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A crash (or crash through) course in civilising capitalism

20 June 2011 2,312 views No Comment

WHAT came to be known as the Australian Labor Party was formed in 1891 and by December 1, 1899, Queensland had the first Labor government in the world. Led by Anderson Dawson from the dual electorate of Charters Towers, it lasted only a week but it gave the ALP a valuable opportunity to get the dirt on the conservatives by examining previous governments’ files.

By April 27, 1904, the party’s progress was confirmed by the installation of the world’s first national Labor government. Led by Chilean-born J. C. (Chris) Watson, it lasted longer, slightly less than four months.

The Watson government included future prime ministers Andrew Fisher, who had been a member of the Dawson government, and W. M. (Billy) Hughes, who later came to be reviled as a Labor rat for deserting the ranks and forming his own Nationalist federal government in 1916 over the issue of conscription. Watson’s minister for defence was none other than Dawson, by then a Labor senator for Queensland, who a few years later died in Brisbane from rampant alcoholism, isolated and alone.

Some of the above is covered in the plainly expressed and well-illustrated A Little History of the Australian Labor Party by Nick Dyrenfurth and one of his PhD thesis examiners, Frank Bongiorno. Much of the material in the first book also appears, but much less successfully, in the rather laborious and strangely titled Heroes and Villains, which deals with the ALP from its beginnings until 1919. Unlike the engaging little history, it reads like a slightly rejigged doctoral thesis, which indeed it is.

And, annoyingly, although there is no bibliography in this second book, there are hundreds and hundreds of endnotes, which occupy 38 pages of the total of 281. Comparing the one with the other, less is certainly more.

From its genesis, as Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno write, there was considerable dispute about whether Labor’s prime aim was to “civilise capitalism”, to improve the lot of Australian workers and their families, to end or ameliorate the rule of a “cruel and relentless capitalist class” or, more extremely in the case of those influenced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s The Communist Manifesto, to nationalise key industries and even install something like a dictatorship of the proletariat. Since its formation in 1920, the latter was one of the aims of the Communist Party of Australia.

However unpalatable it may seem, it is also important to acknowledge that one matter on which, in common with all other political parties at the time, most Laborites and members of the Labor Party agreed, at least up to the mid-1960s, was the promotion and protection of a distinctly White Australia.

The most illuminating chapter in Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno’s fascinating book deals with the period from 1972 to 1995. Headed Old Labor or New?, it canvasses the rise to power of the charismatic Edward Gough Whitlam, who was first elected to federal parliament in 1952, aged 36. Whitlam’s memorable 1972 It’s Time campaign, “with its singing celebrities, hip T-shirts and dazzling leader’s increasingly fluffy mane”, embodied new Labor.

The reality, the authors point out, is that between Whitlam’s election in 1972 and Paul Keating’s electoral demise almost a quarter of a century later, Labor “ruled federally for 16 years — roughly equal to its meagre performance over the previous 70 years”.

It seems indisputable that Whitlam and flamboyant South Australian Labor premier Don Dunstan, who had risen to power in 1970, had much in common. The authors put it particularly well: “Elegant and well spoken, and paying attention to the environment, urban planning, consumer protection, education, the arts, equal opportunity and Aboriginal affairs, Dunstan, as much as Whitlam, epitomised the party’s changing image and policy orientation.”

Prime minister Whitlam and his senior ministers were supposedly progressive but in 1972 not a single woman sat in caucus, let alone in the federal cabinet. As opposition leader, Whitlam had described his leadership style as “crash through or crash”. It is hard not to agree that this phrase applied equally well to Whitlam’s style of governing.

Moreover, like an earlier, short-term, Labor prime minister, Jim Scullin, Whitlam significantly raised expectations about what he could deliver, while confronting a “global economic crisis, an obstructionist Senate and powerful vested interests that were hostile to his agenda”.
Much of this heady material is traversed in Brian Carroll’s Whitlam. But do we need another book about the great man, especially as Carroll’s biography does not seem to contribute anything new?

Nevertheless, there are interesting bits in Whitlam. Carroll writes well about the two-man government of Whitlam and his deputy leader of the parliamentary party, Lance Barnard, which was sworn in on December 5, 1972. Remarkably, they were in charge of 27 portfolios: 13 for Whitlam, 14 for Barnard. This duumvirate abolished conscription, freed all jailed draft resisters, recalled troops still left in Vietnam and applied to the commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to reopen the equal pay for women case. It also appointed Edward Woodward to begin an inquiry into Aboriginal land rights and “began moves to set up diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China”.

Carroll usefully puts the spotlight on Whitlam’s trouble-prone attorney-general Lionel Murphy, who in March 1973 led “raids” on ASIO offices in Canberra and Melbourne. In his book The Whitlam Venture influential Canberra-based political journalist Alan Reid rightly called Murphy “a political bungler of considerable eminence”.

Although Graham Freudenberg’s magisterial exegesis of Whitlam’s role in Australian politics, A Certain Grandeur, is mentioned in a section on suggested reading at the end of Carroll’s book, it seems strange that there is not one mention of Freudenberg in the footnotes.

Yet as Whitlam’s brilliant speechwriter, close adviser and confidant, the chain-smoking Freudenberg helped Labor to power in that heady year of 1972.

He also was instrumental in keeping in the public eye what he regarded as the main contributions that the short-lived Whitlam government had made to Australian life.

A Little History of the Labor Party, By Nick Dyrenfurth and Frank Bongiorno, New South, 217pp, $24.95
Heroes and Villains: The Rise and Fall of the Early Australian Labor Party, By Nick Dyrenfurth, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 281pp, $44
Whitlam By Brian Carroll, Rosenberg Publishing, 256pp, $29.95

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His most recent book (with Rick Murphy) is Austen Tayshus: Merchant of Menace.