Bob Gould, 2008
Source: Ozleft, February 4, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter
I’ve crossed paths, and often swords, with PP McGuinness since we were precocious youths of 17 or so in the 1950s. We were both kids out of Catholic schools, me from the Christian Brothers College at Strathfield, St Patricks, and McGuinness from the Jesuit GPS school, St Ignatius at Riverview, a cut above St Pats, socially.
The teaching brothers at St Pats were always anxious to get the school into the GPS sporting competitions, but they never made it (I don’t think McGuinness or I were ever very interested in sport). We crossed paths in the rather intense politics of the Labor Party Youth Council during the Labor split of the 1950s. The Youth Council met in the Sydney Trades Hall, the meetings were fiery affairs, and over the next six or seven years a number of significant and colourful characters on the left and right passed through it.
As I remember, McGuinness started to attend the Youth Council when he was still in Riverview school uniform, and I have a photo of a bunch of us demonstrating in the corridor below the tower room, where the meetings were held, in support of some issue such as recognition of China or withdrawal of Australian troops from Malaya. An old acquaintance brought this picture to my 70th birthday party.
I’m exuberantly at the front of this small protest and a very thin McGuinness in school uniform is standing off a little, looking at us a bit disdainfully. Paddy was a year younger, but he stayed at school a couple of years longer than me. We also rubbed shoulders in an unusual way around Sydney University. For a while we were both under the influence of the notable duo of Bruce McFarlane and Ian Parker, who had both been expelled from the university branch of the Communist Party for doctrinal reasons to do with Marx’s labour theory of value.
They were rather cantankerous men, but to my young mind, and to Paddy’s, they were sources of considerable wisdom. Parker, who was cantankerous to the point of eccentricity, spent a good deal of time arguing with both of us about religion, and he’s basically the bloke who convinced me that traditional theism was an impossible proposition, and my impression is that he had the same effect on McGuinness.
At that stage (as an evening student, a species now extinct) I was too preoccupied with politics and pursuing women to be much of a student and I dropped out of university, but McGuinness was more of a student and he went through an economics course with flying colours.
We later rubbed shoulders around the large outer fringes of The Push, which wasn’t unusual, because the outer fringes were, in reality, 95 per cent of The Push. The Push was a very large milieu where you went to meet people and learn a bit, and it had were a lot of hangers-on like me and McGuinness in the 1950s.
At this point, Parker played a bit of a guru role to McGuinness, insofar as a cocky bloke like Paddy could ever be said to have had a guru. The atmosphere of The Push is caught rather well in Anne Coombes’ book, Sex and Anarchy, which contains some pictures of Paddy at his most theatrical.
Parker became, over time, a hopeless alcoholic, and eventually died in London in a tragic accident when he walked under a bus while drunk, but he had a big effect on a lot of people despite his eccentricity and alcoholism.
As he evolved, McGuinness developed a rather pontifical and arrogant demeanour that went with the colourful persona he deliberately set about developing. He and I were never exactly close because of differing temperament and interests. I was involved in small-circle Marxist politics as well as the left of the Labor Party, and he had a certain aristocratic contempt for both those spheres of human activity.
I still remember with wry amusement a caucus meeting of the left in the Youth Council in the early 1960s in the funny old YWCA building in Pitt Street, where we used to call ourselves the Chess Club, or some such (to get the room). At that time the Youth Council left had evolved out of the orbit of the Communist Party and come under the influence of Trotskyism.
McGuinness came to one of the meetings for some reason I couldn’t fathom and launched a vitriolic attack on us all as creatures of the Communist Party, particularly my good self. He was about seven years out of date. I remember having to restrain one of our supporters, a rather tough electrician, who was also a self-employed jazz musician, from throwing McGuinness down the stairs. That wouldn’t have been a good look for us, but our friend was successfully restrained.
Despite these occasional hostilities we all used to drink and socialise, in a rather wary way, in the pubs in which The Push moved, seriatum. McGuinness had a sister, Judy, a rather plump, good-natured woman, around The Push, who everyone liked. I remember Parker and McGuinness having a rather elaborate joke at my expense that went on for several years, calling me Harvey, the non-existent white rabbit in James Stewart’s movie. I didn’t quite see the point, but they though it was pretty funny.
Another close friend of McGuinness at that stage was Dave Clarke, who adopted similar anarchist rhetoric, and went on to be a very dry and rather successful right-wing economist and academic. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, both Clarke and McGuinness developed a rather good line in producing for the Fairfax newspapers little yearly books of economic commentary directed at high-school students.
