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Cameron, Clyde Robert (1913–2008)

from Advertiser

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Clyde Cameron was born not long after the birth of the Australian Labor Party and, in a fundamental sense, he had outlived it by some years when he died yesterday.

The ALP today is a mere ghost of the party Cameron joined 80 years ago. Then, it was proud to identify itself as a socialist party and that identity was maintained, with modifications, until the end of the Whitlam era.

Since then, its leaders have seemed increasingly to regard "socialism'' as a dirty word.

The party that was largely created by the trade union movement to achieve social justice for the working class is now uncomfortable with its union connection and seems mostly concerned with wooing the middle class.

Throughout this evolving shift in philosophy and practice, Cameron clung to the old ideals. He remained a true believer long after others had jettisoned their faith.

Cameron not only died a socialist, he was virtually born a socialist. He was the eldest of four sons of a remarkable woman who taught her boys from their earliest days that the working class deserved a better deal from society.

Not the least remarkable thing about Adelaide Cameron was that she crossed the social boundaries to champion the working-class cause. She had lived her first two decades as a privileged daughter of a grazier near Quorn in South Australia.

When she married Robert Cameron, a shearer who worked from time to time at her family's property, her father saw this as a betrayal of her class and for many years dismissed her from his life.

Robert and Adelaide moved to a smallholding at Murray Bridge, straight from their brief honeymoon, and Clyde was born there on February 11, 1913. By 1920, the Cameron family was settled on a 20ha dairy farm bordering the Gawler River, 50km north of Adelaide. Adelaide Cameron was a woman of redoubtable energy and high intelligence (reputedly she was descended from the scientist Isaac Newton). She did most of the work around the farm as well as in the house and in the evenings she would read to her children — not fairytales or adventure stories but extracts from her favourite authors: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill or Bertrand Russell.

Meal times were for nourishing the mind as well as the body. The table talk was usually about politics or economics. Of the four brothers, Clyde was the most ardent debater. His path in life was already being marked out.

Clyde left school at 14 on the eve of the Great Depression, a social disaster that was to reinforce all his mother had taught him about the deficiencies of capitalism.

Clyde followed his father into the shearing industry — and the Australian Workers Union — starting as a rouseabout at the Ashmore Station, near Kingston on SA's southeast coast where his paternal grandparents had settled after migrating from Scotland in the mid-19th century.

Throughout the Depression years spanning the 1930s Cameron was able to gain reasonably regular work in shearing sheds across south-eastern Australia — and even in New Zealand. It was there in 1938 that he received a telegram from his mother to say he had won election as a full-time organiser for the Adelaide branch of the AWU.

From 1939 to 1941, he travelled throughout South Australia and southwestern NSW, ensuring that pastoralists fully observed the awards covering shearers and, in particular, cracking down on unhygienic working conditions.

Cameron's success as an organiser won him election as the state secretary of the AWU in 1941. Given that the AWU was the most powerful union in Australia, Cameron instantly became one of the most powerful men in the South Australian Labor Party, a status that was enhanced in 1946 when he was elected its president.

For nearly 30 years, Cameron was the No 1 powerbroker in South Australian Labor politics. Always quick to spot and nurture young talent, he ensured the pre-selection and election of a lawyer named Don Dunstan for the state seat of Norwood in 1953 and then paved the way for him to become South Australian premier in 1966 by engineering the stepping down as Labor leader of the bumbling Frank Walsh.

By this time, Cameron had long since graduated to federal politics. In 1949 he was elected MHR for Hindmarsh, a constituency he was to represent until his retirement from active politics in 1980.

He quickly made his mark in Parliament — even his opponents on the Coalition benches recognised him as an impressive, if often aggressive, debater. James Killen, for instance, said publicly more than once that Cameron had the finest streak of sardonic humour he had ever encountered — or been forced to endure.

Although most of Cameron's parliamentary years were spent in Opposition — he came in at the start of the Menzies hegemony and it was not until 1972 that Labor won office again — these were far from barren years for him. His crucial role in two party crises, for example, helped shape the history of the ALP. In 1955, his behind-the-scenes organising skills at the party's national conference in Hobart saved the ALP from a takeover by the Catholic Right which later broke away to form the Democratic Labor Party.

Cameron's tactics at Hobart were regarded — reasonably — as Machiavellian by some critics, notably B.A. Santamaria, the powerful, off-stage manipulator of the Catholic Right faction and a Machiavelli in his own right. Years later, the two were to become friendly in the course of a prolonged and voluminous correspondence.

In 1970, Cameron masterminded the delicate operation by which Gough Whitlam and the federal ALP successfully intervened in the management of the party's Victorian branch to emasculate its extreme Left-wing leadership which had alienated voters for years. The consequent Victorian swing to Labor in the 1972 federal election was critical in securing government for Labor after 23 years in the electoral wilderness.

Whitlam acknowledged Cameron's contribution by presenting him with a prime ministerial photograph inscribed: "To Clyde Cameron — a principal architect of victory''.

Cameron achieved striking advances in the areas of wage justice and trade union reform during his two-and-a-half years in charge of industrial relations in the Whitlam Cabinet. He pushed through equal pay for women in 1973 followed by an increase in the female minimum wage a year later, and he won better pay and conditions for Commonwealth public servants, knowing their gains would flow on to the private sector.

Cameron retired from Federal Parliament in 1980 and immediately began creating a new life — as author, oral historian and lecturer.

He conducted more than 600 hours of audio-taped interviews with eminent Australians, including Malcolm Fraser, John Gorton and Garfield Barwick. All his taped interviews have been transcribed and lodged in the oral history division of the National Library under a 25-year embargo.

At 95, Cameron had outlived many of his friends — and most of his enemies. He himself was a loyal friend and a formidable enemy — although his capacity for hatred during his active union and parliamentary years was overstated.

"The softest part of Cameron,'' Killen once observed, "are his teeth.'' But he also spoke of "Clyde's compassionate side — when my daughter died of cancer at the age of 29, he wrote me a most beautifully worded letter of sympathy''.

When reproved by an acquaintance for attending the funeral of Coalition opponent Bert Kelly, Cameron's quirky reply was: "Well, if I didn't attend his funeral, he wouldn't attend mine!'' And who's to say Bert Kelly's spirit will not somehow be present at Cameron's funeral, hovering over the many mourners, chief among them Doris, Clyde's wife of 40 years, and his daughter Tania and sons Warren and Noel from his first marriage.

* Bill Guy is a former columnist and foreign editor of The Advertiser and author of three books including Cameron — A Life on the Left (Wakefield Press).

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Citation details

'Cameron, Clyde Robert (1913–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/cameron-clyde-robert-32947/text41046, accessed 29 November 2022.

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