Mythologising in politics rarely survives intact when confronted with the results of sober historical research. A case in point, with strong political resonance, concerns Australian Labor Party leader Ben Chifley and his famed expression, “the light on the hill”. These words, both in the immediate post-Second World War Chifley years and ever since then in Labor circles, are intended to sum up the vision that supposedly energises and ennobles the ALP and its leaders as they strive for a fairer society.
This longed-for light on the hill, as popularised by Chifley in a speech to party members in Sydney in 1949, would be achieved “by working for the betterment of mankind, not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand”.
But from the very start Chifley’s image of a light on the hill was deceptive. The point about a beacon is that its value presupposes the existence of encircling darkness and gloom. In fact, a distinct lack of enlightenment did indeed surround Chifley at the highest levels of the ALP—even as his promised land was allegedly being revealed in the 1940s. There was a knockabout, philistine spirit in the party that was fatal to poetry and vision. This less heroic side of the Chifley years is clearly documented in some correspondence preserved by a Chifley confidant, the journalist D.K. (Don) Rodgers, which is held in the National Library of Australia. These letters, which the Canberra researcher Stephen Holt has recently examined, shed new and often startling light, not merely on Rodgers, but also on the inner federal Labor circle.
This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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Don Rodgers was a fascinating figure. In the 1940s he worked as press secretary to Labor Prime Ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley. His work as a prime ministerial publicist culminated in 1949 when he was a powerful back-room figure in the campaign for the re-election of the Chifley government in the face of the newly established Liberal Party, headed by a resurgent Robert Menzies.
On the eve of the 1949 federal election campaign, Rodgers received an unsolicited offer of support. The proffered assistance came from a keen young intellectual in Melbourne named Wolfgang Stargardt. Although Stargardt had only been entitled to vote since 1946, he already possessed an intriguing political history, as Holt has discovered.
A teenaged refugee from Nazi Germany, Stargardt had arrived in Melbourne in August 1939 on board SS Strathnaver, along with his parents Hermann and Martha. The family settled in the Melbourne suburb of Camberwell. Young Wolfgang, stateless during the Second World War, became a naturalised Australian in 1946.
Stargardt’s analytical and academic bent was soon evident in wartime Melbourne. In 1944 he published two erudite articles in Australian Quarterly in which he examined the ideological dimension of the military conflict with Nazi Germany. The fundamental choice facing the world, Stargardt contended, was between “a society based on Social Democracy, or one based on monopolistic exploitation, and hence artificial scarcity, ushering in an age of Barbarism”.
The young Stargardt enrolled at Melbourne University, where he gained an honours degree in history and politics. In 1948 he completed a thesis in which he examined the economic role of the Commonwealth government. The thesis earned him the degree of Master of Arts. His work impressed Max Crawford, Melbourne University’s highly influential Professor of History.
In politics Stargardt gravitated to the Australian Labor Party and came to admire its post-war leader Ben Chifley. As Prime Minister, Chifley was, Stargardt considered, performing a heroic balancing act, pledged to uphold both security and freedom. Chifley was committed to providing social welfare and full employment while maintaining the fabric of a free society. This was his light on the hill.
Stargardt was so inspired by Chifley’s leadership that he wanted his new country to better appreciate its Labor Prime Minister. Living at home with his parents allowed Stargardt to focus on research and ideas. His faith in Chifley’s shining vision was so strong that he decided it needed to be expressed in a book.
For Stargardt the road ahead was clear. There was a British precedent that could be followed. In 1947 the Welsh-born English Labourite Roy Jenkins had published a book of selected speeches given by the post-war Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. Stargardt wanted to emulate the British by publishing a selection of Ben Chifley’s leading prime ministerial speeches.
To get things going, Stargardt went straight to the top. He contacted Chifley about the envisaged book just before the 1949 federal election campaign got under way. In his own words, “I discussed the project with him in September 1949.”
In all likelihood, contact was made during the first weekend of September 1949 when Chifley flew to Victoria to address a fund-raising rally at the Melbourne Town Hall. Stargardt may well have been in the 2000-strong audience. In any event, he certainly had a chat with Chifley in Melbourne, most likely during this weekend. Stargardt came away from their brief encounter with the distinct impression that his projected publication of speeches might well receive practical assistance from the Prime Minister.
