Thirty-Six Faceless Men
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 Labour Party, which voted as a bloc. Labour 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; voted as a bloc.
In 1963, these hierarchical decision making cost the party a close election; At the March ALP conference, Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam were photographed outside the Kingston Hotel in Canberra at 2 am in the morning. Although Calwell was the Leader of the Opposition and Whitlam was on the opposition front bench, neither man was a member of the Party’s federal executive, who were inside deciding the party’s manifesto, especially with regards to the U.S. naval bases in Australia. Menzies used the picture (which was taken solely for political manipulation, but ironically not by Menzies’ side) 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; his tenure was bitter and short and “the Dismissal” which arrived rather controversially was undoubtably a welcome relief for him.
(I couldn’t find the said faceless men photo anywhere. Above is just a simple photo of Arthur Calwell (right) and Gough Whitlam(left)).