100 years of the Australian Labor Party
An advanced democracy was expected
Just over a hundred years ago Joseph Furphy wrote to the editor of the Bulletin, to which he had been contributing short pieces over the previous decade, with news of something much longer, a manuscript in excess of a thousand pages. "I have just finished writing a full-sized novel: title 'Such is Life'; scene, Riverina and northern Vic; temper, democratic, bias, offensively Australia".1
Furphy was perhaps the most authentic of the writers who fashioned a national literature in the closing years of the nineteenth century, one that drew on distinctive local forms to affirm popular values and aspirations. His own life gathered in central components of the radical national experience. Born in the upper Yarra valley in 1843 to Protestant Irish parents who were assisted migrants, he had stints on the goldfields, was an unsuccessful selector and later a bullocky before drought forced him in 1883 to work in his brother's foundry at Shepparton. As a wage-earner he found himself "with 16 hours 'off' out of the 24, and being constitutionally indifferent to what is called amusement, I bethought myself of writing a yarn".2 As a family man in an unhappy marriage, he retreated with his books to an outbuilding where the yarns grew into a narrative of life on the inland pastoral plain. The narrator, Tom Collins, is a bush philosopher who faithfully reports the eccentric characters who cross his path and the events that befall them over six months in the mid-1880s, but he fails utterly to identify significant links in their stories and therefore misses any pattern of cause and effect. It is a novel in rebellion against the conventions of romantic fiction, a representation of life that has no recognisable shape, a comedy and a tragedy of human shortsightedness.
The democratic temper of the novel derives from Furphy's impatience with inequalities of wealth and status, and his sympathy for those who are thrown together by the vagaries of bush life. They meet on the track, these hard-bitten characters, and yarn round the campfire; a loosely connected community of loners gathered in mateship. Furphy had to cut large segments out of his manuscript before it was published in 1903, and offered a book-length excision to the labour press as a contribution to "the plate of Democracy".3 Serialised by Bob Ross in the Barrier Truth, it gives us the views of Rigby, an earnest American friend of Tom Collins. Rigby has a ready solution to human tribulation: the "commodious tree of State Socialism" will provide a refuge for all who are pursued by "the ravenous hounds of monopoly, capitalism and competition".4
Yet Furphy's teamsters are independent contractors and their chief concern is to find grass for their bullock-teams under the eyes of the landowners. His novel makes only passing reference to the army of shearers who had banded together in a union by the time he wrote to contest the prerogatives of the woolgrowers. He observes that "the present social system of pastoral Australia" is "a patriarchal despotism, tempered by Bryant and May", but that form of incendiary retaliation against arbitrary victimisation was yielding to collective bargaining and formal agreements between employers and employees.5 The writing is replete with references to ancient, British and Irish history, Australia's colonial foundations and intercolonial rivalries. It alludes to Australian federation and Furphy likened Such is Life to a loose federation of yarns.6 It mentions the Great Depression of the 1890s: we are told that when drought shrivels the pasture, the sheep, "like the Melbourne unemployed of later times", are forced to live on sunshine.7 Rigby's Romance suggests how the bounty of the earth could made to provide for all. But the growing movement to make Australian democracy serve the cause of social justice - the actual experiments in State Socialism that were under way when Rigby's exposition of its principles appeared-finds no expression.
