On Parties of Resistance and Initiative

Jeff Shaw QC*

During the late 1960s, Professor Henry Mayer harangued his Sydney University students with the thesis that to categorise the non Labor parties as the parties of “resistance” and the Labor Party as the party of “initiative” was bunkum. In his original article of 1956 and popularised version a decade later, Mayer was at pains to emphasise that the Liberal/Country Parties should not be glamourised with the label of “initiative” either. He argued that the dichotomy was false – woolly thinking which blocked useful research.

In 1968 it was suggested by D W Rawson that Mayer had set up a straw man in order to undertake an easy demolition job. The counterargument was that no serious or recent commentator had simplistically divided Australian political parties into those of resistance and initiative. In a major piece of poring through Australian political literature, Murray Goot came to Mayer’s defence with an argument that this erroneous labelling process was indeed to be found widely in political and historical analysis. Thus the debate raged in the academic journals.

Despite the force and vigour of Mayer’s lectures, many of us who had joined the ALP in 1968 were skeptical of his attack. Bob Askin reigned, virtually unchallenged, in New South Wales.

According to his boast, he had advised police to ‘ride over the bastards’ during the demonstrations against the visit of US Vice President Lyndon B Johnson. Law and order was given far greater status than civil liberty.

The conservatives were in power in Canberra, having held it with a tight rein during the political ice age of the 1950s and 60s. Increasing numbers of Australian troops were in Vietnam, and the threat of conscription was a preoccupation for those scurrying between coffee shops, lecture theatres and Fisher Library. Of course we wanted change – of major proportions. And it was the Liberal/Country Parties which seemed so determinedly resistant to reform of foreign policy, economics, education, urban planning and the like. In that era, teen-age Whitlamites were a moderate force for change.

E G Whitlam was the very embodiment of initiative. His flow of Fabian Society pamphlets on constitutional reform and urban planning, his concern with poverty and Aboriginal land rights was the antithesis of government inertia. Australian society, it seemed, cried out for an active program of reform.

And yet, the subsequent 20 years have given more persuasiveness to Mayer’s attack on the seductive but phony label of resistance when applied to the conservative parties. The ascendant forces of the Liberal Party now regard the Fraser years as wimpish and wet. Older, more cautious policies are derided while Federal and State Liberal leaders demand action: society must be changed, they argue, in significant ways.

Dr Metherell’s hacking of teacher numbers in New South Wales public schools is a manifestation of this new broom. The declining teacher/pupil ratio is linked with a series of back-to-the-50s policies including the censoring of supposedly unsuitable texts (on the advice of the Festival of Light), the reintroduction of corporal punishment, flagwaving and declarations of allegiance.

Liberals argue that traditional mechanisms of conciliation and arbitration should be scrapped in favour of labour market deregulation a free- for-all which would greatly reduce equity in the Australian wage system, diminish the role of trade unions and take critical decisions out of the hands of independent statutory tribunals. Major privatisation is proposed, shifting the emphasis of the traditional mixed economy well away from government influence.

The slogans which have become so familiar under the Greiner Government in New South Wales – let the user pay and let the managers manage – are formulas for significant changes in Australian life. Mr Yabsley’s revision of the penal system, using the slogan “truth in sentencing” sounds all right on the face of things. But, on analysis, it seems likely to produce significantly higher levels of sentencing, and thus inflate the prison population well beyond the levels known in recent times. Most of this is quite consistent with the ruthless cost- cutting approach of the only coalition government Australia. The perceived need for contraction of the public sector leads to hard-headed closures – of country trains, the Government Printing Office and power stations.

Yes, it appears that the Liberals really want to do things. In many respects they are a party of initiative, keen to put their stamp on Australian society in the 1990s.

Labor, on the other hand, resists many of these trends. It defends the Industrial Relations Commission (with its associated relatively centralised wage fixation systems) against the free – marketeers. It criticises (particularly under the leadership of Mr Bob Carr in New South Wales) the denuding of the public sector, claiming that the result will be J K Galbraith’s private affluence and public squalor. It defends public education against its critics.

In short, in so many areas, contemporary Labor policies appreciate that existing institutions with long and successful operation, should not be scrapped out of hand because of some trendy whim. ALP policy is increasingly in favour of fine-tuning, modest reform but not abolition or abandonment of the past. In these respects, Labor might be thought a party of resistance. Yet, it is also pursuing reforms – and advocates change for the future. In his recent monograph “Matters of Principle”, Carr has argued for a vigorous re-affirmation of Labor’s “reform tradition” based on considerations of equity and public sector efficiency. Paul Keating’s deregulation of the finance sector remains somewhat controversial within the Party, but has generally been welcomed by business and the media. Brian Howes’ initiatives in social welfare – particularly the introduction of family supplements – have started to come to grips with the endemic problems of poverty. In New South Wales, the Labor Opposition is proposing a series of initiatives in environmental policy. There is thus an admixture of opposition to the initiatives of the New Right elements in the Liberal Party (a defence of existing institutions against the iconoclasts) coupled with the traditionalist desire to formulate a reform agenda.

In its final days of government, New South Wales Labor overlooked or, at least, de-valued respect for tradition when it scrapped the employee’s right to sue employers for negligence. True, the labour cost pressures were building up from common law damages awards by the courts. But moderation would have suggested incremental changes ceilings on damages, reduction of legal costs, a hard-line against fraudulent claims – rather than wholesale abolition. The lesson has now been learnt. A more sophistical approach can be expected of a Carr government.

Labor retains its critique of society, pointing out its injustices and searching for solutions. At the same time, it recognises many virtues in the social fabric and acts to protect them from the ravages of the Liberal Party reformists.

Yes, the old Prof was right. The notion of change per se is value- free. Change for the sake of change is just plain silly. Sensible reformists need to balance the value of an existing social structure against what might be achieved by alterations.

*Jeff Shaw is a Sydney QC