Article submitted as “Edmund Burke and Australian Labor”, in Damien Freeman (editor), The Market’s Morals: Responding to Jesse Norman, The Kapunda Press, Connor Court Publishing, Redland Bay [Queensland], 2020.
This essay suggests that Burkean ideas apply to the Australian labour tradition1 and help illuminate that tradition as well as enabling the explication of competing ideas that sit outside, sometimes in competition and sometimes as complementary.
Part of the moral basis of commercial society, to allude to Jesse Norman’s 2018 Glynn Lecture, is how various institutions, traditions, and people interact. What is the compass, the signpost, that guide them? What are, in Norman’s words, “the basic questions of identity and legitimacy”? This leads me to consider Burke, in this case in the context of Australian Labor.
Now, it might be contended that Burke is a clear example of a conservative thinker. Former Liberal prime minister John Howard on various occasions proudly called himself a “Burkean conservative.”2 Norman and other writers have argued for Burke’s credentials as the founder of modern conservative thinking.3 There is a vast literature to that effect, with some accounts more aware of Burke’s makeover as a conservative than others.4 How could anyone seriously suggest that, say, the idea of ‘Burkean Labor’ makes any sense?
Part of the argument is this: Burke is too subtle and provocative a writer to be entombed in a conservative’s mausoleum, sealed off from contact with liberal and radical traditions with which he lived, contested, and debated.5
My thinking on the issues canvassed in this essay began thirty years ago, in question time after a lecture in Sydney, as someone extolled the so-called conservative credentials of Burke. A friend, John Wheeldon, suddenly turned round and snapped: “I thought he was a Whig, not a Tory!”
Burke was horrified that his own side of politics, the Whigs, might be captivated by the heady brew of ‘liberty, fraternity, and equality’ and he feared irresponsible intellectuals would seek bloody shortcuts to utopian solutions.6 Without delving too deeply into this debate, there are several points to emphasise.
First, referencing Burke’s defence of the Americans’ right to self-government, the biographer and liberal political thinker, John Morley, in his neglected classic, On Compromise, wrote that “the French Revolution is alleged, and most unreasonably alleged, to have alienated him from liberalism.”7 But to the contrary, Morley sees Burke as the person to whom the Whigs and the liberal tradition “owed the whole vitality of their creed …that rational love of liberty, that antipathy to arbitrary ideas, on which rest their just claims to the gratitude of their descendants.”8 Burke is as interesting a liberal as he is a conservative.9
Second, this essay prefers to focus on these parts of the complex of Burke’s writings:
- Appreciation for the tension between liberty and tradition, including existing institutions and values;
- Amelioration, rather than expropriation or extirpation, as the default reform approach;
- An inclination to support more significant change where there is appreciation for the good that ought to be retained or amended;
- Keenness to extend the sphere of liberty and independence of action.
All these principles are compatible with and, historically, are integral to the social democratic project.
There are admirers of Burke or certain ideas of Burke that are widely held by Labor thinkers and supporters. Over the years, some Labor MPs, for example, have emphasised support for Burke’s view that a parliamentarian is elected to give judgement in the issues of the day, and is never a mere cipher for the imagined or even real views of an electorate.10
Those who saw the 2018 film, The Scribe,11 on the life of Graham Freudenberg, speech writer to Labor Leaders from Calwell to Whitlam and Carr, might be surprised by a particular scene. The camera pans across Freudenberg’s study picking up the portraits of Lincoln, Dr Johnson, Edmund Burke, and others. Freudenberg saw a soulmate in Burke’s stirring rhetoric and intellectual arraignment of terror.
He is not alone. Early in the prime ministership of Bob Hawke, his then economic adviser, Dr Ross Garnaut, recalls: “When Graham Freudenberg and I discovered a shared appreciation of Burke during a Hawke visit to Mitterrand in 1983, we took advantage of a break in the official programme to visit Versailles and took turns in reading from Reflections on the steps of the Palace.”12
In one important respect, sympathy for French ideals blinded many thinkers of the Left to reality. Emotionally, they would rather be on the opposite side to reaction. But this is a limiting and false dichotomy. Even if the choice were revolution versus defence of the existing order, such a juxtaposition is unreal and irrelevant to Australian politics today—where no one is arguing for anything madly revolutionary.
Barry Jones, even if his heart takes him in a different direction, acknowledges that Burke’s analysis was prescient and brilliant. He writes: “The traditional/conservative view (set out with prophetic insight by Edmund Burke in October 1790) was to see man/woman in a received social context…People are born with a history, the product of organic processes…”13 Jones is insightful to characterise Burke as a ‘traditionalist’ here. A conservative is committed to tradition. But it is also true that members of the labour movement, as discussed further in this essay, are committed to tradition – their own. A traditionalist approach can be a resource for a variety of political parties, such as Australian Labor.
In arguing about the relevance of Burke’s ideas for the ALP it is necessary to mention, without overwhelming the reader, some of the issues in contention. And also to understand the political movement discussed.
Thus, this essay: First, touches on the Australian Labor Party from the perspective of the author who spent over forty years in the labour movement. Second, applies critical analysis and develops some working hypotheses about the Australian Labor tradition and Burkean ideals. Third, tests those hypotheses against several complications —including the party’s Socialist Objective, and ideological rifts, and the context of economic reform under the Hawke/Keating government. Finally, rather than pinning Burke down as a Whig, radical, conservative, or liberal, it would be best to say his instinct, theory, and actions in favour of true liberty are an inspiration for the ages and, indeed, for the Australian labour movement.
