|Issue No 27||20 August 1999|
The Hacks Remember Kelty
One group of workers who have had a special relationship with Bill Kelty are the industrial jouranalists who are paid to make sense of a man who never gave much away to the media.
Workers Online asked some of the doyens of the Industrial Reound for their favourite memory of the man they know as the "white golliwog".
Mark Robinson SMH (formerly AAP and the Daily Telegraph)
One of the rites of passage as a new industrial reporter is to try and interview Bill Kelty. I made my foray in late 1994, aware of Bill's reputation for shunning the media but knowing if I succeeded I would be considered an instant hero on the round and able to dine out on the story for at least three consecutive dinners. Anyway the opportunity arose at a function Bill was speaking at in Sydney where no other reporters showed up.
I approached the fluffy haired leader after it was over and introduced myself, as Mark Robinson from AAP. Never to this day has anyone ever responded to my introduction with less enthusiasm. I don't even think he spoke and his eyes dropped to somewhere between knee and shoe level. I tried to press on, asking him about the latest stoush between him and the great IR minister Laurie Brereton.
Without looking up Bill took off, saying he didnt want to comment. I pursued him briefly through the chairs and received the following response: "Clearly there is a problem and we will fix it." I can still remember the quote, mainly because he has never spoken to me since. I think I tried to make a story out of that one quote but sadly my colleagues did not deem it sufficient to enter that rare world: Those Who Have Interviewed Bill.
Brad Norington -SMH
It was towards the end of the Weipa dispute and a settlement had been reached meaning unionised workers would receive the same pay as contractors. Only problem was, the Weipa workers were so pissed off they wouldn't agree to end the strike. While everyone was trumpeting a union victory, I ran a story to this effect. Next day in the Commission, Bill was livid, waving the front page of the Herald around and telling the Commission it was "untrue".
I was watching somewhat bemused from the front row of audience. After he had addressed the bench he turned to me and said - "I want to see you, now", which is not something a journalist hears from Bill very often. We went outside and Bill starts going at me, waving the thrusting the article in my face. The news camera crews who were waiting for the decision saw a bit of action and sprang into action to film the encounter. I looked at him and said: "Bill, the cameras are on, let's go up the hallway." We went into a room and continued the debate. I suppose it's a mark of Kelty's emotion and passion that he didn't realise the cameras were on him.
Stephen Long - Financial Review
1997 ACTU executive meeting in Newcastle, Bill came back latish from dinner - I'd stayed in the hotel to eat with Greg Combet and ABC reporter Suzy Smith. Brad Norington came back from dinner with the Telegraph's Paul Molloy - they'd both run an article that there was a serious Left push to oust Kelty. They sat down with Combet, me and Suzy. Bill came into the room with a couple of other right-wingers. He came over to us with a smile on his face, put his arm around Brad's shoulder and said: "let me just say you won't win," then he pointed to Molloy "and you won't win" and stood there smiling. A deathly silence fell over thre room and Kelty just hung around. It was a most uncomfortable scene. It shook everoyone up, but it showed the drag them down and knock them out Kelty. I was in the good books because I'd written a piece rebutting the challenge, so I was invited into drinks with Kelty and his entourage.
Sid Marris - The Australian
Many political figures have stories and anecdotes that circulate about them. Few are as complex, psychologically, as those attributed to Bill Kelty. It is a mark of the man himself.
There is the alleged (as all these are) story of the dinner with journalists in the early 1980s where hamburgers and chiko rolls were on the menu. Or the time he compared him self to the central character in Antoine de Saint Exupery's The Little Prince, tending the rose in the glass case on an asteroid spinning through space.
There are the stories of his negotiating style: "Give us what we want or we will .... you''. Or appearing in a case in the Industrial Relations Commission, where counsel for the employer objected to one of Kelty's statement saying there was no evidence to back it. Kelty promptly swore himself in as a witness and repeated his assertion. The dumbfounded employers' rep did not think to cross-examine, allowing the ACTU secretary to continue his argument: "the unrefuted evidence in this case is ...''
The Kelty mind has always struck me as a combination of extremes: mechanistic and emotional. The Labor Council has in its historical records a serviette originally given to Pamela Williams (AFR) with an elaborate sketch explaining the Accords, two-tiered wages, restructuring and a "pipeline'' effect delivering a wage rises in the long term (before the recession "we had to have'' ruined the plans). It is like cartoonists Bruce Petty's giant economic and political machines. Kelty loved to resort to a white board to explain his point. It was part of the "big picture'' - "egomania'' as Paul Kelly calls it - approach that characterised his partnership with Paul Keating in the 1980s.
On the other side, it is obvious that a shy and private man operated at a very emotional level. His 1996 pre-election speech at Melbourne Town Hall - the symphony speech - was essentially an emotional appeal. Arguably that is why it backfired, because it was intellectually out of step with the mood of the electorate. Emotional appeals can be the hardest to communicate because what a person feels can be almost impossible to translate. As one observer described that speech at the time: "It was like watching a child taking a run to jump over a fence and not quite making it''.
Kelty once gave a speech to a group of organisers about what it meant to be a union official. He told the story of when he first started with the Storeman and Packers Union in the early 1970s and one of his first jobs was to assist a senior official win back the jobs of some workers dismissed over some misdemeanour. They were successful. He remembered the message of that official: there is no greater achievement for a union official than to win a workers job back. As he finished Kelty's face had again adopted that reddish hue and his eyes glistened. And the group in front of him were enthralled.
Much can and will be written about whether Kelty's policies and tactics across nearly thirty years of unionism were right or wrong. But there is no doubt he loved his movement.
The final story is often recounted on the round, although the participants seem to change depending on who tells it. Perhaps it's apocryphal:
In the days before he cut out the media, a younger Bill Kelty invited a group of journalists to his house for dinner. Thye all arrived and were given a drink and sat around chatting. The only strange thing was there didn't appear to be any action coming from the kitchen. The night wears on, but no cooking. Where's dinner? the hacks began to wonder. Finally, Bill appears with a pen and paper. "I'm having a hamburger and Sue's having a Chikko roll," he says. "What do youse want?"
Workers Online favourite all-time line on Bill Kelty - delivered by gonzo columnist Peter Ruel during the Weipa dispute:
"Wake up and smell the Vodka, little buddy!"
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005