Communist Party of Australia

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Issue #1600      July 3, 2013

Labor’s legacy lost

The shuffling of Labor’s parliamentary deckchairs has drawn to an end after several Gillard ministers made their exits in the wake of Prime Minister Rudd’s comeback last week. The spectacle has revealed just how value-free the manoeuvring and backstabbing within the ALP have become. “Left”, “right” and “centre” of the party have no disagreements with one another about the essence of their neo-liberal agenda. While members may have greater or lesser allegiance to the Catholic Church, they all now embrace the US alliance, “free” markets and the rolling back of what remains of the “welfare state”. Career fulfilment is now simply a matter of being in the prime position and doing the most persuasive job of selling an objectively anti-people program to an electorate with no real choices before it.

It’s easy to find people ready to pay out the ALP nowadays. “Another Liberal Party” is a common quip. But there is a tragic dimension to this latest chapter in the party’s history. Factional fights used to mean something; they were a battle between people genuinely committed to public enterprise, workers’ right to organise for a better deal and a more independent foreign policy versus the infiltrators and rats.

As a person old enough to remember the first, dizzying, reform-packed weeks of the Whitlam government, the past few days have been a bitter reminder of just how far to the right Australia’s political discourse has been pushed. I can recall under Whitlam, in quick succession, the abolition of conscription, the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam, the abolition of all tertiary education fees and the establishment of Medibank (an even more just and humane precursor of Medicare).

The Labor Party loves its history; it’s the strongest thing going for it. It is Australia’s oldest political party, founded in 1891 in Barcaldine in Queensland. The workers had been defeated in several bitterly fought strike struggles including the shearers’ strike that gave rise to such a rich folklore. Some fled to Paraguay to set up utopian communities; others stayed and established a parliamentary party to argue the workers’ case in chambers designed to preserve the privileges of the wealthy in society. Early Labor governments chalked up a record of reform but the “socialisation objective” that was to stay in the party’s platform for decades was never taken seriously.

For many decades it was to remain a no-brainer as to whether Australian workers should vote Labor or conservative (United Australia Party or “Liberal”). People grew up in Labor families where generations of workers joined the ALP at the same time they went to work and joined their trade union. Politics was a passionate business. Australian novelist Charmian Clift wrote from self-imposed exile on a Greek island in the 1950s about the torrid political arguments she witnessed between blue singlet-wearing men in the front yards of their homes in the 1930s. It was visceral.

NSW premier Jack Lang rejected the demands of the Bank of England to pay back loans at the height of the Depression. “Lang is greater than Lenin” was a slogan from the time. Labor prime minister Curtin told the British straight that Australian troops were needed back here to defend our shores from Japanese invasion at the onset of the 1940s. Ben Chifley gave us the Snowy Mountains Scheme, Qantas and TAA and tried to nationalise the banks in 1947. It is noteworthy that Chifley was a former engine driver on NSW railways. Could you imagine a similar career path nowadays?

The Communist Party recognised the complex character of the Labor Party from its earliest days. Some early Communist leaders, like Guido Baracchi, believed the ALP to be the true mass party of the Australian working class and that the Communist Party should liquidate itself into it. Later, during its disastrous Eurocommunist phase under the leadership of general secretary Laurie Aarons, this revisionist outlook would win out. Workplace branches were wound up and the focus of political work was redirected away from the working class.

Chequered history

Labor might have a track record of progressive reform that would reach its peak during the Whitlam government but it has a long record of betrayal as well. Labor governments often imposed programs on workers that the conservatives never could. During the Depression, under Labor governments such as that in South Australia, police would inspect workers’ homes to ensure they had sold everything of value before being able to claim miserable dole rations. Liberal leaders would bate Labor MPs by observing that troops had been brought in to break up strikes twice in Australia’s history and both times under Labor governments – in 1949 during the coal strike and in 1989 during the airline pilots’ strike.

The “Wages and Incomes Accord” of the 1980s and 1990s dealt a body blow to on-the-job organisation for Australian trade unions and it was Hawke and Keating who put the foot in the door for future privatisation.

For all that, the golden years of Australian trade unionism were characterised by a united front approach by Communist and genuine left Labor activists. It is hard to imagine such a phenomenon in these days of the right-wing trade union agenda but for those who can remember, it’s another reason to shake the head in disbelief at recent, breathless commentary from Canberra.   

Next article – Visy shamed in health and safety victory for members

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