Next, I reflect on my experience of the ALP, politics through the lens of the local. All political parties have grassroots, where traditions grow and flourish, where the formation of new members begins, where the life of the party is renewed. At my first ALP branch, in Beverly Hills in suburban Sydney, most of the members and the leadership were mildly right-wing Labor, supportive of Whitlam, and interested in intra-party ideological conflict only at the margins.
I joined at the end of 1973 in my first year of university, applying after the November 1973 State election, the fourth loss in a row for NSW Labor against Premier Askin’s Liberal/Country Coalition government; Whitlam was then in office as prime minister, elected on 2 December the previous year; Pat Hills was replaced as NSW Labor leader and as NSW leader of the opposition by Neville Wran.
My local branch’s membership, all volunteers, included old timers, new migrants, and young people inspired by Whitlam and Wran.
Tom Togher, the branch president, a Commonwealth Bank manager, was a veteran of the ALP Group era when, several decades before, the Catholic Church in alliance with ALP moderates fought to wrest control off communist and communist-influenced sympathisers across the labour movement.14
In Young Street, Penshurst, where my family lived, ALP branch member Mike Klemencic, a public servant, resided across the road from my brother and me (we both joined around the same time). A Croatian migrant, he hated Tito, despised the far right-wing associations of some of his erstwhile compatriots (“Ustashi!”) and deeply admired Whitlam. For him, Whitlam was like a refined European leader. I found Klemencic an inspiring figure, knowledgeable about contemporary global politics, an autodidact of the best sort — curious, provocative, and full of energy in discussing ideas, events and personalities; radical in rhetoric, conservative in temperament.
His wife was starting university as a mature-age student and was critiquing the world through a feminist and mildly Marxist perspective. The latter annoyed her husband —and their spirited, though never terribly angry, debates were an education.
One of the Organisers of the Federated Rubber and Allied Workers’ Union, George Le Fevre, was also a Beverly Hills branch member. He talked about the need to boost workers’ compensation entitlements in his industry, characterised by unmasked work in fumy tyre factories, with manual labour prone to injuries, with lousy or non-existent redundancy or superannuation benefits. So many years later, I do not remember much of what he said. But I vividly recall his fear of stopping work through injury or retirement, and the prospect of living poorly.
Another new recruit was a final-year civil engineering student, I remember only as Mr Booth, decidedly better dressed than anyone else, and also inspired by Whitlam. But he was regarded with suspicion in St George Young Labor, then in the hands of romantics aligned to the official ALP left (as they liked to see themselves), the NSW Unions and Labor Steering Committee.15
Looking back, the membership in this microcosm of the ALP in NSW were a sober, cautious lot, inspired by social democratic radicalism, conservative by inclination, optimistic about the potential for social change — in the main, idealists without illusions.
ALP branch meetings were routine, boring affairs. The minutes of the last monthly meeting were read out loud; reports were given about party fora higher up — such as the State and Federal ALP electorate councils — to which the branch sent delegates. We met in a room a floor above the main bar in the Beverly Hills Hotel on King Georges Road. Some of the older members carried a schooner of beer into the meeting.
Vince Martin, the federal MP for the electorate of Banks, like Togher, a self-educated, decent Catholic Labor man, a former Australian Tax Office employee, would try to attend most meetings, Canberra Parliamentary sitting commitments permitting.
Kevin Ryan, narrowly unsuccessful in 1973 but victorious as Member for Hurstville in the 1976 State election, a result that with a couple of other wins became the difference in putting Neville Wran QC into office as premier, visited the branch from 1974, as possible candidate, candidate, then MP.
Local representatives respected and consulted party members. As an ordinary party member, you learnt things that were not in the newspapers.
The social formation of budding activists was mostly outside of the formal meetings — the chats before and after, discussion while campaigning and in handing out leaflets, visiting other members’ homes. There was camaraderie, a sense of a community that felt warmly tribal. Not that everyone agreed with each other.
Liberals were the other side, conservative and boring, the enemy, but not in a violent or any traducing sense. (The ‘enmity index’ increased after the Whitlam dismissal in November 1975. But the atmosphere in Australia was always a million miles from the turmoil of, say, Allende’s Chile.)
Every new member wanted to learn about the battles of the past, hear answers to the question “Why did you join?”, and thereby appreciate those elements that knitted us together in common cause.
As I moved around with family, out of home, and then in marriage, I found a similar spirit at Caringbah, Dulwich Hill, Croydon, and Enfield South in metropolitan Sydney.
In Caringbah Branch in 1976 some of the legends of NSW Labor occupied the floor — or, rather, sat in the room at the local state school looking inconspicuous. There was Senator Arthur Gietzelt (ALP left faction leader) who was once part of the communist-aligned Hughes-Evans Labor Party in the 1940s; and Joe Riordan, pugnacious former national secretary and leader of the Federated Clerks Union (FCU), who in 1952 defeated Jack Hughes, the secretly communist national secretary of the union. Riordan was now an ex-Whitlam government minister. Defeated in 1975 as Member for Phillip in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Riordan tried to win back the seat in 1977 but lost again. A surprise was finding my former geography teacher at Sydney Technical High School in the branch. Reg Mawbey, ex-shearer, NSW secretary of the Australian Workers Union, was another Caringbah branch member. He drove to town early, sometimes spotting me walking down Port Hacking Road from Lilli Pilli, giving me a lift to town, puffing on his pipe, and in his slow drawl reminiscing on the country, union leaders, Hawke, Wran, what he thought were the things worth fighting for.
In his 1955 study on the ALP, Healey paid tribute to “…those unselfish, devoted little people… the ‘wood and water joeys’ …These are the people who tramp the streets with election literature, man the polling booths on election day, attend branch meetings… their hearts and minds are filled with all the great desires and visions for a better future, and as they lift leaders to the top, and all too frequently see them desert the cause, or fail to produce the things for which these people yearn, they try again with new representatives, for theirs is the soul that lives on hope and thrives upon disappointment.”16 Those words could have been written about the people I came to know. Perhaps the working class of those days has been ‘forgotten’; the bonds of the labour movement need pertinent examples to be intelligible. Burke makes sense of those affinities in political terms. In Norman’s words: “They are bound together by affection, identity and interest.”
