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Peter Golding, They Called him Old Smoothie: John Joseph Cahill.

Peter Golding, They Called him Old Smoothie: John Joseph Cahill, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2009, xix + 484 pages; ISBN 978 192150 953 7.

The biography of former Premier John Joseph (Joe) Cahill should be compulsory reading for any person interested in the development of politics in New South Wales; not only Labor politics, but NSW politics in general.

In many ways this book is as much a broader social history of the Irish Catholic inner-city working class as it is a biography of Joe Cahill. He came from the inner-city Irish community and his life and career reflected his origins.

The first half of the book is very much an intense and well-researched social history. The struggles of the inner-city working class are set against the background of the major historical incidents of the period. The 1917 railway strike, formative in the political views of Joe Cahill, is placed in the historical context of the broader struggle of workers and their unions to gain respect for fair wages and conditions from an arrogant ruling class that dominated both private sector and public sector management.

The attitude of the 'bosses' was very much predicated on the master/servant relationship. This attitude translated into denial of reasonable basic demands in wages and conditions. It was also apparent in the open hostility to the legitimate role, indeed arguably the very existence, of trade unions.

In the chapter entitled 'Joe Cahill MP', the author deals with the forever-vexed question facing the ALP in government of its relationship with the trade union movement. Peter Golding draws a comparison of the contrasting approaches of Holman and Jack Lang. Lang is still viewed as a controversial figure in the Labor movement and debate of his respective merits or demerits is still capable of generating much heat among labour historians.

Golding sets the next stage of Joe Cahill's political development within this context. Cahill was a Labor leader rare these days--who came from a solid working-class background. A militant unionist, effectively blackballed for his role in the 1917 strike, he retained that core of solid working-class labour values that distinguishes the greats of the Labor movement from anything the conservative side of politics can offer, despite his mellowing of militancy over the years.

If I have a criticism of the book, it lies in the author's treatment of The Split in the Labor Party in the 1950s arising from the actions of the Movement/Industrial Groups. While the basic facts have been well canvassed and agreed by many historians, the analysis invariably lays much of the blame for the split on the former Labor leader H. V. (Doc) Evatt.

Unfortunately, Peter Golding in chapters 13 and 14 accepts the received 'wisdom' as to the roles of the various players. I think he gives appropriate credit and recognition to the skills of Cardinal Gilroy in maintaining the 'stay in and fight' approach of the Catholic hierarchy in Sydney as compared to the more extreme response of the Church in Melbourne. I also agree that the relationship between Cahill and Gilroy was critical in Labor not splitting in New South Wales. But I would question his assertion that 'it was Cahill, in fact, who held the ALP together in New South Wales' (p. 294).

He adopts the 'New South Wales view' of the poisonous role of B. A. Santamaria. He does, however, allocate significant blame to Evatt 'whose actions would bring his party to the brink of destruction' (p. 301). He also repeats the standard, but erroneous, view of conservative historians that Evatt was in some way a fellow traveller of communism.

Even a superficial overview of Evatt's career and political philosophy would demonstrate that while Evatt rejected the principle tenets of communism, he respected the rights of citizens to participate in the political process. It should be recalled that a majority of the Australian people supported him when Menzies sought by referendum to outlaw the Communist Party, which was a legitimate political party. The uncritical description of Evatt as 'quite demented in the way he pursued the industrial groups' (p. 314), shows a failure to appreciate the very real damage that the Movement/ Industrial Groups and their ideology was doing to the Labor movement broadly.

It is no accident that many of the driving forces in the Industrial Groups were ex-Trotskyists. Much like today, when a Trotskyist loses faith in the words of the 'messiah', a political home in the mainstream Left is not an option. They usually succumb to the siren call of the Right.

What struck me in reading this work were the many parallels with the issues confronting the Labor movement today. The all too recent 'knock 'em down, drag 'em out' debate over electricity privatisation and the relationship between the ALP in government and the trade union movement and the extra-parliamentary party, is in many ways a reflection of the issues Cahill had to confront over his long career. The problems he experienced in public transport would no doubt ring a bell in the ear of many a Labor transport minister. So would the unreasonable attitude to appropriate budgetary allocation from the Federal Government to New South Wales, and the apparently impossible task in retaining government in 1959, which has its resonance today.

In conclusion I found the work stimulating, well researched, a great social history, but most of all a very necessary addition to the history of the Labor movement and a worthy recognition of a great Labor Premier.

Paul Pearce

Member for Coogee

NSW Legislative Assembly
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Author:Pearce, Paul
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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