Clyde Cameron: Not your average ex-MP

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Not your average ex-MP

A Life on the Left: A Biography of Clyde Cameron
By Bill Guy
Wakefield Press, 1999. 405pp.

Review by Anthony Benbow

Sickened by stories about former Labor PM Paul Keating's business empire, or by listening to federal Labor's Mark Latham? Feeling bored with Kim Beazley's biography, or let down by Lindsay Tanner?

Try this simple quiz:

Which Labor MP and minister (now retired) once told a gathering of top US executives that if he were prime minister he would immediately nationalise all the Australian subsidiaries of their operations?

Who in 1988 repeatedly wrote to Labor PM Bob Hawke detailing his government's betrayals and urging him to "step down now in favour of someone closer to Labor's grassroots"?

Who continues to call for the reversal of privatisation, for increases in taxes on, and controls on, big business (particularly multinational companies), for shorter working hours with no loss in pay to solve unemployment, defends the right to strike, demands an end to job and pay discrimination against women, for government spending to be directed toward socially and environmentally useful works, for international collaboration between trade unions to halt and reverse globalisation and much more?

Give up? The answer to all the above is Clyde Cameron, the former minister in the Whitlam Labor government (and a major force in the ALP), Labor MP for Hindmarsh in South Australia for 31 years, fighter for union democracy (against Australian Workers Union tyrant Tom Dougherty), union organiser (nicknamed "shithouse" by frustrated bosses) and, before that, for 12 years a rouseabout and shearer.

In recent years, Cameron has become a political historian, recording hundreds of hours of interviews with former Liberal and ALP MPs — most of which are subject to the 25-year embargo in the National Library and will make interesting reading when they see the light of day.

Cameron is not your average ex-MP.

In his 87th year, and with more than seven decades of political activity and experience behind him, Cameron still holds to the principles that have guided his life, while still remaining in touch with new political developments and events, and continuing to campaign as much as he is able.

The vehicle he chose for achieving his ideals — the ALP — has proved to be opposed to virtually everything Cameron stands for. Others in a similar position have given up.

Adelaide-based journalist Bill Guy has produced a readable, well-researched and sympathetic biography.

Cameron was born at Murray Bridge in South Australia in 1913 and spent childhood in the rural areas surrounding Adelaide. He became a shearer like his father, but his formative political influences came from his mother, Adelaide. The daughter of a wealthy landowning family, (she was virtually disowned for marrying a shearer) Adelaide Cameron was widely read and regularly discussed with her children the writings of John Stuart Mill, Henry George, Karl Marx, Adam Smith and Charles Darwin, amongst others. Adelaide was also a strong Quaker.

Cameron commenced working in shearing teams in 1927, travelling throughout South Australia, western NSW and Queensland. He became was a regular stump speaker in Adelaide's Botanic Park and in 1938 was elected AWU organiser and also to the SA ALP executive and an ALP federal conference delegate.

Cameron did well as an AWU organiser and became state secretary in 1941. Spurred on by Cameron's boundless energy, the union began a massive recruiting and organising drive that saw its SA membership more than double and working conditions members greatly improved by the time Cameron was elected to federal parliament. In this time, Cameron began his decades-long battle against corruption, ballot-rigging and despotism within the AWU. He was also a force in state ALP politics, being elected SA branch president. Following his exposure of AWU corruption, Cameron was expelled by the Dougherty leadership in 1959.

Guy conveys the detail and context of Cameron's activities in all the areas of Labor Party politics. A highlight is the description of Cameron's leading role in the fight against Bob Santamaria's right-wing, Catholic Industrial Group's takeover of unions and the ALP.

Cameron played a key role in the shaping of the ALP in the 1960s. The party's structures were altered to give the Parliamentary ALP more control of the national organisation, at the expense of the branches and unions. After narrow losses in the 1969 federal election and 1970 Victorian election, the ALP federal executive moved against the left-wing Victorian branch of the ALP.

The Victorian branch had gone against federal ALP policy, opposing state aid to private (Catholic) schools. The Liberal Party were using that to discredit the ALP. In August and September, 1970 a series of meetings of the ALP federal executive succeeded in removing the entire Victorian ALP executive and authorised the setting up of a committee to manage the "reform" of the branch.

This action could have caused another deep rift in the ALP, however the operation against the left was carefully planned led by a federal MP with plenty of "left cred": Clyde Cameron. Disruption was minimised, and the ALP under Gough Whitlam went on to win the 1972 federal election. Whitlam gave Cameron a signed photograph of himself, inscribed: "To the architect of victory".

Cameron was given the portfolio of minister for labour. Cameron was the architect of the equal pay cases to end discrimination against women in the work force. He campaigned for pay rises for lower-paid workers, and in favour of across-the-board flat dollar rises rather than percentages, in order to narrow the gap between the high-paid and the low-paid. Conditions for public servants were greatly improved.

Following Labor's election, unions sought big wage rises to make up for the years of restraint under the Liberals. Strikes were frequent. While Cameron was supportive, many unions took more than what he deemed "fair" by the Labor government, prompting him to speak out against the rises sought. The growing world recession did not help the Australian economy and inflation was increasing.

This, combined with a hostile treasury department with the ear of the prime minister, was sufficient for Whitlam to sack Cameron and demote him to minister for science, where Cameron remained until the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975. He retired from parliament in 1980.

In 1982, Cameron gave a series of radio interviews in which he warned that the ALP could not win the coming federal election with Bill Hayden and that he must step down as leader in favour of someone "more popular". Hayden stepped down in favour of Bob Hawke on the eve of the 1983 federal election. Labor won, and went on to govern for five terms. Once again Cameron was the "the architect of victory".

But within five years Cameron was writing to Hawke asking him to resign for the good of the ALP and the country. Hawke's government shackled the unions with the Accord, allowed the expansion of uranium mining, introduced fees for tertiary education and was in the process of privatising public assets — the issue that really riled Cameron. In one of his speeches at the time, he said, "Privatisation is Piratisation".

Labor put an end industry-wide wage agreements by replacing awards with enterprise bargains (the forerunner to the Coalition's individual Work place Agreements), cut social services, refused to act on Aboriginal deaths in custody, deregulated whole sectors of the economy and cut the public service, committed troops to the Gulf and collaborated with the Indonesian dictatorship over its genocide in East Timor. The list went on. Hawke and Keating paved the way for the attacks of the John Howard government.

Many former ALP MPs have retired, gone into business or dropped into obscurity. Cameron is to be commended for remaining active, and resolute in his views. Cameron's strategy (and that of many others on the ALP left) is focused on the ALP gaining control of parliament, whatever the cost, and only then can a legislative program be implemented to attack big business and benefit working people. This is reflected in Cameron's role in the removal of the Victorian ALP executive and the rise of Hawke. This view was Cameron's biggest flaw.

The ruling class can mobilise plenty of power in areas outside parliamentary control (large companies, the establishment media) and within the state apparatus. Cameron recognised the power of "the bureaucrats" in constraining parliament. The main weapon of the working class in its fight against the capitalist system is the immense power of its collective action. The type of party required to lead such action against the ruling class is very different to the ALP.

At the time Clyde Cameron entered political activity in the early 1930s, Australian politics was very different. Cameron's mother was not a fan of the Communist Party, and this no doubt led to him seeing the ALP as the main option for social change.

Anyone contemplating such a course today must educate themselves about the successes and failures of that strategy in the past. Cameron's biography is packed with plenty of thought-provoking examples of both, and is a worthwhile read.

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