Sunday, September 23, 2007

Liberal Party Historian Ian Hancock on the far right takeover of the Liberal Party in NSW

A fight against the Right

Ian Hancock | September 22, 2007 The Australian

IN his new book, Ian Hancock traces early influences in the fractious NSW division of the Liberal Party.

Conservatives were angered by what they saw as challenges to the social and moral order represented by feminists, the homosexual lobby, and the pornography industry.

One individual, destined to be the most controversial figure in the Liberal Party's NSW division by the late 1970s, was coming under notice in the party's then state headquarters in Ash Street, Sydney.

Lyenko Urbanchich, a Slovene nationalist and fervent anti-communist, was born in 1922 in Serbia, and was attending high school when German and Italian forces invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941. After a stint in the Royal Yugoslav Army, Urbanchich returned to Italian-occupied Slovenia when organised resistance to the invaders ceased.

Twice arrested by the Italians after distributing anti-communist and pro-monarchist leaflets, he resumed his education but, following the Italian capitulation in September 1943, Urbanchich joined the Slovene Domobranstvo (Home Guard). The Home Guard was accused during and after the war of collaborating with the Nazis, though others would claim that its function was to oppose the communist partisans and to promote underground anti-Nazi objectives.

Urbanchich himself became a journalist and the anti-Semitic articles published under his name in 1944-45 were later to become a source of embarrassment for the Liberal Party's NSW division.

Arriving in Australia in 1950 as a displaced person, Urbanchich initially worked on the Snowy Mountains scheme, then as a translator, and edited a Slovene newspaper. He attracted the attention of ASIO when, along with his friend Vladimir Menart, he founded the Yugoslav Freedom Fighters Movement in the early 1960s. An ASIO officer reported on June 11, 1962, that he was "generally regarded as unpopular among Yugoslavs as a result of the part he played during the war working with the Germans". The anti-communists in the Yugoslav community were said to have viewed him unfavourably because of a break and enter he allegedly orchestrated at a social club, an action that upset relations within the broader Yugoslav community and drew unwanted police attention.

Clearly, ASIO had an ambivalent attitude towards Urbanchich. In May 1971 an officer had a "friendly chat" with him because of concerns about the communist leanings of the Slovenian Association. At the same time it was noted that care would need to be taken in dealing with him "because of his known ultra-right-wing views".

A member of the Liberal Party, Urbanchich became president in the mid-'60s of the 50 Club, so-named because it was located at 50 Victoria St, Kings Cross. Urbanchich also became president of the newly established Kings Cross branch of the Liberal Party. ASIO, which later described the 50 Club as "anti-Semitic and extremely right wing", warned the Liberals on two occasions "to edge him (Urbanchich) out from holding office in the Kings Cross branch because he can seriously damage the party".

The party's NSW general secretary John Carrick acted quickly. On June 3, 1966, he informed Urbanchich that the party state executive had ruled that no new branches could be formed before a redistribution was complete unless the executive gave its approval which, at the moment, it was not prepared to do. People keen to be involved in the Liberal Party could join existing branches, subject to the branches admitting them.

Carrick refused to accept a cheque on behalf of 21 new members on the basis of another state executive ruling that persons desiring to join a branch should do so near their place of residence. The majority of the 21 applying for membership had no residential connections with Kings Cross.

Carrick advised his field staff not to permit branches to be formed that "were substantially or wholly migrant in character". He accepted that the emerging Right was not homogeneous. It embraced everyone from "extreme Tories to anti-Semitics" and had its "leavening of ratbags". What worried him was that right-wing Liberals, including many Young Liberals, were disrupting anti-Vietnam rallies and engaging in what the general secretary considered to be "moronic shouting and sloganising". Unless the party dealt immediately with this phenomenon, the Labor Party would exploit attempts by extremists to associate with the Liberal Party and would turn the growing violence and emotionalism against it.

Carrick had raised this matter in Canberra, where the party's federal executive called on Liberals not to engage in counter-demonstrations, placard waving or attempted takeovers of opponents' meetings.

An organisation called the Australian Action Co-ordinating Centre seemed to be uppermost in Carrick's mind. It was formed at the house of state MP Michael Darby in Balgowlah in Sydney in March 1966 at a meeting attended by a reliable ASIO contact. He reported that, among those present, were three members of the Democratic Labor Party, Urbanchich, Charles Huxtable of the Defend Australia League, members of the Czech and Croatian communities, members of the Wakehurst, Killara and Double Bay Young Liberals and an unnamed man ASIO had already decided was "a complete fanatic and almost certifiable".

