Faithful and Labor: What Labor Ignores at its Peril

Dec 13, 2020

The history of the ALP at the national level is one long lesson in humility.  More often defeated than victorious, glorious in government but only in retrospect. This is our party.

The thirteen-year golden era of Hawke and Keating between 1983 and 1996 created Medicare and universal, compulsory superannuation; broke the back of inflation; set the economy up for a quarter-century of continuous economic growth; changed Australia for the better. At the same time as those governments fought to earn credibility and support, enthusiasm waxed and waned within the wider labour movement.

The battles of the 1980s onwards are different from what we face today, but several constant threads remain. The margin of electoral victory in Australia is usually close; landslides are few, especially for us. Labor only ever wins by creating a coalition of voters, not just believers, voters – people who decide at an election to give Labor a majority in the House of Representatives.

Maximising Labor support means building the widest coalition of voters possible. That requires garnering a majority from an electorate of conservative disposition. In every winning combination are voters who are traditional, conservative in some things, interested in Labor reforms, but far from rusted-on radicals. To see in a publication on the future of the labour movement insistence on a conservative tinge to the Labor constituency might be surprising. But bear with me. Labor ignores this reality at its peril.

The Burkean Tradition

Separately, in an essay on ‘[Edmund] Burke and Australian Labor’ in a book The Market’s Morals (2020), I argue that Australian Labor is non-revolutionary, reformist; a party that historically respects its history and traditions, and sees progress in an evolutionary sense.  In referencing the Burkean character of Labor, this is not a call for Labor to abandon its best radical instincts. In part, it is a plea to understand our history, electoral politics, and what needs to be done to win.

From the historical record, Labor’s appeal has long extended to faith communities. Indeed, any account of the pioneers in the movement, and of many thousands since, shows the inspiration of faith. As Bolton observes in Protestantism and Social Reform in New South Wales 1890-1910:

A Protestant radicalism went into the making of the Labor Party. It was not just that some radicals were Protestants – they had a Protestant sensitivity to conscience and to brotherhood. Bible reading had been part of their political education, and a people healed of divisions and true to the moral law was what they hoped for from reform.

A Constant Tension

There is a constant tension between the party as a generator of ideas, and radical reforms, and keeping the flame alight in the hearts of those who (once were and) should be sympathetic to Labor. Nearly sixty years ago the British Labour politician and intellectual Anthony Crosland in The Conservative Enemy regretted that the traditional Labor Right “still lacks a truly radical appeal and often seems insular, class-oriented, conservative and middle aged.” He saw that the traditional ‘Left’ were more conservative in a pernicious way: “clinging to outdated semi-Marxist analysis of society in terms of ownership.” He was reflecting on the UK, but his points applied here too.

No Labor thinker cherishes a movement which is slack in the development of policy, lazy and complacent. Whitlam, speaking in 1997 at the launch of the Trade Union Education Foundation, remarked just how tough it was to get the party to think and act creatively on policy before the late 1960s. He said:

The rewriting of the Platform at the 1969 Conference was the culmination of a process which had taken place against the background of the electoral debacle of 1966. It brought to an end the stultification of policy-making engendered by the 1949 defeat and worsened by the Split. The Party appeared to become obsessed with the idea that rather than bring about renewal for the future, its purpose was to revisit past successes – not renovation but mere restoration. Exhausting its energies in epic but sterile factional battles, the Party stagnated, and the platform was stultified.

He went on to say:

The important thing … is to recognise that those post-1949 failures were not inevitable, any more than, I believe, the Split itself was inevitable.  In particular, the High Court’s invalidation of bank nationalisation in 1946, instead of being a challenge to new thinking became an excuse for avoiding it.  Health and education policies were notable casualties.  The platform called for the nationalisation of health; the High Court had ruled against nationalisation; the party spokesmen relieved themselves of the obligation to develop a Labor alternative.

Many of the Whitlam government reforms, including Medibank (the precursor of Medicare, introduced by Hawke, after the Fraser government emasculated the Whitlam/Hayden health reforms) were inspired by work done in opposition. Canada presented a national model of health insurance in the early 1970s, but what eventually emerged was a scheme with Australian characteristics. Similarly, as Hayden proved, policy development and innovation in the opposition years during the Fraser government was vital and the basis for many of the successes of the Hawke/Keating period. It is interesting that in cultivating policy overhaul and practical action, there is a long history within the ALP of seeing the state as the facilitator of change, of betterment, rather than championing a powerful state in and of itself.

