Alan Reid and the thirty-six faceless men

Stephen Holt

Speech to the Sydney Institute  – 9 June 2010

faceless men



















Now for the story behind the picture …

Keen students of Australian political history always need to bear in mind that the people whose deeds they find so fascinating may no longer be remembered by the wider public.

So let me begin by stating some personal and political facts about the journalist Alan Reid.

They are drawn from the brand new biography of Reid written by Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt (Pressman par Excellence, New South Books).

Alan Reid was born in Liverpool, England, in 1914. 

His father was a sea captain and his mother was the daughter of a publican.

They migrated to Australia in the 1920s.

Reid’s formal education ended when he received his Leaving Certificate from WaverleyCollege in Sydney but he was a studious reader all his life.  His favourite authors as a teenager included Gibbon and Kipling.

In 1933 Reid became a copy boy on the Sydney Sun

Mentored by the leading Sun journalist Mary Marlowe, Reid progressed to being a cadet reporter.

Though young and inexperienced, he did not go unnoticed.  He was a brash red head and cut a striking figure when clad in a reporter’s trench coat.

In 1937 Reid became the Sun’s political reporter and within a few  years he was one of the nation’s top political journalists. 

In 1940 Reid married Joan Drummond.   

They had three children.

Reid’s career continued to thrive in the Cold War years.  

In 1954 he published the first ever detailed media articles about B A Santamaria, now best remembered as the activist who later sparked Tony Abbott’s interest in politics.

In the same year he joined the Daily Telegraph, whose owner Frank Packer was, for various reasons, a stalwart supporter of Prime Minister Robert Menzies.

Reid’s most famous single story ever appeared in the Daily Telegraph in 1963.

The Australian Labor Party, readers of the story were told, was controlled by Thirty Six Faceless Men assembled at secretive meetings of the party’s national conference.

Reid’s story, enlivened by photographs, provided a graphic  commentary on the “decline in status of Labor’s parliamentary leadership”.

Between 1969 and 1976, Reid published three books of political history which covered prime ministerial fallibility in the years between the disappearance of Harold Holt and the dismissal of Gough Whitlam.

Earlier he tried without success to publish a political novel inspired by his Florentine role model Machiavelli.  (Reid like Machiavelli was part cynic and part idealist).

Reid’s journalistic career continued under Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke.

His heath failing, he was forced to retire in 1985 and died two years later.

Reid loved his life as a political journalist.

He was energised and excited by exposure to political power.

Energy and excitement are certainly the words that spring to mind when we look at exactly how and why he came to write his expose of Labour’s Thirty Six Faceless Men – the subject of tonight’s talk.

Let me set the scene.The action takes place in the early hours of Thursday, 21st March, 1963.

The locale is the Hotel Kingston in Canberra where a special  session of the federal conference of the ALP has been underway since the start of the week.

The party’s six state branches are each represented by six delegates.

Some of the delegates at the conference – such as Don Dunstan – are elected politicians but the thirty six delegates are for the most part senior office holders in the party or in the affiliated unions.

The special conference is meeting at a time when Labour’s prospects are promising.

Thanks to the big Labor split of the mid-1950s it has been in opposition federally since 1949 but it almost snatched victory in 1961.

Arthur Calwell, its parliamentary leader, is just about to publish a book called Labour’s Role in Modern Society

Labor is not afraid of the future in March 1963.

That month’s special conference has been summoned to determine party policy on a proposal by the Menzies government to let the United States set up a defence communications base in Western Australia.

The ALP’s federal conference and not the parliamentary party is the ultimate authority in deciding party policy.

In accordance with Labour’s then prevailing concept of “internal democracy” Arthur Calwell does not have a vote at the conference.

Sentiment among the actual voting delegates is finely balanced.

Half are ready to accept the US base and half are meant to oppose it.

Proceedings drag on all through Wednesday the 20th March and on after midnight as the delegates crawl towards an all too predictable compromise. 

They will do the right thing politically by Calwell and accept the US base, though with conditions. 

The next election is not due until December 1964 by which time Labor hopes that the night’s proceedings will be long forgotten allowing Calwell to fight the election on more amenable domestic issues.     

Alan Reid is one of the journalists covering the conference. 

