David Day

According to John Button, the Labor Party “is at an all-time low in its morale, ideas and democratic participation”. Ironically, at the time he was writing those words, the party was occupying the government benches in every state and territory while the Liberals were almost everywhere in disarray. Only in the Federal Parliament was Labor relegated to the opposition benches. And had it not been for the Tampa “crisis” and September 11, and the fear campaign that those events allowed the conservatives to run, Labor probably would also have been on the government benches in Canberra.

Nevertheless, after three successive electoral defeats for federal Labor, it is not surprising that there should be a wide-ranging debate as to how the federal party can recover its former standing and become a serious candidate for government, particularly as the recent federal election saw an unprecedented number of staunch Labor supporters desert the party in despair, mainly over its pusillanimous response to the government’s assault on asylum seekers. So some soul searching was necessary.

John Button’s contribution to that debate raised many important issues, some of which have been addressed in the recent Hawke–Wran Report. One of the most interesting issues raised by John Button was that of candidate selection, which has recently seen a dramatic narrowing in the backgrounds from which candidates are drawn so that many now come from trade union offices, from within the party organisation or have worked for MPs. Few have had experience in the so-called “school of hard knocks”. Not that Labor candidates were ever particularly representative of the wider society. Where, for instance, were the women or the Aboriginals? Nor does a party background necessarily preclude great candidates coming forward. John Curtin is a case in point. Perhaps more important in the temporary eclipse of federal Labor has been it partly losing sight of Chifley’s “light on the hill”.

In the wake of Paul Keating’s unexpected electoral victory in 1993, a grand celebratory dinner was held in the great hall of Parliament House. Dubbed the “True Believers Ball”, it was intended as a function to thank the hundreds of people who had combined together to thwart the apparent certainty of a Liberal victory. It had followed on from the opening remarks of Keating’s acceptance speech on election night, when he had declared triumphantly that it was “a victory for the true believers”. It was an unfortunate remark that was interpreted by many people as meaning that a coalition of narrow interest groups, or small cabal of ideologues, had snatched victory for themselves and would now have their snouts in the trough. The subsequent ball at Parliament House only served to confirm this impression.

Overseeing it all from the top table, in a scene reminiscent of the last supper, was a beaming Paul Keating. Down below, a rather morose-looking Bob Hawke was relegated to one of the distant long tables. Politically, the hundred-dollar-ahead dinner was a disaster, with television news cameras recording the back-slapping crowd as they trooped into the hall, dressed in their finery, to tuck into the banquet before dancing to the sound of Yothu Yindi or busily networking over the dessert and coffee. For those who caught it on the late-night news or watched it over breakfast the next morning, it would have reinforced the popular impression of politics being about “them and us”, with most Australians necessarily excluded from the invitation-only celebration.

Along with Keating’s exultant acceptance speech, it began to undo all the work of the election campaign, during which Labor had portrayed itself as working for all Australians while the spivs of the Liberal Party were supposedly concerned only with doing the bidding of their mates at the big end of town. The ball was a politically maladroit action by a prime minister who was exhausted by ten years in government and who was convinced that Labor had run its course on the government benches. Many of his ministers and his staff had also run out of puff and were short of ideas. Rather than seeing the unexpected 1993 victory as a chance to lay down a new agenda that might allow Keating to replicate Hawke’s eight years in power, it was seen as a bonus, a chance for a last hurrah before the inevitable defeat at the next election.

Not that the Keating government squandered those last three years. Indeed, its historical significance will be seen as profound. The Mabo legislation and the recognition of the historic wrongs done to the indigenous peoples, the tentative moves towards a Republic and the government’s embrace of Asia will continue to be seen as major achievements (even though they have been since put on hold by Howard).Yet those achievements did not lay the basis for an electoral victory by Keating in 1996. Quite the opposite. The Republic was churlishly dismissed as Keating’s Republic, with people convinced that Keating wanted to be the first president; Mabo was dismissed as pandering to a supposedly privileged interest group who now wanted to lay claim to suburban backyards; and the government’s embrace of Asia was interpreted as surrendering Australia to Asia.

Keating had learnt his “take no prisoners” politics from Jack Lang and the men of the Labor Right in New South Wales, and his big picture politics from the grand development plans of Rex Connor. But he was deficient in the small picture, in empathising with the lives of ordinary people. Or unable or unwilling to see the world through their eyes. This was encapsulated in his offhand comment about “the recession we had to have”, a remark that inspired deep and enduring resentment from the many people who were hit by high interest rates or prevented from getting work. Also, his passion for Napoleonic clocks, his part-purchase of a piggery and his mansion in Sydney all seemed to set him apart from ordinary Australians. It is one of the great ironies of recent Australian politics that this boy from the western suburbs seemed uncomfortable in the company of ordinary folk.

