Labor's traditions, 100 years on


By Martin Mulligan

On the eve of May Day, Bob Hawke and Wayne Goss were among those who made a pilgrimage to the small Queensland town of Barcaldine to celebrate the ALP's centenary. According to folklore, the humble folk of Barcaldine had a habit of holding political discussions while sitting under a big tree near the centre of town, and during such discussions 100 years ago they reached the conclusion they needed their own political party to represent them in parliament.

The old "wisdom tree" is still standing and so is the myth that the ALP was formed in a spontaneous way by the ranks of humble working people. Indeed, the party's PR people can't seem to get the myth right. Earlier in the year, they celebrated the founding of the Balmain branch of the Labor Electoral League in April 1891 as the event which marked the party's birth.

Barcaldine does have the honour of having organised the country's first May Day march a century ago, and it was in the centre of the big battles between shearers and squatters during the bitter shearers' strike of 1891. But the idea of forming the ALP was in gestation for quite some years before 1891 and can largely be credited to the leaders of the Trades and Labor Councils in Sydney and Brisbane.

In 1891, 36 "Labourites" representing the Labor Electoral Leagues were elected to the NSW parliament. But even they were not the first of their kind. As far back as 1859, the trade union movement in Melbourne had ensured the election of Charles Don to the Victorian parliament and in 1874 the Sydney TLC officially endorsed the candidacy of a carpenter, Angus Cameron.

Cameron initiated the Labor tradition of "ratting" when he joined forces with enemies of the trade unions in the parliament, but that didn't deter the Brisbane TLC from putting up its president for a by-election contest in 1886 and four further candidates in the general elections of 1888.

The 1889 Inter-Colonial Trades Union Congress, held in Hobart, unanimously adopted a resolution calling on TLCs across the country to support parliamentary candidates. The Sydney TLC acted quickly on this resolution; its Parliamentary Committee drafted a pacesetting political platform adopted by the TLC in January 1890 — more than a year before the foundation of the Balmain branch and seven months before the beginning of the first of the big 1890-91 strikes — the

maritime strike.

Ideological influences

The Sydney TLC's political platform was subsequently adopted by Labor Party formations in other states, with only small amendments. Easily detected in it are the ideas of the US tax reform campaigner Henry George and of the British Fabians. What is missing is any clear influence of classical Marxism, which was very strong in Europe at this time.

Some of the demands are very specific — including a demand to ban camels as beasts of burden because they represented a health risk — while the last, rather hopeful, demand was for "Any measure that will secure the wage-earner a fair and equitable return for his or her labour".

Key points in the platform covered an extension of the right to vote; abolition of the hand-picked upper houses; and a range of proposals for creating uniform industrial legislation. In the early years, the party took up the campaign for introducing payment for parliamentarians (previously they were all men of "independent means"), and it campaigned for the establishment of arbitration courts (not an original proposal).

In an article written for Pravda in 1913, Russian Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin concluded that the ALP had largely played the role of the Liberal Party in Britain in introducing reforms to capitalism. In the process of national unification of the colonies (only completed in 1901), the Labor Party had been one of the few political forces with any degree of national cohesion, and so its role had been important in creating the machinery for government.

Lenin suggested that the Australian party had nothing in common with European socialist parties and could be better described as a "bourgeois liberal party". The Age had made a similar point some time earlier in an editorial written after the election of the first Labourites to the Victorian Parliament in 1892: "The Labour candidates are nothing more than Liberals under a new name".

Radical wing

To the extent that there was a left wing in the Labor Party in its early days, it promoted radical or utopian nationalist ideas. A leading force was the journalist and organiser William Lane, who gained a large following through his contributions in the journals Boomerang and Worker and his book The Workingman's Paradise.

Before arriving in Australia, Lane had been a fervent

admirer of the British utopian writer Edward Bellamy, and his first political activity in Brisbane centred on the formation of a Bellamy Society. In 1894 Lane took his utopian ideas to a logical conclusion by leading an ill-fated expedition to set up a new paradise in Paraguay. According to historian Robin Gollan, Lane had by this time "occupied a position of leadership that has rarely been equalled in the history of Australian radicalism".

Permeating Lane's writings was a strong anti-Chinese sentiment. He blamed the "smooth-faced and plump Mongolians" for many of Brisbane's vices and suggested there would be no room for them in his white workingman's paradise.

Lane's racism reflected the xenophobia permeating a society that saw itself as a European outpost in a very non-European part of the world. That sort of racism led the Brisbane TLC to work closely with the Anti-Chinese Committee on a project to form a political party as early as 1887. The Labor Party adopted a "white Australia" stance from its inception, and that remained a key tradition up until recent times.

A dubious tradition also established from the earliest days was the independence of the parliamentary caucus from the broader party structures. The battles to establish this independence were carried out by the first Labourites elected to the NSW parliament; the sorry story has been recounted in detail in the book How Labor Governs by Vere Gordon Childe.

Of course there have been different phases in the history of the ALP. Many people remark, for example, on the obvious differences in style between the Hawke and Whitlam governments. But there was no glorious past that was fundamentally different to what we see today. Hawke and his colleagues are indeed acting in accordance with party traditions when they put "national interest" and the interests of the capitalist system ahead of the interests of their working-class supporters.