Dora B. Montefiore May 1911

A Labour Party in Power IV

Source: Justice, May 6, 1911, p.2;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


The Annual Conference of the Political Labour League of New South Wales opened in Sydney on January 26, and it is still (February 14) sitting. Independently of the preposterous and undigested agenda paper, the Conference was forced to drag its slow length along in this tedious and unbusinesslike fashion because, with the exception of the opening day – a public holiday – and Saturday afternoons, it only meets in the evenings between 7 and 10.30. The Sydney delegates, who are at work during the day, are thus able to take part in the Conference, and the country delegates, whose expenses are paid by their leagues or unions at the rate of 10s. a day, make holiday in the metropolis, with evening interludes of attention to business. It is true that the Australian Workers Union, which furnishes the backbone of the P.L.L., is holding its Annual Conference in Sydney at the same time, its meetings being held in the daytime at the Trades Hall, so that the work of delegates attending the two Conferences must be steady and sustained. But, on the whole there is a lack of business grip about the P.L.L. Conference proceedings, and at timed a singular lack of reality about the debates on minor points. This is due, no doubt, to the fact that the organisers of the proceedings realise the “Waybacks,” as Mr. Lamont, the editor of “The Worker,” characterised some of the back block delegates, who were indulging monotonously in their one yearly chance of limelight, droned on for their allotted ten minutes, regardless of their lack of original ideas or methods for supporting any resolution entrusted to their care.

Much extraneous matter besides the agenda was introduced into the work of the Conference, and it was not until the delegates had been deliberating for some days that it was agreed to appoint sub-committees to digest and prepare for Conference, the mass of heterogeneous resolutions offered for its political fare. In one of my former articles I gave samples of thus fare; and a calculation was made by one ingenious delegate that if one hour were allotted for the discussion of each item, and the Conference sat eight hours a day, it would, on the lowest computation, last for thirteen weeks. The most important resolution from the Socialist standpoint was that affecting the objective of the party; I have already, in any interview with the Federal Premier, recorded its fate. Although there are many earnest and class-conscious Socialists in the party, many more stand outside because unable to swallow such an invertebrate and meaningless formula as the present objective. Phrases like the following were used some of the debaters on the change of objective question: “It is of no use tinkering with the present competitive system of society; we’ve patched up the old garment till there’s nothing left to patch.” Another delegate spoke of “The cursed competitive system.” While a third feared that “if the wording of the objective were altered it might prevent Labour members getting into Parliament.” In spite of such a blatant remark as this last, the undertow of the debate proved that, here again, the rank and file were ahead of their leaders, and were in fact straining for a more advanced lead. That they will not get it from the men they have put in power was proved by the speeches of those leaders on the first day; notably, by the speech of Mr. Verran, Premier of South Australia, who reminded his audience “they must be exceedingly careful not to be intoxicated by their own success, and to remember they were pledged to carry on the same social order as had been developed up to the present time.”

The municipal elections took place during the first week of Conference, and though, on the whole, Labour was not successful, the secretary was able to announce one evening, to the accompaniment of loud applause, that 12 Labour aldermen had been returned in the electorate of Mr. McGowen, the Premier. A hard try was made one day to get Land nationalisation off the fighting programme, but the reactionaries were overwhelmingly defeated. Some of the best considered resolutions were sent up by the A.W.U. the most powerful union in the Commonwealth with a roll of 48,000 members, principally shearers and general labourers. It was they who, on February 5, sent up to the Political Conference a resolution, which was read by the Chairman, accusing Mr. Holman, the Labour Attorney-General, of “tricking” Conference over his attitude of opposition to the Referendum proposals, and calling upon him to resign. Bowman, the President of one of the largest branches, is a powerful and logical speaker, and has evidently a grasp of Socialist demands.

One of the most acrimonious debates took place on the evening of February 9, when Senator Rae, moved: “That the expressed intention of Mr. Nielsen (Minister for Lands) to proceed with the sale of Crown lands at Marouba is a distinct breach of a vital plank of the Labour platform and merits the severest censure.” In his speech he emphasised the fact that “if there is one vital plank in our platform it is that stop should be put to the sale of Crown lands.... If we are going to have vital planks in our platform ignored, then we might just as well have the other fellows in power.” After two or three delegates had spoken for and against the vote of censure, Mr. Nielsen rose to defend his position. He is a commonplace-looking man with the voice and speaking manner cheap-jack; and he did not add to Ministerial dignity by speaking in his shirt-sleeves and waistcoat, with a loose handkerchief rolled under his collar. He talked round and round his subject; and proved himself a past master in stirring-up the dust of the actions of former Ministers so as to obscure his own trail of shortcomings from the party-platform point of view. But the common-sense of the delegates saw through the dust clouds. The land in question, near Long Bay, a suburb of Sydney, well fitted for working men’s homes, Mr. Nielsen described as “a few blocks remaining now to be dealt with.” A voice reminded him that the number of the blocks was 112. When another voice asked how long Mr. Nielsen was to be allowed in his defence, it was evident that the sense of fair-play was strong among the delegates, and that if the Minister had any real answer to the charge he was to be given full time and opportunity to develop his defence. But at the end of half-an-hour’s more empty assurances of loyalty to the party platform it was evident that every dodge known to a shuffler was exhausted; and a modified Motion of censure, that “this Conference regrets the action of the Minister in departing from the lease-hold principle, even in such a small degree,” was carried by a large majority.

