Members of the Labour History society could be forgiven for being less than excited about the publication of a biography about R.G. Casey. The ‘Bengal Tiger’, conservative cabinet minister, prime ministerial aspirant and governor-general was no friend of the labour movement. And while the likes of Arthur Rae and a plethora of labour identities await biographical recognition, the parliamentary representatives of big monopoly capital always seem to find a sympathetic historian with time to spare. But then as that famous poster about Bob Menzies asserted, the ruling class know how to bury their dead; evidently they also know how to exhume the corpses.
W.J. Hudson’s recent biography of Casey (published by Oxford University Press) is a little different from the current biographies about the contemporary buccaneers of the stock market. Properly so, for Hudson is a distinguished historian, spec1al1s1ng in diplomatic history. Important, however, from Hummer’s point of view are the insights the biography proffers about the Cold War and the containment of the Australian labour movement in that period. Because the book’s price is steepish bordering on the preposterous ($35.00) and because parting with that amount of money in Glebe Point Road for a book about a rat bag like Casey may be a bit embarrassing, as a community service Hummer presents some of the fresh information which it contains:
- On Casey and the Industrial Groupers. Hudson recounts on pp. 200-201.
‘Casey’s fundamental longing afar a cohesive, friendly national society made him see trade unions not as the natural enemy of his party, but as a major community element with which the Liberal Party should be involved if it proposed to govern with the approval, and for the benefit, of all Australians. Another factor in his interest in trade unions certainly was his growing conviction that communism was an evil to be fought on all fronts, including the unions, where its presence was most obvious. It is difficult now to establish just how close Casey came to the anticommunist fight in the unions. It is clear that he was privy to the operations of ‘The Association’ , an anti-communist group led by Thomas Blamey, but he would seem to have been informed rather than involved.
It is clear, too, that he became aware of the operations of the ALP industrial groups and sought to co-operate with them. Late in 1947, for example, an official of the Blacksmithsl Union called on him to discuss the communist issue. Casey’s reaction was to note: II must call and see Vic Stout, Secretary of the Trades Hall. It is not known whether he did call on Stout (the notion of Casey striding down the corridors of the Trades Hall boggles the mind a little) or whether he was as familiar as the note suggested with J.V. Stout, then fiercely embattled with grouper and Catholic Movement allies against communists. (Once he had defeated the communists, Stout like many others, then turned on his allies.) In April 1949 Casey recorded a conversation with Menzies and Magnus Cormack, a member of the Liberals’ Victorian executive, during which he told them of his contacts with the industrial groups achieved through ‘The Association’, and ‘of my proposal to give them a hand in their anti-Communist activities, with which they agreed’. There are indications that he passed funds to the ALP industrial groups and introduced groupers to businessmen able to contribute finance, sometimes in the form of highly paid advertisements in union journals controlled by groupers’.
- On meeting Cecil Sharpley Hudson writes on p. 203
‘Earlier in 1949, a man called Cecil Sharpley had left the Communist Party and published a series of articles in the Melbourne herald denouncing his former comrades. Casey was not at first very impressed by Sharpley: ‘I am told … that Cecil Sharpley is a very third-rate type of human being’. Later in the year Casey met Sharpley and found ‘a weak face – but I think … genuine in his conversion’. What was to affect Casey, though was not Sharpley’s character but his claim that the endorsed Labor candidate for Latrobe, John Bennett, was an undercover member of the Communist Party. Whether because, like Casey, it believed the Sharpley claim or because it thought the allegation enough to hurt Labor, the party late in the day withdrew Bennett’s endorsement and endorsed a replacement. All this was a great help to Casey, and at the elections on 10 December he won Latrobe by a large margin.
- On matters to do with ASIO Hudson suggests:
‘Casey also kept a close eye on Letters-to-the Editor pages. In 1954 he warned the Editor of the Age, H.A.M. Campbell, to check with a relative, an ASIa officer, before publisping further letters from J.F. Cairns. In 1956 ne had ASIa check the Age’s columns and warned Campbell that over the previous eighteen months he had published letters from thirty-eight communists or people with communist associations. Campbell replied that he should publish a range of views. With respect to ASIO, it should perhaps be noted that Casey felt, rightly or not, that the Government had acted on his suggestion in appointing Colonel Charles Spry as Director General of the agency in 1950, and, although he had no ministerial connection with him, he assumed and received apparently invariable co-operation from Spry in the provision of information on groups and individuals. At times, Casey’s purpose was clearly political, but he saw communism and communists as beyond the pale of normal conventions. He would have been appalled by the notion, but he thought in ‘Establishment’ terms, assuming that right-thinking men (men whom he described as ‘for law and order’), whether business leaders or union chiefs, made common cause against the state’s enemies’.
- On Casey as a fund raiser for the liberals Hudson recounts (p. 215) that Casey brought in 1.4 million pounds to the party coffers in 1949. Little wonder they won that election and the grey gloom of the Menzies era descended.
- Finally on Casey as an intermediary between right wing labor men and the secret state business, Hudson recounts
‘He saw a good deal of Stanley Keon, especially in the early 1950s. Keon was a Victorian Labor MP and a victim of the mid-decade labor split: he was a man ‘with whom I find that I can talk freely’. Another frequent caller was B.A. Santamaria, in Casey’s terms a man of consequence because of the quality of his mind, but also a useful source of information on ALP, union and Catholic Church affairs. Casey’s interest in right-wing Labor men sprang in part from their anti-communism, and he helped them raise funds for their crusade. In mid-1952, for example, he wrote to Talbot Rice in London to ask him to relieve the Hall family of 500-1OOO pounds for ‘non-Governmental efforts that are being made here to help those trying to eliminate communism from the Trade Unions’. He recorded an occasion when V.C. Alford of the Waterside Workers’ Federation ‘nicely refused’ help. (Casey then had Kenneth Niall drum up paid advertisements for Alford’s Watersider.) He also helped to bring people together: he introduced Santamaria to Geoffrey Grimwade, a Melbourne company chairman; to Telford Simpson, a Sydney company director and a man of power in the Liberal Party: and to Charles Spry, DirectorGeneral of ASIO. He introduced Laurie Short, general secretary of the Federated Iron-workers’ Union to Colin York Syme, chairman of BHP, urging that a meeting would be ‘mutually useful’.
There were, however, two other factors associated with Casey’s interest in Labor right-wingers. One was what he saw as their moral integrity, especially of the younger Catholic groupers, many of whom were rebelling against the corrupt machines of their Irish elders as much as against communists and their union allies. When some of the groupers were lost to politics as a result of the Labor split of the mid-1950s, he was sincere in praising their ‘effort to restore conscience and decency to our politics’.
This and much more is all as one might expect. Casey’s favourable attitude to the USSR when he actually visited the place in 1961, as well as his increasing liberalism as he aged, are less predictable. Though R.J. Hawke’s ‘malignant activities’ as president of the ACTU suggest Casey did not change all that much. A polished and scholarly work (even Bill Waterhouse is mentioned, emphasising David Hickie’s point about that bookie’s elite connections), Hudson’s biography is well worth reading, especially to those of us who remember Humphrey McQueen’s ringing call in 1977 for an Australian capital history project to proceed. We need to understand the enemy.