Furphy's bias is offensively Australian in its insistence that there is a distinctive way of life in this country that must be fully realised in nationhood. The land is unfulfilled because the settlers who assumed control of it remained exiles while the native-born responded with a narrow provincialism. "But when illuminated by intelligence, the same insular survey crystallizes into far-sighted patriotism."8 Such is Life brings an eclectic intelligence to bear on the Coming Australian. Furphy's characters speak in a variety of idioms, Irish, Scots, Cockney, Dutch English, Chinese English, received English and demotic Australian. Collins, the narrator, mixes his voices and parades his book learning with classical tags, Biblical passages, foreign phrases and literary puns. Such familiarity with the world's learning allows what Furphy called a "calm Australian sufficiency".9
This nationalism offends many of our sensitivities. Furphy regarded Indigenous Australians as a noble people doomed to extinction. For all his mockery of pedigrees, he took racial integrity to be a necessary condition of progress: "There is nothing else I am so thankful for as the White Australia."10 The nation was for him a sacred cause and he looked forward to the establishment of nationhood as a universal principle when "conflicting creeds, racial antipathies, class distinctions, centuries old, melt and merge in the supreme idea of universal peace and interdependence".11 There was a place for women in his national project, even though they are ill-treated, unpredictable and mysterious creatures in his writings: Tom Collins fails to see that one of his companions is an abandoned wife in masculine disguise. Furphy had high expectations of the new woman who would cast off the hobbling conventions of femininity. He was a supporter of Vida Goldstein's candidacy for the Commonwealth parliament, a friend of Miles Franklin and an admirer of her novel of female rebellion, My Brilliant Career. After Franklin sought refuge in the United States, he called on her to return and help "make our land a classic land".12
Furphy was no Mazzini, though his faith in patriotism as a force for harmony and progress had much in common with the prophet of liberal nationalism. He was no Garibaldi, for he showed no interest in activism. He was not even a Henry Lawson, calling others to action in stirring verse. Rather, he was a solitary, dignified, retiring man whose work remained little known in his lifetime. The adoption of his phrase, "temper democratic, bias Australian", by a magazine of the radical left half a century later would surely have surprised him, if only because he expected that an advanced democracy would have prevailed in this country much earlier. The possibility that a century after he coined the phrase there could be a Labor Party in which the fortunes of Australian democracy seemed so parlous would have astonished him.
In a rare flight, Chifley spoke of "the light on the hill"
As Furphy prepared his novel for publication, a tangible form of Australian democracy emerged. With the country caught in the grips of a prolonged drought and still suffering from the effects of severe economic depression, a national government was established. Broken in the strikes and lockouts of the 1890s, forced back to work on humiliating terms and many of them unable to find employment, workers formed a party to contest for political office and shape that government. Neither the forms of the new Commonwealth nor the 24 men who gathered in 1901 as the first members of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party made a sharp break with what had gone before. This was a quiet revolution in which the Labor members bided their time while learning the forms of parliamentary government, and meanwhile gave support to the more progressive of the older parties as it laid the institutional foundations of the Commonwealth. Labor had played little part in the movement that designed the federation and delimited its powers. By the time the Australian Labor Party won office with a parliamentary majority, in 1910, the essential shape of the nation-state was determined and the distinctive design of its economic and social relations was settled.
It was a revolution, nevertheless, that transformed both public and private life. It consolidated a national economy in which Australian industries were protected to ensure that work was available and wage levels were adequate. It created a system of wage regulation that enshrined the ideal of the male breadwinner, while pronatalist measures and new social agencies policed the family in the national interest. Immigration was controlled to create a racialised nationality from which the Indigenous race was excluded, and defence forces were built on the principle of the citizen soldier. The Franchise Act of 1902 confirmed the Commonwealth would be an advanced democracy with a universal white adult suffrage, while the immediate success of the Labor Party ensured broad political participation. Labor's growing electoral appeal - its share of the vote increased at every election up to 1910 - gave Australian politics a class character and determined that its democracy was also a social democracy. Yet the particular design of the federal system - the Commonwealth exercised economic powers, the States retained control of most areas of social policy - meant that the Australian welfare system was based on employment. The result, which has been described as "a wage-earners' welfare state", entrenched the capitalist system of class relations and overshadowed all attempts at universalism.13 The Commonwealth enshrined the worker-citizen.
