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Celebrating a true believer

AT last it’s published – four years after his sudden death in August 1998.

The late Associate Professor Patrick O’Brien – WA’s most influential post-war academic – has attracted a fest schrift (German for “celebration of writing”) published by University of WA Press.

Titled Power and Freedom in Modern Politics (pictured far right), it carries 18 essays focusing on Paddy and his many and varied political and ideological interests.

Part I, “Patrick O’Brien in Context”, carries two essays by Melbourne writers Brian Buckley (Paddy O’Brien’s Saviours) and Patrick Morgan (Intellectuals in Politics: The Example of Dr Frank Knopfelmacher), and one by Perth author Hal Colebatch (Patrick O’Brien: One Memoir).

“Patrick O’Brien was one of the greatest chroniclers of the various socialist movements which are part of the history of this country,” Mr Buckey writes.

“His book, The Saviours – An Intellectual History of the Left in Australia, is still unsurpassed in its conceptual outline.”

Parts II to IV carry varied essays on the power of executives (cabinets), an issue that dominated the last decade of Paddy’s life, and related themes.

One is his son, Simon’s, Requiem Mass tribute.

Another is by Paddy – “The Politics of Exclusion: Paul Keating’s Republican Advisory Committee and Monocracy versus Constitutional Democracy and the People.”

He became one of WA’s elected delegates to the 1998 Constitutional Convention on republicanism, where he teamed up with Clem Jones (former Brisbane Labor Lord May-or), Ted Mack (former Independent Liberal MHR and one-time North Sydney Mayor) and Phil Cleary (former Independent Labor MHR, footballer and coach), with all seeking a popularly elected, not secretly selected, president.

To Paddy this was the democratic thing to do; people should choose those holding power over them.

“Before, during, and after the Convention, he delivered trenchant critiques of ‘minimalist’ republicans of all stripes,” the book’s editors write.

“He saw their constitutional proposals as maintaining and even increasing discretionary powers of executive government [notably those of the prime minister] at the expense of the citizenry.

“O’Brien believed in the intelligence and good sense of ordinary Australians and thought it both possible and desirable to design a system of government based on more than rhetorical gestures towards popular sovereignty.”

An essay set to attract attention is by his long-time campaigning colleague, and brother of former Labor Premier Carmen Lawrence, Bevan.

Titled: “Paddy’s Vision and the Campaign to Expose and Combat WA Inc”, it recounts his emergence as leader and a spokesman for those opposing secret cabinet money deals.

His fight to expose costly out-of-sight arrangements was central to his opposition to Burke and Dowding-led Labor.

Mr Lawrence writes: “I first met Paddy O’Brien around May 1987 when he and I joined together in a group to oppose a federal government plan to introduce an identity card for all Australians.

“Shortly after this action, in August 1987, my wife received a phone call from a female who enquired as to whether or not I was the Mr Lawrence who was involved in speaking about government matters.

“She advised my wife that she was close to the Burke Government and that someone was tapping my phone.”

He tells how they teamed-up again after a tense meeting convened in a Northbridge pub.

“About 80 people attended and we resolved to each donate $100, to meet every fortnight and to keep recruiting for each meeting,” Mr Lawrence writes.

“Our lobby group, ‘People for Fair and Open Government’, was up and running.

“Paddy quickly became our intellectual leader.

“While he concentrated on the philosophy of government, the role of government, and re-forms required, I tended to deal with factual information, which was by them coming into my possession from a number of sources.”

Professor O’Brien argued that our political system permitted cabinets to operate without parliament fully scrutinising them.

The book carries a select list of his publications – eight books and monographs; 11 chapters in other books; 43 conference papers

and addresses; and 47 journal and magazine articles.

I proudly counted Paddy as one of my best friends for 30 years and remain somewhat surprised people never highlighted a colourful and obvious aspect of those combative WA Inc years.

Here was a learned and erudite, and quite frankly, brave as well as dogged Irish-Catholic academic willing to throw all to the wind to take on influential Perth media interests, a powerful left-of-centre political party, and major businessmen then backing Irish Catholic Brian Burke.

Before Mr Burke’s slide into disgrace he became Australian ambassador to Ireland and the Holy See (where else) due to Labor Party backing.

Paddy remained in Perth, teaching, writing and, in his last year, campaigning Statewide to represent WA in Canberra to argue for an elected presidency.

Mr Burke never gained an elected position to Canberra, as intended.

Patrick O’Brien did, even if only briefly, as a WA Constitutional Convention delegate, without a political party backing him.

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