V.I. Lenin, 1913
Democracy in Australia in 2011 stands at a crossroads. The Australian Labor Party, Australia’s oldest political party and traditional home of the centre-left vote, has been steadily losing support among the electorate for several years, at both state and federal level. In New South Wales Labor, in office since 1995, was routed earlier this year in the greatest landslide against it in the party’s history. Labor also lost office recently in Victoria and Western Australia; polls show the incumbent Labor governments in Queensland and South Australia headed for disaster; while in Tasmania, Labor, in coalition with the Greens, could well end up as a minority partner in a Green government.
Federally, 2007 marks possibly the last time ever that Labor will ever win government in its own right; the 2010 election was won on a campaign promise of No Carbon Tax, and even then could only form government with the support of four independents, none of whom are likely to gain re-election based on recent polling.
Why is this? Labor’s primary vote support has dropped from the mid-40s at its historical height to 29% nationally, and as low as 24% in some states. Today I will argue that the reason has less to do with the factors generally put forward by the MSM—factional infighting and lack of direction on environmental issues—and everything to do with the transformation of Australian society and the evaporation of its traditional support base.
In 1891, faced with restlessness among Europe’s working classes and the rise of socialism, Pope Leo XIII promulgated the encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of New Things), subtitled in English Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour. In its own way, its publication is just as much a landmark event in European history as was that of Das Kapital twenty-four years earlier. I urge you to read it when you get the opportunity, though the ponderous style typical of encyclicals makes it far from entertaining. In it, Leo forcefully asserts the concept of private property and condemns communism; yet he similarly condemns the inhuman excesses of monopoly capitalism and upholds the right of workers to form trade unions and bargain collectively with their employers. I regard it as the theological foundation document of the ALP, though it is rarely mentioned in its own historical accounts.
In the same year Rerum Novarum was promulgated, several nascent workers’ groups were formed among the six colonies (as they then were) on the Australian continent. Labor mythology dates its beginnings to an 1891 meeting of striking shearers under the “Tree of Knowledge” in Barcaldine, Queensland. Two weeks before the Vatican’s publication, Queensland shearers staged one of the world’s first May Day marches in that town. In the same year, Labor candidates stood successfully for election in New South Wales, winning the balance of power in the state Legislative Assembly (lower house); in Victoria in the following year, eleven Labor members were elected to the Victorian state parliament.
Though not formally affiliated at that stage, these groups had several common goals: the formation of trade unions to represent workers and improve their wages and conditions; protectionism, including the imposition of tariffs on imported goods which were in competition with locally-made products; and keeping out cheap Asian labour (the White Australia Policy), which persisted as ALP policy until 1973. Strange to relate, Labor was the party of institutionalized racism; the leader in the 1960s, Arthur Calwell, was famous for his epithet two Wongs don’t make a white. I would be most curious to learn the opinion of Labor’s current Federal Finance Minister on this point.
Incidentally, for those of you wondering about the spelling, in colloquial use in Australia the word labour has always been spelt the British way; owing to the influence of a particularly shady character, American (?) immigrant and parliamentarian King O’Malley, the “modernized” spelling of Labor was officially adopted in 1912 in relation to the ALP. If you’re ever unfortunate enough to find yourself in Canberra, do try lunch at the Irish pub named in his honour—the only decent part of that whole misbegotten town.
From the start of Federation in 1901, Labor has maintained electoral strength by defining itself as a broad church; it has historically been an alliance of trade unionists, academics, out-and-out socialists, or some cross-fertilized combination thereof. Today, the party is formally split into Left and Right factions; numerically, the Right is marginally dominant, but factional battles within Labor tend to be murky and incomprehensible to many outside the party. The current Prime Minister is from the Left faction (indeed, her colourful CV includes terms as secretary of the Victorian Socialist Forum and before that, president of the pro-Marxist Australian Union of Students) but was installed in a party-room spill over the incumbent by a deal underwritten by the Right. Those of you familiar with the politics of Tammany Hall in the United States, would find any reading of the history of the ALP so familiar you could be forgiven for thinking it was a branch office.