The Labor Party's exclusion from the process of federation bequeathed a further legacy. The men who designed the Commonwealth were Empire loyalists who brushed aside the objections of a republican movement that had gained significant momentum by the latter part of the nineteenth century. Their Constitution enshrined a system of representative government under a constitutional monarchy in which the powers of the Crown were extensive, and the integrity of the Empire was preserved. Much of Australian foreign policy and some parts of domestic policy were conducted by reference to Britain. Labor both mistrusted and misunderstood the motives of those who made these arrangements, and once they were made it pushed for a more assertive national government.14
The decision of the first Labor Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate in 1910 to dispense with wigs and gowns symbolised the Party's impatience with political forms imitative of Westminster.15 The insistence of the Labor Postmaster-General in the following year that postage stamps bearing a portrait of the King should be replaced by a new design featuring the Australian kangaroo affirmed Labor's nationalist orientation.16 The party adopted the title of the Australian Labor Party in 1908 in the same spirit, and in doing so marked itself off from most of the affiliates of the Socialist International. The British Labour Party, the French Socialist Party and the German Social-Democratic Party felt no such desire to proclaim a national identity in their titles. They resisted the appeal to patriotism, with its growing connotations of militarism and imperialism, but then they were utterly excluded from government and thus did not have to reconcile the demands of country and class. Australian Labor, on the other hand, was a party of national government, active in military preparations and anxious to sustain the British Empire in the Pacific. Hence the pledge of its leader, on the outbreak of war in 1914, that Australia would support Britain to the last man and the last shilling.
Labor's commitment to the war effort faltered well short of that final payment. The mounting cost of the war strained the Labor government to breaking-point. The Party split over the question of conscription, was routed electorally and remained in opposition for more than a decade. The war debt weighed down the national finances and exacerbated inter-war economic difficulties. The protective devices of economic nationalism - the tariff, arbitration, public development projects financed with foreign loans - proved incapable of protecting wage-earners from the effects of the financial crisis that paralysed the world economy at the end of the 1920s. The ensuring Depression defeated the short-lived Labor government and doomed it to another Split and a further decade in opposition.
Labor survived these setbacks with its faith in democratic nationalism intact. Defeat by betrayal provided a comforting distraction from the disappointing record of Labor in office. There were radical critics who denounced the failure of the Labor Party to meet the aspirations of its working-class membership. They usually blamed the leaders for blunting Party policy in their appeal to the electoral middle ground and then abandoning it for the temptations of office. Yet the elaborate system of accountability, discipline and control that was meant to ensure that the parliamentarians enacted the will of the members turned out in practice to concentrate power in the hands of the Party machine. There were also industrial critics who condemned the dampening effects of arbitration on trade union militancy, but the system of arbitration accelerated the concentration of authority in the hands of a union bureaucracy. The periods of greatest disarray, following the splits of the First World War and the Depression, allowed such critics to advance their schemes for industrial democracy and socialism, but their incursions into the Party platform were quickly contained.
The most forthright challenge came from the Communist Party, which rejected both the possibility of a national solution and the existing forms of political democracy. The Bolsheviks proclaimed a revolutionary internationalism. Their model of a dictatorship of the proletariat installed the party as the mind, the will and the voice of the oppressed masses; such a party imposed an unprecedented discipline on its members and bound them to follow policies that originated abroad. None of these innovations appealed to more than an intransigent minority of Australians, and their strenuous efforts probably increased the insularity and isolationism of the Labor moderates while reducing their toleration of dissent.
Labor was further handicapped by the adaptability of its opponents. From the wartime Split, the non-Labor forces absorbed the Labor conscriptionists. In the subsequent Split over economic policy in the Depression, they took in the upholders of fiscal orthodoxy. Both these infusions gave the non-Labor a new leader with popular appeal and broadened its electoral base. On each occasion the conservatives reinvented themselves. The wartime rearrangement produced the National Party, that title affirming a nationalism consecrated in the blood of Australia's 60,000 war dead. From the Depression they created the United Australia Party, that title signifying the triumph of national unity and duty over class conflict and national dishonour.
