For many years in Australia, reading journalist Alan Ramsey’s vitriolic, insightful, and always engaging pieces in the Sydney Morning Herald was a standard feature of Saturday mornings. This book is the compilation of Ramsey’s best work, granting ample access to Australia’s national parliament and politicians. Reflecting upon how 25 years of national leadership by Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, and John Howard changed the nation forever, this collection also includes a discussion on the tumultuous political events of 2010 as well as the classic Ward O'Neill cartoons associated with Ramsey’s weekly column.
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About the Author
Alan Ramsey is an Australian journalist with more than 56 years of experience. He is a former contributor to the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald and the author of A Matter of Opinion.
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The Way They Were
The View from the Hill of the 25 Years That Remade Australia
By Alan Ramsey
University of New South Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2011 Alan Ramsey
All rights reserved.
The Numbers Man
July 18, 1987
IN THE beginning was the word, and the word was numbers. Robert Ray came to the numbers game in politics in the early to mid-1970s. The ABC discovered Ray on election night last weekend. Labor discovered him 15 years ago. He has been around a long time, waiting for TV to find him.
Robert Francis Ray is an extraordinary political talent who looks like a slob. Unlike Sydney's Graham Richardson, his Right-wing factional soul-mate in the Hawke Government, Melbourne's Ray seems anything but one of the more significant figures in Labor politics. They reflect, in a sense, the differences between their home cities.
Take Richardson. A snappy dresser with a mind like a nest of snakes. He cares what people think of him. He's made it up out of working-class redbrick and wants the world to know it. He wears good suits, fluffs his hair, lives with the nobs on the North Shore, and flaunts his considerable power and patronage.
And Robert Ray?
Most times Ray looks like something the cat dragged in. You see him around the Parliament, a big, shambling bear of a man, never a tie on, sometimes unshaven, his shirt sleeves pushed up, slouching around sucking a pipe, often the tail of his shirt hanging out. At home in Melbourne he lives in an unassuming house in unassuming, working-class Oakleigh and drives a battered 1960s Holden.
The Left's Gerry Hand says: 'Robert doesn't have any of the surface bullshit that Richardson goes on with. Watch Graham in the lobbies; he does up the coat, strides around, everyone bows and scrapes, lots of show. Talks about himself as a humble backbencher when he knows he's not and he knows you know he's not. RR just follows on, taking it all in, looking like the dog's dinner. He comes in and sits down with the troops in the members' dining room in the morning for breakfast, sits with anyone, wherever there's a spare seat, talks about all the stuff, not heavy politics, anything. No pretensions, no aroma around Robert, absolutely none. Straight as straight.
'And I'll tell you something else. If we were in a room and Robert said it was raining outside, I wouldn't even look up. But if the other bloke said it was raining, I couldn't help sneaking a look just to check.'
Bob McMullan, Labor's national secretary, puts it only slightly differently: 'Robert's bright, he's tough, he's very fair. He's the guy who makes things work in the Labor Unity [Right] faction in Victoria. When he makes a deal it sticks. He has one of the best intellects in the Parliament, a sophisticated thinker, a mile ahead of most. He should be a minister. If he only looked the part he would become an outstanding talent.'
John Button, Hawke's Senate leader, agrees. 'Yes he's tough, but he's straight, and if he hates the independents [the small group Button leads in the Victorian ALP] it's probably because it upsets the symmetry of his counting. And I like him. Why? Well, to put it crudely, if he's going to kick you in the balls, he'll tell you first, unlike some I could name.'
It makes Ray sound larger than life. He isn't, except in physical bulk. Peter Steedman, a Victorian Left activist, calls him the Sydney Greenstreet of Labor politics. It is meant to denote more than size. Yet Robert Ray is more complex, more subtle than his credits suggest.
Yes, he's straight, everyone says so. He keeps his word and does not tolerate liars. He never forgets a bad turn. One colleague calls him a good friend but a terrible enemy. He won't suffer fools. He's unpretentious, self-effacing and loyal. He is not interested in outward show. He is acquisitive of very little except political influence. He is a gourmet who doesn't drink, a student of history and a sports fanatic, particularly in his support of Collingwood Football Club. He has a passion for card games, films and trivia quizzes. Many say he is good company with a biting sense of humour.
