Forty-three years ago W. K. Hancock published what many think to be still the best history of Australia. In it he characterized the Labor party as the party of initiative and the anti-Labor parties, under whatever name, as the parties of resistance. Since then some clever people have made modest reputations for themselves by showing that Hancock’s massive generalization was wrong in this or that particular. Occasionally, for instance, it happens that liberal-minded people like Don Chipp get into the Liberal Party hierarchy or that a Liberal government passes a genuinely liberal law, as happened when Garfield Barwick was Attorney-General; but our history in the twentieth century generally underlines the validity of Hancock’s insight. No-one, so far as I know, has ever attempted to show that, within our political spectrum, the anti-Labor parties are not more conservative than the ALP.
By definition it is the business of conservative parties to conserve: and what a welter the Liberal-Country Party coalition, flogged on by the DLP, has made of conservation for the past twenty-three years! Conservation of the most fossilized and discreditable aspects of Australian society of course, not conservation of wild-life under threat from the most sacred of all sacred cows, ‘private enterprise’, or of other things worth conserving. Indeed the period opened with Menzies’ unsuccessful attempt to ‘put the clock back’, in the sense that the phrase is used of Fascist regimes: the attempt embodied in the Communist Party Dissolution Bill to outlaw people for their beliefs or for what a host of paid spies alleged them to believe.
The long ice-age was bad enough for older citizens: but at least they could remember a time when the national government, in Ben Chifley’s now hackneyed phrase, kept in its sights ‘the light on the hill’; a time when, though we were in the midst of a real war, planning proceeded for a better life afterwards; a time when other nations respected our government instead of regarding it as something between a disgrace and a laughing-stock to humanity. But think for a moment of what the long freeze has meant to younger people, If the biblical ‘three score years and ten’ is held to be the number of a man’s years, and the Jewish coming-of-age at twelve the time when most people begin to be aware of politics, then more than half of the whole Australian population had, until last December, never known anything but rule by compromise, frustration and fear. For practically a whole generation the three parties of resistance clung to power by endless compromising of the differences between them, which inevitably frustrated whatever genuine and far-reaching initiatives any one of them occasionally strayed towards. Gorton (and Freeth) could be called in testimony. The only major thing the three parties had in common was the desire to continue ruling and the major common means to this end was the appeal to fear.
The notorious Petrov Enquiry of 1954 was only the most blatant of the elaborate charades designed to frighten the electorate. It did provide possibly the most memorable obiter dictum in the history of British jurisprudence when a rattled Mr Justice Ligertwood retorted from the Bench to Dr Evatt, that he did not care what the evidence showed, he would still believe the policemen. And it provided a modicum of sardonic laughter when that great and good Australian, the late Brian Fitzpatrick, importunately but vainly sought permission to appear before the Enquiry. Their honours had had more than enough from Dr Evatt of the kind of evidence Fitzpatrick would have been likely to give. Even these judges, carefully selected by prime minister Menzies himself, were constrained in the end to find no proof of espionage or other unlawful activity by anyone hauled before them: but the reputations of nearly a hundred Australian citizens had been effectively smeared and the electorate effectively frightened, even before the Commission met, into returning the Menzies government.
So it went on: fear of the red and/or yellow peril which, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, was always presented as a monolithic, world-wide, communist conspiracy. Only some of the politicians probably believed in the reality of this scarecrow for frightening the electors, but all happily exploited it at election after election. Better dead than red; better there than here; Evatt is a friend of communists; Whitlam is a creature of that devil Hawke and the trade unions; If you want a black neighbour, vote Labour’; and so on. It is a melancholy reflection that it worked for nearly a quarter of a century: with the result that Australia came to be seen abroad as the Spain or Portugal of the Southern Hemisphere, a land of rich philistines second only to South Africa as a surviving bastion of racism and reaction.
THERE WAS A time when our image abroad was very different. Between about 1891 when the world’s first Labor parties entered the colonial parliaments and the first World War, intelligent travellers visited Australia in much the same spirit as people now go to Sweden or Denmark or China to see possible shapes of the future. In 1901 a young Frenchman named Albert Metin characterized Australian society as one of socialisme sans doctrines. In fact Australia then had no more truck with socialism or revolution than it has now under the new Labor government. It was and is a remarkably stable bourgeois society: but it was also one enjoying more advanced social, welfare-state legislation’ than had before existed anywhere on earth. Labor ruled in its own right only at the end of the period from 1910 to 1913, but for the preceding twenty years, by trading with the existing Protectionist and Free Trade parties ‘support in return for concessions’, Labor exercised more influence than either on the shape of our emergent society.