While a United Australia Party government took Australia into the Second World War, it was unable to provide effective war leadership. With the Japanese forces poised to strike, Labor took office and quickly assumed unprecedented powers. Japan's entry into the war forced a realisation that Australia could no longer depend upon imperial protection and must mobilise all of its resources. The sacrifices demanded of the Australian people were this time were redeemed in an ambitious scheme of post-war reconstruction, which brought a significant expansion of the public sector, increased welfare provision financed from a progressive income tax, new forms of economic management to maintain full employment, and a more assertively independent role in international affairs.17 Although overlooked in much of the recent discussion of the Australian Settlement, the advances in social democracy made by Labor during the 1940s were as significant as those guided by Alfred Deakin at the beginning of the century. Chifley did not have Deakin's capacity for rhetoric but in a rare flight he spoke of "the light on the hill" that directed the efforts of the labour movement to bring "something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people".18 Reformism was seldom so affectingly expressed.
The electoral defeat of the Chifley government in 1949 halted that advance but did not reverse many of its gains. The Menzies government accepted the mixed economy, continued the public programs of migration and national development, maintained the new machinery of economic management to sustain full employment, modified but retained the centralised system of wage determination - for such was the price of office. These continuities were overshadowed, however, by the onset of the Cold War.
The wartime agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union made at Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam divided the world into two zones of influence, the West and the East. Post-war conflict in border regions, an arms race and intense ideological rivalry accentuated the division between capitalism and communism, the Free World and the Red Threat. The same pressures operated within Australia and other democracies, which were bound tightly into the western alliance and imposed new tests of loyalty on their citizens. The Labor Party had consistently rebuffed the overtures of the Communist Party. The Chifley government's hostility to Communist-led unions had contributed to its defeat in 1949.19 By a narrow margin, Labor decided to oppose Menzies' proposal to outlaw the Communist Party, and by a similarly narrow margin the referendum to give effect to his proposal was defeated in 1951. But this was a costly victory. It allowed Menzies to accuse the Labor Party of sheltering communists. It led to the third and most damaging Split, when the anti-communist section of the Labor Party broke away in 1955 and consolidated the conservative hold on power.
The lamp on the desk replaced the light on the hill
These were the circumstances in which the founders of overland magazine revived Furphy's catchcry. Stephen Murray-Smith and Ian Turner launched their literary quarterly in 1954 as Communists. From middle-class origins, they had been radicalised, along with many of their generation, by the transformation of the Second World War into a campaign to defeat fascism and emancipate humanity from the inequalities that had produced it. After war service and completion of their university studies, they worked on behalf of the Communist Party in the peace movement and the Australasian Book Society. Buffeted by Cold War accusations of disloyalty, the increasingly beleaguered Communist Party appealed to distinctively national traditions to affirm its legitimacy. Thus the Australasian Book Society organised evenings in honour of Henry Lawson, Miles Franklin and Joseph Furphy. Radical intellectuals published letters to Furphy to register the continuities between his radical nationalism and their own.20
Murray-Smith and Turner were interested in forms of writing that would distil working-class experience as a radical force. From Maxim Gorky they took the doctrine of socialist realism, a representation of social life that was "national in form, socialist in content".21 Furphy's phrase, "temper democratic, bias offensively Australian", provided them with a local expression of that formulation, though they softened its abrasive tone by taking out "offensively". The democratic temper also implied a dissatisfaction with the rigid orthodoxies of the Communist Party, which both were already resisting. Turner was expelled from the Party in 1958 and Murray-Smith resigned from it. Murray-Smith kept control of overland as an independent forum for "radical social critique".22 Turner moved into the Labor Party and joined with those reformers who reconstructed the Victorian branch in 1970.
That reconstruction was the result of intervention by the Federal Executive of the Labor Party in its drive to modernise both organisation and policies. Repeated defeats in national elections had hardened the determination of the old guard to defend the Party's shibboleths: they did not surrender the commitment to a White Australia until 1965. The assault was led by Gough Whitlam, who in 1967 succeeded Arthur Calwell as federal leader. The antagonism between two men grew as they repeatedly clashed over policy: Calwell was a critic of Australian participation in Vietnam War, Whitlam supported the American alliance; Whitlam wanted to offer government funding to church schools, Calwell upheld the separation; Calwell clung to the Party's largely nominal socialist objective, Whitlam considered it no longer relevant. Beyond these political differences, they stood for different social constituencies. Calwell was a former clerk, a fierce nationalist and a veteran of Labor's machine politics. Whitlam was a university graduate from privileged origins, cosmopolitan in outlook and impatient with the rituals of the labour movement.