I was irritated by their right-wing tendency but also rather impressed by their clarity of exposition of basic economic concepts without too much unnecessary abstraction. Those were pretty useful educational tools if you discounted the politics.
As other obituarists have noted about McGuinness, it’s interesting when you get your ASIO and Special Branch files to find what they thought of you. The spooks had a kind of grudging respect for McGuinness, but they were usually pretty hostile to me. Both our files contain descriptions of a libertarian conference that we both attended, at which the contrast of the attitude of the spooks towards us was rather striking.
Sydney intellectual life has some very complex features, and there are a lot of intersections between people who end up being political or ideological opponents, but these social connections don’t necessarily disappear as political views evolve and change. It’s kind of typical of Sydney that the religious artist Keith Looby was a friend of McGuinesss, and also of the labour historian Humphrey McQueen, who is like myself a currently unfashionable, unreconstructed leftist in his political outlook.
It was that underlying network of occasional social connections that made possible the rather notable debate in my shop in November 2000, with Henry Reynolds, McGuinness, Keith Windschuttle and myself, chaired by Hall Greenland, on Aboriginal history.
McGuinness’s economic and journalistic careers, which started rather late, were spectacularly successful. His evolving hard right economic and social views, combined with his competence as a descriptive economist, got him entre to surprising places. His bellicose economic dryness, belted out as if it was obvious truth that was impossible to refute, was extremely useful to conservative politicians, Labor politicians moving rightward, business leaders and cultural conservatives.
In the past 10 or 15 years, McGuinness and I were not personally unfriendly, but very wary of each other because of the obvious gap between our political outlooks. I always found McGuiness’s journalism infuriating because of its arrogant and dismissive tone, but I’m the last of the print freaks and I may have read every word he ever wrote, and reading the right-wing chattering classes in their commercially unprofitable but politically important niches in the declining print media has been my way of getting my adrenaline going at breakfast for many years.
McGuinness’s journalism, while arrogant in tone and a bit repetitive was often quite interesting because he was widely read and knowledgeable, somewhat more so even than the other major cultural and journalistic commissar for conservative thinking, Gerard Henderson. The most impressive thing about McGuinness’s journalism in his heyday was his prodigious energy.
For many years he produced quite a large column every day, and to everyone’s amazement, while a bit boring, it was literate and more or less coherent. From the point of view of Fairfax management, he was probably well worth the $3000 or thereabouts a week they paid him (a lot of money for a columnist in those days), which tended to make other journalists hate and envy him.
When he took over as editor of Quadrant his views had moved even further to the right. It seems to me that his Quadrant, while an opinion leader for conservatives, was deadly boring. I doubt that too many people other than its very sharp opponents, such as myself, read it carefully.
The obituaries of his current friends and allies give a bit more of an insight into McGuinness’s personal makeup. A hard-driving leftist journalist father, who died young, who named his son Padraic Pearse, and a Presbyterian mother, explain a lot about him. Paddy’s marriage to his wife, a rather tough German woman who escaped from Stalinist East Germany, was clearly a love match, and it appeared to many people who knew him that he was pretty broken up by her death.
I met McGuinness’s daughter, a rather pleasant woman, once, and I was a bit taken aback that Paddy, possibly in a moment of cynical impishness, had saddled her with the first name of Parnell, after Charles Stuart Parnell, presumably imitating his father who’d saddled him with Padraic Pearse as first names.
Some of the other obituary comment seems quite bizarre. Bill Hayden should give us a break from oratory about McGuinness being a friend of the working class. I doubt that he was regarded as a friend by the trade unionists he wanted to put out of business, and the assorted recipients of welfare who he wanted to deprive of their modest payments in the interests, as he would have put it, of proper economics.
Despite all this, I regret the passing of Paddy McGuinness. As I said at the memorial meeting, at which I spoke a few years ago for an old opponent on the left, death is deadly business and it’s worst feature is that it stops the debate.
Something that made me crack up in one of the obituaries, while it may be true, is that Paddy said while he was declining that he didn’t want any bloody priests. That may be so, because in the past few years he knocked around a bit with bishops and cardinals. There’s a picture of his eminence, Cardinal George Pell, locked in serious discussion with John Howard at a Quadrant dinner.
In the past couple of years McGuinness, due to the confluence of their social views on some questions, became Pell’s favourite atheist, and I’ve heard His Eminence speak approvingly of McGuinness on a couple of occasions. That may be just the workings of the kind of cultural identity with the Irish Catholic community still felt by many people who’ve lost religious belief, like myself and McGuinness. It seems to me, however, more likely to be based on the confluence of the conservative political and social views of McGuinness and Pell on a number of questions.
