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Clyde Robert Cameron, AO (11 February 1913 – 14 March 2008), Australian politician, was a member of the Australian House of Representatives for 31 years from 1949 to 1980, a Cabinet minister in the Whitlam government and a leading figure in the Australian labour movement for forty years.

Cameron was born in Murray Bridge, South Australiamarker, the son of a shearer of Scottish descent. He was educated at Gawlermarker, but left school at 14 to work as a shearer. During the very worst years of the Great Depression, he was unemployed, and this experience of joblessness was one that he never forgot or forgave. When he finally did get work, later in the 1930s, he ended up having to travel to every Australian state and also to New Zealandmarker. He was active in the Australian Workers Union and the Australian Labor Party from an early age, becoming an AWU organiser and then South Australian State President and a Federal Vice-President of the union in 1941. From 1943 to 1948 he was the union's industrial advocate and taught himself industrial law. In 1946 he became State President of the Labor Party.

In 1939 Cameron married Ruby Krahe (always called "Cherie"), with whom he had three children (Twins, Warren and Tania and a second son Noel) . In 1949 he suffered a personal crisis when all three children were afflicted with poliomyelitis (infantile paralysis). He also learned that his youngest son suffered from an intellectual disability. Although they all eventually recovered from polio, the ordeal permanently affected Cameron, and contributed to the breakup of his marriage. In 1966 the Camerons were divorced and in 1967 he remarried, this time to Dorothy Bradbury.

Cameron was the most powerful figure in the South Australian labour movement in the years immediately after World War II. At the 1949 election he was elected to the House of Representatives for the safe Labor seat of Hindmarsh, leaving his brother Donald (later a Senator) in charge of the South Australian AWU. He rapidly made his mark as one of the most aggressive and uncompromising Labor members ever to enter the Australian Parliament. Cameron regarded the conservatives with a deep and personal hatred, and made no secret of it. He rapidly emerged as one of the leaders of the left wing of the Caucus, led at that time by Eddie Ward, who became Cameron's mentor.

It was the tragedy of Labor politicians of Cameron's generation that Labor spent almost a quarter of a century in Opposition from 1949 to 1972, with the result that Cameron, like many others, spent his best years out of office. During the Labor Split of the 1950s Cameron became a leading supporter of federal Labor Leader Dr H.V. Evatt and an opponent of the right-wing Catholic faction. He was among those who insisted that all the "Groupers" be expelled from the party. He also conducted a long feud with the right-wing (but anti-Grouper) federal leadership of the AWU led by Tom Dougherty, one of the long list of people Cameron detested.

Nevertheless Cameron was an intelligent and able parliamentarian, and by the 1960s he could see that Labor would never win a federal election again unless it could find both a leader and a set of policies acceptable to an increasingly middle-class electorate. Ward's death in 1963 marked the end of the old Depression-era leftism in the federal Caucus. The younger leftist leaders such as Cameron himself, Jim Cairns and Tom Uren were more willing to adapt to changed circumstances. Cameron became increasingly critical of Arthur Calwell's leadership, although he supported Calwell in his passionate opposition to the Vietnam War.

Calwell retired in 1967 and was succeeded by Gough Whitlam. Although he disagreed with Whitlam on many issues, after 1968 Cameron became a supporter of Whitlam's leadership. In 1969 Whitlam made Cameron Shadow Minister for Employment; and Cameron's decisive influence that gained Whitlam control of the Federal Executive. In 1970 he supported Whitlam's move to reform the Victorianmarker branch of the Labor Party, which was controlled by the extreme left.

At the December 1972 election Labor came to office under Whitlam, and Cameron became Minister for Labour at the age of 59. He created a sensation by dismissing the permanent head of his department, Sir Halford Cook, and bringing in an outsider: he was always deeply suspicious of senior public servants. But he greatly improved the pay and conditions of other public servants, using the public sector to set new benchmarks which he hoped would be extended to the private sector. Revealing himself to be an unsuspected feminist, he hired Mary Gaudron (later the first woman on the High Courtmarker bench) to argue before the Arbitration Commission for equal pay for women workers. His senior advisor was John Bannon, later Premier of South Australia. Following Al Grassby's defeat at the 1974 election, Cameron became Minister for Labour and Immigration.

The unions had high hopes that Cameron would bring greatly improved benefits for industrial workers. Unfortunately for Cameron, the Australian economy began to deteriorate rapidly in 1974 as a result of the inflation caused by the oil shock, and the government came under increasing pressure to hold back wage increases, which were seen by orthodox economists to be fuelling inflation. Cameron resisted this pressure, and his relations with Whitlam deteriorated. At the same time, he became increasingly critical of the more irresponsible union leaders who, as he saw it, blindly pursued wage rises without regard to the state of the economy, or to the incomes policy of their own Labor government.

By 1975 the Whitlam government was in crisis and Whitlam made a sharp turn to the right, bringing in Bill Hayden as Treasurer and James McClelland as Minister for Labour and Immigration. Cameron refused to resign as Labour and Immigration Minister, and Whitlam was forced to ask the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, to withdraw his commission. He was eventually persuaded to accept the position of Minister for Science and Consumer Affairs.

Cameron thus became once again Whitlam's implacable enemy, but with the fall of Whitlam's government in November there was little he could do. He withdrew to the backbench, where he remained for the next five years till he retired from Parliament. Subsequently he published several volumes of vindictive but amusing memoirs. He kept a diary throughout his career, but shortly after his retirement the volumes of this diary were (he insisted) stolen from his home by ASIOmarker agents. Well into his late 80s, he remained a frequent contributor to public debate, uttering various remarks showing a surprisingly respectful attitude towards his contemporary and former antagonist B. A. Santamaria.

With the death of Kim Edward Beazley on 12 October 2007, Cameron became the oldest surviving member of the Commonwealth Parliament, a position he held until his death five months later. Cameron was also the last surviving member of the 1949-51 parliament.

He died with 3 children, 6 grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren and 1 great-great-grandchild.

Bibliography

  • Daniel Connell, The Confessions of Clyde Cameron 1913-1990, ABC Enterprises 1990
  • Bill Guy, A Life on the Left: A Biography of Clyde Cameron, Wakefield Press 1999



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