WHILE they were trying to work out how to confront state Labor leader Neville Wran (premier from 1976) in the mid-'70s, the leading NSW Liberals were also turning their attention to what they considered to be a very disturbing development: the re-emergence of the Right within the party. Thwarted by Carrick and the state executive in 1966-67, the conservatives continued to meet at a hamburger cafe near Circular Quay and, over time, developed different strategies for advancing the cause. Largely bypassing the blue-ribbon Liberal electorates, they joined or formed branches in the inner west and southwest of Sydney. Because it required just 10 members to form a branch, the conservatives could build a voting base among the small branches, which had equal voting rights with those located on the north shore and in the eastern suburbs. They could also take advantage of Jim Carlton's tolerant attitude as the new general secretary, believing that he was more concerned with managing the division than trying to influence its ideological direction. Carrick and Carlton both went on to become senators and federal ministers.

The cause itself was undergoing some change. While anti-communism remained a common denominator, new issues entered the conservative agenda, corresponding with the social and cultural changes from the late '60s and the advent of the Whitlam government in 1972.

Conservatives were angered by what they saw as challenges to the social and moral order represented by feminists, the homosexual lobby and the pornography industry. They feared and opposed the downgrading of the family and family values, the relaxation of censorship and the greater use of illicit drugs. The Whitlam government became the object of special loathing, being seen as one of the principal instruments for undermining traditional values, for promoting socialism and republicanism, and for recognising Soviet authority over the Baltic states.

But the enemy within was just as despicable as the one without. Indeed, the defeat of Whitlamism in 1975 had the important effect of focusing conservative resentment on the so-called trendies in the Liberal Party who, it was argued, differed only from the Labor Party -- if at all -- over the pace of destructive change.

The Young Liberals were considered to be a veritable nest of traitors to "true Liberalism", aided and abetted by the "old guard" that controlled the state executive.

The conservative case against their fellow Liberals in the mid-'70s rested on two firm planks: the abandonment of moral values and the failure to promote free enterprise. As a result, the most striking characteristics of the Right in the mid-'70s reportedly were its "pristine, ideological nature" and its tendency to "seek, or adhere to, all-embracing world views", according to Andrew Hamilton in an article in 1979.

Although not monolithic in composition or in emphasis, and although it could certainly engage in power plays, the Right had, as a consequence of its ideological resoluteness, one great advantage over its opponents in the party: a clear and firm understanding of where it stood. By contrast, the Right's strongest party opponents -- the small-l liberals -- were said to be generally "more concerned with updating matters, revamping the party image or at best applying intuitively held principles of liberalism in fresh ways in new circumstances".

The core activists on the Right included some of those who were connected with the 50 Club and the anti-communist cause in the mid-'60s. Urbanchich and the Darbys -- Douglas and son Michael (who was recently suspended by the Liberal Party and subsequently joined Fred Nile's Christian Democrats), who were not involved with the 50 Club -- were an ubiquitous presence.

Douglas Darby was the insistent voice in state parliament who, despite having rejoined the Liberal Party after being an independent, had become more disillusioned. He felt there had been "a steady stream of legislative and administrative actions to extend the facilities for the consumption of alcohol, the exercise of gambling, the erosion of the solemnity of Sunday (and the tolerance) of sexual laxity and permissiveness". Further, it was no longer compulsory to hold the Monday morning salute-the-flag ceremony in government schools.

DAVID Clarke (now a Liberal member of the state upper house and regarded as a right powerbroker) had impeccable anti-communist and anti-socialist credentials in the '60s. As a young man he was noticed by the NSW Police special branch attending an anti-Vietnam protest march and rally in Sydney on April 16, 1967. Special branch was then keeping an eye on potential troublemakers wanting to disrupt such gatherings. On August 31, 1970, an ASIO informant sighted Clarke and Urbanchich in a 100-member audience at a meeting of the Australia-Rhodesia Association addressed by the anti-Semitic and racist Eric Butler of the Australian League of Rights.

Clarke developed a special interest in defending the white minority governments of southern Africa that he saw as allies in the world struggle against communism. He was a vice-president of the Australia-Rhodesia Association and believed that Ian Smith's government, elected by 5 per cent of the population, was gradually moving towards majority rule and should have been given time (gradually being the operative word: under the 1970 Rhodesian constitution black majority rule was inconceivable before at least 2070).

