The philosopher George Santayana wrote famously ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’.
A case in point is failure by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) to remain mindful of the circumstances and shortcomings that denied it office from the middle -1950s federally until 1972 and until 1982 in Victoria.
When I joined the ALP in 1956, it was in dire straits – reeling in the aftermath of the failed Santamaria Movement takeover of the Party and the subsequent splitting off of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), and in the grip already of yet another extremist and in this instance ostensibly Left external body, known variously as ‘The Trade Unionists’ Defence Committee’, ‘the Ticketing Committee’ or simply and succinctly, ‘the Junta’
As noted by Gough Whitlam in an historic address to the 1967 Victorian State Conference:
‘The TUDC is not mentioned in the Constitution of the Party. There is no formal link between the TUDC and the handful which selects the Central Executive. It happens, however, that the membership of both bodies is predominantly the same. Thirteen years ago, few delegates at the Conference would have known of the Movement or Mr Santamaria. No one doubts the influence that they had on the Party’s affairs at the time. The Party’s controllers have swung from one extreme to another. ‘
The TUDC’s domination of the Party was achieved through a ’democratic centralism’ that enabled it to dictate the composition of the Victorian Central Executive and Victoria’s representation on the Federal Conference and the Federal Executive.
Prior to each Victorian conference, an initial meeting of representatives from thirteen TUDC-dominated unions compiled an ‘Official Ticket’ for all Central Executive, Federal Conference and Federal Executive vacancies.
Subsequently, the ‘Official Ticket’ was endorsed at a further meeting, where representatives of up to twenty-eight more unions were added to the original thirteen.
With the conference delegations from up to fifty unions thus locked in under caucus rules to support the ‘Official Ticket’, the winner-take-all’ voting system of the day delivered all the available vacancies to the TUDC nominees.
Domination of the Party by the TUDC cost it an otherwise certain victory at the 1961 elections, together with a further probable electoral victory two years later.
At the very least, it is likely that if Labor had done less badly at the1958 elections the breakaway DLP would have taken root less successfully and been shorter-lived.
A Labor government elected in 1961 or 1963 would not have involved Australia in the Vietnam War, or failed so dismally as the Liberals to harness up behind programmes and projects of lasting national worth the great economic prosperity which Australian enjoyed between the middle nineteen-sixties and the oil price shock engendered tougher times of the following decade.
Nor was this all. As Whitlam’s 1967 Victorian Conference speech also emphasised, the need for Party reform and renewal was no less acute.
‘We cannot convincingly oppose the conservatism of our political opponents with a conservatism of our own; we cannot stand as a Party of change when we fear change in our own structure. We cannot expect the people to trust us with the great decision-making processes of this nation, when we parade, by retaining an exclusive and unrepresentative Party structure, our manifest distrust of our own rank and file within the decision-making processes of the Party’.
‘All organisations, including radical parties, have establishments which resist change; all have vested interests. All the arguments for and against for a national organisation, with a national conference directly representing Federal electorates and unions, boil down to this question: Is the Party to be organised in this last third of the 20th century on modern national lines representative of the whole membership of the Party, or is it to remain a committee or coterie composed chiefly of State Branch officers, a significant proportion of whom are paid servants of the Party?’
By the early nineteen-sixties, frustration within the Party over the incompetence and authoritarianism of the TUDC was acute.
The flash point was reached with the decision by the TUDC in 1965 that the provision for the election of three Central Executive members by and from Branch delegates to the Conference as adopted the previous year should be rescinded.
An official Party body of which I was secretary, the Scoresby State Electorate Council, established a ‘Committee of Inquiry into Representation and Decision-making in the ALP’, which addressed to Branches throughout the state a letter seeking information about their memberships and fund-raising, on which a case for the restoration of their representation might be made.
The State Secretary, Bill Hartley, thereupon issued instructions to Branch secretaries requiring that the committee’s letters should be returned to him immediately, without providing the opportunity for members to hear them read. Hartley wrote:
‘I have consulted on this matter with the state president, Mr W. Brown, and it is to be referred to the Executive Officers next week … Mr Brown has also suggested that all recipients of the correspondence should take no action on it other than endorsing it with the Branch, time and circumstances of receipt, and forwarding it to the Australian Labor Party as soon as possible.’
Concurrently with the Scoresby Affair – and perhaps prompted by it – disaffected Party activists including John Cain, John Button, Dick McGarvie, Xavier Connor, Barney Williams, Michael Duffy, and Barney Cooney established ‘The Participants’, as a group seeking Party reform and democratisation through untiring grassroots advocacy and agitation around the widely circulated ‘Labour Comment’ newsletter, as edited by Bob Murray.
Their efforts in conjunction with those of Whitlam and other nationally prominent allies including the National Secretary Mick Young and the Shadow Minister for Industrial Affairs Clyde Cameron succeeded ultimately in bringing about the 1970 Federal Intervention and dismissal of the TUDC dominated Victorian Executive.
The subsequent comprehensive re-writing of the Party Rules and adoption of proportional representation voting for Party office cleared the way for the election of the Whitlam, Hawke and Keating governments.
Internally, the Victorian Party experienced what is remembered by many as ‘a golden age’ of creative policy development and debate, culminating in 1982 with the election of the Cain government.
Even so, the hard-won gains have proved to be ephemeral, and a new hegemony indistinguishable for all practical purposes from that of the TUDC has emerged.
What were in the immediate aftermath of the 1970 Intervention the ideologically differentiated Socialist Left and rightist Labour Unity factions have merged in all but name, through a so-called ‘Stability Pact’ which enables them to divide between themselves the pre-selections for ‘winnable’ parliamentary seats.
Concurrently the need for strict adherence to secret ballot criteria in the selection process is routinely ignored. ‘Democratic centralism’ is again as endemic as under the TUDC. The effect is to all but wholly exclude from pre-selection or party office members other than those who have factional endorsement.
Frustrated on rare occasions in the achievement of their preferred outcomes, the factions routinely refer them to the party’s National Executive where their dominance is all but complete and uncontested, and inconvenient decisions can be overturned.
It remains for the current generation of ALP members to secure the reinstatement of democracy and the rule of law within the Party, and ensure that it is passed on unimpaired to those who come after us.
As Whitlam reminds us:
‘Those of us who were there have a duty to educate those who were not’
‘Let us now begin’.
Race Mathews is a former Principal Private Secretary to Labor Leaders including Gough Whitlam, local government councillor, Federal MP, Victorian MP and minister and academic. He joined the ALP in 1956, and is a life member of fifty-eight years standing.