The more active you are, the more you think about the party. There is a deepening of commitment and understanding. Eventually, I extended involvement to attending the annual NSW State Conference in the glorious, cavernous Sydney Town Hall; becoming active in NSW Young Labor, linking up with a wider network across the country; engaging in local election campaigns; working for six months from the end of 1977 as a research officer for a new federal MP, the Member for Parramatta, ex-butcher turned abattoir owner and businessman, John Joseph Brown; then joining the Labor Council of NSW,17 as education and research officer (succeeding Bob Carr); working for union leaders John Ducker, Barrie Unsworth, and John MacBean, and later, from 1989-1994, in their place as secretary of the Labor Council of NSW.
A number of features stand out.
First, the party, particularly the NSW ALP Right,18 were conscientious moderates, interested in incremental change. The members were sincere, well-motivated souls who believed they were doing their bit to improve society by belonging to and participating, in small parts, in a movement. No one was messianic or a revolutionary radical. No one thought that theirs was a conservative inclination, certainly not overtly, but they did feel theirs was in keeping with tradition, the ethos and practice of the movement. The Labor historian Bede Nairn called the Labor reform impulse, “civilising capitalism”, a laborious, dedicated effort to improve the world.19 Undoubtedly, as I discuss below,
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.20
Second, the party, again particularly the NSW ALP Right, were comfortable with strong leadership — that is, with values and ideas-driven leaders.21 Whitlam and Wran exemplified that, as did Hawke and Keating after them. Perhaps there was the tinge of a religious aspect. ALP rhetoric frequently deploys phrases such as ‘sacred duty’ and the like.22 Certainly, there is—or was—a strong sense of admiration for the leader, bordering on reverence for their saint-like calling.23
Third, it is characteristic that party members hold a deep respect and fascination for its history. Typically, members are conscious of reference points to past battles, the evolution of change, and disastrous mistakes. There was a fondness for thinking the ALP was the force for initiative and change, as against the other side being the party of inertia, with ALP party members joining out of a sense of purpose and curiosity of history. This also applied to the British Labour Party. Drucker, for example, writes: “The Labour Party has and needs a strong sense of its own past and of the past of the Labour movement which produced and sustains it. This sense of its past is so central to its ethos that it plays a crucial role in defining what the party is about to those in it.”24
Fourth, within the party there were different ideological currents, loosely left and right. Prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, some elements on the ALP left were more or less sympathetic to Soviet communism and some others more statist (in the sense of thinking that government could solve everything) compared to the comfortable-with-the-mixed-economy ALP Right. Despite some wordy flourishes, no one advocated revolutionary change or the casting aside of the old for the new with blood-curdling rhetoric.
Interestingly, although some of the older members were scarred by the impact of the ALP split from 1955-1958, where ideological contest and division was intense, I never felt much of that, other than in foreign affairs debates (the left in various shades of suspicion about the United States), and in knowing some of the individual histories.
A full appreciation of the party reveals that co-operation and radical liberal ideas stood in contrast to confrontation.25 The party was a more eclectic and interesting phenomenon than that typically featured in party histories. Drucker suggests that too often academic accounts of the (British) Labour Party are written as if they were about the Fabian Society or the emergence of particular ideologies. But this is to miss the “ethos” and traditions, the rich layers of lore, that complement what might be particular policy nostrums and statements.26 A similar point applies to Australia.
The restraint of Labor politics and its largely non-ideological character is Burkean. But just as important is the organic nature of ALP cohesion, apparent in its very formation, fed from various streams. My reminiscences of the party at the time I joined and subsequently show how Burkean attitudes permeated it. The association was organic and pluralist, but had immense respect for leaders and their ‘hallowed’ role. As Norman says of society, so too of a political party, “which links people together in an enormous and ever-shifting web of institutions, customs, traditions, habits and expectations built up by innumerable interactions over many years.”
What is the relevance of Burke to the labour movement experience that I have described? Looking at Burke’s record is to note that he dealt with issues as they arose and applied his values and ideas to what he saw, reckoned with, and interpreted. To answer the question, “What did Burke stand for?” is to respond with reference to the issues and situations he contended with — the English revolution; American independence and the rights of colonial free settlers to govern themselves and, later, the need for conciliation with America; toleration for Ireland’s Catholics; India and the limits of responsible overseeing and the protection of the rights of the people; and, most of all, the French Revolution, and its bloody parody of liberty, equality, and freedom, which consumed the last years of his life.
Burke comments in a speech on the American rebellion: “It is… a very great mistake to imagine that mankind follow up practically any speculative principle, either of government or of freedom, as far as it will go in argument and logical illation.”27 And soon after he says: “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; — we remit some rights that we might enjoy others; and we choose rather to be happy citizens than subtle disputants.”28 Thus, it can be seen that Burke is suspicious of hard ideological or dogmatic positions being taken in the public square, oblivious to local or particular circumstances.
It might be useful to pause now and ask whether it is meaningful to speak of “Burkean Labor”? Is it as strange a concept as, say, ‘Ciceronian Labor’ or ‘Machiavellian Labor’? The terms demand explanation. One might find in Cicero’s eloquence and fine values much inspiration. But the bloodlust, complacent racist superiority, and enslaving is unattractive. Machiavelli does not deserve his popular reputation as cynical, ruthless adventurer, and there is a better case for extolling his name as relevant and insightful to the modern moment.29 But even here, identification with a Renaissance figure requires much qualification and explication.