That extraordinary master of personal abuse and vitriol, Paul Keating, has just published in the Australian Financial Review a vintage attack on McGuinness. While he quite properly has a go at McGuinness for his support for the former Howard government’s anti-union laws, the main thrust of Keating’s diatribe is McGuinness’s alleged failure to acknowledge Keating’s personal role in the massive deregulation of the Australian economy.
It requires all of Keating’s spectacular hubris to launch a boisterous attack on a bloke who has just died, essentially from McGuinness’s right. Attacking McGuinness from the right takes a lot of doing. Keating is a bit like Jack Lang was in later life, a larger than life hater, and he requires all his hubris to carry it off.
The send-off for Paddy McGuinness was of a special order of strangeness. The funeral chapel at Rookwood Crematorium was crowded to overflowing and the event in the Unity Hotel at Balmain later was probably twice the size of the requiem at the crematorium.
There were three groups of people at both events: McGuinness’s extended family seemed to be mainly left-leaning, Labor-voting people, including a couple of active trade unionists. One of these trade unionists, who was obviously upset, as all the family were at Paddy’s death, said to a friend from the same union who was there with me that Paddy was a grumpy old bloke and a bit irritating but he was family and they loved him. The second group, in which I include myself, were people from around The Push and other Sydney cultural niches who had known McGuinness for a long time and were coming along to give him a proper send-off despite the fact that they were hostile to his right-wing views in later life. These people, and there was a large number of them, particularly at the pub, were largely left of centre kind of people who vote Labor or Green. To some extent they were also remembering the days of their youth. It’s a truism that funerals are for the living, not the dead. The third group, who did nearly all the talking at the crematorium, were McGuinness’s more recent right-wing mates, from the ultra-conservative wing of the journalistic and governmental chattering classes. These people are clearly shellshocked by the magnitude of the electoral massacre that they suffered at the hands of Labor in the federal election, and they have the greatest difficulty coming to terms with the new shape of Australian society and politics.
This crowd, many of them suited and carefully coiffed, were like a roll-call of neocon punditry, including the right-wing columnist bunch, John Howard, Tony Abbott, John Stone and many others of the same ilk. Apart from Peter Coleman, they clearly didn’t know McGuinness very well, except from the last few years of his life, when he knocked around with them.
All the euologists talked about McGuinness in the strange lingo that McGuinness himself used in his later columns, and the strange lingo these neocons use among themselves. They spoke as if their lunar right, anti-working-class political and social views were some kind of conventional wisdom. They were strikingly like the Bourbon kings who were said to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
John Howard, in particular, was working the room even at the pub, as if he was still running for election, which is eccentric beyond belief. A female leftist journalist of my acquaintance drew my attention to Howard chatting up Janet Albrechtson, one of the neocon journalistic bunch, who with metaphorical tears in her eyes had reluctantly said Howard should go, just before the election.
The different kinds of people present were often very uneasy with each other. The neocon bunch keep patting McGuinness, and by implication themselves, on the back for their “courage” and “far-sighted views” and for their “bold struggle” against what they call, in defiance of all evidence, political correctness. The old hands and the people on the left of society who I talked to were pretty angry that they had come to this event to give McGuinness, who they knew for many years, a decent send-off, only to have the event dominated by these increasingly isolated and irrelevant crazed neocons.
At the chapel Bill Hayden was boring and mildly offensive with his claptrap about McGuinness being a friend of the working class, which he extended into a lengthy exposition about how McGuinness had carried on the revolutionary tradition of the Irish rebel Patrick Pearse, who he was named after. I found this extremely weird because in all the time I knew McGuinness he purported not to be overly interested in matters to do with the Irish national struggle, possibly in reaction to the bellicose Fenianism of his father. (His father’s impish act of calling him after Patrick Pearse, I used to think one of the more engaging things about McGuinness, but he appeared not to agree.)
Peter Coleman, another neocon eulogist, even quoted a chunk from the Magnificat of St Luke, saying it was one of McGuinness’s favourite passages in literature, a proposition I find hard to credit.
One of the more human features of the event was a eulogy by the editor of the Catholic journal, The Annals, a rather energetic tridentine Catholic apologist, Father Paul Stenhouse. He showed genuine emotion about McGuinness’s death, and broke up at the end. It emerged in Christopher Pearson’s eccentric column in The Australian on February 2 that Father Stenhouse and another tridentine priest who has quite a reputation, Father Ephraim Chifley, and other neocons used to have lunches with McGuinness in recent times.
