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Non-fiction reviews


Fia Cumming - Mates (Five Champions of the Labor Right)

13 May 1991

Mates: Five Champions of the Labor Right

Fia Cumming

Allen & Unwin

Published in The Australian

[I titled this Obviously Five Believers, but my editor Barry Oakley - apparently not a Dylan fan - titled it something else.]

Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the weaponry to make the difference.

So (presumably) runs the prayer of the NSW Right of the Labor Party. Canberra journalist Fia Cumming here examines the rise and rise of Paul Keating, Leo McLeay, Bob Carr, Graham Richardson and Laurie Brereton: very old mates, and founding members of the now infamous ALP faction.

Mates has its problems, some of them fundamental. Firstly, the timing of publication is curious, in that most of its subjects are seen as nearing the ends of their careers, and are no longer particularly popular. Then there is the author's optimistic belief - which underpins the whole narrative - that Richardson, Carr, Brereton, Keating and McLeay have never desired "the personal wealth or status that went with their success... Nor is it power for its own sake. What drove and drives them is the desire for the collective and personal power to make a better society..."

Mates, furthermore, is the title of the chapter in John Pilger's A Secret Country which canvasses the big business and crime connections of - you guessed it - the ALP Right. There is also Paul Chadwick's encyclopedic Media Mates - which chronicles a dubious series of deals involving this same Government, and faction. Given the irony with which both authors have imbued the word, Mates is surely a naive title for a book of praise to the leaders of the Labor Right.

Whilst much of Cumming's text simply reproduces slabs of monologue by the five subjects (as well as Senate President Kerry Sibraa and former ALP heavy John Ducker, both of whom have been close to the five since the early days), the author also interpolates her own research on their lives, and some attempts at analysis. Unfortunately the analysis is generally feeble, and the information sometimes wrong. For instance she quotes Keating on Billy Hughes and someone called "Holden". (He would, I think, have been referring to NSW Premier Holman.) There are also lots of "explanatory" statements which obscure more than they reveal. For example: "Unlike Members of the House of Representatives, Senators do not represent one particular electorate, so it is irrelevant where they live."

The origins of the Labor's present win-at-all-costs mentality are to be found in what Keating calls "the wasteland" of the fifties and sixties - and this character-building epoch is unravelled rather well by the interviewees. Unusually, their words seem to have been transcribed straight off the tape recorder: none of the quotes has been cleaned up. While this very nicely shows us the didacticism built into Keating's very speech-patterns ("you see...", "this is what you've got to understand..."), it becomes wearying where Richardson, Brereton, McLeay and Sibraa are concerned, for they are the most terrible word-manglers.

Fia Cumming's commentary is at times rendered unintelligible by the fact that it, too, has apparently not been edited or proof-read. Many sentences begin in one tense and end in another, contain spelling mistakes, or say things like: "But Richardson was not privileged to actually meet these high fliers, but they probably would not have been receptive anyway." Whoever is responsible for the book's punctuation (furthermore) would blow out the remedial teaching budget of a large primary school. And many of the names in the photo captions are wrong.

In terms of its substance, Mates has much raw information, and some surprises. It can get repetitious, in that most of the personalities involved are, frankly, rather grim and one-dimensional. It deals, moreover, with thirty years of who hated whom, how X got knee-capped and Y promoted, and above all "how we got the numbers" - in Young Labor, in the state then the national conferences, and finally in the federal caucus. But it is particularly good on the long push to get Bob Hawke into the ALP leadership. Richardson states that had the Victorian Right continued to oppose uranium mining in1982, he and the NSW Right would have transferred their support for Hawke (a Victorian) to Keating; whereupon Keating would have taken the leadership from Hayden, and subsequently the Prime Ministership. In other words, Australia now mines uranium because the Victorian Right didn't want to lose the chance of getting their man into the Lodge.

The general tone of Mates is like that of the mid-eighties Press Gallery: a little starstruck. There is consistent admiration for this group of independent, courageous men who fought their way into the nation's engine room, en route laying waste to tories and socialists alike. This romantic edifice falls over when we consider that, confronted with (for example) US global interests, Indonesian regional interests, or Rupert Murdoch's local interests, their "independence" and "courage" have regularly gone rather limp. None of this is touched upon.

Such skepticism is easy - at least until one stumbles into the elongated shadow of Paul Keating. Notwithstanding the above failing (which he shares) Keating's ambition, articulation and brilliance all come through here in an unusually raw form, and will be savoured by his scattered but still strong band of aficionados.

However most of Keating's contemporaries (the people who largely rule our destinies, or want to) come across as mediocrities and hatchet-men. Perhaps this is reason enough for journalists to desist now, after ten long years, from encouraging them in the pursuit of their worst inclinations.

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