Review of Marion Wilkinson’s biography, The Fixer: The Untold Story of Graham Richardson, The Weekend Review, The Australian, 24-25 February 1996, p. 16.
It is unlikely that The Fixer will be on display at ALP fundraising stalls. This is a different work to Graham Freudenberg’s A Certain Grandeur, the masterful, unashamed hagiography to Gough Whitlam. As a portrait of a major player in the ALP over the last decade, Marion Wilkinson’s book is a fierce critique. But is it accurate and fair?
Certainly, it’s a good read but her opinion of what she thinks of her subject permeates every page. Just in case anyone is in doubt, she made clear her views in a radio interview after the publication of the book by claiming that her work was a 400 page plea for ethics in public life as well as an exposure of Labor’s dealings with big business. Those themes dominate the book. As an account of the rise to political stardom of Richardson, one of the most powerful numbers men and “fixers” that the ALP has ever seen, Wilkinson’s critique is colourful. Sometimes, however, the author cannot make up her mind as to whether she is writing a morality tale novel, a conventional biography or an extended article from the National Times. Indeed, some of the chapters are rehashes of articles she wrote in the early ‘80s for that now defunct publication. Unfortunately, Wilkinson’s lack of rigorous, intelligent questioning of lines of interpretation developed in the book mars her work and its potential value.
Take, for example, the term “the New South Wales Right” which is bandied around in the book. There is no systematic analysis of what this term means. In actual fact the ALP in New South Wales is a coalition of forces. The New South Wales Right is an amalgam of tribal groups, particular union leaders and delegations, some idealists, anti-communists, local government machines and activists, Grouper romantics, soft Fabian socialists and, yes, opportunists. As a faction it emerged in the early 1940s as a response to the turmoil in the Labor Party in the 30s in the Lang era and in response to the attempt by the communists and their left-wing allies in the ALP to become dominant in the NSW Labor movement. What kept that coalition together were three things: success in government (delivering the goods), opposition to communism (particularly significant amongst the trade union leaders in the 1940s and 1950s) and outstanding parliamentary leadership as the rally point for the coalition to coalesce around. It has always been a Bonapartist group. In other words, it has sought a strong leader to provide some of the glue to keep the show on the road; typically the leader has provided the ideas or the platform to espouse to the electorate. At the State level, Premiers McKell and Cahill were the kind of so regarded heroic figures that the NSW Right traditionally championed.
Hence, within this tradition and in keeping with the need to sustain the faction, the NSW Right championed Gough Whitlam in the 1960s and 1970s; so too this survival logic influenced John Ducker to organise for the promotion of Wran into the NSW parliamentary leadership. As Keating liked to say, “Wran’s the QC we hired to get us into government, and we’ve had him on a retainer ever since.”
Wilkinson reveals some interesting information on Richardson’s role of fund-raiser for union campaigns and for ALP campaigns. A case is mounted that there was something suspicious about Richardson’s behavior here. But nothing much of substance is revealed. Wilkinson implies that the ALP has lost its soul in its dealings with what is cheaply called “the Big End of Town”. But it ought to be unexceptional for ALP leaders to cultivate business and seek their campaign contributions.
Something similar occurs in the Liberal Party.
Wilkinson is on strong ground in criticising Richardson’s handling of the ward bosses in the inner-city in the 1980s. His actions were tolerant of Tammany-like rorts and thuggery and Richardson was lucky to survive in the factional turmoil of that time.
There is nothing in the book that conveys the irony and pathos contained in Edwin O’Connor’s novel The Last Hurrah (based on the Irish clans who ran Boston in the 1920s and 1930s). It appeared to Richardson that Danny Casey was some kind of folksy Spencer Tracey like figure. (Tracey starred in the movie of the book). He was not. Richardson was lucky to keep his head during the scandals that broke in that period.
