Letter from Australia (From 1996)

Letter from Australia

Patrick O’Beirne, New South Wales March 3

The Australian Federal elections held on March 2 1996 saw the Australian Labor Party suffer one of its most serious defeats since the party was founded by the trade union movement in 1891. In a parliament of 149 members Labor has won only around 50 seats. A coalition of business and farmers now hold the remaining 99 seats in the House of Representatives.

There have been swings of 10% against Labor in New South Wales, the most populous, and traditionally (the most labour orientated of all the states, whilst in Queensland there have been anti-Labor swings of up to 20%. Remarkably, in the states which have conservative slate governments the swings have been around 3%. The overall national swing against Labor has been around 5%.

Labor’s problem is not that it did nothing but rather, as with the Whitlam Labor administration in 1975, it did too much thereby losing the support of the middle ground which the conservatives now boast they have “reclaimed”. From this it could be concluded that the Australian middle class have reverted to its predominantly middle-class conservatism.

Labor’s attempts to administer capitalism have once again proved abortive. In the 95 years since Federation, Labor has governed for only 33 years, but it can take some heart from the fact that seven of the ten elections it has won have occurred in the last 23 years. Perhaps things are improving slowly.

Labor is not in disarray and could be seen to be already regrouping despite the loss of as many as ten ministers, some of them senior campaigners for the party, but the party has sufficient talent to provide a competent Opposition, capable of regaining power though the right wing is still firmly in control.

The Hawke/Keating administration carried out a most thorough programme of deregulation and privatisation including the internal and overseas aviation carriers and the Commonwealth Bank. This led to complaints that Labor had abandoned its “socialist principles.” The sad fact is that Labor never was a socialist party. It was a party set up by the trade union movement but unlike the British Labour party in was independent of the trade unions. The party was technically a liberal party and unlike the Labour Party in Britain there was never a strong socialist philosophy. Although it adopted a socialist programme it never attempted to implement it as policy in government.

However the deregulation was balanced with considerable beneficial reforms in the areas of health, social welfare, education, labour reform and consultation with the trade union movement. This was the so-called “access and equity” programme. Its unfair dismissal laws outraged the conservatives and are not likely to be modified. Labor has resisted conservative attempts to abolish the role of trade unions in industrial relations and the placing of workers on individual contracts. Already there have been disputes around this issue. The conservatives claim they are going to abolish the powers of the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) which sets awards for wages and regulates conditions of employment and dismissal.

At present the only barrier to these attacks against workers is the presence of one Green and eight (liberal) Democrat senators in the upper house. The Democrats have also declared themselves to be firmly opposed to the partial sell-off of Australia’s one remaining sizable government enterprise, Telstra, the telecommunications giant. The national shipping line is now also set for the chop.

Much praise has been heaped on Menzies, the conservative P.M. during the post-war period, for his “political ability”. But Menzies, “the drover’s dog”, actively blocked the development of industrialisation, maintaining a Third World economy based on the export of wool, wheal and minerals. The Frazer government, in which the Prime Minister- elect, John Howard, was Treasurer carried on the same economically reactionary policies because they feared the development of a coherent, skilled industrial working class.

Even though Australia was left virtually without an export market when Gt. Britain joined the EEC in 1972, the conservatives when they came to power again in 1975, did nothing to alter our Third World economic status. Income from manufactured exports now outstrip our raw material exports following the efforts of Hawke and Keating. This has led to a greater involvement with our Asian neighbours, a factor which has disturbed many Anglophile Australians.

The Native Titles Act, which recognised the rights of the Aboriginal people to the land which was filched from them in the period of British colonial expansion also disturbed many racists and vested interests in the grazing and mining industries. Again the conservatives have threatened to repeal this Act.

There were many reasons why Labor suffered defeat. One of the main ones was the failure of the party to develop a coherent progressive political philosophy which could be disseminated to voters. The Australian Labor Party is so disgustingly pragmatic and lacking in political theory that it is little wonder it was blown away with the first concerted effort of the conservatives to gain political power in years.

With the end of the pragmatic Hawke/Keating era it would seem that Tony Blair’s New Labour had better start to reappraise their own pragmatic approach.

[Note that Australia, like the USA, uses the spelling Labor rather than Labour.]


This article appeared in April 1996, in Issue 53 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/ and https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/m-articles-by-topic/.