A crash (or crash through) course in civilis

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

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.

And, an­noy­ingly,




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

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