For weeks he has been hoping for a ready made story of crisis and discord to come out of the proceedings and for it to be topped off by a familiar Daily Telegraph headline along the lines of, say, “Conference deadlocked – split looms”.        

But instead it is looking likely that the conference, with a fix in the offing, will hardly be special at all.

Reid, though, has not given up all hope. 

He is used to working well into the night.

There is still enough time for something untoward to happen.

And it does. 

At about 12.30 AM Reid discovers that something interesting has just happened.

Arthur Calwell and his dashing deputy Gough Whitlam have been whisked over from Parliament House in a Commonwealth car and are now waiting outside the  Hotel Kingston.

They are trying to find out how things are progressing. 

They can be seen standing under a street lamp seeking information from delegates who have absented themselves from the talkfest going on inside. 

Reid knows that a strong leadership team, as popularly conceived, would never be seen behaving in such a way. 

He knows that the scene must be immortalised by a photographer.

There is though not a single press photographer present at the Hotel Kingston at this time of night.  The news photographers were not being notably derelict.  The assumption was that the  night was going to be a non-event.

The absence of photographers, though inevitable, is nonetheless very frustrating for Reid.  An historic photo opportunity looks like going begging.

Reid, however, is not disconsolate for long.

A friend who can help him turns up.

A scientific photographer employed at the Australian National University named Vladimir Paarl is among the throng at the Hotel Kingston.

Paarl is present, it seems, in his moonlighting capacity as a part-time taxi driver looking for a fare as the conference winds down.  

Vladimir is known as Val to his friends who, incidentally, include Alan Reid. 

The two men love to go fishing together in the trout streams near Canberra.

Reid certainly would have told his friend about the conference and perhaps even suggested that fares would be available as it neared its end.

Because of his friend’s not accidental presence Reid alone among the waiting journalists is in a position to arrange for embarrassing photographs to be taken.

As soon as Reid spots Paarl he asks him to drive home at once and come back with a flashlight and start taking photographs of Calwell and Whitlam standing under the street lamp.

Time is on his side.

Because the month is March nights in Canberra are still relatively mild. 

Calwell and Whitlam, though unimpressed by the delay, are able to remain outside the Hotel Kingston without freezing to death.

During a goodly period they can huddle with notable delegates such as Joe Chamberlain from Perth or the Queensland state ALP leader Frank Duggan.  

And all the while Val is taking pictures.

At 1.45 AM the Faceless Men agree to accept the US base. 

19 delegates vote yes and 17 vote no after Frank Duggan switches his vote.

The Thirty Six Faceless Men, if truth be told, are not a single solid bloc.

Calwell, seemingly, is off the hook.

But the story has moved on. 

The big story coming out of the conference is not going to be about the success of Calwell and Whitlam in getting party approval for the US base.

The big story is going to be Calwell and Whitlam’s subservience to the forces of darkness as demonstrated for all to see by photographs taken of them outside the Hotel Kingston waiting to receive instructions about a vital national security issue from the Faceless Men gathered within.

After the conference ends Val dashes off in his taxi to his dark room at the ANU to develop his photographs. 

He then drives to Parliament House and gives the photographs to Reid. 

They are sent to Sydney on the first flight out of Canberra on Thursday morning. 

The more dramatic of the photographs are chosen for publication.

On the following morning (a Friday) the selected photographs appear in the Daily Telegraph

The newspaper’s owner Frank Packer, because he is pro-Menzies and a deadly foe of the ALP, is mightily pleased.

His veteran pressman had pulled off a coup.

He had turned dross into gold by pursuing his usual working methods to the nth degree.

Journalism for Reid was never a matter of passively reporting one externally imposed news event after another.

He was, as we have seen, a frustrated journalist and was keen, whenever possible, to inject a strong narrative and vivid characters into his stories.

The Faceless Men story resulted from Reid seizing the greatest ever of these artistic opportunities. 

In keenly crafting a lasting association between Calwell and dark images of anxiety and frustration Reid succeeded beyond measure.

A few months later on the back of the special ALP conference Prime Minister Menzies called a snap election.

There were other issues in the election such as state aid for Catholic schools but ultimately all questions seemed to lead back to the power of the Faceless Men.    

