NOOSA - In March 2021, Phil Fitzpatrick sent me an unexpected and somewhat surprising email: ‘Just out of curiosity, what made you run in the federal election back then?’
Phil went on to explain:
‘I’ve often wondered what motivates politicians to run for office.
‘I have trouble believing that they are somehow inspired by some deeply held sense of duty or purpose. Nowadays it just seems like part of a career path.
‘Were you just pissed off by Fraser or was there more to it?’
And then a little Fitzmischief:
‘Did the safari suit have anything to do with it?’
I was happy to respond, and provided Phil with a condensed story of my 43-year long association with the Labor Party and why I decided to quit on 14 September 2014:
The inability of Federal leader Shorten and his colleagues to make a distinction between a moral approach to major issues - with the Iraq/Syria war and asylum seeker policy pre-eminent - and short-term political manoeuvring, is inconsistent with my membership of what was once a decent, reformist, community-based political party.
Here, edited for clarity and providing extra information, is my reply to Phil.
Why I quit the ALP? Here’s the long answer. There is no short one.
I’d been interested in progressive politics since school – where, in the 1950s, an authoritarian mood ruled.
There was also a constraining mood, which I bridled against. My fingers still bear the weals of cane strokes intended to punish and subdue but instead making me something of a firebrand and a schoolyard hero.
During this period of juvenile rebellion, my main embarrassment occurred when my father, the school’s economics master, walked into the office he shared with a subordinate who was giving me two strokes of the cane.
However, some years before those troubled years, an event occurred that bore the signs of a distinct interest in politics.
When Gamal Abdel Nasser snatched the Suez Canal Company from its British and French shareholders in July 1956, he triggered an ill-starred invasion of Egypt by the two European powers.
It was an immense news story, so much so that I asked my sixth grade teacher if we could debate before our class the topic ‘that Colonel Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal was justified’.
To my surprise, he agreed to this proposal and the debate – three speakers arguing each side of the proposition - was duly organised.
I spoke as leader for the affirmative case and the class voted on which side won. From this distance I think it was my team but that could be ego’s prompt.
I went on to complete five years of high school, where I survived the canings and, being a poor student, just scraped through the Leaving Certificate but did not qualify to matriculate into university
However my pass mark was enough to secure two offers from the authorities: one to train as a teacher in New South Wales and another to train as a teacher in Papua and New Guinea.
Somehow, after a challenging interview in Sydney, I was back there at the end of January 1962, a Cadet Education Officer at the Australian School of Pacific Administration, ASOPA.
Given my poor academic record, I do not know what qualities led to this success.
But I suspect verbal acuity was one. I had represented Nowra High School in debating, won its public speaking contest in three consecutive years, edited the school magazine and provided a regular column on basketball for the local newspaper.
The other attribute may have been my modest sporting prowess, which had just been enough to represent my school in soccer and basketball.
My long-held ambition was to be a journalist, not a teacher, but there was no door open to enable that.
But I had entry to a profession which would give me a qualification, pay a stipend, allow me a lot more freedom and take me away from Nowra.
I consoled myself with the thought that, if I must teach, it might as well be in an exotic place that would get me out of Australia.
So, having just turned 17, I rolled up to ASOPA and found myself amongst a group of men and women mostly older than I.
This was advantageous as people in their early twenties have already acquired enough life experience to impart to a naïve and credulous teenager.
One of my fellow students was Keith Bain, at 23 already an accomplished writer, who introduced me both to socialist thought and the Australasian Book Society, a writers’ cooperative which flourished from 1952 to 1981 and published books by left wing authors
The ABS is long since gone but I retain a fair sized library of 23 of its books which found me wherever I was at a steady rate of four a year.
Its authors included Judah Waten Lady Jessie Street, Katherine Susannah Prichard, Les Haylen, Dal Stivens, FB Vickers, Betty Collins, Egon Kisch, Mena Calthorp, Alan Ashbolt, DH Crick, HJ Summers, John Beede, Frank Hardy, Jack Beasley and Bill Wannan. I guess most of them are forgotten by now but their works, and political thinking, live on.
My political and literary mentor Bain taught for some years in Papua New Guinea, married a senior academic at Imperial College London and himself became an academic economist, I think at the University of East London, and author.
In addition to my political schooling from Bain, on the streets of Sydney were anti-hanging and anti-Vietnam protests that I would join.
ASOPA had a students’ union which from time to time invited controversial guest speakers to its Mosman campus.
I recall that one of these was Laurie Aarons, NSW secretary of the Communist Party of Australia, who caused a major stir, visits by operatives of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and something of an inquisition.
