Inside the machine: Labor in New South Wales

Frank Bongiorno, University of New England

Marilyn Dodkin Brothers: Eight Leaders of the Labor Council of New South Wales Sydney: UNSW Press, 2001 (320 pp). ISBN 0-86840-740-2 (paperback) RRP $44.95.

It was 1976 and Geoff Cahill, the general secretary of the New South Wales Branch of the Australian Labor Party, had been on a short overseas trip with his wife. On their return to Sydney, Barrie Unsworth, the assistant secretary of the Labor Council and a right-wing factional colleague of Cahill, had thoughtfully met the couple at the airport, from where he drove them to their home. Cahill quickly changed his clothes and accompanied Unsworth to the Labor Council building. They parked in the basement, and took the lift to the tenth floor, the location of the Labor Council offices. It was peculiar that Unsworth has pressed the button for this floor, as the ALP’s rooms were on the level below those of the Labor Council.

Very soon, it became apparent that Unsworth had made no mistake: John Ducker, the powerful secretary of the Labor Council and president of the NSW Branch of the ALP, was waiting for the two men when they stepped out of the lift. Flanked by right-wing union officials, Ducker confronted Cahill, accused him of disloyalty, and demanded his immediate resignation. Cahill did as he was told. When he subsequently tried entering his office on the ninth floor, he found that the locks had been changed.

This telling story is told in Marilyn Dodkin’s recently published study of eight prominent leaders of the Labor Council of New South Wales—her ‘Brothers’ are Jim Kenny, Ralph Marsh, John Ducker, Barrie Unsworth, John MacBean, Michael Easson, Peter Sams and Michael Costa. Relations between Ducker and Cahill had been going badly for some time, and the final straw was Ducker’s belief that Cahill had stymied his effort to become senior national vice-president of the ALP. Ducker regarded factional disloyalty as unforgivable treachery, and vowed to get rid of his old colleague. Like the hard man of the NSW Right that he was, he kept his promise.

Under the rule of a Hitler or a Stalin, Cahill would probably have been machine-gunned on the spot, or perhaps made to endure the charade of a show-trial before execution. In Australia, fortunately for the likes of Cahill, state power is not used for the purpose of physically liquidating one’s opponents. Sure, bashings are not unknown in the New South Wales labour movement, but the exercise of power is usually more clinical. As Unsworth later reflected, the removal of Cahill was a ‘collective decision … It was no different [from] what members of the Politburo would have done … They sent George Malenkov off the run a power station, didn’t they’. Cahill, by way of contrast, was rewarded for his compliance by an appointment to the Equal Opportunity Board, courtesy of the newly elected Wran Government. That is how they do things on the New South Wales Right.

Dodkin is very skilful in describing this game of ‘ins’ and ‘outs’. Her history is, to some extent, that of an insider. She has been a Labor staffer, has worked for a trade union, once ran for parliament as a Labor candidate and has been a delegate to the Labour Council and to national and NSW conferences of the ALP. She is a member of the faction that forms the focus of this study, and is currently chair of NSW ALP Branch’s International Relations policy committee. Bob Carr has contributed the foreword of this work.

‘Insider’ history of this kind, at its best, can yield extremely valuable insights into the political process. Dodkin obviously knows her way around the Labor Council and the NSW Branch of the party, and her descriptions of the factional manoeuvring within the Council are convincing. Yet ‘insider’ history is also prone to certain problems, even when an author goes out of her way, as Dodkin has, to present material that does not flatter her subject. When the author and her subject share certain values, large assumptions can easily remain unexamined. Hence, on the one hand, Dodkin is acutely aware of the extent to which the Council, for most of its history, has been dominated by male union leaders, their industrial style and the concerns of their male rank and file. As she points out, the first female Labor Council vice-president was Judith Walker in 1983, the first president Sandra Moaitt in 2000. In the matter of women’s rights, Dodkin does not share the values of most of the Labor Council leaders examined in this book. She is therefore able to expose the institutionalised sexism of the boozy and blokey Labour Council sub-culture.

Dodkin’s history is, to some extent, that of an insider.

