Labor Cavaliers And Roundheads


Last week, Federal Labor backbencher Craig Emerson, a talented economist, made a statement that Labor should ‘not be engaged in a debate about more rights for terrorists.’

And new ALP National President Warren Mundine also said that if Labor focuses on Indigenous affairs and human rights issues, it cannot expect to be elected to office.

Mundine is right -?economic issues are usually of prime importance and the focus should remain there. However, these comments highlight a continuing debate within Labor between two loose groups -?who might be called the pragmatists and the idealists – concerning the extent to which alleged Labor principles should be promoted, modified or even ignored according to current political realities.

The background to the present debate is that Labor MPs and Party offices have been receiving dozens of letters from members and branches criticising the Party’s support of detention without charge in the recent anti-terrorism legislation. Many of the more pragmatic politicians have been taken by surprise by this and are exasperated at what they regard as a soft, middle-class issue important only to ‘champagne socialists,’ being given such prominence.

Thanks to Scratch!

The idealists, on the other hand, are equally exasperated that party policy on the question was breached, and typically, they say you do not compromise on fundamental rights.

Of course, this sort of argument has been a feature of ALP policy debates for more than 100 years. It is nothing new and the history of how previous Labor leaders have dealt with such disputes is instructive.

One of Mark Latham’s mistakes in the last Federal election campaign was to argue a parochial, class-based ‘fibros’ versus ‘silvertails’ view of the world. An example was his Robin Hood policy of reducing funding to private schools in favour of their public counterparts, immediately offending a powerful middle-class constituency. It may have cemented the vote of the Labor’s traditional supporters but this is not always the best way to win elections.

To win, and particularly to win well, Labor needs to win middle-class votes. Inverted snobbery is just not the way to do it. Economic issues are crucial but other issues including those sometimes sneered at by the party hardheads, can be important.

Take Gough Whitlam. In 1969, at his first election as leader, Gough achieved a 7.1 per cent swing, just falling short of winning. Three years later he got there with a further swing of 2.5 per cent. One of Gough’s greatest attributes was his ability in Opposition to formulate and articulate fresh, idealistic, yet practical policies. He pitched to all constituencies ? sewers for the unsewered outer suburbs, Medibank (now Medicare) for the millions without health insurance, abolition of conscription, free universities, the creation of the Australia Council for the Arts, there was something for everybody. Gough’s approach was intelligent and positive, with policies based on Labor principle but which appealed across the economic divide.

At the same time, Whitlam the pragmatist curbed the policy obsessions of the more radical of his Party colleagues. There was therefore no hint of nationalisation or abolishing ‘State Aid’ (government funding of private schools) then both advocated by the Party’s Left. He won in 1972 by successfully appealing to a coalition of interests even though relatively healthy economic conditions existed at the time.

A second example is John Curtin’s crushing victory in 1943. OK, it was wartime but the previous Federal election in September 1940 was also in wartime and the incumbent Prime Minister, Menzies, was returned by just 1 seat with 50.3 per cent of the two-party vote. Three years later Curtin received an emphatic vote of 59.1 per cent! Obviously this did not happen by accident – Curtin was an outstanding leader and had provided strong, intelligent, moderate leadership for the whole nation not just traditional Labor voters.

Curtin, who previously had been quite radical, specifically promised in that election campaign that there would be no nationalisation, and he had even introduced conscription after a bitter internal debate within the Party – something he had been jailed for opposing during World War I.

Clearly, Curtin got middle-class backing by the bucket-load but the extent of that support is quite amazing when you look at the results in individual seats in 1943. In the conservative seat of Perth, the 32-year-old Tom Burke (Brian’s father) reluctantly stood because no one else was interested in a seat requiring a 14.5 per cent swing. He found himself a Federal politician after Curtin’s leadership delivered a swing of 20.5 per cent in the seat, still a record for Federal Labor even at a by-election! The Burke dynasty began as a result.