One important block of resolutions on Health Nationalisation has been passed by the Conference. “That public health administration be nationalised by the following means: –

“1 That a special Department of Health be created under a Minister of the Crown, with a permanent under-secretary and staff, and that such department be entrusted with the management and control of all agencies for the improvement of public health and the elimination of disease and the conditions which produce it.

“2. That the State be divided into administrative districts with local medical, scientific, nursing and sanitary staffs.

“3. That each district be equipped with all instruments, services, appliances, drugs, serums and materials requisite for the preservation of health and the cure of disease, utilising existing institutions and services as far as possible.

“4. The department to devote special attention to the following matters: Radium banks, neuropathic hospitals, consumption bureaux, bush-nursing, pure food, supervision of employees in unhealthy and dangerous trades and occupations, and providing for their health and safety, and for curative treatment where necessary, registration of persons exercising the curative art, regulation of medical fees, the encouragement of research work, the special care of maternity and the protection of child life, and such other means to secure the conservation of human life as may be found necessary.

“5. That the cost of the maintenance of the State Health Department, and of all branches thereof, shall be a charge upon the consolidated revenue.”

I have given these resolutions in extenso to show that there is Socialist pressure and guidance behind the decisions of Conference forcing forward real Socialist legislation, and preparing dynamically the way for the final revolutionary step. On the other hand, it is to be deplored that such resolutions as the one making it a penal offence for members of black and white races to intermarry or cohabit should have been discussed and passed by any assemblage of people laying claim to intelligence. Such a resolution only panders to the narrow prejudices of unscientific puritanical reformers; who try to hit at results without curing economic causes. As a climax, the ridiculous spectacle is offered to scoffers of Premier McGowen teaching every Sunday with great unction in Sunday-school that we may hope to meet in some dim and distant day in heaven good folks, brown, black, yellow and white, but that on earth we must, by the decree of his party, go to prison if we persist in marrying one of them.

I was told by the President of the Women’s Central Organising Committee that the wages board has proved inadequate to prevent sweating of women’s work. And after visiting one morning, with a lady factory inspector, some jam and pickle factories where women were employed I was quite prepared to believe this. I saw women engaged in washing bottles at the pickle factory at 4d, a gross; their feet were always wet, and their clothing ragged and insanitary; they earn under 1 a week. Other women were filling pickle bottles, pouring in sauce and corking, at 1s. a gross. A resolution was moved in Conference, and carried, that “There should be a Royal Commission to inquire into the wages and working conditions of women.” The Women Workers’ Union had a resolution on almost similar lines, and stating that the wages board had failed to give women a living wage.

It may be thought by some who read of these various resolutions and their fate that, after all, they were only pious resolutions, which will be next week in the waste-paper basket and forgotten. But it must be borne in mind, in order to come to a just conclusion in the matter, that this Conference marks an epoch. Labour is now in political power and any resolution which secures a two-thirds majority vote of those present in Conference goes on to the fighting platform of the party and will, before long, automatically become law. Among such proposals was one that Labour Ministries should be elected by a caucus of members of the Legislative Assembly after each General Election. The division taken on the resolution showed the numbers were 67 for and 22 against. The Conservative “Sydney Morning Herald” commenting on this, remarks: “The leaders, as has recently been proved, are not allowed to guide, but are compelled to let themselves be driven.” Which being interpreted, means that the workers are beginning (as Robert Rivies Lamonte urges them to do in the January number of “The International Socialist Review”) to “learn how to kick”; and that their “kick political,” urged on by class consciousness gained in the “kick industrial,” intends to make short work with those leaders who persist in believing that profits should still remain sacred. Australian politically organised; democracy is prepared to elect and to pay well its servants and administrators; but, in colloquial language, it intends in the future if it pays the piper to call the tune. The New South Wales Labour Party has, through the passing of certain resolutions at this Conference, consolidated its power and laid foundations for future Socialist demands. The Labour Party in England has, at its recent Conference at Leicester, weakened its already weak platform, and prepared the way for eventual collapse and disintegration. As I have before implied; there has been much in the recent State Conference out here to regret in the shape of narrowness of aim, and of inability on the part of unintelligent individual delegates to grasp the Socialist ideal; but, on the other hand, there has been much to give cause for hope, more especially from the spirit of militant Industrial Unionism, which sputtered forth from time to time, and from the general leaven of growing class-consciousness which one feels working among the more intelligent of the delegates. Better and sounder economic teaching for the rank and file is what seems to be most needed, and it is to be regretted that the party does not see its way financially to pay a thoroughly good organiser or organisers. A whip throughout the membership of a few pence per member would do what was necessary; and the result, in a more class-conscious and more intelligent agenda paper next year, would surely be worth the sacrifice.

Practically, the many thousands in the Labour Party of Australia have accepted the interpretation that the world must, in the near future, belong to the workers. But their isolation from the international movement, and the treachery and half-heartedness of their leaders, have combined in forcing the organised workers to wander indefinitely in a barren wilderness of politics when the promised land of industrial freedom was really within their reach. But all the people cannot be fooled all the time; and Industrial Unionism is the tryer of all hearts which will eventually force the millions of exploited on one side of the barricade and marshal them face to face with their thousands of exploiters on the other side. Everywhere one hears of the fine and lasting work done by Torn Mann out here, and that work is being carried on by the comrades in South Australia, who are helping the strikers and persuading them not to sell their souls to arbitration courts; by comrade Ross, who edits the brave little “Socialist” weekly in Melbourne by comrade Harry Holland, who is making his life one continual sacrifice in order to interpret to the workers from the platform, and through the “International Socialist,” the blazing portents and signs of the times.