During the first fourteen years of the Commonwealth’s existence both houses of parliament were elected on a more democratic franchise than existed almost anywhere else. Women were given the vote in 1902 almost without having asked for it. Two years later the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration was established. In 1907 its second president, Henry Bournes Higgins, delivered his famous `Harvester Judgment’. Disdaining all the profit-incentive arguments of classical economics, he gave legal form to a then popular Australian belief in the primacy of human needs. A ‘fair and reasonable’ wage for even an unskilled labourer, he held, was one sufficient to meet ‘the normal needs of the average employee regarded as a human being living in a civilized community’. Noble words: but what was then relatively the strongest trade-union movement in the world helped to ensure that the basic wage became a fundamental pillar of the Australian way of life. Old age and invalid pensions were introduced in 1908. Protection of local secondary industries became the settled policy of the country. Pensions were made more generous and maternity allowances were introduced by Fisher’s 1910-1913 Labor government. The Commonwealth Bank was established, the site of Canberra was chosen and the•trans continental railway to Perth begun. Some of these measures were not concerned so much with social welfare, however, as with the fostering of national independence and identity,
It is important to realize that, ever since the foundation of the Commonwealth, Labor has promoted Australian nationalism at least as strongly as social reform. Labor’s federal platform of 1905, for instance, began with one single ‘objective’, though it had two aspects:
The cultivation of an Australian sentiment used upon the maintenance of racial purity, and the development in Australia of an enlightened and self-reliant community.
The securing of the full rights of their industry to all producers by the collective ownership of monopolies and the extension of the industrial and economic functions of the State and Municipality.
Men and women of the time conceived of national self-reliance and social reform as two aspects of a single policy. It is hardly too much to say that democratic social reform constituted the distinctive and essential character of Australian national sentiment and vice-versa. Note too that naked and unadorned racism was then seen as a basic ingredient of nationalism. All parties agreed on absolute maintenance of the White Australia Policy, but Labor advocated it more emphatically than the others. Of course practically everyone in the world of European descent then believed in the myth of innate ‘white’ superiority, but it is significant that even in this area today’s Labor government is implementing a vastly more enlightened policy than did the Liberal-Country Party coalition, to say nothing of the DLP. The ‘parties of resistance’ have resisted change so successfully for so long that they have been left behind even in this sphere where they were once, marginally, more progressive than their opponents.
Long before anything resembling a political party existed here, there were two kinds of (white) Australians. Ever since the first garrison of Marines returned to England in 1791 some of us have accepted this land as our home while others have continued, often after their families have spent many generations in Australia, to give their first loyalty to England, or to the British Empire or even to the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’, which is held to include our American ‘cousins’. Of course there are plenty of Australian Alf Garnetts and not a few Geoffrey Duttons; but generally speaking common working men—and—women rapidly became Australian in sentiment while richer and more cultivated persons tended to think of themselves as Britons living, perhaps temporarily, away from ‘Home’. In 1791 Watkin Tench, captain of Marines in the First Fleet, wrote of the time when:
the hour of departure to England, for the marine battalion, drew nigh. . . . I will not say that We contemplated its approach with mingled sensations: – we hailed it with rapture and elation… [Yet] three corporals, one drummer, and 59 privates, accepted grants of land, to settle at Norfolk Island and Rose Hill.
No officers, let it be noted. The gentlemen returned rapturously home, while sixty-odd other ranks chose to become Australians. In his Australian People, Donald Horne records the revealing statement made some fifty years later by a boy in a magistrate’s court. When asked his religion, this uncultivated youth answered simply, ‘I am a Native’.
Meanwhile most of those whom Henry Lawson referred to as the ‘rich and educated’ (who, he felt, must be educated down) continued, like so many of Martin Boyd’s and Henry Handel Richardson’s characters, to think of themselves as Englishmen, or at best, in Hancock’s phrase, as ‘independent Austral Britons’.
