How Labour Governs. Vere Gordon Childe 1923

Chapter V. Heterogeneity of the Elements Within the Labour Party

WE have mentioned incidentally that there was a variety of interests and elements included in the Labour Parties in each State, and it is desirable at this point to examine briefly what those elements were. From the first the Labour Party had the dual character of a trade union party and a social democratic party. The unionists of Australia had learnt from the failure of the Maritime Strike the limitations of direct action even in well-organised trades. They had experience of the power of the State when used on the side of the employers. At the same time they were advised to use constitutional means to secure the redress of their grievances, and in a democratic country seemed to have an opportunity of exercising considerable – nay, almost unlimited – political power. So unionists were persuaded to transfer from the industrial to the political field that struggle for shorter hours, better wages, safe and hygienic conditions of employment, freedom to organise, and personal liberty that the working-class has everywhere had to wage against Capitalism. In addition, there was, both within and without the ranks of unionism, a small but active group that were seized of the idea, not only of mitigating the hardships of employment for wages, but also of abolishing the wages system altogether. It was this Socialist section which, under the inspiration of William Lane, was responsible for the foundation of the Labour Party in Queensland. In N.S.W. it was due in some measure to the Socialists that the Labour Party took on its specific and isolated character. In Sydney, the Australian Socialist League had been founded as far back as 1887, and propagated its doctrines by means of meetings and a periodical called The Radical. The Socialists were almost all followers of Bellamy or the Fabians. They thought that once a Labour Party was established as a separate entity, it would inevitably become a Socialist party, and by the control of the machinery of Government, which they believed it would soon attain, would usher in the Collectivist State peacefully and speedily. But, of course, only the minority of unionists were Socialists.

But even if these two sections had been entirely united, their combined forces were not strong enough at the time to win an election. From its foundation the Labour Party has had to look for allies outside the working-class, and the few middle-class protagonists of the proletarian revolt. The following groups and classes were gradually attracted to the side of Labour – by sentimental bonds only, democrats and Australian nationalists; by economic interest, the small farmers and settlers, the prospectors and small mining proprietors, and the small shopkeepers; by ties of self-interest, the Roman Catholic Church and perhaps certain business interests – notably the liquor trade. Labour, simply in furtherance of its own proper aims, had inevitably to advocate the extension of popular government to its utmost limits. The abolition of the second chamber, composed of Crown nominees or persons elected on a property franchise, was a pre-condition to the realisation of Labour's more advanced aims. The extension of the franchise by the abolition of long residential qualifications and plural voting would be likely to increase Labour's representation in Parliament. These reasons, and the fact that the Labour Party, in common with the European social-democrats, sincerely believed in democracy for its own sake, led to the inclusion of a number of radical planks in Labour's platform. After 1896 women's suffrage was added. Democratic sentiment has always been strong and widespread in Australia, and the inclusion of these planks in the Labour platform brought the Party many middle-class adherents.

Nationalist sentiment focussed itself round the banner of the Labour Party for more indirect reasons. For one thing, the Labour Movement had for a long time been continental in its scope, and not bounded in outlook by the governmental divisions into States. Inter-State union congresses had met regularly since 1879. The unions overleapt State boundaries. The great A.W.U. in its division into branches took no account of artificial barriers. The industrialists soon found that certain questions could not be dealt with effectively by the States acting separately. Australian action alone, for instance, could cope with Asiatic immigration. Thus the Labour Parties acquired a broad Australian outlook which made them ardent supporters of Federation, while the old middle-class parties, having a vested interest in the State Governments, were narrow “State-righters.” In the second place, for purely economic reasons, Labour desired to encourage Australian industry which would provide increased employment, and to keep Australia for the white races, since unrestricted Asiatic immigration had been found seriously to endanger the standards of living of Australian working men. For this reason the watchword of “White Australia” was adopted from its first exponent, Sir Samuel Griffiths, a Queensland Liberal, as the watchword of the Labour Party. Thus the sentiment of Australian nationhood, which expressed itself in the Movement towards Federation, and which was reinforced by racial prejudice against the intermingling of white and coloured races, found its natural political exponent in the Labour Party. Especially after Federation, national patriotism brought a large body of supporters to the Labour Party. Of course such a sentiment was in its extreme manifestations incompatible with the internationalism of the Socialist Movement, and has produced a curious reaction on Australian Socialism as expounded by the Labour Party.

