Labor not tribal enough for three of its own

Apr 15, 2024
Australian_Capital_Territory_Legislative_Assembly-c Image: By Bidgee - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5 au,

The ACT Labor-led Government might lead the nation in many worthy ways and it might, too, you might think, especially six months out from an election, be vigilant to avoid what many might see as an embarrassing own goal. But no…

This is a column I never thought I’d write.

In my last stint in the federal parliamentary press gallery, 2003-2008, I was frequently critical of Labor’s factional rigidity, its prizing of tribal loyalty over common sense and good policy.

This piece, however, will bemoan an absence of tribal loyalty on behalf of three respected Labor figures – one internationally famed, one nationally and one locally – who were all loyal to Labor: H.V. “Doc” Evatt, Arthur Calwell and Jim Fraser.

Evatt was president of the United Nations General Assembly, a High Court judge and NSW Chief Justice.

Calwell was widely praised as one of the fathers of post-war immigration.

Evatt and Calwell both led the federal Labor Party for many years, each taking it to three election defeats during its 23 years in the wilderness.

Fraser, my father, was in Caucus with them for the middle 19 of those 23 years, always a backbencher, described by The Canberra Times upon his death in office in 1970 as the Member of the House of Representatives who took that title most literally.

Despite the three very different CVs, this Labor trio was not only in Caucus together but they each have a Canberra suburb named after them – and this is where the absence of tribalism from local Labor comes in.

The ACT Government, for Canberra’s centenary in 2013, upgraded the signage of the suburbs named for former prime ministers, adding a picture of each, their prime ministerial chronologies, and a line about their more major achievements. This recognition was afforded even those merely filling in in the role, like Frank Forde (8 days), Earle Page (19) and Arthur Fadden, who, as Labor’s Eddie Ward put it, for 40 days and 40 nights held the fate of the nation in the hollow of his head.

So, visitors and residents alike learn some history just by driving around.

But they don’t get the similar information about Evatt, Calwell and Fraser, let alone such other non-contributors to the nation as Caroline Chisholm, Mary Gilmore, Howard Florey and John Macarthur, to name but a handful.

Fraser’s case should be doubly acute for Labor because of the obvious reality that anyone born since his death is going to think the suburb is named after former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

Jim had an ACT federal electorate named for him from 1974 to 2016. With Malcolm’s death, that seat became Fenner and a new Fraser (honouring Malcolm) was established in Victoria.

Malcolm Fraser’s widow was insistent that the suburb remain named solely for Jim.

I’m insistent that the suburb be displayed so that people have some clue that is so named.

To that end, I approached who I thought was the appropriate ACT Labor minister, was put on to another minister, who referred me to the department.

I approached all living former chief ministers. Three – Kate Carnell and Gary Humphries from the Liberals, and Jon Stanhope, of Labor (now estranged) – not only came back to me but agreed to come out and be pictured at a roundabout in Tuggeranong where four suburbs meet. Fadden’s stewardship of the nation is handsomely honoured on one corner while the wool pioneer Macarthur and the cherished rights campaigners Chisholm and Gilmore are recorded with an assortment of one-word signs.

The result appeared in The Canberra Times and on the ABC.

I wrote about the issue in the local CityNews and spoke about it on local radio 2CC.

This relatively wide exposure drew nothing from the ACT Government.

Unimpressed, I approached a third Labor minister of my acquaintance with a request that the matter simply be brought up at Caucus. Surely this was a no-brainer?

Still nothing.

The late “Johnno” Johnson, NSW Legislative Council president 1978-1991, was Labor Right royalty, and the party’s fund-raiser extraordinaire. His judgments were swift (if your shoes were shined, you were in) and non-negotiable (loyalty to faction and family, probably in that order, was paramount).

What would “Johnno” make of it all?

Would I be another “prize rat” in that long line from Hughes, through Lyons, and on to Latham, for whom “Johnno” reserved a special venom?

After all, here I am, son of a Labor MP, one-time party member, briefly also a Labor staffer, bemoaning the inaction of Labor in power.

Or is the disloyalty with those who don’t seem able to rouse themselves to honour three icons of the Labor fold, especially the one who, through the simple accident of sharing a surname, is in danger of slipping from view?

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