Inside Story

Directors of the Liberals

Fifty years ago Australia’s major parties had limited resources and few staff. But one party had an edge over the other, writes Don Whitington in this essay first published in Nation in October 1961

Don Whitington 4 October 2011 2634 words

The prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies, at a press conference following his return from an overseas trip four years after the article was written. W. Pedersen/Australian News and Information Bureau/National Archives of Australia

THE remarkable success of the Liberal Party at all federal elections in Australia since 1949 has been attributed to a number of factors: to the weariness of the electorate with wartime controls; the split in the Labor Party, and the emergence of the Democratic Labor Party; the development of an image of the prime minister, Mr Menzies, as a mystic amalgam of Father Christmas, Pitt the Younger and the Venerable Bede. But what is perhaps the most significant influence of all has been largely overlooked. It is the emergence of a highly paid, highly skilled team of professional political experts which has made the planning, organisation and winning of elections a full-time occupation. Here lies the biggest single factor in the Liberal Party’s success, and the biggest single reason for Labor’s failure. Politics today is big business. It is a job for professional realists rather than amateur enthusiasts.

The Liberal Party will talk only guardedly about this switch to professionalism, and the party’s reticence is understandable, because professionals have to be paid, and paid well, and in politics uncharitable people are inclined to ask where the money comes from. It is practically impossible to ascertain accurately the membership of the Liberal Party. Even if it were 40,000 – and it is probably less than that – individual subscriptions of £1 a year per head would not do much more than pay the rent and telephone bills of party premises in various parts of Australia. Liberal Party funds come from donations made by individuals: in most states the party claims it refuses to accept money from business organisations, companies or other groups. But wherever it comes from, this money enables the party to run a business which costs at least £200,000 a year to maintain, apart from the further £200,000-odd that the party is estimated to spend on a federal election every three years.

Such expenditure figures are necessarily estimates because the details are never disclosed. But the party has a full-time staff of between sixty and seventy around Australia, and in addition has between thirty and forty full-time “field officers,” or political organisers. Headquarters staff occupy spacious and generally well situated premises in the capital cities. Telephone costs, mainly incurred by almost daily consultations between state branches and the federal secretariat, are so big that in recent years serious efforts, mostly unsuccessful, have been made to reduce them. Printing costs are enormous; one pamphlet produced in recent years cost £4000 alone. There is an almost constant stream of expensive publications, on quality paper, and in two or three colours, from the federal secretariat’s publicity section.

Most of the finance for these operations comes from a controversial Federal Fund, which some state divisions don’t like because they feel the Federal Fund deprives their own coffers of some revenue. Lord Casey, as federal president of the party before the 1949 election, was reported in party circles to have raised £1,000,000, about £100,000 of it in England, for the 1949 campaign against Labor’s bank nationalisation policy. That election reputedly cost the Liberal Party £800,000. An average federal campaign these days costs something over £200,000.

The three men largely responsible for the spending of this money are seldom mentioned in the public prints. They are the backroom boys of the party, the brains trust that provides the shells for the politicians to fire. You can find them occasionally in various parts of Australia – the Bourke Street bar of the Menzies in Melbourne; the Explorers’ Bar at the Australia in Sydney, or at Johnnie Walker’s Bistro under the Wool Exchange. They bob up in Hobart or Perth or Brisbane occasionally if there is a state election, though they avoid state affairs unless invited by a state division to participate.

One is the federal director of the party, J.R. (“Bob”) Willoughby, a stocky man of fifty-six with a brown moustache going grey and an accent he brought with him from the Clyde thirty-five years ago. He walked from the ship at Adelaide with little but the suit he was wearing and his bowler hat (he wears a Homburg now); he became a part-time journalist, reporting soccer, and joined the Liberal Country League in South Australia. Later he became a party officer, graduated to the federal sphere as a private secretary to the late Senator George McLeay, of South Australia, was made personal assistant to the prime minister after the 1949 elections, and assumed his present position in 1951. His salary is believed to be something over £4000 a year. Willoughby almost certainly has a longer professional association with federal politics than anyone else in Australia. He is shrewd, enthusiastic, but cautious. His great strength is his organising ability, particularly in the detailed organising inseparable from a federal campaign.