Is there a similar problem with the idea of ‘Burkean Labor’ and that name? Are the qualifications worthy of the term? Here is a justification: Respect for tradition need not be reactionary; in fact, it is compatible with labour ideals.30 A politics focused on ameliorative policy rather than root-and-branch radicalism (still less revolution) are Burkean sentiments and inclinations. Harder to understand, to a modern mind, is Burke’s opposition to a wide democratic franchise and his sentimentality towards the aristocratic filament of British society. Yes, Burke believed in property, hierarchy and tradition, but he suggests pragmatic, procedural paths to reform. Most significantly of all, as David Marquand puts it: “A profound, sometimes anguished fellow-feeling for the victims of arbitrary power ran, like a golden thread, through Burke’s thirty years in parliament.”31 And this too, the cause of responsible liberty, is the golden thread of Australian Labor.
Without exhaustively mining modern Australian history for examples, one part of Burke’s influence in Australia was through the role and impact of a distant nephew, Richard Bourke, Governor of NSW (1831-1837).32 Bourke was a reformer who in stood in opposition to religious prejudice, including from his own privileged Protestant social class; Bourke respected Catholics as fellow Christians.33 He re-introduced trial by jury, championed the freedom of the press (despite their barbs), curtailed some of the worst features of arbitrary management of penal labour and recognised that prisoners too have rights. He championed transparency — including publishing the public accounts. A statue, erected in his honour in 1842, stands outside of the Mitchell Library in Sydney. In part the inscription reads:
. . .
He voluntarily divested himself of the prodigious influence
Arising from the assignment of penal labour, and enacted
Just and salutary laws for the amelioration of penal discipline.
He was the first governor who published satisfactory accounts
Of the public receipts and expenditure,
Without oppression or detriment to any interest,
He raised the revenue to a vast amount and from its surplus,
Realized extensive plans of immigration.
He established religious equality on a just and firm basis,
And sought to provide for all, without distinction of sect
. . .
Bourke’s approach to colonial government was a model for all subsequent administrations.34
Much later, from the 1870s onwards, the emergence of a labour movement in the colonies occurred as a result of a relatively liberal environment and in spite of determined and sometimes ferocious opposition. Many tributaries led to the formation of the Australian labour movement. Although its impulses were sometimes utopian, with dreamy romanticism mixed with hard-nosed industrial unionism, all this was forged into a political movement.
The cause never entirely won support from certain conservatives. The quest for legitimacy is an enduring theme in any history of the movement. Indeed, Freudenberg explicitly writes: “A sub-theme of this book [a history of NSW Labor] is Labor’s never-ending struggle for legitimacy.”35 He goes on to say: “For most of its history, the Labor Party has operated in a generally hostile environment. In the beginning, it faced the most obdurate combination of foes: the entire colonial establishment made up of the grazier, mine-owning, financial, professional and commercial interests of Sydney, philistine and provincial, but linked by money, marriage and memories, actual or borrowed, with the heart of the Empire in London.”36
In Bede Nairn’s account, by the end of the nineteenth century, “it was clear that the Labor Party could only survive as a powerful force if it adjusted its total activities to the requirements of the electorate.”37 He went on to say, “working class radicalism did not have to be abandoned, but it had either to shed formally its extreme minority element or to contain it in an acceptable way.”38 By the early twentieth century, Labor had taken root as a moderate party, but not without tension in its identity. Manning Clark comments that “Labor wore many coats. It was the party of evolution rather than revolution. It was also the party of paradoxes… Labor had decided that to obtain political power in a capitalist society, it must make a broad appeal.”39 Principles would have to bend.
This was sometimes seen as backsliding. Vere Gordon Childe comments on the heterogeneity of the elements making up the ALP, noting that: “From its foundation the Labour Party has had to look for allies outside of the working class.”40 Instead of seeing this as strength, he complains: “Labour governments have followed a vacillating policy and have tried to govern in the interests of all classes instead of standing up boldly in defence of the one class which put them in power.”41 Alas, Childe meant to explain further his critique, but never completed the companion work he hoped to write.42
Moderation and compromise is classic Burke. Although he never used the word ‘evolution’ — Burke died before the term became popular — his approach to reform is always called evolutionary. The very fact that some Labor folk like Childe talk about vacillation proves that Labor’s moderate approach is Burkean — pace the conservatives. Labor objectives were still achieved but in a moderate way.
In Part 1 of Reflections, Burke says: “…opposed and conflicting interests… make deliberation a matter of necessity, not of choice; they make all change a subject of compromise, which naturally begets moderation; they produce temperaments that prevent the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified reformations, and rendering all the headlong exertions of arbitrary power, in the few or in the many, for ever impracticable. Through that diversity of members and interests, general liberty had as many securities as there were separate views in the various [parts of society] . . .”43 This is an argument for the governance of a society; the argument also applies to the creative development and application of policy in a political movement. In Norman’s words: “It is in part the function of free institutions, as stores of memory and of politics, as channels for the articulation and reconciliation of conflicting views and interests, to be that national treasury of shared history and self-understanding.” He refers to society; this also applies to a living political institution, to Australian Labor.