Yet the broader assumptions of these Labor Council leaders about such matters as the capitalist system and the international order receive much less attention in Brothers. Readers looking for a systematic discussion of the values and ideas of these right-wing trade union leaders may well be disappointed by this book. We do learn of the English immigrant John Ducker’s wide reading and interest in worker participation and industrial democracy, and there is a fascinating discussion of a conflict between Ducker and a young Bob Carr over the place of socialism in ALP ideology. In 1978 Carr wrote a speech for Ducker, for delivery at a NSW ALP state conference, arguing that Labor should officially abandon socialism. The speech was printed in the conference papers before the Labor Council and ALP boss had seen it. Ducker was furious at what he regarded as Carr’s heresy, and he delivered another speech at the conference. The chapter on Michael Easson also explores the battle of ideas in the labour movement, yet on the whole the history of ideas seems of secondary concern to Dodkin. It is the culture of ‘whatever it takes’ that interests her, and she tells her story well.

There were times during my reading of Brothers when I began to wonder whether some of these men stood for anything at all, apart from the exercise of power for their own pleasure and profit. At their worst, they can seem utterly unhampered by principle: Dodkin, for example, does not discount the possibility that CIA funds reached the Labor Council, and she follows David McKnight in emphasising links between the Labor Right and ASIO. It’s certainly not difficult to believe that some of the staunch anti-communists depicted in this study would have accepted CIA money and exchanged favours with ASIO.

What are we to make of the likes of Jim Kenny, for example? Here was the archetypal ‘good union bloke’. A man with the common touch, he liked a drink or six and a good feed. Kenny was—not unusually for right-wing bosses in the NSW union movement—of Irish Roman Catholic stock. He left school to become a felt-hatter and then a glassworker, and then worked his way up through the union ranks. He was NSW state secretary of the Glassworkers’ Union by the age of thirty, represented his union on the Labor Council, and later became, successively, president, assistant secretary and secretary of the Council from the 1940s through to the 1960s. Respected for his ‘broad vision’ (p.53) and loved for his kindness and devotion to the labour movement, Kenny was even known to field enquiries at the counter in the Labor Council’s office in person. Nothing was too much trouble for good old Jim.

True believers need something to believe in, and the author has very little to say about this.

With power, however, come the perks. Naturally, Jim was appointed to the NSW Legislative Council, the customary reward for senior Labor Council bosses (It’s easy to see from Dodkin’s account one reason why the Upper House survived despite being on the ALP chopping block for so long!), while over the years his onerous duties as a union official took him to the United States, Geneva, Tokyo, the United Kingdom and even China. He seems to have developed a taste for expensive foreign travel—provided it was at other people’s expense. Jim’s hostility to communism, which saw him join the Catholic Social Studies Movement before making a pragmatic decision to leave it during the Labor split of the mid-1950s, seems not to have prevented him from accepting Chinese hospitality and health care on his visit to the People’s Republic in 1957. Dodkin, however, suggests that this trip might have been a favour for ASIO, and she goes so far as to make a reasonable case (although one based on circumstantial evidence) that Kenny was an ASIO informer, a ‘plant’ in the Australian peace movement. Vice-President Nixon, on his 1953 visit Down Under, called on Jim Kenny and his union mates at Trades Hall, while on his 1951 study-tour of the US, arranged by a US ‘labor attache’ in Australia, he met both Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. Not bad for a bloke who left school at fourteen to work in a felt-hat factory! Jim also came up with a plan for a kind of Australian version of Butlin’s holiday camps in England. The scheme never really took off, but Jim and his good wife Bess ‘used the first cottage as their weekender’, (p.31) reserved for their exclusive use. The completed cottages were also a useful form of patronage for a right-wing union official such as Kenny.

Dodkin remarks that after leaving the Movement in favour of the ALP in 1955, ‘Kenny’s core beliefs remained the same’ (p.39). Elsewhere, Kenny is ‘a true believer who had devoted his life to the union movement’ (p.69). Yet, as Stuart Macintyre has reminded us (1995: 167), true believers need something to believe in, and the author has very little to say about the substance of Kenny’s ideals. Her sentence about Kenny’s core beliefs remaining the same after 1955 is followed by a comment that he was ‘a committed unionist, he was still anti-communist and he retained right-wing control at the Labor Council’ (p.39). That doesn’t tell us terribly much about what made this bloke tick.