But first and foremost he's a politician. And for a numbers man, particularly with the Right-wing, with its deserved reputation in NSW for brutalising, Robert Ray commands broad and increasing respect in the Labor movement. 'I can't recall anyone who's ever been ratted on by him,' says a close friend. Someone not so close says: 'If anyone knows of an occasion when he gave his word and went back on it, I'd like to know about it.'
Hand, who counts numbers for the Victorian Left, gives Ray his due. 'Robert plays politics very hard,' he says. 'He doesn't tolerate wimps. I don't mind that; I think politics is a very serious business. And he has a lot of integrity. I go to Robert to find out what's happening, and what he tells me, happens. It's as simple as that.'
Well, not quite. There's another perspective to Robert Ray. It's the one that sees Richardson as the bad cop and Ray as the good cop, Richardson as the political head-kicker and Ray as the political plotter in the shadows. Both working in unison for the same objective. Both extremely effective.
'Don't be fooled by the different ways they go about things', says a factional opponent. 'They are very different personalities, sure, but both are obsessed by the factional power game. They play in tandem and they play it very well. Nobody plays the game better.'
The Centre Left's Peter Cook insists that to understand how Robert Ray operates you have to accept that he works with a chess board in the front of his mind all the time so as keep him '10 steps ahead of everyone else.' Cook explains: 'He is single-minded, painstaking in his preparation, and ruthless in making his moves. He is expert in making the offer you ought to refuse but find too attractive not to accept. And, really, there are three constants in everything he does: how to get more numbers for his own faction, how to get control of the party's National Executive and therefore control of the party, and how to get control of the Caucus. He never loses sight of these goals, just as Richardson doesn't either'.
And self-effacement? 'Look,' says Cook, 'Robert was having an orgasm [in the national tally room] on Saturday night. He was seen by everybody to be smarter than all the others, the computers included. And Robert likes everyone to know he knows more than they do, which he usually does.'
Ray, now 40, has a classic Labor background: a poor family broken up by an alcoholic father, mostly raised in south-east Melbourne by his grandmother, joined the ALP at 18 motivated by the Vietnam war issues of the mid-'60s. He got an Arts degree with honours from Monash but detested student politics as trivial. Steedman, a fellow student, remembers Ray as spending all his time in the university billiards room. Ray remembers Steed-man as starting his degree four years before he did and finishing four years after him. 'The thing about being working class was that you couldn't afford to fail a year,' Ray says.
In the early '70s Ray, then 25, was a leading figure in a group known as the Henty House Mob. Some remember the group as the stormtroopers of Joan Child's Right-wing political machine in Henty, a marginal Federal electorate in south-east Melbourne. Ray ran against the sitting Liberal MP in 1969 and got thumped. Three years later, he stood aside for Joan Child, the titular head of the Henty machine.
'Robert was the real power,' a colleague recalls. 'That's where he first learned the importance of getting the numbers together.' Ray says the Henty group was the young campaign team behind Child. All its members lived at one time or another, between 1972 and 1974, in a big brick house in Oakleigh, hence the name the Henty House Mob.
In 1974, Child won Henty but lost it in the 1975 Fraser landslide. Five years later, in Bill Hayden's only election as Federal leader, Joan won it back again. She has held it ever since. Robert Ray built her local organisation. In February 1985, he delivered Joan Child, now a grandmother, the factional numbers in the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party that made her Australia's first woman Speaker.
Ray says of those early years: 'Once you're a member of a political party, the internal dynamics take over. You make friends, you get interested, you enjoy their company and it's a natural progression from there. I didn't join the Labor Party with a view to a parliamentary career or anything like that. It never would have occurred to me'.
It didn't occur to anyone else, either. During the '70s, Ray was a relative minnow in Bill Landeryou's mis-named Centre Unity faction in Victorian Labor, the Right-wing organisation built round the union power base of the Storemen and Packers union. Landeryou was Bob Hawke's numbers man in those days. Simon Crean was part of the push, too.
