ALP national conferences: the more things change
This article was originally posted on The Drum.
Last week I had lunch with Graham Freudenberg. Few speechwriters rise above the necessary anonymity of their craft - Freudy is a notable exception.
Apart from being, in my view, Australia's greatest speechwriter, he is also a walking encyclopedia of post-war Labor history. He has been close to the centre of many great and sometimes devastating political events for about 50 years. When you talk to Freudenberg about a political event of the last half-century he won't have just written about it - chances are he was there when it happened. He was not only a chronicler of these events - he was part of them, crafting the speech and with it the moment.
Most of us know that he was Gough Whitlam's speechwriter and press secretary - but few would remember that before working for Whitlam, Graham was on Arthur Calwell's staff.
During our lunch the talk around the table turned to the ALP National Conference which was scheduled for later in the week. Kevin Rudd's call for structural reform of the party and his reference to its "faceless men" was also part of the discussion.
I asked: Hadn't Whitlam coined the phrase when he and Calwell were excluded from a national conference?
No, said Graham, in fact the term was crafted by the veteran Canberra correspondent, the late Alan Reid in reference to the 36-member special conference of the ALP which met in 1963 to consider the party's position on the establishment of a US-controlled communications station at North West Cape. With a nuclear arms race in full swing this was no minor matter.
Despite the significance of the issue however, Calwell and Whitlam were excluded from the meeting because in those days the parliamentary leaders were not delegates to the national conference.
As Freudy recounted the story, Calwell had referred the question of Labor's position on the base to the special conference for a decision. Rather than wait in his office to hear the result, Calwell had decided to go and wait outside the building where the meeting was being held.
When Reid saw Whitlam and Calwell standing in the street under a lamp post he had them photographed and in the accompanying article coined the term "faceless men" to describe those attending the meeting. Thereafter, prime minister Menzies had much fun with the embarrassment caused by their exclusion from the meeting.
Recounting the story, Graham revealed that he too had been there that night.
In the aftermath of this and other humiliating events involving the unelected "faceless men", Whitlam set about reforming the structures of the party in order to assert the power of parliamentarians. These struggles nearly led to his expulsion from the party in 1966. Whitlam and others did prevail however, and the party forums were opened up to a far greater degree than ever before.
Now the 46th ALP National Conference is over and we can take stock. In one sense it was certainly a far cry from the 1963 meeting - debate was public and passionate. Votes were called for and recorded. The leader was present and largely got the policy outcomes she sought - despite a change to ALP policy recognising gay marriage.
Interestingly though, the issue of a nuclear arms race still intruded into the debate - just as no doubt it did in 1963. The Cold War may have ended but the tension on a nuclear armed subcontinent is as palpable as anything experienced in 1963.
Likewise, the call to modernise the ALP is louder now than at any time since the Whitlam reforms of the 1960s. If anything, the call for structural reform to reduce the control of factions and unions is more urgent today than ever before.
Finally, the "faceless men" still abound and this is because ALP rules still reward loyalty and patronage over ability with loyalists making up the bulk of delegates to conference - largely voting in factional blocs. The recorded votes were often much closer than factional leaders thought they should have been with a ratio of 55:45, Right to Left.
There was always going to be discomfort at having Kevin Rudd, the man the faceless men deposed, attend the conference. His very presence served as a reminder of the way he was removed as prime minister.
So, when the Prime Minister listed in her speech every Labor prime minister since John Curtin though omitted to mention Rudd, it was inevitable that there would be talk of him being air brushed out of Labor history.
A more prudent act would have been to mention his achievement leading Labor out of the wilderness and back to government, or the apology to the Stolen Generation, or his role in buttressing Australia against the worst effects of the GFC. For some reason Rudd was not mentioned and I'd guess at the insistence of some nameless, faceless man or men.
The fallout from this incident may be short-lived - unlike the events of 1963. But what harm would have come from a reference to Whitlam, Hawke and Rudd leading Labor out of the wilderness and into government?
Rudd's speech came at the very end of proceedings. It was in sharp contrast to the Prime Minister's. He didn't fall into a trap of ignoring his successor - rather he pointed to her role in putting together the stimulus program which helped Australia avoid the effects of the GFC.
He also focussed on the coming European winter of discontent and the complete unpreparedness of an Abbott-led Coalition to manage such a crisis.
If our economy is put under anything like the same pressure as Europe's then that will be the story of the coming year. Ironically, Labor could rediscover the strong narrative it had while it was rolling out the GFC. Remember that before the Opposition began picking holes in some of the stimulus initiatives they looked very flat-footed in their response to the Government on the GFC.
The challenge for Labor in the coming year won't be to win the electorate's hearts and minds on gay marriage or uranium sales to India. Rather it will be how Labor manages the economy and how it exposes the economic incompetence of the Coalition leadership.
With massive un-costed promises in the range of $70 billion and just Tony Abbott, Andrew Robb and Joe Hockey as their salesmen, this is probably the Opposition's biggest political danger. If they stumble on economic management the Coalition is in big trouble. They know this too - that's the main reason they keep attacking Labor's promise to balance the next budget. If they can do serious damage to Labor on this question it will go a long way towards offsetting their poor economic credentials.
So, after all the debates, passionate speeches and close votes, the real guide to what we can expect in 2012 came in a speech at the very end of the conference - when most of the delegates were checking in their luggage at Sydney airport. I don't know what Freudy thinks about all this, but I reckon he'd never allow an important speech to be wasted.