As you can see from the Liberal Party material from the time, the Menzies government relied on the assertion that Arthur Calwell was not fit to become Prime Minister of Australia because he was the pawn of Labor’s Faceless Men. 

Menzies was re-elected amid fear and dread, a mood compounded by the assassination of John F Kennedy. 

The parliamentary majority of the Menzies government shot up from two to 20. 

Labor was destabilised and as a result an even bigger defeat followed in 1966. 

After internal reform designed to lessen the taint of the Faceless Men and two more elections, Labor led by Gough Whitlam finally was able to narrowly get back into office after 23 years in the wilderness.

By then Labor was so used to defeat that it found the business of government beyond its capabilities. 

The Dismissal by Sir John Kerr duly followed. 

This turbulent period haunted Australian politics for decades to come. 

Arguably it still does.

Creating the story of the Faceless Men was, clearly, a major event and as such is worthy of learned interpretation. 

In plumbing the significance of the Faceless Men story one point in particular needs to be emphasised and this is the crux of tonight’s address.

Alan Reid, it is submitted, was something of a Faceless Man himself.

He believed that power was best exercised behind the scenes.

His ambition was to be Machiavelli, not the Prince; the instructor, not the instructed.

A Faceless Man in point of fact.

An early devotee of Labor Party infighting, Reid never wanted to hold an elected position but was more than willing to be given an influential backroom role, subtly advising party leaders.

Initially the only leaders that mattered for Reid were Labor leaders but in time this position altered.

The hinterland of the Faceless Men story consists of Reid’s decline and fall as a confidant of Labor leaders.  

Reid’s links with Labor dated back to the early 1930s when, like many other Australians at the time, he was unemployed. 

He travelled around New South Wales looking for work. 

The experience was formative. 

Reid acquired a belief in the need, whenever unemployment loomed, for government to intervene in the economy. 

That made him a Labor supporter.

His political hero during the Depression was Labor’s Jack Lang. 

As a budding journalist Reid ably leveraged his pro-Lang views. 

The first politician he knew at first hand was a local Lang stalwart named Solomon Walsh. 

Reid acquired access to Labor politicians in Canberra through his connection with Solomon Walsh.

When Reid first arrived in Canberra as a journalist his source for major stories was Jack Beasley, the leading federal Langite. 

It was Beasley, and not John Curtin, who masterminded the termination of Robert Menzies’ first spell as Prime Minister in 1941. 

Reid’s articles on the fall of Menzies drew on information from Beasley. 

They powered him to a top position in the press gallery.

In 1941 Reid was included in the select group of senior journalists who received confidential briefings on wartime developments from Prime Minister Curtin. 

A rather different Labor contact in the 1940s was the Melbourne numbers man Pat Kennelly with whom Reid loved to trade stories about internal party machinations and electoral prospects.

Reid also was close to Don Rodgers, perhaps Labor’s first spin doctor as press secretary to both Curtin and his post-1945 successor Ben Chifley. 

Reid’s rivals in the Canberra press corps resented his rollicking friendship with Rodgers. 

They considered that it provided Reid with unfair access to the very latest inside information.

And then there was Ben Chifley. 

Reid admired Chifley’s nation building schemes after World War II.

Chifley’s policies demonstrated to Reid’s satisfaction that it was possible for middle of the road socialists to navigate safely between the shoals of unfettered capitalism and communism.

Chifley and Reid had many a tête-à-tête in Canberra’s then intimate and cosy Parliament House. 

At one stage it seems that they even discussed the possibility that Reid, a signed up member of the Australian Labor Party, might wish to stand as the ALP candidate when federal parliamentary representation was restored to the disenfranchised denizens of Canberra in 1949.  

Preferring a more discreet role as confidant, counsellor and confessor, Reid did not take up the offer.

Reid loved having direct access to Chifley. 

Any halcyon period has to end, though. 

Reid’s exposure to more bracing times in the 1950s reflected the impact of half a dozen people in particular: Menzies, Calwell, B A Santamaria, Dr H V Evatt and his protégé Dr John Burton, and Frank Packer. 

Menzies defeated Chifley in the December 1949 federal election. 

The new Prime Minister did not much care for political journalists and disliked Reid in particular. 

