The Real Tragedy Will Be If Labor Retreats To Its Short-Sighted, Racist Past

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If you forget history, you’re condemned to repeat it and on that front, David Heslin has a very sobering message for the Opposition.

In November 1949, future Australian Labor Party (ALP) leader Arthur Calwell addressed a crowd at Brunswick Town Hall. A controversy had arisen over the Chifley government’s refusal to allow Lorenzo Gamboa, a sergeant who had fought for the US in World War II, the right to enter the country to visit his Australian wife, solely on account of his being Filipino. Calwell, then immigration minister, explained his reasoning as follows:

“If we let in any US citizen we will have to admit US negroes. I don’t think any mothers and fathers want to see that. […] If I let Gamboa back into the country I have to let back 6,000 Asiatics who left this country voluntarily. I am not thinking of the present but I am thinking of your children’s children, and I’m sure we don’t want half-castes running over our country.”

When some in the crowd protested against this, Calwell defended his stance with a verbal shrug: “I didn’t make the immigration laws in this country. I am only carrying them out.”

A decade later, Calwell would serve as federal ALP leader from 1960 to 1967 and contest three elections, before ultimately being replaced by Gough Whitlam. In the intervening decade, Calwell had not in any way evolved from the ideas he espoused at that town hall; he would remain a vigorous opponent of ending the White Australia Policy until his death, writing in his memoir in 1972: “I am proud of my white skin […] Anybody who is not proud of his race is not a man at all. And any man who tries to stigmatize the Australian community as racist because they want to preserve this country for the white race is doing our nation great harm.”

Perhaps it won’t be a surprise to students of Australian history that, just half a century ago, the leader of the nation’s more progressive major party held and publicly advanced views that could today be charitably described as being to the right of Pauline Hanson and Fraser Anning. But it’s not like a more progressive view was inconceivable at the time; as the 1949 article shows, there were some at the speech who were taken aback by the expression of such cruelty and small-mindedness, and this was also a time in which the United Nations was laying out principles of racial equality that were directly at odds with Australia’s bipartisan immigration policy.

By the 1960s, even the Liberal Party were becoming increasingly uneasy with the country’s racialised immigration restrictions; in 1966, prime minister Harold Holt took significant steps toward dismantling the White Australia Policy (a job completed by Whitlam seven years later). Unfortunately, this was just another moment in the country’s history in which atrociously reactionary politics were held by the ALP, either because the party fostered a culture in which such views proliferated, or in which they were tactically adopted because they were seen to cater to a certain voter demographic.

Over the next three years, there will be those within the Labor Party who will argue that the reason they lost this election is that their policy platform was too progressive – a policy platform that, let us not forget, still comprised the indefinite offshore detention of refugees and refoulement of those fleeing torture and political persecution, complete support for the Liberal Party’s relentless expansion of the police state and not the slightest offer of protection for whistleblowers who exposed Australian or US government corruption. Rather, they will argue, the ALP need to do better at exploiting right-wing prejudice for their own purposes. Those who oppose such manoeuvres will be told that theirs is a politics of purity, one that only helps the Liberals.

Like many, I’m at a loss as to why exactly Labor lost this election, and I won’t pretend that I have a precise recipe for how to better combat the Liberals’ lies and scare campaigns while prosecuting a compelling case for reducing inequality. But I know this: one month after Calwell gave his speech about the risk of the country being swamped by “Asiatics”, African-Americans and “half-castes”, Labor lost government to Robert Menzies’ Coalition, who branded their opponents Communist sympathisers.

In the 1960s, Calwell’s staunch support of the White Australia Policy did little to aid his party’s attempts to win power back off Menzies’ Liberal Party, and under his stewardship Labor suffered their sixth, seventh and eighth consecutive election losses.

In 2004, Mark Latham’s decision to reassure homophobic Christian groups by backing John Howard’s same-sex marriage ban failed to prevent a landslide Liberal victory and a since-unparalleled Coalition upper-house majority. And in 2019, Bill Shorten’s insistent fence-sitting on the construction of the environmentally disastrous Adani coal mine failed to stop his party being successfully branded as radical environmentalist job-killers.

I’m not saying cynicism never works. Clearly, the Liberal Party have made an art form of it. But a fearful and lukewarm ALP that treats bigotry as a means to achieve other progressive ends and looks on vulnerable minority groups as a bump in the road on the way to power is one that will keep losing, always being painted by the right as the progressives that they lack the courage to be – until they actually commit to those progressive causes and argue for them with passion and confidence, or else actively seek to outflank the Liberals on the right, at which point the much-vaunted “light on the hill” (ironically, a term coined by Chifley in the same year as Calwell’s town hall appearance) will be well and truly snuffed out.

The pessimistic notion that progressive political change is impossible in Australia – a sentiment that many of us may have briefly entertained over the last few days – is an absurdity. The Liberal Party are not political masterminds; their own capacity for ineptitude and self-destruction has been perfectly apparent over the past six years.

What we need to remember is that politics is mostly about effective communication, and that even the most sensible and forward-thinking platform will fail if not presented compellingly or inspiringly.

If they are to emerge from this current crisis point, Labor need to have the courage to – for the first time in a long time – ditch the weak small-target strategy, cease treating society’s vulnerable as expendable and stop clinging so desperately to the status quo.

Instead, they must articulate a coherent, brave and radical social and economic policy, one that acknowledges the possibility of a much better society than the one we currently live in.

If they don’t, then students of Australian history 50 years hence may end up looking on them just as they look today at Arthur Calwell’s Labor – as a backward, cowardly and politically inept organisation that helped enable a generation of conservative rule.

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David Heslin

David Heslin is a writer, poet and film critic based in Melbourne, Australia. His work has been published in The National Times, The Conversation and Senses of Cinema, and he was a participant in the Melbourne International Film Festival's Critics Campus in 2015.

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