Labor defines itself through the voices of its statesmen
For the True Believers: Great Labor Speeches that Shaped History
Edited by Troy Bramston Federation Press, 448pp, $64.94 (HB)
AT the start of 2010, as the Labor Party searched for an explanation for Kevin Rudd’s falling popularity, a senior minister asked a journalist from this newspaper what, if anything, was lacking. ‘‘ A narrative,’’ the journalist said. The minister’s response surprised him: ‘‘ But that’s your job. We do things, you write about them.’’
If Troy Bramston’s For the True Believers does nothing else for Labor on the eve of a challenging election year, it exposes that fallacy. Successful Labor leaders are pragmatic and literate: they do things and they tell a good story that allows the rest of us to follow the plot.
The good news that emerges from this book is that the Gillard government understands implicitly the first part of Labor’s historic mission; it is a party that tries to get things done for the benefit of the people, if not entirely to their satisfaction. From John Watson’s address on ‘‘ the intentions of the government’’ in 1904 to Rudd’s pre-election pledge in May 2007 ‘‘ to marry economic growth with social improvement’’, it is also party that constantly needs to define its purpose. And it must do so, as Watson said, ‘‘ in a clear, distinct and unmistakable way’’.
True Believers is like an album of snapshots that illuminates familial traits. The family is genial, embracing and fiercely loyal, proud of who they are and what they do. They can be a little pompous at times, and sometimes a little teary, but have the great redeeming qualities of pragmatism and egalitarianism. Equal outcomes are subject to constant debate, but the right to equal respect was never in doubt.
‘‘ The men and women we represent are the wage-earner — those who labour with either hand, with either mind or muscle,’’ George Black told the NSW parliament in 1891. At its heart, the party does not exist to overturn capitalism or pursue utopian goals. ‘‘ What we want for those whom we represent,’’ said Black modestly, ‘‘ is a little more of the world’s pleasure, leisure and treasure.’’
Labor has always had a problem with socialism, just as socialism had a problem with it. Andrew Fisher’s 1909 election address, delivered in Gympie, Queensland (where else?), shows why Lenin saw the Australian Labor movement as the exception to the rule. Writing four years later, after Fisher had lost government but had retained power in the upper house, Lenin described it as ‘‘ a liberal Labour Party which arises only for a short time by virtue of specific conditions that are abnormal for capitalism in general’’.
Yet the party as envisaged by Fisher has outlived Lenin’s socialism by more than 20 years. Fisher imagined a country in which ‘‘ every person honestly able and willing to work should be able to earn sufficient to enable him to keep his wife and family in comfort’’. In 2010, in a speech not included in this book, Julia Gillard expressed a similar sentiment; Labor would govern ‘‘ in a way that ensures that families have the benefits of work and that kids are in school’’. Adding Fisher’s other aim, to ‘‘ awaken the patriotism of Australians’’ in defence of its borders, we have the essence of the Labor message. It really is no more complicated than that.
Except that it has to be of course, in a country where the workers do pretty well for themselves, and where the normal condition since the early 19th century is one of expanding frontiers, a growing economy, high labour demand, good wages, popular ownership of property, universal opportunity, a flat social structure and a fair reward for investment of both capital and muscle. What, pray, in this worker’s paradise with its sunny skies and guaranteed minimum wage, is a worker’s party supposed to do next?
Well first it must get elected to government, which brings us to what arguably is one of the most important contributions in Bramston’s book: Gough Whitlam’s precisionguided, Exocet missile of a speech aimed at a hostile Victorian ALP state conference in Melbourne on June 9, 1967, four months after he became the federal party leader.
Whitlam opens by pointing out that in the seven years since he last addressed the conference, the ALP had lost three national elections and a Senate election, and suffered three defeats in Victorian state elections, each ‘‘ indistinguishable one from another in severity and completeness’’.
‘‘ If any business enterprise found itself faced with such a record of continuous and consistent disasters, it would be plunging towards bankruptcy,’’ Whitlam said.
‘‘ We, by contrast, euphemise deep disasters as ‘ temporary setbacks’; the nearer Labor approaches electoral annihilation, the more fervently we proclaim its indestructibility. We juggle with percentages, distributions and voting systems to show how we shall, infallibly, at the present rate of progress, win office in 1998.
‘‘ Worse, we construct a philosophy of failure, which finds in defeat a form of justification and a proof of the purity of our principles. Certainly, the impotent are pure.’’
The irony of that often-repeated line, and Whitlam’s declamation that he did ‘‘ not seek and [did] not want the leadership of Australia’s largest pressure group’’, ring louder than ever in an era of moral identity politics.
If there is an argument against publishing an anthology of this kind — a handsome hardback with a binding that should preserve it well into Labor’s third century — it is Google. Yet good books show up the internet’s shallow pretensions, hollow promises and limited horizons. Many of these speeches would still only be available in part or in memory if Bramston had not hunted them down in some forgotten archive. The enticing extracts of the ‘‘ impotent are pure’’ speech in Graham Freudenberg’s 1977 book, A Certain Grandeur, were like the shorts to a movie that took another 35 years to release.
Other important speeches, such as Don Dunstan’s 1965 address proposing the removal of the words ‘‘ white Australia’’ from the party’s platform, or Whitlam’s appeal to the intellectuals later during the same national conference, defied Bramston’s best efforts as a private investigator. There is always a next time.
What Bramston also offers, and the internet conspicuously doesn’t, is context. It matters what happened before and after, and it matters to whom the oration was directed. Bramston tells us in a concise, authoritative introduction to each speech.
True Believers was well into production by the time Julia Gillard delivered her misogyny speech to parliament, sparing Bramston the agony of deciding whether to include it in the book. It was, as they say, an internet sensation, but how would her words have looked in black and white? Would their value have been enhanced or diminished by wrapping them in context? Those are questions, perhaps, for the second edition.