There needs to be the distinction drawn between conservatism in policy formulation, and the pitch to traditional voters who have always formed an important part of Labor’s base. But even here too much can be made of the contrast. There is sense in policy renovation and ingenuity and contemporaneously understanding and respecting history; regeneration with a perspective of the best of a tradition is the art of good Labor politics.

As for potential elements of a broad Labor coalition, noticeably many Christians believe they are “forgotten” by our political class, sense that they lack political agency, providing fertile ground for conservatives to appeal, so that they feel heard and empowered. But Labor also can see such people as part of a potential coalition. This core idea undergirds this essay’s argument.

George F. Will suggests in The Conservative Sensibility: “A sensibility is more than an attitude but less than an agenda, less than a pragmatic response to the challenge of comprehensively reforming society in general.” And goes on to ascribe some vague ideas as to what this might mean:

The conservative sensibility… is a perpetually unfolding response to real situations that require statesmanship – the application of general principles to untidy realities…  The conservative sensibility is relevant to all times and places, but it is lived and revealed locally, in the conversation of a specific polity… revealed in practices.

The idea of a sensibility that is cautious, careful, considerate, cooperative, is reminiscent of what it means to be Labor in Australia. For over a century, the conservative temperament, much to the chagrin of socialists, has mostly dominated Labor’s behaviour and actions, of what being Labor entails.

In the Labor coalition, there needs to be space for conservatives on economic, political, and social issues. All parties are coalitions; every person is a mix of thinking, feelings, outlooks, with cultural, religious, and tribal affiliations. Few people are one-dimensional; most of us are multitudes. Many of us are liberal on social matters, conservatives on fiscal issues, and mixed economy social democrats on others – and combinations betwixt and between. The temper of mind, recognition of the complex mix of ideas and feelings, their connexions with each other, their distinct operation side-by-side, the need to understand practice in terms of such relations, and to conduct politics with attention to habitual linkages amongst people’s ideas and activities, suggest the required sort of thinking.

People of faith, particularly Christians, believe that life is sacred (for many, from conception), that no man is an island (we belong to and are sustained by a community), and live by the golden rule: In the language of the Jerusalem Bible’s Matthew 25:40. “…in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” How we treat others is indicative of our moral worth.  How a people treat disadvantage is indicative of any moral assessment of society and its agents, including government. In any such appraisal, there are of course many overlaps between contending positions and nuances to be considered with economics, particular measures, and administration, as well as that powerful motivation: moral indignation.

The main point to make here is that this religious outlook is completely compatible with Labor and social democratic ideals. Showing people of faith that the ALP is not a hostile, anti-religious secular, disdainful force means recovering an understanding of where we came from, our history, the best of our tradition, and to win. In 1962 at a Socialist International Conference in Oslo a resolution was adopted that championed principles that Christians, social democrats, labourists and democratic socialists could all live with:

We democratic Socialists proclaim our conviction that the ultimate aim of political activity is the fullest development of every human personality, that liberty and democratic self-government are precious rights which must not be surrendered; that every individual is entitled to equal status, consideration and opportunity; that discrimination on grounds of race, colour, nationality, creed or sex must be opposed; that the community must ensure that material resources are used for the common good rather than the enrichment of the few; above all, that freedom and equality and prosperity are not alternatives between which the people must choose but ideals which can be achieved and enjoyed together.

Everything here is compatible with the pithy summary, offered earlier, on how most Christians see themselves.

Major Challenges

But any serious observer of the party admits a series of issues and real problems with this summary. The party faces ideological, attitudinal, and stylistic challenges in winning over support, and calming suspicion.

Admittedly, Australian Labor is now overwhelmingly secular; but so too is Australia. Sometimes leaders of deep religious faith emerge – more frequently in politics than in the wider society. Think of the evangelical Anglicanism and schooling in Catholic social teaching of Rudd; the muscular Catholicism of Abbott; the quiet, subdued religious outlook of Catholic convert Turnbull; the Pentecostal sympathies of Scott Morrison. Of Opposition Labor Leaders, in recent memory there was the Anglo-Catholic Beazley and the Presbyterian Crean, and the atheism of Latham and Gillard. The latter said that Methodism was an important, continuing influence. Gillard respected difference and faith, which is why she wrestled so long with various moral issues and the appropriate Labor stance. Latham was less constrained, unsubtle, sometimes contemptuous of the religious, but he never argued for abolishing the conscience vote. (Interestingly, in his current manifestation as a Pauline Hanson NSW state MP, he is championing religious freedom protections. Latham has an eye to appealing to voters, particularly in western Sydney.)