The small property-holders were even more incompatible with an extreme Socialist party; yet they were attracted to the Labour Party by real economic interests. The older parties were dominated mainly by the large landed Interest of the squatters, or the big city firms and monopolist companies who provided the bulk of their party funds. Now the small settler, the “cocky” farmer, stands in a hostile relation to the big pastoralist who monopolises the largest areas of Australian soil. The latter is not often a helpful neighbour to the selector whose holding often interferes with the rounding off of his huge paddocks. He can and did harass the settler in an infinite variety of ways. On the other hand, the city middle-man takes a heavy toll from the farmer whose product he alone can handle. The old parties offered the cocky no hope of protection from these foes, and so he was forced to look to Labour for relief. The prospector or shareholder in a small mine was in the same straits. He was hindered by the big landholder on whose demesne the lode might be and was at the mercy of a few monopolistic smelter companies who might squeeze all his profits out of him by treatment charges. Finally, the small shopkeeper, besides being dependent on working-class customers, resents the competition of the big city stores and the extortionate charges of monopolists and wholesale trusts who can so fix prices that the shopkeeper is reduced to the position of a mere agent. The Labour Party promised to burst up the large estates by a tax on land values, to help the farmer by abolishing the middle-man in the course of setting up State Socialism. State produce agencies, State sugar mills, State treatment-works and smelters were promised as steps towards freeing the small producer from the grip of the monopolists as well as stages in the advent of Socialism. The same classes were attracted by special planks inserted in the platform for their delectation, such as assistance to mining, rural credits, advances to settlers, and so on.

The Labour Party has not been left a free field in pandering to the sentiments or interests of the above-mentioned classes. Democratic sentiment proved so strong that when the anti-Labour forces coalesced, as they did soon after the establishment of Federation, they were fain to adopt the name of “Liberal.” Yet the aggressive radicalism of Labour has, in fact, forced their opponents into the role of guardians of the constitution, including privileged second chambers and the vice-regal veto, and defenders of the rights of property. The “Liberals” were only liberal in the economic sense of the Manchester school standing for the restriction of State interference with private business and the glorification of the competitive system, without, however, being able to stand out as Free Traders or to mask the real growth of monopolies, combines and cartels. Similarly, the appeal to nationalist sentiment had proved so successful that, when a section of the Labour Party coalesced with the “Liberals” after the conscription split, the new Party called itself “Nationalist.” Yet they adopted as their standard the Union jack, not the Australian flag, and have stood for closer unity of the Empire, and even the subordination of Australian to Imperialist interests, while the genuine nationalists have followed the opposite line, traditionally putting “Australia first” and insisting on the reality of Dominion self-government. Thus the Party labels in Australia have become most misleading. Recently the primary producers have formed parties of their own, known as “the Country Party” or “the Progressives,” to cater for the farmers' votes. Yet even these organisations represent rather the pastoralists or the biggest wheat and dairy farmers than the struggling cocky whose interests are still best watched by the Labour Party.

