Clyde Cameron, 1913-2008



Clyde Cameron, Labor MP for 31 years and minister in the Whitlam government, died a few days ago, aged 95. There have been numerous news reports outlining his career, including an obituary by Mungo McCallum in The Australian (of which only an extract appears to be online).

Below is an outline of Clyde Cameron’s career extracted from an article Bob Gould wrote when Cameron joined the Socialist Alliance in 2006.

As I’ve had several encounters with Clyde over the years, I feel I’m not badly placed to discuss the history of his political activity. He has written four books, and there has been a rather laudatory biography of him by Bill Guy.

Clyde kicked off as a trade union organiser on the left in the Australian Workers Union in the 1930s. From his early years to the present time he has been an advocate of the single-tax-on-land ideas of Henry George, which he acquired from his family.

Clyde rapidly became the dominant figure in the Australian Workers Union in South Australia, and in the Labor Party in that state. He was well known at that time for keeping factions out of the Labor Party in SA, which for many years was run on a kind of democratic centralist basis.

His great virtue at that time was that he was an ingenious and energetic opponent of the right-wing Catholic Industrial Groups, which were trying to take over the Labor Party. Along with Joe Chamberlain from WA, Arthur Geitzelt from NSW, and Herbert (Doc) Evatt and Eddie Ward in the federal parliament, Cameron played, to his eternal credit, a decisive role in defeating the Groupers.

He was an extraordinarily active and effective parliamentarian in the federal sphere for 30 years or so. Unusually for a Labor politician, he also put a lot of energy into supporting a left-wing opposition to the right wing in his old union, the AWU. That went on for about 20 years.

He’s a pretty good hater, and he’s well-known for a dogged vendetta against his long-time bete noir, Tom Dougherty, ultimately the leader of the right wing in the AWU. Guy’s biography recounts that Clyde believes that Dougherty, who is now dead, had murdered his wife and the murder was covered up.

In the late 1960s, Clyde in SA, along with his protege Mick Young, and Jack Egerton in Queensland (later Sir Jack, knighted by Her Majesty) and Egerton’s protege Tom Burns, were the major players on the Labor Party federal executive in supporting the replacement of the courageous opponent of the Vietnam War, Arthur Calwell, with Gough Whitlam as federal Labor parliamentary leader.

As part of their scheme to make the Labor Party electable, those four dreamed up the idea of intervening in the left-wing Victorian branch to throw out the dominant left leadership, effectively putting the right wing in control. The mechanism they used to do this, the introduction of proportional representation in the Labor Party, turned out to be a sensible structure eventually. As a quid pro quo of sorts, they also intervened in NSW to impose the same structure there, which did not affect the right’s control of the branch, but gave proportional representation to the left.

This brutal intervention against the left in Victoria provoked a widespread revolt there, and the formation of a mass Socialist Left, which even after federal intervention got 40 per cent of the vote in party affairs.

A smaller but also spectacular revolt took place against the traditional semi-Stalinist left wing in NSW, with the formation of a smaller Socialist Left, a coalition of traditional mavericks, young technocrats and far left individuals who had a base in the Labor Party, such as myself. This led to one of my brushes with Clyde Cameron.

At the NSW Socialist Left general meeting before the NSW Labor Party in 1971, I beat the Labor member of state parliament, Frank Walker, later a minister in the Wran Government, by 90 votes to 10, for the position of Socialist Left candidate for the Labor Party federal conference. This candidate was to be supported by the Socialist Left at the state conference.

The federal Labor Party conference in those days was much smaller and more concentrated and powerful than it is now, with six delegates from each state, one from each territory, and four parliamentary leaders, a total of 42. The election of federal conference delegates took place under the new proportional representation arrangements at a big state conference of 800 delegates in Sydney Town Hall. I was beaten by one vote by John Garland from the official left Steering Committee, but there were irregularities and I demanded a recount by the federal executive. I won the third recount by half a vote, after which the Steering Committee gave up and I was off to Hobart about half a day late for the five-day federal conference. From memory, I won the last position, with 63.5 votes, half a vote over half of the last quota.

At that event I first encountered Clyde Cameron in the flesh. He was a master of conference procedure and a rather impressive figure. There were two big federal election issues at that conference, from my point of view: industrial relations and what to do about ASIO (the secret political police).