He considered that Reid was biased against him because of his known ALP connections. 

Reid’s friendly chats with the Prime Minister of Australia abruptly ceased in December 1949.

Chifley’s irascible colleague Arthur Calwell was another source of hostility.

Calwell, in direct contrast to Menzies, did not consider Reid to be pro-Labor at all. 

He was angered when a Reid story in the SydneySun featured unflattering comments about himself and Evatt in the lead up to the 1949 election. 

He demanded that Reid be expelled from the ALP.

Calwell was unhappy when Reid was not expelled.  He remained determined to exact revenge.

Bob Santamaria, leader after 1941 of the secretive anti-communist organisation called portentously The Movement was, increasingly, another worry.  

Reid was concerned when he began to hear rumours about the rise of the Movement. 

Santamaria seemed to be acquiring considerable influence behind the scenes in the ALP. 

Reid, unlike Santamaria, was a lapsed Catholic and a middle of the road socialist.  

The Movement’s ideas did not appeal to him at all. 

Another adverse development came in 1951 when Dr H V Evatt succeeded Chifley as federal ALP leader.

The new leader entered into a three year marriage of convenience with anti-communist Labor politicians in Victoria.

As part of this alignment Evatt held secret meetings with Santamaria.

In the spring of 1954 Reid published the first extended newspaper coverage of Santamaria’s activities.

After scoring an interview with Santamaria, Reid repaid the favour by publishing lurid articles on The Movement one of which featured a photograph of Santamaria sitting under a crucifix. 

In reality political and ecclesiastical enthusiasm for Santamaria was already ebbing but nonetheless Reid went ahead and depicted him as a venal-like figure whose swelling band of bewitched disciples was infiltrating the Labor Party. 

Reid’s expose was followed up by a momentous press release in which a panicky Dr Evatt denounced The Movement. 

Evatt did not have to elaborate on Santamaria’s image as a scary Tony Abbott-like extremist because Reid had already done so.   

Labor’s anti-communist wing (known colloquially as “the Groupers”) was demonised after Evatt denounced Santamaria.

The breakaway Democratic Labor Party, established by ousted Groupers, directed its preferences to the Liberals. 

Labour’s schism, for which he in part was responsible after all, caused Reid to revise his list of allies and rivals.

Until quite recently he had resented the svengali-like role of Bob Santamaria. 

Following the split he detected a new worrying figure influencing the ALP from behind the scenes, although this time operating with a left-wing agenda. 

Reid’s new target was the on-again off-again Evatt adviser Dr John Burton. 

Dr Burton was trying to pioneer an updated agenda for the ALP, based on forging a closer Australian engagement with newly decolonised nations in Asia. 

Reid, resenting the perceived influence of yet another rival backroom adviser, used stories in the Daily Telegraph to brand Burton’s agenda as “airy fairy” nonsense whenever he could.   

Reid wrote for the Daily Telegraph (and later on appeared on Channel Nine) after Frank Packer headhunted him in 1954. 

A big advantage of this new job for Reid was that, as a senior Packer journalist, he gained access to the formerly chilly Prime Minister Menzies at crucial moments. 

Reid refused to comply when Packer asked him to resign from the ALP but otherwise their interests converged neatly.  

Packer was always anti-Labor. 

Reid, politically, was now in effect an Old Believer and remained one to the end of his life. 

He deplored Labor’s post-1954 leftwards lurch under Evatt and Burton. 

Reid saw it as a betrayal of the bread and butter verities of Ben Chifley.  

Believing this to be the case, he could with a clear conscience write unsympathetic stories about the ALP for Packer’s DailyTelegraph

Dr Evatt, though puzzled, was not embittered by Reid’s position. 

Their relationship was not soured.

Reid did appreciate the fact that Evatt, whatever his faults, was always willing to talk freely with him. 

There was a frank discussion between them in 1955 in which Evatt explicitly acknowledged that his attack on Santamaria had a deliberate sectarian intent.  

In the wake of the trauma of the mid-1950s many a grassroots Labor Party supporter and trade union activist regarded Reid as the mendacious stooge of Frank Packer.

Such hostility, however, tended to be stifled in the cosy confines of Canberra. 

