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The Kingo – “Inside the Canberra Press Gallery: Life in the Wedding Cake of Old Parliament House” – Rob Chalmers

May 30th, 2012 · No Comments · Australian Labor Party, Australiana, Democracy

The Kingo was the venue for one of the most important conferences ever held in Canberra: the 22 March 1963 Special Federal Conference of the ALP. There were 36 delegates, six from each State—a form of federalism similarly embodied in the Australian Senate, which has an equal number of senators from each State. The conference was asked to consider whether the federal parliamentary Labor Party should support Menzies’ legislation authorising the construction by the United States of a naval communications station on North-West Cape in Western Australia. The External Affairs Minister, Garfield Barwick, described it as ‘a wireless station, nothing more nor less’. This was a cover-up. A wireless station, indeed! It was far more important than was portrayed by the Government. Together with other stations around the world, North-West Cape was a vital part of the US nuclear weapons program. These stations had the capacity to communicate with US Polaris nuclear-powered submarines capable of launching a nuclear missile strike against any target in the world and were at the very tip of US capability to deter nuclear attacks. The station at North-West Cape thus helped keep the Cold War cold, not hot. Within the Labor Party, it raised a question of national sovereignty over Australian soil. At the Kingston Hotel, the delegates debated the base legislation after Calwell had addressed it and then withdrew. Under ALP rules, the leader and deputy leader were not delegates and did not have a vote, yet they were required to carry out the decision of the conference. The conference was still debating well into the night and Calwell, impatient and accompanied by Whitlam and Freudenberg, left Parliament House to go to the hotel and join journalists waiting for an outcome. As Freudenberg recalls, on the stroke of midnight, the vote was taken narrowly accepting Menzies’ legislation, conditional on the base being jointly controlled and Australian sovereignty guaranteed. The Daily Telegraph published a bombshell picture of Calwell and Whitlam waiting in the dead of night outside the hotel for the vote. Menzies leapt on this to point out that Liberal MPs were not directed by anyone as to how they should vote. Labor MPs on the other hand were instructed by ‘36 faceless men’—a devastating term he coined.

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