Published in Michael Easson, editor, The Foundation of Labor, Pluto Press and the Lloyd Ross. Forum, Leichhardt [NSW], 1990, pp. 71-82.
Soon after the formation of the Labor Party there was an intense debate about what it means to be Labor. How could it be otherwise? After the Labor Party won 36 seats in the NSW Legislative Assembly elections in June 1891 splits occurred over the issue of caucus solidarity. Questions arose as to the right alliances and tactics to be pursued. What policies and legislation should be supported? On what basis? What degree of freedom should be accorded to Labor members of parliament? Earlier the party worked at a simple statement of principles which became the platform of the party. That platform was subsequently modified. How grand should be the plan to reorganise society? How ambitious could Labor afford to be? What did Labor’s supporters want? By what processes or mechanisms could this be legitimately established? The debate about what the Labor Party should stand for has continued for a hundred years. Nonetheless some historians have dismissed the Australian labour movement as crudely untheoretical and as unthoughtful in the development of its policies. Such assessments are at best only partially true and ignore the reality that, for example:
…one of the main characteristics of Labour in the nineties had been the spread of an amazing amount of reading-matter among the rank and file. Likewise [in the 1920s and 1930s] thousands of workers read books and pamphlets, as well as the Labor Daily [newspaper].1
Moreover some assessments tend to exaggerate and embellish the socialist tendencies in the labour movement as distinct from what might be called the labourist traditions.2 In Jim Hagan’s The History of the ACTU those labourist traditions are sketched but the observation is made that the “tenants of Labourism were White Australia, Tariff Protection, compulsory arbitration, strong unions and the Labor Party.”3 Is this an accurate picture? Hagan also states that:
Like its counterpart in Britain, Australian Labourism’s central principle was that the capitalist state could be managed to the advantage of working men by a combination of a strong trade union movement with a parliamentary Labor Party. In Australia, Labourism added three distinctive credos: protection, to keep out cheap goods; a White Australia policy, to keep out cheap labour; and a system of compulsory arbitration, to keep the fair employer fair.4
Nowadays such a listing of the distinguishing credos of Australian labourism is inadequate. The White Australia policy has long since vanished as a tenet of the labour movement; doubts are widespread and a vigorous debate is taking place about the merits of protectionism. Keeping employers fair and managing the affairs of state to protect the disadvantaged and the poor continue to be strong themes. But how this might be achieved in contemporary times seems to require new answers. In Hagan’s analysis there is the tendency to write off Australian labourism as a simple-minded approach morally damaged by association with a racist outlook. But there seems no reason why labourism, by definition, should be myopic. A better expression of the aims of the labour movement is the phrase which Bede Nairn used in his history of the early period of the Labor Council of NSW, ‘civilising capitalism’.5
Such a phrase raises many issues: including whether the civilising process is possible or desirable, what such an approach might mean in practice, what are the principles that might be called ‘civilised’, what capitalism is and whether ‘civilising capitalism’ is the beginning and end of the labour movement’s objectives. Such issues are, of course, at the heart of the movement’s history. Whatever might he said about those questions, it seems that most people in the movement have thought in prosaic terms: whatever might be the appeal of the socialist commonwealth or the working man’s paradise, the here and now needs of the workers, their families and supporters have been and remain the movement’s major preoccupations.
For some this concentration on ameliorating capitalism’s excesses is a scandal: the focus on palliatives does nothing to root out the wrongs that capitalism engenders. But is this an accurate assessment? After all, the Australian labour movement was and is responsible for many practical reforms. The society of 1990, with state regulations governing all aspects of working life including occupational health and safety, fair bargaining practices and the training of apprentices – to list a few examples – is very different from the society of 1890. Many of those regulations need to be significantly improved, the enforcement of such standards need proper attention, corners are still cut – sometimes dangerously – by employers consciously seeking to avoid their responsibilities. More needs to be done to improve things. Much has been achieved. It is surely fanciful to describe Australia today, as a century ago, as perniciously rife with the same excesses of the free market. Australia has changed and is a gentler and kinder place to live in as a result of the various efforts of labour men and women. Those efforts are much misunderstood and sometimes weakly interpreted. Much depends on individuals. Sometimes the Labor Party has stalled at key moments of its history. Labor’s record includes some brilliant heroes as well as solid performers, idealistic failures and a few scoundrels. Individuals are like that. Both labourist ideas – aimed at working to make things better (always more complicated than it looks) – and socialist ideas have influenced the party’s leaders and the movement. Even if the socialist contribution is often over emphasised (and in contemporary times is increasingly a fading impulse) it is also true, as Stuart MacIntyre has argued, that:
The Australian labour movement has often been characterised as pragmatic, lacking principles, bereft of theory. This is dubious. Labourism (which took as its guiding principle the immediate concerns of the worker) and socialism (which insisted that it was necessary to abolish capitalism and its class divisions) were both influential doctrines.6
Influential as those doctrines might be they were not the heart and soul of the movement. There was and is something more to Labor than that.
