Inside Story

The rise and fall of Labor’s first party professional

Cyril Wyndham, the energetic, reformist outsider, changed forever the way Labor organised itself federally. And then he paid the price

Stephen Mills 21 July 2014 4292 words

“A servant has the courage to tell his employer, no – or to advise he is going the wrong way”: Cyril Wyndham, Labor’s national secretary 1963–69. Canberra Times

When the British Labour Party issued invitations to its fraternal parties in the Commonwealth countries to attend a conference in London in 1957, the Australians leapt at the opportunity. A trip to London must have seemed a respite, even a reward, after the frantic domestic politics of recent years. The three-man delegation was led by H.V. “Doc” Evatt, irascible, bruised but entrenched in the national party leadership. For party president F.E. “Joe” Chamberlain, the trip represented a return to the city of his birth – the city he had abandoned, jobless, in his twenties to chase a fortune in Western Australia. Making up the trio was the party’s federal secretary, Jack Schmella, the son of an Italian miner from Charters Towers.

In London, the job of looking after the Australians fell to a young British Labour Party official, just twenty-seven years of age. Cyril Isaacs had joined the party’s “Labour League of Youth” at the end of the second world war when he was just fourteen years old. As a schoolboy he had canvassed for Labour candidates in his home suburb of St Helier in West London – at the time, a rock-solid Labour area – and when he was seventeen he wrote to the Labour Party seeking a job. He started as a clerk in the party’s headquarters in Transport House.

Netta Burns, an Australian who later worked with Isaacs in Canberra, recalled him as “the office boy who handed me my money every week.” But Isaacs was on the rise. He won a year’s trade union scholarship to the London School of Economics, was promoted into Labour’s international department, travelled throughout Europe, and was then appointed personal assistant to Labour’s general secretary, Morgan Phillips. Along the way he managed to get himself elected, as a twenty-one-year-old, as an alderman on the local council.

Looking over the list of delegates for the Commonwealth Labour Parties’ Conference in 1957, he recalled being shocked to discover that proper accommodation arrangements had not been made for the Australians. “I’ve got the list of delegates, looked at it and, oh my godfathers!” he recalled. “I rang Morgan and said, ‘I’ve got to come and see you.’”

For his troubles, Isaacs was given the task of acting as the Australians’ host while they were in London. Chamberlain recalled that he “did a great job of looking after us.” The Australians might have been a handful, not least because Schmella took every opportunity – before the flight, on the flight, upon arrival in London and after the conference – to drink. Chamberlain, highly disapproving, later recalled how these London binges reduced the federal secretary “to a state of insensibility.”

The conference itself yielded little of note — apart, perhaps, from a difficult meeting with the Africans about the White Australia policy. Chamberlain and Schmella returned home via the United States, where Schmella’s drinking continued. Evatt, impressed by the diligent young Isaacs, invited him to come back with him to Australia via Israel, and join his staff in Canberra. “I was only going to come out for two years, to see what it was like,” Isaacs later recalled. “But then I met my wife and we married, and I stayed of course.” His marriage lasted more than fifty years. But his involvement in the Australian Labor Party – and not least his relationship with the powerful and complex figure of Joe Chamberlain – was shorter and much more tempestuous, as he became both an agent and a victim of Labor’s troubled path to a more professionalised approach and operation.

On arrival in Australia, Isaacs decided to change his surname. He may have been keen to put what he recalled as childhood bullying behind him, or maybe he had accepted advice that the name – despite its distinguished association with Sir Isaac Isaacs, chief justice and the first Australian-born governor-general – would set him back. Inspired perhaps by the popular science fiction writer John Wyndham, he chose the unambiguously English name Cyril Wyndham.

As Cyril Wyndham, he built a close relationship with Evatt and remained loyal to him throughout the older man’s political twilight. He didn’t fit in with the other staff, who, he felt, treated Evatt with shocking disrespect. The 1958 campaign, as documented by the political scientist Don Rawson, saw the Labor Party held back by a “serious” lack of personnel at the federal level. Reaching outside the office, Wyndham worked with the journalist Maxwell Newton, jointly drafting Evatt’s 1958 election policy speech. But the new chum was given an early taste of Labor campaigns, Australian-style, when he realised Evatt’s itinerary was effectively driven by the competing demands of the party’s state branches.

