Brothers: Eight Leaders of the Labor Council of New South Wales

Having worked for a federal Labor politician and for a major trade union as well as being a political historian, Marilyn Dodkin writes about the labour movement from the perspective of an ‘insider’. She describes her study, Brothers, as being ‘the political biography of eight men who led [NSW] Labor Council from 1946 to 2001’ (p. 2). The cover illustration—a baton being passed from the hand of one runner to other—suggests a theme of the book, the concept of succession, usually smooth and ordered. In one sense, the central ‘character’ of the book, therefore, is not any of the biographical subjects but the organisation for which they worked, the NSW Labor Council.

Whether a ‘political biography’ or a study of the NSW Labor Council during the second half of the twentieth century, however, Brothers has several shortcomings. Firstly, a biography—even one devoted to a political, rather than a personal, life—should reveal enough about the subject to allow the reader to feel at least a little acquainted with him (or her). Examples of good political biography include Crisp’s study of Ben Chifley and Lloyd Ross’ work on John Curtin. Although Dodkin has allotted only a chapter or two for each subject, one feels that the paucity of personal details should have been remedied—especially in the case of Ducker to whom Dodkin refers as a ‘colossus’. In fact, although the author interviewed Ducker, there are a number of instances in the chapters devoted to him where questions that he might easily have clarified remain obscure—in particular the circumstances surrounding his ‘breakdown’ in 1977 (p. 147). If Ducker did not wish to discuss this matter, then perhaps a footnote should have been added indicating that this was the case.

As a study of the Labor Council, the book lacks an adequate introduction to the pre-1946 history and an explanation of the relationship between the Council and the ALP. This relationship was particularly interesting to this reviewer and I should have liked to see it discussed in more detail. For example, on p. 17, we are told that ‘traditionally, the president’s vacancy would have been filled by the next in line’. How did this ‘tradition’ arise? Is the close relationship between the ALP (NSW Branch) and the Labor Council similar to that in other states, or different? Did it, for example, arise in the old Australian Labor Federation (ALF) days? In Western Australia, for example, the ALF model of a joint industrial and political body was adopted at the beginning of the twentieth century and retained until 1963.

Dodkin could have produced more analysis and comparison of the leadership styles and contributions of the eight leaders. This occurs to some extent in the shorter (and later) chapters devoted to more recent leaders, but there is certainly scope for a comparative chapter, reflecting on the changes in both internal and external circumstances. For example, the author regards Michael Eason as being ‘not as successful’ as his fellow Labor Council leaders (p. 4). This was due partly to his somewhat tendentious relations with the ALP and the unions—who regarded him as being too friendly with the Griener Government—and to the financial difficulties that the Council faced over the purchase of Centenary House (p. 196-8). The table on p. 202, designed to illustrate decreasing support for Eason in elections for the office of Council Secretary, does not, in fact do so. Despite his problems with the ALP and the financial difficulties mentioned above, Easson was re-elected unopposed to the position in 1992, unlike Unsworth who gained only 74 per cent of the vote in his second election (p. 202).

Despite these criticisms, however, I believe that Dodkin’s book will occupy a useful place on the shelves of labour historians (myself included). Because it is specific to the careers of these eight men, it contains considerably detailed accounts of some of the major events of their terms in office. An example is the description of Ducker’s involvement in ALP factional struggles in the early 1970s, (pp. 137 ff). Of interest, too, is the information about the early careers of men who would later play important roles in the NSW ALP. Bob Carr began his career as ‘a Young Labor right-wing activist employed as an education and publicity officer’, whilst Barrie Unsworth was a organiser for the Labor Council (p. 76).

In some ways, too, the history of the Labor Council, as seen through the changes in its leadership, are a microcosm of the labour movement in Australia in the later twentieth century, although the author has not made this point. The entry of a few women to the leadership—although not to the topmost positions; the 1998 election of Michael Costa, the first Secretary to come from a non-English speaking background; and the fact that Easson, Sams and Costa (the last three Labor Council Secretaries in Dodkin’s book) were all tertiary educated, were signs of the changing face of Australian Labor. Leadership styles changed, too. Dodkin depicts Kenny and Ducker as men who showed little willingness to share their power until it was forced on them by circumstances beyond their control: death in Kenny’s case and health breakdown in Ducker s. The leadership styles of later Secretaries, however, are described as invoking ‘consensus’ (MacBean); highlighting ‘issues not factions’ (Easson), and regenerating the union movement (Sams). Some of these latter-day Secretaries showed an independence from the ALP that was entirely absent in earlier leaders. These changes could have been discussed in more detail, together with some sense of the direction that the Labor Council appears to be taking in the twenty-first century, thus resulting in a more penetrating study.





By Marilyn Dodkin