Menzies is a case in-point. Many Australians called him ‘Pig-Iron Bob’, but the title he chose for himself was Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports: a natural preference for a Man who proclaimed in one of his last parliamentary speeches, ‘It is well-known that I am British to my boot-heels!’ [Not ‘boot-straps’, which he would have held to be a vulgar American expression]. The point is exemplified even more nicely in the posthumous papers of Frank Anstey, a poor working-class boy who was born in England but ran away to sea at the age of eleven, joined the Australian Seamen’s Union and became for thirty years a Labor member of the Victorian and later the Commonwealth parliament. Anstey begins a thumb-nail sketch of Bruce, the anti-Labor (Nationalist) prime minister from 1923 to 1929 with the words: ‘Stanley Bruce, an English gentleman, [was] born in Australia [just] as other Englishmen are born in China, India or Timbuctoo. .) Bruce was in fact Australian born and bred: but Anstey, true Australian by choice, quite naturally characterized him as an Englishman at heart since he was the conservative Australian leader, wore spats, had been educated in England and retired there to live the life of a lord.
ON 2 DECEMBER 1972 Labor won with the slogan, ‘It’s time’. God knows it was, and more than time; but it’s time too that Australians realized the fundamental difference between the policies of Labor and those of its opponents. It is not that Labor stands for red revolution, regimentation or even socialism, while the Liberal-Country Party coalition stands for private enterprise and hosts of heavenly subsidies to cockles. In fact-Labor merely places more emphasis on planning the functioning of our capitalist welfare-state and the L.C.P. less. It is not a hundred other mythical differences which are agitated before ashen-faced voters at election after election. It is not even that Labor is the party of initiative and anti-Labor the parties of resistance to change, though this is a very important difference. It is that Labor is an Australian party while anti-Labor is the party of great and powerful overseas friends. That may be an exaggeration, but it is not a lie. Let us consider the evidence.
In 1909 the Free-Trade and Protectionist parties ‘fused’, avowedly to oppose Labor, which was nevertheless, elected to power in both houses in 1910. Since then the main ‘Fusion’ or anti-, or non-Labor party has been known successively as the Liberal Party, the Nationalist Party, the United Australia Party and the Liberal Party again. Labor has seen no need to change its name at all. In World War I the Liberals/Nationalists, to a man, advocated conscription for overseas service, because we owed the Mother Country all possible support, and so on. The Labor Party split on the issue but the anti-conscriptionist majority agreed with the majority of all Australians as shown by the ‘No’ vote in two referenda. In the great depression the U.A.P. politicians again decided what was best for Australia by asking themselves first what was best for Britain. What would other countries think if Australia should seek to ‘reduce or defer payments on overseas debts? Labor’s Commonwealth treasurer, E. G. Theodore, asked what was best for Australia and came up with some of the ‘pump-priming’ suggestions of the then almost unknown J. M. Keynes. Theodore was hounded from public life by the U.A.P., though everyone now agrees that the application -of Keynesian policies would have softened considerably the depression’s impact. J. T. Lang, the New South. Wales Labor premier, advocated the writing down or repudiation of our war debt to Britain—as Britain herself had done with respect to her war debt to the United States. This suggestion was considered unthinkably revolutionary and disloyal by conservative politicians of the day, but we may now ask,`disloyal to whom?’.
After the destruction of much of the American fleet at Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 and the fall of Singapore a little more than two months later, Japan’s conquest and occupation of Australia seemed the next obvious step. Our only trained and seasoned fighting troops were three divisions in the Middle East whither they had been sent by the previous U.A.P. government—Curtin’s Labor cabinet insisted on bringing
these men back to defend their homes, but Churchill, who privately held that Australia could be liberated from japan at the end of the War, wanted the Seventh Australian division diverted to Burma. He was supported by Earle Page, ex-country Party leader, who had been appointed Australian High Commissioner in London by the previous government, and by Menzies, Spender and other U.A.P. and Country Party leaders. Page went so far as to sabotage—or perhaps only to misunderstand—the Labor government’s instructions about bringing our troops home forthwith.