Mr Willoughby’s headquarters are in Canberra, while his two associates, Edgar Holt, the director of publicity, and Bede Hartcher, director of research, are both stationed in Sydney. Holt is short like Willoughby, but rotund rather than stocky. He has an unruly mop of grey hair, a high complexion that gives some clue to his liking for good food and good wines, a mischievous eye, and, when excited, a laugh that is capable of startling the noisiest company into a sudden hush. Holt’s entire background is at variance with Willoughby’s. He went to Queensland University, distinguishing himself more as a middle-distance runner than a student, and became a journalist. When he transferred to the Melbourne Argus, he created something of a sensation in that august establishment by becoming a leader writer at what was regarded as the far-too-youthful age of twenty-six. He came to Sydney, wrote leaders for Sir Frank Packer’s papers, produced a political page for a year or so, and finally wrote a most scathing series of attacks on newspaper proprietors for a journalists’ paper published during the 1944 newspaper strike. After that Holt became editor (the last) of the now defunct Smith’s Weekly, and it was from there, in 1950, that he took his present position. He is now fifty-five.

Some of those who know Edgar Holt have found it hard to understand how the somewhat untidy, somewhat irresponsible, rather Bohemian youth of his days with the Argus and the leftish Melbourne University group with which he fraternised could have settled for the middle-class suburban existence of a Liberal Party officer. Holt insists it is because he likes the job, likes the people he works with, likes the prime minister, and is fascinated by politics. “Besides, I was always a true Liberal,” he adds with what could be a twinkle.

Bede Hartcher is more than ten years younger than the other two, a tall, slightly stooped, loosely built man who looks as though he has just stopped leaning against the verandah post of one of Drysdale’s country pubs. His broad, slow Australian drawl is also in the “’ow are yer, mate” tradition, but there the bushwhacker analogy ends. An economics graduate of Sydney University, Hartcher is quick and alert, with an excellent memory, a keen political brain and two rather large feet planted very firmly on Mother Earth. His approach to economics, politics and human nature is practical rather than theoretical, and he has shattered some of the traditionalists with his forthright advice, but he has seldom been proved wrong. Both he and Holt are paid about £3500 a year.

These are the men who, with assistance from some very able professionals as state officers, notably J.V. McConnell, the Victorian secretary – it has never been established whether he is known as “Mac” because of the McConnell or Machiavelli – have made the Liberal Party the very efficient machine it is today. The credit for having created the machine undoubtedly lies with R.G. Menzies. Until the debacle that sent him and the remnants of his old United Australia Party into the political wilderness in 1941–43, there was no federal non-Labor organisation. The United Australia Party had consisted of a loosely knit collection of state organisations, with small offices relying largely on advertising agencies for the conduct of their political campaigns and concerned more with minor parochial problems than the planning and conduct of national campaigns. Menzies, with some knowledge of the highly skilled and complex organisation behind the British Conservative Party, saw the need for a similar establishment in Australia if public support was ever to be weaned away from Labor. The Liberal Party was formed at a provisional conference in Albury at the end of 1944. Within a year it had a federal director – Donald Cleland, later the administrator of New Guinea – and an outstanding research officer in W.S. Bengtsson, who is now a director of the British Tobacco (Aust) Co. Eric White, who has since developed a successful public relations consultancy business, was in charge of the party’s publicity, though that section of the operation had not then assumed the proportions it has since.

Gradually the full machine evolved. Today there is a federal council numbering about fifty, which meets regularly in Canberra, the delegates coming from all states, as they did last week to hear Mr Menzies set the tone of his bold election front. There is a federal executive, also representing all states, which meets more frequently in Canberra. A staff planning committee, consisting of senior paid officers from every state, meets regularly. So does a federal campaign committee, consisting of staff officers and senior federal ministers. There is a federal policy committee, representing the organisation and the parliamentary wing, and a rural policy committee, which specialises in rural affairs affecting country electorates.

They all meet in Canberra, the council once a year, some of the committees several times annually. The rural committee sometimes meets in other capitals or country centres. Every delegate travels by air at the party’s expense, and has first-class hotel accommodation provided for him. He usually has free transport and similar amenities, a smile and a handshake from the prime minister and even, if he is very senior, dinner at the Lodge or Parliament House. Advising, supervising, and working with these various committees are Willoughby, Holt and Hartcher, the staff of their federal secretariat, and the staffs of various state divisions. Hartcher’s staff of economists and researchers produces highly informative and skilful analyses of most of the current problems in federal affairs; it examines the various electorates, dissects the voting at elections, calculates the chances of the various candidates in each electorate, and predicts not only what changes in voting patterns are required, but what changes will occur.

