Naive Optimists and the Grim Reality

Nick Dyrenfurth & Frank Bongiorno, A Little History of the Australian Labor Party (UNSW Press, 2011), 224 pages, $24.95.

That Labor today stands at a crossroads is hardly in dispute. Recent opinion polls have pegged the federal party’s primary percentage vote at the mid-30s, well below even the Labor disasters of 1996 and 1975. Their story is even grimmer at state level, with Labor’s vote in some states in the low 30s and, in New South Wales in early 2011, in the 20s.

Labor, then, has much to reflect upon: what it represents, to whom it appeals and the very rationale for its continued existence. This is especially germane as the party sees one-time loyal conservative “battlers” in the outer suburbs desert, return and depart again for the Liberal Party, and as it watches the post-material “Left” drift to the increasingly confident Greens. Like the sectarian blue-collar Labor of old, today’s party is shrinking in both ideas and support to the point where its very future is in question.  

Public discourse about Labor must therefore be more about the future and less about the past—which is problematic for a party that treasures its history, lauds its defeats and reveres even the most flawed of its leaders. Fortunately for Labor, there has been a plethora of volumes asking the existential questions. Most recently we’ve seen Tom Bramble’s Labor’s Conflict (2011), Rod Cavalier’s Power Crisis (2010), Barry Donovan’s Reconnecting Labor (2006) and John Button’s Beyond Belief (2002). 

Yet there’s always room for history, and while Ross McMullin’s The Light on the Hill (1991) is probably definitive, Nick Dyrenfurth and Frank Bongiorno have offered up a different treatment. Partly by design and also by the necessity of 200 brief pages, Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno eschew navel-gazing and instead provide a “little history”. Unfortunately its brevity, and the fact that nothing terribly new is revealed, will be the book’s chief criticism. But the modest title belies the book’s value: its authors manage to tell virtually every notable story in Labor’s chequered history. Snapshot accounts of all six state Labor branches are interwoven with the federal narrative so that the account, while not deep, is nonetheless comprehensive. The fact that the book is published in conjunction with the Chifley Research Centre might set off bias alarms for some. But, apart from a couple of romantic indulgences, the work is a largely honest appraisal of Labor’s failures as well as its successes. It’s a refreshing read for those just beginning their relationship with political history, or for those renewing old acquaintances.

The foreword by Senator John Faulkner reminds us that Labor in its 120 years has seen Federation, two world wars, a depression, technological revolutions and a profound economic reconfiguration that could never have been envisaged in 1901 by Labor or Protectionist. We’re also reminded that Labor is a “broad church”; the assumption is that eclecticism has been a key to the party’s longevity. This might be partly true, but there’s little doubt that a broad coalescence of sectional interests has also been a source of past conflict, and a threat to Labor’s future. Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno briefly note challenges for the party in their conclusion, but far too readily gloss over its deeper implications.

The core question of identity is satisfactorily broached. Is, or was, Labor a socialist—or at least social democratic—party that lost its way? Or has it always been just a labourist organisation based on trade unions, devoid of all pretensions to socialism and content to smooth out the rough edges of capitalism? Or is it, in Lenin’s words, just another bourgeois outfit? Tensions between socialist and nationalist elements, especially during wartime, and occasional sectarian skirmishes between Catholic and non-Catholic members only further muddied Labor’s waters. Such confusion is no better illustrated than at the party’s 1921 conference at which it adopted, on the one hand, the iconic socialist objective of “the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange” while, on the other, constrained the Left with its “Blackburn Declaration” limiting nationalisation and preserving private property.

With the socialist objective today all but expunged, is Labor now an amorphous “social justice” party that—as Mark Latham insisted—merely extends the ladder of opportunity? If so, exactly who are the “working Australians” Labor now addresses? Don’t virtually all of us slip into that category—one now so broad as to be rhetorically useless? Such questions might seem peripheral to day-to-day governance, but for a party seeking to retain a permanent share of a volatile electorate, issues of identity and appeal are at the very core. 

If they don’t exactly answer the question of how to resolve Labor’s identity dilemma, Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno at least adequately source the party’s dualism. With the party born simultaneously in 1891 in two states but across two very different constituencies—rural Queensland and urban New South Wales—and with early memberships comprising a kaleidoscope of unionists, socialists, republicans and middle-class radicals, it’s little wonder conflict would become institutionalised. Multiple personalities, of course, would also feature in the non-Labor parties, with comparable conservative-progressive tensions still evident in the Liberal Party. Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno’s point is that it’s to Labor’s credit that the party continued despite these schisms, where the non-Labor parties self-immolated and re-birthed several times. At least the authors resisted the temptation to credit Labor with developing an Australian egalitarianism, recognising instead that the pre-existing social and cultural conditions, such as early manhood suffrage and a liberal-democratic inheritance, set the scene for Labor.   

Not unexpectedly, the book bears a vein or two of Labor romanticism but, by and large, Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno provide an honest assessment of how the party’s pragmatism sometimes failed to match its idealist rhetoric. They confirm that “Labor’s practice … often diverged from its democratic theory: leaders, and sometimes the caucus, routinely defied majority party opinion”. There’s also a candid appraisal of early racism and sexism in the party. Quite apart from Labor’s passionate embrace of the White Australia policy, Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno note that “even when separate women’s party organisations … were established, women found themselves excluded from real influence”. A comparison with the relatively elevated positions women enjoyed in the early Liberal Party would have been appropriate.