“There was one ridiculous occasion,” Wyndham recalled, “when Doc Evatt was speaking in Adelaide, then speaking in Brisbane, and then had to fly all the way back to speak in Hobart. I said, ‘What bloody nonsense. Why doesn’t he go from Adelaide to Hobart then up to Brisbane?’” In a federal structure, Wyndham discovered, “The left hand never knew what the right hand was doing. Western Australia could say one thing and New South Wales the other. There was no coordination.”

When Evatt at last relinquished the leadership and quit federal parliament for the NSW Supreme Court in 1960, Wyndham was the only Evatt staffer taken on by the new leader, Arthur Calwell. But perhaps the chemistry wasn’t right; by the end of the year, and with the support of Calwell and Chamberlain, Wyndham threw his hat into the ring for the election of state secretary of Labor’s Victorian branch.

As a newcomer lacking any factional or union power base, Wyndham presented himself as a loyal and talented but independent outsider. Decades later, he recalled his job interview with the party’s state executive. Wyndham recalls one “nasty individual,” a prominent trade unionist, asking him:

“What’s the difference between a servant and a vassal?” I said, “A servant has the courage to tell his employer, no – or to advise he is going the wrong way.” [But] he wanted a vassal. Yes, yes, yes! He wanted somebody who would just do as they were told and not ask questions.

That was not how Wyndham saw his contribution to the Australian Labor Party. Industrious, capable and dedicated, he would seek to serve the party as a whole, even if that meant warning against going the “wrong way.” Wyndham’s predecessor as state secretary, Jack Tripovich, “just did as he was told, and as a result became a member of the Upper House.” By contrast, Wyndham well understood that “servants” who speak truth to power, who put the right way ahead of the easy way, risk losing the lot. But for the time being Wyndham was in favour, defeating twelve candidates to be elected to the post.

Labor’s electoral record in Victoria was dismal. In the 1961 federal election, the party had won big swings in every state except Victoria, and fell short of government by a single seat. In Victoria, the splinter Democratic Labor Party had captured 15 per cent of the primary vote, carrying many former Labor votes over to the Coalition via second preferences.

The following year, however, when the sitting Liberal member for the state seat of Broadmeadows died, Wyndham orchestrated Labor’s by-election campaign. It featured, alongside the usual political fare, the cream of Labor’s TV talent – quiz show champion Barry Jones (later Labor’s federal president) and “Uncle” Doug Elliot, a Labor MP and commercial spruiker on the popular World of Sport program. “Great fun, that campaign was,” Wyndham later recalled. “Much to everybody’s surprise, we won it.”

While Wyndham was energetically establishing his credentials in Melbourne, the national party was continuing to edge ever closer to setting up a full-time head office in Canberra. Despite many false starts, stumbling blocks and backward steps, this remained an elusive goal. Jack Schmella had been an honorary part-time federal secretary, continuing on as Queensland state secretary. When Schmella died at the age of fifty-two, party president Joe Chamberlain seized the opportunity to become national secretary – an unprecedented move which signposted the rising influence of the secretary’s role in the Labor organisation. He too remained as state secretary; Labor’s national head office shifted from Brisbane to Chamberlain’s home base of Perth.

For all his jealous protection of his own powers as a state official, Joe Chamberlain had become convinced that the party as a whole needed a full-time salaried secretary. As federal president he developed a proposal which he presented to the federal executive and, in April 1961, to federal conference. “It is generally conceded that grave organisational weaknesses exist,” he admitted, “with no real central administration to provide for long-term planning in presentation of policy and establishment of good public relations.”

The previous part-time secretaries had managed the routine administrative tasks, he wrote. But it had been impossible for them to attend to all the important policy matters, let alone maintain a firm and continuous relationship with the parliamentary leadership. Again, it came down to the problem of money – state branch money:

If £40,000 to £50,000 a year [$1 million to $1.3 million in today’s money] was available for our purpose we could of course proceed to establish a national administrative centre consisting of a number of experts in administration, public relations, research, a librarian and all that goes with the modern requirements of a political organisation.

However as we are called upon to initially examine the project on the basis of seeking financial support from the state branches, it would at this stage be quite without profit to set out in any detail any such ambitious proposal. It should be looked upon as a target for the future.

The immediate practical approach must be on the basis of what is a reasonable financial approach to the states?

In Chamberlain’s more modest proposal, Labor would pay its federal secretary a salary of £3000 ($80,000), while also paying for a “female secretary and assistant” and office expenses. Even this would entail quadrupling the levies paid by the states, according to their membership numbers, to belong to the federal party. Chamberlain’s report was shot down: New South Wales and Victoria – which, as the largest states, needed federal support least, and would have had to pay the most – opposed it, although some of the smaller and needier states were supportive.

