Letter to the Editor, published in The Radical, newspaper of the NSW ALP, Vol. 9, No. 2, April/May 1978, pp. 14-15.
Much of what has been written since the crushing electoral defeat last year has concentrated on familiar themes, the bias of the media, the issue of the leadership, the real meaning of “socialism”, and so on, rather than tackling the important issue of how the ALP is perceived by the electorate.
There has been the lack of a critical approach in assessing the performance of the last Federal Labor government, the standard of some of our ministers, the ramifications of decisions concerning economic matters. Yet it is these issues which were most important in causing the electoral calamity last year.
One point that needs to be driven home is the fact that out of the 34 House of Representative seats held in the outlying states, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania, the ALP holds only four. The reasons for this situation cannot be ignored any longer.
Some of the decisions made by the last Labor government were electorally disastrous: the abolition of telephone and petrol subsidies (which ruined Labor’s image in the country), the abolition of the gold subsidy (which destroyed Labor’s prospects in the seat of Kalgoorlie) and the elimination of the freight subsidy between the mainland and Tasmania (which helped to wipe out our representation in Tasmanian House of Representatives seats) are a few matters that continue to be remembered by those affected by them.
These criticisms do not diminish the many substantial achievements of the Whitlam years — the introduction of Medibank, the establishment of the Schools’ Commission, the innovations in social welfare and urban and regional development. It should be noted that in each of these areas Labor’s policies were the product of considerable research and years of debate and discussion.
No doubt a great number of the issues which were seized on by the conservatives during the Labor government’s years in office were manufactured, trivial and grossly distorted; but this should not obscure the fact that many of the bullets fired at us were of our own making. We should never forget that apart from the middle 1940s, Labor wins office with a little more than 49.5 per cent, 50 per cent or a fraction over 50 per cent of the popular vote. The margin for error is extremely small.
The election campaign last year exhibited some of the worst aspects of Labor’s present predicament. Policies had the appearance of having been thrown together without much thought as to what they contained or what is to be done in order to implement them. The cavalier fashion by which the abolition of personal income tax cuts was proposed proved to be electorally shattering. It is little wonder that the electorate refused to endorse Labor as the alternative government. But it would be a mistake to interpret last year’s defeat as having been lost during the election campaign. The memory of our past mistakes was too great a hurdle to overcome.
The chief lesson that should be drawn from our experience is the need for greater consultation within the party concerning our policies. Most of the mistakes Labor made in government were committed without consultation with relevant policy committees, caucus members or the trade union movement. Labor paid a heavy penalty for this style of government. Only if we are able to learn the valuable lessons of our period in government can we hope to govern in the future.
MICHAEL EASSON, Caringbah Branch.
I was once a dewy-eyed Whitlamite, a confession I feel compelled to make.
At Marist Brothers Penshurst, as the school was then called, in third and fourth form our geography and social sciences teacher (Mr West?), a self-declared supporter of the Country Party (he was from the bush) was politically interested, informed, and keen to see if the school class might debate and discuss events of the day.
This was in 1969-1970, the era of Gough Whitlam’s dominance as Leader of the Opposition, when I was 14 to 15 years of age.
One afternoon he asked who were the Country Party supporters? — zero; the Liberals? — four hands shot up; the DLP? — a little less than half the rest of the class. Labor? — the rest.
My hand and my brother’s raised for the latter. At home dad, a Commonwealth Bank employee (and, later, a branch manager) was firm in saying “the worst Labor government is always better than the best Liberal one”, and that Jack Lang, Ben Chifley, and John Curtin stood up for Australia. Mum too, though less interested in politics, adhered to her holy trifecta – Catholic, Labor, and Magpies (west rugby league football team)
So, I was from a Labor household.
Occasionally, we would read the morning Daily Telegraph, or the afternoon Sun or The Mirror newspapers. Our knowledge of the world came from family, television, radio, word of mouth, what other kids would say. For us the Sydney Morning Herald was a newspaper we rarely saw.
One day the teacher asked the class to defend the choices we had made in political self-identification a week before. I cannot remember much about the answers given across the classroom that day.
The teacher, who genuinely seemed interested to hear the kids debate, then picked 6 of us to come to class the next week to defend the Liberal, DLP, and Labor viewpoint, two for each side. He chose my brother and I to put Labor’s case.
Again, I have only the vaguest recollection of what we said. I imagine, based on what dad told us, that the Easson twins dogmatically proposed that Labor was responsible for all the good there was in Australia, that Labor was Christianity in practice (what mum would say), etc. Given that Whitlam was “winning” in the political debates — on the airwaves, in parliamentary debates, in the newspapers — both in putting the case for Labor and in critique of the government of the day, we felt totally comfortable in our allegiance. Whitlam was witty and inspiring, even to ignorant us.
The Liberal duo referred to science blocks and security; the DLPers, to communism and defence. There were references and points made we did not understand.
At home, dad declared we always voted Labor. He was never that religious. Mum took us to Church in those days (although our attendance began to dwindle. The four kids sometimes making the long trek to St Declan’s, Penshurst, walking on our own.) Dad thought the war in Vietnam justified, but there was corruption; there were problems. The assassinated JFK was a hero. Arthur Calwell would have made it, but for his voice; Whitlam was the future.
Whitlam looked and dressed like a leader. With him in charge, there was no regretful resentment that we were losing connection with our base or anything of that sort. Not that in those days we would have thought or expressed ourselves in those terms.
Neither was there great introspection at home on the Labor heroes. Only years later, for example, did I learn that Chifley and Lang hated each other’s guts.
In sociology jargon, my social formation was in a lower middle class family, interested in putting into practice Catholic principles, seeing those securely rooted in Labor values, and beholding Labor as promoters of fairness.
Dad told us he always voted Labor except for one time when Evatt was Leader — and was the local MP for Barton. Best we got rid of him. He thought Calwell would be better.
We knew no-one local or beyond involved in the ALP or the union movement (except that Dad was a member of the Commonwealth Bank Officers’ Association).
In my final years of schooling, 1971-72, we were at another school, Sydney Technical High School, Bexley. Hardly anyone spoke about politics. But we worked out who backed Labor and who the Liberals.
During the 1972 election campaign, won by Gough Whitlam and Labor on 2 December 1972, we assiduously followed that election. Prime Minister Billy McMahon addressed one of his “rallies” in November at the Hurstville Civic Centre, walking distance from where we then lived on Woniora Road, Hurstville. We turned up, curious, introducing ourselves to several Labor people outside. That is, if a polite nod counts as that. We bashfully took a leaflet which urged that no one disrupt the meeting.
So we sat silent, satisfied that the robotic, autocued Prime Minister in a reedy, sing-song voice, could drone on before a loyal audience of Liberals. ‘God Save the Queen’ was the opening act. Mr McMahon lost his place a few times, tumbling over words, as if the scrolling of sentences were revealing unrehearsed lines. The whole effect was mildly comic. Hilarious but for our callow fear of being discovered as not belonging in that crowd. Any loud sniggers, still less interjection (we were anyway too afraid to contemplate that), might be counterproductive. Best to look around and enjoy the scene.
At University in February 1973, during UNSW Orientation Week, I went to the Students Union to ask how to join the Labor Club. Wait a moment, I was told. A few minutes later one of the student leaders came from behind a door, arms outstretched, then waving: “Haven’t you heard? Labor was elected last December. There is no longer a need for a Labor Club!”
Patrick O’Brien in his book The Saviours: An Intellectual History of the Left in Australia (1977) comments that sometimes new recruits are like recently hatched greylag geese. We follow the first thing that catches our attention.
Whitlam captured mine. I was a teenage Whitlamite.