Clyde Cameron had proposed a wages and prices freeze very like the later Accord of the Hawke Labor Government, which had such a disastrous effect for the trade union movement. The insurgent rebels of the Victorian and NSW Socialist Lefts conducted an energetic agitation in the Labor Party and the trade unions against the wage-price freeze promoted by Cameron and Egerton, and despite our bitter differences with the semi-Stalinist official NSW left, which had supported the intervention in Victoria, we gritted our teeth and conducted a kind of united front agitation towards them, and towards a number of the right-wing trade unions, which were reluctant to give up their traditional trade union prerogatives for a wage-price freeze. In the event, we defeated the Cameron wage-price freeze proposals fairly comfortably at the federal conference, which directly contributed to the so-called wages breakout under the Whitlam government, which so enraged the Australian ruling class. I’m still rather proud of that.

The other big issue, from my point of view, at that conference, was ASIO. The traditional left had roped the Victorian SL into a broad left caucus, and I also went to a couple of meetings of this caucus, but I deliberately absented myself when they discussed ASIO, with the aim of keeping my options open on the conference floor to move in the way I considered necessary.

I deliberately came in a couple of minutes late when the debate on ASIO started, and sat quietly when Lionel Murphy moved for reform of ASIO. Then I moved from the floor for the abolition of this repressive instrument of the bourgeois state, which caused a certain amount of consternation, and I made a fiery speech in support of my motion.

Lionel Murphy, the left parliamentarian who was moving the formal proposal for the reform of ASIO, was a bit startled, and then rather angry, and Clyde Cameron and Egerton were also pretty irritated. However, my oratory was reasonably persuasive. One funny feature of the vote was that Gough Whitlam was out of the room, talking in the corridor, when the debate took place. He came back into the conference room for the vote, took a cursory look around, saw some people he identified with voting for my amendment, and not entirely realising what was being discussed, he voted for my amendement, which was carried by one vote.

There was much consternation, and Cameron and Egerton, who were the managers of the conference, ran around in a bit of a flap. Eventually they moved for the recommittal of my amendment, which was then lost by a few votes. So, for all of 45 minutes, abolition of ASIO was federal Labor Party policy.

In due course, some months later, the It’s Time campaign brought Whitlam’s Labor government to office. Clyde Cameron became the minister for labour in that government.

Cameron was a fairly interventionist minister, and quite independent-minded. In the early stages he made a number of concessions to the unions, but later he became somewhat antagonistic to the unions, arguing that they were claiming too much. He became rather hostile, particularly, to the white collar unions and started using rhetoric that drew an artificial division between blue and white collar unions.

Nevertheless, there wasn’t much the Whitlam government could do to head off legitimate union demands. Clarrie O’Shea’s courageous industrial stand in 1969 had effectively destroyed the penal clauses in the industrial laws, and we had headed off a prices and incomes policy at the federal Labor conference.

The year 1974 was perhaps the high point of trade union influence, density and militancy in Australian society.

Later, in 1982, Clyde wrote a book, Unions in Crisis, in which he made some legitimate criticisms of the lack of democracy in some unions, but the book was marred by a certain animosity towards white-collar unions, about which Cameron came to have a bit of a bee in his bonnet.

Towards the end of the Labor government, Whitlam scapegoated Cameron and sacked him from the ministry over a comparatively minor matter, and this led to a deep personal animosity between Cameron and Whitlam. Cameron devoted a lot of effort to overthrowing Whitlam’s Labor Party leadership, which he had earlier promoted so energetically.

In 1977, Cameron wrote a very long book (900 pages), called The Clyde Cameron Diaries, which was published later. The diary medium, as we know from the Latham diaries, is rather ambiguous territory. Diaries are usually written with an eye to publication, and despite the claim to daily authenticity, they usually put the diarist in a very favourable light.

Nevertheless, The Cameron Diaries are of enormous interest to any student of labour movement politics. They provide a picture of this enormously energetic man, on many issues fairly leftist, but on some key issues such as prices-incomes policy and restraining the unions, fairly rightist. Cameron had his finger in every pie in the AWU and the Labor Party, including its parliamentary wing, in SA and nationally.

