On 16 June 2017 Bishop Vincent Long spoke at the Sydney launch of Race Mathews’ book Of Labour and Liberty: Distributism in Victoria 1891-1966. This is a transcript of his speech, in which he suggests Whitlam would have been appalled to see how governments internationally have allowed neoliberal economics to undermine social equity today, with most of the spoils going to the privileged few, leaving the many struggling to find secure, well paid work, and younger generations confronted by excessive housing costs and stagnant wages, often with casual or part-time employment.
First of all, I would like to pay my respect and acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which this meeting takes place, and also pay respect to Elders both past and present.
It is very fortuitous that we should be launching this book at the Whitlam Institute. Dr Race Mathews worked closely with Gough Whitlam while he developed his social policies on the way to becoming prime minister. Mr Whitlam of course was member for Werriwa from 1952 and lived in Cabramatta – nowadays known as Vietnamatta. Life does give surprises. He would have been surprised that a former Vietnamese boat person should be speaking in his favour here today.
Race Mathews has been closely involved in Labor politics, federally and later in the Victorian parliament. He is a senior Labor historian in Australia and a former president of the Fabian Society with a long interest in co-operatives as a means to spread ownership and participation among working people. His books reflect this interest. They include Australia’s First Fabians: Middle-Class Radicals, Labour Activists and the Early Labour Movement (1994) and Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society (1999).
Whitlam would have been appalled to see how governments internationally have allowed neoliberal economics to undermine social equity today, with most of the spoils going to the privileged few, leaving the many struggling to find secure, well paid work, and younger generations confronted by excessive housing costs and stagnant wages, often with casual or part-time employment.
This is the context for Race’s book. The growing backlash against the neoliberal economics in many Western countries has provoked serious rethinking about how to build more equitable and participatory social policies, with a much wider distribution of wealth and ownership, such as what is known as Distributism inculcates.
A new perspective on Catholic and Labor history
In his new book, Of Labour and Liberty: Distributism in Victoria 1891-1966, Dr Mathews offers a fresh but mature reading on aspects of Labour history in Britain and Australia, including debates about the role of the state and the market.
This is rather a surprising book for Race to write, since Race is not a Catholic. Yet the book covers developments in Catholic social thought and movements, from Cardinal Manning in England and Pope Leo XIII’s seminal social document, Rerum Novarum, to efforts to refashion Australian conditions with greater social equity.
Dr Mathews has long been intrigued by the massive Mondragon co-operatives in the Basque region of Spain which has been hugely successful, employing over 80,000 workers in their co-operative networks. Why did Mondragon succeed when so many others failed? In his earlier writings on co-operatives, Dr Mathews sought to identify the keys to success, and how to avoid traps that would lead to failure. He noted that Mondragon had been inspired by a Catholic priest, Fr Jose Maria Arismendiarrieta, and wanted to understand how and why Catholic social thought supported this amazing enterprise. For him, Mondragon identified the way ahead through labour hiring capital rather than capital hiring labour.
This makes Of Labour and Liberty rather unique. It is an exploration of Catholic social movements with fresh eyes, taking a view from outside the tent. The author’s long political experience and his stature as a Labor historian make this a significant addition to our understanding of our social experience in Australia over the last 125 years.
Others have written extensively about the Labor movements and its internal struggles, especially about the Santamaria Movement and the Communist Party, most recently Bob Murray in his Labor and Santamaria. Dr Mathews is thoroughly familiar with these events and their consequences, but invites us into another level to this story that has often escaped the political historians: this concerns the debates among Catholic activists about their critiques of capitalism and proposals to promote wider ownership and participation through co-operatives.
This is perhaps the major significance of Dr Mathews’s book as it opens up new lines of thought about how Australia today might develop economic systems that promote greater equity and genuine participation in the running of businesses, while also promoting sustainability. The book fills important gaps in the literature, and gives the first detailed account of the YCW co-operative credit unions, expanding later into the wider community co-operative movements.