Encompassing such a broad range of opinion has meant that, until very recently, Labor has commanded the lion’s share of the votes on the political Left. The downside is that the breadth of opinion has lead on occasion to political turmoil. The Australian Labor Party has split on a number of occasions throughout the twentieth century: most famously in 1916 over the issue of conscription; and again in 1955 over the growing influence of communism in the trade union movement. On the latter occasion, the anti-communist Democratic Labor Party split away from the ALP and directed its preferences to the Liberals, keeping Labor out of office federally until 1972. The DLP were backed in this endeavour by a church-sponsored organisation known as “the Movement”, which undermined communist influence in the unions. My own parents were active in this group in the 1950s, and tales of their successful exploits were a common topic of dinner-table discussion in my childhood.
In 1972 Labor, out of office federally for 23 years but now led by the charismatic Gough Whitlam, finally regained government in Canberra. Embracing television for the first time as a serious political tool, and buoyed by the American revivalist-style It’s Time election campaign, featuring many famous identities from the Australian entertainment industry (which stood to benefit mightily from increased grants to the arts sector), Labor swept to office over the tired Liberal-Country Party coalition led by the underwhelming Billy McMahon. Having enormous appeal to the younger baby-boom generation, many of whom were voting in 1972 for the first time, running on a platform of social reform, ending conscription and Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and introducing free tertiary education, Whitlam symbolized change, youth and a breath of fresh air. Like John F. Kennedy a dozen years before him, his reign represented Australia’s Camelot, and lasted as briefly.
Of course, much of it was illusory. Though Whitlam himself, a classics scholar, decorated war veteran and barrister, was a genuine progressivist and embraced social reform expressed through the national parliament, his cabinet were selected for him by the party machine and overwhelmingly represented Old Labor, seemingly having learned little from their party’s troubled decades in the wilderness in the mid-twentieth century. Sound fiscal and monetary policy soon took a back seat to a long-prepared laundry list of socialist aims. That, combined with unscrupulous parliamentary tactics on the part of the conservatives, led to a situation in which, by October 1975, Labor was unable to guarantee supply (that is, the passage of money Bills necessary for the day-to-day running of the government). Faced with a deadlocked parliament and fearing a constitutional crisis in which the Sovereign herself could potentially become involved, the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, took the extraordinary step on 11th November of invoking the Reserve Powers granted his office under the Constitution, sacking the Government and swearing in as Prime Minister the Opposition Leader, Malcolm Fraser, on condition he immediately call a general election. Fraser won this in a landslide, and Labor once again found itself in the wilderness.
The full circumstances of The Dismissal, as it is known here, are to this day a matter of great debate among historians. I will say of the competing memoirs, of Sir John’s account, Matters For Judgement, and Whitlam’s response, The Truth of the Matter, that the latter makes far more compelling and credible reading. Whitlam’s speech that day from the steps of Parliament House in Canberra included the most-quoted line in Australian political history:
If Whitlam’s cabinet had not learned the lessons about fiscal responsibility being indispensable to a prolonged Labor term in office, two of his colleagues in the Labor movement certainly had: Australian Council of Trade Unions president Bob Hawke, and a 31-year-old parliamentarian from Sydney’s inner-west Labor heartland, Paul Keating. Hawke, a Rhodes Scholar who wrote his dissertation on Australia’s industrial conciliation and arbitration system, realised that a new accord between unions and business would be central to Australia’s future prosperity in a global marketplace increasingly dominated by Asia. He found an ally in Keating, a career party-machine man who dominated the New South Wales Right faction. Personally, they made an unlikely team: Hawke was extroverted, gregarious, hard-drinking and a stereotypical “Aussie larrakin” (in 1953 while at Oxford, he famously broke the official world record for beer consumption by downing a yard glass in 11 seconds); Keating was saturnine, stylish, imperious and driven. Between them, however, they revitalized Labor to the point where the party that swept to power in 1983 was almost unrecognizable from that which prevailed only eleven years earlier.
True to his word, Hawke when elected as Prime Minister instituted the Prices and Incomes Accord with the union movement, committing to keep inflation low in return for wage restraint and ushering in a decade-long period of industrial harmony. A raft of other measures: the floating of the Australian Dollar in 1984, deregulation of the financial sector, dismantling of tariff barriers, cooperation with the U.S. Reagan administration in its military programs and the privatization of the Commonwealth Bank, seemed the antithesis of traditional Labor values, and while gaining near-universal praise from the international community, angered many grass-roots Labor supporters.