By the early twentieth century, reforms in Australia, won by backsliding or innovative compromise, in coalition within and without, stimulated by the labour movement in combination with other progressives, were seen as globally inspirational to liberals and social democrats, particularly in the United States. Reforms included the first minimum-wage laws, legislative support for conciliation and arbitration of industrial disputes, the secret ballot, female suffrage, mothers’ pensions, and child welfare.44
Interestingly, significant elements of the intellectual left, seeing themselves as socialists aligned to mainstream Labor, were from the start in Australia opposed to Leninism and communist ideas. (This might be contrasted in the immediate years after the Bolshevik revolution with, say, Ireland, where significant parts of mainstream labour at least initially sided with revolutionaries, completely clueless as to what was going on — or what revolution meant.)45
Robert Samuel Ross, co-founder of the Victorian Socialist Party, mentor to future Labor prime minister, John Curtin,46 and radical turned advocate of parliamentary and gradualist reform, wrote an influential pamphlet, Revolution in Russia & Australia (1920), which proposed an Australian alternative to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Ross was an advocate of union amalgams into industry unions, but he was critical of municipal and state-owned corporations, usually attached to Fabian ideas of socialism. He felt government by bureaucrats would be a new kind of tyranny. And he argued that the contrast between Russia and Australia was so vast that it would be a kind of madness to “copy” Russian formulas. He proposed that radical objectives could be achieved through democratic means.47
Which now leads to a problem that has bedevilled the ALP in its long history: the issue of what it stands for. Much of the discussion centres on its Socialist Objective. This is to open a box the contents of which have a complicated pedigree and interpretation, covered extensively elsewhere. Frequently overlooked, however, are the guild socialist and Catholic principles that informed the choice of words that originally defined the term.48 In an essay on the Objective, Gareth Evans refers to the “familiar socialist language” in the wording of the 1921 Objective and “in particular the expression ‘socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange’.”49 In saying so, Evans missed a key element. The term “socialisation” instead of “nationalisation” suggests that something other than merely expropriating capital was in mind.50
Indeed, that is so. The idea was that ‘socialising’ meant the organisation of industry on democratic lines, a form of self-government in industry.
Professor Meredith Atkinson, from personal correspondence, quotes Bob Ross explaining the socialisation objective: “The new objective was consciously designed as a process in social reconstruction, and I feel that all earnestly seeking the New World of peace and plenty should be trumpeting its sincerity and efficiency.”51
Atkinson drily comments that “Mr Ross is a whole-souled idealist, who has lived his whole life in the movement, and it is perhaps to his credit that he can find ‘greatness and genius in the co-ordination shown in the linking-up as a synthesis the theories of Constitutional Labourism, Guild Socialism, Syndicalism and Social Democracy’.”52
Ross protested that in the heady atmosphere of the time: “Would you have had the Trades Union Congress commit itself to bloody revolution? Its greatness, I think, was in holding finely and firmly to the view that Australian development, character, common sense and attainments along the lines of democracy warranted further trust in these proved lines of action.”53 He went on to proffer: “Guild Socialism, I beg to say, in nothing of its philosophy or principles even faintly suggests the holocaust of blood which the critic… sees as inherent in it.”54
But these ideas — socialisation, worker control and the like — could be criticised as meaning different things. At the Brisbane Conference of the ALP in 1921, the Socialist Objective resolution was opposed by the entirety of the New South Wales delegation and Maurice Blackburn, a Victorian delegate. Before the Conference ended, Blackburn moved a resolution calling on the Conference to ‘interpret’ the resolution to mean socialisation to the extent required to eliminate exploitation. This wording crept into the official ALP Platform in the mid-1940s.55
As statist and communist influences grew stronger in the Australian labour movement (and the movement developed amnesia about its own history), the distinction between socialisation and nationalisation faded to such an extent that the Blackburn Declaration became an escape card for allegations that the movement was communist in doctrine and aim. This particularly appealed to certain right-wing Labor types. For example, Frank McManus mentions in his memoirs that he wrote for Freedom during World War II in defence of Labor’s Socialist Objective, but in sympathy with the Blackburn Declaration.56 Chifley, on the defensive in the 1949 election campaign, insisted: “It is not the objective of the Labor Party to go around socialising everything, but to do things for the good of the people.”57
Race Mathews’s book, Of Labour and Liberty: Distribution in Victoria 1891-1966, on the Victorian labour movement and the impact of Catholic social thinking is useful in recovering some of the traditions lost as a result of the Labor splits in the 1950s.58 To this analysis might be added Lloyd Ross’s articles published for the Catholic intellectual journal, Twentieth Century, in the late 1940s and early 1950s.59
The Objective, following a long preamble, now reads: “The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.” The qualifier, “to the extent necessary”, is the essence of Blackburn.
Arguably two of the greatest of Labor achievements are the introduction of universal health insurance (Medicare)60 and a national system of compulsory superannuation — both achieved during the Hawke-Keating years. Interestingly, in explaining and defending the latter, Burke’s name was invoked.61 Before those reforms were attempted, at the beginning of the Hawke government, the deregulation of the financial markets was pursued.
After it won office in 1983, Labor floated the Australian dollar, removed some of the restrictions in competition affecting the banking sector, licensed foreign banks to enter the market, and cajoled the sector to lend more and be more entrepreneurial in supporting Australian businesses. The full impact of those reforms is still playing out.
The changes raised the question of whether Labor was turning its back on long-cherished Labor principles. This was played out at various fora across the party, for example at the NSW ALP Conference in June 1984 held at the Sydney Town Hall. The ALP left honed onto the argument that Hawke and Keating were moving away from Labor traditions. Ben Chifley, who tried to nationalise the banks in 1949, would be turning in his grave, they said.
Keating went to the microphone on the floor of conference, surrounded by battalions of right-wing unions, usually joyful at the gladiatorial fights of left and right, but momentarily stilled by doubt. Dressed in a black Zegna suit, white shirt, red tie, Keating thundered that the banks in Australia were run by dull executives from Sydney’s North Shore, and were incurious about helping a new business, or expanding an existing one; they lazily acted within the confines of a cosy oligopoly, unhurried by the market or the task of feeding capital to creative employers of labour.