All this happened as Chamberlain was moving to replace Schmella as secretary. Years later, in his posthumously published autobiography, Chamberlain insisted he was motivated only by the needs of the party and had “lost the desire to sit in the cold corridors of power in Canberra.” But that retrospective explanation is belied by the speed with which he moved to fill Schmella’s shoes, which, he acknowledged, had sparked accusations that he wanted to “feather [his] own nest.”

Yet his proposal was deferred, not defeated, and Chamberlain continued to push the idea. Throughout 1962 the state branches finally came on board, and in January 1963 the position of a full-time salaried Labor federal secretary was advertised. Cyril Wyndham was encouraged to throw his hat into the ring and the executive unanimously selected him from a field of five. Joe Chamberlain did not contest the position, but the old Londoner clearly supported the young Londoner as his replacement. Others in the party were just happy to get the old Londoner out of the national office. Wyndham recalled:

I should never have left Victoria. In fact when they were saying farewell to me … [they] said, “Are you sure you’re going?” and I look back and I think to myself, I wish I’d said “no.” But it’s no good living in the past.

Wyndham was appointed by executive in May 1963, confirmed by conference in July, and told to start work on 1 October. On 15 October, Prime Minister Menzies called an early election for 30 November. The Victorian branch of the Labor Party, having just lost its state secretary, found itself unprepared for the campaign; it asked the federal executive to defer Wyndham’s start date, so that he could remain in Victoria and direct the local campaign. Thus Labor conducted its national campaign for the 1963 election without a national secretary – an unprecedented example, even for this centrifugal party, of federal decentralisation. Wyndham recalled that towards the end of the campaign he was driving from Victoria’s La Trobe Valley to Melbourne:

There was a police officer flagging me down and I thought, “What have I done wrong?” “Sorry Mr Wyndham, urgent phone call for you.” “Where can I take it?” “Come in here and take it here.” I phoned – I’ve forgotten who I phoned now… President Kennedy [had] been shot. And I thought, “That’s us, we’re finished. No way, no way, can we win this election.”

Menzies won what was to be his last campaign with a comfortable majority: the Liberals won seventy-two seats to Labor’s fifty. Wyndham and his wife moved to Canberra, and he opened Labor’s first national office in January 1964. Newspaper headlines nicknamed him “Cerebral Cyril,” Labor’s “Mighty Atom,” “the Cockney Sparrow,” “a new broom for an untidy party.” The Melbourne Sun explained:

The “mighty atom” tag comes from a combination of his slight build and tremendous vitality. He never seems to walk anywhere, but prefers to go at a half-run. His conversation is similarly quick, to the point and unfrivolous… Looking older than his age, with deep-sunk eyes, pale and thin complexion and thinning hair, he regularly astounds people with his energetic organisational ability.

A profile in the Australian Financial Review, edited by Maxwell Newton, was equally flattering but concluded with an insightful caution:

Cyril Wyndham is inclined to resent criticism – personal, or of the party – and to worry about it. This tendency has made his job in Victoria a wearing one. As federal secretary he will become a much bigger target. His friends are hoping he curbs, or loses, the worrying habit.

Wyndham established Labor’s national headquarters in Ainslie Avenue in central Canberra; they were recalled by one journalist as “a small, ratty office suite at the top of the world’s most ancient lift.” The party’s “grand plans for an adequately staffed national secretariat” to support Wyndham were never delivered. In 1967 the full staff complement was “Cyril plus two” secretaries.

But Wyndham lived up to the “mighty atom” billing. He was an impeccable shorthand typist and minute keeper, and immediately improved the party’s administrative efficiency. He analysed voting statistics to trace shifts in popular sentiment at national and state level. A fluent pamphleteer, he articulated the party’s case against communism and the National Civic Council, both at the direction of the federal executive, and promoted the party in lengthy articles in public journals. He wrote speakers’ notes, “to see that everyone was speaking the same language in Western Australia and New South Wales.”

He also became an articulate internal critic of party attitudes and structures – showing the courage that he had advocated years earlier, no doubt, to advise his employer about right and wrong. In a speech to the Young Labor Association in 1965 he attacked those who “prevaricate our policy, indulge in the futile exercise of factional strife, and behave like a collection of political delinquents.” In 1968 he reportedly told the Labor Women’s Organisation that aspects of the party were “ridiculous, absurd and criminal.”

