La­bor de­fines it­self through the voices of its states­men

For the True Be­liev­ers: Great La­bor Speeches that Shaped His­tory

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Nick Cater Nick Cater

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.

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