While the Cold War ended two decades ago, local aspects keep resurfacing. One example is the controversy about Green NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon’s communist past; another is the renewed focus on Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s university days, when he led campus conservatives against entrenched red factions in student organisations.
So let’s revisit another example: Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s earlier management role with the Socialist Forum from 1984 to 1994. The Socialist Forum was set up and funded by top-ranking Victorian communists after they quit their own party.
I spent a recent flight to London reading the 1994 memoir Crossing the Party Line by Bernie Taft, a one-time joint national secretary of the Communist Party and long-time Victorian branch heavyweight. His memoir, which contains much overlooked material, is chiefly notorious for its two brief passages on the Socialist Forum. In 1984 Taft co-led a walkout from the party, that included seven of the eight Victorian state executive members. Soon after, they launched the Socialist Forum at a meeting of 200 people, including about 45 communists.[i] The funding of the Forum was via the party’s leftover funds in Victoria.[ii]
Gillard, after her spell as vice-president and president of the far-left Australian Union of Students in Adelaide and Melbourne in the early 1980s, spent the next decade with the Socialist Forum. She was described at the time by the Forum as an “organiser”, along with Bernie Taft’s son, Mark. Here’s Gillard’s account:
“I was a full-time university student and I had a part-time job for an organisation called Socialist Forum…a sort of debating society…I did clerical and administrative work…
This is so long ago. It’s the days before modern computers and the Internet, in the days where if you wanted to put out a meeting notice to people you wouldn’t send an email, you’d get out an envelope and put it in your IBM electric typewriter and type up the address and then get the next one. That’s the sort of thing I used to do.”[iii]
Actually, she was a paid worker from 1984-87, with Mark Taft, and on the management committee of the “debating society” until at least 1994.[iv][v] She acted as its public officer, secretary, and legal adviser on the drafting of its constitution. Socialist Forum policies included twinning Melbourne with Leningrad, severing the US alliance, dismantling Pine Gap, introducing death duties, and implementing tax redistributions based on a Communist Party template.[vi]
As with other awkward subjects, such as setting up her then-boyfriend’s “slush fund” in 1992, Gillard, as Rudd’s deputy PM in 2007, began her explanation by claiming she had already explained herself: “I’ve been predominantly asked about the time I worked there [at Socialist Forum] and so I’ve talked about that, I’ve answered all of those questions.”[vii]
Her leading role in a Trojan Horse group set up and funded by the Communist Party (Victoria) to insert its ideological program into the Labor Party, went like this: “I do support people getting together and talking about ideas. I think that’s all to the good.”[viii]
Her interviewer, 3AW radio host Neil Mitchell, responded perspicaciously: “Mmm”
Jacqueline Kent in her hagiographic The Making of Julia Gillard, uses her writing skills to decry any talk of "Red Julia". Kent for some reason quotes Andrew Bolt as saying sarcastically that Gillard was just a “typist” in a “debating society”, but herself then quotes Gillard using those same words. Kent claims: “The accusations had very little traction in the longer term. .. and after a couple of weeks the commentariat, and the electorate, moved on.”[ix] I don’t know about the electorate, but this is precisely the sort of issue that the Canberra commentariat moves on from rather quickly – if forced to address it at all.
After mocking the idea of communist influence on the ALP, Kent then says Gillard “did not explain how the organization came into being, or its relationship to the Victorian ALP – and the thought of a woman of her skills and talent being merely a typist and someone who ran off documents could, and did, sound somewhat ingenuous. In the context of the 2007 election campaign she naturally did not want to give oxygen to an issue that would deflect attention from the message the ALP was selling to the electorate.”[x] Quite so.
Kent continues: “Her slight vagueness was pounced on as being evasive, but there was another reason for it…this is not a thirty-second soundbite kind of story. ‘Like most things to do with the ALP,’ says Gillard ruefully, ‘it’s a bit complicated.’”
Kent says Gillard found common cause with the Taft ex-Communist faction, which wanted socialist “reforms” to be introduced democratically. Gillard’s version of Socialist Forum aims was as a socialist debating club to the Left of the Fabian Society. Gillard put the membership as 45 ex-Communists, 80 ALP, with the other 80 or so non-aligned. “The Socialist Forum supports the election of Labor governments and works towards making them more responsive to their constituency.”[xi]
However, the Forum claimed to hold itself aloof from “the ALP’s organizational concerns”, Kent writes, and according to a 1985 manifesto, declared itself “consciously removed from the numbers games, the caucusing and factional struggles within political parties.” Kent, who assumes protestations and behavior to be the same animal, concludes: “It was hardly the stuff of bomb-throwing anarchism, or even Hollywood-movie communism.”[xii]
As for Gillard being paid her part-time salary from former Communist Party funds, Kent merely says, “This was good news for Julia, who was trying to support herself while she studied.”[xiii] Kent also quotes someone saying Gillard got the job to give the Forum some ALP credibility (as distinct from its ex-communist persona).
Kent says disapprovingly that Labor hard-liner Bill Hartley “regarded the Socialist Forum as an attempt by ex-CPA members to infiltrate the ALP by stealth”.[xiv] Hartley failed to get a motion through State ALP conference to ban Socialist Forum members from joining the ALP, claiming it was a competing political party. “In fact”, says Kent, the CPA cohort saw the Forum just as a think-tank, and a bridge to the ALP and mainstream politics.[xv] Kent fails to notice her “own goal” here.
She continues that some ALP members liked the Forum because they could do their debating in “a neutral space”, while Gillard and her colleagues viewed the Forum as their link to the ALP’s “New Guard” within the Socialist Left which could combat the “Old Guard” forces of Bill Hartley. So much for the Socialist Forum as a debating society aloof from factional struggles. The “New Guard” group in the Forum, including Gillard, showed its power by successfully backing re-admission to the ALP of four DLP-affiliated “Grouper” unions, to the annoyance of the Hartley faction, who described Gillard’s faction as “Stiletto Specialists”.[xvi]
Gillard never resigned from the Forum but it “petered out”, she said, in 1997 and folded into the Fabian Society and the Evatt Foundation. A possibly more accurate version, on the register of Parliamentary interests, says she stayed with the Forum until it merged itself away in 2002.
Kent concludes this episode with peak inanity: “By the time she finished working part-time with the Socialist Forum, early in 1987, Julia Gillard was well on the way to learning how necessary successful factional warfare was for advancement in the ALP.”[xvii] But, but, I thought Gillard was only, in her own words, using an IBM electric typewriter to laboriously address lots of envelopes to people about meetings. Clerical and administrative work, and all that, in a group which abhorred numbers games…
Tony Thomas is a (sort of) retired journalist
[i] Taft, Bernie: Crossing the Party Line. Scribe, Newham Victoria, 1994, pp304, 306
[ii] Kent, J. The Making of Julia Gillard. Viking, 2009. E-book, location 684
[iii] ABC Lateline, 17/10/2007: http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2007/s2062452.htm
[iv] Op cit Kent, location 793
[v] ibid, location 649
[vii] Op cit, ABC Lateline
[ix] Op cit, Kent, location 651
[x] ibid, location 664
[xi] ibid, location 684
[xii] ibid, location 686
[xiii] ibid location 689
[xiv] ibid location 749
[xv] ibid location 754
[xvi] ibid location 786
[xvii] ibid location 794