Labor’s long electoral success during this period also masked a demographic shift in Australian society that, while favouring Labor in the short term, would prove in part its undoing. The large influx of refugees from Europe following the Second World War, and from Vietnam following the fall of Saigon, were funnelled into suburban enclaves of Sydney and Melbourne, were heavily reliant on welfare payments and were thus considered by Labor to be part of its natural constituency. As indeed they were, for many years. What Labor did not count on was that these groups, many from cultures that prize education, hard work and thrift, would truly become the embodiment of immigrant success stories: that they would, in fact, become successful: wealthy, no longer reliant on welfare, and increasingly vocal on how their tax dollars are to be spent. Whereas in the 1980s it was rare for a politician on the Right of Australian politics to bear anything other than an Anglo-Celtic surname, today politics on both sides reflects the ethnic diversity of our society generally. I’m careful here to use the term ethnic diversity, rather than multiculturalism; a policy that is being unilaterally rejected as divisive by governments around the world, of all political hues.
Labor have also, in some ways, fallen victim to the success of its own agenda. Its policy of free tertiary education in the 1970s and 80s meant than many young Australians from lower- and middle-class backgrounds (this author included) were for the first time afforded the opportunity of a higher education. Their efforts in removing trade barriers have meant that low-skilled manufacturing work has left for countries with low or no minimum wage rates; the image of crowded ranks of unionised production-line factory workers belongs very much to our nation’s past. A miner in 1900 working by candlelight on a pittance was certainly in need of the protections fought for by his trade union. In 2011, a mine worker in the Pilbara earning an average of $150,000 per annum on a fly-in, fly-out contract from his lavish home in suburban Perth has less of his predecessor’s taste for revolution, and every interest in minimizing his tax and maintaining the status quo. Incredible though it may seem, of late several unions, such as the Australian Workers’ Union, have aligned themselves with the Liberal Party against Labor’s Carbon Tax. They can see, even if Labor can’t, that the policy will lead to an overseas flight of capital, destruction of their livelihoods and will result in a decrease neither of a single molecule of carbon dioxide emitted globally, nor of a nothingth of a degree of the earth’s temperature.
Which brings us to the fate of Australia’s Socialist Left. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism generally twenty years ago, and failing to make the impact it wished from the leftmost fringe of the Labor Party, organised hard-core Socialism in Australia shifted its attention to the emerging Green movement. The power of the socialists to organise and infiltrate rival groups had been demonstrated in 1985, following the formation of the Nuclear Disarmament Party. Politically naïve, the NDP’s constitution did not forbid applicants to remain members of other political parties. The Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party wasted no time in joining the NDP en masse and promptly voted themselves onto the executive. The NDP, now viewed as a communist front group, collapsed.
Like rebels in search of a cause, the socialists now turned their attention to the Australian Greens. In 1983, the Greens (not a registered political party until 1992), led by Tasmanian physician and gay-rights campaigner Bob Brown, won a landmark legal victory in the Franklin Dam case. The Greens’ rapid success in the Federal parliament caught the eye of many socialists, who calculated that movement would be an easier route to power than the convoluted path represented by being a minority faction of the Labor Party. So, for example, Lee Rhiannon, daughter of Sydney’s “first family” of communism, successfully ran for election in the 1999 New South Wales state elections, and subsequently for the Federal Senate in 2010 as member for the Australian Greens; Melbourne Marxism academic and industrial lawyer Adam Bandt at the same election became the Greens’ first-ever Lower House member, winning the inner-city seat of Melbourne vacated by the retiring long-time Labor member, Lindsay Tanner. These are the two most obvious examples; I could give you many more.
The reality is, Labor is haemorrhaging its electoral base: on the right, to the Liberals, and on the left, to the Greens. I view this as a profoundly negative development in Australia’s political history. The Liberal-National coalition needs to be kept honest by a strong centre-left political force; and the Greens, colonized by Marxists, while on the face of it the winners in this struggle, are losing their identity as a party genuinely concerned with the environment, as a brief perusal of their policy platform demonstrates.
As the Gillard government lurches from crisis to crisis, with calls even from within its own ranks to either change leaders now (likely only to postpone the inevitable), or to put an end the misery and call a general election (which seems certain to consign it permanently to electoral oblivion), it is high time for the Australian Labor Party to do some soul searching. Unless it quickly redefines itself in such a way as to become once again broadly inclusive of centre-left political sentiment in this country—a vote which has not gone away, but is merely in search of a home—it seems inevitable that it will shrivel to a rump, its days of glory consigned forever to the history books.