The habit of subservience to remote but presumptively powerful patrons is so deeply embedded in the bosoms of right-thinking Australians that after the war they managed to transform their total trust in Britain into an equally unquestioning faith in the United States. For nearly a century and a half up until the fall of Singapore every Australian conservative believed that it was unnecessary, if not downright sinful, for us even to think about foreign policy. Our future security could obviously be ensured solely by backing up the Mother Country, which would in return protect us should the need arise. In February 1942 when the need did arise, Britain could not and did not do so: though it seemed a little hard, when we faced the prospect of imminent invasion, that she should still demand our own troops for imperial purposes elsewhere. The lesson was learnt by the wartime Labor government which found another powerful protector in America, but at the same time developed friendly relations with our neighbours, notably by sponsoring the Indonesian struggle for independence of their Dutch rulers. At the time the first initiative was damned with faint praise by the non-Labor parties while the second was balefully denounced as treasonable madness. In the past twenty-three years successive conservative governments have taken full credit for both policies; but they have forgotten much and learnt nothing in principle. Their thinking, or rather feeling, is still dominated by what A. A. Phillips long ago characterized as the colonial and/or cultural cringe. They have simply substituted for Britain the United States as the sole fount of wisdom and succour.
How else can we account for the continuous and unconditional support of America in its disgraceful war on Vietnam? Except for her client states of South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines,t all the resources of American diplomacy, economic pressure and C.I.A. subversion could not persuade any other countries but Australia and New Zealand to help with fighting troops.
Thus our government made clear that we too were merely creatures of the United States. We earned the disdain of the world and the enmity of the Asian peoples, our neighbours, with whom a responsible Australian government would have been seeking to build good will. It was Menzies who first committed our troops to the Vietnam shambles, without properly consulting parliament, without a request for aid even from the puppet government of South Vietnam, and without declaring war. Holt immortalized himself with the ringingly dignified phrase, ‘All the way with L.B.J.’ Gorton continued with his pledge, ‘We will go a-waltzing Matilda with you, Mr President’. McMahon eclipsed his predecessors in incoherence, as well as subservience, with his misquotation, ‘There comes a time in the life of man in the flood of time that taken at the flood leads on’—as it turned out, to an ocean of inarticulate non sequiturs. Before the speech Nixon was heard to ask an aide, ‘How do you pronounce it, ‘MacMarn or MacMann’? With a great retinue the prime minister then visited, mirabile dicta, Malaysia. The effect of this bold excursion into uncharted seas was spoilt by his apparent confusion between Malaysia and Malaya, and by a clanger, quite characteristic both of the parties of resistance and of our then prime minister, which he perpetrated in a press interview. A burning question in Malaysia was, and still is, that of freedom of navigation in the Strait of Malacca. McMahon said that in any case the straits were navigable only by ships of 200 tons or less(!) and continued: ‘Our attitude is a clear one: as yet we have not made up our mind definitively as to what our policy should be on the Straits of Madagascar.’ Small wonder, as I wrote above, that by last November our government and our country had become a laughing-stock to the world.
LABOR’S ACCESSION TO POWER has at least restored some dignity to the conduct of our national affairs. Of course we need great and powerful friends and we need the American alliance. Labor negotiated the alliance thirty years ago in the teeth of scandalized tut-tutting from the parties of resistance. Labor is now effectively engaged in making the relationship more meaningful and less one-sided, for one does not cement a friendship by acting as a sycophant without a mind or policy of one’s own—as Canada’s relationship with America demonstrates. We also need, and we need more, to learn to stand on our own feet and to cultivate good relations with our neighbours. Such an aim is not advanced by trying gratuitously for seven years to bludgeon them into submission by making a desert and calling it peace.
Britain has withdrawn forever to the west of Suez. By joining the European Common Market she has vividly demonstrated the fallacy of the Liberal and Country parties’ belief—that ties of kinship, culture, tradition and gratitude ensure the support of a great patron. For some years now Australians have needed landing permits, work permits, residence permits and other pieces of paper before they may even land in Britain. Her Majesty’s government was not so fussy about admitting more than half a million volunteers during two World Wars. The British have kicked us out of the nest: yet the parties of resistance still raise scandalized hands at our new government’s decision to delete the words ‘British Subject’ from our passports.
Despite Nixon’s efforts to hang on, it is clear that the American people are thoroughly sick of propping up every reactionary regime on earth in the name of anticommunism. America is withdrawing from the Asian mainland now and may soon withdraw an effective military presence from the Southwest Pacific: but we cannot withdraw to either of the spiritual wombs of the parties of resistance. Australia cannot be towed away like a disabled aircraft-carrier in the wake of a US fleet. For better or worse we and our children’s children must live here and we must in the end find for ourselves a modus vivendi with our neighbours. It is good that, after a hiatus of twenty-three years, we are again setting about the job.