Bill Shorten’s Jesuit education was important to his political evolution (even as he migrated to Anglicanism.) Yet under this right-wing Labor Leader, the conscience vote (for MPs and members on life, faith, and morals) was in jeopardy. At the 2015 National ALP Conference, in the rush to conform to constantly changing social attitudes and the mood of “give me identity politics or give me death”, Labor adopted a hard-line position on same-sex marriage, intolerant of the 20% of traditional supporters with more conservative views. The resolution foreshadowed that the right to a conscience vote would be “rescinded upon the commencement of the 46th parliament.” What once might have been considered mainstream among Labor supporters was excised. The party resolved that there would be a sunset clause on conscience on this issue. There was resentment at then Prime Minister Abbott’s refusal to offer a conscience vote and parliamentary debate to his MPs. I am glad, following the plebiscite in 2016, that this debate is over, never to be revisited.

In 2019, under Albanese, a liberal, non-practising Catholic, Labor swung back to emphasising the importance of the conscience vote. This is very important to evangelicals, Church-going Catholics, and other faiths who suspect Labor is hostile to their beliefs. Perhaps “Albo” realised that the way things were going, there would be no place in the party for his beloved mother, who brought him up to believe in the Church, Labor, and the Rabbitohs. Andrew West, the host of the Religion & Ethics Report on the ABC’s Radio National, perceptively writes on the fractured relationship between Labor and religious voters, not just Christians.  In a piece on ‘How Religious Voters Lost Faith in Labor: Lessons from the 2019 Federal Election’, he asks: “How, then, should Labor begin its dialogue with faith communities?” and answers:

At very least, with sincerity, accepting the right of religious Australians to maintain their values, no matter how unfashionable they may seem to the cultural left that influences modern Labor.  They must not present conservative Christians with false moral choices. They mustn’t confuse conservative Christians with political conservatives. Above all, they must not make faith communities choose between Labor and the God they worship.

One example to ponder is that of Dr Dick Klugman (1924-2011), Federal Labor MP for Prospect, 1969-90, founder of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, a member of the Humanist Society, who supported a morally liberal agenda, but saw the other side. In a parliamentary debate in March 1979 on the funding of terminations of pregnancies, he said:

…the general attitude on termination of pregnancy depends completely on one’s assumption or otherwise that a foetus becomes a human being at the time of conception; that is an important point.  …That is why I state my belief.  I do not believe that this happens but, at the same time, I do believe that there is a continuum from the time of conception to the time of birth and that the foetus is closer to a human being than, say, the whales about which people are becoming very excited at the present time.  I do believe that there is something more to a human foetus, even at one month or two months’ gestation, than there is to whales about which we are supposed to get very excited because they have brains approaching those of intelligent dogs, or something like that.

Knowing that someone understands your position, disagrees, but strongly appreciates where you are coming from, and respects the moral coherence of your viewpoint, is one response.

The attitudinal problem is this: the higher the level of education, the lower religious observance and, usually, the greater the intellectual snobbishness towards and about those who practice.  This is reflected in the put downs too often heard: that people who seek spiritual understanding and meaning through faith are stupid and/or otherwise contemptible. An article by former WA Labor MLC Bill Leadbetter in The Toscin (2020) directly addresses this topic.

Throughout its history, the NSW party was leavened with believers and others respectful of belief, people of faith and Labor traditions, both in the leadership, as well as the membership. The ennui of ‘anything goes’ and ‘whatever it takes’ amorality of more recent years coarsened and devalued a rich legacy. In addressing the issues considered in this essay, Labor needs to appreciate and re-engage with its ‘lost’ supporters. The problem with modern identity politics is its impoverishment of imagination. Sometimes, choices need to be made, whether to be broadly inclusive or narrow and exclusive in focus.

In the formulation of progressive, ‘Labor’ positions, an overly militant position can be struck. For example, with the hugely commendable push to get more women elected to parliament, representing Labor. Emily’s List Australia, an offshoot of an American initiative, has won support across the factions. Most Labor women MPs are members. Its website prescribes a pro-choice agenda noting: “Women are a diverse group and considering the needs of all kinds of women is essential.” Commendably, perhaps, an effort is made to suggest that being pro-choice does not necessarily mean a pro-abortion position.  A 1999 quote from Hillary Clinton is featured:

I have met thousands and thousands of pro-choice men and women.  I have never met anyone who is pro-abortion. Being pro-choice is not being pro-abortion. Being pro-choice is trusting the individual to make the right decision for herself and her family, and not entrusting that decision to anyone wearing the authority of government in any regard.