Henry Drucker in his monograph about the British Labour Party makes an observation equally applicable to the Australian situation, that:
The Labour Party, and most of those who have written about it, takes its intellectual pretensions too seriously… there is more to the party’s ideology than socialist doctrines. Its ideology has been equally strongly influenced by the sentiments and traditions of the people who have created and controlled it. My argument is that the party is not simply an instrument for acquiring and using power – not simply a vote-gathering machine designed for policy-making and implementation. The party has a life of its own – a fact which political scientists have acknowledged without taking sufficiently seriously. Even now, when so much of its early working class ethos has been tempered by experience of government and diluted by middle-class recruitment, the party’s ideology embodies both doctrine and ethos.7
Drucker’s book on Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party is an attempt to describe the dimensions of the ethos of the party – its traditions, memory, feelings and rituals, as well as the theoretical ideas which have shaped the thinking and actions of its participants. There is too much labour history written about leading ALP political figures and the actions of Labor governments as if what is being described is a Fabian society or the application of an ideology to political reality. The Australian Labor Party at its foundation represented more than a statement of doctrines, it embodied the fallible beliefs, foibles and aspirations of people determined that society should be a better place, that it could and should be improved by eliminating the poverty, misery and meanness present in the life of the community. It is the historians and the intellectuals who demand the imperative of the written word in order to verify objectives and to construct a sense of those peoples’ world. However, the imperative of the labour movement and those people who led it often was not to write things down – and get the words right – it was – and is – to do things to make society a better and more equitable place for ordinary people.
The core principles which motivated Labor in the 1890s continue to motivate Labor today, even if the means utilised to achieve them are much varied. In justifying the move to allow the privatisation of Australian Airlines, the partial privatisation of Qantas and the competitive environment in which government-owned telecommunications enterprises might operate, Prime Minister Hawke emphasised at the special 1990 ALP National Conference that Labor was not changing its principles, merely changing the means of implementing those principles: “So, delegates, this conference is not a conference about ends. It is a conference about means”,8 he said. A similar point, concerning the Labor Party’s evolution, was made by Graham Freudenberg in his William McKell Lecture where he observed that:
In facing the facts of history, we need neither self-justification nor self-condemnation. We, of our generation, would only have cause for shame had we allowed the weight of history [to] prevent us from changing… policy. The very depth and meaning of our ancient commitment lends lustre and adds merit to our contemporary achievement.9
Nonetheless it is understandable that the discarding (as has occurred in 1990) of long cherished ideas, such as a wholly government owned Commonwealth Bank and a government monopoly in telecommunications will cause some Labor supporters to worry about whether the ALP is abandoning Labor principles. Is this a reasonable view?
Leaving aside psychological interpretations that might be relevant to such reactions, there is now a need for the Labor Party through its democratic mechanisms to explain and defend what it believes in and why it is over-turning previously cherished sections of the Labor platform. That should not be too difficult. Changing the party’s policies is, hopefully, a sign of dynamism, rather than an indication that Labor’s ideals are disintegrating under the pressures and responsibilities of office. What might be appropriate, say, in 1947 may not be reasonable or justified nowadays. Rather than accepting slogans as a policy substitute, or uncritically worshipping past platforms as holy writ, the Labor Party should be rethinking past notions and inventing new approaches to modem problems. The emphasis given to the environment and anti-discrimination legislation in recent years are two examples where the party has creatively developed ideas to appeal to potential and existing supporters.