Barrie Unsworth, the leader of the NSW Right in the early 1980s and Secretary of the Labor Council from 1979 to 1984, came close to dismissing Richardson following the Baldwin bashing but he did not, probably out of loyalty to Richardson and because of his concern that, should dismissal occur, the NSW Right could fall apart. Those times influenced Richardson’s ambivalent attitudes to Unsworth and his resentment at the then potent power of the Labor Council leadership in the NSW Right.
An issue relatively unexplored is the role of machine men within political parties. Parties need combinations of people – policy entrepreneurs, those with the common touch to present ideas to the public, MPs attuned to local needs and machine operators; some of the latter are flawed characters. Politics attracts more than its fair share of those. Successful political parties, apparently, need people as hard, cynical and ruthless as Wilkinson’s Richardson.
There are plenty of quotes illustrating some character forming aspects of Richardson’s background. The betrayal, suspicion and double-crossing within his father’s union, the Postal Workers Union, must have been traumatic for the young Richardson. Both of his parents died young, in part due to the pressure of their jobs. There are a few ugly quotes about forgiveness (overrated as a quality) and loyalty (the key test of which is said to be backing someone when you know he is wrong). In Richardson’s career he supported Hawke into the leadership in 1983 and, as a senior minister in the Hawke government, after much ambivalence, Keating into the Prime Ministership. Despite all that can be said about Richardson and his flawed character, he got a lot of things right.
Those included some of the individuals that he supported to high office in the ALP as well as the environmental achievements when he was Minister for the Environment.
Richardson’s major achievement as a career machine man was to consolidate in the 1980s the power of the ALP office within the NSW Right, including the marginalising of the role of the Labor Council leadership within the ALP; also he was important in promoting Hawke into the leadership of the ALP.
In the book a lot of the characters are acting out roles more suitable for a novel; many of the characters are undeveloped and unrealistically presented. For example, there is the role of Ducker who periodically features through the book; this portrait deserves more colour and shade. Ducker was the intellectual and organisational leader of the New South Wales Right from the late 1960s through nearly the whole of the 1970s. As his group was coming to prominence, he published Labor Forward, a publication which emphasised the discussion of ideas within the ALP. There is a story told in the book about Laurie Short, the Leader of the Federated Ironworkers Association lending Ducker Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon and discussing with him other philosophical and political writings. Ducker, as a convert to Catholicism, had to wrestle with the great issues of morality and religion. His support for Whitlam and Wran in the leadership of the Labor Party federally and at the NSW level is explainable in factional self-interest terms, but Ducker participated in the development of policy and the support of able people into parliamentary prominence, including Senator “Diamond Jim” McClelland and member of the NSW Legislative Council Paul Landa. Ducker combined machine politics with a keen sense of public policy.
Wilkinson suggests that Richardson was a man without a moral compass. This seems to exaggerate his lack of moral scruples. Wilkinson claimed that as he rose to prominence in the ALP in the 1960s, the era of Vietnam, the heady days of conscription and the Age of Aquarius, this environment did not seem to have any impact. Perhaps we can be grateful.
The revelations by Bob Carr that he was prepared to consider in early 1994 swapping a senior Federal government ministry with Richardson, who would then become Leader of the Opposition in NSW, is an incredible story. Actually the idea was conceived late in 1993. But no one was brave enough to then raise it with Carr. (When I heard of the idea in, I think, early 1994 I saw Carr to urge him to accept the absurdity of that “choice”). It appears that Carr felt it necessary to fully cooperate with the author in order that his perspective on events be made known and favourably treated. Carr was probably embarrassed by being linked-up in Fia Cumming’s book Mates (a title which would probably be more accurately called “Mate!”) as one of a gang. In revealing Carr’s worries – recorded in his diaries – as to whether his creative future, after a loss in State politics, might be limited to taking up German and yoga lessons, he did himself some damage. As Premier he does not appear to be someone just shooting the breeze from here to eternity. Indeed he is shaping up as a formidable Premier by any standards.