But this is only a half-hearted effort at inclusion. The “SDA women”, the female Labor parliamentarians who mostly hold to more critical positions on, say, late term abortions, and the utility of counselling for women considering abortions, who are members of or loosely aligned with the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Union (the SDA), are not members of Emily’s List and are opposed in pre-selections by it. The more liberal position has won in parliaments across Australia on this issue. In Queensland in 2018 on an abortion Bill, the entire parliamentary Labor caucus was “whipped” to vote for “reform”. If Labor wants to appeal to a broader constituency, however, a little tolerance could go a long way. Unless, in the alternative, exclusion of the seriously faithful is part and parcel of a wider agenda.

The argument here brings to mind the debate in US Democrat circles, where there is almost no space left in the party for pro-life Democrats. Why make it so difficult for some people of sincere faith, uncomfortable with the hard-nosed capitalism and mean-spirited individualism of the right, to support the party with the more generous vision of mutual social obligation? More broadly, in allowing the issues of the cultural (rather than economic) left to define membership of the party, this does not allow those who would like to be supporters on other grounds to do so; in fact they are actively rejected as fellow travellers. The Democrats have much to answer for. So many people of faith and the “deplorables” felt shunned and were herded into the arms of someone as odious as Trump.

Generally, it would help if all Labor MPs and candidates were curious about and respected their fellow Australians. The best are. In visiting and getting to know the interesting, historic, Assyrian Christian communities in Australia, for example, it is not just a matter of enjoying dolma, grape leaves, Assyrian maza, burek, and their popular garnishes.  What they believe in is also fascinating. You cannot appreciate multiculturalism fully unless you respect religious diversity. Religion is central to most cultures, particularly interestingly with the ‘enduring nations’, the Greeks and Jewish people. It is interesting, in this context, that the drafter of multicultural policies in the Australian Department of Immigration in the early 1970s during the Whitlam administration, James “Jim” Houston, was religiously inspired.  (He later became an Anglican minister in the Melbourne Archdiocese.)

Of related interest, Stuart Piggin and Robert D. Linder in their impressively researched book, Attending to the National Soul. Evangelical Christians in Australian History 1914-2014 (2020), argue that existing and new churches in the evangelical and Pentecostal traditions have obligations to not only worship Our Lord, but to take social justice seriously:

To survive and thrive in a secular context, local churches must be Jesus-centred, Bible-based, and imaginatively led.  For denominations as a whole, two more ingredients must be added: social concern and ministries to people of non-English speaking backgrounds in this most multicultural of nations.

If Labor cannot grasp opportunity in those words on “social concern”, then heaven help us.

Respect, Please

If anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals, as Peter Viereck once remarked, evangelical, and Pentecostal dispositions are even more hostilely regarded. If we define certain religious temperaments as weird or wacko, it is unlikely that truly, deep, warm bonds of affection can be established. Those Australians of Islamic faith enrich our culture and do much good. If Muslim voters, however, are unscrupulously regarded merely as recruitment opportunities for whipping up anti-Israel sentiment in the ALP, their valuable place in our society is disrespected. There is only one thing worse than intolerance – condescension. Give me respect please. Alleluia.

Labor not only has its problems with evangelicals. There has been a long 70-year seepage of the Labor vote among Catholics. As O’Farrell says in his The Catholic Church and Community in Australia. A History (1977), during the Church divisions during and after the ALP Split in the mid-1950s:

The Sydney opinion was that the DLP with its strong Catholic complexion verged on being a church party, representing a stupid and deleterious isolation of the Catholic body from the rest of the Australian community. The Melbourne view was that the ALP was past redemption … The ALP must be opposed from outside, until it came to its senses.

A consequence, however, of the Split was rising anti-Catholic sectarianism in sections of the party. Before the NSW government fell in 1965, under pain of expulsion and further Federal intervention, the NSW Labor administration was ordered by the Left-dominated ALP national executive to cease matching Commonwealth government funding for ‘science blocks’ at non-government schools and any other form of state aid. Though small in numbers, the DLP waged an effective campaign in the NSW Catholic community to narrowly tip the balance; the Askin Liberal government was elected with a majority of one seat. Only under Whitlam’s leadership of the ALP, post Calwell’s retirement in 1967, did the party support state aid to needy schools. One consequence of the 1965 NSW state election defeat was that ‘fortress NSW’ was no longer an option. The NSW Right saw that the party nationally had to change.  Whitlam was the person to lead reforms of the party’s policies and its constitution. Labor had to appeal beyond its working-class base to the middle class.