As far as you can work out this puzzle you need to read between the lines. He certainly believed in looking after his own material interests. He believed in the importance of electing Labor Governments. Labor Governments, in turn, needed to look after the interests of the unions, but in the end union leaders should avoid unnecessarily embarrassing a Labor Government. He believed in protecting his own power-base in the union movement. He believed in vigorously fighting communism in the union movement, but only using methods consistent with his other ‘beliefs’. Accordingly, he was not prepared to sacrifice his power base by electing to join B.A. Santamaria and the Movement in 1955: instead he decided to stay in the Labor Party. He seems to have believed in looking after the workers—to the extent consistent with his desire for personal power and profit. He would have agreed with Bede Nairn that the role of the labour movement was to ‘civilise capitalism’ rather than abolish it. According to Dodkin, he genuinely believed in world peace, despite the likelihood that he was an ASIO informer: it’s just that Jim wanted to claim the cause of peace for the Labor Right. He was even an early opponent of the Vietnam War. It would be difficult to reconcile a genuine belief in the cause of peace with the work of a informer, until you read the views of another Labor right-winger, Geoff Cahill, on the matter: ‘ASIO was simply another grouping out there in the community seeking information about different ones’ (p.131). Indeed!

Dodkin’s strength is the evocation of the methods and style of the Labor Right.

It is sometimes hard to discern any idealism, any attachment to principle, any broader vision at all in the manoeuvrings that are the subject of this book. Yet to some extent, the rhetorical avoidance of ‘ideology’ is a part of the style of the NSW Labor Right. As Sean Scalmer has shown (1997: 307), the attack by ‘practical’ men on ‘abstract philosophies’—so characteristic of the NSW Labor Right—was a way of protecting your turf against challenges from both the political left and the non-Labor right. Saying you didn’t believe in dogma was a way of presenting your ideology as simple common sense.

Yet whether or not the title ‘true believer’ has any relevance to these eight union leaders in the political sense, there can be no doubt of its relevance to their religious lives. The importance of Roman Catholic religion on the NSW Labor Right is well enough known. What surprised me in reading this book was the number of union bosses who started out in another denomination, but then later converted, sometimes after marriage to a Catholic woman. Ducker, for example, converted in his twenties after the death of his father, and was closely associated with the Movement. Dodkin hints at how close Ducker came to ending up in the Democratic Labor Party in 1955 rather than the Labor Party, but she has been unable to confirm the rumour that he actually held a DLP ticket. Barrie Unsworth’s conversion to the Catholic Church seems to have been influenced by the tragic death of a son due to a drug overdose. MacBean also eventually converted. Some of these stories about the personal religious journeys of these figures are, in fact, deeply moving and, for me, the surprise of this book. The complex relationship between Roman Catholic religion and labour movement politics still remains to be untangled, but Dodkin has provided some valuable raw material for such an investigation in this book.

Brothers should also be essential reading for those interested in reform of the modern ALP, especially in NSW. The changing relationship between the party and the union movement is one of the major themes of Brothers, and one that is deftly handled by the author. The recent picketing of Parliament House by unionists is discussed as a new phase in the history of the Council. But it is Dodkin’s evocation of the methods and style of the Labor Right that is the strength of this book. No passage tells us more about the way in which these people operate than the following quotation from Barrie Unsworth (p. 87). It is a particularly telling revelation of the illness currently afflicting the ALP, and more particularly its NSW Branch:

[Ralph Marsh, Labor Council secretary] knew he was going to retire at some stage and he found an appropriate way to retire. He was a member of the Upper House, he knew that he was going to finish his term … [So] what we arranged for him was, I was a member of the Public Transport Commission and I didn’t accept reappointment in 1975, and he took my position … So that gave him something to do for about the next four or five years … you can’t just say to somebody: ‘You’ve reached retirement age—go.’

There is, after all, compassion in the NSW Labor Right. Whatever it takes.


Macintyre, Stuart, ‘Who Are the True Believers? The Manning Clark Labor History Memorial Lecture’, Labour History, 68, May 1995, 155–67.

Scalmer, Sean, ‘Being Practical in Early and Contemporary Labor Politics: A Labourist Critique’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 43, no. 3, 1997, 301–11.

Frank Bongiorno teaches history at the University of New England and belongs to the Armidale Branch of the ALP.

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