Having won his battle for control of the Labor Party, Whitlam swept to office in 1972 and rapidly implemented an ambitious program. New agencies were established to provide an increased range of services in health, education, the arts, urban and regional development. The Commonwealth expanded its role to recognise the special needs of Aboriginals, women and migrants. An older labourism based on the interests of the white, male breadwinner yielded to a social democratic model of inclusive citizenship; as Whitlam put it, the individual's capacity for full participation in national life was no longer determined by her or his wage-earning capacity "but the availability and accessibility of the services which the community alone can provide and ensure".23 This was an enlightened meritocracy. When Whitlam was asked how he understood equality, he replied that he wanted "every kid to have a desk, with a lamp, and his own room to study". The lamp on the desk replaced the light on the hill.24
It was Whitlam's cruel misfortune to embark on this expansive program just as the material conditions to support it came to an end. The post-war Long Boom was drawing to a close with declining rates of world growth and corresponding difficulties for Australian exporters. In keeping with its modernising strategy, his government reduced tariff levels and increased the value of the currency, with damaging consequences for domestic producers. The rapid growth of public expenditure and wages built the inflationary pressure. When the OPEC countries raised the price of oil sharply in 1973-4, throwing the world economy into disarray, the usual devices of economic management were powerless to solve the twin problems of inflation and unemployment.
The Whitlam government fell to a constitutional coup before the full effects of these economic difficulties were apparent. Its successor searched in vain for a remedy by first cutting public outlays and then encouraging the private sector to invest heavily in export projects. By the early l980s it was apparent that the structures that had regulated the economy no longer worked. Controls on currencies, trade and investment had provided a measure of international stability; the mixed economy of public enterprises, large companies and strong unions had allowed domestic security from hunger and uncertainty. Under Thatcher and Reagan, these structures were dismantled, throwing the operation of the economy open to market forces, uprooting industries, dismantling welfare, widening inequality and abolishing the very expectation of a lifelong career.
The Labor government of 1983-96 sought to deal with the new circumstances by half-way measures. It floated the dollar, cut tariffs and deregulated financial markets while maintaining protection of wages and living standards. Under the Accord, the unions were made full partners in economic restructuring; in return for the wage restraint that would assist local industries to become more competitive and create more jobs, their members were to be compensated by means of the 'social wage'. In all this, however, there was to be no return to the open-handed universalism of the Whitlam government: social expenditure was tightly controlled, welfare benefits increasingly narrowed by means tests, other services provided on a 'user pays' basis. The public sector was itself subjected to business techniques of downsizing and contracting out, and large public enterprises were privatised. There was no lack of national purpose in these Labor policies. The government actively fostered a more tolerant and diverse nationality that would provide Australians with confidence to engage in the globalised economy. But there was a conspicuous failure of democracy in an Accord that was negotiated by the national leaders on behalf of the dwindling membership of the trade unions that were themselves subjected to mergers.
Reviving the democratic temper
Back in 1913 a foreign revolutionary marvelled at the absurdity of a Labor Party that could have held power for three years without even threatening the capitalist system. Lenin had a ready explanation for this failure. The Australian Labor Party was not a workers' party at all, it was a "liberal-bourgeois party", dominated by members who had brought their liberal democratic illusions from Britain and sustained them because they benefited from the spoils of British imperialism. Once Britain lost its economic supremacy Australian wage-earners would taste the cruel realities of capitalism and a genuine workers' party would emerge.25 That was the assumption of the mostly unemployed Communist activists during the Depression of the 1930s; and when Stephen Murray-Smith and Ian Turner joined the Communist Party they too believed that the Labor government could not hold back the energies released in the people's war. The expectation that the labour movement should learn its historical lessons runs through my own sketch of the Australian Party's activity and fortunes over the past century.
