Australian Labor Party, NSW Branch, Traditions For Reform in New South Wales, Pluto Press, 1988

Greg Patmore

This book is representative of the growing interest by labour movement institutions in their own history. The NSW Branch of the Labor Party should be congratulated for both holding the conference where these papers were presented and publishing the book.

Academic labour historians and politicians contribute to this volume. Among the former, Frank Farrell provides an excellent review of the writers who praised Australia for being a social laboratory at the turn of the century. Jim Hagan and Ken Turner examine the origins of the Labor Party in the Illawarra. They argue that the Illawarra miners were not class conscious. This was a result of the piece work nature of coal mining, which reinforced the notion of individual self-help.

Joan Simpson’s contribution defends the AWU’s refusal to join the OBU. Bede Nairn and Frank Cain separately examine the Lang period. The latter paper contributes a novel perspective, by focussing on the public finance dimension of Lang’s downfall. Jim Hagan examines the relationship between trade unions and the Chifley and Whitlam Governments, while David Stephens focuses on decision-making in the Federal ALP from 1955 to 1972.

David Clune’s paper on the Cahill Government, 1952-1956, is one of the more valuable essays in the collection. Even with the subsequent publication of a collection on premier McKell, NSW politics from 1941 to 1965 still remains largely unchartered. Clune explains why the NSW Labor Government survived the split. He also highlights that issues such as police corruption and harbour tunnels are nothing new in NSW politics.

There are two contributions written by politicians: a brief forward by Gough Whitlam and an essay by Paul Keating. While the book highlights a tradition of reform within the existing capitalist framework, these contributions emphasise that reform is not a positive science. Keating defends his government’s economic policies and argues that they do not betray Labor’s traditional values, sentiments and concerns. Whitlam argues that “we must resist the reactionary assertion that all reform must be at the expense of public support…” and warns “that when nothing is controversial, when everything seems consensual, it may be that nothing is changing” (p. XII). It is a pity that Whitlam was not allowed more copy. It would have increased the value of the book as a contribution to contemporary debate within the Labor Party.

There are several criticisms of tho book. First, the title is misleading, as the book examines both federal and state Labor politics. Second, a general criticism of such collections is that they should have substantial introductions and conclusions to bring the book together. Finally, the quality of the contributions vary considerably. The latter two criticisms highlight the need for a visible editor, who not only edits the contributions, but also writes the introduction and conclusion.

Overall, the book is a welcome contribution to Australian labour history. It provides a positive starting point for further publications sponsored by the NSW Branch of the ALP.