However, Stargardt faced an uphill task. The campaign atmosphere of 1949 was exciting and stressful. The Chifley government was under immense pressure associated with a winter coal strike and controversy generated by Chifley’s proposal to nationalise the private banks. Amid such noisy contention it was all too easy for the voice of a lone idealist like Stargardt to get drowned out.
Harsh reality stepped in soon enough. A few candid letters kept by Don Rodgers indicate what exactly happened to Stargardt in 1949. On October 10, a month after the Melbourne rally, Stargardt updated Chifley’s private secretary, J.H. Garrett, on the progress of his proposed edition of prime ministerial speeches. Typing had started, but Stargardt confirmed that “some secretarial assistance” from the Labor camp was needed if a complete typescript was to be ready before the election. Printing and publishing, he added, would also be a “problem”.
Garrett referred Stargardt’s comments with their possible financial implications to the Prime Minister. It soon became apparent that Stargardt had got his wires crossed. He did not have the Prime Minister’s support after all. Chifley, Garrett discovered, was of the view that publication “was out of the question”. There were no available party funds or paid personnel that could be assigned to the task.
The job of apprising Stargardt of the unpromising situation was delegated to the Melbourne-based ALP federal party secretary Pat Kennelly. Kennelly was (to quote Robert Murray’s expert opinion) the “most typical of [Labor’s] wheeler-dealers, indeed their very personification”. Politics for him was all about control and numbers. For Kennelly it definitely wasn’t a matter of memorable speeches or compelling rhetoric.
As Chifley’s press secretary, Don Rodgers briefed Kennelly on what had to be done in a letter dated October 13. He provided all the necessary background information to the Victorian powerbroker. The key point that needed to be made was that 24,000 copies of Stargardt’s book would have to be sold at five shillings a copy for the project to break even commercially. A frank assessment by the Chifley camp was that such a level of interest and sales was highly unlikely. (Rodgers is shown at at far right, behind John Curtin, as the PM joked in his office with reporters.)
Rodgers told Kennelly that while the Prime Minister was concerned about “discouraging an enthusiast”, nevertheless Chifley was very much of the view that “Mr Stargardt should not proceed any further” unless an alternative way of meeting the cost of publication, not involving party or governmental funding, could be devised.
Kennelly took up his assignment with relish. His primary task in the 1949 election campaign was to raise funds that were then handed over to Rodgers to spend on advertising. This was a hard-headed commercial operation. The role of Labor supporters was to donate money, not to gobble it up! Stargardt, by touching on the issue of possible financial assistance, was cutting across the business model of the ALP campaign. He had to be put in his place.
The Victorian powerbroker set out his approach in a letter to Rodgers dated October 17. He indicated that he would be more than happy to “see this fellow Stargardt” and would then “tell him in no uncertain manner, not to waste your time or the PM’s”. An exasperated Kennelly, his philistinism in full flight, dismissed Stargardt as “just another gink—well meaning, but …” (Kennelly left this sentence unfinished.) Gink was a current American slang term for an eccentric or foolish person, someone not to be taken seriously.
The exchange of correspondence on the proposed meeting ceased at this point. As far as I can ascertain, what happened during the chat between Stargardt and Kennelly (left) at which the bad news was conveyed is not recorded. It must have been a fascinating encounter. Stargardt was an unreconstructed European intellectual, whereas Kennelly was a cynical, unreconstructed Australian Labor machine politician. Their encounter in Melbourne in the spring of 1949 was a meeting of utter opposites.
A few weeks later, on December 10, Labor decisively lost the 1949 federal election and Menzies again became Prime Minister.
Stargardt was resilient. Neither the heavy electoral defeat nor Kennelly’s brush-off fazed him. His intellectual eye was now fixed on history rather than on immediate political events. He pressed on with his pet project. In the latter months of 1950 he completed a draft selection of Chifley speeches. He sent the typescript to Chifley, along with some covering introductory comments that he had drafted.
In February 1951 Stargardt travelled to Canberra where he had “a long conversation” with Chifley. The question of possible financial assistance had been dropped. This source of irritation having disappeared, matters proceeded more smoothly. Stargardt was pleased to observe the changed atmosphere in Canberra. Chifley “emphatically approved” both the selection of speeches and Stargardt’s editorial introduction.
But Chifley’s time was running out. The Labor leader did not live to see the fruits of Stargardt’s labours. He died on June 13, 1951.