Consistent with his views on southern Africa, Clarke, who was also a vice-president of the Australia-Chile Society, saw the Pinochet government in Chile as a bulwark against communism. He infuriated two Liberals who attended a public forum on September 8, 1976, which he addressed as the chairman of the party state council's committee on foreign affairs and trade. Sharing a platform with Bob Holland, a member of the state executive, Clarke said he would rather consult a bus driver than an expert about foreign affairs.

He also reportedly urged the Fraser government to recognise Taiwan, to break off relations with China and to support Rhodesia and South Africa in the fight against communism. (He was speaking not three months after the bloody Soweto uprising and just two weeks before the South Africans forced the Rhodesian government to accept the principle of black majority rule.)

Clarke was a member of the tiny Five Dock, Sydney, branch over which Urbanchich presided and was president of the party's Evans federal electorate council until the seat was abolished in a redistribution before the 1977 federal election. As president, he introduced Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the premier of Queensland, at a dinner in October 1976 and described him as opposing the totalitarianism of the Whitlam government. In an article published in February 1977, he claimed that "most Australians realised what was happening in Sydney's western suburbs, that Australia under Whitlam would soon become a socialist state". In those circumstances "they would no longer own their own homes or, in fact, any property and their hard-won independence could be permanently lost".

Unless Clarke was merely indulging in hyperbole for effect, it was time to call in the bus driver to inject a note of reality.

IF much of the division's history seems repetitive, it is also true that the Liberal Party in NSW has changed in harness with Australian society. In 1945 it was becoming distinctly Keynesian in outlook; now the Keynesians are hard to find. The Liberals of the late '40s girded themselves for the fight against socialism and communism.

By the late '90s the soldier saints were readying themselves to rescue the Liberal Party and NSW from Sodom and Gomorrah. Paradoxically, whereas the party in NSW returned to its ideological roots in the Liberal and Reform Association of 1902 when it embraced smaller government and freer markets, there are those in the party organisation who want to maintain or increase the role of the state to deal with the after-shock of the permissive society.

In 1945 the Liberal Party in NSW was almost a closed shop for Anglo-Scottish Protestants. By 2000 it was enjoying substantial electoral support from Catholics, initially drawn to the Liberals by post-war prosperity, anti-communism and the party's commitment to state aid.

One obvious change in the division is that the house Carrick built, and had built on, has all but disappeared. The edifice did not survive persistent financial stringency, an increasing scepticism about the value of field officers, the computer technology, direct mail, media spin, telemarketing, focus groups and highly sophisticated polling that marginalised the non-professionals in electioneering. The division Carrick inherited in 1948 and expanded in the '50s employed members of the generation who had served Australia in World War II and who, wanting to transfer their sense of service to peacetime, were not bothered about the lack of substantial financial rewards.

John Howard may provide a personal link between Carrick and the modern NSW Liberal Party but, while the division of which he is the favourite son behaves in ways similar to those of the past, it looks markedly different from the one his mentor and patron, Carrick, managed so successfully.

For better or worse, the Liberal Party is probably best seen as primarily an instrument for fighting and winning elections, with many ancillary functions, including the development of better policies and the advancement of individual careers. Does it matter, therefore, that businessmen who think it should work differently are invariably disappointed? The answer is probably no. It does not matter either that the NSW division can never achieve final and permanent solutions for many of its perceived problems or that it keeps returning to the same issues in unconscious fulfilment of George Santayana's famous dictum that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".

Equally, there is probably no harm involved in the periodic bouts of introspection, although the intensity of some of them must be stifling and, when corporate jargon and the gobbledygook of "facilitators" are imported, unenlightening.

The real harm lies in the factional warfare that underpins the destructive culture of winner-take-all, has led to a decline of civility, and promoted and protected mediocrity. The real need of the NSW division at the end of the 20th century was not structural reform but an infusion of the spirit of give and take, of an understanding that the political enemy sits opposite and not behind or alongside, of a recognition that the Liberal Party works better when the pragmatists rather than the ideologues are in charge, and of a willingness to turn the broad church into something more than a cliche.

This is an edited extract from The Liberals: A History of the NSW Division of the Liberal Party of Australia 1945-2000, by Ian Hancock, to be published on Monday (The Federation Press, $49.95). Hancock, a historian, is a visiting fellow at the Australian Dictionary of Biography in the research school of social sciences at the Australian National University, and a member of the National Archives Advisory Council. His two most recent books are National and Permanent? The Federal Organisation of the Liberal Party of Australia (2000) and John Gorton: He Did It His Way (2002).


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