Marilyn Dodkin: Brothers, Eight Leaders of the Labor Council of NSW

Bob Gould

Marilyn Dodkin: Brothers, Eight Leaders of the Labor Council of NSW Published by UNSW Press, 2001.

“Brothers” is rather dry. It is an expanded version of Marilyn Dodkin’s thesis. Nevertheless, it is an extremely useful and informative book, for anyone seriously interested in the history of the NSW labor movement. It complements Ray Markey’s equally useful history of the Labor Council. As a long established personality, and a kind of unofficial archivist and historian, integrated into the fabric of the NSW Centre Unity machine, so to speak, Dodkin has had unique entree into the complexity of the interrelationship between that grouping and the Labor Council of NSW.

Her account of the life and times of the eight leaders she discusses, and of the Labor Council and the Centre Unity, is matter-of-factly empirical, but it is also infused by a kind of attempt at a balance sheet, in terms of the collective interest of the Centre Unity machine. From this point of view, Dodkin views most of the leaders as successful, but she is critical of Michael Easson’s leadership, which she doesn’t regard as so successful.

She concludes the book with a kind of homily, to all those in authority in the Labor Council and the Centre Unity, to preserve the traditions of the grouping, particularly preserving the “apprenticeship” system for future Labor Council secretaries. From that point of view, she’s obviously not too keen on the division that has emerged over the last 18 months or so between the new leadership of John Robertson, and the grouping around Tony Sheldon and the Transport Workers Union, a division which shows no sign of having disappeared.

The book was published late in 2001, so she does not comment on the significant role played by the new Labor Council leadership in campaigning for a more civilised Labor policy on refugees. It seems likely that Marilyn Dodkin may disapprove of this development because at the recent May State Conference of the NSW ALP, the policy committee of which Marilyn is chairperson, rejected the Labor for Refugees resolution moved by John Robertson. Despite the rejection, Robertson’s amendment opposing mandatory detention was overwhelmingly carried by the State Conference.

The most controversial thing in the book, is the evidence that Dodkin presents, that appears to establish the likelihood that Jim Kenny had some kind of intimate connection with ASIO, and she also records, as a matter of undisputed fact, that Jack Clowes, a significant retired ASIO agent, was employed as a research officer and librarian at Labor Council. (Interestingly, in Bob Carr’s new book, “Thoughtlines” one chapter is an extract from Carr’s unpublished novel, in which he has a thinly veiled pen portrait of Clowes.)

The Clowes connection is of some interest to me. I have recently obtained both my State Special Branch file, and my ASIO files up to the end of 1971, over 5,000 pages in all. Way back in 1969 there is a curious series of entries in my State Special Branch file. The context is that Resistance, with which I was associated, held a forum at Goulburn Street, on the result of the 1969 Federal Elections, with the participants in the forum being Arthur Gietzelt of the Left Steering Committee, John Ducker, and myself. This was a smallish meeting, due to competition with other meetings on the same night. In my Special Branch file, there is a weird entry, allegedly from an informant present at the meeting, which fits me up, by presenting Bob Gould as having boasted at this forum about organising violence at demonstrations.

Obviously, even this imaginative agent’s handlers, were a bit cautious about his report, because there is a further entry, a bit later in my file, where they get a kind of “second opinion” from someone else who was at the meeting, who, when questioned, asserts that he didn’t hear anything like that said by Gould at the meeting. In context, it appears possible to me that this “second opinion” may have been acquired, by Clowes asking John Ducker, and Clowes passing on the relevant information, to his old colleagues at ASIO and the State special Branch. Who knows!

Despite its dryness of presentation, Dodkin’s book, along with Ray Markey’s book, is indispensable reading for anyone with a serious interest in the nuts and bolts of how power is wielded in the NSW labor movement, and how the peak organisation of the unions in this state, the Labor Council of NSW, has evolved.