Lenin was wrong about capitalism, not about its injustice and exploitation, but he was wrong in ignoring its resilience and capacity for renewal. Capitalism has repeatedly found new technologies, products and markets that expand its operation and restore growth and profitability. Living standards of those who sell their labour are higher now than ever before, in spite of the damage to the environment, the acute poverty in third world countries and the injuries of class. The periodic crises of capitalism have never been final. So too the Labor Party has defied its critics and survived its reverses. During the 1960s, when the Federal Parliamentary Party seemed doomed to permanent opposition, a sympathetic critic wondered if it was not doomed to Labor in Vain?26 In the 1990s, with the collapse of State Labor governments under mountains of debt, and then the defeat of the Keating ministry, there seemed little chance of speedy revival. Yet here we are now with five of the States in Labor's hands and strong prospects for the federal election later in the year.
Why is this? Australian politics is marked by a remarkable stability of the two major parties. The Liberals have reformed twice since the first party of that name came together in 1909. The National Party formed as a third party after the First World War, though it soon became closely attached to the Liberals. This two party system has also exhibited a high degree of class allegiance: the working-class vote has been firmly Labor. That pattern has weakened over the past two decades, and minor parties have become more prominent, but the electoral system does not assist them to break the stranglehold on government of Coalition and Labor.
That fact provides one explanation for the persistence of support for the Labor Party. It is an ignoble but powerful consideration, put best by the English Guild Socialist, Hilaire Belloc, when he counselled:
And always keep a hold of Nurse For fear of finding something worse.
That is, Labor holds support because non-Labor is too dreadful to contemplate. However often Labor governments let their supporters down, however cynically they trade off the interests of those who sustain them, there is always the compelling argument that the other lot would be worse. They usually are but the argument narrows democratic choice to an absolute minimum.
More than this, the Labor Party sustained itself through powerfully emotive traditions. The tribulations of the Party pioneers, Labor's leading role in moments of national crisis, the betrayals that have robbed the Party of office, the Splits that have consigned it to the wilderness, the personal sacrifices of leaders such as Curtin and Chifley who died in its service and the martrydom of others such as Whitlam - these and other episodes mark out an heroic lineage. Such memories provide an explanation of the Party's past shortcomings and encourage future endeavour. Labor's veneration of its history contrasts with the conservatives' neglect of their own, and the Party increasingly nurtures that history as a political resource.27 It is also a form of esoteric knowledge, little known and of limited interest except to its devotees. The stories of the past codify a tribal loyalty that binds the members to the cause.
The Labor Party emerged as a party of a new type. Through the mechanism of the caucus it provided for collective decision-making by its parliamentarians. Through the pledge it bound those parliamentary representatives to follow the policies that the members determined. Through an extra-parliamentary structure of local branches and affiliated trade unions it mobilised a far broader membership than the older parties. These forms gave the Labor Party an unprecedented degree of cohesion and were duly denounced by the conservatives as a form of tyranny. They were in fact an extension of the democratic principle, resting on the binding force of majority decisions. The discipline on which the operation of the Party relied was justified by its distinctive purpose. It was not a party in the older sense of an organisation seeking political influence but rather a class movement that entered parliament in pursuit of its larger objectives. As one of the first Labor parliamentarians in the New South Wales put it, Labor's goal was "to make and unmake social conditions".28
Those millenarian hopes were soon dashed. Labor quickly discovered the limits of reconstructing society by acts of parliament, quickly accommodated itself to those limits and succumbed to the temptations of the spoils of office. Within thirty years of its formation, that caustic critic, Vere Gordon Childe, concluded his study of How Labour Governs with the observation that "the Labour Party, starting with a band of inspired Socialists, degenerated into a vast machine for capturing political power, but did not know how to use that power when attained except for the profit of individuals".29 The original idea was that the Labor representative would act a delegate of the movement. The operation of parliamentary politics turned the representative into a politician, with all the stigma that is attached to that profession.