The other allies of Labour whom we have mentioned have received no formal concessions on the Labour platform. Yet it is notorious that the Catholic Church, as a body, supports the Labour Party quite solidly. The reasons are obscure. That Church cannot possibly support Socialism, as the Brisbane Courier was at pains to point out during the 1918 elections in Queensland. Many prominent Labour leaders were atheists or agnostics, as, for example, W. A. Holman and E. G. Theodore. Very few of the prominent Labour leaders have been Romans. The only Labour Premier in the east, at any rate, of that faith, was T. J. Ryan. No Labour Government has given any positive concession to that Church. Yet its hierarchy has consistently lent its support to the Labour Party, and a sectarian element is distinctly perceptible in most leagues. Though the second largest and politically best organised Church in Australia, the adherence of the Catholics is a doubtful blessing. No-Popery is so strong that any Party definitely allied with the papists would be doomed to destruction. Some efforts have indeed been made to check the sectarian element in the Party. In 1915 the P.L.C. Conference in Victoria adopted a rule excluding from membership in the Party “any person who is a member of any other organisation which selects or lends support to candidates for public positions.” This resolution, avowedly aimed at members of the Catholic Federation, drew from Archbishop Mannix, of Melbourne, the clearest admission that has ever been made of the hierarchy's support to the Labour Party. When the referenda were withdrawn by Hughes, this prelate announced that he was sorry the Labour Party's constitutional proposals had been withdrawn from the popular vote, as he had intended to teach the Party a lesson as to what the withdrawal of the Catholic vote meant. It has been surmised that the Church supported the Labour Party in the hope of concessions in the matter of education. The chief political aim of the Romans is certainly to secure a subsidy for their schools from the State. The hierarchy maintain that the State secular schools are unchristian, and that is impossible for the faithful to allow their children to be educated in their godless atmosphere. They have fine schools of their own, but the priests argue that it is unjust that their flock, who contribute to the upkeep of these, should be taxed for the support of the State schools, which they cannot use. They, therefore, claim a Government subsidy for their sectarian institutions. The Labour Party has never admitted the validity of this claim or shown any inclination to concede it. In Queensland and Victoria the platform specifically lays it down that education shall be “free and secular.” Resolutions in favour of subventions to denominational schools have occasionally been discussed at Labour Conferences, but have always been decisively rejected, e.g., in Queensland in 1910. Just prior to the 1913 elections in N.S.W. a Catholic dignatory delivered himself of a vehement tirade against the educational policy of Labour, but Premier Holman answered him in an uncompromising fashion. Still, twenty-six Labour candidates answered in the affirmative a circular issued by the Catholic Federation asking them to promise to advocate the grant of free materials to the Catholic schools by the State. Holman recommended his supporters to ignore this document, and the signatories were severely castigated in the Worker.1

The only obvious consideration that the Catholic Church has received from Labour in return for its support is the Bursaries Endowment Act in N.S.W. This measure, passed by the first Labour Government, permits students who have been awarded bursaries which carry with them remission of fees to hold the same at private as well as State secondary schools. The State has, of course, to subsidise the private schools in respect of the bursars who attend them. Nearly all the non-State secondary schools in Australia are denominational and most of them are Catholic, so that in this way the State comes to contribute to the maintenance of their schools. But here the connection between the Church and Labour seems to end. It is true that adherents of that faith occupy a surprisingly large number of influential and confidential posts in the public service of most States, but it is not evident that the Labour Party was responsible for placing them there. Many were certainly appointed by the other side.

The supposed alliances between Labour and certain financial interests have only come about since Labour has been within close range of the Treasury benches, and any compacts that have been made have been negotiated not with Conference or the Executive, but with the leaders of the Parliamentary Party. The most easily demonstrable alliance formed by the Labour Party with the vested interests of a section of the capitalist class, is that with the liquor trade. It was openly denounced by Rae, a man who had long been in the inner counsels of Labour at the Socialist Conference in Sydney, on August 4th, 1919. Under the Holman régime in N.S.W. it was notorious, and the strongest circumstantial evidence points to a similar alliance in Queensland.

