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The power of political imagery

27 February 2012 1,011 views No Comment

WARNINGS about the role of “faceless men” in the ALP have been a feature of modern Australian politics since 1963. That was the year in which Robert Menzies won a federal election by turning it into a virtual referendum directed against the power of such unelected apparatchiks. This abiding fascination with Labor’s faceless men peaked again on June 24, 2010.

Over the course of a single night, Australia got a new Labor Prime Minister courtesy of a party coup orchestrated by a cabal of sub-factional heavyweights.

Judged by Wednesday’s declaration of war in Washington Kevin Rudd is casting his attempt to regain the Labor leadership as a crusade to emasculate the power of these similar ”faceless men”.

Rudd’s attack on the insiders who installed Julia Gillard is the latest instalment in a long-running saga which is full of unexpected twists and turns.

The surprises begin with the strange story of how Labor’s faceless men got their name in the first place. As first demonised in the 1960s the faceless men had nothing at all to do with Australia or with the Labor Party.

To establish their provenance we need to go back to Britain on the eve of the swinging sixties. In 1961 the British Labour Party had been out of office for a decade. In the autumn frustrated delegates assembled in Blackpool for the party’s annual conference. One of the key speakers at the conference was Harold Wilson, the Labour Party’s chief parliamentary spokesperson on economic affairs.

The ambitious Wilson – he was the Kevin Rudd of his day – was determined to make a big impression. Unveiling a fresh vision of a brand new Britain was intended to revive the flagging spirits of the party faithful. Which is what Harold Wilson did when he spoke to the party faithful at Blackpool on October 3, 1961.

He called for greater public investment in education, research and skills to ensure that Britain took its rightful place in the technocratic world of the 1960s. But something stood in the way.

Progress towards a brighter future would be resisted because, under the Conservative Party, the real decisions affecting the British economy were being taken, Wilson insisted, by ”a small group of faceless men in high finance”. Wilson’s imagery echoed across the world.

His comments were reported in the Australian press and resonated among local Laborites. If the Labour Party in Britain could mobilise against faceless men why shouldn’t their Australian counterparts do so as well?

In the December 1961 federal election the ALP, led by Arthur Calwell, had came within one seat of defeating the 12-year-old Coalition government of Robert Menzies.

In a bid to capitalise on the wave of interest, the publisher Lloyd O’Neill invited Calwell to produce a book-length statement of Labor’s principles and policies, to be published in time for the next election. The book would be called Labor’s Role in Modern Society. Calwell was marketed as the author but his role was nominal.

The task of actually producing readable prose fell to Calwell’s highly talented speech writer Graham Freudenberg. In the book, Freudenberg restated Labor’s abiding belief in a wider role for government in planning and investment decisions.

Echoing Wilson, Freudenberg dwelt on the iniquitous situation in which a handful of senior executives in large private companies were unaccountable to the wider Australian public.

Then came the punch line: ”Secret decisions by faceless men do not guarantee anybody’s freedom”. Freudenberg was inspired by Wilson’s phrase.

The next federal campaign, scheduled for 1964, would take the form of a crusade against the faceless men of Australian capitalism and their Liberal Party stooges.

Freudenberg wrote the book in 1962 and the launch date was fixed for May 31, 1963. In the event the publisher’s careful scheduling proved fatal to the book’s impact. With copies still laying unread in a warehouse it was overtaken by a political sensation.

On March 21, 1963, the Packer journalist Alan Reid arranged for dramatic midnight photographs to be taken of Calwell and his deputy Gough Whitlam standing outside the Hotel Kingston in Canberra waiting for a decision as the 36 delegates of the ALP federal conference determined the party’s official attitude to a proposed US radio communications facility in Western Australia.

Reid portrayed Calwell and Whitlam as hapless puppets controlled by unseen party insiders. In the article accompanying the photographs, Reid had referred merely to ”36 virtually unknown men”. Reid’s photographs were an act of genius but it took Labor’s opponents a few days to find the truly catchy phrase needed to nail the ALP.

After a fortnight it was the Liberal Party backbencher Harry Turner who came up with the right phrase. In a speech in the House of Representatives on April 3, 1963 Turner referred to ”the 36 faceless men” who controlled Labor Party policy. From then on the faceless men tag was associated not with the Liberals as had been Freudenberg’s original idea but with the Labor Party.

The Liberals capitalised on their propaganda coup by calling a federal election a year before expected. On November 30, 1963, Menzies’ parliamentary majority shot up from one to 20. Significantly, the Coalition went into the 1963 federal election having already successfully road tested its new slogan with voters.

A state election was held in Queensland on June 1, 1963.

All through May until polling day the Queensland Liberal Party had run advertisements directed against the faceless men who supposedly controlled the Labor Party. In a dreadful coincidence newspaper coverage of the launch of Freudenberg’s ghost-written book appeared on the very same Saturday that Queenslanders voted.

Freudenberg’s reference to faceless men appeared in an extract from the book published in the press but there was no question any more of the phrase ever being used as an anti-Liberal rallying call.

On June 1, 1963, the Queensland coalition state government was easily returned to office. This decision by voters effectively endorsed the idea that it was the ALP and not the Coalition which was unfit for office because it was dominated by faceless men.

Almost 50 years later, another Queensland state election is being conducted in the shadow of Kevin Rudd’s anti-faceless men rhetoric. The parallel with 1963 is uncanny. Such is the abiding power of myth and scary imagery.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald and Dr Stephen Holt are co-authors of the biography of Alan (“The Red Fox”) Reid, published by the University of NSW Press

The Canberra Times, February 27, 2012