For electoral information on particular areas the secretariat relies on reports from its team of about thirty professional organisers, or field officers. On average each of these attends to three or four electorates, in a manner similar, but on a smaller scale, to the Conservative Party’s agent system in Britain. As a result the party claims that it gets extremely accurate information about voting trends and public opinions, and that its own listening post system is more reliable than any of the various public opinion polls, though it studies and analyses those, too. Certainly, some of its election forecasts have been remarkably accurate: an example was in 1958, when it claimed, to the astonishment of most of its own members, that the party would win the traditional Labor seat of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, which it duly did.

VERY little, if anything, is left to chance. Willoughby has been to the United Kingdom more than once in recent years, and has worked closely while there with the Conservative Party. Bengtsson went on a similar mission, and so did McConnell. When it became obvious that television was developing into the main vehicle for political campaigning, Edgar Holt was sent to England and the United States, and most federal ministers, many federal members, and some state leaders have since then been coached by professionals in television technique.

Some of the more expensive booklets produced by Holt’s department have had a circulation of 20,000 to 30,000. One on communism had a circulation of 100,000, and during the last election campaign Holt produced a four-page tabloid-size pictorial newspaper of which 2,000,000 copies were printed. The publications carry such slogans, boldly displayed on the covers, as “Life’s Better with the Liberals,” “We’ve Never Had It Better,” and “The Liberal Mark Is the Best Trade Mark.”

By comparison, the Labor Party’s organisation is weak in the extreme, largely because of lack of funds. Labor has been talking of establishing a federal secretariat, but nothing has happened so far. Even if it had, the party appeared to be starting on the wrong foot with a report that the first director would be the present federal secretary, F.E. Chamberlain, a man with a trade union background but no apparent qualifications for the highly technical task confronting him. The ALP has an editor of publications in New South Wales who handles federal publicity during election campaigns. There is a monthly magazine, financed by selling advertising space. For the rest, some parliamentary party publicity is written in their spare time by Senator J.P. Ormonde and Leslie Haylen, MP. It has been estimated that Labor hardly spends more than £5000 a year of its funds on publicity. There is no research section as such. Arthur Calwell likes to write his own speeches, though he and Dr Evatt have had help at times from sympathisers at the National University particularly on budget and policy occasions. A federal Liberal backbencher has only to phone Holt or Harcher in Sydney to obtain any information he wants on any subject while he waits. A Labor member wouldn’t know where to begin to find something he wanted.

A typical example of what can happen occurred at the state elections in Victoria last June, when a team of Labor volunteers conducted a public opinion poll in some key electorates. The job was done conscientiously, and as objectively as would be possible in view of the participants’ obvious political leanings; but practically every finding and forecast contained in the report failed to materialise at the election. Labor, far from gaining the huge swing the report implied it would, gained very little. Judging by recent events, one suspects unity tickets played a considerable part in people’s thinking, though the report claimed the unity ticket issue was negligible.

The success of the Liberal Party’s techniques is obvious. Transformation of the prime minister from the discredited and disliked politician of 1943 into the benevolent, sagacious and almost patriarchal statesman of 1961 has been a tremendous achievement in itself, especially when he has suffered reverses and rebuffs in the international sphere. To have destroyed at the same time the homespun, log-cabin-to-White-House “image” of Chifley, and to have succeeded in presenting him instead as the rather sinister socialist of 1951; to have portrayed Evatt as a villain in league with Moscow, a task in which Evatt gave some unwitting assistance; to have capitalised on the schism caused by the Democratic Labor Party; to have discredited Calwell and Ward; to have begun already to undermine Cairns and Crean, the younger men coming up in the Labor Party; and to have succeeded so consistently in convincing the Australian public that “Life’s Better with the Liberals” are all achievements pointing to the efficiency of a properly run political machine. To win a federal election, Labor sooner or later will have to attempt at least to emulate the Liberal Party’s tactics. •