In both of these States a local option poll is held on the same day as a general election. To fight “reduction” and “no-licence” the liquor interests have an organisation amply supplied with funds and cars working in each electorate. These organisations have been at the disposal of the Labour candidates. The advantage to the politicians is obvious. The funds of the local leagues derived from bazaars and socials are never large. The central funds derived from capitation dues from leagues and affiliated unions are also exiguous, and are almost entirely consumed in salaries, office expenses and literature. Labour has had plenty of volunteer canvassers and scrutineers who have given their services to the Movement, but few rich friends to lend it cars to convey voters to the polls. The other parties have an army of paid canvassers and a fleet of cars at their disposal, and all the advantages that money can secure. The use of the licensed victuallers' cars, of the public-houses for the display of Labour signs, and even monetary contributions has, therefore, been invaluable. Whether the use of these appurtenances has involved any grave sacrifice of Labour principles is another question. In N.S.W. the Liberals under Carruthers and Wade had engaged in a crusade of “wowser” legislation which alarmed the “trade.” The latter seem, therefore, to have resolved to make friends with the Party which seemed likely to capture the reins of Government at the next election. Whether they received any definite promises in return is uncertain. Certainly Conference would recognise none. But they seem to have been able to exercise a “pull” when the time to demand something in return came. This happened in 1915. A general demand arose during the war for early closing of hotels, and the British precedent was generally quoted. This was in itself embarrassing to Holman, who was endeavouring to give the lie to the charges of disloyalty levelled at the Labour Party by the opposition, and on the other hand wanted the help of the publicans at the elections in the following year. His dilemma was made much worse when the P.L.L. Conference, that had never been consulted about any arrangement with the licensed victuallers, passed a resolution in favour of six o'clock closing. The Government maintained a policy of masterly inaction, but in July Carmichael, a Labourite and ex-Minister, had moved in the House for a referendum on the subject, provoking the wrath of the Premier because Caucus had not been consulted. On September 7th a private member secured the passage of a resolution in favour of nine o'clock as the closing hour, and had the support of five Ministers for the proposition. It was not till October that Cabinet, yielding to the growing pressure of public opinion, brought in a Bill for a limitation of the hours for the sale of intoxicants. It was a farcical measure, for it allowed bars to remain open till ten instead of eleven as before. On a vote to replace ten by nine several Labour members remained staunch, but most of the Ministers stultified their former votes by opposing the amendment.1 At last the Premier's hands were forced when some soldiers broke camp in February, and ran amok in Sydney. The Minister for Defence in the Commonwealth Labour Government thereupon used his powers under the War Precautions Act to close the hotels in Sydney at six. Public opinion could no longer be ignored, and Holman with obvious reluctance brought in a Bill for a referendum. The people chose the hour recommended by the Labour Conference in the previous year, and re-endorsed in 1916. The only explanation of Holman's reluctance to comply with a genuine and widespread popular demand seems to be the secret pull of the liquor traffic, especially as the demand for early closing was made by his own Party.

In Queensland the understanding between Labour members and the liquor traffic led to even more curious results, for there was a strong temperance section in the rank and file of the Party, and Plank VI. of the platform ran: “State manufacture, importation, and sale of intoxicants with a view to total prohibition.” Yet as soon as the Ryan Government assumed office in 1915 they gave good cause for suspicions that they had an understanding with the liquor interests. There was the same demand for war-time closing in Queensland as in the southern State, but the Labour Government turned an absolutely deaf ear to the demands of the advocates of early closing. They contented themselves with the observation that they were bringing in a Bill for the Initiative and Referendum, and that the temperance people could avail themselves of the opportunity that that would give to ascertain the wishes of the people. But the Party refused to accept the Legislative Council's amendments to the Bill, which included provisions for the recall of members, and the Bill was declared lost – so in effect was early closing. Meanwhile the Hon. Peter Murray, M.L.C., who was regarded as the mouthpiece of the licensed victuallers in the House, had declared himself an adherent of the new Government.