Rerum Novarum, Manning and Australia
Dr Mathews sifts the standard histories of Catholic social thought and the Labour movements in England and Australia, looking closely at proposals for social reform. He sets the context for Distributism in England in a chapter on Cardinal Edward Manning, who drew from the social reform movements of his time in what we would consider a very ecumenical manner.
Manning had been an Anglican priest very involved in social activism. His role in helping settle the London dock strike of 1890 in favour of the dock workers gave him international stature. He encouraged Pope Leo XIII in writing Rerum Novarum (1891), which Manning helped translate under the title On the Condition of the Working Class.
Pope Leo gave Catholics the strongest moral endorsement for the struggles of the labour movements everywhere for better living conditions. Rerum Novarum has been repeatedly updated and endorsed by Church leaders. Most recently, Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si offers telling critiques of neoliberal economics, with the growing gap between rich and poor and the threat from global warming.
Rerum Novarum laid the foundations by insisting on a just wage. It defended the right to own property, but urged that everyone should share in the ownership of property, and this should be extended as widely as possible. The encyclical supported the right to act collectively and form unions, and as Manning exemplified, the right to strike. Leo also said the State had to regulate the economy and working conditions, and protect workers against exploitation; and he recommended mechanisms of conciliation and arbitration be established to resolve disputes. All these positions had deep resonance in the labour movements of the day, and are still strikingly relevant today.
In Australia, Sydney’s Cardinal Patrick Moran followed Manning and spoke strongly in favour of the new encyclical. He was aware of the many varieties of socialism, and like Manning insisted that Rerum Novarum rejected only extreme versions.
Dr Mathews sketches the extraordinary career of Melbourne’s Archbishop Mannix, including his social commentary during the Depression. However his unquestioning support for BA Santamaria became contentious in the mid-1950s as we know, contributing to the Split in the Labor movement, and even in the Church.
Dr Mathews highlights the significance of the Catholic lay movements which took shape in the extraordinary Campion Society from 1931 and the monthly Catholic Worker newspaper from 1936. He outlines the later polarisation of political views among these groups, particularly between the Young Christian Workers and Santamaria’s anti-communist movement, but stresses the often overlooked work of Frank Maher and others to develop the Distributist vision of widely spread small and co-operative ownership, competing commercially in a free market. The book shows how the anti-communist campaign diverted resources and support from constructive efforts to expand co-operative farming, industry, finance and housing.
Overlap in Labor and Catholic aspirations
In his conclusion, Dr Mathews presents a ‘counter-factual’, about how social and economic policies in Australia could have taken a much more participatory course, had the Labor struggles of the 1950s not polarised social and political networks.
Dr Mathews has made what I consider an extraordinary contribution not just in historical recovery of earlier proposals for social reform, but challenged us about our democratic future and freedoms to recreate economic and social systems that will sustain future generations and resolve the urgent issues of resource depletion, poverty and sustainability.
Most significantly, Of Labour and Liberty reminds us that we need not to be caught in the web of neoliberal capitalism with its extremes of wealth and power. Around the world people recognize that we face, to use words of Pope Francis, ‘not in an era of change but a change of era’. Dr Mathews searches for an approach that prevents exclusion and, like the owner of the vineyard in the parable of the tenants, engages all people as dignified, active contributors to sustainable and inclusive growth. It is this approach that I as a Catholic bishop and a Franciscan with a deep interest in social justice am drawn to.
Never has the world faced such serious challenges on such decisive issues for whole populations. Never has the demand to seek our common wellbeing globally been so necessary and compelling. Among the many resources to help chart new ways forward, as Dr Mathews demonstrates, are the tools available in the Distributist and co-operative traditions to redesign our social and economic systems with greater equity and participation.
With great pleasure, I present to you, Of Labour and Liberty: Distributism in Victoria 1891-1966.
Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen is the Catholic Bishop of Parramatta.
Dr Race Mathews is an a former Labor member of Federal Parliament (1972 to 1975) and of the Victorian Parliament (1979 to 1992). He has held academic positions at Monash University Faculty of Economics and Business.
The launch was held at The Whitlam Institute, Western Sydney University, Parramatta South Campus, Friday 16 June 2017.