The authors also remind us that Labor had to work hard for early support, with trade union membership among workers in the 1890s lower than today. Many Australian workers voted Protectionist, and even in subsequent decades Labor competed with communist and quasi-fascist organisations for the votes of the dispossessed. The fact that Labor was out of federal office for about 75 per cent of the last century won’t be lost on readers. 

The section on Bert “Doc” Evatt demands special scrutiny. Readers will question, for example, the description of Evatt’s agreement to represent the Communist Party in the High Court against Prime Minister Robert Menzies’s legislative ban as “astute political judgement”. Despite the profoundly democratic reasons for opposing the ban, and the fact that the subsequent referendum failed, Evatt’s judgment in personally taking the case—and risking Labor’s relationship with tremulous voters—when 70 per cent of Australians supported the ban reeks of political recklessness. Here Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno indulge in a rare moment of Labor romanticism, arguing that Evatt’s actions comprised “a brave example of the politics of conviction, and one that saved the country from the worst excesses of the Cold War”. The passing note on Evatt’s deteriorating mental state also requires further analysis. There is a reference to the leader’s “instability, paranoia, even madness”, but readers will want to know the impulses that drove Evatt and, arguably, the subsequent split.

Notwithstanding Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno’s need for brevity, more analysis is needed all round. Exactly how, for example, did Labor avoid splits outside Victoria and Queensland in the 1950s? Why has Labor been more successful at state than federal level? And why has the party been especially susceptible to what Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno call the “modern Labor paradox” of a messiah-like worship of leaders, often to its electoral detriment? The treatment of Gough Whitlam will therefore be of special interest, particularly the authors’ description of him as a “middle-class radical”. By today’s measure, perhaps Whitlam was, but not when we remember that, in the heady 1960s, Whitlam was on the party’s Right, with uncompromising veteran leader Arthur Calwell occupying the centre, and an unyielding socialist faction on the Victorian hard Left.

The discussion of Labor faith naturally veers towards the uranium debates of the 1970s, and the party’s once-inconceivable lurch in the 1980s towards a market economy. The fact that Labor’s new-found federal success, governing for thirteen continuous years, coincided with its ideological realignment with the Australian middle class is one of the great stories of Australian politics. As Whitlam so presciently put it, “only the impotent are pure”.

Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno could easily make more of some of Labor’s less illustrious moments of the period, from the unorthodox raising of loans by Whitlam in the 1970s, to the South Australian and Victorian bank failures and the appalling WA Inc in the 1980s. The role of the Fitzgerald Inquiry into official corruption in bringing Labor to power in Queensland in 1989 also requires a fuller explanation, not least for its raising of the public accountability bar for all Australian governments. 

Yet the authors’ final treatment of Labor’s current challenge raises greater concern. For one, while conceding that blue-collar voters did drift from Labor in the 1996 federal election, Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno describe the thesis of Labor losing its “traditional base” as a “mythology”. But Singleton, Martyn and Ward’s research has found a blue-collar realignment fact, not fiction. Labor, like the Coalition, did manage to see off the One Nation assault after the late 1990s, but the party today faces a new and even thornier challenge: how to reconcile two mutually exclusive constituencies at odds over every post-material issue from asylum seekers to gay marriage to a carbon tax. Kevin Rudd, on the heels of voters’ distaste for labour market reform, managed to win back the sceptical battler, but the conversion proved short-lived. Aspirational voters again deserted Labor in 2010, and continue to so today.

The book concludes with a prognostic analysis that is far too shallow. Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno argue, for example, that “At every point in its history … Labor has renewed itself by examining, restating and sometimes redefining its fundamental goals of democracy, equality and social justice”. This might be partly true, but the conclusion, “if any political organisation has repeatedly shown its ability to adapt to changing circumstances … it is Labor”, is not only naively optimistic, it is misleading in its offer of false hope to loyal supporters. The reality is that Labor, an ostensibly progressive party, has at times been so inflexibly conservative as to be its own worst enemy. Gough Whitlam and others had to drag much of the party kicking and screaming into the 1960s, away from White Australia and an exclusion of MPs from policy-making. In the 1970s, tariff cuts met similar resistance, as did the Hawke–Keating push for a market economy in the 1980s.

Loyal party voters will therefore demand a more substantial, and honest, assessment of how the party can recapture the middle ground. With fewer than one in five Australian workers today unionised, any assessment must surely include revisiting the 50 per cent voting share the trade unions have in party forums. Yet, as before, such a move will be considered heretical, and is unlikely to earn the consideration it deserves.

Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno console themselves that parties are “hollowing out” everywhere, and that the centre-Left has slumped across the world, including Europe. But Labor’s woes of identity run deeper than the downside of an ordinary electoral cycle. Calwell’s riposte that he was Labor because he was Australian, and Australian because he was Labor, might have suited the times, but today’s shifting middle class demand much more.

Dr Paul Williams is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Journalism at Griffith University, and a columnist with the Brisbane Courier Mail.   

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