The antagonism so often directed at the Labor politician by members of the labour movement has a particular edge. It assumes that the decline in zeal so often noticed when a firebrand receives a parliamentary salary betrays a lack of integrity. Labor has certainly had its share of careerists and timeservers, but the malaise affects even the most steadfast. Our party system of representative government requires parliamentarians to serve two masters, the party and the electorate, and then to reconcile the undertakings given to win political office with the exigencies of exercising it. The devices that Labor invented to bridge the gulf between the Party and its parliamentarians - conference and platform, preselection and pledge - have become progressively weaker. Through the factional system the apparently democratic rules have become instruments for the concentration rather than dispersal of power. In conjunction with the factional power brokers, the party leader has exercised increasing control of the caucus, policy and most recently in Queensland, choice of candidates. Peter Beattie might well have become the first Labor premier to hold onto office by defeating his own party.
The strains have increased as the forms of politics reduced popular participation. Early Labor candidates conducted their campaigns with small amounts of money and large contingents of local support. As campaigns moved from the street corner to the town hall, and then to television studios and polling agencies, the role of Party members became more restricted. The branches that once sustained a vigorous local politics are now attenuated in membership and activity. The early candidates were also drawn broadly from the labour movement. The first Federal Caucus of 24 was dominated by trade unionists from manual occupations, and even in the middle of the twentieth century nearly half the Caucus came from blue-collar occupations. The present Caucus consists overwhelmingly of professionals, and just eight have previous blue-collar experience. The first Labor parliamentarians made their own travel arrangements, wrote their own correspondence. Those today have substantial and well-staffed offices that serve as a nursery for the young men and women who hope to succeed them, for Labor politics is now a career that begins early in a working life and typically leads on in middle age to some lucrative post-parliamentary position. The self-perpetuating character of such an organisation contributes to the persistence of the Labor Party at some cost to its democratic ideals.
The devices by which Labor sought to improve national life have imposed their own limitations. It inherited from the Deakinite liberals the idea that the Commonwealth could enclose the economy and expand its powers to protect Australian living standards. The crucial new power was exercised by the Arbitration Court. Within this "new province for law and order", as H.B. Higgins described his jurisdiction, the Court not only adjudicated industrial disputes but determined wage levels. The unions were reluctant to surrender the right to pursue their demands by industrial action, the Labor Party upheld the authority of the independent tribunal.
Once in office, Labor created new regulatory authorities to safeguard the public interest, new government-owned enterprises to make good the deficiencies of the private sector, new public agencies to provide welfare services to those in need. The cumulative effect of these initiatives was that when Australian workers sought to remedy a grievance or improve their lot, they turned instinctively to government. But the organisations that Labor governments created to meet these demands were large, bureaucratic structures that did not allow for popular participation. The Australian forms of State Socialism paid little heed to democracy.
That was one reason why they were vulnerable to assault from the New Right in the 1980s. The attacks on public enterprise, public welfare and public regulation were conducted as a campaign to as liberate both producer and consumer from state interference. A Labor government abandoned the public sector in the name of efficiency and international competitiveness. Having accepted the logic of globalised economic liberalism, Labor surrendered both its democratic and national defences. It is unlikely to find safety in the commodious tree of State Socialism. It might well follow the example of Joseph Furphy and explore the local resources for creative innovation.
It will have to do so with resources quite different from those with which Joseph Furphy tried to assemble an ethos of mateship. If Rigby were to return to the campfire today, he would as like as not expound the romance of the Third Way - a romance not of State Socialism but social partnerships, globalisation rather than Australian nationalism. And he would preach these doctrines with the same didactic certainty in their historical necessity. The Labor Party needs less of such surrender to binding orthodoxy, more improvisation. A democratic temper is sorely in need of revival.