Most federal Labor politicians maintained a good professional relationship with the wily pressman. 

Reid traded information readily with Labor politicians of all tendencies.

He remained close to Pat Kennelly, was friendly with right-wingers such as Fred Daly and also was provided with factional information by left-wingers such as Tom Uren.  

Everyone in Canberra knew that Reid could be trusted to maintain confidentiality.      

Any animus from Labor was channelled through Arthur Calwell who never let up in his efforts to get Reid kicked out of the ALP. 

In 1957 Reid finally allowed his ALP membership to lapse.

Nothing that happened thereafter did anything to alleviate things between Reid and Calwell.

In 1960 Calwell succeeded Evatt as leader of the federal ALP. 

His deputy was Gough Whitlam. 

Whitlam’s famed wit was too cutting for Reid’s liking.

It was a barrier. 

So Reid had little sympathy for Labor’s latest leadership team. 

His days as a backroom confidant were gone for good.

This lack of rapport became crucial once the political contest in Australia evened up after Evatt retired as ALP leader.

A range of crucial factors can swing an election when the two rival camps are finely balanced.

Arthur Calwell, let us remember, came close to defeating the Menzies government in the federal election held at the end of 1961.

Voters were resentful of the unemployment caused by a recent government-induced credit squeeze.

Near the end of the campaign Reid bluntly told Frank Packer that things were going badly for the Liberals.

Packer thereupon asked Menzies to have an urgent discussion with Reid. 

The pressman put a proposal to the Prime Minister that could not be refused. 

Reid advised Menzies to declare publicly that it was wrong for so many men and women to be out of work in Australia in 1961 and that in response his government intended to restore full employment without delay. 

Anything that Menzies did say on the issue, no matter how anodyne, would be played up for all that it was worth on the front page of the Daily Telegraph with a supportive headline such as “‘No Rest’ Until All In Jobs”. 

Menzies did what he was told and, when he did win by two seats, Liberals in the know attributed the death defying experience in part to Reid and Packer.

After their near defeat in 1961 Liberal strategists realised that they had to switch the focus away from domestic issues and on to foreign policy and defence matters where the ALP, still subject to left-wing pressure on national security issues, was vulnerable. 

This new strategy worked like a treat for a while. 

In 1962 Labor got bogged down in an internal debate on whether on not to endorse the idea of a nuclear free zone in the Southern Hemisphere. 

Labor’s related decision, in March 1963, to call a special conference on the proposed US base in Western Australia fitted in neatly with Menzies’ strategy. 

Yet despite its wrangling Labor, if it acted diligently, might still hope to avoid being wedged.

A last minute fix at the special conference would defuse the debate on national security. 

As midnight ticked over on the 21st March it seemed as if just such an act of self-preservation was about to be consummated. 

The good work would be undone only if something utterly out of the ordinary occurred.

Which is precisely what did happen as soon as Alan Reid clapped eyes on his photographic friend Val Paarl at the Hotel Kingston and realised that the biggest story in his career was going to be about Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam standing under a street lamp waiting for their fate to be determined by Thirty Six Faceless Men.  

Before concluding we should recall that a great story and its characters are timeless.

Alan Reid’s Faceless Men of 1963 have never been forgotten even though the role and composition of the ALP federal conference – their erstwhile stamping ground – has been changed beyond recognition.

Wherever power exists in an organisation or grouping it is apt to get concentrated, by one device or another, in a few trusty hands.

Oligarchy never dies, especially in the Australian Labor Party and its New South Wales branch in particular.

(I note in passing that Michael Costa denounced his internal foes in the party machine as “faceless people” at the height of the 2008 power privatisation crisis).

The latter day counterparts of Alan Reid’s Faceless Men live on in today’s media in other guises as well – factional heavyweights, “unelected union officials”, puppet masters, backroom operators, powerbrokers, numbers men, call them what you will. 

The name may change but the vital function of deploying internecine power continues.

Which means that Alan Reid’s Machiavellian vision of Australian politics remains as instructive and entertaining as ever.

The full details are in the new biography.  Thank you.


The book to which Mr Holt refers is “Alan (The Red Fox) Reid – Pressman Par Excellence” by Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt. New South books 2010. (Ed)