In Stenhouse’s eulogy there was a note of affection for a fellow editor of a slightly cranky small-circulation journal. Father Stenhouse’s Annals found considerable room a few years ago for some interesting articles by disillusioned Stalinist Rupert Lockwood about the Australian Communist Party and Stalinism. In recent years McGuinness gave Father Stenhouse a lot of space in Quadrant for lengthy, quite erudite, but rather bitter and clearly politically motivated articles about the theology of Islam to justify, by implication, a hard line against Islam in Australia (one of the many bees in the bonnet of neocons).
Father Stenhouse’s emotion about McGuinness was obviously genuine. Cardinal Pell, who was overseas, sent a message to the funeral of his favourite atheist or agnostic. McGuinness presents a theological problem to people like Stenhouse and Pell. The general Catholic approach, theologically, is that anyone who turns their face against god goes to hell, and there wasn’t much sign of McGuinness going back to the church on his deathbed, as the conventional Tridentine Catholic ritual demands.
The Catholic theologians, however, give us sinful people and sceptics a bit of a let-out. They allow for a perfect “act of contrition” before the moment of death, which seems unlikely in Paddy’s case (or for that matter in mine), but they also allow for something called “invincible ignorance” for members of other religions, the unbaptised, and people who just don’t understand the nature of god. Perhaps Paddy gets a guernsey in that team, who knows?
The funeral was also attended by Robert Forsythe, the Anglican bishop of South Sydney, a very determined Calvinist, who also contributed to Quadrant in recent times. Forsythe is one of the leaders of the robust Calvinism of the Sydney diocese of the Anglican church. For the Calvinists there’s no room for the iffing and butting softness of even the Tridentine Tykes.
Sydney Anglican Calvinist theology incorporates a blood-curdling notion of a god who selects humans for salvation or damnation at the moment of conception. Maybe, to Forsythe, McGuinness was predestined for salvation but just didn’t know it. I’ve attended several send-offs for agnostics and atheists held in Catholic churches for family reasons, the most notable one being for Fred Hollows, which was dignified and warm, and largely attended at the Catholic end by Vatican II kind of Catholics.
I’ve never seen a stranger event than Paddy’s send-off from the religious angle. McGuinness’s send-off underlines starkly the way the political landscape has changed in Australia, marked by the federal election. Like Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark in the night, the absences from McGuinness’s funeral were politically significant. It was notable that there were no current Labor politicians at the event, and Tony Abbott, who is very much on the outer, was the only current Tory politician present.
Despite Paul Keating’s tasteless and vitriolic attacks on McGuinness within a couple of days of his death, and the more moderate but still sharp criticism by Bob Carr, the fact that Keating and Carr feel that it’s possible and necessary to launch such broadsides is a clear indication of a big shift in Australian politics. It was notable that Gerard Henderson, the leader of the rival right-wing think tank, and the main competing right-wing pundit for many years, stayed away from the event.
Clearly, the more significant fractions of the ruling class and big business in Australia, including a big chunk of the Liberal and National parties, are busily trying to disassociate themselves from neoconservatism. They want to do business with the new federal Labor government, and the state Labor governments, and cultivate the more right-wing elements in those governments to achieve political results in the conservative interest, which can no longer be achieved through the neocons, due to fundamental and deep-rooted changes in the composition and outlook of the majority of Australians.
The neocons with whom McGuinness associated towards the end of his life are now a back-number although they’re still potentially dangerous to the working class in some possible conjunctures in the future. The real battles for rebels, progressives and socialists will now proceed against the softer form of right-wing politics, in the broader labour movement around matters such as industrial relations, refugee policy, indigenous affairs, cultural affairs, privatisation, civil liberties and international matters such as the Iraq war.
In this context, the significant symbol of which is the broadening struggle in the Labor Party and the trade union movement against electricity privatisation in NSW, the neocons who were patting themselves on the back at McGuinness’s funeral are no longer important.
In his report on McGuinness’s funeral in The Australian alongside the sickening photo of a smiling Howard locked in serious conversation with Bill Hayden, Imre Salusinszky makes a kind of end-of-history observation, asserting that the Sydney intellectual rebelliousness associated with the name of John Anderson is probably extinct with the death of McGuinness.
Salusinszky is having himself on. What the funeral really marks is the bankruptcy and relative political isolation of the neocons with whom McGuinness chose to associate later in his life.