Little is to be gained by returning to the Australian sentiment once cultivated by the Labor Party with its restrictive definition of the nation and the discriminations it practised to keep the nation pure. The nation has since been remade to accommodate its diversity. The labour movement has reached out to workers in other countries who wrestle with the same issues as it does. But there remains a sense in which the slogan coined by Furphy and adopted by overland retains its force. Such is Life challenged the assumption that nothing of significance ever happened here, that Australians lack the capacity for creative originality. The formation of the Australian Labor Party demonstrated the possibility of independent action. It pioneered experiments in social democracy that attracted international attention. That sort of Australian bias is sorely needed, as offensively as the task of renewal requires.
Stuart Macintyre is Ernest Scott Professor of History at the University of Melbourne, co-editor (with John Faulkner) of True Believers: The Story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (Allen & Unwin, 2001), and a past member of the Evatt Foundation's Executive Committtee. This paper was originally presented at the Melbourne Trades Hall on Wednesday 21 March 2001 and subsequently published as an essay in overland, Issue 162. The essay was reprinted in The Best Australian Essays 2001, edited by Peter Craven (Black Inc, 2001). overland is one of Australia's long-standing literary/cultural magazines.
1. Furphy to J.F. Archibald, 4 April 1897, quoted in John Barnes, The Order of Things: A Life of Joseph Furphy, Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 249. 2. Furphy to Cecil Winter, 23 September 1903, in John Barnes (ed.), Joseph Furphy. Portable Australian Authors, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1981, pp. 427-8. 3. Furphy to Miles Franklin, June 1905, quoted in Miles Franklin in association with Kate Baker, Joseph Furphy: The Legend of a Man and His Book, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, p. 129. 4. Joseph Furphy, Rigby's Romance, Rigby, Adelaide, 1971, p. 205. 5. Furphy, Rigby's Romance, p. 98. 6. Furphy to Winter, in Barnes (ed.), Joseph Furphy, p. 428. 7. Joseph Furphy, Such is Life, Bulletin, Sydney, 1903, p. 165. 8. Furphy's review of Such is Life, reprinted in Barnes (ed.), Joseph Furphy, p. 406. 9. Ibid. 10. Barnes, The Order of Things, p. 376. 11. Barnes, The Order of Things, p. 157 quotes this essay Furphy contributed to E.W. Cole's Federation of the Whole World (1890). 12. Barnes, The Order of Things, p. 366. 13. Frank Castles, The Working Class and Welfare: Reflections on the Political Development of the Welfare State in Australia and New Zealand, 1891-1980, Allen and Unwin, North Sydney, 1985. 14. Macintyre in Lab Hist book 15. Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891-1991, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991, p. 76. 16. Gavin Souter, Lion and Kangaroo. Australia: 1901-1919, the Rise of a Nation, Collins, Sydney, 1976, pp. 191-3. 17. I draw here on the biography of H.C. Coombs by Tim Rowse, to be published later this year. 18. A. W. Stargadt (ed.), Things Worth Fighting For: Speeches by Joseph Benedict Chifley, Australian Labor Party, Melbourne, 1952, p. 61. 19. Tom Sheridan, Divison of Labour: Industrial Relations in the Chifley Years 1945-1949, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1989. 20. John McLaren, Writing in Hope and Fear: Literature as Politics in Postwar Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, chap. 2. 21. Ian Turner, "My Long March", in Room for Maneouvre: Writings on History, Politics, Ideas and Play, Drummond, Melbourne, 1982, p. 138. 22. Turner, "My Long March", p. 138. 23. Gough Whitlam, The Whitlam Government, Penguin, Ringwood, 1985, pp. 182-3. 24. Graham Freudenberg, A Certain Grandeur: Gough Whitlam in Politics, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1977, p. 82. 25. Lenin, "Labour Government in Australia", in Lenin on Britain, Martin Lawrence, London, 1934, pp. 91-3. 26. D.W. Rawson, Labor in Vain? A Survey of the Australian Labor Party, Longman's, Croydon, 1966. 27. Stuart Macintyre, "Who are the True Believers?", Labour History, no. 68 (May 1995), pp. 155-67. 28. George Black 29. Vere Gordon Childe, How Labour Governs (1923), Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1964, p. 181.