Tomorrow 29 November, is the 67th anniversary of Edward Gough Whitlam’s election to the Australian Parliament in 1952. Twenty years and three days later he became Prime Minister, after Labor’s longest exile in opposition, and nine straight election losses. Whitlam’s path to his 1972 victory had much of its foundation in the monumental task of reforming the ALP itself into a party capable of presenting a palatable electoral alternative to the Coalition.
It remains an enduring challenge for the ALP, unfinished business, with many of the issues Whitlam identified still unresolved. In some senses, the stakes are now even greater.
The primary vote of all the “major” political parties is falling: Labor’s to the lowest it’s ever been (33 per cent), the Coalition’s to its lowest (41 per cent) since a quirky result in 1998 (when it retained government with only 39 per cent). The primary vote for other/minor parties is at its highest ever: 25 per cent. The proportion of those who never change their vote is shrinking.
Where does political success originate? In the structures, processes and management of a political party, or in the qualities of its leadership? Do people walk into a polling booth to vote for a “party”, or a person? Do they relate to what they know of a party’s “policies” or the character of its leader? Whitlam knew the answer was “both”.
In “Things you learn along the way”, John Menadue notes that in 1967 Whitlam was focussed on five major objectives in party reform: 1. To get direct representation of the Parliamentary Leadership at the Federal Conference and Federal Executive. 2. To improve the policy-making processes. 3. To strengthen the national structure and organisation. 4. To reduce the power of paid officials. 5. To get direct national representation for the rank and file membership.
These can be distilled into one thought: a party machine and, more importantly, parliamentary representation which is more reflective of the community, and Labor voters, at large.
In the 1966 election Labor had recorded its lowest primary vote in 30 years – a measly 40 per cent (which looks “OK” by today’s standards!).
In 1965 Whitlam had noted that of the 36 people comprising the ALP’s national conference in Perth that year: “15 delegates are officials of trade unions, 5 are officials of the Party, 9 are Federal parliamentarians, 4 State parliamentarians and 2 local government heads. Only 1 delegate is self-employed” (also from Menadue’s “Things you learn along the way”). That is, as Whitlam pointed out, 35 of the 36 were “sustained by the Labor movement”.
The parallel and one of Whitlam’s greatest preoccupations was to find and support candidates for parliament who represented a broader constituency in the electorate. He succeeded spectacularly (well, except on the representation of women). Whitlam’s first full Ministry of 27 men, in December 1972, included 19 who had never drawn their livelihood from being employed by a trade union. The other eight included former union officials or “career” politicians.
In disappointing contrast, Anthony Albanese’s frontbench of 25 includes 18 whose pre-parliamentary employment was with unions, the ALP itself, or as political (ministerial or parliamentary) staffers (granted, a category which didn’t really exist in the ‘60s). Only seven in Albo’s team (compared to 19 in Whitlam’s) have never been on the “political” payroll, in the “bubble”, sustained by the Labor movement.
The wider audience to which a party must appeal could be forgiven for suspecting that union, party and staff apparatchiks might have already achieved the peak of their ambition, just by being elected to parliament, with all the associated perks. Ordinary people have trouble relating to the mysterious world of political insiders, those in the bubble. They can relate more easily to the accomplishments of teachers, doctors, small business owners, public servants, accountants – even lawyers – who dominated Whitlam’s ministry.
Ironically, history will judge that government harshly in many respects: inexperienced, ill-disciplined and administratively incompetent; mostly a function of them being out of government for so long beforehand. The first Hawke Ministry, formed just over seven years after Whitlam’s 1975 demise, was full of people who had entered parliament while Whitlam was Labor leader, acolytes of his, and sponsored by him, in many cases.
Hawke himself being one spectacular exception, the majority in his Ministry had not spent their pre-parliamentary careers on the payroll of the party or the union movement. Both Hawke and Keating have described it, self-effacingly, as the greatest Cabinet of all time.
Of the specific party reforms prioritised by Whitlam in 1967, his successful fight to have the parliamentary leadership represented on the National Executive of the party went some way towards giving the party machine a more open and democratic appearance. Forty years on, the parliamentary party’s ascendancy over the organisational wing, at the national level, at least, seems complete. Some would say regrettably, given reviews of the May 2019 election failure, suggesting the National HQ was sidelined by the Leader’s office.
Party members now have a direct, if partial say in the election of the parliamentary leader. Their role in the preselection of parliamentary candidates, the election of delegates to State and National conferences and the appointment of state officials remains a work in progress.
At a state level, especially and most recently in NSW, the party machine remains a significant electoral disadvantage to the party, with the spotlight on its adverse antics often leaving the parliamentary wing overshadowed and suffering guilt by association. The culprit in all this is nearly always the question of “illegal” and opaque donations.
Much of the solution lies in another of Whitlam’s obsessions: complete public funding of election campaigns and reducing donations to a bare minimum from individuals. It’s a saleable policy which would, at the same time, reform the Labor Party administration and restore much of its public reputation.
Funding from affiliated trade unions is the structural lifeblood of the party’s operations. It not only feeds the livelihoods of party officials but lubricates the wheels of factional power struggles. If the Labor party could wean itself off the intravenous drip of financial support from unions, they’d claim the high ground and rid themselves of their own greatest absurdity – trawling the streets for donations from people who actually wish them little good.
In the process, party officials who devote much of their time to nurturing the donors who keep them in their jobs and pay their salaries, would be freed up to help in developing and propagating polices which speak for a broader base and further the party’s interests with voters at large. Another of the 1967 Whitlam objectives.
Richard Whitington was a publicist for the Australia Party from 1969 to 1974, a member of Gough Whitlam’s staff from 1974 to 1977, and worked at the ALP’s advertising agency, Forbes Macfie Hansen from 1977 to 1981. After a subsequent career in advertising, corporate communications and executive recruitment, he retired earlier this year to do some freelance writing. Website: richardwhitington.com