His description of how it all works, while a bit self serving, is very useful. It confirms in spades the aspect of labour politics that small-minded sectarians such as the leadership of the DSP don’t comprehend at all, which is that the bureaucracies in the labour movement, including the Labor parliamentarians, spend their lives in a kind of Bonapartism, balancing the pressures from the base of the labour movement, traditional Labor socialist politics (which a figure like Cameron clearly in his own conservative way believes in) and direct pressures from various elements in the ruling class, including constant pressure from major ruling class fractions for Labor to look after the fiscal needs of the ruling class.

Cameron was successful, along with others, in organising Whitlam’s replacement by Bill Hayden. He then turned around after some time and decided that Hayden wasn’t the ideal candidate to win an election, and he was one of the major players in organising the overthrow of Hayden by Bob Hawke, which Cameron frankly and proudly acknowledges in Bill Guy’s biography.

It’s not too clearly spelled out in Guy’s biography, but Cameron was a fairly strong advocate at that stage of the Prices and Incomes Accord, which was mainly sold to the unions and the Labor Party by the then Communist Party and its chief trade union figure, Laurie Carmichael. The one elected union official who had the courage to vote against the Accord at the federal unions conference that adopted it was my good friend Jenny Haines, who had just been elected general secretary of the NSW Nurses’ Association in a powerful nurses’ reform agitation.

Thereafter, the official left, and eventually the DSP it has to be said, did everything they could to destabilise Jenny Haines’ leadership of the Nurses’ Association, and she was defeated five years later, in 1987. She’s still an important leader of the militant forces in the Nurses’ Association and from time to time has a good deal of success, even from opposition in the union, in maintaining that union as a powerful industrial force.

In 1993, Clyde Cameron made an important speech criticising the bureaucratisation of the trade union movement, which was published in Labour History, the magazine of the Labour History Society. Much of this analysis was valid, but it was still marred by a pessimistic view of the ability of the unions to survive, and a rather hostile attitude towards white-collar unions and union activists in general who didn’t start life as horny handed sons of toil.

My understanding is that until now Clyde has remained an influential figure in the South Australian Labor Party. The left in SA has long been divided into supporters of Peter Duncan on the one hand and Nick Bolkus on the other. (Bolkus is a long-standing protege of Clyde Cameron.)

It’s interesting how, in Australia, the political culture of each state tends to reassert itself, even in new conditions. For the past few years, the Bolkus left has operated in close coalition with the organised right in the SA Labor Party, in something that’s called The Machine, mainly by its critics, and the Labor Party in SA has really reverted to the one-faction situation that prevailed in the heyday of Clyde Cameron and Jim Toohey, in the times before proportional representation was introduced.

This Machine essentially makes all the major decisions about personnel and leadership in the SA Labor Party. It’s my understanding that, from retirement, Clyde still has a pretty fair influence in the affairs of The Machine.

Despite sharp political conflicts between my left-wing views on a number of the issues of the past 30 years, and Clyde Cameron’s occasionally right-wing practices and views, my personal relations with him have always been courteous. He’s the kind of labour movement Bonapartist who is careful with serious opponents, often clearly with the idea in the back of his mind that alliances and hostilities in labour movement politics are sometimes not written in stone.

I’ve talked to Clyde Cameron a number of times over the past 10 or 15 years. Before he got a bit frail he used to come to Sydney for some ALP state conferences, and for the federal conference, making intelligent use of his retired politician’s free airline pass.

He was an interesting and entertaining speaker at the 1994 Labour History conference that I and others organised on the split in the ALP in the 1950s.

My friend Jenny and I happened to be walking out of a NSW ALP conference a few years ago, talking to Cameron and he mentioned that he had to get a cab out to Double Bay to see Mick Young, his old protege, who was then dying of cancer. Jenny offered him a lift and we talked to him further in the car, and he was obviously rather shaken by the illness of Young, a much younger man.

There was a good deal of media commentary in the late 1990s about Cameron’s much commented on reconciliation of sorts with his old opponent from the 1950s, BA Santamaria, on the basis of their common opposition to globalisation.

There was also some media comment on the fact that, precipitated by a family tragedy, one of his close family members converted to the Catholic church, to which conversion Cameron himself was not unsympathetic.