In NSW, in the late ’50s and ’60s, the Left campaigned against the Paulian Society, a Catholic lay organisation in NSW, as they correctly saw them as a potential recruitment and formation organisation of Catholics in the ALP. The Left falsely claimed that the grouping was inspired by Santamaria. Evidently, for reasons I have not researched, the matter having been decided before my time, the Paulian Society was wound up. The Society of the Legion of Mary, the St Vincent de Paul Society, and others, were once rich recruitment fields. As Paul Keating can attest, his family and supporters actively mined this source of membership for the party, for winning pre-selection for Blaxland in 1969. This was not sinister. People with a practical interest in social justice can see that the Australian Labor Party is compatible with their beliefs.

Susan Ryan (1942-2020), responsible for one of Labor’s great reforms, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, a fighter for justice and women’s rights if ever there was one, deeply appreciated working on the same Labor team as Deputy Prime Minister Lionel Bowen (1922-2012), a Catholic conservative on many moral issues, who thought being a Christian required making society profoundly face up to addressing need, respect, and the dignity of all. They knew they fought for the good, the same side, even if on certain matters they furiously, if respectfully disagreed. When Pope John Paul II met the Australian Cabinet in 1986, Kim Beazley remembers: “All agreed to shake his hand. But the nuns still had a grip on Sue who dropped to her knees and kissed his hand. She was always grateful to many of the nuns who taught her.” In any Australian Labor caucus, we need more Ryans and more Bowens.

In a tribute to the former shoppies’ union official and Labor state MP, Johno Johnson (1930-2017), Rodney Cavalier wrote that there would never be another Johno because those types no longer belong. He did not say that out of any malice. He liked him. It was just that in his assessment, traditional, Church-going Catholics were an anachronism in modern Labor. He wrote: “Conservative Catholics no longer have cause to join the ALP… Conservative Catholics join the Libs and the Nats. Catholics with a radical bent join the Left in its many guises. The ALP Right will not ever have another Johno.”

In mid-2020, the Johno Johnson Forum was formed to encourage debate and discussion of ideas among people of all faiths who are members of or sympathetic to Labor. Another initiative, Labor for Christians, is in formation. It remains to be seen how successful these moves might be. Faith will never (and should never) pre-determine political stance. Yet Christian principles (and the Jewish idea of tikkun olam – repair of the world) prove the capacity of faith to light the fire for radical social change.

Why This Matters

Perhaps religious ideals and sympathy never subdued the land, but it held a place in Australia. Without Christian idealism, life would have been different, more brutal, savage, and uncaring. Some of Australia’s greatest reforms and institutions were inspired by the Gospel teachings. One of those was the Labor Party itself. Chris Wallace’s recent book (How to Win an Election, 2020) on Labor’s campaigning problems argues: “successful leaders need to be able to do both [theatre and substance], ideally in a way that enables voters to say yes when asking themselves the question: ‘Do I like this person and, more importantly, would they like me?’” This is Politics 101. Faithful and Labor should not be an oxymoron. Understanding this is important because welcoming people of faith reconnects us with a swathe of the population that we risk losing if Labor is seen as dominated by a metropolitan elite. Also true is that accepting people of faith avoids alienating those who are broadly centre-left, but politically homeless because of cultural/faith issues.

Embracing people of faith returns Labor to a position of respectful tolerance in accepting that reasonable minds and generous hearts may differ on major questions. Diversity of viewpoint is not always well countenanced on either side of politics, but that hypocrisy is more damning on our side because of our insistence of ‘diversity’ as a core value. Is it? Previous generations took the party and the country into better days socially, culturally, and economically. There are many reasons to regret the transformation of the party by identity politics and exclusionary diversity. Our traditions make us Labor, however, even in these days of cultural amnesia and secular snobbery. The present danger is that secular dogmatism is recapitulated in dogmatic identity politics, where the nuances and coalitions mentioned here are intolerable.

Refusing to tent our presence in vast territories of the Australian population, including faith communities, makes it harder to win. If winning is merely nice-to-have rather than essential, then such attitudes ensure that the Australian Labor Party merely deserves to be a party of occasional success. And in the purity of a liberal and intolerant agenda, we shall reap our reward.

This is a slightly edited version of the Chapter that appeared in Nick Dyrenfurth and Misha Zelinsky (editors),The Write Stuff: Voices of Unity on Labor’s Future, Connor Court, 2020.

The author, inspired by remarks by Andrew West at the Johno Johnson Forum in August 2020, is grateful for comments on an earlier version of this paper by the editors, Rev Frank Brennan SJ AO, Michael Dwyer, Dr Damian Grace, Catherine Harding, and Elizabeth Stone.  

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