Outside Western Australia, Curtin’s home State, there were some extraordinary figures in NSW also. Only two New South Wales seats have never been won by Labor since Federation: the blue ribbon Tory seats of Wentworth and North Sydney. In 1943 there was a 14.5 per cent swing to Labor in North Sydney and a 14.2 per cent swing in Wentworth, with the startled Labor candidates being only narrowly defeated. The conclusion is obvious – people who had voted conservative all their lives were prepared to vote for Curtin.

If you want examples of State Labor leaders sustained by middle-class support Neville Wran in NSW and Don Dunstan in South Australia are good ones. The Wran Government was elected in 1976, less than five months after Whitlam had lost ‘The Dismissal’ election.

Like Whitlam in Opposition, Wran had pitched unashamedly to voters across the board. He too presented modern, progressive, intelligent, but moderate policies. In his first term as Premier, influenced by the recent experience of the Whitlam Government, he was a cautious reformer not wanting to be seen as doing ‘too much too soon.’ Wran was brilliantly successful and in October 1978, his Government was re-elected with 60.7 per cent of the two-party vote. It was a landslide and the conservative North Shore seats of Manly, Wakehurst and Willoughby fell to Labor.

At a policy level, Wran in his first term funded a rejuvenated rail system – the key promise of the 1976 campaign. However he also introduced anti-discrimination laws, appointed a Women’s Advisory Council to assist the Premier, introduced democratic elections for a reconstituted Upper House, supported the Arts and was often seen attending the opera.

Before entering politics, Wran had been an accomplished barrister and was an early member of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties. His Attorney-General was the 34 year-old Frank Walker, a left-winger with similar views. The Wran Government was careful in implementing its law reforms, but never supported the ‘law and order’ agenda which its Liberal predecessor often relied on, after being elected in 1965.

Wran continued his cautious but positive reform approach and at the 1981 election his vote slipped back only 2 per cent, to 58 per cent.

Another and perhaps the best example of a longer-term State Labor government which maintained support while introducing a raft of disparate reforms, was the 1970s administration of Don Dunstan in South Australia. Dunstan, like Wran was a lawyer and civil libertarian. He was less cautious than Wran and successfully legislated for among other things, Aboriginal lands rights, legalisation of homosexuality, consumer and women’s rights and democratic electoral changes. He also gave the Arts heavy support and the Adelaide Festival boomed during his Government.

Dunstan was an articulate advocate for what might now be termed ‘socia
lly progressive policies’ (by their supporters) or ‘cafe middle-class obsessions’ (by their opponents). He was no lightweight, however – being a fierce supporter of SA industry and a committed opponent of the White Australia Policy. He was the most prominent Labor participant in the destruction of that policy, moving a resolution opposing it at successive National ALP conferences commencing in 1959.

Dunstan became SA Premier in 1967. At the 1968 election, despite achieving 54 per cent of the two-party vote, he lost because of rigged electoral boundaries. After constant pressure, electoral reforms were introduced and he was re-elected Premier in 1970 and subsequently served continuously until ill health forced his resignation in 1979.

The Dunstan Government used opinion polling extensively to assist with electoral strategies but, crucially, Dunstan claims not to have abandoned good policy if polling found it unpopular. In that event he claimed to use the research only to change the way in which the measure was communicated to the electorate.

The Hawke/Keating Governments more often than not combined the same elements of their predecessors referred to above. It was Hawke who introduced affirmative action and sex discrimination laws, for example. They relied heavily on major economic reforms but never exclusively.

My point is not that soft-Left policies which are popular with ‘basket-weavers’ (Keating’s expression) will win elections. They won’t. They can however assist in building the coalition of support which Labor has always needed.

Current Labor leaders could do well to reflect on the successful experience of these previous governments in balancing the views of the pragmatists and the idealists. While it is vital to keep one eye firmly on the rocky road leading towards Chifley’s ‘light on the hill.’ it is just as vital to keep the other eye fixed on the light itself.

As for Craig Emerson, he accuses people of supporting more rights for terrorists. Which of Curtin, Dunstan, Whitlam, Wran, Hawke or Keating would have supported detention without charge of Australian citizens?

I think the answer is none.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.