James McClelland, Stirring the Possum: A Political Autobiography

Viking Penguin Books Australia Ltd., Ringwood:
Victoria, 1988, rrp $12.99

Drew Cottle

Throughout his life James McClelland has never been short of a word. He has always found the right word. As his autobiography attests, words have seen him through a Catholic schooling, love and sex, university, the public service, unionism, the army, the industrial court, the Labor Party and the bench. His way with words continues to give life to a weekly column in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Words have built McClelland’s self-styled reputation as a ‘stirrer’. But where have words led ‘Diamond Jim’? Whose class interests have been upheld?

Through his very personal public feud with his former mate, Sir John Kerr over the Whitlam dismissal and later his judicial questioning of British officialdom during the Maralinga Inquiry and his recent prominence in the anti-Monorail campaign, McClelland’s progressive liberalism may be mistaken for native larrikinism. Self-promotion and the monopoly media’s personality cult have allowed McClelland to be seen as a stirrer. Australian social and political life have moved so far to the right in the past twenty years that with television’s erasure of popular memory McClelland can present himself as an unrepentant gadfly.

Words abound in the McClelland self-portrait. Bright words, sharp words, wrong words. Little analysis or self-criticism is offered. Opportunities are seized but seldom examined. We are told of McClelland’s detestation of the tactics deployed against him by Ernie Thornton, Federal Secretary of ‘the communist-dominated Federated Ironworkers’ Association’. Thornton, ‘the top banana’, is condemned by McClelland for his ‘Stalinism’. Thornton, ‘the intolerant bully’ full of ‘Stalinspeak’ ruins young Jim’s romancing of Valda, a communist woman.

Nothing is revealed in the McClelland view of the political difficulties of the ‘phoney war’ period, the contradictions of communist activism in the FIA, its monitoring by the Commonwealth Investigation Branch, Thornton’s embattled leadership, nor his own (McClelland’s) disruptive behaviour. What did McClelland hope to achieve by the baiting of Thornton? The ousting of a communist leader who with many other militants, built the PIA into a fighting organisation during the worst years of the Great Depression? Reminiscence of his brief life as an ironworker allows McClelland to relive his passion for Valda, rebuke Australian communism’s attachment to Moscow and ‘justify’ the ultimately successful ‘legal’ expulsion of Thornton from the PIA in 1955. McClelland spearheaded that operation. The Cold War favoured stirrers of McClelland’s kind.

The author’s early intoxication with Trotskyism teems with words. It was his ‘blind faith’ and Trotsky ‘the Messiah’. Of course in this abandoned theology Stalin was a ‘blood-stained tyrant’. Australian Stalinists and Trotskyists regarded one another as ‘the chief enemy of the working-class’. Succinct phrases, but where is McClelland’s analysis? One looks in vain. Instead, McClelland proffers pen-portraits of former comrades: Guido Barrachi, ‘the famous Marxist guru; ‘the young veteran revolutionary’, Laurie Short; ‘the legendary Professor John Anderson’; the boilermakers’ son, Jack Kerr; the Royal George Trotskyist, Paddy McGuinness and the melancholic Les Moroney, who tragically took his own life.

Moroney’s suicide questioned but then strengthened McClelland’s resolve to maintain his ‘lonely faith’. When McClelland looks back words flood his mind. No analysis of Trotskyism’s methods and aims surface. Class politics become merely remembered characters and interludes for which the correct phrase is found.

How a wiser Jim loses his ten year faith one night at Long Nose Point remains a secular mystery. Was it the need not to move on but upward? Was it the prospect of a legal career and money which prompted the stirrer ‘to catch the ferry back to the city’ rather than trudge uphill to the Origlass flat? Was Origlass right about McClelland’s petit bourgeois waywardness? We are never told why McClelland abandoned Trotskyism, only how.

McClelland’s waywardness turned to substantial opportunism soon after that fateful Balmain night. McClelland banded together with other ex-Trotskyists ‘Jack’ Kerr and Laurie Short to begin the prolonged legal battle which finally wrested control of the PIA from ‘the Stalinists’. Each of these former ‘revolutionaries’ prospered politically and economically. And so did B.H.P.

McClelland’s and Kerr’s legal minds found ample practice and handsome rewards in furthering the cause of safe, right-wing unionism throughout the 1950s and 1950s. Comrade Short’s heroics in gaining control of the PIA through the courts won him acclaim as far as corporate America, especially in Langley, West Virginia. McClelland writes of the effort to destroy the Left in the unions in a perfunctory, legalistic manner. Is there no more to reveal about this rewarding anti-communist crusade? Why are we given no detailed analysis of this ‘business’ which was the making of ‘Diamond Jim’? His alliance with Santamaria and the Industrial Groups is given barely a paragraph. ASIO and employers have no past in McClelland’s version of the struggle against socialists within the labour movement. Of a possible broad alliance between the Industrial Santamarians, the secret political police and capital, McClelland is oddly silent. Is the stirred a possum?

From his legal triumphs against the Left, money, prestige and, most importantly, Labor pre-selection flowed to lucky Jim. Words adorn his Whitlam years. Parliamentary cretinism found its rewards for the extinct revolutionary. Reformist ghosts, Cairns, Murphy, Connor and Cameron appear and disappear in Senator McClelland’s depiction of the Whitlam Governments’ final crisis. The stirrers’ account of the coup remains imprisoned within Parliament’s empanelled walls. Was it simply Gough’s ego, Junie Morosi, Khemlani, ministerial blunders, Supply and the incumbent at Yarralumla? McClelland never looked to America to understand Australia in 1975. McClelland was an acceptable stirrer unlike Christopher Boyce, the American liberator of State secrets.

In the fifteen years after ‘Jack’ Kerr proved his worth as an agent of comprador capital and American intelligence, McClelland has moved from one high public office to another. He has been a Judge of the Industrial Commission, Chief Judge of the NSW Land and Environment Court and a Royal Commissioner. Now in retirement he is highly regarded as an acerbic wit, an individual of discriminating taste. Time has been less kind to Lionel Murphy, Jim Cairns and Rex Connor, the tragic casualties of the Whitlam era. Their radical nationalism and liberalism fmds no place in contemporary Labor politics.

Opportunities have been gainfully exploited by McClelland. Political bankruptcy has buoyed his immature public life. The raconteur, the wit, is a person of style and substance. Turning away from socialist politics allowed McClelland to always seize the main chance. His stirring can be done in comfort as it is no more than intellectual entertainment rather than revolutionary conviction. McClelland took the easy road. Does he still hear the voice of old Nick Origlass?