In one stroke, he turned the debate around, saying something like “I’ll tell you who the real conservatives are. They are in the metal workers’ union. Ben Chifley would be turning in his grave if he heard the nonsense spouted at this conference. With the so-called left defending those members of the Turramurra branch of the Liberal party instead of championing good Labor Party reform.”62
Keating’s hands waved, cutting the air. At times his arms lunged over both sides of the microphone like Count Dracula in full flight, preparing to attack. He forced the audience, his audience of suburban branch members, bush and regional representatives, and unionists, to think harder instead of merely acting and reacting to the slogans uttered so far. He referenced history. Instead of repudiating the labour heritage, Keating embraced it, wrapped himself in Chifley iconography and argued that a modern ALP had to govern for the times. Each era is different but nothing happens in a vacuum or, on his watch, without regard to party and tradition.
Arguably, this was the high-water mark of leaders and rank-and-file engaging in full-throttle debate about what should be done, when, how, and by whom. Keating later wrote of his approach: “Free of the shackles of any rigid ideology and remaining alive to the lessons of a changing world there should be little that Labor cannot achieve in its quest to fulfil its original and essential charter — to improve the lot of the common people.”63
Thus, rhetoric and practice were conjoined. This reflects a Burkean view of positive change in the context of tradition and contemporary challenges.
In conclusion, ‘Burkean Labor’ may never be a banner unfurled over the balustrades at an ALP conference at the Sydney Town Hall. The association of ‘Burke’ with ‘conservative’ may be too strong. Burke has been appropriated by conservatives. But they do not own him, for the reasons stated herein.
In puzzling over the complexity of modern politics, in seeking the light of insight from the past, Norman invokes Burke, his “great political hero”. Burke belongs not just to one side of politics. My response is to argue that the organic nature of the ALP is a particularly sound pragmatic argument against complete conservative appropriation. This makes the argument about the relevance of Burke to Labor. The truth is that affinities in labour — and Labor — are much closer to Burke’s ideals than the narrow individualism that permeates modern conservative parties.
From the discussion in this essay, it is clear that to see Burke as a figure foreign to the achievement of sensible reform is an occluded perspective. Certainly, the Australian labour tradition embraces a keen appreciation of the practical limitations of existing society, the importance wherever possible to improve rather than overthrow, without being shy about ambitiously seeking to extend reform in more radical ways, should that extend liberty’s sphere and encourage greater freedom of a non-servile people. Norman references Burke in saying of the social order: “It is an inheritance, which imposes on each generation the obligation to preserve and if possible to enhance it, before passing it on to the next generation.” Australian Labor, with its constant invocation of its heritage, its members’ sense of history and purpose, is Burkean.
This essay could do no more than outline a positive argument about the relevance of Burkean ideas to unrevolutionary Australian Labor. Even when utopian ideas threatened to engulf the party, ideas of civilising capitalism (a viewpoint seeking to preserve what is best in the system while civilising the rest) prevailed. The many ways this politics of Burkean moderation has played out in the Labor Party deserves the further investigation of other researchers who may develop, contest, enrich, and elaborate on them.
Note on Publication:
This essay is dedicated to John Murray Wheeldon (1929-2006), former ALP Senator and later Associate Editor and Editorial writer of The Australian newspaper, who first got me thinking about Burke and political theory. I would like to thank two friends, Dr Damian Grace and Catherine Harding, for comments on an earlier version of this essay.
1 In common with Australian usage, it is the “Labor Party” and the “labour movement”.
2 Specifically, John Howard, Lazarus Rising. A Personal and Political Autobiography, Harper Collins Publishers, Sydney, 2010, pp. 200 & 654.
3 Jesse Norman, Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet, William Collins, London, 2013; for a critique: Michael Easson, Burke’s Great Melody Against It [review of Norman’s book], The Oxonian Review, Vol. 24, No. 4, March 3, 2014.
4 Interestingly, a study of the emergence of Burke’s reputation, Emily Jones, Edmund Burke & the Invention of Modern Conservatism, 1830-1914. An Intellectual History, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2017, argues that “…a distilled political theory was gradually extracted from his corpus and de-contextualized accordingly.”(p. 229). And thus the interpretation of Burke as a conservative was born. Yet “…this apparently neat intellectual and political legacy is in fact modern, the product of a long historical process…” (p. 2).
5 Though even within fifty years of Burke’s death, “…conservativism, liberalism, and radicalism… took on many new meanings”, J.G.A. Pocock, Introduction to Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1987, p. xl.
6 Cf. Edmund Burke, An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs in Consequence of Some Late Discussions in Parliament Relative to the Reflections on the French Revolution, J. Dodsley, London, 1791.
7 John Morley, On Compromise, Chapman and Hall, London, 1874, p. 168.
8 John Morley, Edmund Burke. An Historical Study, Macmillan & Co., London, 1867, p. 9.
9 Hence, some writers like Pocock, Loc. Cit., and David Bromwich, The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke. From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence, Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2014, argue about the radical liberal, pro-liberty aspects of Burke’s thought. But here is not the place to re-litigate his legacy. It is enough to note the argument.
10 For example, Burke’s argument that: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment: and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion” is cited by Barry Jones, Member for Lalor, Hansard, House of Representatives, 22 March 1979; Nick Champion, Member for Wakefield, Hansard, House of Representatives, 10 September 2012; Michael Danby, Member for Melbourne Ports, Hansard, House of Representatives, 2 April 2019.
12 Email: Ross Garnaut to Michael Easson, 23 December 2018. Reflections being Burke’s polemic Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).