Most ambitiously, he embarked on the difficult and dangerous task of reforming Labor’s antiquated national decision-making structures. The so-called “Wyndham Plan” was a wide-ranging proposal to enlarge and reconstruct the federal conference and the federal executive, provide rank-and-file members with direct input into the federal party, improve party finances, and broaden the party’s appeal to women and young voters.

Under the existing rules, it was the executive, not the popularly elected parliamentary leaders, who essentially determined party policy – as had been dramatically highlighted in March 1963, when a special national conference was held to deal with the Liberal government’s proposal for a joint US–Australian military base at North West Cape in Western Australia. Arthur Calwell and his deputy, Gough Whitlam, had addressed the thirty-six delegates at Canberra’s Hotel Kingston, urging them to accept the base, but they had no say in the conference’s deliberations, and no vote. Instead, Calwell and Whitlam were photographed outside the hotel at midnight as they waited to hear the outcome.

The Daily Telegraph’s front-page splash condemned the incident as “the all-time nadir of Labor parliamentary leadership.” Menzies coined the “faceless men” tag to deride the powerful and anonymous figures whom he accused of running the Labor Party. A key element of the Wyndham Plan was to include the parliamentary leaders on the federal executive.

This, however, would have diluted the power of the paid state branch officials. Wyndham later described his job as to “stop the states from bickering” but that was only half of it. Wyndham’s plan placed him at the intersection of powerful fissures within the party: between traditionalists and modernisers; between the Left faction, which dominated the executive, and the Right; between the party organisation and the parliamentary leadership; and between the state branches and the emerging influence of the federal structure with its full-time secretary.

In particular Wyndham was squeezed between powerful individuals. His erstwhile promoter Chamberlain, with his power base in Western Australia, his reliance on “the book” of party rules and his mistrust of parliamentarians, represented the archetypal Left traditionalist who stood to lose from reform. Chamberlain opposed the Wyndham Plan. Whitlam – moderniser, parliamentarian – vigorously supported it. The plan was debated at the 1965 federal conference – and was shelved. Wyndham changed tack, attempting to force change on the state branches from below, by directly appealing to rank-and-file members. But the executive ordered he be “kept away” from branch members; Netta Burns, his secretary, recalled that Wyndham was barred from travelling outside Canberra without the executive’s permission.

Labor’s electoral debacle of 1966 no doubt further weakened Wyndham’s position; he certainly felt he was made the scapegoat. Following Menzies’s resignation, the Coalition parties under Harold Holt won nearly 60 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote and held two-thirds of the seats in the House of Representatives. It was the end of the road for Calwell, who was soon replaced as leader by Gough Whitlam. Wyndham had been one of Whitlam’s closest collaborators; after 1966, however, their relationship began to deteriorate. The ostensible reason was a disagreement about a proposed redistribution but there were personal niggles as well. Wyndham bristled at what he described as Whitlam’s “casual and offhanded treatment” when he tried to have a discussion with the leader about campaign finance; Whitlam was “still too arrogant.”

More generally, Wyndham was increasingly frustrated with the whole party: its archaic structures, deep factionalism, petty squabbling and resistance to reform. Newspaper columnists were taking note of the tensions in Labor’s head office, describing Wyndham as “a professional among amateurs,” a “frustrated reformer,” and “the little Englishman, who… worked like a drover’s sheep dog to rehabilitate the ALP.” Privately, Wyndham was scathing about his employers on the executive, writing in March 1969:

[Jim] Keeffe as the Federal president is a wretched individual; incompetent, cheap and admirably described as a “crumb,” [Victorian state secretary Bill] Hartley is gross, also incompetent, and I am sure has not the slightest idea of what democratic socialism is about. [Queensland state secretary Tom] Burns is a larrickin [sic]. Chamberlain the albatross around everyone’s neck and a leech, sucking us dry of energy and creditability.

In another note, he described these and other members of the executive as a “power cabal” that dominated the executive and the party:

The clique, with which I will not grace the name of left-wing since they are simply a power cabal, insulates itself completely from public and party opinion. It hears and sees only what it wants to hear and see, of course it deludes itself into believing that they are the purists, the upholders of principles and great defenders of the party. Anyone who so much as crosses their path must pay the penalty of their vindictiveness and jealousy. The clique is able to dominate party affairs because no one else will challenge their supremacy.

