Red-handed Ted and the parliament game

June 12, 1991

Comment by Col Hesse

The postwar two-party system in Australia is undeniably facing its greatest challenge. Acknowledging evidence that there could be anywhere between 10% and 30% of the electorate looking outside the two main parties, NSW trade unions took the unusual step of supporting non-Labor candidates in the state poll (the Marie Bignold ticket on the wowser right and Carole Medcalfe for the Greens).

Despite a media blackout on independents and minor parties, NSW voters returned four independents and made Greiner's Liberals the fourth minority state government. (The Western Australian, Tasmanian and South Australian Labor governments already rely on the support of independents.)

Not since the postwar emergence of the Liberal Party has there been such space for independents and parties other than Liberal or Labor, and the green movement has begun to realise that it is in the best position to fill a lot of this electoral space.

If the NSW Labor Council had supported the Green ticket headed by Ian Cohen instead of Bignold, there's little doubt Cohen would easily have tipped out Fred Nile and denied the Liberals control of the upper house. On top of that, Green Alliance candidates easily outpolled the Australian Democrats in most of the seats they contested.

New consciousness about the problems of existing political and social systems, together with the ALP's abandonment of its traditional base, have left the way open for the greens to emerge as one of the few electorally successful, popularly based parties in the past 100 years.

But this is not inevitable. The greens face a number of obstacles, some of which were also observed in the emergence of the Labor Party. "Men, who had never been suspected by their most intimate friends of knowing anything of politics or having any leanings towards democracy, suddenly received a Call to do battle for the poor, downtrodden workers", wrote one observer of the formation of the Labor Party. Today, a similar phenomenon is already evident in the scurrying of green parliamentary aspirants to the Democrats.

A more serious problem is the emergence of resistance to democratic control over green parliamentary representatives. This is one of the constants of ALP history. In most cases, it took Labor politicians until around the 1970s to wrest the conscience vote on abortion from a reluctant movement, and from there it was a short jump to the final triumph of the parliamentary wing in the 1980s — accompanied by a swift erosion of Labor's popular base. Some greens want to write in this anti-democratic provision from the very beginning of the new movement.

The tendency of parliament to corrupt even dedicated individuals, let alone scramblers for the spoils of office, is well established. Just one example of this is E.G. Theodore. Known as Red Ted for his brilliant union organising activities in Queensland around 1907-1912, tion might have been Red-handed Ted by the time his electorate booted him out of federal politics in 1931. When he left politics, he had become an earlier incarnation of today's Brian Burkes and John Cains, though the business and political establishment thought none the worse of him for that and gave him a state funeral when he died a mining magnate in 1950.

Theodore was originally an itinerant worker, gardening and cutting logs around Adelaide until, at the age of 16, he joined a gold rush to Western Australia. After experiencing the benefits of strong trade unions during a later spell as an underground miner at Broken Hill, he joined another gold rush, this time to north Queensland, and there became a leader of an emergent union movement based on the region's miners and rail workers.

Elected to the state parliament in 1909, Theodore remained an organiser for the north Queensland workers and, according to his biographer Irwin Young, still "dressed as could be expected of one who had lived in boarding houses (when not camped out) since the age of sixteen".

In 1912, now deputy leader of the parliamentary party, he was still militant enough to tell the parliament: "Men who are dissatisfied and have come to the conclusion that the ordinary methods of improving their conditions or securing redress of their grievances are not suitable to the occasion, have to resort to other means, even to violence".

When Labor won the state elections in 1915, Theodore became treasurer and deputy premier. At a meeting during a 1916 tour of northern coastal towns, the now well-groomed former militant told a young unemployed interjector he should be prepared to tramp the soles off his boots before accepting state rations. By 1917, unions were striking against an ALP government enforcing harsh economic policies.

In 1919, a gold-handled-cane-carrying Theodore became premier, but in 1925, amid scandal over foreign loans and land deals, he resigned to contest a federal seat. So unpopular that he was defeated in a safe Labor electorate, he moved to NSW in search of an even safer seat, which he obtained in a deal that was later to blow up into a bribery scandal. Elected this time, by October 1929 he was deputy prime minister and treasurer in the Scullin Labor government.

But in 1930 the Queensland governor appointed a royal commission to look into allegations of corrupt links between previous state governments and mining interests. Theodore resigned as treasurer after the commission reported that "men who have occupied high and responsible positions in the State ... betrayed, for personal gain, the trust reposed in them, and have acted corruptly and dishonourably".

After losing another safe Labor seat in 1931, Theodore went into the newspaper business with Frank Packer and ran large gold mines in Fiji.

Theodore began as a committed and experienced militant who set out to use parliament to serve the interests of the majority, but within a decade the parliamentary system had got the upper hand. Red Ted was being used by the system, steadily losing touch with his base among eensland, and well on the way to becoming Red-handed Ted.

Probably no system of democratic control can prevent some individuals succumbing to the many pressures and temptations of the parliamentary game, but complete reliance on the integrity of individuals is a recipe for certain disaster if we want to avoid the spectacle of red-handed greens.

Issue