13 Barry Jones, Relevance of the French Revolution in 2016, in his Knowledge. Courage. Leadership., Wilkinson Publishing, Melbourne, 2016, p. 241. The ‘organic’ refers to Burke’s idea, stated in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) that society is a “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” What was prophetic was Burke’s prediction in the first edition of Reflections that the monarch would be executed and a bloody terror would ensue.
14 The classic study of the period, accounting for party division and splits, is Robert Murray, The Split, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1970. See also, Robert Murray, Labor and Santamaria, Australian Scholarly, North Melbourne, 2016; Michael Easson, Labor and Santamaria [review of the Murray book], Recorder, Official Organ of the Melbourne Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, No. 288, March 2017, p. 7.
15 The history of various Labor sub-factions is poorly explored in the Australian academic literature.
16 George Healey, ALP, The Story of the Labor Party, Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1955, p. 226.
17 In 2004 the Labor Council of NSW was renamed Unions NSW, the peak body of the unions in NSW.
18 On the NSW ALP Right tradition, see: Michael Easson, Right Approach for a Tired Party, The Australian, 8 December 2012.
19 Bede Nairn, Civilising Capitalism. The Labor Movement in New South Wales 1870-1900, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1973.
20 Michael Easson, What It Means to be Labor, in Michael Easson, editor, The Foundations of Labor, Pluto Press and the Lloyd Ross Forum, Leichhardt [NSW], 1990, pp. 72-73.
21 In private conversation with the author, the Labor intellectual and lawyer John McCarthy QC called this “bonapartist” leadership. The phrase is suggestive, though if small “b” bonapartist leadership sounds too authoritarian, that falsely paints the scene. (Of course there is irony with the phrase in an essay referencing Edmund Burke, who thought that a dictator would emerge out of revolutionary France.)
22 The impressively produced (though never continued) Labor Year Book 1973, Claire Wagner, editor, Mass Communications Australia Pty. Limited on behalf of the NSW ALP & the Labor Council of NSW, Sydney 1973, which, at the time I closely thumbed through, contained a wealth of information on sitting ALP members in the Federal and NSW parliaments. The preponderance of Catholics in Sydney was particularly obvious.
23 The internal party coups against Premier Morris Iemma (2008) and Kevin Rudd (2010) partly shattered this tradition. It was noticeable that, in consequence, party membership dropped off, melting away in some places.
24 H.M. (“Henry”) Drucker, Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1979, p. 25.
25 In a British context, see: Peter Akers & Alistair J. Reid, editors, Alternatives to State-Socialism in Britain. Other Worlds of Labour in the Twentieth Century, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016 and a review, Michael Easson, Labour History, No. 114, May 2018, pp. 197-198.
26 Drucker, Loc. Cit., passim, but particularly pp. vii-viii; 1-43.
27 Edmund Burke, Speech on Conciliation with America (22 March 1775), in The Works of The Right Honourable Edmund Burke in twelve volumes, Volume 2, John C. Nimmo, London, 1887, pp. 168-169.
28 Ibid., p. 169.
29 On Machiavelli, the contrast between the ‘real’, the mythologised and corrupted, see: Michael Jackson and Damian Grace, Machiavelliana. The Living Machiavelli in Modern Mythologies, Brill-Rodopi, Leiden [The Netherlands] and Boston, 2018.
30 Without any chase to this rabbit, the emphasis on tradition, faith and family is part of the argument of “Blue Labour” in the UK. See: Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst, editors, Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics, I.B. Tauris, London, 2015, particularly the Chapter by Luke Bretherton on “Faith and Family”.
31 David Marquand, My Hero: Edmund Burke, The Guardian, 11 September 2010. This too is the argument – on Burke’s consistent opposition to tyranny, his great melody against, in one of the best biographies of Burke, Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Great Melody. A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke, Sinclaire-Stevenson, London, 1992.
32 Michael Easson, The Liberalism of Richard Bourke, Quadrant, Vol. 62, No. 11, November 2018, pp. 54-58. In retirement Bourke co-edited his uncle’s letters. See: Correspondence of The Right Honourable Edmund Burke, edited by Charles William, Earl Fitzwilliam, and Sir Richard Bourke, in four volumes, Francis & John Rivington, London, 1844.
33 Bourke’s Church Act (1836) dis-established the Church of England and provided funding support for the major Christian denominations; the small Jewish congregation also received limited state support. The first synagogue was formally established in 1837. Bourke’s reforms were enacted despite stormy opposition from among various protestant religious leaders. See The Very Rev. Dean Kenny, Progress of Catholicity in Australia, F. Cunninghame & Co., Sydney, 1886, pp. 106-114.
34 Richard Bourke quipped that as Governor at times he felt “pretty much in the situation that Earl Grey would find himself in if all members of his Cabinet were Ultra Tories and he could neither turn them out nor leave them”, with the conservatives in the NSW Legislative Council seeking to block his reforms. The quote is cited in Hazel King, Bourke, Sir Richard (1777-1855), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 1, A-H, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1966, p. 130.
35 Graham Freudenberg, Cause for Power. The Official History of the New South Wales Branch of the Australian Labor Party, Pluto Press, Leichhardt, 1991, p. 3.
37 Bede Nairn, Loc. Cit., p. 165.
39 C.M.H. (“Manning”) Clark, A History of Australia. Volume V: The People Make Laws 1888-1915, Melbourne University Press, Clayton, 1981, p. 187.
40Vere Gordon Childe, How Labour Governs, a Study in Workers’ Representation in Australia, The Labour Publishing Company Limited, London, 1923, p. 74. Note “Labour” rather than “Labor” because the book was published in England.
41 Vere Gordon Childe, Ibid., p. 85.
42 See: T. H. (“Terry”) Irving, On the Work of Labour Governments: Vere Gordon Child’s Plans for Volume Two of How Labour Governs, in Peter Gathercole, T.H. Irving & Gregory Melleuish, editors, Childe and Australia. Archeology, Politics and Ideas, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1995, pp. 82-94.