The temperance party in the Labour Movement were very dissatisfied with the Ministry's policy on the liquor question, although they had, in deference to Plank VI., set up a State hotel at Babinda to be a model public-house. A series of resolutions, emanating from Buranda W.P.O., gave vent to this dissatisfaction at the 1918 Conference. Six o'clock closing stood in the forefront of these resolutions. The mover declared that there could be no alliance between Labour and liquor. The sooner Labour outlined its position the better. The politicians who had to fight an election almost at once evinced a strong dislike to the motion, but as it was evidently strongly supported, it was clearly useless for them to oppose it directly. Instead a red-herring was astutely drawn across the trail by an amendment: “That this Conference adhere to the determination to establish the Initiative and Referendum under which the six o'clock closing and all other questions can be determined by the people.” The politicians, who were afraid to oppose the motion directly, were able to deluge the gathering with arguments in support of the amendment. Delegates were urged to use the early closing question as a lever to get the legislation required by the platform through the Council. They must not sacrifice a great thing like the Initiative and Referendum to give way to a panicky cry. On the other hand, Lane pointed out that, apart altogether from the Initiative and Referendum, the liquor trade was either right or wrong, and it was no use taking refuge behind the other question. Page-Hannify reminded them that it was useless to expect to see the Initiative and Referendum next session. Unless Convention took up a positive attitude there was a danger of this question being used against Labour. But at the last minute the big guns were brought up by the politicians. W. N. Gillies, Minister for Agriculture, thought it strange that so many who wanted reform on this question voted for the retention of the Upper House. Then Treasurer Theodore rose. “If prepared to give the people the right to ballot on this question,” he asked, “why not on other questions under the Initiative and Referendum? Labour would be sticking solidly to its platform in endeavouring to put that through at the first opportunity.” By such arguments the motion for a referendum on six o'clock closing was shelved by 44 votes to 22. At the next election a fleet of cars was available to take Labour voters to the poll which had been sadly lacking at the second conscription referendum a few months earlier. It seems to have been widely known that the publicans had contributed generously to the campaign funds, but it may be taken for granted that these subscriptions were not made through the Executive, which contained many pronounced temperance advocates. At any rate, it is noteworthy that Queensland was the only State in the Commonwealth where public-houses could remain open till 11 p.m. all through the war.

Nevertheless, a resolution got through the 1918 Conference in favour of a general poll throughout the State on the question of no-licence, nationalisation, or continuance as opposed to the local options polls already prescribed. The Government was evidently timid about submitting this issue to the electors and asked the Executive for directions. A special meeting of that body in August, 1918, decided that the Government was bound under the terms of Conference's resolution to introduce, a Bill apart from the Initiative and Referendum Bill, for a special referendum on these questions. But still the Ministry took no action. The matter was not touched during the session of 1918 or in the earlier part of 1919. It was not until many resolutions of protest had been sent in from W.P.O.'s and a strongly worded complaint had been made by the Brisbane Industrial Council that Cabinet brought down the necessary legislation at the very end of the session, and even then the referendum was not held till the latter half of 1920. It was, of course, defeated.

