Six Score Years On

In the ACT ALP journal Lobby, I have a piece with Will Isdale about the party's achievements since 1891.
Andrew Leigh & William Isdale, 'Labor's Proud History', Lobby, July 2012

There is no unambiguous birth certificate for the ALP, but the most common account is that during a bitter pastoral strike in 1891, some 3000 shearers came together and formed the party under the speckled shade of a gum tree that came to be known with affection as the ‘Tree of Knowledge’, in Barcaldine in rural Queensland.  On other accounts, the party sprung to life in bustling Balmain in the same year – an area known for its shipbuilding and boilermaking.

As Nick Dyrenfurth and Frank Borgiono put it in A Little History of the Australian Labor Party, whichever story is true, “the party of the legendary bushman also belonged to his sturdy city cousin”. The authors tell the story of Billy Hughes in 1895 being moved to tears when three Irish migrants approached him at a campaign event and offered him £150 – all their combined savings – as a commitment to the cause of getting working people represented in parliament.

Labor candidates contested their first general election in New South Wales only a few months after having formed. Astonishingly, we won 35 of the 141 seats on offer in the Legislative Assembly.  This explosion onto the political scene occurred at a time of great change in Australian society, as the economy continued to transition from pastoral to industrial. Work that had previously been done in small workshops or as one’s own boss was now done in large factories, often in Dickensian working conditions. The rise of the Labor party, then, was part of a greater cause: that of ensuring working people could live a civilized existence at a time when state support for citizens was largely non-existent.

A global depression in the 1890s further convinced workers of the need to protect their rights and living standards as wages were slashed and many went hungry. In the words of New South Wales Labor MP George Black in 1891, Labor had set as its agenda, not to “support government or oppositions” but “to make and unmake social conditions”.

By 1899 Labor was the second-largest party in Queensland. There, later that year, a former miner, Anderson Dawson, formed the world’s first Labor government. Alas, it lasted only a week. Nonetheless, Labor was by now a movement that was recognized and respected throughout the country. At the first election for the new national parliament, Labor won 24 of the 111 spots available in the House of Representatives and Senate. Like so many before them, they came from often unexpected backgrounds: one was a felt hatter, another an insurance salesman. There was even a clergyman among them. As Dyrenfurth and Borgiono point out, 13 of those 24 men were born overseas.

The Labor movement now also had the support of branches that had sprung up all over the country. The branches involved ordinary people in the political process. Their grassroots engagement, debating of ideas and policy, and support in campaigning and fundraising, was hugely successful in advancing the Labor cause. Between 1901 and 1903, when the second Federal election was held, Labor’s primary vote almost doubled. One year later, on 27 April 1904, John Christian Watson became Prime Minister in our first national Labor government.

The Australian Labor Party was never a revolutionary party, which frustrated some on the left. Disheartened by the early Labor reformers, William Lane and 220 of his followers sailed to Paraguay in 1893 to set up a socialist colony called ‘New Australia’. Twenty years later, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the father of the Russian Revolution, criticized the Labor Party for the fact that it did not aim to overthrow capitalism. Lenin may have over-egged the pudding when he called the ALP a ‘liberal-bourgeois party’, but he was fundamentally correct that the ALP was a party that sought to temper the excesses of the market, not replace it with a socialist state.

The ALP has outlasted ‘New Australia’ by more than a century and the USSR by two decades. And while we should recognize the part played by early Labor governments, it’s also worth noting that the mould for a successful Labor government was truly forged in the 1940s. In NSW, William McKell’s government improved workers compensation and the right to bargain, gave annual holidays to workers who had not been guaranteed one before, built thousands of new homes, and founded the Kosciuszko National Park.

Federally, the 1940s saw John Curtin stand up to Churchill and demand that Australian troops return to defend the homeland. Curtin also laid the foundations of our modern economy, with universal taxation introduced to fund a major expansion of the social security system, and a recognition that open markets drive economic growth. In their own way, all successful state Labor governments are heirs of McKell, and all successful federal Labor governments are heirs of Curtin.

Our founders weren’t perfect (we cringe to read their praise for White Australia and the condemnation of working women). But in many respect they were well ahead of their time.  Thanks to the determination of people like Prime Minister Andrew Fischer, who started off in life as a child miner; and Dorothy Tangney, who overcame all odds to become Australia’s first female Senator, Australians have come to enjoy some of the highest living standards in the world.

If you’re a member of the ALP, you’re part of the party that won reforms like the 44-hour week, child endowment and widows’ pensions, and fought continually for higher wages, better industrial conditions, regular holidays and decent housing. The Labor Party is the party that brought in the Racial Discrimination and Sex Discrimination Acts, created Medicare and built major national infrastructure projects like the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric scheme.

Ours is the party that abolished the imperial honours system and helped bury the White Australia policy. The economic reforms of Hawke and Keating – trade liberalization, floating the dollar, competition policy and enterprise bargaining – laid the foundations for the productivity surge of the 1990s. The Rudd and Gillard governments have built on that legacy, saving hundreds of thousands of jobs in the Global Financial Crisis, building a better education and health system, and putting a price on carbon pollution.

In its fundamentals, the history of Australia is largely the history of the Australian Labor Party. As we celebrate passing the Labor Party's 120th anniversary milestone, it’s time to reflect on all that we’ve achieved so far and all that we stand for today.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser & William Isdale is a law student at the University of Queensland. This is an extended version of their article in Lobby Magazine.

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