Thirty-Six Faceless Men, 1963

With nearly all votes counted and Australia is hurling towards its first hung parliament in 70 years. Although hung parliaments in Australia are common at a state level, the last time there was a hung parliament was in September 1940, when the then incumbent Prime Minister Robert Menzies formed a government with the support of the two independent MPs. The next thirteen months were tumultuous, with many Labour party members decidedly against Australia joining the British war effort, and with Menzies himself being voted out for his support for the ‘European War’ (as it was then) and for his failure to win an outright election.

Menzies, however, would lead to Liberal Party to victory in 1949, and embark upon the longest premiership in Australian history. His unbroken eighteen years in office were marked by domestic stability, housing and population booms, gagging social conservatism and Australia’s gradual shift away from the British Empire. By the time he retired in 1966, Menzies not only left behind an essentially small government but also a country with high unemployment, conscription and troops in Vietnam.

Menzies’ primary opponent throughout his 18 years in office was the Australian Labor Party, which voted as a bloc. Labor was founded as a party to represent the working classes, and considered its parliamentary representatives as servants of the party as a whole; it required them to comply with official party policy and voted as a bloc.

In 1963, that hierarchy cost the party a close election; At the March ALP conference, the party leaders Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam were photographed outside the Kingston Hotel in Canberra at 2 am in the morning, shut out from the decision making.

Although Calwell was the Leader of the Opposition and Whitlam was his deputy, neither was a member of the Party’s 36-member federal executive (six delegates from each of the six states). Alan Reid, a disillusioned former ALP member who was then working for conservative Sydney Daily Telegraph called them the ‘faceless men’ (although actually there was a woman delegate from Tasmania). Hot topic that they were discussion inside: the party’s position on the location of a US military base on Australian soil.

Reid was also outside the hotel, frustrated that Calwell and Whitlam were outside waiting to be told on what policy they were to fight the election by the hidden conclave inside the hotel. Reid wanted to capture the scene on camera but there weren’t any press photographer present at the Hotel Kingston at this time of night.

However, he saw a familiar face: Vladimir Paarl, who was moonlighting as a taxi driver for the party conference. He knew Paarl also was a scientific photographer at the Australian National University and asked him to drive back home, come back with his camera and a flashlight and start taking photographs. Five damaging photographs appeared in the Telegraph on Friday, March 22, 1963.

Menzies used the pictures to draw attention to “thirty-six ‘faceless men’ whose qualifications are unknown, who have no electoral responsibility” that form the core of the Labour party. It is a jibe that is still remembered more than 40 years later in Australian politics.

After another electoral defeat in 1967, Whitlam succeeded Arthur Calwell as the party leader. More politically savvy than his predecessor, Whitlam spent years reforming the party, eventually turning the secretive federal executive into a public forum. He also turned Menzies’ soundbite to his own advantage by calling his Liberal opponents, “the 12 witless men”. Whitlam eventually became prime minister in 1972 but his tenure was bitter and short.

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0 thoughts on “Thirty-Six Faceless Men, 1963

  1. I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that Whitlam might have been relieved by the Dismissal. He remained leader of the Labor [not `Labour’] Party for not only the 1975 election, but also at the 1977 election.

    Staying as leader and attempting to regain government is not behaviour that would indicate someone was relieved to lose the prime ministership.

    Btw, it’s hard to imagine Menzies gagging social conservatism – the Liberal Party is Australia’s more conservative major party. It’s also misleading to suggest that only the Labor Party votes as a bloc. While the Liberal Party has historically shown greater forgiveness than the ALP to members who vote against it , political parties in Australia have long voted as blocs.

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