BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The great Labor Split in fiction
, July 18, 2015
THE BANDAR LOG: A Labor Story of the 1950s
by Alan Reid
(Connor Court Publishing, Ballarat, 2015)
Paperback: 346 pages
Reviewed by Patrick Morgan
The events of the Labor split of 1954-55 are too well known to News Weekly readers (and too painful) to recount here.
Alan Reid was a journalist at Parliament House, Canberra, and an ALP member at the time, so he was both a participant and a recorder of these tragic events, a division of loyalties which caused him considerable turmoil.
In his spare time he quietly wrote about these matters in semi-fictional form as a novel, which he later tried to get published, but was unable to do so because of possible libel action.
Now that novel, The Bandar Log, has finally been published by Ross Fitzgerald, who in 2010 published with Stephen Holt a fascinating biography of Reid.
Reid was famously known around the parliamentary traps as the “Red Fox” because of his ability to suss out scandals, and because of a long political memory which he deployed to great effect.
He was the best known political reporter of his time, having a reputation like that of Paul Kelly today: having the ability to stand back from events and from their own preferences, and to compose books of political history which are standard reference works today.
Reid’s are based on a shrewd observation about political life which is repeated in this novel: “Away from politics death leaves a gap that can never be filled. But politics continue. When a politician dies he doesn’t matter. It is a gap that is important. It has to be filled … Politics are lasting. They go on long after those who have supported them are vanished and forgotten.”
The Bandar Log loosely follows events just after Doc Evatt, in trouble after losing the federal election in 1954, denounced the Movement in October 1954 as a means of saving his skin.
The main characters in the novel are Con Fortune (Arthur Calwell), Kaye Seborjar = Cesare Borgia (Dr Evatt), Carr Domenico (Bob Santamaria), Tom Bannion (the young Gough Whitlam), and Con Fortune’s staffer Macker Kalley = Machiavelli (Alan Reid), who is also the novel’s narrator, thus repeating his dual roles in real life.
It revolves around Evatt’s move to detach himself from Santamaria, with whom he had been working before the election, and then to despatch him by means of an unexpected press conference, the event that constitutes the climax of the plot.
The greater part of the novel, however, consists of wheeling and dealing by loads of backroom boys
attached to the four leading political characters.
These staffers sense there is a big change of factional allegiance in the wind, so they talk in code to each other, trying to prise out just what the change is without giving their own strategy away. They are there primarily to advance the interests of their boss, which they are paid to do, but they are also terrified by the uncertainty of it all and by the necessity of saving their jobs.
They have to back the winner, which could mean moving away from their present boss. All this is very well done.
Alan Reid understood better than most that in such Hobbesian struggles for survival, men (there are no women staffers) are seen at their worst, treacherous and double-crossing, flattering, bribing and threatening by turns, hungry for power and without moral scruples –there’s no trick they won’t play.
As a staffer Macker Kalley is up to his neck in all this, but as a detached observer who has absorbed Machiavelli’s insights into political intrigue, he is disgusted by it.
That’s the success of this novel. But there’s too much manoeuvring in dark backrooms; we are not shown the beliefs and ideologies which motivate the main characters (for good or bad), and we are not, except for the last scene, shown them acting in public, in Parliament, in party meetings, and with the press and the public.
For instance, the issue of communism, on which the Split turned, is not dealt with in any depth. Consequently the novel lacks any scenes of political theatre.
This leads to a great limitation in the novel, which makes it less than a gripping read. Everyone is equally bad. If you oppose communism, as the Santamaria figure does, you are on the same moral level as the Dr John Burton figure, who is sympathetic to it.
The characters as they are drawn can’t really be distinguished from each other, except by a few sketchy external traits.
Calwell made the same criticism of Reid after the 1949 elections, complaining that Reid described him (Calwell) and Evatt as like “ordinary Liberal Party-Country Party political gangsters”.
So in the novel the Evatt figure comes to resemble the Calwell one, both irredeemably cynical hard hats like all the others, for whom the low blow is the stock-in-trade.
The Evatt figure does emerge a bit worse than the others; so ruthless is his duplicity that he wins the immediate tactical battle, but this occasions the narrator’s loathing.
We know from the biography that before the Split Reid, a good NSW Labor man from way back, was worried at the destabilising inroads the Movement was making in Labor ranks, and as a reporter he was the first to expose the Movement’s existence to the public before the Split, and to detail its modus operandi.
But after the Split and his own expulsion from the Labor Party, Reid liked the newly installed left-wing faction even less, and dealt it a mortal blow when he had Calwell and Whitlam photographed looking forlorn under a lamp post late at night waiting impotently for a decision from the party’s federal executive, the “36 faceless men”.
This incident was a big factor in Labor’s losing the subsequent 1963 federal election.
In the 1960s I would sometimes visit Bulletin journalist Peter Samuel in the parliamentary press gallery. On a couple of such occasions I met Alan Reid, who was also working for The Bulletin. One story I remember Reid told me was that Arthur Calwell, then leader of the opposition, had a prie dieu installed in an anteroom adjoining his office.
Calwell would go in there ostensibly to meditate, but actually to indulge in little recrimination sessions against his enemies. This habit features in the novel, but with the location transposed.
Patrick Morgan has edited two volumes of the writings of B.A. Santamaria. His latest book is Melbourne Before Mannix.