The heterogeneous elements supporting the Labour Party have naturally led to serious conflicts of interests within it. The democrats do not necessarily sympathise with the aims of unionism, and may very well be opposed to State interference with private enterprise. Nationalism is diametrically opposed to that international sentiment which is a characteristic of the Socialist Movement. The militarist policy, which the White Australia ideal, has forced upon the Labour Party, is distasteful to many industrialists, while the Protection system adopted for the encouragement of Australian industry is the very opposite of the traditional Free Trade policy of the English Labour Party. From a working-class point of view Customs duties are the worst means of raising revenue, and even the Labour Party in Australia has always stood for high direct taxation. Even more incompatible with the aims and ideals of the industrial proletariat are the interests of the small farmers and the other sections of the petit-bourgeoisie for whom the Labour Party tries to cater. These are notoriously the most conservative sections of the community. Short hours, high wages, early closing, strict regulation of the housing and hygienic conditions of the workers, are the last things they want. Thus they are unfriendly both to unionism and Socialism. The regulation of the hours of rural workers and the enforcement of the provision of good housing accommodation for farm hands has always been strenuously opposed by the cockies. We have already had occasion to note the results of their hostility to the latter in connection with the Labour Government's Hut Accommodation Bill in N.S.W. Similarly we have seen that a crisis was brought about in the Party in that State by the antagonism of the agricultural supporters of the Party to the leasehold principle. In the case of strikes the farmers, mining interests, and small shopkeepers are always as bitter against the strikers as the big capitalists. owing to the derangement of their business entailed in any large industrial stoppage. In fact, the big strike of 1917 was defeated by the strike-breakers, drawn from the farmer class, enraged at the interference with the transportation of their crops due to the railwaymen ceasing work. Roman Catholicism is essentially anti-Socialistic, since the dogmas of that Church postulate hereditable private property. Conversely Socialism is traditionally anti-clerical. Liquor may be regarded as one of the devices of capitalism for keeping the workers in subjection. On the other hand, brewers and publicans cannot sympathise with strikes which react unfavourably on their business.

The reconciliation of such divergent interests has inevitably meant some tight-rope walking for the politicians and has filled the Labour platform with inconsistencies. To avoid offending the little capitalists and the Catholics, Socialism has been much watered down in the Labour Objective. To retain the support of the nationalists the Labour Party has gone in for a course of sentimental flag-flapping which savours of jingoism. It has allowed the strictly economic motive lying behind the White Australia policy to be obscured by racial prejudices and has pandered to fears which have played into the hands of the militarists in a dangerous manner. To avoid giving offence to middle-class supporters Labour Governments have followed a vacillating policy and have tried to govern in the interests of all classes instead of standing up boldly in defence of the one class which put them in power.

NOTE–Some new light is thrown on the alliance between the Parliamentary Labour Party in N.S.W and liquor during the period 1919-22 referred to by Arthur Rae, by the speech of J. H. Catts, after his expulsion from the Labour Party, in the House of Representatives on July 6th, 1922. It appears from this that the Secretary of the Licensed Victuallers' Association had given a member of the State Parliament (whose name will be found in the Federal Hansard) 500 to control Conference in the interests of the trade in 1921. The same gentleman was subsequently told by official members of the State Ministry not that he must not contribute to the Party funds, but that he must cease subsidising private members. The tie binding Labour and liquor at this period was the Act carried by the Nationalist Government in December, 1920, for the holding of a referendum on prohibition with compensation. The Labour Government returned in 1921. ignored this Act of Parliament, in so far as the referendum was concerned, altogether. Their pretext was that the cost of compensation was prohibitive in the then state of the exchequer, and that consequently the holding of the referendum enjoined by the Nationalists' Act would be only a waste of money.

Upon other sources of money open to members of a Parliamentary Labour Party when in office or in sight of office, the Royal Commission into the charges against Messrs. Dooley, Johnstone and Mutch, Ms.L.A., presided over by Pring, J., gave interesting information. johnstone admitted the receipt of £500 towards his election expenses from one J. J. Talbot, who, with his partner, G. Georgeson, was lying under the grave charge of corruption in connection with a wheat contract! With access to such sources of income, it is not surprising that Labour Members can afford very often to ignore the directions of conferences and executives, especially when the latter are themselves open to charges of venality. The charge was made against the N.S.W. Conference by Catts in the speech mentioned, who adds that, when the supply of funds from the licensed victuallers was cut off, an agent of the same M.L.A. offered the Prohibitionist organisation - to fix the control of Conference for a few hundreds.– It was common knowledge that members of the N.S.W. Executive received large sums of money for endorsing candidates to the Legislative Council and for supporting corrupt contracts made by the Sydney City Council when it was controlled by the Labour Caucus.