With mates like these, who needs enemies?

May 29, 1991

Mates. Five champions of the Labor right talking with Fia Cumming
Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1991. 344 pp, $29.95
Reviewed by Steve Painter

Keating, Richardson, Carr, Brereton and McLeay, five key figures in the NSW and federal Labor Party during its electoral successes of the '80s. If you're curious about what makes them tick, Fia Cumming's book, based on conversations with them, provides the answer: not very much.

According to their own accounts, going into politics was a way of making a quid as much as anything else, and in the case of Brereton and McLeay, it was a softer number than being an electrician or a Telecom technician.

Initially, their main problem was to wait for an incumbent ALP politician to die or retire and then beat the rest of the pack in the scramble for the vacant parliamentary seat. Keating explains it all quite neatly: "You can't decide on a career in politics, because you've got to find a parliamentary seat, and they're not easy to come by. Particularly federal seats."

Then he found out that Labor MP Eric Costa was about to retire: "By the time I was 21 I was flat out, flat out on my preselection every night of the week, every night. I was well and truly on course by the time I was 20.

"I went for it because it was, federal seats were once in twenty year jobs, I knew it had to come up and if I didn't get it, that was it." This was in the mid-'60s, when many others his age were beginning to get involved in politics as well, but most were turning towards the struggle to stop the Vietnam War. All that didn't make much impression on Keating and his mates. They were looking after number one.

Discussing the left, the mates describe themselves as the winners, the realists, while the left was impractical and responsible for Labor's inability to win elections through the '50s and '60s. All products of the Catholic right machine that ran the NSW Labor Party in those days (Carr being one of the rare non-Catholics), they gloss over the responsibility of the Catholic right for the Democratic Labor Party split, which accounts for most of Labor's electoral difficulties at that time.

The NSW Catholic right differed tactically, though not politically, with the national decision to split and form the DLP, and the '80s were probably their historical vindication. While the DLP eventually withered, the NSW right was able, with the help of some alliances (including with good Catholic mates like Brian Burke), to take over the whole federal ALP machine and dictate policy for a decade.

It's a little ironic that this book appears as the mates' stars are waning. All are still in parliament for the moment: Keating as federal treasurer, Brereton a federal backbencher, Richardson a senator and chief numbers man for the right, McLeay speaker of the federal House of Representatives and Carr leader of the NSW ALP. But Keating and Richardson have both said they probably won't serve in opposition, which means they'll almost certainly get out after the next federal elections. Assuming the other three mates don't lose their seats in the electoral disasters that appear to be looming for the ALP, they and their faction will preside over a party that's a long way behind where it was when they took it over.

The right wing policies of the '80s have driven out huge numbers of the party ranks and surrounded the ALP with an atmosphere of corruption and incompetence. The mates were only winners while big business found them useful. In the near future, most of them will probably find greener pastures in which to pursue the welfare of number one.

Fia Cumming's book provides an uncritical view of the personalities and motivations of the five mates, and their more critical comments on ALP personalities such as John Ducker, Neville Wran, Gough Whitlam and others.

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