In contrast, John Howard deliberately depicted himself as suburban man writ small and was able to tap into the popular fears and insecurities of the suburbs, promising to make Australians relaxed and comfortable and to take politics off the front page. Of course, he has not been successful in this. Despite economic growth being high, and inflation and interest rates being low, feelings of insecurity are probably greater than they have ever been. And signs of this insecurity are mounting.

Australians who are fortunate enough to be in work are working longer and longer hours (much of it unpaid) in order to retain their jobs. (In contrast, France has introduced a thirty-five-hour week and enjoyed higher productivity as a result.) Australians who were educated in the state system are turning to private education in ever greater numbers in a costly attempt to guarantee their children a better chance in the job market and out of despair at the standards and facilities in the state system. Australians are paying ever-increasing amounts to private health insurance funds because they have lost confidence in the ability of the public health system to provide for their needs. Australians are facing ever-increasing bills for their tertiary education, with the prospect of many of them being in debt for years after graduation. Australians are enjoying longer lives but can no longer be confident of being able to fund their post-retirement years or meet their possible nursing home needs.

These insecurities were tailor-made for a strong and successful Labor campaign proposing solutions that could address the growing disparity in wealth and opportunity in Australian society. But that campaign was never mounted. Instead, the Tampa “crisis” allowed the government to create a new insecurity about refugees that had the effect of pushing the other insecurities back into the political shadows. And Labor found itself without an effective response, choosing instead to largely mimic the government so as to limit the electoral damage. As the man who coined the phrase “hip pocket nerve”, Ben Chifley was a pragmatic politician who kept in touch with popular opinion. Yet he did not believe that basic principles were worth sacrificing for the sake of gaining or retaining power. Some elections are better lost if the price of winning them is too high. The election in November 2001 was one such election. Indeed, it might have been better for Labor’s long-term success if it had retained its principles and taken the risk of losing by a landslide. (A show of political courage might even have been rewarded last November.)

Labor did not only present a weak-kneed alternative on the issue of refugees but also failed to mount any principled opposition to the government’s remorseless privatisation of health and education. It could hardly do so when the Hawke and Keating governments had been complicit in those privatisations. Over the past twenty-five years, under both Labor and Liberal, society has increasingly become simply a marketplace, largely unmediated by government action, with individuals competing against each other for access to ever more limited services. It is almost as if the “greed is good” mantra of Gordon Gekko has been etched above the marbled portals of Parliament House. And, shame to say, Labor helped to hold the ladder while Howard chiselled in the words. In recent times the Labor Party has too often lost sight of its guiding principles and underlying philosophy as a social democratic party and has engaged instead in a single-minded pursuit of economic growth to satisfy the shortsighted demands of the stock market, the foreign exchange dealers and the credit agencies.

Economic issues were certainly the driving force of earlier Labor governments as well, but they had more pressing reasons for making them paramount and they were seeking different outcomes. Prime ministers such as John Curtin and Ben Chifley had grown up during the depression of the 1890s. Curtin had spent his teenage years living in squalid accommodation in Brunswick and had been forced to support his family with whatever work he could find. Chifley, who was the same age as Curtin, spent those hard years living with his grandfather on a small farm outside of Bathurst where he had the most rudimentary education at a half-time school and picked potatoes from his grandfather’s paddocks. Partly as a result of these formative childhood experiences, both men were drawn into politics hoping to make a difference to the lives of ordinary people and seeking a society where capital was not king.

As late as the 1930s, Curtin still looked forward to what he called “the day of golden opportunity”, when capitalism would collapse of its own accord and society could be organised in accord with the interests of ordinary people. There was passion in the politics back then, with Curtin likening himself and his Labor colleagues to “standard bearers in a holy war”. Although Labor had seemed in a hopelessly divided condition after the 1931 election, Curtin kept to the task, maintaining that Labor MPs “must go on to the end and not yield while life is left to us”. Which of course he did, refusing to give up the burdens of prime ministerial office in 1945 even though he knew his life was ebbing away. In his quieter way, Chifley shared that passion and that view. At the 1946 election, the former boy from the Bathurst goldfields held out a vision of Australia being on the verge of a new “golden age”, with his government planning a range of nation-building measures to usher it in.