Later, after Hawke won Labor pre-selection in 1979 for the safe seat of Wills in a bitter stoush against the Socialist Left's Gerry Hand, whom he defeated by eight votes, Landeryou's influence began to diminish. By contrast, Ray's star was in the ascendancy; he made his mark in his party machine coup against Senator Jean Meltzer. In a classic numbers exercise, Ray replaced her on the Senate ticket for the 1980 election and came into Federal politics in the same year as Hawke.
By then, Robert Ray had helped build a formidable factional organisation. For six years, until his marriage in 1977, he drove a taxi on shift-work for a living so he could spend time consolidating his political base. In the late '70s, just before he went to Canberra, he taught for a while but without real interest. Politics was his passion.
He was a whizz at electoral figures, though he insists he's barely numerate. 'I can just add and subtract. If I have to divide or multiply I get out the calculator. I failed fourth-form maths.' No one has ever suggested he can't count. Yet to be a numbers man, he says, you must know about rules and policy and loyalty. 'And you don't double-cross people.'
In the December 1982 Flinders poll, the losing by-election for Phillip Lynch's seat that really destroyed Bill Hayden's leadership, Robert Ray was in Labor's campaign rooms with his calculator on the night of the count. He was there for Hawke, not Hayden. Labor lost by 1600 votes. Two months later Hawke was leader.
These days, the Right-wing in Victoria and NSW call themselves Labor Unity, as much a misnomer as Centre Unity. With Labor in power in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, the interstate alliance is formidable. Richardson and Ray are the respective factional powers. In Canberra, they jointly run things. Hawke listens a great deal to Ray. Richardson, too. In the view of some, Robert Ray is gradually supplanting Richardson's influence with the Prime Ministerial ear. Maybe.
Says Peter Cook: 'Robert is a tough political operator but he's more than just somebody with a calculator. He's a very good politician with a good nose for trouble. He can smell it coming 100 miles away. Hawke knows this. He also knows Robert won't tell him bullshit.' And Ray himself? 'I enjoy it. If you don't enjoy politics, it's a terrible job. I guess it's also something I can do reasonably well. I wasn't a very good teacher.'
– Alan Ramsey
postscript:Robert Ray became a minister a week later, on July 24, 1987, in the junior portfolio of Home Affairs. He remained a minister for the next nine years, including in the Cabinet portfolios of Immigration and Defence, until Labor lost office inMarch 1996. By choice, Ray then spent the entire 11 years 8 months of the Howard Government on the Senate Opposition backbench before quitting politics, aged 61, only after voters had rid Australia of John Howard and re-elected Labor in November 2007.
The Night Porter
November 2, 1994
THE first time I 'met' Graham Richardson he was putting John Ducker to bed. It was in Canberra in 1976. Ducker, then the power in NSW ALP machine politics, was in town for a Labor national executive meeting. The meeting had gone badly for him, though I don't recall the detail. A hard drinker in those days, Ducker took refuge from his defeat by getting absolutely blotto.
Paul Keating, back in Opposition after the fall of the Whitlam Government, had wanted to commiserate with Ducker. I drove him to Ducker's hotel that night. When we went up to his room, we found Richardson wrestling the clothes off his semi-conscious State president and easing him into bed. After 10 years writing about national politics, it was the moment I realised the full import of exactly what was meant by the NSW Labor Right-wing machine being a tight, close-knit family.
I recall exchanging some mumbled words with a sullen Richardson who looked anything but pleased at seeing Keating wasn't alone. We stayed only an uncomfortable few minutes. When we left, Richardson was still ministering to his horizontal boss. I never forgot the incident. I've not seen anything like it since.
Richardson at the time was a minor flunkey unknown outside Labor politics. He'd been at head office in Sydney a few years as a Ducker protege, first as an organiser and then as assistant secretary. He was fiercely protective of his boss. He was also very aware, even then, on which side his bread was buttered and where the jam would be coming from.