The labour movement probably will be loyal to two attitudes which will distinguish Labor from the conservatives: first, a basic suspicion of the notion of a free market place; and, second, a belief that in an enterprising community, the government should intervene to ensure decent and improving standards – as well as access to the ordinary person – in the education, health and welfare fields. Those attitudes are capable of almost infinite policy permutations. Every generation of the labour movement will need to find answers relevant to its own situation. Suspicion of the market does not entail a desire to wipe out market forces; such an approach would be disastrous, as recent European history has demonstrated. But the market unchecked and unregulated can lead to cruel outcomes. Labor’s aim is to establish parameters in order to civilise those potential outcomes. Similarly, support for better healthcare or good schools does not require government monopolies. There are many ways to achieve those aims. To the end of time the labour movement will be debating what should be the best policy for the moment.
Perhaps there is merit in recalling a parable written up in The Worker newspaper in 1893 about a group of workers who decided one morning to drain and clear a site to build a Temple to Freedom. As the morning changed to noon no work began as jealous discussion raged about who might head the roll of the builders “that through uncounted ages should be preserved within its walls”; some began to argue that the monument should be dedicated to Liberty, not Freedom. “Others said that Justice was the word that ought to be engraved upon its portals”, so the wrangling continued “until the evening shadows lengthened”. Suddenly a ringing noise could be heard, “falling steadily with rhythmic cadence” and as the gathering looked around:
…we looked and listened, we found that one of our number – a grey, silent old man, who had taken no part in all our wrangling – had stolen away quietly and was hewing out a channel for the little spring [so] that the green pestilent pool might be drained sweet and wholesome. And we grew suddenly silent for very shame.
The evening sun is setting fast and we know that we shall never build the temple – never see its sunlit battlements – never gather within its walls, but we work on in silence, heaving the jagged rocks – clearing away the accumulated rubbish – hewing out the deep formations trusting that wiser and worthier builders will follow us, and that sometime – when, we know not, by some hands, whose we care not the temple will be completed.10
This story conveys a simple message and a bewildering idea. The labour movement for much of its history has acted like the man who got on with the work. Who knows what the movement’s dreams might one day realise. The important thing is to work for what is worthwhile and achievable now.
But what sort of society is being created as a result of Labor’s efforts? The answer is unclear. We will never [fully] know. But in continuing to build upon the efforts of those who have gone before us in the pursuit of Labor’s ideals and objectives, through the hard work of reform and the translation of ideals and words to action and reality, we would have bequeathed a better place for those who follow and further build upon.
Author’s Note on Publication
I am grateful to Michael McLeod and Tom Forrest for reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this article. Their assistance, however, does not absolve me from responsibility for the errors and misjudgments that might be found in this chapter.
1. Lloyd Ross, contribution to a discussion in Duncan, W.G.K. (editor), Trends in Australian Politics, Angus and Robertson/Australian Institute of Political Science, Sydney, 1935, p. 7.
2. Cf. Easson, M.B. ‘Socialism and the Trade Union Movement’, Labor Forum, Vol. 8, No. 3, September 1986, pp. 5-9.
3. Hagan, J., The History of the ACTU, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne 1981, p. 14.
4. Ibid., p. 45.
5. Nairn, B., Civilising Capitalism, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1973.
6. MacIntyre, S., The Labour Experiment, McPhee Gribble Publishers, Melbourne, 1989, p. 35.
7. Drucker, H.M., Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party, Allen and Unwin, London, 1979.
8. See the transcript of the special 1990 ALP National Conference.
9. Freudenberg, G., Sixth McKell Lecture, Australian Labor Party New South Wales Branch, Sydney 1989, p. 19. Freudenberg specifically has in mind here the White Australia policy.
10. ‘As The Sun Goes Down’, The Worker (Sydney), Vol. 2, No. 50, 9 September 1893, p. 2.
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Besides Bede Nairn, the person who most influenced my thinking on the ALP was a British based academic, Dr Henry Drucker. I urged Bob Carr, for example, to read his writings. Drucker gets a mention in Carr’s book Thoughtlines (2002).