Late in the winter of 1952, Melbourne University Press finally published Stargardt’s selection and arrangement of speeches, titled Things Worth Fighting For. Chifley’s successor as federal Labor leader, Dr H.V. Evatt, was highly pleased. He sent a telegram in which he extended his “heartiest congratulations” and “gratitude” to Stargardt. A second edition soon followed.
Publication, as Evatt had generously acknowledged, was a signal achievement for Stargardt. Key Chifley speeches covering domestic and international issues were preserved forever between the covers of a book. Stargardt had done what he had set out to do.
There was an especially pleasing bonus for the European-born editor. The fact of publication meant that Stargardt got to have the final word on his fraught encounter with Kennelly. The editorial comments that Stargardt included at the start of the book were coloured by his reaction to the negative and philistine feedback dealt out in October 1949.
It was, Stargardt indicated in his introduction, not much fun being a social democratic intellectual who wanted to assist the Labor Party. He had learnt the hard way that Chifley’s occasional reference to the luminosity that supposedly inspired the ALP was not all that it was cracked up to be. Chifley stood out to him as such a consoling beacon precisely because people imbued with heavy doses of negativity and intellectual narrowness surrounded him.
Stargardt’s introductory comments to Things Worth Fighting For presented a decisive case against Kennelly’s anti-intellectual brand of politics. Stargardt’s observations about Labor’s political culture were tart indeed. The ALP as a collective entity, Stargardt noted, was not in the business of encouraging serious thought or even of doing its own research. Australian Labor in the late 1940s and early 1950s neither published anything of intellectual note nor sought in a formal and organised way to educate its members or supporters about its creed. Its culture instead centred on a preoccupation with internal power-plays and a distinct distrust of idealists.
Stargardt went on to identify the deepest flaw in the earthy brand of Labor politics exemplified by Pat Kennelly. His introduction made it clear that unfettered pragmatism was unwise in the long run. The mental void fostered by number-crunchers and apparatchiks in the ALP was a vacuum craving to be filled. And the dark arts of ideology were being practised in sunny Australia. Stargardt specifically noted that, for over a decade, rival disciples of the Communist Party and Catholic Action had been expanding their organised and ideological presence in the Australian labour movement. They were filling the vacuum. In the process, a more volatile and explosive political and parliamentary climate was being created.
Within a few short years political developments bore out Stargardt’s observations. Labor’s lack of ballast became ever clearer after Chifley died. Under his embattled successor, Dr Evatt, a destabilising lack of clear social democratic principles soon had disastrous results.
After 1951, Evatt lurched from left to right, and then back again. He campaigned hard against banning the Communist Party in 1951 and then immediately aligned himself with the ALP Industrial Groups whose primary purpose, sanctioned by the party, was to combat communist influence in the unions. But in the wake of the Petrov affair in 1954 Evatt did another U-turn and launched a sectarian crusade against the Industrial Groups. The increasingly unstable federal Labor leader whipped up bigoted fears that Catholic Action plotters, masterminded by the Melbourne-based Catholic layman B.A. Santamaria, were about to take over the ALP via the Industrial Groups. Evatt’s vicious attack on Santamaria led in short order to the traumatic Labor split of the 1950s and the formation of the Democratic Labor Party.
The Evatt-induced schism was a disaster for the federal ALP, which remained in the wilderness in Canberra until 1972. As a consequence, Pat Kennelly spent all his time as a senator (1953 to 1971) in impotent opposition.
In fact, Wolfgang Stargardt had eerily predicted Kennelly’s sad fate in Canberra. His introductory comments to the selected speeches of Prime Minister Chifley, written as early as 1950, highlighted the polarisation among the labour movement’s activist base. The anti-intellectualism enforced by people like Kennelly had created a hollowness that was being filled with new and incompatible elements. Indeed the discerning Stargardt had stated that a debilitating split in the Labor Party was looming.
So in the end Stargardt turned out to be a genuine prophet. His sobering encounters with Kennelly and Chifley’s inner circle had made him wiser. He had seen how the inner sanctum of Laborism actually operated—once the veneer of fine words was removed. Although dismissed by Kennelly as an impractical egghead, Stargardt had managed to outline the contours of Labor’s great split of the mid-1950s well before it occurred. In revealing the shoals ahead, his was the wisdom of the eternal gink.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University and the author of thirty-nine books. He has a blog at www.rossfitzgerald.com