Red Fox’s man in the shadows
THE date was Thursday, March 21, 1963. The time was just after midnight. The instigator of action was the famous political reporter Alan “The Red Fox” Reid, a loyal employee of anti-Labor media mogul Frank Packer.
The locale was the Hotel Kingston in Canberra, where a special conference of the Australian Labor Party had been convened to decide whether the party should endorse a new US communications base in Western Australia.
For weeks Reid had been writing articles in the Packer press (notably The Daily Telegraph, which much later was sold to News Limited, and The Bulletin) based on the proposition that the special conference would wreck Labor.
Left-wing delegates, Reid predicted, would foist an unpopular anti-American position on the parliamentary wing of the ALP, or they could be overruled and blocked, in which case there might be yet another great Labor split. Whatever the outcome, Labor would be gravely damaged.
In fact, neither scenario prevailed.
As late Wednesday night ticked over to early Thursday morning at the Hotel Kingston, the 36 delegates (six from each state Labor branch) were slowly but irreversibly crafting a compromise position. There would be no split, there would be no unvarnished left-wing triumph.
The conference decision was an anti-climax but Reid was not downhearted. An even bigger possible scoop had just lobbed in his lap. He knew that Labor’s aged parliamentary leader Arthur Calwell and his dashing deputy Gough Whitlam had just been driven over from Parliament House and were cooling their heels outside the conference. They were standing under a street lamp waiting for the party powerbrokers inside the hotel to stitch up a compromise.
In 1963, under the ALP’s then creaky constitution, the parliamentary leaders were not members of the federal conference. That was why Whitlam and Calwell were waiting outside near the shrubbery. To learn what was happening, they had to rely on information from delegates who occasionally ducked out to chat with them.
Reid knew that photographs of Calwell and Whitlam huddling outside the conference being fed scraps of information by backroom party operatives were sure to be embarrassing. Such photographs would graphically confirm the hardy shibboleth that the ALP’s parliamentary leaders were impotent puppets, bossed around by a sinister, unelected party machine.
But there was a big hitch. It seemed there wasn’t a single photographer to be found among the gaggle of press people still covering the conference at the Hotel Kingston. Reid had been told that no one was available at that time of night.
But fortune favoured the brave. A friend came to his rescue, Vladimir Paral, a Czechoslovakian-born Australian. The two men loved to go fishing with other friends in the trout streams near Canberra. That, not politics, was their primary connection.
Paral was at the Kingston that night because he wanted to see history in the making. Had not Reid been so insistent that the special conference was sure to be a spectacular donnybrook?
Reid was glad, to say the least, when he found out that Paral was nearby. Paral was the highly skilled and respected senior scientific photographer at the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra.
Reid told his fellow angler to race home and come back with a camera and take pictures. Paral did what he was asked. He took a dozen or so shots of Whitlam and Calwell conferring furtively with various powerful but (to the wider public) largely unknown factional heavyweights.
Reid told Paral that he did not have to worry if his hurried shots did not flatter his subjects. In some photographs Paral got only a back of the head of the powerbrokers that Whitlam or Calwell were talking to, but that was exactly what Reid wanted. In this way, Prospero-like, iconic images of Labor’s faceless men – the 36 insiders unelected by the people but who controlled the ALP – were summoned out of the midnight air.
There was no let-up in urgency. Reid arranged for Paral to meet him at Parliament House at 3am after he had developed the photographs at the John Curtin school. Paral turned up and handed over photographs that Reid sent to The Daily Telegraph in Sydney on the first available flight from Canberra.
Paral (who died in 1999) was not a political person. He was sucked into a highly charged political exercise as an act of friendship. Reid was eager for his friend not to be singled out for retribution and took a vow, which he kept, never to name him as his vital collaborator.
Later on that day, Paral privately told a fellow photographer at the John Curtin school, Ralph Westen, about what had happened. Westen now has revealed this previously unknown link between Reid, Paral and the famous photos of the faceless men in response to an inquiry for information about Reid that I recently made in The Australian’s Strewth column.
The unattributed photographs duly made the mighty splash Reid had intended. Friday’s Telegraph flaunted the photographs alongside a story by Reid on the special conference. Together, the pictures and story documented how Calwell and Whitlam had to wait on events while the conference delegates – all “virtually unknown men”, in Reid’s words – decided party policy.
Several months later, Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies, whose Coalition government had a near-death experience at the 1961 elections, turned the 1963 federal election partly into a successful referendum against Labor’s backroom operators, the 36 faceless men, though some observers also credit insecurity after the assassination of John F. Kennedy for part of his margin of victory.
The Menzies era gained a new lease of life and the need for Labor to fix up its party structure became inescapable.
Ross Fitzgerald is writing a biography of Alan Reid with Canberra-based historian Stephen Holt.