Not long after, Ducker, whose power in NSW was absolute, secured the removal of the then NSW ALP general secretary, Geoff Cahill, someone who foolishly forgot who really ran the party machine, and promoted Richardson into his place. Graham was on his way. Years later, when the mythology of the extent of Richardson's later power and influence had reached heroic proportions, aided and abetted by too many sheep around him and too many gullible journalists too easily smarmed and charmed, I thought about that night and the context into which it fitted in Richardson's career.
And I realised that, while being smart, cunning, ruthless and, when necessary, utterly politically immoral had helped him, Richardson long ago worked out the surest and quickest way to success was to catch a ride by making himself seemingly indispensable to whoever ran whatever heap he was climbing at the time.
Thus Richardson always had a patron, though not just any patron. And for each successive patron, as the title of his book acknowledges, he would do whatever it took. First it was Ducker, then Hawke, and finally Keating. For all three, in turn, Richardson promoted, with ruthless single-mindedness, their political well-being. In doing so, he promoted himself.
As they succeeded so did he. And when each stopped being successful he moved to the next. He was loyal to each in turn but only ever completely loyal to himself. He always knew when to get off one bus and onto another. His sense of direction was unerring.
So was his timing. It is a hallmark of Richardson's career that, from the moment he reached a position of prominence in Labor politics in 1976, the year he became general secretary in NSW at the age of 26, he always worked for a party in government or was a part of that government. It was like that for all of 18 successive years. He never knew Opposition.
First it was the Wran Government in NSW, elected in May 1976, two months before he became NSW ALP general secretary. And when he switched to Federal politics, he did so the year Labor under Hawke defeated Fraser. It meant Richardson always dealt with real power, for it was always his patrons who had hold of it.
It also meant Richardson always got his hands on more than his share. And didn't he flaunt it! It made him insufferably arrogant, to the point he now shamelessly argues, in his autobiography, that all politicians have to be liars because of the realities of politics and the conventions of the Westminster system.
This is as self-justifying as so much of his book is self-serving. Politicians do not have to lie. Many, I'm sure, do not, just as I'm equally sure many don't share Richardson's political morals. He was always a political thug and, I felt, often a political spiv. The real danger always in dealing with him was you were never sure when he was telling the truth. His is a lazy book by someone writing in his own image and to make money, the two things Richardson most cares about.
Now, gone from politics, he has a new patron, the richest man in the country. And you can be dead sure Kerry Packer didn't hire him just so Graham could indulge his ego on the Nine Network and in Packer's magazines. – Alan Ramsey
Last of the Soixante Neufs
October 29, 1994
THEY were all men, mostly young and ready to remake Australia. There were 27 of them from every State in the country, including 12 from NSW. Eight would later become ministers and two deputy prime ministers. The youngest one day would make it all the way into The Lodge. At least five are now dead. At the time they represented the most extensive generational change ever in an Australian political party. They were the Soixante Neufs, as they called themselves.
In a span of eight years Gough Whitlam, as Labor leader, would fight five elections embracing some of the most extraordinary and divisive events in Australia's short political history. And this first lot, the Labor Class of '69, was, numerically, Whitlam's greatest electoral sweep.
Excerpted from The Way They Were by Alan Ramsey. Copyright © 2011 Alan Ramsey. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 People,
Chapter 2 The Worm Turns,
Chapter 3 More People,
Chapter 4 Curse the Press,
Chapter 5 Eight Cents a Day,
Chapter 6 How the East Was Lost,
Chapter 7 How The West Was Won,
Chapter 8 A Little Night Music,
Chapter 9 The Deep North,
Chapter 10 The Clatter of Politics,
Chapter 11 The Keating Factor,
Chapter 12 A Once Great Party,
Chapter 13 Even More People,
Chapter 14 Citizen Murdoch,
Chapter 15 Slash and Burn,
Chapter 16 A Long and Winding Road,
Chapter 17 What Are We?,
Chapter 18 Animal Acts,
Chapter 19 Gentle on Our Mind,
Chapter 20 When the Bugle Sounds,
Chapter 21 Kokoda,
Chapter 22 100,000 War Dead,
Chapter 23 Remembrance,
Chapter 24 Departures,