It was Menzies, after 1949, who largely got to construct that new “golden age” of full employment and unrestrained development powered by mass immigration and overseas capital. In contrast to Chifley, Menzies spoke to Australians as individuals in their homes rather than as groups in their workplaces. He spoke to them not as workers or employers but as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. He claimed that they were the “forgotten people” whose needs would be addressed by the Liberal Party. And many of those needs were addressed by Menzies and his Liberal successors over the following twenty-three years, as they took up Chifley’s vision of a “golden age” and made it their own, energetically developing and populating Australia’s scattered parts. It might have gone on forever. And for those growing up during those times it seemed that Menzies and his Liberal Party were a permanent fixture on the government benches. But they gradually lost the plot. Or, rather, the plot changed.

Menzies supposed that he had given Australians what they wanted. They had their Holden cars and brick veneer houses, complete with Victa lawnmowers and Hoover washing machines, and their quarter-acre blocks were allowed to sprawl from the settled centres of the coastal cities across the former farmland to the surrounding hills. Brisbane became larger in area than London. But there was a void at the heart of these suburban sprawls. And Labor noticed it. With their houses unsewered, their roads unmade and their suburbs unconnected to public transport, with child-care non-existent and their schools over-crowded and under-funded, with universities beyond the reach of all but the wealthy and the scholarship-holders, suburban Australians were calling for government to improve the quality of their lives. Individual affluence was not enough. And Whitlam’s Labor Party championed the positive role that the different levels of government could play in improving people’s lives.

Whitlam also finally countered the fear-driven campaigns of the conservatives that had helped to ensure their successive electoral victories for twenty-three years. He met them head-on with courageous political initiatives that reaped big rewards, both for Labor and Australia. Rather than remaining in the shadows prior to the 1972 election, Whitlam bravely flew to Beijing and promised, if elected, to recognise the Chinese government. On Vietnam, Whitlam promised to end conscription and bring the few remaining Australian forces home. And he let Washington know that Australia would be charting a more independent course in its foreign policy. What the present crop of Labor spin doctors would have made of such initiatives can only be imagined. When Whitlam’s world came crashing down with the ending of the prolonged post-war boom three years later, and Labor lost by a landslide at the 1975 election, he was still able to walk away with his reputation largely intact. Moreover, many of the more important initiatives introduced by Whitlam have endured to this day, while others such as land rights and multiculturalism were taken on board by Malcolm Fraser. His government made a lasting difference.

Now, after two decades of veneration of the market, it is time for the Labor Party to reassert the positive role that government can play in ensuring the preservation of values that we share and in shaping the sort of society that we would like to become. How can Labor accept the present wide disparity in educational outcomes in different schools (between public and private schools and even between different government schools) with the standard of facilities, teaching staff and programs depending largely on the income levels of the surrounding community rather than on the need levels of the students? Every Australian child should be able to attend a government-funded school that is the equal of their private rivals. Rather than conniving in Howard’s binary system of education based on wealth, why cannot Labor return to its basic egalitarian principles and make such a commitment, promising that no Australian parent should have qualms about sending their child to the local state school. As with education, why not also with health? It would almost be worth selling the rest of Telstra if Australians could be guaranteed such achievements.

In 1945, the Labor government of John Curtin promised Australians that the devastation of the thirties depression would not be visited upon them again. Through government intervention in the economy, all those Australians who were able and wanted to work would be able to find employment. It was a commitment that was fulfilled by governments, both Labor and Liberal, for nearly thirty years thereafter, absorbing as well the millions of migrants who came to our shores during that time. How could John Curtin and Ben Chifley and Robert Menzies provide full employment for thirty years, while both Labor and Liberal parties now shrink from promising anything with regard to the unacceptably high levels of unemployment? More particularly, how can the Labor Party accept with such apparent equanimity that 20 per cent or more of our young people are unemployed? Surely the loss to our society caused by this unemployment must rank as a national disaster the equal of any flood or fire that Australia has experienced? Surely it deserves a vigorous government and private response to create work for those who want it, rather than simply blaming the victims for their plight and punishing them with bureaucratic indignities?

Howard’s adroit and shameless use of the Tampa refugees for electoral purposes put passion back into politics, at least on the conservative side. By comparison, Labor looked grey and lifeless, as if not believing in anything. It was devoid of passion and unsure of its principles. Yet there remains much to be passionate about. More than ever, Australia has become a society of unequal chances and unequal outcomes. And despite its recent troubles, Labor remains the party best placed to address those fundamental issues of equity. After all, that was the basis of its foundation more than a hundred years ago.


David Day is a senior research fellow in the history program at La Trobe University and the author of biographies of John Curtin and Ben Chifley.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 6, Beyond Belief. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 7, Paradise Betrayed.


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