The last thing the Australian government wanted in PNG at that time were adherents of the Communist persuasion.
By the time I arrived in PNG on Saturday 16 November 1963, I was prepped in progressive and radical thinking.
In the early sixties the ALP was casting off the torment of its great split 10 years previously and, with Gough Whitlam’s influence growing, was beginning to design and espouse the reformist policies that would eventually take it to government in 1972.
It was what constituted the word ‘reform’ that attracted me. The word sparkled with opportunities to create a better country.
At that stage of my life I was far from certain about how the changes that ‘reform’ embraced might be effected. But I was sure they were required.
Whitlam was to bring them in by the truckload. Later, so did Bob Hawke. The conservatives Howard, Abbott and Morrison were to later undermine many of these reforms.
Collectively, they left Australia a worse place.
In PNG, I was separated from political organisations and disenfranchised.
I wanted to join the Australian Labor Party as a tangible expression of my political views but didn’t know how to do it as I bounced around the Territory between 1963 and 1970 – Wewak, Goroka, Kundiawa, Moresby, Rabaul, Kieta….
In 1971, by which time I was managing Radio Bougainville in Kieta, the Queensland state secretary of the ALP, Tom Burns, visited the town with an Australian parliamentary delegation.
After a public event, I took him aside and asked how I could join the ALP. He said he’d look after it.
A couple of weeks later I received a letter advising me that I was now a member of Labor’s Queensland head office branch.
I was a member but that was it. Colonial PNG was not a place for Australians to propagate their political views. The territory had enough challenges.
When I returned to Australia in 1976 to set up 2ARM-FM, I joined Labor’s Armidale Branch. This led to an unexpected and unwelcome drama.
I established and anchored a daily current affairs program, Today. It was the only broadcast of its type in the district and well listened to.
Of course I covered politics and it was when I reported on a dispute in the local ALP branch between moderates and some crazy left wingers that I ran into bother.
Branch president Bill McCarthy (later elected as the first Labor MP for Armidale) called in on me at the station with a worried look on his face.
Bill said he was under pressure from left wing branch members angry at my political commentaries, especially those mentioning problems in the party. Could I tone them down, McCarthy asked.
He was a fine man, we liked each other and he had put me on the spot.
I said I couldn’t do what the party wanted. I couldn’t self-censor a program that purported to objectively cover local affairs. So I said I’d resign from the ALP and we both shed a tear.
Not long after that, Unesco offered me a job which I accepted with alacrity and headed off with my family to the Maldive Islands.
After a couple of years, in 1979 we returned to Sydney where almost immediately I was appointed to set up another new radio station, 2SER-FM.
My own and my first wife’s families lived on the northern beaches and it was in Narrabeen where my then wife Sue and I made our home.
I soon joined the Narrabeen-Pittwater Branch of the ALP. There were the usual left-right internecine battles but I enjoyed the dynamics of branch meetings and the activism of a political party. I also struck up friendships which have extended to this day.
My communication and public relations skills were valued and before long I was elected as one of Narrabeen-Pittwater’s two branch delegates to the NSW State Conference.
I also found myself engaged in running campaigns for local and State elections.
Then, in 1982, I was asked to be preselected to run for Labor in the federal election due the following year.
Around the same time, I was also elected to the local federal electorate council where, with two other unaligned members, I held the balance of power between right and left and was duly elected president.
I knew I could not win the seat of Mackellar against then health minister Jim Carlton (it required a 13% swing) but I reckoned, with a Democrat standing, I might push him to preferences.
As it turned out I got a 5% swing but the Democrat didn’t deliver and I just missed out on embarrassing Carlton in one of the country’s safest seats.
I remained an active party member and was also appointed president of the new Public (now Community) Broadcasting Foundation which was set up to provide funding for community radio stations and I had spent much time advocating.
Then in 1985 I was appointed to one of the top jobs in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, in which amongst other things I was responsible for the ABC’s relations with parliament in Canberra.
I stood aside from political activism but remained a member of the party until 2014 until I quit in disgust at its cruel policies on refugees and its support for the Iraq-Syria war.
By then, the ALP had changed its core dynamic from bold reformism to timid reaction.
The Liberal Party, now greatly influenced by the neoliberalism, moved to the right and Labor followed it.
The neoliberal influence has given Australia a more deeply divided Australia where quite literally the rich have become richer and everyone else can do as they please.
So there we are. After 43 years I left a party that had left me behind.
As for the safari suit…. I owned two. There was a beige number with faux epaulettes and the other was a cute pale blue. Very big in Unesco in those days.