A crash (or crash through) course in civilis
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.
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,
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 i z e
Gough Whitlam and Little Pattie