Australian Labor Party was heard, strong and clear, on the side of sanity and in the cause of humanity and in the interests of Australia’s security.

Many years later, Don Watson, a speechwriter for Paul Keating, would describe the speech as the most unforgettable he had heard:  

Graham Freudenberg built it on a proposition, not a political convenience; that is why it is free of both cliché and condescension and the phrases still ring long after we have ceased to care about the subject. Speeches like this are rarely written nowadays because the political climate does not allow of much intellectual effort or, in general, politicians of much character [emphasis added]. Perhaps they should bear in mind that, while Labor lost the election that year, it did help them grow a spine and eventually they won because of it.

Labor did, indeed, lose the following election in 1966 and badly, too; but the defeat helped convince the ALP to transform itself from an increasingly narrow blue-collar workers’ movement to a modern social democratic Party.  

If Labor in the 1950s and 1960s was the Divided Party, and in the 1970s was the Party Party, by the 1980s it had become, if not the Business Party then the Businesslike Party.  

The 1977 conference in Perth markedly less festive than 1975 endorsed the Left’s proposed moratorium on uranium mining. Hawke, arguing that ‘my heart says no but my head says yes,’ supported mining, sparking a dispute with his own children who were active opponents.  

Hayden, as the new Leader, was determined to replicate Whitlam’s modernisation strategy a decade earlier and staged three Conferences in quick succession, all of them passionate but, this time, delegates kept their clothes on. In Adelaide in 1980, Hawke, still ACTU boss but set to enter Federal Parliament and already eyeing the leadership, had a major stoush with Hayden, who had decided to discard Hawke’s policy of wages restraint. As former Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe, then an Opposition frontbencher, recalls, the venue was set up a bit like a boxing ring and that afternoon Hawke, who had enjoyed a well, a good lunch, was interviewed for television in the middle of the floor by the late Paul Lyneham. ‘If I recall correctly,’ said Howe, ‘they had to bleep out some of his answers.’  

The following year, at a Special Conference, frontbencher Gareth Evans led the charge to rewrite the Party’s socialist objective, dumping the 1921 Blackburn Declaration and replacing it with a reference to ‘the democratic socialisation of industry, protection, distribution and exchange to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.’ The escape clause, and one the Party has relied on ever since, was the phrase ‘to the extent necessary.’ Every time I hear the latest incarnation of a ‘Labor moderniser’ talking about scrapping the socialist objective, I wonder: ‘Why bother?’  

It is now 25 years since the last great stoush on a matter of principle, the last truly momentous National Conference of the Australian Labor Party. In 1982, at the Lakeside Hotel in Canberra, as the Party scented victory in the coming Federal election but remained wary of Hayden’s chances of winning, it resolved the uranium debate with a compromise but broke open the leadership.  

After his near victory in 1980, Hayden had tried to soften the Party’s policy on uranium mining, alienating his base of Left-wing supporters. One of their many leaders, Tom Uren, began gravitating towards Hawke whom he had tried to unseat as Party President five years earlier after Hawke pledged to maintain the anti-uranium policy. As it turned out, Hawke ended up with best of both worlds: Labor adopted the ‘three-mines policy‘ devised by the Victorian Secretary Bob Hogg, and Hawke launched his first bid for the leadership from the platform of the conference.  

In power after 1983, Labor struck a deal with the Wrestpoint Casino in Hobart and for the next two decades would meet in wintry Tasmania, the delegates buttoned up in dark suits and ties, befitting representatives of the new corporate-friendly Party. No matter how valiantly chroniclers, such as Bob Ellis, would try to make good copy out of ALP National Conferences at this time, they were completely stage-managed affairs, devoid of almost all passion. Delegates rolled over and accepted privatisation of public assets, tuition fees and tax cuts for multimillionaires.  

