After 100 years in parliament: Has Labor changed?

THE CENTENARY of federation marks 100 years since the formation of the federal Labor Party.

In early May, this centenary was celebrated at a glittering dinner complete with speeches from former Labor prime ministers Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and a new 300 page history written by Labor senator John Faulkner.

For current leader Kim Beazley, it was an opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of Labor’s greatest heroes, John Curtin and Ben Chifley, and paint modern Labor as continuing the struggle they led to improve the lives of working class Australians—the much-hyped “light on the hill”.

But it didn’t wash. In factories and offices around the country and among trade unionists, Labor’s centenary was met with indifference.

On ABC TV’s 7.30 Report, Kerry O’Brien tackled Beazley, pointing to Labor’s record of privatisation, the miniscule differences in policy between Labor and the Coalition, and the consequent weakening of party allegiance among traditional supporters.

There is very widespread sentiment that Labor has all but abandoned the working class policies—defence of the welfare state, government ownership of services, social spending on reforms to improve the lives of ordinary people— that it is felt they once stood for. People are right to see a massive difference between Labor today and the Labor Party of 50 or 100 years ago.

Labor in Opposition has never been so bankrupt. Its politicians seem to have given up any struggle for real reforms to Australian society.

In its earliest years in federal parliament, Labor fought for the introduction of the old age pension—and succeeded in 1908 when it threatened to bring down the protectionist government of Alfred Deakin. The Fisher government launched the Commonwealth Bank in 1911, and introduced land taxes on rich property owners to help pay for government services.

After the Second World War, Labor revamped the social security system, expanding the dole and other benefits. Labor Party activists are rightly proud of the social reforms of the Whitlam government, including free tertiary education, massive amounts spent on urban development programs, Medibank health insurance, and equal pay legislation.

The comparison with Labor today is stark. Labor’s links to ordinary working class people have shrivelled, along with its program. According to figures in Andrew Scott’s book Fading Loyalties, between 1961 and 1986, the proportion of Victorian Labor Party members who were tradespeople fell from 21 per cent to 6 per cent. The proportion of members who were machine operators and labourers fell from 24 per cent to 7 per cent. In 1978, ALP membership in working class areas of Sydney was half that of 1952 levels.

FOR DECADES, the selection of Labor candidates involved a vote, not just of party members, but any trade union member in the electorate who cared to participate. This profoundly affected the people chosen to run as Labor candidates.

Many of them came from the shop floor and were trade union activists who had been involved in real struggle. Labor war-time prime minister John Curtin had been jailed in 1917 for refusing to report to a military camp for the war.

Ben Chifley, his successor, had lost his job for going on strike in 1917. Eddie Ward, a cabinet minister and leader of the Left, was batoned by police during a protest to stop the deportation of a German activist during the First World War. In 1929 he was arrested on a timber workers’ picket line. These people are a million miles away from the slick political managers of today. Labor was once a party of debate.

Ministers and prime Ministers argued with each other, with other MPs and with party members, all in public. Eddie Ward, when minister for transport, fought against Chifley publicly over the proposal to sign the Bretton Woods agreement that set up the IMF and the World Bank. Arthur Calwell, when minister for immigration, campaigned publicly against Curtin’s proposal for conscription during the Second World War.

Killing that open debate was one of the first things Bob Hawke did as prime minister in 1983, demanding that ministers support every cabinet decision in caucus whatever their personal opinion. If his government was going to succeed in clamping down on trade union militancy, and smashing unions like the Builders’ Labourers Federation, or mining uranium, Cabinet ministers would have to be insulated from the anger and dismay of the rank and file.

But if there is a gap between today’s Labor party and Labor, there is also a terrible continuity. Labor has always set out to loyally administer Australian capitalism to ensure that the ruling class got its profits. The result was that every single Labor government has ended up bitterly disappointing, even betraying, its supporters.

The first Labor Party was formed in NSW and had 36 MPs elected in 1891, alarming the ruling class. But within a year, those Labor MPs had betrayed the workers of Broken Hill, refusing to attack the NSW government which used a massive police operation to break a strike against wage cuts. Chifley is one of Labor’s great heroes, but he worked tirelessly to prevent, and then delay, the implementation of the 40 hour week. He helped start the Cold War in Australia, founding ASIO and jailing communist union leaders. He was driven from office shortly after sending troops in to scab on a national coal strike.

IT IS significant that Labor has been in power for every great crisis in Australian capitalism. But instead of protecting workers from the crisis, Labor’s commitment to running capitalism meant that it used its organic links with the trade union movement to restore stability and the fortunes of business.

As prime minister during the First World War, William Morris Hughes imposed a wage freeze in the middle of massive inflation, producing incredible poverty. He was expelled from the party for trying to conscript workers for the bloodbath in Europe.

The Scullin government came to power on the eve of the Great Depression. Once the economy crashed, federal Labor abandoned all attempts to shield workers from the ravages of mass unemployment and poverty, insisting on massive cuts to wages, pensions and public service jobs in order to balance the budget and pay the interest on Australia’s foreign debt.

When the post-war boom collapsed in 1974, and unemployment shot up, the Whitlam government shifted from a program of social reform to one of spending cuts and anti-union campaigning. This didn’t solve the economic problems, but it meant Labor was hated by both the ruling class and many workers too.

The deeper the crisis, the less Labor has fought for. This is particularly clear in the years since the post-war boom ended in 1974. Despite all Whitlam’s cuts in 1975, he still went ahead with Medibank. By the time Hawke was elected in 1983, the general crisis of profitability in Australian capitalism was much deeper, and modest improvements in welfare were far outweighed by the wage cuts under the Accord, industry restructuring, deregulation and privatisation.

Now the problems of Australian capitalism have become so deep that even in opposition, Labor refuses to tackle ruling class “welfare”—the massive cuts in company tax and income tax on the rich, the $4 billion a year that goes to private schools—and cries that there is no money to boost health and education spending and reverse the damage the Liberals have done.

By Phil Griffiths
Socialist Worker (Australia), June 22, 2001


Solidarity meetings

Latest articles

Read more

Palestine movement should welcome dissenting Labor members

Palestine activists should encourage Labor members to support our demands and seek to draw them into the movement.

Albanese still backing Israel’s onslaught despite ceasefire gesture

Anthony Albanese has shifted his position on a ceasefire under pressure from sustained protests at Israel’s genocidal onslaught on Gaza—but still won’t demand Israel stop the bombing.

‘Labor has blood on their hands’: why I quit the ALP

Labor’s support for Israel’s horrific war on Gaza is creating tensions within the party. Solidarity spoke to one member about why she quit the ALP.