After a long hibernation and the final low farce of the McMahon government’s term of office, almost any change could only have been for the better. We had all come more or less to expect nothing but ill from political action. Nevertheless the Whitlam government, so far, has done a great deal more than tinker cautiously with what needs to be done. Many of its supporters have been equally astonished and delighted, and its enemies seemingly bemused by the confidence, the authority and the speed with which it has set about making up for wasted time. I know of no precedent in the history of British governments anywhere for the promptitude with which it has implemented so many of its campaign promises. Within a month of the election, the new government had ended the lottery of conscription for military service and released gaoled draft-resisters, negotiated an exchange of ambassadors with China, abolished race as a criterion of our immigration policy, set about the reform of our archaic health service, revalued the Australian dollar upwards, moved to support equal pay for women, begun reform of the divorce law, increased unemployment aid to the states, banned from our soil racially-selected sports teams, banned the slaughter of the nearly extinct Australian crocodile, abolished British titles (as the Canadians did a generation ago), put the contraceptive pill on the medical benefits list and abolished the ‘entertainment tax’ on it, abolished the excise on unfortified Australian wine, and increased subsidies to the arts. The list is by no means exhaustive: but who ever heard of a democratic government actually doing so much of what it promised and doing it immediately? No wonder the opposition seems disconcerted. Homing travellers, whether of radical or conservative bent, report that for the first time in the memory of thirty-year-olds Australia appears frequently and favourably in the overseas press. Our image abroad glows somewhat. At home the age of fear lasted so long that even those who struggled incessantly against the tide can hardly believe it has turned at last, that we no longer have a government about which we had become inured to feeling ashamed, embarrassed or apologetic.
THERE WILL BE COMPROMISES and troubles soon enough, of course, and shoddy deals and salutary criticism, not to mention loads of abuse. This article, I expect, will attract a modest share of the last two commodities. No doubt it does resemble more the fanfare of a fundamentalist trumpeter announcing the Saviour’s second coming than a properly impartial and coolly judicious academic exercise. It does so deliberately because, as I have tried to show, more is at stake than a game of ins and outs or left versus right. Australian history this century shows that, in general, Labor quite naturally puts Australian interests, ideas and policies first, while the parties of resistance equally naturally are guided mainly by what they believe at a given moment to be the wishes of their leading overseas patron. On present trends, incidentally, and before very long, our great and powerful friend will be Japan.
Take for example the scandal of foreign capital buying control of more and more Australian assets—stations, farms, land, mines and industries.. Though Labor is supposed to be hell-bent on the destruction of capitalism, in fact it acts much more readily than do the parties of ‘private enterprise’ to protect Australian capitalists from foreign takeovers. It is really committed to our own control of our own destiny, including that of the capitalists among ‘us’. It is interesting that Gorton, in this respect, was more of a Labor man than a Liberal. Just before his election to the party leadership, consciously contrasting himself with Menzies, he said on a nation-wide TV program, ‘You might say that I am Australian to my boot-heels’. And indeed he was. At least he talked more boldly (if hardly more coherently) than any other Liberal leader about the need for curbing foreign capital investment: but look at the result. Though obviously the most popular vote-getter the Liberals had, ‘Jolly John’ was drummed out of the leadership in favour, Lord have mercy upon us, of McMahon. The parties of resistance preferred even that to a leader who showed such dangerously independent tendencies. He seemed to be thinking sometimes of formulating Australian policies without first finding out what the United States had decided they ought to be.
In the past century a policy of total and unconditional dependence on Britain made some sense. At least it was probably the only realistic one open to us. Such a policy makes sense no longer, whether the United States, or Japan, or China, or farthest Iceland be conceived of as the semi-divine parental figure who will always cherish her colonial child. This policy for twenty-three years has done little for our prosperity, nothing for our social progress, and untold damage to our reputation and long-term security. Australia now has after all the strongest, best-balanced and most advanced economy in the southern hemisphere. As long as the ingrained colonial cringe remains basic to the anti-Labor parties’ instincts and policies, they must govern by reference to long-dead myths and dreams rather than to the actual world around us.
On 2 December 1972 Australians decided, not before time, to step forward into reality. An exhilarating thaw is breaking up the ice in which we have been frozen for a generation. Let us hope that it heralds not merely a brief interglacial period but a new era in our national life.