Book Review

They Called Him Old Smoothie:
John Joseph Cahill


* By Nick Dyrenfurth

Peter Golding, They Called Him Old Smoothie: John Joseph Cahill, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2009, 484 pp, pb $49.95, ISBN 9781921509537.

They Called Him Old Smoothie: John Joseph Cahill
Biography has long been a strong point of Australian labour historiography. Ironically, then, the Australian Labor Party's multitude of state premiers have received relatively little attention. And yet it is at a state level - most notably in New South Wales, Tasmania and, prior to the 1950s, Queensland - that the Labor party enjoyed most of its twentieth century electoral success, whereas the federal party repeatedly lurched from crisis to crisis. Perhaps as a result of Labor's state-based electoral hegemony, many of its leaders were often larger than life types. Charismatic if controversial figures such as Jack Lang and William Holman have thus duly received biographies. By contrast, less exciting but more successful premiers such as NSW's John Joseph 'Joe' Cahill have been neglected.

Former Melbourne Argus journalist and author of 'Black Jack' McEwen, Peter Golding's biography of this significant Labor figure is a long overdue correction, coming as it does fifty years after Cahill's death in office during 1959. To be sure, while William McKell is typically revered as the archetypal NSW Labor premier who set up the state party's electoral golden age (1941-65), spawning what former Labor minister and historian Rodney Cavalier dubs the 'McKell Model', Cahill spent longer in office, in the process winning three elections on the trot despite the politically turbulent cold war climate of the 1950s. Perhaps more importantly he largely avoided a disastrous split in NSW as occurred for Labor in Victoria and Queensland. In short, Cahill was no ordinary politician.

And yet as Golding details, Cahill was a man of the people - no PR firm or slick marketing campaign was needed to spin this line - and enjoyed relatively simple tastes; he loved nothing better than placing a bet on the horses, spending time with his family and imbibing an occasional scotch whisky. Cahill was very much a product of his Irish Catholic inner-Sydney working class upbringing and Golding's treatment of his social milieu is a particular strong suit of this book. Indeed, according to Golding, there were three overlapping, community-based loyalties that distinguished Cahill's life: trade unionism, the Labor Party and the Catholic Church.

Young Cahill seems to have enjoyed a relatively happy, stable childhood growing up in Sydney's inner west. After minimal education in the Catholic school system and like many working class youths of the time he left school badly undereducated at 13 to enter full-time work at Eveleigh railway workshops. It was there that he was eventually apprenticed as a boilermaker. But Cahill's apprenticeship extended beyond his trade; the workshops also provided his industrial and political education, in Cahill's case becoming a branch officer of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and an active Labor party member. Not long afterwards, in 1916, Cahill won pre-selection for the state seat of Dulwich Hill.

1917 was a political and industrial coming of age for Cahill. Amidst the ruckus over military conscription he was defeated at that year's heated state election. Months later Cahill had his card marked as an 'agitator' and was sacked for his part in the 'Great Strike'. For the next few years he endured much hardship, working odd jobs, including as an unlikely insurance salesman, before being re-employed by the railways. Henceforth he again busied himself as a unionist, although his campaign against the ruling ASE clique led to a prohibition from holding union office. In other ways his life took a turn for the better: during 1922 he married Esmey Mary Kelly, enjoying a happy marriage and fathering five children.

Aged 34, Cahill was narrowly elected to the Legislative Assembly at the highly sectarian 1925 NSW state election. His maiden speech not unsurprisingly dwelled on the injustice meted out to the striking railway workers of 1917 and Premier Lang quickly moved to redress residual discrimination against those men. Cahill's parliamentary career however did not begin smoothly. Not for the last time in his career he would be dogged by (unfounded) rumours of corruption. Soon afterwards Lang's government splintered as the premier's domineering, abrasive leadership style revealed itself. Cahill voted for Peter Loughlin when he challenged for the leadership in September 1926. Labor was well beaten at the 1927 election.