Those who have never liked Richardson will rejoice in this book. There are a few stories told that are shameful. But the interesting thing about “Richo” is that he achieved much for his faction, for his party and those things he believed in. There was nothing elegant in being the “assassin”. He enjoyed the bloodbath too much. His environmental achievements are in contrast to that side of his record. “Whatever it takes” was his credo, achievement, and flaw.
I never warmed to Richardson. I saw him as street smart (essential in the NSW ALP Office) though with too much of a Jimmy Cagney swagger (as in the film Angels with Dirty Faces.) His endearing feature was hostility to the communist Left.
Stephen Loosley took me to lunch with Richo, as he was known to all, at the end of 1977. He wanted to repair bridges. Most of the talk over Chinese food was about the potential for Barry Egan to take the AWU and the shop union out of the NSW Right. Egan, the dissident former ALP/NCC-rightist, was planning to merge the union with the communist controlled Building Workers’ Industrial Union. Obviously, this was a key threat to the faction.
Earlier that year, in mid-1977 I was expelled without notice or redress by an assortment of communists, Trotskyists and far left ALP activists from the Labour Club at the University of Sydney. Five of us, all ALP members and wanting to distinguish ourselves from left extremists, stood for election as representatives from the university to the Australian Union of Students (AUS) Conference (due in January 1978 at Monash University). There were 5 positions up for election. We called our team ALP Social Democrats. A week before the vote, as NSW ALP Secretary, Richardson hauled me into the office (I took one of our candidates, Stephen Hutchins, with me) and Richardson threatened that we would be disciplined if our team did not immediately desist from using “ALP” in our election propaganda. I agreed and told Hutchins we would comply and re-name ourselves “Labor Social Democrats”. With a week to go there was not enough time to be summoned back to the office. In the end, we won 4 out of 5, with the final person elected a NCC-sympathiser. (That is a story I’ve told elsewhere.) I felt Richo was bullying and intemperate in his approach to us.
At the time, I asked Carr what he thought of Richo. He told me his political instinct was good, it just that he did not have any ideas. Richo’s life time dream, Carr quipped, was to be Minister for Supply in a Labor government.
(Years later, interestingly enough, as Environment Minister, Richardson was a formidable and impressive advocate for the environment.)
I also had problems when editing the Labor Leader newspaper. Richo demanded one issue be pulped because I referenced a resolution sympathetic to Idi Amin being carried by the ALP Cook Federal Electorate Council – Arthur Gietzelt’s leftwing stronghold in the south of Sydney. Richo thought I had made up the story; it was so unbelievable. A month later, the then Assistant Secretary Stephen Loosley told me of Richo’s astonishment when he received a letter from Ray Thorburn, Secretary of Cook FEC, conveying the resolution, exactly the wording I had given.
There were other instances.
In 1980 Unsworth asked me for my opinion when Richo faced a crisis over the Danny Casey connection. I thought it would be too de-stabilising to the ALP Right to sack him there and then. But he needed to leave his role. Unsworth agreed. A week later, a friend of Richardson’s, Ron Cunningham (TAFE teacher and unsuccessful ALP candidate for Barton in 1977), who had been influential in my education on economics (through various conversations at and mostly outside of ALP meetings after I had joined the party) told me that Richo expected to be dismissed. He would never forgive the favour.
At the 1982 Federal ALP Conference, when Richo and Keating left a day early, Steve Harker, then with the Federated Ironworkers’ Association, and I spoke harshly about Iran and in favour of Israel. Leo McLeay MP, a former NSW ALP Assistant secretary, complained we had gone too far. Back in Sydney, Richo said to Harker and I that we were headed for the “high jump” if we stepped out of line like that again. I could not see how we had done anything wrong. We were more ideological and well informed.
When Richardson resigned from the Senate in 1994, I sought his spot and he was determined to block me. Serves me right. I should have been more diplomatic in my dealings. Regardless, I thought “whatever it takes” a philosophy I could not abide by.