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Labor must build on Gough Whitlam’s reforms

Posted by on 29/06/2018

I suspect that the only time my mother voted Labor in her life was in 1972 – the It’s Time election. She thought Labor was working class.

However, it’s only a suspicion, because  she never wore her politics on her sleeve. One of her rare political statements was before Victorian state elections in the 1960s, “I am going to vote for Tom Mitchell because he is a gentleman”.

Mitchell, who often visited the Anglican Rectory in Beechworth, was MP for Benambra in North-East Victoria for nearly 30 years – indeed, until after the dismissal of the Whitlam government. He was educated at Cambridge and referred to Britain as “the Old Country”.

He was also a POW in Changi.

His politics were utterly conservative, and most likely quite contrary to my mother’s best interests as a science teacher, nascent feminist and economically down-trodden spouse of an Anglican clergyman with six children.

But he was a gentleman. Arthur Calwell didn’t have a hope.

As federal leader of the Labor Party Calwell represented blue-singleted working men. Yes men. My mother did not struggle up from being the daughter of a butcher to science teacher to vote for the workingman’s party.

Until Gough Whitlam took the leadership, the Labor Party’s main aim seemed to be to represent the interests of blue-collar wage earners against capital. It was proud to do so. And it could get a majority doing so, for no doubt many of the wives of those wage earners voted as their men did.

Perhaps the greatest change Whitlam engineered in the Australian political landscape was to convert the Labor Party from representing just a sectional interest to representing everyone.

You can see it in the legislative program (whether enacted or blocked): national health; land rights; equal pay; racial discrimination law; sensible divorce law; removing the colonial cringe; equal voting rights and so on. Politics changed from being labour v capital to progressive v conservative.

However,  40 years on, the task is not complete. Whitlam’s death this week should remind Labor of that, and remind Labor of what needs to be done.

It boils down to control and funding (and it is the same for the Liberals). Labor gets large donations from unions. Unions in turn get a large formal say in policy making and pre-selections.

The Liberal Party gets large donations from big business. In return the Liberal Party’s policies favour big business. But the link is nowhere near as formal or as strong as with the Labor Party.

This year, the Royal Commission and ICAC hearings have revealed just how corrupt these relationships are.

Election after election, the winning leader mouths the platitudes of governing for all Australians and then promptly starts governing in favour of the party’s sectional interests.

Whitlam tried to reform his party, but he was unable to go far enough. His policies were certainly aimed more broadly than to wage earners.

His success is measurable.  Having brought Labor into government after 23 years, many thought that the years of his government were a brief flash in the pan, and after the 1975 defeat it seemed that Labor was destined for another 23 years in Opposition and that the country would go back to conservative torpor.

But that didn’t happen. It is a measure of the lasting change that Whitlam brought about to his party and to the country that Labor has won exactly half of the elections held since 1975.

It shows that professionals, women, indeed people everywhere,  were comfortable voting for Labor – that it was not just a workingman’s party.

Similarly, more people on wages are feeling more comfortable voting for the Liberals, certainly in the Howard years. But in the Gillard and Abbott years old sectional habits have returned.

As Labor reflects upon its history and future it should realise another wave of internal reform is needed beyond the welcomestep of giving the membership a say in the election of the parliamentary leader.

An inclusive party should not make union membership a pre-requisite for membership and nor should unions have any special voting rights. Union membership continues to plummet in Australia – down to 18 per cent of employees. In 1992 it was 45 per cent for male employees and 33 per cent for females.

Given that only about 40 per cent of Australians are wage and salary earners (the rest do not work or are self-employed) it reduces eligibility to membership of the Labor Party to about  8 per cent of the population.

That is not a good figure for a party that aspires to represent all and to pursue policies for all. Opening membership and allowing electronic attendance at meetings and electronic voting might result in a wider membership and a broader funding base.

But it is difficult for people to give up power. It is also difficult for people to give up what appears to be a secure funding base (unions) for an uncertain one. But the future will be bleak without that leap.

Labor should also give up its strict rules on voting in Parliament, allowing MPs to cross the floor if conscience dictates without automatic expulsion. These “solidarity forever” rules belong to the out-dated labour v capital battlefield.

To make these changes would help finish the job Gough Whitlam started. It would complete the transformation of Labor from being foot soldiers in the battle against capital to a party of universal values that helps all disadvantaged people and encourages a prosperous competitive economy.

The name of the party does not matter. After all, the Liberal Party these days is hardly liberal.

In making these changes Labor also needs to rid itself of an unfortunate trait that Whitlam himself had in a big way: a failure to recognise that even the most laudable policy or program has to be paid for. Without the nation’s finances under control, all of the plans for a fairer, better nation come to nought.


This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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