43 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), J.G.A. Pocock, editor, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1987, p. 31. Emphasis in the original.
44 Cf. Marilyn Lake, Progressive New World. How Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2019, pp. 106-135; 193-223.
45 Emmet O’Connor, Hail Russia! Labour and the Bolshevik Revolution, Saothar, No. 42, 2017, pp. 107-114. Admittedly, the call for violent uprising might have appealed more in Ireland, than say Canada, caught up as Ireland was in rebellion and then Civil War.
46 When Curtin took ill before the 1921 ALP national conference in Brisbane, Bob Ross was his nominee to replace him. See: Lloyd Ross, John Curtin. A Biography, MacMillan, South Melbourne, 1977, p. 75.
47 R.S. Ross, Revolution in Russia and Australia, Ross’s Book Service, Melbourne, 1920.
48 This is a neglected area of analysis and deserves further research, which the author plans to undertake.
49 Gareth Evans, Reshaping the Socialist Objective, in Bruce O’Meagher, editor, The Socialist Objective. Labor & Socialism, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1983, p. 64.
50 Note that the UK Labour’s Clause 4 of its Constitution, adopted in 1918 (repealed in 1995), resolved: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
51 Meredith Atkinson, Whither Goes Labour, Steads Review (Australian Edition), Vol. 58, No. 12, 9 December 1922, p. 16.
53 R.S. Ross, A Reply [to an article in the same issue of the journal on “Panaceas. V. Revolution: Australian Way”], Steads Review (Australian Edition), Vol. 56, No. 5, 3 September 1921, p. 260.
55 Unfortunately a discussion in a recent biography on the origins of and the thinking behind the Blackburn Declaration is so truncated as to be unilluminating: Carolyn Rasmussen, The Blackburns. Private Lives, Public Ambitions, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2019, pp. 167-169. Blackburn was expelled from the ALP in 1935, then re-admitted and expelled again in 1941, three years before he died, for drifting too close to the communists. Ironic then, that the Blackburn Declaration was so popular with certain Labor moderates.
56 Frank McManus, The Tumult and the Shouting, Rigby, Adelaide, 1977, pp. 143-144. Freedom was then the newspaper of the Catholic Social Studies Movement. McManus was the Assistant Secretary of the ALP, Victorian Branch, to 1954, and subsequently a Democratic Labor Party Senator for Victoria.
57 Ben Chifley, “The Labour Movement Lives by the Work of All In It”, An Address to the Federal Executive of the Australian Labor Party, 5 October 1949, in A.W. Stargardt, editor, Things Worth Fighting For. Speeches by Joseph Benedict Chifley, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1952, p. 71.
58 Race Mathews, Of Labour and Liberty. Distribution in Victoria 1891-1966, Monash University Publishing, Clayton, 2017, and for a review: Michael Easson, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, Vol. 38, 2017, pp. 158-162.
59 For example, Lloyd Ross, Labour, Catholicism, and Democratic Socialism, Twentieth Century, Vol. 2, No. 2, December 1947, pp. 74-89. Mathews and Ross, both atheists, saw Catholic social thinking as complementary to social democracy.
60 The Hawke government restored the universal health insurance system that was originally the work of the Minister for Social Security Bill Hayden in the Labor government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Originally called Medibank, the system came into being after the passing of legislation by a joint sitting of Parliament on 7 August 1974. After certain emasculating changes under the Fraser, Liberal Country Party Coalition government, the Hawke government re-instated the original model, under the new name Medicare. See: R.B. Scotton and C.R. Macdonald, The Making of Medibank, School of Health Services Management, University of New South Wales, Kensington, 1993.
61 Specifically, the concept that good policy is developed in sympathy with the living, the dead, and those to be born. See: Mary Easson, Keating’s and Kelty’s Super Legacy. The Birth and Relentless Threats to the Australian System of Superannuation, Connor Court Publishing, Redland Bay [Queensland], 2017, p. 213 (which cites Burke), and fn. 13 above.
62 This is from memory. The Amalgamated Metal Workers’ Union, “the metal workers”, was prominent in this debate. Some contemporary press articles include: Keating’s Passionate Plea for More Banks, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 1984, p. 5; Foreign banks ‘a benefit’, The Canberra Times, 12 June 1984, p. 9.
63 Paul Keating, Traditions of Labor in Power; Whitlam and Hawke in the Continuum, in Traditions for Reform in New South Wales. Labor History Essays, Stephen Loosley, editor, Pluto Press, Sydney, 1987, p. 186.
In their books, both Adrian Pabst, Story of Our Country (2019) and Nick Dyrenfurth Getting the Blues. The Future of Australian Labor (2019) make complimentary remarks about my suggestion that Burkean lens are useful for seeing and understanding the evolution of the Australian Labor Party. (I shared my Chapter with them as I wrote it and so they were able to draw on it for their books.) Their shorthand for a Burkean Australian Labor tradition might be slightly misleading as my interpretation is not a familiar analysis.
The great Labor speechwriter, historian, and political prose-poet Graham Freudenberg (1934-2019) said that he carried a battered copy of Burke’s Reflections… on every overseas trip for 50 to 60 years and had a tremendous opinion of Burke’s approach to politics. Burke’s rhetoric and principles sometimes materially influenced what Freudy wrote for various Labor leaders. He and I understood how Burkean-like ideas and thinking permeated the ALP. Hopefully one day, with Pabst’s and Dyrenfurth’s research and analysis, and other thinkers and writers to come, the concept of a Burkean Labor tradition might not seem as strange a concept as it might appear at first blush.