For their part, Netta Burns recalled, the clique “made it impossible for him [Wyndham] to stay.” The executive commissioned an audit of Wyndham’s management of party funds from mid 1967; discrepancies were allegedly discovered. Wyndham was said to have wasted, misused, or even misappropriated party funds, variously in order to hold party meetings in “luxurious” surroundings, or to cover his travel costs while on party business, or to pay a garage bill for his wife’s car. Wyndham later explained that he “came a cropper” because he had used party funds to help Whitlam pay for a dinner with the federal executive on a visit to Sydney:

We had the executive to lunch somewhere in Sydney. The meeting was in Sydney. [Gough Whitlam] said to me, “I suppose I’d better pay for these bastards.” Now I knew he was stretched. So I said, “OK, I’ll go halves with you.” Now I had no allowance, so it had to come out of party funds, and that was half my problem… They purported to find that I’d been rifling funds, which I hadn’t. I’d been helping Gough out.

Whatever the actual charge, Wyndham defended himself stoutly at a finance committee meeting, reading out a four-page statement that declared he had “lived on a razor edge ever since the Secretariat was created.”

Having, therefore, carefully consider[ed] my position and my own self-respect, I have reached the conclusion, regrettable and distasteful as it is to me, that I no longer wish to serve in my present capacity. I accordingly tender my resignation as from the moment I complete reading this statement.

Taciturn, unhappy, exhausted, Wyndham resigned as federal secretary in March 1969 to take up the vacant state secretary’s role in New South Wales. But the vendetta against him had further to run. The auditor’s report was debated at a two-day meeting of the executive in May; Wyndham was found to have provided “misleading” answers and was unanimously censured. Refusing to defend himself in the media or the defamation courts, Wyndham took himself and his wife to Norfolk Island. When he failed to report for duty in New South Wales the following week, he was dismissed from his role as state secretary. The assassination of the party’s first paid full-time secretary was complete; politically, his career was “finished.” He was thirty-nine years old.

Yet the smear campaign continued. Alan Reid reported that Wyndham’s enemies continued to “feed out” highly damaging material against him; Netta Burns stated that scurrilous leaflets were circulated at the party conference in Victoria in June. Wyndham was badgered by lawyers and friends to mount a complaint, but this would have been inflammatory in an election year; he loyally kept his mouth shut.

Wyndham’s only defender was his old press gallery contact, Maxwell Newton, who had become publisher of an influential Canberra newsletter. Newton issued a statement that Wyndham had been “ill-treated, maligned and smeared” by members of the executive and offered him a job; Wyndham worked for a decade as editor of the Daily Commercial News. He then lived in retirement with his wife in Newcastle until his death in July 2012.

With Wyndham’s appointment, Labor at last had its own version of the Liberals’ federal director Don Cleland. But it had taken the party nearly twenty years to catch up. By then, of course, the Liberals had even more resources. Wyndham’s salary was £3000 a year in 1963; the Liberal federal director was getting “something over £4000 a year” in 1961. The Liberals’ head office had been staffed from its inception with a substantial professional team.

How are we to explain the impressive rise and shameful demise of Cyril Wyndham? Was it purely the result of his own character – his energy and enterprise, his reformist instincts, his prickly resentment of criticism, his refusal to be a vassal? Or were more complex institutional factors at play?

In selecting a youthful outsider as their first full-time salaried officer, the state officials on federal executive may have thought they had someone they could push around, or at worst ignore. The job came with a troubled history and an ambiguous standing within the Labor Party. Perhaps Wyndham thought the new elements of this job – the salary, the full-time hours and the Canberra office – would overcome the problems his predecessors had faced. Instead, the parts of the job that did not change – the lack of resources, the uncertain authority, the entrenched power of the state branches – proved to be more influential in determining how he did the job and, ultimately, how long he could survive in it.

Having spent decades arguing about whether to follow the Liberals’ example and pay their national officials, Labor engaged in protracted contests about who should serve and under what conditions; more often than not, the result was high turnover, exhaustion and traumatic disruption.

In this sense, Wyndham’s career is an object lesson in the inherent tensions between institutions and the individuals who work within them. Wyndham believed it was his job to advise the party that it was going the wrong way; he was ignored and eventually kicked out. But his demise unexpectedly opened the door for a party official, Mick Young, whose efforts did succeed in professionalising both Labor’s and Australia’s election campaigns. •

This is an edited extract from The Professionals: Strategy, Money and the Rise of the Political Campaigner in Australia by Stephen Mills (Black Inc. $29.99).