The next decade and a half was to prove demoralising experience as the Great Depression only exacerbated the factional strife of the 1920s. But, following the internal defeat of the Langite forces NSW Labor triumphed at the 1941 election under the leadership of William McKell. Cahill was to become a key minister in his wartime government overseeing the portfolios of public works and local government. Having successfully pursued several large-scale infrastructure programs during the war, including the establishment of the Electricity Authority (which ended the states' plague of blackouts), the State Dockyards at Newcastle and State Brickworks at Homebush, Cahill's star only shone brighter in peacetime and in late 1949 he became deputy premier to James McGirr.

Not long afterwards Cahill was elected Labor leader and thus premier of NSW on 2 April 1952. As premier Cahill proved himself to be a hard-headed pragmatist and astute manager of the Labor caucus. Moreover, his government achieved many important legislative reforms such as marked improvements to the then paltry system of workers' compensation, equal pay for equal work, and long service leave provisions. NSW Labor won a landslide victory at the February 1953 election. Cahill's administrations developed a reputation for infrastructure development, and steady, if unspectacular service delivery - bread-and-butter state politics. Ironically, then, the fitter-cum-premier who favoured listening to the wireless rather than 'high culture' is probably best known for his championing of the Sydney Opera House against internal opposition.

Perhaps Cahill's greatest political achievement however was his minimisation of the mid-1950s Labor split in NSW. Cahill worked with the federal executive on a compromise deal that saw the extremist 'groupers' (militant, mostly Catholic anti-Communists) purged from the party. Perhaps more importantly he worked with the Sydney Catholic leadership to ensure that the Groupers were isolated and Catholic Laborites were encouraged to remain within the ALP to fight the influence of communism rather than join the breakaway Democratic Labor Party. As such, whereas other state branches were torn apart and lost office, and the H.V. Evatt's federal party imploded along with its leader, NSW Labor triumphed again at the 1956 ballot. Three years later, Cahill won his third, albeit narrow electoral triumph at the March 1959 election.

Overall, this is a very well written and solidly researched book. Golding's prose is of the quality one would expect of a long-time journalist and previous biographer. Cahill's life and the wider context of twentieth century Australian and Sydney society are meticulously detailed. And yet if I did have one serious criticism it was Golding's tendency to make long-winded digressions such as the section devoted to the conservative politician and convicted murderer, John Ley, one of Cahill's opponents at the 1925 election. Rather, there were facets of Cahill's political evolution that could have benefitted from more rigorous analysis. For instance, I would have like to have known his views on the labour movement's lurch to the Left following the Great War. Then a union militant, what did Cahill think of the fleetingly popular One Big Union proposals? When and why did his politics mellow?

After suffering three heart attacks in quick succession Premier Cahill died in office on 22 October 1959 at Sydney Hospital. Some 300 000 citizens lined Parramatta Road to farewell 'Old Smoothie' (a nickname ironically bequeathed by Lang). Today, there are numerous places in Sydney named in his honour such as the Cahill Expressway and a small plaque at the Sydney Opera House that nods towards his belief in the value of infrastructure as a means of improving the lives of ordinary folk. It is tempting of course to contrast Cahill's record in this regard with that of the current NSW Labor government. It is likely that Cahill would have scoffed at suggestions that public policy be determined by focus group surveys.

It is however all too easy to censure the government for the present-day ills of NSW. One might equally apportion blame to the state's citizens who have withdrawn from public sphere of debate, community engagement and membership of organisations including dreaded political parties. Is it any wonder that governing standards have slipped? When the good burghers of NSW make their way over the Cahill expressway one wonders how many would have any idea of the life of the quiet achiever who bears its name and, as Golding persuasively shows us in this book, one of the better premiers to have run the state. In the end, perhaps, the people get governments that they deserve.

* (Nick Dyrenfurth is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Discipline of Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney and the author or editor of several books on the history of the Australian Labor Party)

Published 22 February 2011

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