The information from Boyle, if true, that Clyde Cameron has joined the Socialist Alliance adds another dimension to this rather complex political personality. It’s not entirely unknown in the labour movement, in fact it happens with a certain frequency, that personalities who start off as leftists in their youth, and then move somewhat to the right during their period of power in the Labor Party or trade unions, shift back to the leftism of their youth in retirement. Cameron’s joining the Socialist Alliance, if true, clearly falls into this category.

Given his rather robust Scottish genes, and my encounters with him over the years, I discount the idea that his mind might be wandering a bit. He may be physically frail at 93, but I think it’s highly likely that his mind is like the steel trap that it has always been. It seems pretty likely to me that he’s still a player of sorts in the politics of the SA Labor Party.

In one of the internal bulletins of the DSP, a Percy supporter in SA (where the Percy supporters are a bit stronger than elsewhere) made the effective point that the Socialist Alliance in SA consisted almost entirely of the small number of members of the DSP, plus a couple of “hostile ex-members”, a useful independent who voted against the DSP some of the time, plus a certain number of rather disturbed people who tended to dominate discussion at the meetings.

Add to that heady little mix the confident, elegant figure of Clyde Cameron, who embodies so much labour movement history, and you have a rather extraordinary combination. I’d like to be a fly on the wall at the first Socialist Alliance meeting that Cameron attends.

Joking aside, it might be exceedingly useful and educational to hold a forum on the balance sheet of wage-price freeze arrangements in Australia, and their effect on the trade unions, and have as two of the panelists, Clyde Cameron and Jenny Haines. Additionally, the Socialist Alliance might arrange a meeting for Clyde to explain the finer details of Henry George’s ideas on the single tax on land, perhaps to dispel a bit John Percy’s notion that these ideas are particularly weird.

PS. This small extract from page 137 (entry for May 19, 1976) of the 900-odd pages of The Cameron Diaries, is of considerable interest.

“John Edwards and a young man, Brett Trennery, and a young woman named Lisa Walter called in this afternoon. Edwards explained that he intends to write a story on the operation of ASIO inside the Socialist Workers Party. Brett, who is chairman and the full-time paid organiser of the group in SA, told me his organisation has about 200 or 250 members. He said it was a Trotskyite organisation and disagreed with Bob Gould’s group, and disagreed also with the Socialist Party of Australia, the Maoist party, and the Australian Communist Party.

“Edwards explained that the main purpose of his visit was to get a photograph of Lisa keeping her appointment with an ASIO agent, who would be meeting her in the carpark of West Lakes Mall. Ms Walter explained that she had been given $500 for her work for ASIO so far, and was now getting $60 a month. However, ASIO has told her that money is getting very tight. She said that recently she had been required to go to Sydney to spy on the Sydney branch of the group. Special instructions were to find out about their sex activities and their associations with the PLO and other groups. She stayed in Sydney for a week and was paid $105. The arrangements were that she should stay with a member of the group and obtain whatever information could be obtained about the group.

“John’s plot worked like a charm! Lisa met her boss as arranged at 4.30pm, and got into his car and began her report. Suddenly John accosted her ASIO boss, saying ‘Excuse me! I’m from the press. Could I have an interview with you about the operations of ASIO!’ The spook slammed and locked his car door and refused to co-operate, so John contented himself with a quick snapshot of the young woman and her much older suitor.

“Lisa is not the first ASIO agent who has been converted to the cause of the group she was paid to betray!” (John Edwards, who is now an economist working for a major bank, was on Labor prime minister Paul Keating’s staff for a number of years and has written a major biography of Keating. More recently he has written a book about John Curtin as wartime Labor prime minister, called Curtin’s Gift.)

See also: How the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party lost its way


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One Response to “Clyde Cameron, 1913-2008”

  1. Sol Salbe Says:

    Very interesting account of one the most fascinating key figures in the ALP. I personally will never forget his comments as a Federal Minister when Nixon resumed the bombing of north Vietnam on 18 December 1972:

    “The world is witnessing an attempt by the greatest military power ever known to impose national torture upon a poor and tiny Asian country… war mongering is based on profiteering and if the people of the world can rise up and take effective action against profiteering which has so far characterised the American action in Iraq the war may come to an end.”

    Can you imagine a current minister saying anything remotely similar?

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