The rise and fall of Don Farrell

Jan 31, 2014

Don Farrell, defeated Senator, former union boss and Labor powerbroker threw a hand grenade into the trenches of his factional enemies and they threw it back.

It blew him up, ending a 47 year career in union-based politics.

His 47th year undid him.

Having suffered a surprise defeat in last year’s Senate election, the man who controlled the most powerful faction in the South Australian ALP, was looking for a job.

Last week he told Premier Jay Weatherill he would be nominating for the safe State seat of Napier.

Weatherill told Farrell last week he opposed the proposal.

Today  the Premier declared on radio that he would consider resigning if Farrell’s pre-selection went ahead.

In an instant he turned the internal disagreement into the most public factional brawl since the 1950’s Labor split that left the party in the political wilderness for two decades.

Oddly, Farrell’s own political career had its origins in that tumultuous time

Farrell’s political education came via his father – a six-time candidate for the Democratic Labor Party, the party created when the Catholic Right split from the ALP a year after Don was born.

The DLP was formed in 1955 after Catholic members of the ALP had been expelled because of their anti-communist activities.

In South Australia, five members of the Catholic group, known then as ‘The Movement’ had refused to work for the endorsed Labor Candidate for Boothby, Rex Matthews, and they were charged and expelled from the party.

Spencer Killicoat of the Shop Assistants Union, where Don would get his first full-time job in 1976, was one of the five.

In Victoria, all the Catholics shifted to the DLP; in South Australia most of them took the advice of their Archbishop Matthew Beovich, and stayed inside the ALP where they sought to build their influence.

While Don Farrell’s father Ted was a DLP candidate on six occasions, Don himself has never been in the party.

He is the leading member of the tight-knit Catholic group that’s spent years despising the Left and taking control of the party.

Farrell made his way through ALP ranks, holding senior positions (including national secretary) in the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association since the 1976, just after he graduated from Adelaide University’s Law School.

Farrell used the numbers and organisational structures of the union movement to strengthen and stabilise the influence of the Catholic Right in the ALP taking key positions on the ALP State Executive and gathering votes on the party’s conference floor.

His faction has been associated with what’s been called the ‘Great Australia Day branch stack’ of 1999, when on one single day the SA ALP’s membership grew from 3,500 to 5,500.

No-one has ever been named for their involvement in the stack; but it shored up the Right’s power base.

Don Farrell moved briefly into the sunlight when he stood for political office in 1988 in the seat of Adelaide.

He lost and reverted to a behind-the-scenes role and became known as The Pope, a reference to his religious affiliation and power.

“The shop assistants union was the perfect vehicle for a conservative like Don,” Ralph Clarke, former ALP member for Enfield, and ex-head of the Federated Clerks Union told InDaily.

“They have a history of having a close relationship with the bosses to ensure they have an almost compulsory union membership deal on the shop floor.

“That way they have a large membership and a membership that is unlikely to move against its executive because they are so transient in their jobs.

“It’s an ideal structure – a high churn rate in membership and an untouchable executive.”

Farrell moved to bring other unions’ numbers into his stable.

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It’s reported that his influence contributed to negotiating the shift of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union to Labor Unity in early 2006, which gave Labor Unity a majority in the state caucus.

Farrell is also credited with bringing the Transport Workers Union over from the left.

Then-TWU secretary Alex Gallacher received Farrell’s endorsement for the number one spot on the Senate ticket at the 2010 federal election.

A raft of MPs has been shipped into Upper and Lower House State seats though the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA).

Former Minister Michael Atkinson worked for the union, as did Tom Koutsantonis, Tom Kenyon, Bernie Finnigan and Jack Snelling.

Farrell also managed to get his own gig; he was elected a Senator in 2007 and began to impose his influence at a federal level.

He was one of the key players in the “Night of the Long Knives” that saw Kevin Rudd deposed in June 2010 and Julia Gillard take his place.

In 2013, however, Farrell made his first serious political misjudgement.

He’d secured the top spot on the ALP’s Senate ticket for the 2013 election, ensuring a second six year term that would take him to retirement age.

Criticised for not allowing the Left’s Penny Wong to hold the top spot (she had a much more senior role in Gillard’s Cabinet), Farrell agreed to step down to number two, assuming it to be a safe spot.

But Labor’s disunity and leadership squabbles that saw the return of Kevin Rudd also smashed its primary vote and Labor couldn’t gather enough votes to get its second Senate candidate across the line.

Farrell was stranded – still all-powerful, yet without a job or income come 1 July 2014.

Most observers expected Senator Gallacher to step aside for his mate; but that would also leave him out of a job.

Instead, Farrell opted for the State Parliament and Michael O’Brien’s safe seat of Napier.

The man who had delivered power to Premier Jay Weatherill was now a perceived threat to the Left’s hold on the top job.

Weatherill muscled up and threatened to resign of Farrell’s move went ahead.

The younger members of the Right listened with dismay as the Farrell brawl threatened a loss that brought back nightmares of the post-1950’s wilderness.

In the space of three hours, Farrell pulled out.

He told media at 11am he was withdrawing his nomination.

“When my (Senate) term is finished I will take no further part in public life, state or federal,” he said.

Twice in 12 months Farrell had pulled the wrong cord.

The man dubbed The Pope and The Godfather, Labor’s most powerful man in decades, walked into the political sunset.

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