It was not until 1988 that we learned that not all of the zest had gone out of Labor Conferences. Once again, it involved ‘Hawkie.’ In his memoir, Hayden, An Autobiography, Hayden, who became Foreign Minister after the 1983 election, recalled being summoned to the Prime Ministerial suite at Wrestpoint during the 1988 Conference. As he walked in, Hawke sauntered out of the shower and Hayden wrote:

Hawke was stark naked, bollickers. He was briskly rubbing his back with a towel held by one hand high above his shoulders and the other somewhere near his waist. He had evidently just showered. He looked reasonably fit, springing into the room with all of the bounce and confidence of a boxer from one of the lighter weight divisions. I suspected he harboured visions of himself as a Greek god, I saw only an extroverted quinquagenarian flasher. While his important appendage was dingling and dangling as he moved, I kept a straight face, trying to ignore the entertaining idiocy of the act, and talked about my recent trip; he meanwhile settled back, indolently, on a long sofa to listen. As I talked, I couldn’t help thinking how far from impressive were the dimensions of the apparatus which he displayed with such evident pride and satisfaction and him supposed to be such a lady-killer

In Opposition since 1996, Labor’s National Conferences have been defensive, reactive affairs, filled, if you like, with sound and fury yet signifying nothing. They have been fulsome even justified in condemning the Howard Government on Aboriginal policy, industrial relations and the Iraq War but largely obsessed with the Party’s internal workings, such as pre-selection quotas for women candidates and the election of Conference delegates and honorary officials.

To me, Labor’s problems were summed at the 2002 National Conference when former Victorian Premier Joan Kirner, by then running the Labor women’s fundraising organisation Emily’s List, turned up with a group of drag queens to celebrate another step in the affirmative action march. Now, that showed empathy with the people left behind by Howard!  

Former leader Simon Crean used the 2002 Conference to try to stem the corrupting influence of the block union vote which only ever benefited union leaders, long-estranged from their membership and hankering for seats in parliament, and never rank and file union members “ by reducing their dominance from 60 per cent to 50 per cent. But the Conference never sparked a growth in membership in the community, despite the rhetoric.  

I was going to say this weekend’s 44th Conference will be Kevin Rudd’s moment in the spotlight, but I suspect lamplight is more apt. He is, by contrast to the likes of Dunstan, Hawke and Whitlam, such an unimposing man, despite the charge by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer (of all people) that Rudd is ‘the vainest man in politics.’ Rudd exudes competence and intelligence but lacks, not so much character as characteristics. I don’t I can’t see him as an inspiring social democratic leader; more a skilled centrist national administrator.  

At this Conference, we will get the full Rudd life story, probably just before his Leader’s Address on Friday morning. But in his case, it will not suffer an injustice if squeezed into a five-minute video package. Just as NSW Premier Morris Iemma a man who has only ever been a politician or worked for one needed to demonstrate his real-world credentials with his one and only story about driving his immigrant father around looking for a job, we will hear about Kevin’s father dying and his family’s eviction from the farm. But then where?  

Rudd traded in an interesting, meritocratic job as a career diplomat in China and Sweden to become, in neat succession, Chief of Staff to a provincial Labor Leader, senior bureaucrat, KPMG consultant, politician. It is the modern Labor way, so Rudd should not be held to a different standard and, in his defence, a country that has elected John Howard four times over the past 11 years is not obviously hungering for Whitlam-esque flourish, Hawkean charisma, or Keating-like pugnacity.  

If Labor is destined for victory and it remains ‘if’ I suspect Rudd will be a good transitory leader. He will introduce some moderate reforms, mainly by removing the nasty bits of what John Howard has done. Then, after two terms, a more daring Labor Leader might emerge, willing to challenge the serious aggregations of corporate power without alienating middle Australia with a pursuit of trendy cultural liberalism.  

At this Conference, 25 years after the ‘three-mines’ compromise, Labor will dump the restrictions on uranium mining, as Rudd wants. The delegates will also endorse his both-sides-of-the-street workplace relations policy, abolishing most individual contracts but requiring secret ballots for strikes and giving small businesses a pass if they sack an employee, fairly or not.  

This will not really be a Labor Party National Conference, it will be a three-day press conference, with a $100-a-head business dinner for responsible recreation.  

There will, however, be one gesture to the colourful past of Labor Conferences. Sometime on Saturday morning, what’s left of the faithful will award life membership to Edward Gough Whitlam. He will be wearing a suit.

Listen to Andrew West talk about the ALP National Conference here.

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.